Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Using the frequency of names for genealogical research

A common misconception among those with no genealogical background is that people with the same surname could be related. In some areas of the United States that could be true for me. If I run into someone with the Tanner name or Tanner ancestors in Utah or Arizona or some other Western United States of Southern Canada locations, there is a good chance we are related. But the key to using surnames as a finding aid is to match surnames to locations. Even very common names will show some geographic variations. But there is a way to take that process even further and find your ancestors by looking at the frequency of names in a specific geographic area regardless of the frequency of the name.

To start, you need to realize that your surname's spelling may have changed over time. It is not enough to say that you are likely related to someone who spells their name the same way as you do. Also, unique names are only unique if they are unique all over the world. For example, if your family came from Central Africa, you may have a very unusual surname in the United States, but your name may be common in your ancestral homeland. Next, it is absolutely important that you have a specific place to begin research. I mean "specific" in the sense that you have documented an exact location of an event in the life of an ancestor.

When you have researched and discovered a target area you can further refine surname searches with given names.

With a surname (and variations) and a specific location, you can begin searching using any one of the large online genealogical database programs. I will give an example from because this website is the easiest and most accurate to use for this type of research, but technically, you could use any surname database that has entries that are tagged to locations. My ancestral example will illustrate the concept using a family from England. But this works almost everywhere in the world. It may not work well if you happen to have a huge number of people with the same surname in the same are who are not demonstrably related.

Once you begin this type of research, you may also find previously undiscovered relatives. This is a bonus for looking in a specific location.

Here we go. One of my ancestral families has the surname of Stapley (with some variations). The most recent ancestor in this line is Sarai Stapley.

According to a record from England Births and Christenings, 1538-1975 she was christened on 3 November 1805. Her birthdate comes from more recent records subsequent to her emigration to Australia and ultimate travel to the United States.

Now we can start with finding out how many Staply or Stapley family members lived in or around Rolvenden, Kent, England. First, where is Rolvenden and what are the surrounding villages and towns? Unless, the place no longer exists or the information is inaccurate, finding this information is as simple as looking on Google Maps. Here is Rolvenden in the middle of this screenshot from Google Maps.

Let's see how many Stapleys or Staplys there are in England and then in Kent and then in the area around Rolvenden.

I begin by searching all the records in England that have Stapley or its variations.

This search indicates that in all the records on there are  472, 160 records for people who have the Stapley surname or its variants. From my experience, this number is in the low range, not at all unique, but not overly common.

Now we limit the number to the County of Kent and I may as well add in the time period involved, plus or minus 40 years.

That cuts the number of people down considerably but we still have a large number of people in this one county with the same surname. Now if we go to the location we should see a further reduction. We can also indicate a search radius in miles from the town. Now the number drops to a useful level.

I can work with the distances and add in names but now I have a basis for assuming that most, if not all of these Stapleys are related to me and to can use the information to expand on the entries in my own family tree. In fact, I immediately find a marriage record for Sarah Stapley and Samuel Bryant, her husband.

I also find record hints for more records.

As I indicated, this can be done with other websites, but not as completely or easily. If you keep this process in mind, you will find a considerable number of instances when it will be extremely useful.


  1. I remember doing this type of searching in the old CD version of IGI. It can be very useful. Thank you for showing us how to do it in Find My Past. Now to see how to adjust it to other databases too.

  2. This has been insanely helpful in my searches, especially in a brick wall situation. Thanks for telling me about the Find My Past website tools, I never even knew you could do that!