Tips from the Pros: Do You Really Know the Name? from Michael John Neill

Assumptions get us into all kinds of trouble. For years I searched for an ancestor, Noentjelena Grass, in passenger lists, trying all kinds of variants of her first and last names. Censuses, family tradition, and her date of marriage gave me a consistent immigration time frame, but I still could not find her.

I had almost given up. Then I received copies of letters she had written to relatives about ten years after her marriage. Not one clue about her immigration, but there were more subtle revelations. The letters were all signed “Lena.” Not Noentjelena or Noentje (names I thought she used), but Lena. After reading the letters it dawned on me–I had never really searched extensively for that first name in the manifests. So I went back.

A search of the passenger lists at during New York’s Castle Garden era contained an entry for a Luie Gross arriving in 1873. The year was correct for my ancestor. Looking at the actual manifest the name looked like Lena to me, although I could see how it could have been read as Luie. Fortunately this entry was for a single female with a year of immigration and an age consistent to be my ancestor. Further work needs to be done so I can be reasonably certain I have the correct person, but I think I am on the right path.

Do you really know your ancestor’s name? Have you considered every nickname he or she might have used? Failure to consider one may cause the relative to remain unfound forever.

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13 thoughts on “Tips from the Pros: Do You Really Know the Name? from Michael John Neill

  1. I found a few ancesttors with unusual names that were listed as something else in a census. On the other hand, Even if Aunt Minnie was Minnie all her life and “I never heard her called anything else”, you should look in the full name for that nickname. Yep, there she was as Wilhelmina.

  2. I’ve come to the conclusion that my gr. grandfather was an illegal alien from Ireland OR that he purposely used a false name on his entry and exit from the US. His daughter, my grandmother always used the excuse that her birth certificate from Brooklyn NY for Dec. 7, 1898 was ‘burned in a fire’ in the courthouse there. I have come to the conclusion after much research that the entire family came in to Ellis Island with falsified records. I have looked EVERYWHERE for any record of any of them. Nothing. At ALL.

    What makes that even more believable to me is that on the 1920 US census, my gr. grandfather reports that he acquired citizenship in 1913. I cannot find a record of that anywhere.

    His wife died in 1914. Then, in late 1921/early 1922, he boarded a ship and returned to Ireland leaving minor children behind to fend for themselves. I know for a fact that he died in Ireland. I researched the US passport files with every possible combination of his name, the place he lived, age, etc. etc. and there are NO passports issued to anyone with his name.

    Sometimes, I have found, relatives are just plain unfindable. And there has to be a hidden story somewhere in now-deceased family members’ lives that they chose to hide. It was suggested to me that he was a deserter from the Irish Army.

  3. OMG!!! Thank you sir!!! It worked!! I finally, after 8 yrs, have found my gg-grandfather Anton Bogner and his family!! I NEVER would have thought to use just first names, no last name, as it has been mutilated so often on census’…..All the names listed were right on…….!! I’m so excited!!!

    Thank you again SO MUCH!!!!!
    Joyce Bogner-VanderVere
    Muskegon, MI.

  4. He he….

    I just went through this a few weeks ago at the courthouse in Rockfor, Illinois.

    I could have sworn my guy married a woman whose last name was Darwig. I got this from the census records for several different years. Boy did I feel like an idiot when I finally saw printed documents! Her last name was “Daring.”

  5. I had searched passenger manifests for my Polish grandmother, whose maiden name was Lipski and always to no avail. Then I remembered from high school Russian classes that a family name for a woman in that language would end in an “a”. As soon as I plugged in Anna Lipska, there she was, traveling to Exeter, NH to join her mother and step father.

    Perhaps this tip will help someone researching women’s Slavic surnames.

    Kathy Leubner
    Canyon Lake, Texas

  6. My grandfather’s second wife insisted on calling herself Beckie. It is Beckie on her marriage license (found because I know what HE was calling himself) and on the 1930 Census. No one ever called her Beckie as far as I knew. Both of them were widowed when they married and there was a total of 8 living children by a few months after he died.

    If she wasn’t born in the US, and I doubt if she was, I have not found her under any last name I have for her (and she had at least three) in any ship list. Not under Beckie and not under anything else. I do think I found her first husband’s ship list, but I’m not sure because the man I found was travelling alone.

  7. My Great grandparents came from Germany. Name is spelled
    Roeder, however if finally found them with spelling Roether. I have found out in different parts of Germany “th” is use instead of a “d”. So different dialects are different spellings

  8. I looked and looked for my great great grandfather Foos, who was a Marylander in the Confederacy. Found him under the name Foose, as a police officer in Baltimore, MD, in 1870. Anyone who has any more information, please contact me?!

  9. I too have had some fun with names. My maternal grandmother’s name was Lettuce Lilian Mary Beadle. I looked for her on the 1891 census (she was born in 1887/88 in the London area) but couldn’t find her. I knew that as a result of her parents’ death, she was fostered in Berkswell, Warwickshire. Then the 1901 census came on line – I found her with her foster mother (being called Lily which my grandfather used to call her). Guess what – she had two younger brothers born 1890 & 1891. Found them in the 1891 census and with them there was a girl called Hetty!
    Printed the return off Ancestry and enlarged you can see it is written as Letty but transcribed as Hetty! Parents and her birth date fitted, so there she was!
    Can’t wait for the 1911 census as have a few more anomolies to sort out!

  10. Hi,

    Wow, Thanks, I found an ancestor not by using but using and using the nickname for Margaret!

  11. I had always believed that my great-great grandmother’s maiden name was Hottle. My own grandmother had written it down that way. Extensive searches for her in any census I could get my hands on turned up nothing. It wasn’t until Missouri’s website for death certificates made her death certificate available under her married name that I discovered that her maiden name was actually Huddle! Once I looked for that name, I found her right away… even found that her mother had re-married and was able to link up some other relatives.

  12. And, don’t overlook the National Archives “free” on-line database of Russian,Irish,German, and Italian immigrants on various passenger lists at

    Yep, it’s true…sometimes the name “everybody” in the family and neighborhood knew an ancestor by just isn’t the name they arrived here with on a manifest. It dawned on me after looking for one of my husband’s female relatives that using Lena, Michelina and all its variations just wasn’t working..until I began looking at the daughters of her sons and grandsons…and noticed a pattern in this very traditional Italian family…the first sons were named after her husband…and..yep, the first daughters were named after her…some showing up as Michelina or variations thereof..but one or two gave new insight into one of her full name …there is was Marjory Michelina…the spelling may have been a variation..but it was clearly the Italian for Margaret Michelina ..meaning the Miggi or Maggi [depending on the record you looked at] that was showing up as a nickname made was a Majorgy or Margory or some variation thereof…and low and behold I found her using the given name only as a partial with the wildcard * and the approximate date I knew she’d arrived in the U.S. …once I found the image of the original manifest then I could see where the transcriber of the surname misunderstood the handwriting on the original document.
    Wow !

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