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Online Surname Search Strategies
– Drew Smith

One size does not fit all when it comes to doing genealogical research online. Searching for “Smith” is quite a different matter than searching for “Smithberger.” What works well for one surname will not necessarily work well for another, yet I continue to witness frustrated genealogists attempting to use the same search strategy for their surnames of interest. It is no wonder that they often end up with far too much information to sift through, or perhaps none at all.

The purpose of this article is to suggest a set of different strategies to use, the choice depending on how common the surname is. The first step will be to determine the surname’s commonality. Then we can look at how to use that information to guide us toward the best strategy.

How Common Is It?
As a Smith, I suppose I grew up being unusually sensitive to the fact that some surnames are much more common than others. I learned at an early age that my own surname was the most common in the United States. We all share some basic knowledge regarding the relative rarity of a good many surnames, but our knowledge may be skewed toward those areas in which we have lived most of our lives. In other words, if you grew up and lived most of your life in a particular state or county, you may believe that because a particular surname is common in your hometown, it may be just as common everywhere in the country. The truth, unfortunately, is that some surnames common to a particular locality are relatively rare when we look at the entire country, and some locally unusual surnames may be far more common elsewhere.

If our online search strategies are going to depend on accurate knowledge regarding the relative commonness of a surname, we’re going to need some fairly objective data to work with. For that, I turned toward the U.S. Census Bureau and a survey it performed in 1990 after the usual decennial census. The complete process is described at the Census Bureau’s Web site, but in a nutshell, the Bureau looked at records for more than 7 million individuals, and from that data, constructed a list of surnames, ranked by frequency. The resulting file, which contains nearly 89,000 different surnames, can also be found at its Web site.

As you might expect, these surnames ranged from the very common Smith (with more than 1 percent of the entire population carrying that name) to nearly 70,000 surnames so rare that not even one person in 100,000 possessed it. That didn’t include the many thousands of surnames so rare that they didn’t even appear once in the Census Bureau survey data. Of course, it would be impossible to construct thousands of different search strategies, so I decided to group all surnames into four categories: very common, common, unusual, and very unusual. I used the following criteria: very common surnames were those held by at least one person in a thousand; common surnames by at least one person in 10,000; unusual surnames by at least one person in 100,000; and the very unusual surnames consisted of everything else. Using this method, I ended up with 75 very common surnames, 1,222 common surnames, and 17,542 unusual surnames. How many very unusual surnames are there? Elsdon C. Smith, in his 1969 book American Surnames, estimated that there must be at least 1.5 million unique surnames in the United States.

I then constructed a list of sixteen different surnames (see the print version of this article for these tables), most taken from my own research interests and representing four surnames from each of my four categories. At this point, I began to wonder if using the Census Bureau rankings was a good idea. Were the rankings a reliable indicator of how common the surnames really were? I decided I needed a second source of data to compare against, so I chose the Social Security Death Index. When I looked up each of my sixteen surnames, I found that their relative frequency in the SSDI matched exactly with that of the Census Bureau survey data. Based on that result, I feel confident that using the Census Bureau list is a reasonably reliable method of deciding how common a surname is (at least within the United States as a whole, and at the present time in history).

Now let’s look at search strategies for each of the four categories of surnames, starting with what is probably the easiest one to research online—very unusual surnames.

Very Unusual Surnames
When I began my own research, I came upon a very unusual surname quickly, since it belonged to my father’s mother. The Weinglass name is so unusual that it appears only twenty-five times in the entire SSDI. There happen to be a few celebrities with the name, including a noted attorney (my father’s first cousin) and a businessman who owned a national chain of clothing stores (relationship unknown). Online searches that make use of general search engines, such as FAST Search, AltaVista, or Northern Light, will tend to turn up a lot of references to one or the other of these well-known individuals. Nevertheless, a general search that excludes documents that contain such words as “attorney” or “clothing” can be very useful in locating references to other individuals with such an unusual name.

By my estimates, any very unusual surname is likely to appear less than 500 times in the Social Security Death Index, and therefore it becomes practical to print out every occurrence of the name in that database. You can then enter these into your own software and attempt to figure out how each one fits into your family. Because the SSDI often provides locations for where the number was issued or where the individual was living at the time of death, these clues can be valuable for further research into the surname.

Next, examine the two large LDS databases available at FamilySearch: the Ancestral File, and the International Genealogical Index (IGI). For very unusual surnames, these two databases are unlikely to have much more than 1,000 entries each, and are likely to have only a few hundred.

Three other large and growing free databases should be explored: Ancestry World Tree, RootsWeb World Connect Project, and GENDEX WWW Genealogical Index. Although there will likely be some overlap between them, each will also contain unique information that should be examined. As with the Social Security Death Index and the LDS databases, these three GEDCOM-based databases will typically hold only a few hundred entries with each very unusual surname. There will not be so many that you can’t go through each record and review it.

Using the large GEDCOM-based databases will undoubtedly connect you to other researchers, barring the potential disappointment that you may be the only person researching that particular name. Other ways to locate such researchers are to look for surname-specific message boards (such as those available at or mailing lists. The rarest surnames are unlikely to have their own message boards or mailing lists, but those surnames may still appear in queries on boards for other surnames. Many of the larger message board sites allow you to do searches that cover all of their boards.

Finally, visit the RootsWeb Surname List (RSL). For very unusual surnames, there are likely to be fewer than a dozen other researchers who have entries in the RSL, making it feasible to contact all of them. If your surname doesn’t already have its own mailing list, you may be able to join with the other researchers you located via the above methods to start one. By creating a mailing list for your very unusual surname, you continue to increase your chances of locating new researchers with whom you can share information.

Also, because these surnames are so unusual, an official who recorded them into the records may have been unfamiliar with them, and therefore misspelled them, perhaps even changing them into other surnames that the official was more familiar with. As a result, it is a good idea to use Soundex searches, when available, to help locate spelling variations of these names.

Unusual Surnames
As we move into the category of unusual surnames, our search strategy must change. For each surname in this category, the SSDI will have anywhere from 500 to 5,000 entries, making it cumbersome to track every individual. The GEDCOM-based databases will usually have anywhere from a few hundred to more than 1,000 entries for these surnames, although in one case I stumbled upon a single researcher who had contributed a GEDCOM with more than 5,000 individuals bearing an unusual surname of interest to me.

This means you will need to narrow your search using one of the following additional pieces of information: a location, a first name, or a time period. Location may not have to be more specific than one of the United States. First names, even if common, will be very helpful at this point. As for time period, the bad news is that I have yet to locate an online database that allows me to search a range of dates, with the exception of the LDS databases, and even with those, one must still supply a first name and the date ranges are pre-determined. This means that you’ll probably have to limit your range by indicating a specific year.

My first choice is likely to be limiting by geographic area. For example, there are more than 500 individuals with the surname Bodie in the Social Security Death Index. If I limit the search to those whose numbers were issued by South Carolina, I cut the number to barely more than 100.

You will still want to consider using one of the Web’s general search engines to look for information about this surname, but you will probably need to combine your search with the name of the location or with the first name.

With rare exception, there will already be message boards for an unusual surname, and it is highly likely that a mailing list already exists. Therefore, you should make certain to post your queries in those locations, and make the other researchers aware of your existence. If you have a location (such as state or preferably county) for the surname, you will want to post your query to a message board or mailing list for that particular location. One nice thing about unusual or very unusual surnames is that people tend to notice them, and so other researchers may remember having seen your surname while doing their own research in a particular geographic area.

Common Surnames
We encounter new problems with the category of common surnames. The SSDI will have anywhere from 5,000 to more than 50,000 individuals with one of these names. The large GEDCOM-based databases will have entries for between 1,000 and 20,000 individuals. How do we approach online searching here?

Clearly we will have to use additional search terms when searching for a common surname. Look at location first. Try narrowing by state, and if that still gives you too many hits, be even more specific with county (if available). For instance, searching for Mobley in the SSDI gives me more than 6,000 hits, but limiting it to South Carolina-issued numbers cuts it to less than 500. If this number was still more than I wanted to deal with, I could limit the search to those whose last residence was in Edgefield County, giving me only ten hits. Alternatively, adding a first name such as John, rather than a state, cuts the original number of hits from 6,000 to only 181. Similar strategies can be used for the IGI and the large GEDCOM-based databases.

Once you hit this category of surname, the number of other researchers found on message boards, mailing lists, and in the RSL will probably be too large for you to contact all of them via direct e-mail. You’ll need to pick and choose, preferably according to location criteria based on their postings or entries.

Very Common Surnames
The 75 most common English-language surnames are definitely in a category all their own. Three of my four grandparents were born with such names. Unfortunately, many beginning genealogists seem to lack an understanding of just how common some of these names are, and as a result I often get e-mail from them asking if their Smith, King, or Martin ancestor is one of mine, even though there is no connection in either the location or the time period. Individuals with the same common surname may be descended from ancestors who came from a variety of other countries, and who anglicized or otherwise altered their names to fit in when they arrived in the United States. In other words, I wouldn’t expect everyone with the Smith surname to have a common Smith ancestor.

As with our previous strategies, we must now combine the surname with other information, such as first names, locations, or time periods. However, because these surnames are so common, we’ll have to work a bit harder. For instance, unless the first name is very unusual, we’ll probably need to use a middle name also. Not only are we going to need to limit the location, probably down to at least the county level, but we will also probably need to use both first name and location at the same time. Or we may be able to combine first name with year, or location and year. For those databases that provide such an option, we may be able to combine the common surname with the surname of the spouse or mother (this will be especially useful if the other surname is unusual). If we post a query in a message board or mailing list, we will need to provide all of the additional information (first names, locations, and dates) to help other researchers figure out if we are talking about the same people.

The ideas presented above are to get you to think about the relative commonness (or rarity) of the surnames you research, and how that should impact your search strategies when using online tools such as databases, message boards, and mailing lists. Use the wrong strategy, and you are likely either to miss important finds or to be overwhelmed with too much information. Your time is valuable. Why waste any of it?

Drew Smith, MLS, is an instructor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, where he teaches library/Internet research skills and genealogical librarianship. He is the webmaster and listowner for Librarians Serving Genealogists. He is also a past leader of the Genealogy and Local History Interest Group of the Florida Library Association.

Anatomy of a Surname
Online Surname Search Strategies
Name Game
Surname Spelling
Place Identifiers
French Surnames
German Surnames
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Irish Surnames
Jewish Surnames
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