Surname (Family Name) Discovery and Mapping

Old Family Photo (Family and Location Unknown)
Old Family Photo (Family and Location Unknown)

revised & updated:
4 Dec. 2014

Are you hoping to identify and/ or discover where a family name or surname of yours may have originated?

In the various facebook groups where I participate, I have recently noticed a “tsunami” of inquiries regarding this particular genealogical dilemma/ problem.  In order to provide a bit more robust guidance than that supported via a facebook discussion thread, I thought a blog post on ManyRoads might be helpful.

Here are “summaries’ of the types of questions I have most recently noticed:

  1. Is [fill-in a name] spelled this way?
  2. What are variations for [fill-in a name]?
  3. Is [fill-in a name] a [fill-in the country group] name?
  4. I believe [fill-in a name] was changed at “Ellis Island”, what would it have been spelled like in [fill-in the country]?

Is [fill-in a name] spelled this way?

The simple answer is that names can and often are spelled in many ways.  Much variation has to do with linguistic patterns such as dialects, use of diminutives, etc. Other causes for differences include languages (shifts between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ countries), social customs (wife takes husband’s family name; husband takes wife’s family name, spouses invent new family for children), and more.

In the case of my family name (Rabideau), there are some 75 known spelling variations.  So, there really is not a correct way to spell it.

What are variations for [fill-in a name]?

The key to developing a good list of name variations involves having a good understanding of a location’s alphabet and pronunciation. Remember people are inventive, creative, and spellings evolve over time.  ALSO if your family is like my French Canadian branch, they may not have been literate; so my family name spellings were dependent on the good nature and exquisite listen skills of the local record keeper(s)- yours may also be.

Is [fill-in a name] a [fill-in the country] name?

The real problem with this question is that it is time dependent.  For example if you ask me whether the following name is Polish name: Michal Szlaga; I would have to say that it looks like it is.  However, when you pronounce the name it reveals something quite interesting; the name is roughly pronounced Michael Schlaeger (using German phonetics).  Couple that with the location where Michal Szlaga lives and you will feel ‘pretty comfortable’ that the person involved is likely of German descent.  That then begs the question is he Polish or is he German?

In the above example and as a genealogical researcher which name does one research.  My recommendation is that you research the German surname before WW2 and the Polish surname thereafter.

Lastly, I would point out the there are numerous tools to help you with respect to identifying typical names by country groups (especially European).  For surname and distribution maps to help identifying surname probability & location(s) please visit:

I believe [fill-in a name] was changed at “Ellis Island”, what would it have been spelled like in [fill-in the country]?

Certainly that may have happened.  But the spelling changes occur over time irrespective of Ellis Island. Language is a living ‘entity’ and it continually changes to meet the needs of the ‘speakers’.

In my experience, Ellis Island most often provides insight into a genealogical event rather than good genealogical ‘tracing’. If you’d like to read more on this topic please see:


If you have other pointers you’d like to share with our readers, please leave a comment or drop me a note via email or ManyRoads Contact.