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  • Maiden Names and Surname Customs

    Margaret Thatcher née Roberts? Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton? Catherine Zeta-Jones? What do all these surname distinctions mean?

    Surname customs vary from culture to culture. In some traditions, a woman adopts her husband's surname when she is married; in other cultures, a woman retains her family name throughout her lifetime. As a result of second-wave feminism, new surname conventions have evolved over the last fifty years, including the institution of hyphenated last names.

    In the English-speaking world, surnames are passed down patrilineally and married women adopt their husbands' surnames. This is the case in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and much of Canada. The exception to this is Scotland, where women have only recently begun to take their husbands' surnames (before that, the Scottish tradition was for women to retain their family names).

    The borrowed-from-French word "née," pronounced nay, is used to refer to a woman's maiden name. In France and French Canada, the norm is for women to keep their family name as their legal surname-used on official identification and legal documents-but to use their married name in professional and everyday life.

    In Germany, a married couple can choose to retain their own surnames, adopt one another's, or combine them, but in any case they must declare an official "family name" that will be passed down to their children.

    The American convention is for women to adopt their husbands' surnames. About 25% use their maiden name as a middle name after they are married. But some women will choose not to adopt their husbands' surnames at all. If a woman has already achieved fame and recognition in her career as an actress or a novelist, for instance, she may choose to keep the name by which she is widely known. Others, like Hilary Rodham Clinton, use both surnames. Very, very rare is the practice of a man adopting his wife's surname. Only seven states in the U.S. allow for a man to change his surname upon marriage; in the rest of the 43 states, it would require a court-order name change for a man to do so.

    In the field of genealogy, all women are known by their maiden names. This means that whatever surname a woman chose to go by during her lifetime, in genealogical records she will be known by the name she was given at birth.

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  • German Genealogy

    There are more Americans claiming German ancestry than any other ethnic group. More than likely, you have at least one German ancestral line that you'd like to learn more about.

    Many German immigrants, upon arrival to the new world, took a new surname: the English equivalent of their German names. For example, Mohler became Miller and Schneider became Taylor. These surnames are relatively easy to identify. Other surnames, however, do not have an equivalent in English. These names are transliterated instead of translated. For example, Kurrer becomes Kerr and Dirsch becomes Dearth. [i] German pronunciation is different from English pronunciation, so that is the reason that surname transliterations may have different spellings than their German equivalents. The letters "DT" make a T-sound, and the vowel combinations "AU" and "EU" as "oi." Keep this in mind as you're moving back through your family tree. If names don't make sense, make sure you're pronouncing them the German way.

    Because Germany was unified so recently (in the nineteenth century) this can make locating records difficult because there was no central governing body to require all the people to keep records. The key, however, is to utilize church records.

    Catholic church records, as you would guess, are all in Latin. Lutheran records, however, can be found in either Latin or German.

    Don't forget to check genealogical societies (or online blogs and message boards) that are devoted to German research. You never know what you may find there!

    Some other sites that you may find useful are:

    Archives in Germany

    German Emigration and Passenger Lists

    All the civil records that you find (and, as previously mentioned, some church records) are in German. If you don't speak German, you can still conduct genealogical research if you're armed with a few basic German genealogical words:

    Burial: Beerdigun,
    Wedding: Hochzeit
    Birth: Geburten

    When you learn a few German words, and some searching techniques, German genealogy becomes easier than ever.

    [i] A Genealogical Handbook of German Research, FamilySearch

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  • El Archivo General de Indias

    Do you want to learn more about your early American ancestors? There is much more than just Spanish genealogy to be found in the Archivo General de Indias. Located in Sevilla, Spain, the archive houses all Spain's documents pertaining to New World conquest and colonization, including records of Spain's dealings with other nations. In the archive, you can research everyone from Hernan Cortés to Aaron Burr to James Wilkinson, governor of the Louisiana territory and a double-agent to the United States and Spain.

    The archive's name refers to Christopher Columbus's misguided perception that he had found a new route to India; from that time forward, Spain's New World land holdings became known as the Indies. In Spain's heyday as a global shipping power that dominated the New World, its main port was Sevilla. Treasure-laden ships from the New World came from the Atlantic and sailed up the River Guadalquivir about 80 kilometers to dock at Sevilla. For that reason, it became the ideal place to collect and store all colonization documents in the archive there.

    The archive's holdings include some of the most amazing historical documents anywhere, including Columbus's journal and the Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided the Americas between Spain and Portugal approximately on the 42º meridian. You can find records of nearly everything in the archive, from skirmishes with the English in Florida to lost or sunken treasure ships.

    The archive, like all major Spanish archives, is included in the PARES network: the Portal de Archivos Españoles, which can be found online at Fortunately for researchers, all the millions of documents in the archive are currently in the process of being digitized. Soon they will all be available and searchable online, and many are online already.

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  • Learning About Last Names Can Help You Find More Ancestors

    Last names are the key to genealogical research. Over time, they can be spelled in different ways, surrendered at marriage, and sometimes changed for other reasons. So if you want to find your family's history, you need to learn to search effectively for your family last names. The first thing to remember is that in times gone by, people worried less about consistent spelling; William Shakespeare, for example, spelled his name half a dozen different ways. So don't be surprised if you discover that a simple name like "Hardy" was spelled "Hardie," "Hardee," "Hardey," and "Haredy" by different relatives, sometimes in the same immediate family.

    Names translated from other languages into English can be even more confusing. "Longacre" and "Longenecker" are variant names for the same family.

    When researching family names, the best tactic is to look for similar consonants; the vowels often tend to shift and change. That is the principle of the Soundex searching system, which can help you discover ancestors you might otherwise have missed.

    One useful strategy is to keep a list of last names you are looking for. You can list whole lines or specific individuals you're searching for. When you're talking with other genealogy researchers, ask them about your family names. Look them up in various indexes to historical documents. When you keep your eyes open for a family last name, you may be surprised at the treasures you find.

    You're not alone in searching for your last names. At OneGreatFamily, you may find other researchers who have discovered important branches of your family tree. A single new link can help you discover thousands of ancestors and entire new lines.

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  • Attending Genealogical Conferences and Events

    If you've never attended a genealogical conference or event before, it may be because you've been intimidated by the prospect. After all, aren't genealogical conferences for professionals, or people who make genealogy their life's work? Actually, that's not accurate. There are genealogy conferences, expos, retreats, seminars, and workshops for every skill level and every interest level. Whether you're a beginner or an expert (or somewhere in between), you can find an event to suit your needs.

    So what can you gain from attending a genealogical event? You can hone your research skills; you can try out new genealogy software programs; you can network with other family historians; you can learn about the latest and greatest innovations in the field of family history. Another bonus of attending conferences and events is that you often get free stuff.  Most events also provide a conference syllabus at no extra charge. These are packed with useful charts, outlines, and articles from the conference speakers. This way, instead of furiously scribbling down notes you can just absorb what the speakers are saying, because the information you need is already in the syllabus.

    Many conferences are hosted by genealogical societies; others are hosted by archives or libraries. Some events have become very well-known in the genealogical world, and are attended by hundreds.  The annual conference of the Federation of Genealogical Societies is a prominent genealogical event; it is held in a different American city every fall. The National Genealogical Society Conference, one of the most prestigious because of its backing organization, also moves around every year. NGSC workshops cover everything from Italian ancestry to Scandinavian, and there are also "consult-an-expert" sessions where you can collaborate with others and get research guidance on difficult projects.

    If you prefer something more low-key, however, you don't have to travel across the country to attend a high-profile conference. You can learn new things by attending your local genealogical society's conference, or by attending the conference of your nearest genealogical library or archive. Get online and find a genealogical event that will serve you.

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