July 9th, 2012

How to Begin a One Name Study

There is no set way to commence a one name study, as there different variations one can employ. There are set methods that have proved effective over the years however, and the following is based on the best practices employed by a variety of ONS researchers.

The first thing you might want to do is determine how rare or common your surname is, and how it has been distributed throughout the country you live in. Later you can expand your search to worldwide distribution, but as with a family history it is best to begin in your immediate area. The first resource you’ll want to consult is readily available; your local telephone directory. This will give you a general idea of how common your name is in your town, county and eventually your country. The best resource however is national census reports which provide a comprehensive guide to both the historical distribution of your name, and its frequency.

Let’s take a look at how we can determine the frequency of our surname using census data. If you’re surname is of English or Welsh origin, or if you live in those countries for instance, you can visit the ONS List of Surnames of England and Wales. Here you’ll find an extract from the Office of National Statistics database which contains a listing of surnames in use in England, Wales and the Isle of Man as of September 2002. There are over a million surnames shared by more than 55 million people, though less common surnames (shared by fewer than five people) have been excluded from the list.

This database was established in 1998 and is continually updated as births occur, though deaths have not been removed from the database. A survey of one name researchers has suggested that to compensate for the non-removal of deaths, you can multiply the result of your search by .93 to give a fairly accurate idea of those living who share your surname. For example, I did a search for the name MORRIS and a result of 120,691 names was returned. I then multiply 120,691 by .93, getting a revised, and more realistic total of 112,242. Further research has shown that if you multiply the original total by 3.3, you will get an idea of the population possessing your surname since the initiation of parish registers in the 16th century.

For the United States, the website of the Federal Census Bureau website has a section on name frequency and a report based on a sample of the census from 1990. Analysing the distribution of your name will be greatly enhanced by locating contemporary maps and charting the distribution of your surname on them. This will give you an excellent overview of your surname’s distribution, and arm you with a very valuable genealogical resource to share with other researchers.

You may have already collected some information on your surname as part of your family tree research, and this will be useful. But a one name study requires a more comprehensive and systematic approach. You will need to access sources that are similar to the ones required to construct a family tree, but in this case you will be doing an intensive search from start to finish. This will require total commitment, but your workload may be lightened by working with others who are conducting a similar search.

Data collection during a one name study is, although time consuming, fairly straightforward, but you will be adventuring into new genealogical territory and learning new research methods. Though data collection is important, analyzing that data, forming hypothesis, working with other researchers, publishing your findings, and finally preserving your project in a professional manner complete the criteria of a one name study. Don’t worry, in a subsequent Blog I’ll discuss where to find and how to your record the data you’ll need to collect!