The Less-Common Name

by David Haas,

Chances are that you have dealt with this genealogy research challenge before, or eventually will. You’re looking up a John, Mary, Michael, or Ann with some relatively common surname, and to your surprise there are over 400 or even over a thousand people with the name you’re looking up. Before you spend hours combing through hundreds of listings that match the name and another piece of data you should try something different first.

Begin with what you already know about the person. Take inventory of the various names that you already have. Consider the names of the individual’s spouse, children and siblings. Can you identify a family member with an out-of-the-ordinary name or just a less common name? By doing quick first name/last name searches you’ll be able to discover quickly which names appear the least. That’s what we’re looking for.

The rare or less common names you identify in your research may help to locate the family in later years, and in some cases in much earlier years. Sometimes an unusual name comes from someone else in the family such as the name of an aunt or an uncle, or a grandparent or a great-grandparent.

Case Study:

We’ll look for someone very commonly named James Walsh. He lived in Illinois in the mid-to-late 1800s. He was born in Ireland and his wife’s name was Bridget. I only know the additional name of my direct ancestor Jennie who was their daughter. When we try the census records we’ll find that there are 49 individuals by the name of James Walsh in Illinois for the 1870 census. By 1880 that number is nearly doubled, and yet more than quadrupled to 220 individuals by 1900. He’s getting harder and harder to find as we search progressively more recent records. The name is passed from generation to generation, gaining in frequency. 1870 is my best bet to begin a search.

After striking out first with Jennie and Bridget and then considerable time spent looking at all of the James Walsh entries in the 1870 census we have finally found our match. Jennie is listed as Jane, and we have Bridget as James’ spouse. The age of these individuals is an exact match with the death records I had already acquired. As you’ll see in the image below, we have James Walsh and his wife Bridget. The children are Nicholas, John, Mary, Jane, James, Delia and Kate. If you’re seeing what I’m seeing we have a young daughter named Delia. There are only three Delia Walsh occurrences in the Illinois 1870 census and only seven in 1880. What we are looking for is the least common name in the group. From lots of practice I know that Delia gets the honors and Nicholas takes second place. I have what I need now to look further.

1870 Walsh census

I found this family very easily in the Chicago 1880 census by searching for Delia Walsh and then for Adelia Walsh. I discovered that another sibling William had been born to the family since the 1870 census.

Going one step in the other direction I’m now going to try to find this group in the 1860 census. Since Delia was only five months old in the 1870 census I know that she won’t be found. I can’t locate the James Walsh family in Chicago in 1860. There’s no sign of them even though the 1870 census indicates all of the children born from 1858 forward were born in Illinois.

Since I’m unable to locate James or Bridget Walsh in 1860 in Illinois I already have run into trouble. His Wife Bridget Walsh produces fifteen results in Illinois, none of which are the woman I’m looking for. Searching all states produces 181 results. Insurmountable. The next, least common name in the family is Nicholas and he is old enough in 1870 census to have been alive in 1860. When I search for Nicholas the search is immediately narrowed to only four results. The only matching result according to his age is located in New York.

Years ago I would never have considered looking at records in New York for a family that presumably lived and remained in Illinois. Convincingly, the birthplace accounts of all eight children from the 1870 and 1880 census records point to Illinois. I have every reason to assume they could only be found in Illinois. You just can’t know and this case proves it.

What I discovered hiding in New York was amazing. From death records I know that Bridget Walsh’s maiden name was Carroll. The 1860 census return revealed that Bridget Walsh with children Nicholas and John were living in the same household as John Carroll and Catherine Carroll. Both John and Catherine were about 22 years older than Bridget. I had discovered the names of my great grandmother Jennie’s grandparents in a matter of no time after locating James and Bridget in the 1870 census. As a plus, there is another relative living there. Eleven-year-old Jane Carroll. It’s too early to tell but this could be a young sibling of Bridget Walsh. It looks probable that Jane Walsh who was born three years later received her name from an earlier ancestor whether it be Jane Carroll or the person she was named for.

1860 census image Walsh and Carroll families

It can be assumed that Bridget Walsh went to stay with her parents for a time when her husband was away either in the Civil War or traveling to find work. She was only there for a short time because baby John was only six months old as of June 22nd 1860 and was born in Illinois per the 1860 New York Census. On the 1870 census there is already another child born in 1861 in Illinois. We know that Bridget was only in New York for a brief period and just happened to be staying with her parents at the time the census takers knocked on the door.

I have used this method repeatedly and I’m usually very happy with the result. If you can’t identify a less-common name look up each possibility to see which name is the least common. Delia is a variation of Adelia. Nicholas could be Nick in another listing. You’ll quickly learn that searching for few variations of a less common name still beats looking for a James, or John or Mary Walsh. Even with the name variations, James, John, and Mary all produce vastly higher numbers of search results than Nicholas or Delia.

These discoveries would have been enormously difficult to achieve without having searched for the less-common names of Nicholas and Adelia. Though I’m not a direct ancestor of either of these siblings, they were the keys to finding out the name of another, younger sibling in a later record. Likewise, it was with the use of their names I was able to learn of a trip and short stay in New York by their mother. Additionally I was able to identify Bridget Walsh’s (Carroll) parent’s names.

If you get stumped by a common name or seem to be unable to locate what would seem to be an obvious record try this method. Seek out the names of individuals in the family with less common names and base your searches on those individuals. This method can work wonders and save you hours and hours of repetitive research.