What is a one-name (surname) study?

Julie Goucher, of the Guild of One-Name Studies, explains how researching a single surname and its history can open new doors.

We all have a surname. We share it with random strangers with ease, despite it being something very personal to us. How did we acquire that surname? Probably through birth or adoption, but perhaps though marriage or other family connection.

Family historians tend to focus on their own family trees, collecting and analysing information to find out as much detail as possible for every branch. Other researchers go a step further and carry out a one-name (surname) study for a surname in their family, or through interest whereby they seek to discover every instance of that surname, perhaps in a restrictive timeframe or location. But true one-namers undertake such a study regardless of timeframe or geographical location.

Why carry out a one-name study?

The purpose of a one-name study is more than just collecting the data. The aim is to research the genealogy and family history for all people with a given surname and its linked variants. A study may focus on aspects such as geographical distribution of the surname and the changes that have occurred over time. Another may attempt to reconstruct the genealogy of as many lines as possible bearing the surname.

Many aspire to identify a single original location of the name, especially if the surname derives from a place name. For surnames that indicate an occupation, such as Butcher, or a patronymic-type surname, such as Robertson, there may not be a single origin.

Many researchers don’t start their study with a conscious decision to do so. Many drift into a study as a way of trying to overcome a brick wall in their research. Some are fascinated by an unusual surname and jot down all instances of that surname.

To establish how frequent your surname is in England and Wales, go to the Surnames of England and Wales. This site hosts an extract from an Office for National Statistics database, and contains a list of surnames in use in England, Wales and the Isle of Man in September 2002. The entire database contains over a million surnames shared by 55.9 million people. Names shared by fewer than five people have been excluded from the list.

For the US, go to the US Census Bureau genealogy page, which is based on a sample of the 2000 US Census.

Taking a methodical approach (and sharing)

Having collected some information as part of surname family history research, you now need to begin collecting material on a more comprehensive and systematic basis. Many of the sources you will use will be the same as other genealogists, although you will be doing a complete search from the beginning to the end. You will need some commitment for this, and if you can find others interested in the surname to help you, your workload will be considerably eased.

The Guild does not prescribe a specific way of conducting a one-name study, as many of the decisions will be personal and dependent on several variables, such as the size of the study, the objectives for undertaking the study and the resources of time, skills and equipment available. The Guild concept of the 'Seven pillars of wisdom the art of a one-name study' has identified seven broad activities within a one-name study:

  • Data collection
  • Analysis of the collected data
  • Synthesis from the data collected
  • Publicising your study
  • Responding to enquiries
  • Publication of your study
  • Preserving your study

The stage of collecting data is reasonably standard and straightforward, but it does require commitment, time and effort. Later stages are less standard, and although general guidance can be provided, one-namers must be prepared to break new ground and carry out original new research.

A one-name study can be an individual activity, or it may be shared among a group of researchers who have a common interest. In some cases, where there is a common interest of a specific surname, a one-name society can be formed.

The Guild has created a set of online resources, Starting your one-name study, which looks at the early stages of a study, variants to surnames, organising your study and choosing software. Further details of courses can be found here.

About the author

An avid history lover, Julie Goucher has been researching her family history since the late 1980s and has an interest in Italian ancestry. She is conducting several one-name studies and is an administrator for several DNA projects. Julie is the tutor for an introduction to one-name studies course and is a trustee and secretary for the Guild of One-Name Studies.