Breaking Down A Brick Wall: The Problem With Surnames

Fourth in a multi-part series

In the comments to the last post  our friend Apple [her blog is Apple's Tree; visit it!] writes:

It certainly seems like the right family. I’ve seen some interesting name variations but how did they get Guion from Gines? Or visa versa. I’d be very comfortable going with this.

That’s the very question presented for our consideration today!  Surnames can prop up  brick wall for far longer than one would think.  The problem could be exacerbated for descendants of formerly enslaved people–who sometimes changed their surnames, if they had surnames, after emancipation.  But, it’s really a potential problem for everybody, especially in a culture like ours which has no indigenous surnames:

Strictly speaking, there are no American surnames. They are all imported, the same as all so-called English surnames have, at different periods, been imported into England, excepting perhaps what remains of the ancient British, Gaelic, and Celtic. But they become American by adoption, just as persons of foreign birth become American citizens by naturalization or domiciliation. Hundreds of these families have been domiciled in this country for over a century and a half; in fact, ever since the early colonial period. By what other nomenclature can they be called?

Amos M. Judson,  A Grammar of American Surnames (Washington: J.F. Sheiry, 1898), p.2

To put it another way:

In the States the wear and tear of names, which in England extends over ten centuries, has been concentrated into one, and instead of half a dozen elements we have sources innumerable. In the early days of the Republic the problem was simpler, for the sparse population was drawn from practically four sources, British, Dutch, French, and German. In the earliest census taken, its interesting to notice the distribution of these names. We find, as we should expect, the French in the south, the Dutch in and around New York, and the Germans in Pennsylvania. But, since the time of the first census (1790), immigrants have crowded in from most countries, civilized and uncivilized, and their changed, distorted, or adapted names form a pathless etymological morass. . . .

The possible variants and derivatives of any given personal name run theoretically into thousands, and in France and Germany, to take the two most important countries of which the surname system is related to our own, there has been no check on this process of differentiation. By contraction, aphesis, apocope, dialect variation, and many other phonetic factors, one favourite name often develops hundreds of forms, many of which appear to have nothing in common with the original.

Ernest Weekley,  Surnames (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co. 1916) pp.8-9 (footnote omitted).

Some other factors that affect American genealogical research with respect to surnames are:

  • A general lack of literacy in the population before the advent of universal education.
  • A general lack of standardization of spelling among the literate.
  • Reliance by census takers and  vital records officials on unknowledgeable informants.
  • Mis-pronunciation or a lack of standardized pronunciation of surnames.
  • Regional differences in culture.

These issues will be familiar to anyone who has spent any considerable time in research.  All of them came to bear on my Gines brick wall.

When I was a pre-schooler, I learned that our maternal family name was pronounced with a hard “G” and that it was spelled GINES. It seemed to be an unusual name and as I grew up and used it or heard it used by relatives, listeners would not infrequently say, “What?” or “How do you spell that?” or sometimes rudely, “What kinda name is that?”  My mother would reply, “It’s French.”  She said her father told her that.  But when I started  genealogical research in earnest, it appeared to me that most of the  GINES surnamed people in  the United States had come from England.

I have written before about the five main Gines family groups in the United States.  In sorting out my issue here, we don’t need to disturb the Latino, Pacific Islander, or LDS family groups very much. So we’ll focus on the German/English family groups, and add a bit (or more) of French!

We also can narrow the scope of our inquiry by understanding which name variants are “true” name variants and which are merely mistakes in spelling, transcription, or pronunciation.  I realize that it can be said that “mistakes” in spelling, transcription, or pronunciation are precisely the factors that create “true” separate names or variations.  So here I refer to the “one-off” sort of error that is not repeated to the extent that it becomes the name.

I have previously pointed out that many of my Gines forebears had their names rendered many different ways during the nineteenth century.  For example, Rebecca Maner Gines (1844-1931) was “Beckey Guines” on the 1870 census, Rebecca Gines on her husband’s death certificate;Becky Gines on the 1899 tax rolls of Tensas Parish and then Rebecca Gynes on her own death certificate.  Ed Gines, the brotehr of Richard Gines, was a “Guion” in 1870, “Gines” in 1880, “Genes” in 1900, and “Guynes.”  There are more versions beyond these two examples: Gions, Giones, Guions, Guins, Guines, Ganes, Guyns, and Gaynes.  How can we tell if these are “mistakes” or are legitimate names with independent etymologies?

For answers to that, I turn to World Names Profiler, a service of Public   The designers say that they have data for about 300 million people in 26 different countries, representing a total population of 1 billion people.  They claim that ther hgave 8 million unique surnames.  For more information about the database, see the FAQs posted at this link.

I  realize that there are more sophisticated instruments for the analysis performed below, but this will give us a rough, good-enough notion about the conclusions.

Here’s how it works:

We search for a name, let’s say Guiones for example, using the Profiler. The Profiler will tell us the worldwide distribution of that name.  Click on the video link below and watch what happens when we search for “Guiones.”


The Profiler reports:

We could not found an exact match for “GUIONES”. Please search again.

The conclusion must be that this i s not a legitimate name.  It may be  inferred that to the extent that such a spelling ever appeared in public records, the occurrence or frequency thereof was extremely  insignificant.   On the other hand, click on the video link below and watch happens when we search for “Guyns:”


There are matches, but apparently only in the United States.  On the theory that there are no indigenous “American” surnames, we could conclude that “Guyns” is not a “legitimate” surname, but likely a one-off error  in trying to render something else.  This inference is strengthened when the Profiler tells us that the name is found at a significant threshold only in one county in Missouri.  A search of’s census records locates “Guyns” historically as numbering 19 individuals, all in Oklahoma in 1910; and then literally ones and twos in a couple states between 1910 and 1920.

We can eliminate many of the purported names by showing that they do not exist in any significant number anywhere in the world or that they only occur in the United States and they are not “Native American” names.

How does all this relate to my brick wall problem?  We’ll see that next time.

World Names Profiler is the intellectual property of PublicProfiler, University College London, © copyright 2008


5 Responses to “Breaking Down A Brick Wall: The Problem With Surnames”

  • O.K., you’ve hit it out of the ballpark again, and you’re just rounding first base! Excellent! I’m definitely intrigued by your use of PublicProfiler to really separate the “one-off” name spelling errors from those that have “taken hold” and become distinct surnames here in America. This type of logic as well as taking a closer look at the origins of surnames parallels linguistic studies. Who knew I could use the information from linguistic courses taken in college for tearing down brick walls? I didn’t. Thank You!

    Eagerly Sitting on the Edge of My Seat With My Pencil Poised,

  • Apple says:

    I have one surname in my tree that oral history says was “anglicized” from the original German. You’ve given me hope that this may be a brick wall that I could break down one day!

  • Craig says:

    Caroline, I actually love linguistics and I see a lot of potential for using its theories in genealogy! A couple of good books that touch (somewhat) on the connection are The Power of Babel by John McWhorter and Some Family by Donald Harmon Akenson.

  • Laura Adams says:

    Hi, Craig! From the first that I read your post that Gines was a French name, I have had a secret bet on the name Guyon- one of the pioneer names of Quebec and one of the most common in French Canada. That would give us 2 (sort of!) connections, together with our linked past in Prairie du Rocher. I had to laugh as I read your post on “genealogical French” because I have gone through the same sort of learning curve. I learned that in French pronunciation there is no long “I”, so if that sound is there they used another letter combination such as “ai” or “io”. Also that many times the “u” after a “g” is there to tell you the “g” is hard. I knew it was a long shot, but I am still hoping for Guyon! I could imagine an English speaking American census taker trying to come up with a spelling for what he was hearing, especially after seeing what they came up with for some of the other French names. Add in the “dit” factor and it is amazing that some of our lines can be traced at all! Also, many of my surnames were Hispanicized during the Spanish reign over Louisiana. Here is a link to the first Guyon in North America

    Hoping this might provide the impetus for my horse (Guyon) to make it over the finish line!!

    Laura Adams

  • Don Finel says:

    I am reading your blog about surname brickwalls for the first time and am finding it very interesting. My Finel name has me stumped at about 1748 in Massachusetts for a 4th g-grandfather that I know absolutely nothing about, nor can find on him. I suspect French, I suspect the spelling to be Finel, but not positive. Only that my 3rd g-grandfather went by the spelling. 3rd g-grandfather might have shortend from some other spelling not sure.
    Thanks for an informative reading.

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