Family historians generally focus their efforts on researching their own family trees, collecting and analysing data in order to find as much detail as possible on every branch, twig or tiny leaf. Others compile surname studies, which seek all occurrences, past and present, of a single surname, anywhere in the world.
A one-name (or surname) study is a project researching all occurrences of a surname, as opposed to a particular pedigree (ancestors of one person) or descendancy (descendants of one person or couple). Some ‘one-namers’ restrict their research geographically, perhaps to one country, but true one-namers collect all occurrences worldwide.
The purpose of a one-name study is not just about the collection of data. Its aim is to research the genealogy and family history of all persons with a given surname and its linked variants. A study may concentrate on aspects such as the geographical distribution of the name and the changes in that distribution over the centuries, or may attempt to reconstruct the genealogy of as many lines as possible bearing the name. A frequent aspiration is to identify a single original location of the name, especially if the name appears to derive from a place name. However, for many names, for example those indicating an occupation like ‘Farmer’ or a patronymic-type surname such as ‘Williamson’, there may not be a single origin.
How to start a one-name study
Most one-namers do not start their family history research and think, ‘I know….. I think I’ll do a one-name study on X name’. Many drift into a study as a way of eliminating numerous alternatives when researching a particular ancestral name whilst others find that due to the rarity of the name they are researching, they note down all occurrences they find, just in case they come in useful in the future. Some are fascinated by ‘odd’ names they discover and just want to know all about the individuals who have held the name through the centuries.
You may find it useful to start by finding out how rare or common your name really is, how it is distributed through the country you live in, and, later, throughout the world.
To find out how frequent your name is today in England and Wales, go to the website Surnames of England and Wales – the ONS list. This site has an extract of an Office for National Statistics [ONS] 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, but names shared by fewer than five people have been excluded from the list.
For the USA, go to the U.S. Census Bureau genealogy page which is based on a sample of the census.
Analysing the distribution of a name is greatly assisted by locating contemporary maps and creating your own maps of your name.
You have probably already collected some information as part of your previous family history research. Now you need to start collecting on a more comprehensive and systematic basis. Many of the sources you will use are the same as those used by other genealogists, but unlike some of them you will be doing a complete search from beginning to end. You will need some commitment for this. If you can find others interested in the name to help you, your workload will be considerably eased.
The process of data collection is reasonably straightforward, although it can require considerable time and effort. Later stages are less “standard”, and although general guidance can be provided, one-namers must be prepared to break new ground (in common with a lot of original research).
The Guild does not prescribe the ‘right’ way to carry out a one-name study, as many of the decisions in a study will be personal and depend on several variables: the size of the study, the objectives in performing a study and the resources available in terms of time, skills and equipment. The concept of the ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom – the Art of One-Name Studies’ is intended to identify seven broad activities within a one-name study. These seven activities are: Data collection, Analysis of collected data, Synthesis from collected data, Responding to enquiries, Publicising your study, Publication of your study and Preserving your study.
A one-name study may be an individual activity, or may be shared amongst a group of researchers with a common interest. Where a group of people show an interest in the study of a particular surname, you may wish to consider setting up your own One-Name Society.