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Rhonda's Tips: Genealogy Questions Answered
by Rhonda R. McClure

June 08, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Meaning of Surnames

Q: How can I find family last names' meanings? I have been trying to find it for so long now. -- Ada

A: Very often surnames can be traced to such things as occupations, dwellings, relationships or physical features. Surnames were not always necessary, so as they did become necessary, they were either selected or taken from a name that the person was known as.

Sometimes the person in question may have had a nickname, and then when asked to select a surname, they would somehow work in the nickname by which everyone knew them as. Other times, they would take the name of the farm they lived on, or the river or other natural landmark that was nearby.

There are many dictionaries for surnames. Oftentimes though it is necessary to determine the nationality of the family before knowing which of these dictionaries to check. And when dealing with some European lineages, it is possible that the surname was changed. Sometimes that change may be just a simple spelling change. Other times the surname was completely Anglicized, often taking the English translation of the original name as the new name.

You will want to visit your local genealogical library and ask the librarian where they have their general genealogy books. Explain to them that you are interested in surname dictionaries. There is some more information on this subject in Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Names and More Names.

Passengers on a Ship

Q: I am researching the origins of my 17th century ancestor, Matthew STANLEY (1620?-1686). Two undocumented sources who have communicated with me say that he came on the Winthrop flagship, the Arbella, not in 1630 with Winthrop, but in 1634/1635. According to these sources the ship brought passengers from the Netherlands and landed in Dorchester, MA. I have searched all the Internet search engines for "Arbella," "the Arbella" and "flagship Arbella" and all passenger lists sites I know and many library references and have found no references to the Arabella sailing to New England in 1634. Can you help or suggest other resources? -- Judy

A: Instead of searching on the "Arbella," you may want to search on the "Winthrop fleet." Of course, it is most important to keep in mind that sometimes the information that we are given is not quite accurate.

As you know the Winthrop Fleet under John Winthrop, was the migration of individuals who were sent to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This fleet of four ships, with the Arbella as the flagship, sailed 8 April 1630 and arrived in New England on 12 June 1630. This first expedition brought four hundred men, women and children. Another six hundred would migrate to bring the total to one thousand. So, it is apparent that there were additional ships that were considered a part of this group.

There are some good books that might be of use to you with information about the original Winthrop Fleet and they may hold clues to the additional ships and trips that were made to bring the others over. Some of those books include:

  • The Winthrop Fleet of 1630 by Charles Banks
  • Winthrop's Journal edited by James Kendall Hosmer
  • The History of the Colony of Massachusetts by Thomas Hutchison
  • John Winthrop by Robert George Rayman

Also, you may be unaware, but there is a society devoted to those immigrants who traveled with John Winthrop. The Winthrop Society is a lineage based society, that requires that you trace your lineage back to one of the passengers from the Winthrop fleet or one of those earliest settlers, provided they arrived in Massachusetts Bay Colony by 1633. They may have some information on your ancestor already.

Looking for a Peacock

Q: I am looking for information on a Lieutenant John Peacock who served in the Civil War. He was born in Waddington, New York, (St. Lawrence County) and mortally wounded in the Battle of Olustee and died in Tallahassee Florida in 1864. He was in the 48th New York Regiment. Died when he was 38, so he must have been born in 1826. Here are my questions that I am looking to answer: 1)Who did he marry? 2)How many children did he have? (I know he possibly had one child by the name of Mary who married a Cline, but not sure if he had other children.) 3)Who were his parents? 4) What did he do for a living before he went into the Army? 4) Where was he buried? -- Karen

A: You already have a great deal of information on your ancestor. You can now use that to access additional records that may hold some of the answers to the questions you have.

You can begin by looking in the index to compiled service records for New York. This index should verify that John Peacock was indeed a lieutenant in the 48th New York Regiment. This will also give you the necessary information to order the service record for John Peacock. The service record will give you information about what he looks like and when and where he joined up.

You will also want to check the General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934 on microfilm. This index is arranged by soldier. And since John Peacock died, it is possible that his widow applied for a pension. This would supply you with the name of his wife and the names and ages of his children who were under the age of sixteen.

These microfilmed indexes can be found through the Family History Library. Once you have searched the indexes, you can then order NATF-80 forms from the National Archives. These forms, when filled out and returned, are used to request photocopies of the actual service records and pension records.

Just Starting Out

Q: I' m not sure where to start, but I'm looking for parents names and a little history on them. Just got my computer so I really don't know what I'm doing here. Anything would help me greatly in pointing me in the right direction. -- Jamie

A: First, welcome to the world of genealogy. Getting started is best done by talking to those relatives who are still alive. Don't just ask them to tell you all they know about the family. Ask them specific questions about birthdays, other family events. Remembering such events will often spark their memories about individuals and then you can ask them how old Aunt Sue was at that time. This way you get the needed names and dates, and sometimes places.

There are also some good books that can help you to begin the researching of your ancestry. One of the best is The Complete Idiot's Guide to Genealogy by Christine Rose and Kay Ingalls. You can find this at many bookstores in the reference department, where they have their genealogy books. You can also generally find it at

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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