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Researching Unusual Last Names for Genealogy


Having an unusual last name, like Fryxell, means a lifetime of enduring mispronunciations and spelling it out (“That’s F as in Frank, R, Y, X—yes, really, X … ”). But an oddball surname has its advantages, too. Those butchered pronunciations are a dead giveaway when telemarketers call (“May I speak with Mr., uh, FREE-zell?”). And an unusual last name—your own, or anywhere in your family tree—can be a valuable genealogy tool.

Just because your surname is unusual today, don’t assume that’s always been the case. Search for those names on family history websites and in genealogical records, but remember to closely analyze any finds you make, rather than assuming a surname was uncommon back in your ancestor’s time and therefore that any person you find with that name is part of your family tree.

Unusual surnames, even those of only collateral relatives, are ideal fodder for a technique called cluster genealogy. Typically used with cousins, neighbors and associates who migrated with your ancestors (in a “cluster”), the strategy works even better when such folks have surnames that stand out.

Another way unusual surnames can provide research clues is when they become unusual first or middle names. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was common for family surnames, especially maiden names from the wife’s family or the husband’s mother’s family that would otherwise vanish, to be used as first or middle names for children.