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No, that isn't your coat of arms.

Are there ghouls in your past? Perhaps there are, if you spell it gules, the heraldic word for the color red1. However, if you're an eager searcher for your family history, looking for "Smith Family Crest" or "Smith Coat of Arms" will lead you to a host of websites happy to sell you scrolls, crests, mugs, plaques, histories, and family books about or emblazoned with a coat of arms representing your name... but which most likely has nothing to do with your family.

I've been doing family history research since about 1980, when the genealogy bug bit me in the butt, and hard. Even more recently, I've done research on hundreds of names, during which project the idea for this little essay came to me, because what I'm seeing is lots and lots of people being sorely ripped off, and buying goodies and information that is either poorly-researched, marginally correct, or outright false.

This trend is not new. Back when I first got started in the early 80's, I saw an ad in some magazine offering "The Complete Registry of DeSantises in America," with coat of arms, family history, and a listing of every family in the country with my name. Wow - only $29.95, or some such. I went ahead and bought the thing, and found I had purchased a 1980's version of the same thing you find on the internet today - pages and pages of generic genealogical and heraldic babble, a coat of arms supposedly from Rietstap's Armorial General, and a list of names scraped from available phonebooks. Worthless? Well, that depends on what one is looking for. I still have it, just because it's part of the whole research effort.



The text accompanying this crest reads:

"The De Santis coat of arms hereby illustrated is officially documented in RIETSTAP ARMORIAL GENERAL. The original description of the arms (shield) is as follows:

"Parti de gu. et d'or; entre en p. d'azur a trois etoiles d'or; au chev. ploye de l'un l'autre, br. sur le parti et surm. d'une croix blandre patee."
(In this case, "blandre" is a typographical error for "blanche" (white).)

The curious thing is that I've been to the Armorial General, and my name is nowhere to be found. In fact, I can't even find this image anywhere on the internet; it makes me wonder if they just made it up, since on the current genealogical sites, this is the one that seems to have replicated itself all over:



Since I don't like dealing with attorneys, I'm not going to mention any names or web addresses here, but there are a few things that a family history researcher needs to know if they are really looking for a coat of arms for your family, or any related historical information.

1) You may not actually have one.

Coats of arms were originally used by feudal lords and knights to identify one another: "If you see this sign, he's one of us. Shoot anything else that moves!" Later, other classes of people began to assume coats of arms for themselves, mostly because it was the cool thing to do. Throughout Europe, the granting and management of coats of arms has been strictly regulated and enforced by governments and royal societies. Not every family had a coat of arms.

2) Even if you find a coat of arms for your name, the odds that it's actually yours are very slim.

Think about it. Surnames didn't start arising until around the 10th or 11th centuries. Before that, people had given names, but that was all. Start getting too many Thomases, and it became natural to start telling them apart in various ways. Thomas Cooper (the barrelmaker), Thomas Fletcher (the bow and arrow maker), Thomas Smith (the blacksmith); given the lack of the internet, television, radio, or even a mule to get you to the next town, there were probably "Smiths" all over England, and very few of them related.

Occupations were only one way of forming surnames. There were also topographic names, describing where someone lived: Burnette, which may stem from a burnett (a place cleared by burning); locational names, indicating which locale a person came from (Bartley may stem from Bartley Green in Worcestershire); or patronymic names (Thomas John's son would have been quickly shortened to Johnson). There are others still.

A lovely bit of dialog from The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain illustrates a tendency to complicate (or perhaps simplify) things even further:

"For some odd reason, lost in the mists of time, there's an extraordinary shortage of last names in Wales. Almost everyone seems to be a Williams, a Jones, or an Evans. To avoid widespread confusion, Welsh people often add an occupation to a name. For example, there was Williams the Petroleum, and Williams the Death. There was Jones the Bottle, and Jones the Prize Cabbage... which described his hobby and his personality. Evans the Bacon, and Evans the End of the World. But one man's name was a puzzle, and it wasn't until I was 10 years old that I asked my grandfather about the man with the longest and most enigmatic name of all."

Thus even though "Evans" is the Welsh form of "Johns" and became a patronymic name, an additional classifier was added. To further complicate matters, your name may have been spelled 10 different ways throughout history, before reading and writing were common pursuits. The surname "Kern" can show up as Kern, Kerne, Kerrn, Kerns, Kernes, Kernns, Keerns, Kerrns, Keern, Kernn, Kernen, Gern, Cern, and Kurn - and some of these may not even be related to each other, but similar by coincidence only. Many a budding linguist has been led down a path to a false conclusion about language relationships; just because the word 'to occur' in English happens to be okoru (起こる) in Japanese does not mean that these two languages are in any way related.

As a result, it's important to remember that a coat of arms with your name on it may have very little or nothing at all to do with your family and its history.

3) Most genealogy websites exist for one reason only: to get your money.

The major websites dealing with the origin of family names and the sale of associated histories and coat of arms merchandise have stolen heavily from one another, and should be considered unreliable. Yes, there is some information out there that may be accurate, but most of the pages on "your" name will be filled with generic babble about the history of names that will drive their website to the top of a Google search, but have very little to do with the name you are searching for. One site prefaces each page with questions like "What is the origin of Smith?" "Where did the name Smith come from?" "When did the Smiths arrive in America?" People who type these questions in to a search engine like Yahoo!, Bing or Google will end up at pages like this, but find very little real information.

Further, most of these websites will try to cram every possible name into their database using the same model they employ for European names; one major website claims that my own surname, DeSantis (obviously Italian, Spanish, or Portuguese), was first recorded in England in the 13th century.

So what's a researcher to do?

As I mentioned before, it depends on what you're looking for. If you just want a cool crest to hang on your wall with your name on it, any one of the "family history" websites out there will do. If you're looking for real and accurate information, you're going to have to dig.

Don't blindly go to the first website on the top of your list. They got there by clever SEO techniques, and it doesn't mean their information is the best. Go to every website you can find, copy information out, digest, compare and contrast. One website I can recommend is Ancestry.com (this page will take you to "Smith" but from there you can research other names. What information they have is usually historically based, and they're not after you to buy a bunch of merchandise. The website also includes links to family history forums, where people of a given family name discuss and share information, which can be useful.

As you compare the information you find, you'll either start seeing similarities, meaning one website copied another, or you'll get conflicting stories. Keep digging. The key point to remember is that you shouldn't rely on the first websites you find and think you're getting the authoritative story. If you've ever read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, you'll remember this embellished description of Jim's coat of arms, provided by the inventive Tom Sawyer:

"On the scutcheon we'll have a bend OR in the dexter base, a saltire MURREY in the fess, with a dog, couchant, for common charge, and under his foot a chain embattled, for slavery, with a chevron VERT in a chief engrailed, and three invected lines on a field AZURE, with the nombril points rampant on a dancette indented; crest, a runaway nigger, SABLE, with his bundle over his shoulder on a bar sinister; and a couple of gules for supporters, which is you and me; motto, MAGGIORE FRETTA, MINORE OTTO. Got it out of a book -- means the more haste the less speed."

For what it's worth, a lot of what you'll find online is just as useless as this bit of doggerel.

Genealogical libraries usually contain a wealth of information; some of it has been indexed and is available online, but many books are not, so you'll have to dig. The catalog of the Genealogy library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake is one of the largest in the world, and a free search page is available which also provides a link to over 4500 local family history centers where free help is available.

Family history research can be intriguing and addicting. My advice is to steer clear of these superficial websites that are only interested in merchandising and get into some of the more serious sources of information.

May the force be with you!


Footnotes:
1From the Old French goules, a neckpiece of red fur, itself coming from the Latin gula (throat - related to our word "gullet.")


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Comments

bayliss
Apr. 2nd, 2012 11:44 pm (UTC)
It's damn near impossible to find information on the Farence last name. Nobody in the damn family is alive to tell me who is related to who. And Great Grandma got us as far back on the Ostermyer side as she could. (Some lady named Fry in Germany.)
r_caton
Apr. 3rd, 2012 04:36 pm (UTC)
Try using Google when the surname is "Furby"

oogle oogle bloody plip.....
ccdesan
Apr. 3rd, 2012 09:07 pm (UTC)
Hey, boo loo-loo!
Boniface Muggli
Apr. 3rd, 2012 08:31 pm (UTC)
History
William of Trimmis held the seal as a representative of the League of Gotteshausbund for the first Peace of Kappelin June, 1529. Stephan or Steven, one of his descendants and my ancestor, was an appellate court judge in Graubunden when he was elected president of the league in 1665.

Consequently, our family is one of many who are entitled to use William's coat of arms. We don't need no stinkin' fake, made-up arms.

Edited at 2012-04-03 08:33 pm (UTC)
ccdesan
Apr. 3rd, 2012 09:05 pm (UTC)
Re: History
How delightful that you have the right to a real one!

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ccdesan
The Old Wolf
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