There Are Few Americans Entitled to a Coat of Arms

Question: Recently I discovered that there is a coat of arms for my maiden name. I saw it on a map of England and Wales. How can I purchase a copy?

Answer: Most of us find heraldry fascinating, but few Americans are entitled to claim coat of arms. If we are, we're going to have to trace our family back through the centuries to the Middles Ages. The chances that your noble ancestor bore the same surname you inherited are slim.

Coats of arms were issued to individuals--not families--and under most heraldic rules, only first sons of first sons of the recipient of a coat of arms could legally bear their ancestor's arms.

"Coat of arms" applies only to the shield of arms--that's the design that was often repeated on the jupon, a short, sleeveless coat worn over armor and emblazoned with arms of the medieval armiger (one who is entitled to heraldic arms). However, it popularly used to mean the conventional representation in pictorial form of the principal armorial bearings to which an armiger is entitled.

Aspiring genealogists should first read the chapter, "Does Your Family Have a Coat of Arms?" in Jeane Eddy Westin's book, "Finding Your Roots." It probably is available at your local library.

Beware of any offering that promotes coats of arms or so-called family crests based on surnames. To connect your family to a legitimate armiger requires diligent, scholarly research through 500 or 600 years of history.

Q: I would like to learn more about my great-aunt who died in Socorro, New Mexico Territory, in February of 1884. Her body was shipped back to her home in Springfield, Mass., for burial, and I obtained the date of death, burial and the fact the body came from Socorro from the cemetery.

She was only 27 years old when she died. That and the fact she was so far from her original home gives my research impetus.

A: Who paid for her burial? Some cemetery records include this information as well as the cause of death.

The 1880 census may give you a bit more information about her--at least whether she was in New Mexico Territory by that date, single or married, her occupation and residence.

Records appear to be scant for this locale and time period. Perhaps an obituary that appeared in a New Mexico newspaper that might give you more information.

Either the New Mexico State Archives or the public library in Albuquerque can direct you to the names of newspapers that were printed in 1884 and how you may access them.

Q: I've worked on my family history for the past 19 years and have discovered much diversity in the spelling of surnames. Did the legal standardization of surnames take place after Civil War?

A: The first lesson a genealogist learns is that there is no standardization of surname spellings. To my knowledge there is no legal requirement for the spelling of any surname. We can spell our names however we wish.

Family historians must examine many records to compile a family tree and in only a few of them will you find the actual signatures of one's ancestors that will show you how they spelled it.

As you work your way backward in time, you may discover your Civil War ancestor spelled your surname Bickford, and if you are lucky, the census takers and county clerks spelled it that way also. However, his father may have spelled it Beckford or Backford, but his father may have written it Bickforde. You may find the name in English records spelled Bekeford, de Bekeford or de Bikeford.

It's true that after the Civil War, especially in the 1880s, more emphasis was placed on spelling and much of our language took standardized forms. With more education, our ancestors often learned the "correct" spelling of old English names especially and changed their surnames accordingly.

But our surnames came from many countries, and the transition from the original language to the spelling used today is often an adventure through American records.

It is a fatal error for a genealogist to look for only one spelling of a surname, and probably more beginners fail to find their links due to their stubborn persistence in the erroneous belief that their family has always spelled their surname a certain way.

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