Research Tip of the Week

It is Tip Tuesday once again. This week my tip is about the use of surname tables in research. Surname tables are a useful tool to add to your genealogical research toolbox.

What is a surname table?

A surname table is a simple table that easily shows all the surnames of your grandparents through your 4th great grandparents in an easy to read and compact table. The surname table removes all the extra information of a tree and allows you to just focus on the surnames of your ancestors.

Why use a surname table?

A surname table is a great tool while doing DNA research. Autosomal DNA testing like that performed at sites like ancestry is really the most useful within 5 generations. The closer the better. With the generations of recombination, it gets too unreliable after that point. Using a surname table gives you a quick reference list of the surnames in your tree so that you can search out the familiar names in the trees of your matches. This allows you to find most recent shared ancestors more efficiently.

Surname tables are also useful in the fact that they create a visual to do list of brick walls. I knew I had a lot of brick walls in the family of my maternal grandmother but with the use of a surname table I can see the extent of my brick walls. Each of the question marks is a research project I need to work on further.

completed surname table
Surname table

Creating a surname table

This is my surname table. The concept is super simple. I used Excel to create mine, but you can use any sort of spreadsheet program or even a pencil and paper. The table needs 5 columns and 17 rows. The blank table should look something like this.

Blank surname table
Blank surname table

To fill in the table I start with the first row. I fill in the surname of my father’s father, father’s mother, mother’s father, and mother’s mother. These are my 4 grandparents. I will build out each column with their ancestors as I move down.


On the row with my grandparents you will notice two names (Baker/Fulkerson) separated by a slash and an asterisk next to one name, Baker. This denotes that he was the product of an adoption. During his lifetime he is on records with both his adopted surname (Fulkerson) and his biological father’s surname (Baker). I want to make sure I make note of that fact. I use a slash to denote he used both names during his life.

Okay great now I can move onto the next generation. Another way that I could approach the adoption of my Grandfather would be to add the asterisk and add Baker in an inserted row for the next generation. In my case, because my Grandfather used the name Baker for early years, I added it in on his surname. I will from this point only follow the Baker line back, not the Fulkerson name.

For the rest of this section of my table I only want to focus on the names not already on the table. I need to add the maiden surnames of each of my great grandmothers. I fill the table out moving across. Weatherspoon, Eckler, Brown, and Coats.

Great grandparents

The next generation will have 2 rows in each column. I move down my list. Once again, I only want to add names not already on the table. I want to look at the surnames of each of my great grandparents’ mothers. To keep things organized as I move down the table I start from the top and move down. My Baker great grandparent was the child of a woman with the maiden name Morgan. My Weatherspoon great grandparent was the child of a woman with the maiden name Bennett. I move across the table filling in these two rows for each column.

More generations added

At the next section of the table we are listing 3rd great grandparents. We need to add 4 surnames to our table at this level. At this generation, my tree starts to get less complete. I mark the ancestors that I cannot name with a question mark as a placeholder. This helps keep my table organized for easy understanding. I want to be able to look at my table and even at the 4th great grandparent level be able to see which surnames pair together.

After the last section, your table should look something like this. With such a compact format it is easy to see that I have some lines of my family that I have more work to do. Another thing that this table reveals, if I was not already aware of it, is that some of my lines have some intermarriage going on. I could find some skewed math in my DNA matches in the lines with double cousins.

I find surname tables especially useful when I am working DNA cases for other individuals as a Search Angel where I am not as familiar with the surnames as I am in my own lineage. Have you used surname tables while working with your DNA matches?