How Surnames Can Help In Your Research

What does your last name mean and how can it help you with your genealogy?

In last week’s “Family History Detectives” class to my students, we talked about surnames and how they developed. I used their last names as examples of how that surname could have come about. Needless to say, they were intrigued.  

The application of surnames did not come about until about 1066 during the Norman Conquest. The population was growing and the need to distinguish people was great. Surnames came from different means.  

For instance, from what people did, “Cook”, “Farmer”, “Carpenter”, but they could also come from where they lived, “Hill”, “Woods”, “Ford”, or like mine, Logan, Gaelic lagán (a little hollow), a diminutive form of lag (a hollow): hence, “dweller at a little hollow.”

They could also be based on common names, so the son of John would be “Johnson”. Lars’ daughter would be “Larsdoetter”. Or, Joseph the Tailor became “Joseph Taylor”. John, the son of James, became “John Jameson” and so on. In Scotland, the prefix “Mac” meant paternity as well. MacGregor means Gregor’s son.  

Names could also be descriptive such as “White”, “Strong”, “Young”, “Black”, or “Long” and “Longfellow”. Or, geographical, such as “London”, “Street”, “West”, and “Holland”. A lot of Irish and some Scottish surnames came from the names of legendary clans such as “Abercromby”, Agnew”, Buchanan”, “Stewart”, “Kelly”, “Duffy”, “Wallace”, and “Quinn”.  

There are even surnames that have a religious factor, “Abbey”, “Bishop”, “Deacon”, “Parsons”, and “Sexton”.  

Every country and even places within a country have their surname practices. Of course, now names do not change as much as they used to.  

You will find a lot of places online that want to sell you a Coat of Arms with your surname or a plaque, but make sure you do your homework first. How do you know what’s real? Stick to the most reputable sites like Ancestry,, or And, for Irish and Scottish names, they have many clan sites that have researched for you.

The most important thing about studying your family history and surnames is not to get hung up on an exact spelling. Names evolved and changed over the years due to travel, language, and understanding. Be flexible and understand that the name Stephanz could also be Steffens, Stefanc, and Steffans.  

Make sure you check out Ancestry’s surname message boards. Here you can see different spellings of the same name and connect with others researching the same ancestors you are.  

Surnames have now become standard practice, but it behooves you to learn the origin of your surname. To know what your ancestors naming practices are, and were. It just may lead you to your roots. 

Ancestry DNA can also connect you to others with the surname you are researching as well as 23andMe.

Some books that may be helpful are:

Surnames of Scotland: Their Origin, Meaning, and History

Surnames of Ireland

Polish Surnames: Origins and Meanings, Second Edition, Revised

A Dictionary of English Surnames (Oxford Paperback Reference S)

Dictionary of German Names

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Gardening, Family, and Family History

This weekend was a long one for me. I had a three day which I wish I had more of. I accomplished so much!

The most exciting for me was that I was able to get in my yard and tend to my plants and flowers. Just deadheading, trimming, and planting bulbs made me feel so serene. It makes all the thoughts whirring in my head become silent. The bees were buzzing and there are so many different butterflies, it makes me feel good that I am helping nature.

Being in the garden is so beneficial for mental health, whether you have the most common of the 200 forms of classified mental illnesses such as anxiety or depression or you have a serious case such as bi-polar or even dementia. Gardening is such a great therapeutic intervention, an issue of hope. It is good for cognitive, social, and even physical aspects of life. For enduring. There is always hope.

So, cutting down the Mexican Marigolds and basil and deadheading the marigolds, roses, and cana lillies brings hope that new growth will occur and the planting of the bulbs brings the hope that new flowers will emerge in the spring. Hope springs eternal. 🙂

I then worked on my lesson plans for Tuesday’s “Family History Detectives Club” at my school. I have so enjoyed hearing from the student’s parents telling me that their children are calling their grandparents and “interviewing” them. It makes my heart sing and I can only imagine how those same grandparents feel about receiving these calls.

Some parents even sent me pictures of their children interviewing the grandparents, one was Facetiming a grandparent, one had their pencil and notebook in hand, asking questions. These events are so very special to all parties involved. Others were interviewing their parents. A parent even told me that they are all now involved in learning their family history.

After working on the lesson plans, I helped my son with some personal business needing to be done; insurance, job, etc. It is great spending time with him. When he’s not working, he’s out with friends so these moments are few, but cherished. Mom actually was able to take the car and get out to an appointment and shopping. It made her feel so good!

I then worked on making videos to promote my online classes. “Roots to Trees” is the name of the program, but “Bare Roots” is the name of the first class; basic genealogy for children and anyone needing the basics. The next class will be “Emerging Leaves” and is currently being worked on. The “Bare Roots” class is $9.99 for 5 sections and can be worked on at your own pace in the comfort of your own home or wherever you choose to learn.

So, it was a jam-packed, fun-filled, productive weekend. I hope yours was too!

Expanding To The Library Family History For Children

My Roots to Trees- Family History Detective courses will be expanding. I had an appointment with our local librarian to speak to her about offering these classes for children. The discussion took a different turn than I was expecting, but not necessarily a negative one.  

I prayed before I went in asking God to help me have an open mind and lead me to where He wanted me to go. And, low and behold the discussion took a different turn than where I had thought it would go. I went in thinking I would offer paid classes and rent a room at the library.

The director asked me to join the library program! They offer genealogy classes to adults, but do not have classes for children and asked if I would be interested in joining the program and expanding it to tweens as well. I believe this will help me get my feet wet and learn what works and what does not work in teaching family history to this age group.  

With the wonderful support group I have at school and online, I feel it will be a great success. It will also help me in my lesson plans for my online course at the Genealogy Classes page, On Sale now for $9.99 for 5 lessons with more being added. Discover who you are and your family history.  

It’s a Small Tree Afterall

It will be two years ago Monday that I started my Family History Blog. It is amazing how far I have come and what I have accomplished. I started only as an outlet to share my ancestor findings with my family. It has grown to be so much more.  

It not only has helped me be a better researcher and storyteller, but it has also given me so much more insight into my ancestors and who they were and who I am.  

In October, I start a Family History Detectives Club at my school for 4th graders. I am very excited. I bought these little detective hats, magnifying classes, and detective badges. After we do the boring stuff of going over #Genealogy vocabulary words and learning what a pedigree chart is, I will have them pick an ancestor to investigate.  

When I was doing research into genealogy or family history for children, there wasn’t much there as far as actually teaching them. There were many activities and fun worksheets, but nothing teaching them on how to start researching, how to start investigating their family history. Nothing about sources or how to read them. 

That gave me an idea. After seeing the excitement in the children’s eyes about the club and not finding much help on the internet, I knew there was a need. So, I created an online Google Classroom course and am checking into giving courses at my local library. They had genealogy courses on their calendar, but for teens and seniors. Nothing for children. 

You may not think children are interested, but I promise you they are. Just today I had an 8th grader bring me his surname family history book. This thing was huge. His ancestors had published his family tree and had it bound into this beautiful book. He heard I was doing the club and wanted to share with me that he had an ancestor who came over on the Mayflower.  

As I was perusing the book, I looked up this ancestor in the index of names. Just for kicks, I looked up Logan. Sure enough, there were several. Then one familiar Logan popped out at me. He was MY 1st cousin, 6x removed! This student and I are related. His mom happened to be in the office when I found the discovery and he came in not long after. He was blown away, as were all of us.  

It just goes to show, we are all related. The tree is a small world after all.

If you are interested in having your child join my virtual Google classroom event, Roots to Trees, go to my Genealogy Classes and register.

Thanks for reading!

The Cofer/Copher Families- Part 2 (Wescott Family)

Minnie’s parents were Robert E. Cofer and Martha Ann Davis, my 3rd great grandparents.  Not much is known about them except from records.  Both were from Virginia and were married in Norfolk when they were both aged 23.

Martha was the third of eleven children and they grew up during the Civil War during 1863 when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and when the Battle of Chancellorsville took place.

I have pictures of Martha circa 1918, but nothing of Robert has been found yet.


Robert was the fifth of ten children, but his father remarried and had four other children.  He also grew up and spent his live in Surry County, Virginia and grew up with slaves in the household.

According to Ruby and cousins, Martha went to a finishing girls private school for music and she had her own carriage and two horses.

Martha told her granddaughter, Elizabeth Cofer Reed, that she had not dressed herself until she was grown.  She also told her that the slaves did not want to leave when they were freed.  These are from notes left in Ruby Chapman Wescott’s things.

In 1900, the census shows Martha’s occupation as a “Professional Nurse”, at age 59.  Impressive.  Her previous occupations show her as “Keeping House”.  More about her family in my next blog.

In 1850, Robert is shown at age 16, with two of his brothers, to be an apprentice to a “carriage maker”, he was listed as a “mechanic” in 1860 at age 20 and in future census records, as being a “wheelwright”.   Skilled tradesmen were as valuable to the Confederate army as a musket-toting soldier.  A wheelwright was a highly skilled profession combining both woodworking and metal-working skills.

After 43 years of marriage, Robert passed away at age 67 of Dysentery which he had for three years before he died.  Martha lived until the age of 78 dying of heart disease.  They are both buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery, Norfolk City, Virginia.

Robert’s parents were Isaac Cofer and Mary C. Jones.  Both of whom grew up in Isle of Wight, Virginia.  Isaac owned a plantation and many slaves.  The first record being when he was aged 24 in 1830 and owned three slaves.  He and Mary were married two years prior.  By 1840 he had eleven slaves.  And, by 1860, he owned fifteen.  His Real Estate Value was $3200 and his Personal Estate Value was $8000.

In 1861, papers were filed on property of Isaac lost in the Civil War worth $1400.  It was his slave, John.  There are seven papers in this file with witnesses for Isaac stating John was an actual slave of Isaac, that he died in service, etc.  Government paperwork!


“The Southern Claims Commission was created by Congress on March 3, 1871, to compensate southern Unionists for property appropriated by the Union army during the American Civil War (1861–1865).  Although claims for reimbursement had been made since early in the war, such as the above claim, many in Congress had resisted authorizing their payment.” Source: Southern Claims Commission

By 1870, Isaac’s worth had decreased. His Personal Estate Value was $300 and his Real Estate Value was $3000.  He died about four years later at age 68 although there is no real proof of his death yet found.  I cannot find any record of a certificate or a grave.  Interestingly enough, Isaac’s second wife is a Sarah Jones (any relation to the first wife? I do not know… yet).

Two of Isaac’s daughter’s marriages are shown to have taken place at “Isaac Cofer’s Residence”.  Mary E. married a Confederate Army Captain.

Isaac Cofer’s parents were Reverend Joseph Cofer and Jerusha Lancaster (age 15 at the time of their marriage).  They too, were slave owners.  Jerusha died at age 39 leaving Joseph with ten children ranging from aged five to age twenty-three at the time of her death.   Less than a month later, when Isaac was age 41, his father married a second time, to Martha Wrenn.   They had three children together.  All in all, thirteen children for ‘ole Joseph!  Add to that Joseph’s twenty-five slaves and you have quite the plantation I assume.

In one of the genealogy message boards, a person is trying to find information on her family stating, “Family history talks about an Aunt Mandy and Uncle Charles Jones who were slaves that were free after the war and were residing with Joseph.”.

The below video is of an old grist mill owned by the Wrenn family which stood on Route 677, north of Smithfield.  The video is made from scans of a roll of medium format film taken in the late 1960’s with a Yashica Model “D” camera. The mill was demolished in 1989 after a pickup went off the road and crashed into it.




The below article was in something I found in my research while writing this blog.  I am hoping to get the previous pages as well.  Maybe I can convince my cousin, the history major, to make a trip for me and get me copies.

The book title is In the Neatest Manner: The Making of the Virginia Sampler Tradition
By Kimberly Smith Ivey.

Updated 3/11/18- Someone from my Isle of Wight Facebook page owns the book and supplied the missing page 90!

Southampton, Surry, and Isle of Wight Counties
Unity A. Delk and Elizabeth M. Cofer worked almost identical samplers to honor the deaths of their respective parents, Wiley Jones Delk and Jerusha Lancaster Cofer (figs. 123 and 124). Not shown here is an earlier sampler worked by Unity’s older sister Martha, which also commemorates the death of their father. In 1824, four years after the death of Wiley Delk, his widow, Martha Wren Delk, of Southampton County, married Joseph Cofer, a Baptist minister from Isle of Wight and Surry Counties. One year earlier Joseph’s first wife,

Regarding Jerusha's Youngest

Figure 123 – Sampler by Unity A. Delk, dated Sept. 5, 1834; attributed to Isle of Wight County, Virginia.
Figure 124 – Sampler by Elizabeth M. Cofer, age sixteen, dated 1834; attributed to Isle of Wight County, Virginia.

Samplers Delk and Cofer

On the website,, I found this which has the exact date of Jerusha’s death! How wonderful it would be to have this! How exciting for me to find this!!

Elisabeth Cofer Sampler Cropped

Isaac’s half-brother, Thomas Wrenn Cofer, is another fascinating figure.  Thomas owned and operated the T.W. Cofer & Co. which produced the Cofer revolver during the War Between the States. It was used by the Army of the Confederacy.

You can still purchase these rare guns for as much as $2,500.00 or so.  To read more about his patent and see his application and guns, click on Thomas W. Cofer Legacy  Believe it or not, after 157 years, his patent papers are still intact.

Image result for T. W. Cofer

Joseph’s parents were Thomas Cofer and Elizabeth Moody.  Ruby states that “Thomas and Elizabeth Cofer gave an acre of land to build the Mills Swamp Baptist Church.”  As proven in the 190th Anniversary newspaper article written in Aug 13, 1964 below.

190th Anniversary Article Mill Swamp Baptist 08131964

It is Elizabeth Moody’s father who I have been able to trace to the American Revolution thus far.  His DAR Ancestor # is A079173.

“Phillip is the ancestor who assisted in establishing American Independence, while acting in the capacity of Patriot (supplying Provisions for Virginia militia).

Although he was too old for military service, he served the county of Isle of Wight, VA as Justice, and was a member of Isle of Wight County, Virginia Court 1750 until 1751. 

He came from Gloucester County, VA and bought 477 acres in Isle of Wight on 22 Oct 1724.

This marks his time of settlement in Isle of Wight.”

He was one of the first head’s of families in the First Census of the United States.  Here is a copy of his will which lists not only his wife and children, but also his slaves by name. If you click on the picture below, it should open in a new window for you to view it in a larger format.

Phillip Moody's Will

Phillip is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, Section 27, Site 1912.

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