Indigenous names

Names are a real challenge in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander family history research.

Many names may be used throughout a lifetime

Your ancestor may have used or been known by many names throughout their life:

  • a traditional name
  • a kinship name
  • a European first name and/or surname, sometimes the name of the pastoral station where they worked
  • a nickname.

Their name may also have changed with marriage, partnerships, adoption or fostering.

It was common for people to use names that were different from the names they were given at birth. Even today family members might use a name that’s different from the one listed on official documentation. For example, Vera Lillian at birth might have been known as Lillian (or Lily, Lilli, Lilly and Lillie) throughout life. Or a woman known as Mary Jane throughout her life might have been Janet May at birth.

Sometimes people chose to change their names and used different names in different circumstances.

But often names were changed by employers or missionaries or when a child was removed to a foster home or training institution.

Indigenous people who performed in rodeos or boxing tents may have been given ‘stage names’.

In your family history research you are highly likely to find a range of different names for the same person. You will also probably find some unexpected variations in the spellings of names, especially in older documents.

Spelling mistakes

You will find that some of the problems with names are caused by spelling mistakes. Until very late in the 19th century few people could read and write  and names were often written down as they sounded. The result was a lot of errors.

Indigenous names were written down in different ways by different Europeans. For example, an English station manager and a German missionary would spell the same Indigenous name differently because they spoke different languages themselves and heard Indigenous languages through the filter of their own language.

Also common English given names were sometimes abbreviated. For example, Chas for Charles, Geo. for George and Wm for William. Search Wikipedia for a useful list of ‘abbreviations for English given names’.

When you are looking for records about your ancestor, it is important to check every known name, nickname and every possible spelling variation you can imagine.  When you take notes or compile your own family tree, write people’s names out in full and record any variations.

Key points to remember as you research your ancestors

  • Sometimes the only recorded names we have for Aboriginal people, particularly from the 19th century, are nicknames or joke names given to them by Europeans – for example, ‘Little Jack’, ‘Old Mary’ and ‘Billy Boy’.
  • Old records sometimes include terms like ‘native’ or ‘Aboriginal’ or ‘Aborigine’ alongside the names of Aboriginal people.
  • They may also include ‘caste’ terms like ‘full blood’, ‘half-caste’, ‘quarter-caste’ etc.
  • Many Aboriginal people were known by a single or common first name and no surname – for example, Nellie, Jenny and Lizzy for women, and Bobby, Jimmy and Charlie for men.
  • Surnames were often assigned by European employers and sometimes given the employer’s surname.
  • Some surnames were derived from the names of rural properties or place of residence.
  • Some Indigenous people adopted aliases to avoid control by police and government.
  • Women often used the surname of their male partner or husband, and were known by many different surnames over their lifetime.
  • Children often used the surname of a step-father.

Examples of name variations

First name

Name variants

Allen

Al, Alen, Alan

Ann

Hannah

Barney

Herbert

Beverly

Bevely, Bev

Bill

William

Catherine

Cathy, Kate, Kay

Cecil

Cec

Charlotte

Lottie, Tottie

Christine

Christeen, Chris, Crissy, Chrissy, Christie

Desree

Des

Dianne

Diane, Dianna, Diana, Di

Doreen

Dor

Dorothy

Dolly, Dot, Dorrie

Edward

Edie, Eddie

Elizabeth

Betty, Bess, Beth, Liz, Lizzie,  Eliza, Tibby, Libby

Ellen

Nell, Nellie

Ernest

Ernist, Ern, Ernie, Erny

Florence

Florrie, Florry, Flo

Frances

Fanny, Fanno, Fran

Francis

Frank

Frederick

Fred, Freddy

Helen

Nell

Jack

John

James

Jim, Jimmy, Jimmie

Jeffrey

Jeff, Jefferey, Geoffrey, Geoff

Jessie

Jessica Jessy, Jes

Joseph

Joe, Jo, Joey

Joyce

Joy

Judith

Judy

Katherine

Cathy, Kate, Kay

Kathleen

Kathline, Kath

Lesley

Leslie, Les

Lynette

Lyn

Margaret

Maggie, Meg, Peg, Molly, Daisy

Marjorie

Marjory, Marj

Mary

Maisie

Matilda

Tilly, Mattie, Matie, Tilda

Michael

Mick

Nancy

Agnes

Neville

Nevil, Nevel, Nev

Patricia

Pat, Patty, Trish

Patrick

Pat, Paddy

Reginald

Reginal, Reg, Reggie

Robert

Rob, Bob, Bobby

Ronald

Ron, Ronnie, Ronny

Stanley

Stan

Steven

Stephen, Steve

Valerie

Valery, Val

Family name

Alternative name

Hurley

Early

Anderson

Henderson

Holden

Olden

Hawkins

Orkins

Henry

Enemy