What’s In a Name?

By Britton Sharp

What’s in a name?

I am named after my two grandfathers. My first name comes from my paternal grandfather, he was a coal miner from rural Kentucky. My middle name is my mother’s maiden name. Her dad was a first generation immigrant just before the second World War.

My name tells a story.

A few years ago my brother and I realized that we didn’t fully know that story, so we began to explore our family history.

Genealogy has become a popular topic in our culture. There are TV shows about people exploring their heritage and many online sites offer to help.

What we found is that what looks glamorous and easy, takes a lot of work and can often be frustrating. However, when the connections are made they uncover not just information but also identity.

We learned several lessons during our search for our story.

The first was to be patient. Family history can turn into family legend, which makes the process a bit frustrating because you are looking for the thread of traceable fact. This may mean that while the story of great, great, grandpa Cletus was hilarious and a great story, it can’t be verified and you have to keep digging. Looking for your family’s story will seem frustrating, especially when there are multiple threads, but if you are patient you will find that following a thread will unlock a new section of your story. It will also take time, it became a bit of a hobby that we would work on when we had both the time and resources. Over the course of around five years, our story unfolded.

I am an artist and have always been told my perspective is unique and while at times this has been encouraging it has often caused me to feel a bit isolated. I grew up being told that my grandfather on my mom’s side was German. However, in following the thread through online searches, local libraries and talking to some people from the town in Germany they were from – my family actually moved to Germany from France. In following this thread it revealed that my unique perspective was also found in my ancestors who were craftsmen, composers, and fashion designers. The thread linked a painting country boy from rural Tennessee to a notable composer in Germany and a fashion designer in Europe.

The second lesson we learned is that you will use both primary and secondary tools. While one site may offer to be a one stop shop, you will end up using several various methods to discover your story. We found that using sites like ancestory.com were helpful, but we also would use local libraries (many now online) and church records to fill in the gaps. You will also discover others that are looking for their story and your paths may cross, at these moments we found that information was most often freely and excitedly shared.

Lastly, one of the most helpful things we found was taking a trip to some of the destinations we uncovered. It was like stepping back in time, finding the church they attended, looking through phone books searching for our last name, talking with locals about the town’s history. I wouldn’t suggest this for every location you discover, it was most helpful when got stuck in our search. Our trail got stuck in Germany, specifically Dresden. One summer we took a trip to Dresden even though the leads were getting cold. We told the locals our last name. They didn’t understand so I wrote it down. Their eyes lit up and said “Oh! You are pronouncing it wrong because it isn’t German it is French!” After a few more conversation, the French thread of our story line was revealed. We discovered that the town was actually a popular destination for French Huguenots who were escaping persecution.

We all have a story and that story is valuable. Uncovering the story of your past will take work and effort, but knowing your past may also help understand your present.

Here are some tools that proved helpful in our search:



The local library closest to your family and their Genealogy and local history department.

img_0446Britton Sharp Contact
UT Knoxville

Britton is an artist, writer, gardener, husband, and father. When he isn’t chasing toddlers with his wife, Brooks, you can find Britton writing in a coffee shop or watercolor painting downtown. He is a regular contributor to the blogs: https://collegiateabbey.com/ and http://www.flightnetwork.com/

As vice president of the Campus Ministers Council and director of Collegiate Abbey, he works to provide self-care resources to UT Knoxville faculty and staff.

Posts represent the views, expertise and recommendations of their authors and do not necessarily reflect an endorsement by the University of Tennessee. Furthermore, the content of the blog is for informational purposes only. The content of the blog is not, and is not intended to be used as, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.