Not Even a ‘Jenious’ Can Trace My Family Name. Help!

Tracing Your Roots: Finding the origins of a unique surname can be tougher than expected, but don’t give up.


Dear Professor Gates:

I have a rather unique last name: “Jenious.” My paternal grandfather’s name was Otto Jenious. I have found some census, death and military records of my grandfather and some of his siblings; however, the trail seems to disappear after that. I would like to find out where the name might come from and how far back in time it was used. I’ve been told my ancestors were from Louisiana, but the records I have found so far indicate Mississippi. —Anita Jenious

Having a unique family surname can come in handy when you’re tracing your family’s ancestry because records of your family are easier to pick out from more-common surnames. At the same time, it can also lead to some pitfalls, such as misspellings of the name on documents or maybe some incorrect assumptions that documents containing that surname must be for your ancestors.

So far you have found a lot of records for your paternal grandfather, Otto Jenious, which you have shared with us. You also know that his parents (your great-grandparents) were Mack and Marion Jenious, but you have yet to find a lot of information for the generations before theirs.

Family legend suggests that your ancestors may have lived in Louisiana, but so far most of the documents you have found for Otto show that your family was living in Mississippi. You also shared one interesting record, a World War I draft-registration card for an African-American man named Otto Jenious, who was about the same age as your ancestor, living in Washington, D.C., at the time of the draft.

Clearing Up the Confusion About Otto Jenious in Washington, D.C.

Before you start tracing your Jenious ancestors back further, it is best to verify the information you have for earlier generations so you don’t waste any time looking in the wrong geographic region or researching the wrong family. Let’s first confirm that the record of Otto D. Jenious living in Washington, D.C., is a record of your ancestor.

Since you already have a record of your grandfather in several census years living in Mississippi and Missouri, a quick way to confirm that this Otto Jenious is a different person from your ancestor is to find records of both of them in the same census year. A search of the 1900 census shows a 2-year-old Otto “Jenuis” living in Hinds, Miss. His father was born in Mississippi, and his race is listed as black. We also find a 9-year-old boy named Otto “Jennious” living in Washington, D.C. His race was listed as black, and his father was born in Maryland. Now you can be sure that the record you found for Otto Jenious of Washington, D.C., is not a record of your ancestor with the same name.

This is a good example of how names that seem unique may be misleading. At the same time, you don’t want to completely forget about this Jenious family. Perhaps there is some connection to your ancestors, given the similar spelling of their surnames and the use of the given name “Otto.” If, after researching your confirmed ancestors, you still are not able to find the origin of the family name, you may want to consider researching this family to see if they have any connection to your ancestor.

Dealing With Spelling Variations