Sunday, May 17, 2020

What Are the Origins of the Ackley Surname? - Part 2

While researching the first post on origins of the Ackley surname, I realized that there was a lot more to learn, so I kept digging and found some more useful information. Although you'll see below that I am far from being able to reach any conclusions as of yet, I've learned some valuable information that will help as I continue to go down this path. Keep in mind that the ultimate goal of this approach is to try to discover where the Ackley name and family originated in England, which will hopefully lead us to Nicholas Ackley's English ancestors.

Mapping the Domesday Locations

From the previous post, we know that there were at least 15 locations in the Domesday Book that were variations of the names Ackley or Oakley (keeping in mind that Ackley/Oakley are classified as "local", or location related, surnames). Using that information, I created a map showing all of the locations in England.

Table of Ackley/Oakley Locations from the Domesday Book

Google Map of Ackley/Oakley Locations

As you can see, these locations are scattered all over England, so by themselves they don't offer any special insights that we can take advantage of. And we still don't know for sure if our Ackleys actually came from one of these locations. But, if we were to take a look at the distribution of the surnames we are interested in in the context of where they lived at various points in time, we may learn something useful that could help us narrow down the possibilities. 

Surname Distribution

The first step in analyzing surname distributions is to collect information about the number of people with the surname in a given geography. To accomplish this, I collected census data from England for Ackley, Oakley, and several other surnames that have been associated with Ackley (see this post for background), and began by making summary tables for each census year (1841-1911)[3], [4], [5], [6], [7], [8], [9], [10] for each surname by county. The final product of this activity will be a map for each surname for each census year showing the concentration of the surname in each county in England, from which we can hopefully draw conclusions about the origins of the name. Here is an example of such a map for the Atcherley surname for 1841 from the Atcherley website [1]:

Atcherley Surname Distribution Map 1841 [1]

You can see that there is a county with 56 occurrences of Atcherley in 1841 (Shropshire), there is no other county with more than 11, and most counties have no occurrences at all. Atcherley is known as a Shropshire name, and there are early records there with details of people who had the Atcherley name.

According to Debbie Kennett in her book "The Surnames Handbook, A Guide to Family Name Research in the 21st Century" (which is an excellent book, by the way), 

Every surname has its own unique distribution pattern. Rare surnames will often cluster in a particular location near their point of origin. They will slowly diffuse over time into neighbouring areas and the large industrial conurbations. Even today, with increasing mobility, many of these rare surnames can still be found close to the place where they originated. Even the very common surnames do not have an even distribution pattern. The Joneses predominate in Wales, the Campbells in Scotland, the Sullivans in Ireland, and the Johnsons in England. Even Smith, the most common surname in both Britain and America, has its own distinctive pattern, being much less common in Wales and the southwest than elsewhere. [2]

To confirm that we are dealing with a collection of rare surnames, consider the following summary of the occurrences of our surnames of interest:

Frequencies of Ackley and Associated Surnames by Year

You can see that none of the surnames being studied has a very high frequency; only Oakley, the most common name among them, had enough occurrences to be considered somewhat large. The methodology was to search for each surname (exact match) on Ancestry in each of the census years and capture the records that came up. Note that there are some pitfalls to this method -- if there are records that were indexed improperly, the numbers could be incorrect in either direction. Because we are looking for general patterns rather than information about specific families, these inaccuracies shouldn't matter too much if the surname population is large enough (Oakley, for example). However, if the surname is small, such as Ackley, the inaccuracies could give a completely erroneous picture. 

For example, I believe the number for Ackley in 1841 is too high by about 18. When you see the data at a more granular level (see table below), you will see that in 1841 there were 18 people named Ackley in the county of Northumberland, but in 1851 there were only 4, and every year after that it was 0, 1, or 2. 

Frequency of Ackley Surname in England by County

This looked suspicious to me, so I took a closer look at the data and found that those 18 people in Northumberland were indexed as Ackley in 1841, but were Arkley in 1851 and 1861 (I could tell it was the same families because the names and ages were the same). Digging a little further into the Arkley surname data, I found that this name is almost exclusively a northern England name, occurring most frequently in Northumberland (the northernmost county in England) and Durham (the county immediately south of Northumberland), and very infrequently in the rest of the country. If I had accepted the data as is, I might have concluded that the Ackley surname was more frequent in Northumberland than any other county, which would have steered me in the wrong direction as the analysis progressed.

This exposed a problem that we all know exists -- the indexing of records of any type is an inexact science and depends heavily on several factors, including the quality of the record copies, the quality of the handwriting of the person making the record, and the ability of the indexer to distinguish between different handwriting styles during the indexing process.

Taking a Step Back

When I came to the realization that the accuracy of the data I was looking at was  problematic, I took a step back and decided to assess the situation. The first thing I did was to rethink which surnames should be included in the analysis, and I came up with the following categories:

1. Names that generally can sound alike, such as Ackley, Hackley, Hagley (see the discussion in the previous blog post).

2. Names that could be "variations" of one another; i.e., over time various branches might have adopted different pronunciations/spellings, such as Ackley, Ackerley, Atcherly, Akeley. (Side note: I have a good example of this in one of the non-Ackley branches in my tree. One of my 2nd great grandmothers had the maiden name "Jeannerette"; there is a branch of that family (confirmed by DNA matches) that goes by "Jinright".)

3. Names that have the same historical meaning, such as Ackley and Oakley (see the discussion in the previous blog post).

4. Names that look alike when written out and can be mistaken for one another during indexing, such as Ackley, Ockley, Ashley, Achley, Arkley, Oakley.

There could of course be some overlap between the categories; some of the names in category 4 could sound alike, depending on how one pronounces the beginning vowel. For example, Ackley and Ockley could sound similar -- I have a German friend who pronounces my name more like Ockley. Same goes for Ockley and Oakley -- if you pronounce the O in Ockley more like a "long" O, the two names sound identical. The exact categorization isn't as important as the inclusion of all of the names in a list to be investigated.

Category number 4 proves to be the most problematic because it requires the most manual work and use of judgement to reassign records to the various surnames to improve the accuracy of the frequencies that will be used to create the distribution maps. Below are some examples of records that were indexed as Ackley but upon closer inspection appear to be one of the other surnames mentioned in 4 above.

Definitely Ackley

1841 England Census from Ancestry

First I wanted to show some examples of records that were definitely indexed correctly as Ackley. The record above from the 1841 England Census shows James Ackley and his family, and there is no doubt that this says Ackley. The "A" is "pointy" and well formed, and it is easy to make out all the rest of the letters.

1841 England Census from Ancestry

This example shows another easily identified Ackley record where the census taker wrote his "A" in a more rounded fashion. This type of "A" can be a little tougher because it could also be an "O" (see Ockley example below), but in this case this "A" looked just like "A" in other names on the page, such as in the first name Agnes. For this reason, I put this one in the "definitely Ackley" pile.

Arkley indexed as Ackley

1841 England Census from Ancestry

In the above snippet from a page in the 1841 England Census, the family enclosed in the red box was indexed as "Ackley", while the family in the blue box was indexed as "Arkley". The "r" in the second box is more obviously an "r" and not a "c", but there is very little difference between that name and the one in the red box. Looking at other examples of "c" versus "r" on the page convinced me that the family in the red box is also Arkley. Further, William Arkley the blacksmith and his family are also found in the 1851 and 1861 censuses and the name is more clearly written as Arkley. The rest of the 18 Ackley records from Northumberland in the 1841 census mentioned above also appear to be Arkleys, so the 18 goes to 0 in the table above.

Ockley indexed as Ackley

1841 England Census from Ancestry

This one is a little more subtle; at first glance the name in the red box looks like Ackley. However, there are two things that make me believe this name should actually be Ockley. First, there is a little loop on the first letter, which would suggest "O" instead of "A". Second, this census taker makes a "pointy A" everywhere else on the page, such as in the first name Ann in the blue box three lines above the family in question. For that reason, this set of records went in the Ockley list. 

Oakley indexed as Ackley

1841 England Census from Ancestry

In this example, the name in the red box was indexed as Ackley, but I believe it is actually Oakley. First, the second letter looks a lot more like an "a" than a "c" (the loop is closed). Next, the census taker who made this record used a "pointy A", such as in the name Ann in the blue box. Finally, the name in the green box on the line right after the alleged Ackley has the same first letter, and it is indexed as Owen (a little hard to make out because the "y" from Ackley dips down right into the "w"). For these reasons, I think this should be indexed as Oakley.

There are other examples, but you get the general idea. To get a more accurate count of the occurrences of Ackley in the England census to be used for surname distribution maps, I'll have to go through the census records one by one and check the images to see if they really are Ackley or something else. Of course this exercise needs to be done in reverse -- if Arkley is mistaken for Ackley, it is likely that Ackley has been mistaken for Arkley as well. For most of the surnames in the list, this exercise will not be too daunting because the number of occurrences is relatively small, but Oakley is going to take some time. But it will all be worth the effort if the end result is a greater understanding of the origins of the Ackley surname in England, which is a step toward identifying Nicholas Ackley's ancestors.

Link of the Day

This is a link to the Atcherley Family History Website referenced above. This site is packed full of pictures and information on the Atcherley surname.

Quote of the Day

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

– Thomas A. Edison


1. Moore, Steve. "Surname Maps." Atcherley Family History Website.

2. Kennett, Debbie. The Surnames Handbook, A Guide to Family Name Research in the 21st Century. Cheltenham: The History Press, 2012.

3. 1841 England Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc, 2010.

4. 1851 England Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2005.

5. 1861 England Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2005.

6. 1871 England Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2004.

7. and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 1881 England Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2004.

8. 1891 England Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2005.

9. 1901 England Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2005.

10. 1911 England Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2011.

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