The other day my second grader came home very excited after sharing a family tree chart with her classmates and teachers. The Spanish instructor even complimented my daughter on her grandma’s pretty set of Iberian names: Theresa Mercedes Cecelia.
Which made me giggle a bit, since the grandma in question (my mom) was the daughter of German immigrants.
First names, which you’d think would be basic signposts in figuring out ancestors, can tie you up in knots. They might make you guess at the wrong ethnicity; they might lead you on a wild goose chase to the wrong person. They might not be real first names at all.
Fortunately, first-name stories, while difficult to unravel, can make fantastic anecdotes. Here are some examples from my own tree:
My father-in-law: First came older brothers Floyd, Lloyd, Boyd and Coyd. And then came … Renzo Alton. (Please don’t tell me you saw that coming.) His mother wanted something different, and a local schoolteacher suggested Renzo. On his mail, he was R. A. Lynch. His family called him Al. I am not making any of this up, but I bet some future descendant will swear I must have been.
My dad: He was baptized Peter Jerome, but his mother never used his first name. She referred to him as Jerome, or “Sonny.” In the 1930 census my dad is listed as Jerome. As an adult, he used the name Peter. If you didn’t know the story, or didn’t weigh all the facts, you might assume the census taker missed him in 1930, or that perhaps there were two children, one named Jerome who died young, another named Peter who lived to adulthood.
My grandfather “Francie” Haigney: Well, actually, he’s Raymond Francis, but in the 1910 census, he’s Francie. If you didn’t know better, you might think the census taker got my grandpa’s gender wrong.
My mother’s name changes: She was baptized Therese Mercedes — Therese for St. Therese of Lisieux, and “Mercedes” in honor of the nun at the hospital who cared for my grandmother after the birth. Mom disliked Mercedes, and as an adult used her confirmation name, Cecelia, as her middle name. Also, she tended to spell her first name with an “a” instead of an “e”. So in a few places she’s Therese Mercedes, but more often she is Theresa Cecelia.
Those are some of my quirky naming stories, which are peculiar to the people and the circumstances. But I can think of two other common naming situations that might leave a researcher puzzled:
Nicknames: Some nickname logic has become blurred with the generations. “Liz” for “Elizabeth” is one thing, but what about “Lillie”? And not everyone immediately connects “Daisy” with Margaret, or “Mamie” with Mary. Here’s a chart of common nicknames and their possible equivalents.
Americanizations: Just as with surnames, first names and first-naming conventions can change with immigration. Some translations are obvious, as with my German grandpa (Johann/John). But a trickier case is Grandpa’s sister Anna Kunigunde, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1907. In some records she is simply Kunigunde; she has also been listed as “Kuni.” And I also wouldn’t be surprised to find her in future as Anna, or even “Ann” or “Constance.” Here’s an article about immigrant name-changing.
My own name-changing stories, while amusing, also serve as a caution. Much as I’d like to think I’m on a first-name basis with my ancestors, I know better than to jump to any premature conclusions.
Recently a genealogy email list I follow was having a lively discussion about Irish brown bread, followed by a shorter-lived digression into baseball. Which prompted a comment:
“Recipes? Baseball? What about genealogy?”
Ouch. Are recipes and baseball games incompatible with family history research? Maybe. And maybe not.
I strongly believe that traditional recipes are indeed family history, as much as birth certificates or census results. Often they’re among the few records our female ancestors leave behind. My family didn’t keep diaries, but they did keep recipes. So recipes are at least as relevant to me as, say, discussions of whether my line can be traced to a possibly mythical ancient Irish king.
Sports aren’t so much my thing, although I can’t resist vintage sportswriting, and it’s fun to imagine how my ancestors might have spent their precious leisure time. (Still, I hope they didn’t waste it at one 1909 baseball game in Troy, N.Y., described as “an exhibition so weird that fans wept.”)
Back to my original thought: Meanderings happen on discussion lists from time to time. Sometimes they actually lead to interesting research ideas. Sometimes they don’t, but this doesn’t mean the list is going to the dogs (or the bakers or baseball fans). It usually means the list has matured into the sort of place where there’s room for the occasional OT discussion, because participants trust each other to know when it’s interesting enough to start and when it’s time to stop.
I like lists like that.
P.S. I’m actually working on a brown bread post. Guess it’s only fair to warn you.
As if historical preservationists haven’t got enough on their minds, they now have to contend with thieves ripping off commemorative bronze plaques from public places.
Officials in three New Jersey counties are puzzling over the disappearance of markers from parks and other public venues. The thieves went to a lot of trouble for something that isn’t exactly in the same league as a diamond necklace. According to the story, bronze recently was at a high of $2 a pound, so a 30-pound marker would fetch a grand total of $60 as a lump of metal.
Of course, markers are more than lumps of metal.
For one thing, they’re engraved with images and names, so (as the story notes), replacing that 30-pound marker costs more like $3,000, all told.
For another, they’re irreplaceable threads in the local fabric. The Revolutionary War marker mentioned in this story had been in place since the 1920s, making the marker itself a bit of local history.
Interestingly, some officials think the markers were stolen for their historical value, not for the metal. The thieves, they say, might have taken the plaques to auction.
I’m having a bit of trouble imagining the sort of person who would consider it OK to bid on, and own, a stolen marker. (And could it be mistaken for anything else? Please.)
What a sad thought.
This cemetery story has bothered me for a while, so I decided to go ahead and post it on Tombstone Tuesday, although there is no tombstone. Instead, we have a grave, a twisty set of records, and a somewhat mysterious blank spot.
My great-great uncle William Haigney (1867-1930) is a genealogy blank spot himself. Nobody had ever mentioned him. When I began my research, nobody knew he was there to mention. He was included on my late Aunt Catherine’s List of Haigneys past and present. Unfortunately, she was no longer available to expand upon family history.
I hoped that a long-deferred cemetery trip to Brooklyn might produce some facts to flesh out my sketchy portrait of William. Silly, silly me.
Armed with death certificates and burial dates for William and his wife, I hoped the grave would be fairly easy to locate, which it was. But then the clerk said, “Wait a minute,” took an old register down and worked in silence for another 10 minutes, frowning thoughtfully from time to time. I began to feel guilty, then apprehensive. What was in those records? Vampire sightings? News that William’s grave had been paved over?
As it turned out, the ownership record was odd for the plot in which William was buried with his only child. The owner of record was a family whose surname is unconnected to any of my lines, with burials taking place between 1859 and 1889. However, the plot was emptied by 1930. Despite William’s burial in it, there was no subsequent owner on record.
I headed to the gravesite, where, after diligent pacing and counting, I had to accept that there was no marker. Not too surprising. William never appeared to have much money. There might never have been a marker. Plus, he died in 1930, and his only child in 1946, leaving no children of her own. There’s a good chance nobody had come near the grave in 60 years.
But the plot ownership quirks are typical of my research on William, a collection of facts that frustrate with more questions. How did William come to be in that particular spot? Was the plot’s owner of record connected to William somehow? And where was William’s wife?
The third question at least can be answered: William’s wife is buried in her parents’ large plot in another part of the same cemetery, beside her first husband.
But the other questions rest undisturbed for now, like William himself.
After a brief break for shoveling snowdrifts, Ms. Bossy delivers the promised followup on How to Love Your Library. Just a few more rules (excuse us, suggestions) for making the most of a research trip:
Ask about what’s digitized. If the library has an online catalogue, study it, then call the library with a focused set of questions. You might even strike gold and find that the library has put its collections of photos and postcards online. In many cases, online archives are an ever-evolving work in progress, with materials added as more funding becomes available.
Follow local regulations. They vary greatly. I have researched in libraries where you never, ever browse the holdings; the staff retrieves materials you request. I have been in places where they cheerfully wave you into the archive room with a reminder that they close at 6 P.M.
A very incomplete list of some rules you may encounter:
• Wear white cotton gloves while handling old books and papers, if they ask you to. Even if they don’t, it’s nice to have your own pair – you can find them for $5 a dozen online if you look around.
• Turn pages properly – which you should also do whether they ask or not. Don’t reach for the corners; on old books they are apt to crumble under the pressure of your fingers. Instead, slide a finger carefully under the center of the page edge and gently turn it.
• No pens allowed in the archive room.
• No briefcases or purses in the archive room. (Usually they’ll lock them up for you, and I’ve been able to bring my laptop along, just not my briefcase.)
• No photographing documents.
Obviously not all rules apply in all places. Also obviously, it’s bad form to whine to the librarian that you were able to photograph the ledger pages at the Whatsis Library, so why not here? Not that you would do such a thing, I know.
Thank everybody. A lot. Librarians are some of the nicest people around. (Either that, or they are the most underrated actors imaginable.) I’m amazed at the genuine interest and enthusiasm librarians show when I turn up on their doorstep researching complete strangers. So say thanks. Consider a donation, if you can. And if you live within shouting distance, consider volunteering your services as a transcriber. If that fabulous pamphlet listing prominent Civil War veterans isn’t indexed online, it isn’t out of spite; it’s because there isn’t enough money or time.