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.
I couldn’t miss Assess Yourself: Challenge #3 in 52 Weeks to Better Genealogy. It’s something that seems so obvious that it never gets done. Sad to say, my report card could be better.
The Vital Documents: I’ve got the birth certificate (despite losing it once), the marriage certificate and the diplomas, all in one convenient strongbox. It’s been important for me to have this stuff together since I have moved around a bit. So, I give me an A- for this area.
The Moves: Any descendant trying to track me would be pretty mad at me by the time they got through. I was born in Ohio, raised from the age of 6 months in New Jersey, went to university in Indiana, then lived in Connecticut, Florida and Illinois before returning to New Jersey. I’d expect to make census appearances in New Jersey, Indiana, Florida and New Jersey (again) but not Ohio, Connecticut and Illinois, where my residences didn’t coincide with a census. I should make sure this is all clear on my card in my Reunion file, and it isn’t. F
Letters: My mother wrote me some letters while I was away at school, which I’ve kept. My father wrote me exactly one letter, which was missing and presumed lost for years, until I found it quite by accident this summer while searching for something else entirely. It is now locked up safely and scanned to my computer hard drive. Now excuse me while I make digital copies of my mom’s letters, too. B+
Publications: I’ve got my school yearbooks. And some high-school literary magazines with stories of mine. And a couple of scrapbooks full of newspaper clippings from my reporting days, which aren’t about me, but would say something about what I did at a certain point in time. But everything’s all over the house; it would be nice to get it all together on one shelf, huh? B
Photos: My Achilles heel. Not only do I have evil magnetic albums, I used to have an Evil Photo Box until several years ago. I did finally get my photos out of a huge cardboard moving box and sort them by year into a bunch of acid-free photo boxes. Last summer, I sorted out the digital photos on my current hard drive and backed them up. One hard drive has already failed on me. A month before that happened, I had purchased an external hard drive and backed up, so I still have my earlier digital photos. But it was a close, close thing. I’m grading myself generously; I think my fifth-grade nun would have been harsher. D-
So much to be done! At least I feel more charitable toward my ancestors now. We must share the Disorganized Document gene.
I do hate that genealogy cliche, “brick wall”, but only because it’s a sad reality for so many of us. So it is satisfying to be able describe how a tiny opening developed in one of mine.
My great-grandfather refused to be located in the 1900 census. After various census and city directory searches (and increasingly bad moods), I ended up taking a mental-health break from this search, for which my living family thanked me.
Then a little while back, Ancestry.com was talking up a webinar: “Best Strategies for Searching Ancestry.com.” I took it, largely because I hadn’t ever done a webinar and was curious about the process. As ever, I learned a thing or two:
• The best place to start an Ancestry search is not the Search box on the Home page. Better to click the “Search” button in the menu bar, and use the “Search All Records” option.
• In old records, sloppy dates are a feature, not a bug. Search with broad date ranges, even if you’re sure you know the specifics. Start at plus/minus 10 years, and adjust downward.
• When you locate an interesting record, do NOT forget to save it somehow –your Ancestry shoebox or family tree, your hard disk, wherever. (Amazingly, many of us forget this in our excitement.)
The biggest discovery of all? I was doing crummy wild card searches.
Once I was a food section copy editor, and each year I fact-checked glowing Thanksgiving stories of the hallowed family traditions reflected in each cholesterol-busting side dish.
And I felt a bit left out. We make a fine Thanksgiving feast at my house, with all the proper things. But we really don’t have any truly unique ancestral side dishes.
The only noteworthy side dish was the stuffing, not because it’s unusual, but because it was the focus of a fierce tug-of-war between my parents. (Which is also not unusual. People are passionate about stuffing. Or dressing. Or whether it’s called stuffing or dressing.)
It was a face-off between Her Mother and His Mother, but indirectly, since my father’s mother, sadly, had died before Dad and Mom met.
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