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.
On a trip to Kings County Surrogate Court a few weeks ago, I opened up a typical, boring-looking probate folder.
Inside, I discovered that my one of my great-aunts (by marriage) had five aliases.
Now, I was aware that my great-uncle Joseph C. Haigney was married to Catherine Maude, nee Reilly. Given the overstock of Catherines in the family – including Joseph’s mother, a niece and a cousin – it wasn’t surprising that his wife needed an alias. But five?
My great-aunt’s probate file named her as Maude Haigney, a k a Catherine Maude Haigney, a k a Miss M. Reilly, a k a Maude Reilly, a k a Mrs. M. Ridley, a k a Miss (A) Farrell.
Two of these names are variants of Catherine Maude’s married name, and two are variants of her maiden name, which makes some sense.
Reading the file, I learned that my great-aunt had two sisters, Margaret Miller and Mary Ridley. That might explain the reason for the “Mrs. M. Ridley” alias, although the file had nothing to indicate how the sisters’ identities became entwined. As for “Miss A. Farrell,” it’s anyone’s guess how that name came up.
Finding an alias on your family tree does not automatically mean you’re dealing with criminal behavior. There are many historical reasons for aliases, including:
• Changes in marital status (where “alias” indicates “formerly,” as in a woman’s marriage or remarriage).
• To indicate foster children or stepchildren.
• To indicate a nickname. (Well, of course.)
• To indicate illegitimacy. (Under a practice beginning in 17th-century England, a person born out of wedlock might adopt the surnames of both parents; i.e., Green alias White. Either the father’s or the mother’s surname might be first; there was no firm custom.)
• To avoid persecution. A striking example is that of the Sephardic Jews of Portugal, who adopted aliases to conceal their Jewish identities.
So why did my great-aunt end up with five aliases in her probate file? I’m thinking her case is probably one of sloppy forms more than anything else, but only more research will tell for sure.
As I was packing up, I asked the clerk in charge of the records room if aliases crop up often in Kings County probate records.
“Oh, sure. Two, sometimes three, even.”
“What about five?” I asked.
“Five? That’s weird.”
More about aliases:
• Schelly Talalay Dardashti at Tracing the Tribe has an interesting discussion of Sephardic aliases.
• A site maintained by John Palmer of Dorset, England lists many reasons for aliases in English parish registers.
• And here is advice on how to record aliases in your family tree.