Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, December 14, 2014

What's in a name? You may find out it is different than you think

I got this very interesting comment from Anita R. Lay, a reader:
Found your article on the evanescence of names very interesting, especially as both my husband's family and my own have several instances of people who obviously disliked their birth name simply refusing from an early age to use it. From the time my husband's ggrandfather became an orphan at the age of 9, he permanently rearranged his name. We only found out many years later that his birth name was Caleb Luther Lay. He was named for a "Caleb" in his mother's family and apparently despised the name. He became Luther C. Lay and later in life L.C. Lay. His own wife and children never knew that his name was Caleb, and for some reason they thought the C. stood for Clark, because Clark was a surname in that family. He bought and sold both land and horses as L.C. Lay, was married under the name Luther C. Lay, and buried under the name Luther C. Lay. Although we have found him in a silver mining camp in what is now Colorado in the 1860 census as L.C. Lay (that most invisible of persons...the itinerant young male without many family ties), he completely disappears in the 1870 census. Our suspicion is he wanted no part of the Civil War and managed to put himself out of harms way. By 1880, he has become a respectable married farmer in Iowa, where he remained the rest of his life. Trying to trace someone backward in the records who is determined to be someone else entirely, not for nefarious reasons but because he loathes the name his parents foisted upon him, is not for the faint of heart.
In the past, I have also done some research on a couple of men who fit the description in the comment above. The past week or so, I have also had a lot of comments about names. The situation where a person decides to informally change his or her name is fairly common. This can be as simple as a nickname or as complex as changing an entire name. We often attribute a sudden name change to an undesirable event such as a criminal record, but my own experience indicates that name changes occur in much less dramatic situations. One of my Great-uncles was named Joseph Lawrence Christensen but during his whole life he was called Joe Christensen and surprisingly, that is the name on his grave marker.

Many genealogists get caught up in the meaning or history of their own or other ancestors' surnames. There are perhaps hundreds of websites dedicated to discussing the meaning and origin of surnames. It is very common to assume that those people with the same surname may be related. For some very limited use surnames, this may be true, but for most of us with relatively common surnames, our names originated at different times and different places. I am always being asked if I am related to some Tanner or another around the United States. As far as I can tell, there are half a dozen different significantly large Tanner families that show up in America from England. There is also one sizable family of Tanners that comes directly from Switzerland.

In many cultures around the world, surnames are used to designate familial affiliation. In the United States, the most common form of name transition is the use of the father's surname. But in many instances, when the mother is unmarried for whatever reason, the child may carry its mother's surname or family name. Naming patterns are one clue in establishing ancestral relationships. But all it takes is one innovative parent to spoil the otherwise perfect pattern.


  1. In my specialist field of Irish Ancestry, the true identification of the birth families of Irish ancestors based upon names used in adulthood can be fraught with difficulty, particularly for inexperienced researchers. Most people with Irish ancestry soon appreciate that collections of preserved research materials from pre-20th century Ireland are very limited compared to other nations. On top of this, the spelling of old Irish language family names was frequently corrupted due to immigration and generally poor literacy standards over 100 years ago. To cap it all, not many genealogists fully appreciate how Irish folklore and traditions impact on forenames as well, with many common baptismal names being converted into different but "recognized" names in adolescence and beyond.

    As such, you might find that your Irish ancestor's forename and surname were totally different at birth! Many amateur researchers cannot get their heads around this - and often reject the verifiable findings of expert assistants.

    Here's an example: I was able to prove that the well-established McKAY family from Massachusetts, with Irish paternal roots, was descended (not that long ago) from immigrants called MULCAHY. One of the forefathers, known as Hugh was baptized as Owen, and his brother Daniel was christened as Dennis. Using a very common switch-around, Hugh's wife, Delia, was found in her Irish baptismal register under the forename of Bridget.

    I am pleased to advise that the McKay family fully accepted my breaking down of their long-standing ancestral brick wall, and now acknowledge that their American surname is technically incorrect. Some family members have chosen to reintroduce their true genealogical heritage in various ways.

    My Irish father had three sisters who were always known to me as Aunts Maureen, Doreen and Eileen. They were each baptized using significant Irish Catholic saints' names from their birth locality, i.e. Mary, Joan and Attracta. This is not an unusual scenario, particularly concerning Irish females.

    Who said that genealogy is a simple science?

    1. Who indeed! Thanks for this excellent example. I am appalled at the attempts to make genealogy into a simple pastime, rather than the significant challenge it really is.