No name, no date… #1

Ever have a person without a clear name or birth/ death dates?

I seem to regularly encounter family members for whom the names have become vague and the dates muddled. Because this situation is fairly common, there need to be simple methods for getting around these situations. I have found the following approaches to be useful.

  • Phonetics. Remember the days when teachers attempted to beat phonetics into your head; well, here’s a place they can become useful. However it is worth noting that the phonetics ‘of genealogy’ almost always involve two or more persons:
    • the person saying or giving a name -and-
    • the person(s) hearing the name spoken
  • This is an important detail because most frequently, in my experience, name problems arise out of language shifts ie., a French speaking family member moving into an English speaking region. to make this work you need to know what the name may have been spoken as (sounded like?); because once it was spoken it was probably written phonetically in the ‘new language’.
  • Although this is almost always problematic when people move from one linguistic group to another, it can still be problematic within a single group, although then only a single set of phonetic rules are applicable.
  • Naming patterns. It is important to note that historically different groups followed different naming conventions.
    • In Germany for example, during the late 1700 early 1800 most Latinate given names belonged to Catholics not Protestants for as an example: Wilhelmus Marcus Tell. If that person had been Lutheran (Evangelisch) their name would most likely have been simply Germanic Wilhelm Mark Tell. As for his name had he immigrated to the US, well, he probably would have received lots of help spelling it from many individuals… most of whom would have made a mess of it.
    • In Scandinavia, patronymics were the rule; although they did not exist in 100% of the situations.
    • In early Quebec, the Catholic Church followed a convention of using Saint names plus eldest child patterns.

All this is to say, there are clues to be had even when the names exist only in part. Do not believe for a moment that your surname or the surnames of your predecessors never, or rarely, changed. Changes may be frequent and significant. These may be so significant that you might find siblings of the same parents with differing surnames or married couples buried under the same headstone with different spellings of the same surname.

In subsequent posts, I plan to discuss other tricks, observations, etc.