Ancestry Daily News
The Given Name Game
Last week's column focused on last names. This week we look at the names before the last name, typically referred to as given names. Like last week, we are concentrating on why these names may appear inconsistently in records, not the origin of the name itself.
It is worth noting that not everyone has a second given name, typically referred to as a “middle name.” My wife's great-grandfather on his World War II draft registration card is listed as Henry None Mortier. I somehow doubt his middle name was “None.”
Handwriting and Phonetic Difficulties
This week, we'll take a look at some of the problems we may encounter with given names. A couple of illustrations from the 1880 census will serve to make the point.
Margaret- Maggie, Marge, Peggy, etc.
There are countless others. A diminutive name in one family may actually be a given name in another. And a person who is known as “Minnie” may not necessarily have a “real name” of Minerva (my great aunt Minnie was actually Wilhelmina).
Census records may list a person with their “real” name once and with a diminutive ten years later. It pays to compare ages and as many records as possible to reduce the chance that you conclude that a couple had more children than they actually did. A 16-year-old Nellie in 1870 may be the same as the 5-year-old Helen in 1860.
While it doesn't happen often, there are families where potential diminutives can cause other problems. Archibald and Lucinda Kile, Illinois settlers in the 1840s, had a daughter Lucinda and a daughter Lucina. Initially, I had thought one was simply a misspelling of the other, but they were two separate individuals (each with her own husband and family). Both could have easily used Lucy as a diminutive and left me very confused. There are diminutives that are somewhat standard, but there are always exceptions and occasionally regional variations.
Guillame becomes William
There are numerous others. Names that do not readily translate are more problematic. An Altje may be listed as a Ollie in one census and as Alice in another. Names that do not translate are more likely to be anglicized to whatever sounds “close.”
Here too, problems can be created by names that are different in the native language, but similar in sound. Garrelt and Feke Fecht had eight children born in Ostfriesland, Germany, between 1853 and 1873, including an Antke, an Anna, and an Antje. Fortunately only one of these individuals immigrated to America, as the names Antke and Antje are all frequently Anglicized to Anna.
Depending upon the time period, there might be records clearly explaining the Anglicization of the first name. My ancestor Jann Habben is listed in records as Jann or John. The executor of his estate explained to the probate judge that Jann used both names in official records. The 1930s naturalization for Panagiotis Verikios in Chicago indicates that he wanted to formally change his first name to Peter.
All Had the Same First Name?
There are also less frequent situations where a name was used twice even though the first child did not die. As always, searching as many records as possible is excellent advice.
Could Not Decide Which Name?
Jahn (the German form of his first name)
If it seems that an alternate given name is the cause of your research brick wall, it is imperative that names, ages, and dates from as many possible records be compared. If the diminutive is somewhat nonstandard, this is even more crucial. It is also possible that what you think are two names for the same person are actually names for two separate people.
My Kentucky pioneer ancestor Sarah Sledd is named in several records after her husband's 1814 death. Sometimes she is Sally and sometimes she is Sarah. It takes putting all the records together, creating a chronology, looking at other family members with similar name, and thinking about the locations involved to determine that the Sally Sledd and Sarah Sledd I encountered in the records are one person and not two.
Is your ancestor hiding under a different first name? Keep these pointers in mind:
- Check out lists of common diminutives and nicknames.
If only they had used ONE name their entire life, it would have made things so much easier.
A Listing of some 18th and 19th Century American Nicknames
Cyndi's List: Names
Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at email@example.com or visit his website, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.
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