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Genealogy Programs, Organizing Your Ancestors the Easy Way

Deciphering The First, Middle and Nicknames of our Ancestors

A Rose by any other name might be called Polly, Molly or Maude. And John can be known as Jack, Archibald as Balt and Christopher as Chris, Christy or Christian. I even have an Uncle Cecil who was known as Peiko. Where did that come from?

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Thats right, it's not just surnames we have to worry about when searching for our ancestors. (See my post on April 20th,Hooked on Phonetics . . . The Many Misspellings of our Ancestors Names.) A man may have been known by his middle name until he reached maturity, and then switched to his first name. Some men and women used nicknames instead of their first names even for legal documents but not every time. This makes them difficult to research. Examples:

If the woman who married your ancestor is listed as Polly on her marriage certificate and ten years later there's a Martha listed as his wife on the census, is it the same woman? Polly is a nickname for Martha, but also for Mary. Plus, Polly is a name in it's own right.

On the Federal Census a boy named Harvey lives in his father Samuels house. He disappears when he becomes a man, but living next door to the father Samuel is now a man named Samuel H, who is the same age the son would be. Is this the son Harvey, now known as Samuel H?

You could assume yes to both of these questions, but assumption isn't Fact. Remember, we only want Facts in our Family Files, so we're going to have to dig a little deeper.

In reference to the first problem, the 1900 census is the first that asks the length of a marriage, which could solve your problem. If your ancestors won't live long enough to benefit from that question, you'll have to check death and marriage records in the intervening years. Did Polly die and your ancestor marry again, this time to Martha? If not, start checking land deeds. Was there a mention soon after the marriage where the wife was referenced as Martha or closer to the time of the census when she was called Polly? Best of all, if the father who gave approval for Polly to marry mentions in his will his daughter Martha and her husband, which is the name of your ancestor. Thats a fact that I'd feel very safe recording in my Family File.

As for the Samuel H problem, the same search parameters apply except, of course, for the marriage data on the 1900 census. However, subsequent census records should be checked to see how Samuel H is listed. As for the years during which the possible name change occurred, check every record you can find. With a man you have more options than with a woman: taxes, deeds, military and court records. Yes, women do appear in court records, but not with the frequency of men.Women didnt serve on juries, in legislatures, as burgesses, lawyers, etc. And because you believe, in this instance, that his father is still alive, check for wills of relatives that may give you reason to believe that little Harvey is now Samuel H.

Nicknames, middle names and name changes aren't the only problems you'll encounter while researching. In my post Hooked on Phonetics, I discussed the problems of misspellings of surnames caused by people recording names based on how they sounded. This also applied to first names. The name Rawleigh is a good example of a first name that brings out the best in phonetic misspellings, a few examples being Rolly, Rawley, and Rowle.

After we've prepared ourselves to watch for misspellings, nicknames and middle names, there's one more thing to be on the watch for abbreviations. Most of these are simple. Jn is always John and Jos is always Joseph, but Jo with a little letter suspended in the middle of the line that's difficult to read is a problem. It can be John or Joseph, depending on what that little letter is.(Have your magnifying glass handy.)Other names can also be abbreviated with a midline letter, although all these that I've encountered so far have been easy to figure out. Below is an example of midline letter abbreviations in printed text.

You may also encounter the Jr. and Sr. issue.Hey, that's easy, you're saying, it's a son and father with the same name.Not always. Recently I learned that Jr. and Sr. was occasionally used to differentiate between a younger and older man with the same name living in the same region, even if they weren't related. How irritating is that? If men with Jr. and Sr. are listed on consecutive lines, I indicate this in my records and make a note that they are probably son and father.If they are listed further apart on a list,I am highly aggravated and think nasty thoughts about the person who thought of using Jr. and Sr. for anything other than a son and father. Then I note the adjective in my file with the information that it may not indicate a family relationship but merely an age difference with another man with the same name in the community, which takes up a lot of space in my file just as it does in this post.

As always, Shakespeare knew what he was talking about when he gave voice to Juliet's lament that Romeo's name could be different but he would still remain the same person. He was writing about love, though, not researching ancestors. At least we don't have to go to the lengths of young Juliet to overcome problems with our family name. By using the hints I've given you in this post and my previous one, you should be able to find even the most elusive misspelled and nicknamed ancestor on old tax lists, marriage registers and the Federal Census itself. When you find your ancestor, keeptrack of all the variables of her or his name and fill your Family File with lovely facts that smell as sweet as any Polly, Molly or Maude.

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Posted in Other Home Post Date 10/28/2016


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