February 13, 2012 by The Editor
Naming is fundamental to our culture and to our identity. Arising out of this essential part of who we are is a deep interest for many people in the origin of family and personal names, naming conventions, and customs. What we are called often connects us to our religion and to previous generations, and provides a way for each person to be unique in their families and communities.
Names are not only fraught with meaning and history. They are also a tricky element of genealogy for just about anyone, regardless of your family background. First, spelling has not always been as standardized as it is today. Languages change over time which means that even if a name looks wrong today, it might have been correct, or at least acceptable, in its own day. Furthermore, as many people have no doubt experienced, when you give your name to someone for a document, they often get it wrong. Misspellings, re-namings even, are common especially in our heavily immigrant cultures. You might not even notice an error at the time it is made. How much more so if you were living 200 years ago, were largely illiterate, and dependent on a local clergyman or Ellis Island clerk to record your details correctly.
Here are a few examples of problems I have encountered with regard to names that have informed how I approach names in my genealogy today.
First, what name to use? My first ancestor in North America with the name LaForest was Pierre LaForest dit Labranche, arriving in Canada sometime after 1646. “Dit” means “called” or “also known as.” Early French-Canadian voyageurs often had such second surnames. In later generations, the family name became LaForet and for several decades the name changed back and forth. For me the question is fairly straightforward. I largely tend to use the earliest name of record. Often genealogy websites and software allow you to add alternate surnames, which is a good way of recording variations. I record ‘dit’ names as part of a person’s main entry.
What first threw me off many years ago was what to do with first names. In my early years of tracing family history I followed the lead of other researchers in anglicizing foreign names. My reasoning was that while Pierre was the name of my ancestor, that was “French” and to be more clear (or at least I thought then!), I would use Peter. I now know that this makes for an unnecessarily confusing genealogical chart. In fact, whenever I come across genealogies that have translated first names, or include translations in parentheses, I tend to regard it as unreliable.
If necessary for your own understanding, put name translations in an ‘alternate name’ section. But familiarize yourself with names common to the cultures you are working in. Eventually Guillaume, Guillermo, and William will all make sense in context. In the end, if your ancestor’s name was Marie, it was Marie, not Mary and not Maria, but Marie. Keeping these distinctions helps to maintain a trustworthy family history.
Second, what to do with obvious misspellings? Finding an oddly spelled or misspelled name is actually a blessing in disguise. It took me years to find records for my great-great grandfather Olivier LaForet. Poor man. His whole life was misspelled: LaForet, LaForest, LaForte, LaFort, LaFret, LaFerte. But the one that made my research the most difficult was his baptismal registration: LaForais. This phonetic spelling, by Father Angus MacDonnell, was further complicated by an error on the part of an indexer recording the information into Ancestry.com as LaFarais. In this instance, I sent a correction to Ancestry.com and added LaForais as an alternate name into my own records, using LaForet as the name of record for my ancestor, as this was the spelling found on most other records for his family name.
My third example continues to perplex me. Researching ancestors with common names can be a very difficult task, especially when you know very little about the individuals you are searching for. Kaplan, which is a common Jewish surname, came through my maternal grandfather. His own parents died relatively young and very little information is known about their origins.
Their origins might have been obscured on purpose. I do know that these ancestors were from Bohemia which had a German-speaking Jewish population. Many German Jews assimilated during the 1800s during a period in which Jews were being granted full citizenship rights throughout Europe. It is very possible that my ancestors were in fact German-speaking Jews who, like many others, sailed to America, took a new religion and did not pass on a great deal of family history to their children.
In this instance, knowing a little bit about the cultural context in which my ancestors possibly lived helps me to frame my research. I may be totally off base, but I will only find out by doing the research and…you have to start somewhere. So, while the name is common, I can assemble other clues and go forward in my research with an open mind.
As a final word for this ‘tip’ I would say that the most important thing to do with regard to names is to respect the historical record. Calling someone William LaForest whose life was lived as Guillaume LaForet is a mistake that will compound itself. We would not change a birth date. We would not change someone’s religion posthumously. We would not make someone a hero when they were just an ordinary soldier. When we respect the historical record in our genealogy, we are creating a new body of work with integrity and accuracy that will be a source of its own in years to come.