The Tree Tip #4: What’s In A Name?

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February 13, 2012 by LeVoyageur

By Heron. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. Subject to disclaimers.

Cold Comfort Farm Genealogy. Image by Heron.


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.

One thought on “The Tree Tip #4: What’s In A Name?

  1. twyla158 says:

    Good article. A French Canadian (Amiot) friend of mine told me an interesting story. She found that some of her relatives were Jews who converted to escape the Inquisition. Below is extracted from http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/Inquisition.html:

    “The Inquisition was a Roman Catholic tribunal for discovery and punishment of heresy, which was marked by the severity of questioning and punishment and lack of rights afforded to the accused.

    While many people associate the Inquisition with Spain and Portugal, it was actually instituted by Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) in Rome. A later pope, Pope Gregory IX established the Inquisition, in 1233, to combat the heresy of the Abilgenses, a religious sect in France. By 1255, the Inquisition was in full gear throughout Central and Western Europe; although it was never instituted in England or Scandinavia.

    Initially a tribunal would open at a location and an edict of grace would be published calling upon those who are conscious of heresy to confess; after a period of grace, the tribunal officers could make accusations. Those accused of heresy were sentenced at an auto de fe, Act of Faith. Clergyman would sit at the proceedings and would deliver the punishments. Punishments included confinement to dungeons, physical abuse and torture. Those who reconciled with the church were still punished and many had their property confiscated, as well as were banished from public life. Those who never confessed were burned at the stake without strangulation; those who did confess were strangled first. During the 16th and 17th centuries, attendance at auto de fe reached as high as the attendance at bullfights.

    In the beginning, the Inquisition dealt only with Christian heretics and did not interfere with the affairs of Jews. However, disputes about Maimonides’ books (which addressed the synthesis of Judaism and other cultures) provided a pretext for harassing Jews and, in 1242, the Inquisition condemned the Talmud and burned thousands of volumes. In 1288, the first mass burning of Jews on the stake took place in France.

    In 1481 the Inquisition started in Spain and ultimately surpassed the medieval Inquisition, in both scope and intensity. Conversos (Secret Jews) and New Christians were targeted because of their close relations to the Jewish community, many of whom were Jews in all but their name. Fear of Jewish influence led Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand to write a petition to the Pope asking permission to start an Inquisition in Spain. In 1483 Tomas de Torquemada became the inquisitor-general for most of Spain, he set tribunals in many cities. Also heading the Inquisition in Spain were two Dominican monks, Miguel de Morillo and Juan de San Martin.

    First, they arrested Conversos and notable figures in Seville; in Seville more than 700 Conversos were burned at the stake and 5,000 repented. Tribunals were also opened in Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia. An Inquisition Tribunal was set up in Ciudad Real, where 100 Conversos were condemned, and it was moved to Toledo in 1485. Between 1486-1492, 25 auto de fes were held in Toledo, 467 people were burned at the stake and others were imprisoned. The Inquisition finally made its way to Barcelona, where it was resisted at first because of the important place of Spanish Conversos in the economy and society.

    More than 13,000 Conversos were put on trial during the first 12 years of the Spanish Inquisition. Hoping to eliminate ties between the Jewish community and Conversos, the Jews of Spain were expelled in 1492..

    The next phase of the Inquisition began around 1531, when Pope Leo X extended the Inquisition to Portugal. Thousands of Jews came to Portugal after the 1492 expulsion. A Spanish style Inquisition was constituted and tribunals were set up in Lisbon and other cities. Among the Jews who died at the hands of the Inquisition were well-known figures of the period such as Isaac de Castro Tartas, Antonio Serrao de Castro and Antonio Jose da Silva. The Inquisition never stopped in Spain and continued until the late 18th century.

    By the second half of the 18th century, the Inquisition abated, due to the spread of enlightened ideas and lack of resources. The last auto de fe in Portugal took place on October 27, 1765. Not until 1808, during the brief reign of Joseph Bonaparte, was the Inquisition abolished in Spain. An estimated 31,912 heretics were burned at the stake, 17,659 were burned in effigy and 291,450 made reconciliations in the Spanish Inquisition. In Portugal, about 40,000 cases were tried, although only 1,800 were burned, the rest made penance.

    The Inquisition was not limited to Europe; it also spread to Spanish and Portugese colonies in the New World and Asia. Many Jews and Conversos fled from Portugal and Spain to the New World seeking greater security and economic opportunities. Branches of the Portugese Inquisition were set up in Goa and Brazil. Spanish tribunals and auto de fes were set up in Mexico, the Philippine Islands, Guatemala, Peru, New Granada and the Canary Islands. By the late 18th century, most of these were dissolved.”

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