Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What's in a Name? Avoiding a Future Brick Wall.

What's in a Name? Avoiding a Brick Wall for Future Family Historians.

An uncommon name can be a godsend for the family historian. It matters not whether it is an uncommon Surname or Christian name. An unusual name will always be easier to find than a common name. MALIORA Taylor will be located with far less effort in baptism and census records than will MARY Taylor. Even when a tired enumerator misspelt my ancestor Maliora Taylor as Meloria, she was quite easily found with a name variant search.  There may have been more than one Elizabeth LEWTHWAITE born in England in 1740, however, certainly not nearly as many as there were Elizabeth SMITHs born and baptised in the same year. Unfortunately for family historians, the fact is, that we cannot choose the names which we are researching. The names of our ancestors were chosen in the past, with oblivious regard to the joys or frustrations they would cause in future genealogical searches. 

I quickly lost the trail of my great aunt, Margaret Smith, her husband, Andrew and daughters Margaret, Elizabeth and Mary Smith after they emigrated to America from Scotland in 1923. Smith is a surname which most genealogists greet with a groan. I have often found myself wondering how much easier it would be for me to to find this family had Andrew Smith not had his Lithuanian name of Antonas Ustila anglicised when he arrived in Scotland in the 1890's with his family as a refugee. How much simpler would my search be if Margaret had named her daughters Eilidh, Aiofe and Ciorstaidh rather than following the Scottish naming tradition of passing on the names of the maternal and paternal grandmothers as well as her own name to her three daughters. Common first names such as Mary, Elizabeth and Margaret along side a common surname such as Smith, lay the strong foundations for a solid brick wall.

I, myself, married a man with the fairly common surname of WHITE. My children will never stray far from the branches of the family tree, however, as I have endowed them all with unusual Gaelic christian names and (possibly burdened them with) four names each. One Gaelic name, one biblical, one a family name and one name that I just liked. So  daughter Ciorstaidh Keziah Herminnie Maddison White * ( not the real name... but close!) is unlikely to be lost among the many Whites in future records. Before my daughters decide to add another generation to our family tree, I plan to impress upon them, (tactfully of course) the benefits of naming the children with even  slightly uncommon names. I wouldn't dream of interfering.... but I do feel that Knight Sir Lancelot Rufus Marcus Ignatius *Brown would never create the footings for a genealogical brick wall ( then again.. imagine how many hits Sir Lancelot would get on And Pomegranate (well Gwyneth Paltrow has Apple!) Mairead Maliora Indianah *Jones will not likely disappear into oblivion in any census record. 

Having grown up with both an unusual first name AND a reasonably uncommon Scottish surname, you might be tempted to think that I am a future family historian's dream. If you read my Sorting Saturday blog, however,  on my GeneaThemeBlogs4u blog site (  ) you will be aware that I recently realised my potential as a brick wall ticking time bomb! To quickly summarise my untidy genealogical circumstance..... When I was nine years old, my mother changed my First Name (but not officially). To further complicate my chances of ever being located by a future genealogist, my Surname was mis-spelled on my birth certificate (I blamed my father who also mis- named my sister, when on arriving at the Registry office he forgot the name she was to be given and substituted it with something 'similar'). (Needless to say he wasn't allowed anywhere near the Registry Office for the third daughter). 

When recently applying for a new passport, (having lost mine), I found that I was unable to obtain one. The requirements for identification for a passport, are much stricter than when I applied for my last one. My problem was that I was Sharon-Lee Mcdade on my birth certificate (and before you pronounce my name Sharon - it was Shaaaaaaron, the reason for the change of name being that... it was always mispronounced) My surname should have been MacDade ( with an all important 'a' in the Mac and a capital D for Dade) but on my birth certificate, it was Mcdade.  On my marriage certificate my name was Sharon-Lee  aka Sharna-Lee  MacDade, and on all other ID, I am Sharn or Sharna-Lee ( the name my mother gave to me at age nine).  Faced with the prospect of becoming an unfortunate genealogist's worst nightmare somewhere in the future, and needing a passport, I decided to 'sort' my name out once and for all. 

Having struggled to find my own ancestors who have disappeared into the mazes created by name changes and misspelling of names I could see the 'mess' that my name would create for anyone searching for me on the family tree. Changing my first name by deed poll and correcting my misspelled surname on my birth certificate seemed the logical step to take to avoid the inevitable fate of one day becoming a Brick Wall!  

Recalling the three days I spent at the Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages only two months earlier where my name had caused much confusion (but where three days of 'sorting'  finally resulted in my being handed a birth certificate) ( Sorting Saturday), I again travelled to Brisbane, the city of my birth to face the bureaucratic process. I felt a little sad to be losing the name on the birth certificate that I had so recently battled to acquire but with my form filled out, I sat in wait for my number to be called. 

Everyone should spend a little time in their local Registry Office. It is a most interesting experience. A place of varied life stories and events. Apart from a wedding being conducted outside in the rain, there were quite a few young mothers, with newborn babies in tow, registering their brand new names. How times have changed. On most of the birth certificates I have collected on my genealogical journey, the father has been the informant, going back to birth registrations in the 1700's. Then again, perhaps more children have the correct name on their birth certificates now! 

Because I am an avid observer of people and of life, I found the long wait to get closer to the counter anything but dull. I smiled knowingly as baby 'Bandit' received his new name. I was confident that young Bandit will never disappear in a labyrinth of Jacks, Harry's or Williams in the census records. (Although I secretly hope that his mother's choice of name doesn't in any way affect his choice of career in the future.) I listened in sympathy as a young woman explained that she had lost her birth certificate in the Queensland Floods earlier in the year. When she had received a replacement certificate, the Registry office had left a hyphen out of her name thus rendering her Mary Ann instead of Mary-Anne. I nodded in agreement as she explained that the hyphen IS important. Hadn't my own 5 times great grandmother, Mary-Ann Cupples been difficult to find because of a missing hyphen? I had learned that it is much more likely that an ancestor might use either part of their first name, eg Mary, or as my forebear did, Ann, if the hyphen exists. I could see her point perfectly well. It soon became evident, however, that this Mary-Ann didn't really care about the hyphen. (I resisted the urge to jump up and explain to her that it WOULD matter to a luckless family historian one day). As it turned out, Mary-Ann needed a passport and her passport application had been rejected because of the missing hyphen on her birth certificate. Her name had to be corrected on the  certificate. My tangible sympathy increased tenfold. I was there for a similar reason.

I shook my head in compassion as similar stories about failed passport applications came to light. One lady with the maiden name of Schloss found that it was spelled Shloss on her birth certificate. When the same Mrs Maiden Surname Schloss announced that while she was at the registry office, she also wished to change her married name, by adding a hyphen and attaching it to her maiden name, I could only barely restrain myself from yelling, 'Stop!'.I knew only too well the brick wall that would surface generations later from this deed. My own maternal family disappeared into oblivion after my great grandfather added Reece to Hoyes. I spent many years on a long fruitless search for Welsh ancestors by the surname of Reece-Hoyes. (I did eventually find my HOYES ancestors happily living in Nottinghamshire but only after quite a number of family members had been afforded the honour of Welsh names for the Welsh ancestry we don't have.)

I handed my four forms of ID to the same young girl who had patiently spent three days searching for my birth certificate eight weeks earlier. 
'Hello', she said cheerily, I remember you. 'You were the lady with the confusion about your names'.
'I'm here to fix that,' I replied confidently. 
I handed her the form to change my Christian name by deed poll and explained that my Surname had also been misspelled on my birth certificate. I handed her my four required forms of ID. She looked them over and handed them straight back. 
'I'm sorry,' said the girl ( I could tell she really was) but I can't accept your ID. Your licence and birth certificate are OK, but your Health Care card and Bank Statement are missing a hyphen! 

'You must be joking', I spluttered. I have all the way flown from Sydney AGAIN. 
'I'm really sorry,' said the girl again. 'I can't identify you without the hyphen.'
'But you just said you remembered me', I exclaimed.  
I looked at the offending identification. My health care card had my name printed as Sharnalee and my bank statement as Sharna Lee. 
'You will need to go to your bank and health care company and have them put the hyphen in your name', said the girl, apologetically. 'Then come back and I will be able to ID you.' 

To be fair to the Qld Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages, they did eventually (the next day) agree to accept my ID and my name was changed officially, hyphen and all. It was discovered that my father did register my surname correctly after all, but that someone had transcribed it into the Index as 'Mc' instead of 'Mac', so that mistake was rectified at no cost to myself. In appreciation of my patience I was offered two copies of my new birth certificate. Well, I am sure one can never have too many birth certificates! On the back of my certificate, I was told, would be recorded the date of the registration of change of name. I felt that this was an important piece of information to have made available and am pleased to say that I am confident now that I have avoided becoming a brick wall.

As I was thanking the helpful young girl (who was probably pleased that I did NOT have to return)  I overheard a young woman at the counter next to mine, registering her new baby boy as John White. A genealogist's worst nightmare, I was thinking.  As the woman turned to stare at me I realised that I had voiced my opinion aloud. My husband's ancestors had all been named John or William White and had been impossible to find in County Down Northern Ireland, as had my own two times great grandfather William White in County Tyrone. 
With a lovely smile, the young mother reassured me, 'Don't worry. I know what you mean but it's a family name. I do family history and I have given him my maiden surname as a middle name. He won't disappear on a census record.' 
At that she turned back to the man behind the counter and said determinedly,'  I have changed my mind. Reverse those names! He will be known by my my maiden name.'

The young mother smiled to me as though we shared a great secret as she walked past me. We both knew she had just avoided a future genealogical brick wall..... Of course young FARMER John White* may not see things that way for twenty or so years but one day he'll understand! 

* These names have been changed to protect privacy of individuals.