‘More American’

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A common story among Americans is that their immigrant ancestors changed their names (or had their names changed) upon arrival to the United States in order to make their names sound more “American.” This can make researching immigrant ancestors difficult, especially if you aren’t sure under what name to look for your ancestor. This challenge is prevalent in Irish research, as surname and given name spellings can vary widely from record to record, making it difficult to determine if you’ve located the right person.

There are a couple of different ways that ancestors can be missed or overlooked if not paying close enough attention. Beyond the variant spellings of surnames, Irish ancestors can often be found under a variety of names in church and civil records which can make it hard to keep track of ancestors or know that you are looking at the right family. A common problem in Irish records is the use of similar sounding names, such as Ellen and Helen or Joanna and Hannah.

[Paying] close attention to parents, spouses, or witnesses to marriages and baptisms can help determine whether the individual found in the record is your ancestor.

At other times, Irish ancestors use nicknames in some records and not others, such as Nora for Honora and Nellie for Ellen. The use of these nicknames or name variants can cause a challenge in research, but paying close attention to parents, spouses, or witnesses to marriages and baptisms can help determine whether the individual found in the record is your ancestor.

Another common challenge with Irish names is the use of the Latin or Irish equivalent of an ancestor’s given name. For example, my great-grandfather, Mathew Fahy, was born at Lackagh, County Galway, in 1886. In both his birth and baptism record, he is recorded as Mathew; however, his 1914 marriage record to my great-grandmother Julia Howley, as well as the civil birth record of my grandfather, Thomas, lists his name as Mathias Fahy. In this case, paying attention to the addresses helped me identify “Mathias” Fahy as my great-grandfather; his marriage record lists him as a resident of Grange, Co. Galway, where my Mathew Fahy had been born.

These changing names can be especially difficult when searching for immigrant ancestors. I previously conducted research on an Owen Kiernan, who was baptized in the Archdiocese of Armagh in County Louth on 28 April 1833, and married at Marblehead, Massachusetts in November 1863. However, following his marriage and the 1870 census, it became difficult to track Owen in Marblehead and Salem.

It wasn’t until I located the death certificate of Owen’s wife, Katherine (Leason) Kiernan, that I discovered the problem: her husband’s name was listed as Eugene Kiernan. Owen and Eugene share the same Irish names – “Eoghain” and “Eoghan” –  so the names Owen and Eugene are sometimes used interchangeably. In going back and searching for a Eugene Kiernan, I was able to locate his death record, naturalization record, and even civil war service records for Owen/Eugene Kiernan.

Several Irish genealogy websites, such as Roots Ireland and one run by Irish genealogist Dennis Hogan, have compiled lists of common Irish nicknames or interchangeable names that can be invaluable when conducting Irish research.

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About Katrina Fahy

Katrina, a native of Dedham, Massachusetts, earned a B.A. in History and Art History from St. Anselm College. Previously, she interned at the New Hampshire Historical Society, constructing biographies of New Hampshire quilt makers as well as transcribing a mid-nineteenth century New Hampshire diary and creating an educational program based on its contents. Katrina's research interests include New England and South East regions, as well as the American Revolution.

17 thoughts on “‘More American’

  1. My favorite was my 2nd great grandmother who I searched for—for over 40 years. I had even the town in Norway and had sent for records but the name change meant they ignored her actual baptism and said none existed…then I got a 100% Norwegian DNA. He said he didn’t know how we were connected but he ran a private Norwegian Research group on Facebook—and asked if I wanted my query posted there. At the time I wasn’t on FB but said sure. Within 24 hours a woman was writing via computer via solar power, a stone’s throw from where my Elizabeth Olson was baptized. Her original name Aslôug Elifesdotter (her father was Elife Olsson). Since then her tree is better than mine for the first 5 generations. I have a book that mentions her numerous times and my favorite line “Ho resier til Amerika1 1852” I also have stories from the Bygdebok about her illustrious ancestor “Lazy Lodford” who literally “bet the farm” and lost all to become a wandering minstrel begging for food. And I am absolutely certain because the dates/places match as do those of her sister Sigre who immigrated in 1868. So you just never know where your break will come from.

  2. My French Canadian great great grandfather was baptized as Mathias Allard in Mascouche, Quebec but was Matthew Allard in Massachusetts … and sometimes for some odd reason, used the alias John Gould! Not sure why…

  3. Great post Katrina, especially for those researching their Irish ancestry. I ran into similar name variation challenges researching my Irish immigrant ancestors. I learned that my 3rd great grandfather, David L. Scanlan, also went by the given name “Daniel.” Apparently, in Irish naming practices, the given names “David” and “Daniel” are used interchangeably. His wife Johanna also was known as “Hannah” and “Anna” and I later discovered their daughter Nora’s full given name was Honora after her maternal grandmother. Thank you for posting the links to the compiled lists of common Irish nicknames. Important resources to have when undertaking this research!

  4. I have found that RC church records might also be recorded in Latin, and, especially in Canada, might also be recorded in French, depending on the training and ancestry of the priest.

  5. Yes, it DOES get complicated with the Irish names! For a long time I tried to trace a woman who showed as Debbie, Deborah, or Abbie in different records. After another family member contacted me, we discovered she was the “Gubby” Casey listed on the ship record as a child with her family. Turns out “Debbie” and “Abbie” are derived from the Irish name “Gobnait” or “Gobinet.”
    http://www.libraryireland.com/names/women/gobnait-gobinet.php

  6. My husband’s grandfather, Guerino DiMarco, came to America in 1906 from Valle San Giovanni, Teramo, Abruzzo, Italy. He used that name for a few years, but during the naturalization process, he changed his name to William DeMarco. From what I have been able to ascertain, the English equivalent of Guerino is Warren, but apparently he either did not know that, or her preferred William. We surmise that he changed his surname to reflect the correct pronunciation of the name, DEE Marco — perhaps non-Italian speakers were calling him DYE Marco and it bothered him.

  7. My wife’s g grandfather was listed as Owen in all his records, but Eugene on the birth certs of his kids. To top it off, among his multitude of kid, he had two sons named Owen and Eugene.

  8. Then there are the ancestors and relatives who just change their names completely for reasons not known to posterity. I have a Bridget who became Teresa and a Johanna who became Josephine.

    1. My great aunt changed her Irish birth-name Bridget to Beatrice once emigrated to NYC. My assumption is she changed her name b/c There were so many Irish girls working as ‘maids’ they were called collectively in slang, ‘ Bridgets’. I think I would be empowered to change my name, too!

  9. My grandfather was born and baptized in Denmark as Christian Jorgensen Nymand but took the English spelling of Newman in America as did all of his siblings and cousins that came across the pond including the two siblings that went to Canada.

  10. One of my wife’s immigrants’ name was Heart, but was not English but German. We assume that the name was changed from a German spelling to English and do not know the spelling. He first settled in Adams County, Pa. then moved up to New York.

  11. I’ve watched ancestors names change across many lines. Sometimes, it’s just going by a middle instead of a given name. But, it’s always been an understandable Anglicization of (generally german) a non-English name. Mathias to Mathew makes sense but your Eoghan to Owen and Eugene intrigues me. It’s my Scots that seemed to simply spring out the ground without family or history. Any ideas for name equivalents for the Scottish?

    1. Early Scottish names (15th, 16th century) were “creative” in their transformation from Scottish to English. Names from this era are almost always from the aristocracy (as those were the records that were kept) and the change was made to better “fit in” with the minor courts and manors.

      The first layer of “filtering” was the lack of a unified code of spelling. The next was dialect, as each region (county) developed its own pronunciation. Another issue was that many church records were written in Latin and names were changed into a Latin form and later transcribed, each time at a clerk’s whim.

      There are other issues but as you can see direct equivalents could be very difficult and subjective.

  12. Speaking of wanting to sound “more American,” I am almost certain that one of my husband’s great grandmothers changed her name when she immigrated to the U.S. from Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany, in the mid-1850s. She was Julia Katherine Stoll when she married in Illinois and used that name for the rest of her life. However, I’ve found the baptism records of all her siblings, and they match up with later records of all except a Julia Katherine. A Kunigunda Stoll was born in the family at the same time as Julia Katherine’s stated birth date, and I believe that was her original name. I can understand why she might want to change her name!

  13. Early Dutch culture made certain levels of society problematic for genealogy as surnames were not even required until Napoleon’s conquest made them mandatory (in 1805). One of my ancestors had three different names. He used his father’s first name as a surname until he became “of age”, then he used his occupational name until he got married. When he married the boss’s daughter he took her surname since she inherited the farm. Following his name changes took some out of the box thinking.

    Some surname examples are from the Dutch streak of irony to Napoleon’s mandate, such as; Komtebedde (come-to-bed), Moeken (tired or weary), or Mijnknecht (my servant).

  14. On my mother’s side, I have four Norwegian g grandparents. I had a lot to learn about Norwegian surnames, and how they tended to either get changed or stay the same in Amerika. My maternal g grandfather was Hans Henriksen. He preceded his wife and family to America, to earn enough to send for them. I still haven’t found his emigration records, though I have those for the family. Hans Henriksen ended up as Hans Henrik Harrison. The rest of the family took Harrison also upon their arrival. But of course Harrison is not at all a Norwegian name, it’s English. The family story, which I have no way of proving, is that when he finally found a job, as a farm hand, the owner of the farm in North Dakota was also Hans Henriksen. He told my g grandfather that the job was his, but he wasn’t having someone with the same name working for him. Having spent some time working in England, and being fluent in English, the name “Harrison” popped into his head. He got the job, and two years later was able to send for the rest of the family. The passenger lists show that his family came using the mother’s “farm name” where she was born and where the family lived while waiting to emigrate. Until a 1923 law forced families to choose a surname that would not change from generation to generation, Norwegians could use a patronymic (the father’s first name followed by -sen/son or -dottir) or the farm name. Some used both, or if they moved, one or the other, or both. Henriksen used that name while living on his wife’s farm; when they moved into town, he used his farm name. All this complicates Norwegian genealogy. All four of my Norwegian families changed their names when they moved to America!

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