What is in a name? Lessons Learned from my french and quebecois research

This is part of a series of related posts discussing how names can be both challenging and illuminating in genealogical research. Names are everything in Genealogy: they identify us as individuals, they help us build our family groups–they are the foundation stone for our research. It is the first search item we employ when we are looking for more information on any individual or family. But is a name just a label? Is it just a one-dimensional handle for a person or family? Absolutely not.

Montreal Harbour in 1889 in Quebec, Canada. Photo by George Bishop.

It should go without saying that this entire post relates specifically to families who settled in French Canada and were of French descent. Families from several different countries have settled in French-Canada, and they would typically follow their own cultural naming conventions. If your Murphy’s ended up in Québec but started out in Cork, they wouldn’t be following these naming trends.

There are huge bonuses to discovering that your family hailed from French-Canada, and that is because since the 1400s there has been a French tradition of conducting very regular, and very thorough, records by the Catholic priests. The French brought this tradition with them when they began establishing settlements in Canada, and it can mean that once you establish a verified link to Québec you will find yourself feeling suddenly wealthy with records…very detailed records that typically include many other family members, identified by their relationship.

You might think that you’ve found the holy grail of family research, and indeed, in many ways you have, but now there is a new challenge. Wading through all of the names. And there are a ton of them. For each person.

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What’s in a Name? lessons from my own journeys in irish research

This is part of a series of related posts discussing how names can be both challenging and illuminating in genealogical research. Names are everything in Genealogy: they identify us as individuals, they help us build our family groups–they are the foundation stone for our research. It is the first search item we employ when we are looking for more information on any individual or family. But is a name just a label? Is it just a one-dimensional handle for a person or family? Absolutely not.

1855 New York State Census, John and Margaret Morgan Family Group

Through the course of my work in researching my Irish ancestors, I have had to learn how to get the most out of a name during the research process. With Irish names here are a few of the things I have learned:

  • Changes in spelling or form are common and can happen for several reasons.
  • Repetition patterns can help to identify or confirm potential family links.
  • Every family is different, and does things their own way. Never take a convention as a rule. Ever.

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Baby steps

Baby steps are ok. In fact, I encourage them. Any type of research can be daunting, but I find that family history research, where we have a very personal investment in the results, can be terrifying.

With so much time on our hands as the world has effectively shut down, more and more of us are turning to those projects we just never felt we had the time for, or that we started and never found a way to get back to.

It all starts out relatively simple, doesn't it? We want to know who we are, and so many of us set ourselves on learning as much as we can about where we came from. How we got here. 

If you are anything like me, the elation of discovering this unexpected downtime and dreaming up all of the things you will accomplish during this lockdown time is like a drug. It’s super exciting in the beginning–you make lots of lists and pull out those dusty photographs and hoarded bits of newspaper and letters. But then, you get up to make a cup of tea, come back to get truly settled in and you find yourself faced with research goals spanning hundreds of years, so many options of where to start that you are frozen with uncertainty, and a rapidly escalating feeling of deep despair that you’ll never figure it all out. Even with all the time in the world you become convinced that you will just never get there.

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A Living Archive During The Time of covid-19

It’s been interesting to see so many groups trying to record what we are all experiencing. Here in Australia the National Museum of Australia has asked Australians to share their experiences and observations as we all go through this bizarre new normal in the time of COVID-19. Check it out here: https://www.nma.gov.au/about/bridging-the-distance-pandemic-experiences.

I love that the National Museum of Australia is doing this.

Every single one of us has a family history dotted with major events–wars, disease, famine, natural disasters–you name it and they’ve been through it. Fast forward a few hundred years and trying to piece together what they actually experienced at the time is difficult, if not down right impossible.

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Our history is happening now

“We are in unprecedented times.” This is a statement being made by our government leaders all over the world. But is this true?

No. The truth is, we are in unprecedented times for our recent memory, but there are numerous occasions in history where people have faced a complete upheaval of society and the definition of normal since before we started recording our observations.

As a family historian I have spent untold hours trying to piece together the experiences of our ancestors. It is not hard to gather together statistics from major events that led to mass emigration, population decreases, and major social change. But what has always been so elusive to me is the individual and community experience during these watershed moments. Now is the time to start writing down what we are experiencing. Newspaper articles will record the basic facts, but our personal experience is our responsibility to preserve.

I know when my ancestors left Ireland, and I know the basic facts of why they did: they were fleeing famine, disease and unemployment. They were jumping into the unknown of a dangerous voyage and likely permanent alienation from the home they had always known because they could no longer withstand the known realities. But how were they feeling? What were they talking about in their homes in the days leading up to taking such major actions in the face of overwhelming pressures? These are the intangibles, the individual moments that were not recorded. These are the moments that have been lost, the puzzle pieces that would help me create the full picture of their individual experience in moments of global impact.

Today, we are all in the midst of a moment of global impact. Our history is happening now. Every day, no matter where we are, we are seeing our normal change and evolve in ways we would never have thought possible.

As is the case for so many, my family today is spread across multiple continents: the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and England. Thanks to the prevalence of DNA testing I also know that I have cousins in Canada, France, Scotland. The experience of each member of my family is vastly different depending on where they live. Here in Australia, being so isolated from the world, we are currently facing less severe impacts than my cousins in France when you look at the numbers, however our normal has still been abolished. We are being urged to stay in our homes, only go out for the essentials, and then in groups of no more than two. We are seeing limits on daily necessities at the shops. Bars, Restaurants, Cafes, sporting and entertainment events are all shuttered. Retail is now going the same way as are many other “non-essential” industries. Unemployment rates are soaring as businesses go into hibernation.

But this is the just a quick glimpse of our experience here in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia. My cousins in New Zealand have been in full-country lock down for a while now, and my family in the USA, depending on the state they live in, are having different experiences as well.

We are blessed with the ability to communicate in real time regardless of the distance–an advantage my famine-fleeing ancestors did not have. How would they have felt about their trip to the New World if they had FaceTime to stay connected to the family staying behind on the Old Sod? This facility helps to ground me, and I depend on this connection to keep the general unease about the global condition at bay. I don’t know what will happen on the flip side of this crisis, but I anticipate the shape of our new normal will be unimaginable compared to what I think I know today.

So I call on all family historians out there – start writing it down, don’t wait until this is in our rearview mirror to record what is happening. Our history is happening now, and it is monumental.

Short Term Memory

So, I’ve discovered in my two decades plus of delving into various family histories, that sometimes its best to have a short assignment than a long one.

Meaning, my aging brain does much better remembering all of the “aha” moments, and why they were aha moments, when I am only spending a finite period of time with a particular family line.

Like many genealogists (or so I assume), I fell into this vocation by way of my own family research, which is a never ending journey that is constantly being updated in both the past and the present.

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When Persistence Seems Futile

I have one of those ancestors.  And it’s a big one.  He’s my Great Great Great Grandfather, on my father’s side.  And to be honest, it feels as if he is standing in my way – physically preventing me from progressing further back in the Morgan history.

Now his wife, Margaret Trainor, and her family, well I can go back for ages (or so it seems).  They show up in all sorts of helpful places.  And consistently.

But not my John Morgan.  His birthdate isn’t even nailed down.  He is the perfect example of being able to gather 50 years worth of original records only to find that NOT A SINGLE ONE gives the same birthdate.  NOT. ONE.

Result? He has that awful birth entry in the family file of “Between 1810 and 1820.”  I hate entries like that.  It makes me feel like there is a thread hanging off my sweater and I HAVE TO PULL IT.

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The Committee is Placed in A Most Painful Situation

I have been a member of Ancestry since way back.  I have availed myself of the several resources there quite happily, but from time to time, have scratched my head wondering how things were indexed.  Now this project has been going on for ages, but I guess I finally took my blinders off and actually noticed the sidebar that was impelling me to jump in and help out with the World Archives Project. What does that mean?  It means being able to lend your time to key information from original records that then allow those records to be searchable on Ancestry for all of us.  I wish I had found this earlier.

Now, there are always several projects going on, and your ability to choose what you can help key will not always mean that you can see projects super relevant to your own research interests, but I have found that I don’t care anymore if it’s something I am currently researching, because this is opening my eyes to types of records I might not have realised existed.

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It May Be Etched in Stone, But It Doesn’t Mean It’s Correct

Oh the heartbreak when I realized that one of the types of sources that I believed were inarguable (way back when I was just a wee tot in genealogy) were actually hugely questionable.

I had some preconception that if someone where to etch a piece of information in stone, it HAD to be correct. Why would you preserve it for eternity if it were wrong?

Now, I had by this time come to terms with the fact that census reports were to be taken with a measure of scepticism. Of course, the value of the information depends solely on who the census taker was, if they were actually literate and spoke the same language as the family they were interviewing. Not dissimilar to those validating manifests in the ports. But you had to also consider who answered the door when the census taker came around. What if the only person home was not actually sure, but gave their best guess? Somehow I was able to understand and accept that census reports could add confusion rather than clarify the answer to a simple question, such as “When was my great grandfather born.”

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To Tech or Not to Tech

Listen. I’m all about technology. I run with two computers (one Mac, one PC), use the cloud, feel that I have become quite adept at online research, and am a Family Tree Maker user. And I have been, for over two decades.

However, while it’s lovely to have digital folders and it’s cool to click through my growing archives and quickly retrieve something that can be emailed/uploaded etc…there comes a point where I just have to go old school.

I have to have paper. Lots of paper.

I need big paper to sketch out family trees as they build…and to thought map potentials when there aren’t enough primary sources (yet) to pick one direction.

I need narrow ruled, hardbacked writing pads to review and compile research from various sources.

I need a pen in my hand, and paper in front of me.

I need physical photos and documents too. Not the originals, but copies that I can mark-up and flag and post-it to my hearts content. It is a large part of how my brain works.

It’s like physically writing all that information down longhand puts it into a different part of my brain. Being able to compare documents that I have physically in front of me to verify handwriting is key when I need to know if that’s really a 9….or is it a 4?

Sometimes, paper is really the only way to go.

Sure, it may mean double work at some stages, whether I need to extrapolate information I’ve obtained digitally, or enter information into my databases that I’ve sussed out the old school way, but it works for me.

I’m curious if there are others out there that find the same combination works for them…or if most people are all tech, or, conversely, no tech at all….

I’m looking forward to hearing what other folks do!

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