Shedding Light on the Family Tree: What’s in a Name?


The 15th in a series of posts about my family tree

Inspired by Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

Prompt: How do you spell that?

What’s in a name? This is a loaded question. To begin with how about correct spelling? One of the greatest frustrations when attempting to shed light on the family tree is sifting through the litany of misspelled monikers in the public record. How do we reconcile what’s already in our family archive with what we find in other sources? I have found that identifying naming patterns and traditions unique to the family is useful. What do I mean?

In days past it was common practice to name children after parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Sort of a stamp of family membership. In our ancestry the names William, Jane, Mary, Henry, George, Elizabeth, to name a few, show up the most. In fact, my mother almost called me Mary Jane. Here’s a brief family history review: My great grandmother, Mary (Belton) McDonall, was named after her mother Mary Jane (Crouse) Belton who, it appears, was named for her aunt Mary Sumner, a sister to Mary Jane’s mother, Ruth (Sumner) Crouse who in turn was named after her grandmother, Ruth (Fairchild) Springer who, it seems, was named after her grandmother, Ruth (Beach) Fairchild, who was named after her mother Ruth (Peck) Beach and that, as far as I can tell by following the line on FamilySearch.org, is where that ends … all the way back to the 1600s.

From a spelling perspective these are, for the most part, fairly easy names with which to work. I have seen Elizabeth spelled Elysabeth, or shortened to Eliza or Lizzie. This can lend its own level of confusion. Errors or inaccuracies such as these, particularly when working with surnames, are every researcher’s nightmare. Was it simply a lack of care or laziness on the part of census takers, transcribers, registrars of birth, marriage and death, etc. that led to such discrepancies? Perhaps it just never occurred to them that future generations would be seeking a connection to their roots.

Granted many old documents, like a census, were likely completed under less than ideal conditions. I imagine a census taker from 100-plus years ago, trudging long distances on rutted, muddy roads between farms on horseback, by horse drawn wagon or on foot. Becoming more and more weary as the day or census progressed, and no doubt longing for a cup of tea (or something stronger), the census taker’s concerns about tidy handwriting and dotting every i or crossing every t probably fell to the wayside. Something had to give, and it did. Accuracy.

Sample Records

The following excerpt for great grandpa Steve McDonall and family from the 1910 US Census for Wagar, McHenry Co., North Dakota, reveals multiple errors when compared against his birth registration and that of his wife, Mary (Belton) McDonall.

From the US Census 1910, Wagar, McHenry Co. North Dakota

For instance, though Steve’s birth record (below) is a bit of a mash-up it’s clear that an effort had been made to correct the spelling of the family name to McDonall from McDonald. Also amended was the initial entry for the child, WGS McDonald, to his name in full. Makes me wonder about the circumstances around this registration. Was the registrar having a bad day? Was he, or she, inexperienced? Were they distracted by something else? It’s worth noting that this record clearly shows his birth year as 1877.

Birth record for William George Stephen (Steve) McDonall, February 3, 1877
Paris Township, Co. Huron, Michigan

Compare the census document to the birth record for Mary (Belton) McDonall. Clearly her name is Mary (not May) and with her birth year noted as 1881 she is younger than Steve by at least four years. The census had it completely wrong. Missing from both documents, but particularly of note in her birth record, is any reference to her middle name, Lewis. Was that an omission or was this name added later?

Birth record for Mary Belton, 3 November 1881, Fremont, Newaygo, Michigan

Evidently census takers were not the only ones guilty of lackadaisical record keeping. It seems registrars were also careless with their penmanship resulting in later misinterpretation.

Some common misspellings of surnames in my family tree (discovered so far):

Correct family spelling* : McDonall (Irish origin)
Variations in public records: McDonald; Mcdonald; McDonel; McDonnell; Mcdonel; Mcdonall; McDonnel; McDonnall

Sample document re spelling of Belton, Crouse and Sumner
family names Source: Family Archives

Correct family spelling*: Belton (Irish origin)
Variation in public records: Betton; Pelton

Correct family spelling*: Sparling (Irish with roots in Palatine Germany)
Variations in public records: Sperling/Speurling (original Palatine spelling); Sparking

Correct family spelling*: Dolmege (Irish origin)
Variations in public records: Dolmage; Dulmage; Dalmage; Dolinage; Domage

Correct family spelling*: Crouse
Variations in public records: Kroese (likely from Pennsylvania Dutch); Krouse; Krause

Correct family spelling*: Sumner
Variations in public records: Summer; Summers; Sumners

*As sourced in the family Bible and other personal documents

Unusual and Mysterious Names

Every family has its list of unfathomable mysteries, naming practices among them. This week, while researching for this post, I uncovered just such a mystery.

My second great grandparents, Joseph McDonall and Elizabeth (Sparling) McDonall, had seven children. Their first born, Violet (1875-1887), had an unusual name in that she wasn’t, as far as I can tell, named after a female relative. The mystery deepened when I happened upon the following birth record:

Birth record for Verletunly McDonald, b. July 27, 1875, Paris Township, Huron Co., Michigan

At first I was astonished. Had Joseph and Elizabeth had an eighth child? After a couple of deep breaths and a little more digging I discovered that based on the birth date found in family records and when compared with this birth record, Verletunly (inaccurately recorded elsewhere as Verletemly. Or is it? Which spelling is correct?) and Violet are one and the same.

From “findagrave.com:”

Violet McDonall
Birth: 27 Jul 1875
Death: 16 Mar 1887 (aged 11)
Burial: Colfax Cemetery, Bad Axe, Huron County, Michigan, USA
Memorial #: 137888587

The birth date corresponds exactly with that noted in the birth record for Verletunly.

Verletunly (Violet) McDonall ca 1886
Source: Family Archives

Of course, the question to be asked: where did the name Verletunly originate? An online search for this name came up empty. Did Elizabeth, like many a new mother wishing to elevate their first born, invent it? And how/when/why did this unusual name morph into Violet? Was it adopted as a nickname that stuck? According to my mother the family only ever spoke of Violet. Perhaps they weren’t even aware of her original birth name.

Another name filled with mystery is Lewis. Both grandpa Stan and his mother, Mary, had Lewis as a middle name. Had my mother, Lois, been a boy she would have been named Lewis. Still, where did the name originate? As my cousin and I search for missing Belton and Crouse matriarchs we wonder if one of them had Lewis as a family name. It’s possible. According to land maps of Middlesex Co., Ontario, where our Belton/Crouse families lived and mingled in the mid 1800s, there were neighbouring families of the name Lewis. We’re still searching and hope to find a connection that indicates the kind of kinship that would have fostered the integration of this name into Belton/McDonall tradition.

In Summary

Whether due to carelessness or ignorance names are often subject to being misspelled. What I’ve learned while shedding light on the family tree is that keeping an open mind, being curious, and having a sense of humour while leafing through its many branches is important. Also, acknowledging that record keeping has always been subject to human error and that registrars and census takers in days past came in all levels of education and attention span helps to relieve the frustration of seeing an “Elizabeth Sparking” instead of an “Elizabeth Sparling,” or a “Mary Betton” instead of a “Mary Belton.” If important dates and family members correlate with documented proof held by the family this helps to set the record straight.

Pouring through records in search of lost ancestry is a shot in the dark at the best of times, but with a little imagination and patience we can sift through the alphabet soup of misspelled names and make those all- important family connections. Never in a million years would I have associated my second great aunt’s birth record name, Verletunly/Verletemly, with the Violet of our homespun archives. Now, having matched her birth dates, we are aware of another small piece of the Joseph and Elizabeth (Sparling) McDonall story and know a little more about the eldest daughter lost so young.

So, what’s in a name? My guess is more than we know. ❦

©Dorothy E. Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2022 … Aimwell CreativeWorks


6 thoughts on “Shedding Light on the Family Tree: What’s in a Name?

  1. My Mom’s middle name would fit along with your unusual or mysterious names. Her middle name was Vandola. There are no placenames anywhere they lived that were Vandola, (I did locate a town in Virgina of that name, but they were never anywhere near Virgina), no one in the family with that name to be named after and my Mom had no idea where her mom got the name from. My Mom’s siblings all had usual first and middle names, only she got this strange middle name.

    1. That is an unusual, and pretty, name. We have others too, but there’s only so much space in a blog before readers lose interest. I’m compiling all of these essays for a book and may expand certain areas of discussion, including this one.

    1. I know. Especially since I’ve read recently that many of the spellings are phonetic. I guess this is one reason to be open. Just because it isn’t the right spelling doesn’t mean it isn’t the right person. I think of Verletunly/Violet. I almost dismissed that really unusual name. Though you can see how Violet would have been reduced from it. Still, where did that strange name come from? Mysteries wrapped up in an enigma.

  2. I can’t help but wonder if the registry for Violet’s birth record simply could not understand the mother or father’s brogue. Did they say to the registrar her name is “Violet, only” because she had no middle name. With their Irish brogue, the registry may have heard Verletunly.

    1. Wow! Interesting point. I hadn’t thought of that. Certainly sounds like a possibility. Thank you. 🙏

      Further, I have since discovered, while digging a little deeper into the extended Sparling family for other reasons, two more cousins with the name “Violet.” The learning never stops. 😊

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