Beware of names!

Graham Norton and his mother were puzzled by their ancestor's ambiguous use of two different surnames...

Graham Norton and his mother were puzzled by their ancestor’s ambiguous use of two different surnames…

If, like me, you have ever had trouble locating an ancestor’s name knowing you are looking in the right place, you will know how frustrating it is to hit a brick wall. Hopefully this article may offer some further guidance.

You may recall when on oneWho Do You Think You Are? (UK) episode, on his quest to unearth his Protestant Irish roots, Graham Norton had some difficulty fathoming out whether his great-grandmother’s family name was Logan or Dooey. As the woman, by name of Mary, had not been married before, Graham was not initially able to explain why she should have two surnames. It eventually transpired that, while Mary was illegitimate (and her birth name was recorded as that of her mother’s maiden name, i.e. Logan), a rather convenient marginal note on the baptism certificate which had been scratched out mentioned that the father was a Fred Dooey. Although the episode only connects the facts, which go to explain why Mary would have used two surnames during her lifetime, it does not make a point which I find is very valuable to any genealogist: just because your ancestor used one particular form as his or her surname on an official document does not necessarily mean that he/she was known by that name. In the above example, it is perfectly possible that illegitimate Mary Logan was commonly known as Mary Dooey because it is likely everyone around her knew who her father was but, of course, she would not have been legally entitled to call herself anything but Logan on an official document, much less her own marriage certificate.

Surname order in Spain was not regulated until the end of the 1700's.

Surname order in Spain was not regulated until the end of the 1700’s.

A similar case where someone used a different name other than the one recorded on a birth certificate was the grandfather of a friend of mine. Born in the Canary Islands (where, it seems,  usage of aliases and fictitious first names is commonplace), the man -by name Manuel- had actually been recorded in the Civil Registry office as Mistral. You could argue that, in handwritten form, both names can look similar and may therefore be confused, but it was only by checking identity cards and the certificate itself – where incidentally date of birth and parents’ names coincided perfectly- that we grasped that Mistral actually went by a different first name. Maybe he disliked his birth name and never bothered to change it officially?

Names can also be horribly confusing, especially if you dig back enough. In Spain, everyone has two surnames: the first one is that of the father, and the second is that of the mother. For instance, Pablo Picasso’s real name was Pablo Ruiz Picasso, Ruiz being his father’s first surname, and Picasso being his mother’s first surname). The mother, María Picasso López, inherited the Piccaso surname from her father, and López from her mother, and so on… Women in Spain don’t take their husband’s surname upon marriage, which makes researching maternal lines easier than in other cultures that have different practices… Or so I thought, because if you are researching your Spanish ancestors pre-1800 you may find that the order of surnames can be very confusing as well. In fact, it was common practice during the 1700’s for daughters to take the mother’s surname, while sons would take the father’s. This means that my ancestors Juan Pérez and María Domínguez could easily have been the parents of two children called Carlos Pérez and Susana Domínguez, and you would not guess from the outset that Carlos and Susana were related, much less full-blooded siblings!

So, a note of caution, fellow researchers. Beware of names, beware of surnames, and beware of surname order. In fact, just beware when researching your family tree!

This entry was posted in Birth, Civil Registration, Galicia, Genealogy, Illegitimacy, Ireland, Marriage, Spain, Who Do You Think You Are?. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Beware of names!

  1. Had this issue with my grandfather’s eldest brother. Eventually found his birth record under his mother’s name with his father’s surname as a middle name. No one in the family had known he was illegitimate. Father’s name is used on every other record.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s