Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Tombstone Tuesday - Sciaccaluga family vault

I recently visited New Orleans and had a chance to explore St. Louis Cemetery #1. Although the city is best known for its French heritage, the city has long been home to a wide variety of communities, including Italians, Irish and Germans. Walking through the cemetery, you'll find that most of the inscriptions are in French and English, but this masks a much richer heritage, which is told by the names you encounter. Not surprisingly many immigrants chose to use the language of the larger community, which was first French and later English. There are even a good number of inscriptions in French for people with clearly British names.

Among the vaults was one inscribed with Italian, the vault of the Sciaccaluga family. The earliest inscriptions are in Italian with last set of inscriptions in English. I want to concentrate on two of the Italian inscriptions:

Filomena Cuneo,
Sposa di G. Sciaccaluga
Nativa di Genova, Italia
Morta il 25 Aprile 1897
Di Anni 53

Guiseppe Sciaccaluga
Nativo di Genova
Morto Decmb. 18 1914
Di Anni 80

The inscription is very easy to understand:

Filomena Cuneo,
Wife of G. Sciaccaluga
Native of Genoa, Italy
Died April 25, 1897
Aged 53

Giuseppe Sciaccaluga
Native of Genoa
Died Dec. 18, 1914
Aged 80

There are a few interesting things in these inscriptions. Notice the differences between the two inscriptions. As in other Romance languages, Italian has grammatical gender. Both nativa "native" and morta "dead" end with -a for Filomena, but nativo and morto end with an -o for Giuseppe. In this case -a is the feminine ending and -o is the masculine ending.

Perhaps, less obvious is that the husband's name is spelled strangelly. Giuseppe is spelled "Guiseppe", the "i" and "u" are reversed. There are also differences in how the date is presented and the abbreviation used for December is unexpected. In Italian, the word for December is dicembre, so it is odd that the abbreviation used is "Decb.". It seems likely that the inscription was done by someone who did not know Italian and perhaps at this date there was no one in the family to guide the inscriber properly.

It is always good to keep in mind that a language might get a little mangled in the wrong hands and that knowledge of a language tends to decline in an immigrant family over time.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Surname Saturday - Wood

For President's Day I wrote a post about the widespread practice of naming children after presidents, a practice which has largely fallen out of fashion. In this country, presidents are held in particularly high regard. Their faces decorate our money and their monuments and memorials define our nation's capital. Still, there is probably only one figure in American History who, though never president, rivals even the greatest presidents in fame, Benjamin Franklin.

Not surprisingly, many Americans have been named after him, including my third great grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Wood (1847-1896). However, since this is a post about surnames, let's take a look at the name "Wood". Although many surnames have obscure origins, others hide nothing. "Wood" is clearly of English origin, which in my family's case is supported by the fact that Benjamin's father, John Wood, was a native of England who immigrated sometime in the first half of the nineteenth century. The meaning is also clear; it probably originally indicated the place where the bearer of the name lived or customarily worked, that is a wood or forest.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Beyond French 101: It's all relatives

What you need to know depends on what you are using a language for. Fortunately, what you need to know to read a record is often much less than you would need in other contexts, like having conversation. Even if you can't read every word, you can still get a lot out of records. The key for making effective use of records is knowing the right structures and vocabulary.

Not surprisingly one of the most important vocabulary domains for a genealogist is the terminology used to describe different relatives, what linguists call "kinship terms". If you took a language class in school, you probably know the basic terms for the members of a nuclear family, such as "father", "mother", "son", "daughter", "brother" and "sister". You may even know a few others like "grandmother", "grandfather", "uncle" and "aunt". These are all essential terms and, if you are new to a language, This is the place to start.

Take the following excerpt from the marriage record from Québec City of my 9th great grandfather, Guillaume Paradis, which is available on ancestry.com in the Drouin Collection:
Guillaume Paradis fils de Pierre Paradis et Barbe Guion ses pere et mere
Guillaume Paradis son of Pierre Paradis and Barbe Guion his father and mother
In just a few words, you encounter three basic kinship terms fils "son", père "father" and mère "mother" in a somewhat redundant, but very common, formulation. Don't worry too much about the accent marks; they are not that common in handwritten documents.

The basic kinship terms in French include:
père father
mère mother
fils son
fille daughter
frère brother
sœur sister
grand-père grandfather
grand-mère grandmother
oncle uncle
tante aunt
Going further: In-laws
While these terms are essential to your genealogical research, you will encounter other relations in your research that may be of great help. These include cousins, nephews, nieces and in-laws, who may be listed as sponsors or witnesses on different records. '

One of the more useful terms I have found in dealing with civil records in France is beau-frère "brother-in-law". On the civil marriage record of my fourth great grandparents, Louis Charles Le Bourhis and Marie Anne Le Bacquer, a brother-in-law is listed:
En présence de Michel Le Corre âgé de vingt sept ans, profession de cultivateur à Plouguernével départment des Côtes du Nord qui déclaré être beau frere du contractant
In (the) presence of Michel Le Corre aged 27, profession of farmer in Plouguernével department of Côtes du Nord who declared (himself) to be the brother-in-law of the contractant
The reason that this particular relationship is very useful is because many indexes to marriage records are listed only by the groom. This particular record allowed me to search a table décennale, an index to French civil records which covers a ten year period, and find the marriage record for Louis Charles' sister, Margueritte Le Bourhis, in the online archives for the department of Côtes d'Armor. This is one good way of finding records for your ancestors' female relatives.

The word beau-frère also illustrates the way words for in-laws are formed in French. All you need to do is add beau before the appropriate kinship term. You may already know this word which means "beautiful". For women you need to use the feminine form belle. There are also plural forms for both masculine (beaux) and feminine (belles). Now, if you already know the basic terms, you can add six more:
beau-père father-in-law (pl. beaux-pères)
belle-mère mother-in-law (pl. belles-mères)
beau-fils son-in-law (pl. beaux-fils)
belle-fille daughter-in-law (pl. belles-filles)
beau-frère brother-in-law (pl. beaux-frères)
belle-soeur sister-in-law (pl. belles-soeur)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Exploring your linguistic heritage #2: Embracing complexity

It is important when we think about our ancestors that we don't make too many assumptions based on our modern situation. Many Americans live in a very monolingual world. We speak and write almost exclusively in English and every thing that documents our time here is written in English.

However, this is a peculiarly modern situation. Before the 19th and 20th centuries, most people lived in large multilingual empires. In the British Isles today, Celtic languages like Gaelic, Cornish and Welsh have been relegated to often shrinking communities at the peripheries, but if you were to go back to Shakespeare's time you would find large areas where languages other than English dominated. For example, as late as the 1890's Scottish Gaelic was the majority language throughout the Scottish highlands.1

Be prepared for a degree of complexity that may be quite strange to us today. Many of our ancestors would have encountered many different languages in their lives. Records may have been produced in several different languages. It is very common for church and synagogue records in the same place to be in one language and government records to be in another. Throughout the world, Catholic church records were commonly kept in Latin. For my Schoendorf line in Saarland, I have church records in Latin and civil records in German and French. A single area may have changed hands, sometimes several times, and each time with a change in the language of administration. If your ancestors lived near a border, don't be surprised to find that the languages of the records changes from time to time.

To make things more complicated, your ancestors may not have even known the languages that these records where in. In some cases, they may have spoken a dialect very different from the standard form used in writing or they may have spoken a completely unrelated language. In other cases, your ancestors may have been comfortable in more than one language, switching from one to the other depending on the situation or need. The situation may even have changed across generations.

As always, be careful what you assume. Just because your ancestors were from France doesn't mean they spoke French. They may have spoken a language like Basque, Breton, German or Flemish. Conversely, just because they are from a region where one of these languages was spoken doesn't mean they didn't speak French. You have to weigh the available evidence carefully.

1. Kenneth MacKinnon. "Scottish Gaelic Today: Social History and Contemporary Status," in The Celtic Languages, ed. Martin J. Ball (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), 491-535.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Presidential Naming

One of my great uncles was named "Grover Cleveland Savage". He was born on November 20, 1885 in the first year of president Grover Cleveland's first term. Another uncle, Franklin Pierce Kingsbury, was born in 1852, the year Franklin Pierce was elected president. A third uncle, Lincoln Avery, was born on 24 Oct 1860, the year Abraham Lincoln was elected. The campaign of Lincoln seems to have so moved his parents that they named their son after him, even though they were living in Canada.

So, how big of an effect do elections have on how Americans name their children? To answer this question, I checked out NameTrends.net, which gives data from 1880 to 2010. In some cases the effect appears to be quite large. For example, the name Grover experienced a substantial rise during Cleveland's first campaign and subsequent peaks during his two later campaigns in 1888 and 1892 (see chart here). More than five times as many boys were named Grover during the year of the campaign and his first year in office than the year before. This is the biggest increase for any of the presidents during the years covered. All the presidents from Grover Cleveland to Franklin Roosevelt experienced a naming bump in the campaign year and the first year in office. The following list indicates the size of the naming bump of different presidents from highest to lowest.
Number of additional boys with name per 1000Grover Cleveland - 5.45
Warren Harding - 3.76
Woodrow Wilson - 3.71
Franklin Roosevelt - 2.89
Herbert Hoover - 2.75
William McKinley - 2.06
Benjamin Harrison - 1.88
William Howard Taft - 1.43

After WWII, a major shift appears to have taken place in how Americans chose names for their children. For all post-WWII presidents, the size of the bump has been smaller and often non-existent. Of these president, arguably only Eisenhower and Kennedy had naming bumps. Eisenhower is something of a special case, as the name "Dwight" had already experienced a surge during WWII when General Eisenhower first rose to prominence. The name "John" grew steadily in popularity during Kennedy's presidency peaking in the year after his assassination. Compare this with Reagan who appears to have had very little effect on the fortunes of the name "Ronald".

Although the trend is clear, I am not sure what is behind it. What changed in American society and culture that would account for this change Do any readers have any theories? Please share them in the comments.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Surname Saturday - Boutron dit Major

Last week, I discussed one of the complications of doing research in French Canada (here). In addition to the widespread variations in spelling, French Canadian surnames present another challenge for genealogists. One common practice in North America was to use dit-names in addition to the surname. The word "dit" means "said" and can be translated as "called". For example, one of my wife's lines went by the name Boutron dit Major, Boutron being the surname and Major being the dit-name.

A common explanation for this practice is that the names were adopted in order to distinguish families carrying the same name. However, you will find that this practice is very widespread covering both common names and rarer ones, so it is probably best just to think of this more as a fashion that became popular in this part of the world. Despite how common this is in Canada, I have yet to encounter it in my non-Canadian French ancestors.

In many records you will find the full name given, the surname with the dit-name. In these cases, the dit-names can be useful, helping you identify the correct records. What makes these types of names more difficult is that either the dit-name or the surname is often omitted. In some records you may find members of the Boutron dit Major family listed simply as Boutron or simply as Major. When French Canadians migrated to the United States, sometimes they kept the surname and sometimes the dit-name. After they moved to New York, my wife's ancestors used "Major", a name which needed no anglicization.

There are two other complications with dit-names. First, for women, "dit" takes the feminine form "dite", Boutron dite Major. Second, the dit is often omitted giving you Boutron Major. Make sure you check all the possibilities.

If you are working back from the US to Canada, it is helpful to determine whether the surname derives from the original surname or a dit-name. A helpful online resource is provided by the American-French Genealogical Society. If you look up a name, you will find a number of associated names, this includes spelling variations, common anglicizations, dit-names associated with particular surnames and surnames associated with particular dit-names. Unfortunately, the database does not indicate the relationship only that the names are associated. The resource is also helpful in cases where a name is difficult to read in a record. If the surname is illegible, a legible dit-name may be the clue you need to connect that person to someone in another record.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Mappy Monday: Surname Mapping

Although it is now more than a year old, National Geographic Magazine posted a very interesting map of the most common surnames on its blog (here). The map lists the most common surnames for each state and varies the size of each name according to the number of people who carry that name in the state and the color of the name according to its assumed origin.

Surname mapping tools can be very useful for figuring out what part of a country your ancestors might have come from. In previous posts, I have discussed mapping tools for Poland (here) and France (here). Some of these sites allow you to look at the data in different ways. Maps can show relative distributions (frequency per some number) or absolute distributions (total number for each geographic division). Some maps also allow you to look at the distribution of a surname during different periods.

A list of tools for different countries is given on the Surname Tools page on this blog. I will add more sites as I find them.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Surname Saturday - Pageot

One challenge in researching French Canadian ancestors is dealing with the often wide variations in the spelling of a name. In French, it is often possible to represent the same sound in many different ways. This is especially true at the ends of word, where final letters are "silent", that is they are not pronounced.

Take the name "Pageot", the surname of my 4th great grandmother in my matrilineal line, Marcelline Pageot (1822-1867). I have found this name spelled at least four different ways in records relating to my direct ancestors: Pageot, Pajeau, Pajot and Pajeot. In this case, there seems to be very little pattern to which spelling is used. The first spelling is the most common and is found throughout my family's time in Canada. The following time line shows the variations in spelling over time.
1675 - Pageot
1703 - Pajot
1731 - Pageot
1731 - Pajeot
1755 - Pajeot
1785 - Pajot
1794 - Pageot
1820 - Pajeau
1822 - Pajeau
1839 - Pageot
1841 - Pageot
1850 - Pageot
1861 - Pajot
1867 - Pageot
This kind of variation can make it very difficult to decide on what spelling to use. Deciding on a standard can be helpful for organizing your research, but it is not always clear what the best choice is. Not only does the spelling often vary from generation to generation, but can vary over the lifetime of a single individual. For example, this surname is spelled three different ways on records for Marcelline Pageot. "Pajeau" on her baptismal record, "Pajot" on the 1861 Census of Canada, and "Pageot" on both marriage and burial records. The choice of spelling you use in your own records is a somewhat arbitrary choice. In this case, I have used "Pageot" because it seems the most frequent and is closest to the form used by relatives who immigrated to the United States. These relatives added a "g" to the spelling Paggeot.

Another possibility is to use the standardized forms of the surnames established by the PRDH and developed to facilitate use of their databases. A useful tool on the PRDH website allows you to enter a variant and find the standardized form (here). This tool can also be used in other helpful ways. Look at the results for my search on PAGEOT. As you can see the standardized form is PAGEAU. Notice that over twenty different variants are listed. Now, look at rightmost column, it shows how frequent each variant is. The three most common variants are PAJEOT, PAJOT and PAGEOT. You can use this information to do smarter searchers. Start with the most common variants and work your way down.