Saturday, March 31, 2012

Surname Saturday - Lefebvre

Today's Surname Saturday post will round out the month of Smiths. So far, we have discussed English Smith, Slavic Kowatch and Breton Le Goff. This week we are going to stay in France, but turn to the French surname Lefebvre. French is a Romance language, one of Europe's "Big Three" language families together with Germanic and Slavic. The Romance languages have their origins in Latin.

The surname Lefenvre was carried to North America by early settlers of Quebec, including my wife's 10th great grandmother, Angélique Lefebvre, who also happens to be the mother-in-law of my 11th cousin once removed, Pierre Samson.

The ultimate origin of the name Lefebvre and variants like Lefèvre is the Latin word faber meaning "craftsman". You may recognize the root in English words of Latin origin like fabricate and fabric.  Through a process of semantic narrowing, the word took on the more specific meaning of a craftsman in metal. This term is no longer used in Modern French where we find forgeron. 

This name is mainly found in the north of France in Normandy and the regions of Picardy, Île-de-France, and Nord-Pas-de-Calais, areas that supplied many of the settlers of New France including a number of bearers of this name (See map).  You may also have noticed that this name includes the definite article "le".  Unlike Le Goff where the article is usually written as a separate word, Lefebvre is almost always written as a single word.  For more discussion of the use of article in French names, check this earlier post.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Language identification challenge (Answers)

 All three examples from this week's language identification challenge are taken from records on FamilySearch.

1. Italian - Italy, Caserta, Gricignano d'Aversa, Civil Registration (Comune), 1809-1929

First, the similarities to Latin and French should be pretty clear.  We can conclude that it's a Romance language. First, let's compare the words for "year" in a few Romance languages.
Catalan any
French an
Italian anno
Portuguese ano/anno
Romanian an 
Spanish año
Based on the forms above, the language is either Italian or Portuguese.  Now let's look at the words for "thousand".
Italian mille
Portuguese mil
So, it's Italian.

2. Dutch - Netherlands, Gelderland Province Civil Registration, 1811-1950

First, the similarities to English and German show that it's a Germanic language.  Let's look at word for "year".  In many languages, the English Y sound is represented by J.

Danish år
Dutch jaar
English year
Frisian jier
German Jahr
Icelandic ár
Norwegian år
Swedish år

It's Dutch. 

3. Portuguese - Portugal, Coimbra, Catholic Church Records, 1459-1911

This is a little tricky.  In modern Portuguese "year" is spelled with one N (ano), but in older records you will find it with two Ns (anno). If possible, it is useful to consult an older dictionary like this one available through Google Books.  In this case, we go through the same procedure as with Italian.  Another good marker of Portuguese is do, which is a combination of the preposition de "of" and the masculine singular article o "the". 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Finding online French records, Part 2: Navigating French departmental archives

Once you have found the webpage for the appropriate departmental or municipal archives (see here), the next step is to find the relevant information on the website.  To do this you should know a few basic phrases.  The first thing you want to find is the location of the online resources. The key phrases are archives en ligne "online archives" and archives numérisées "digitized archives", even just the terms en ligne "online" or numérisé(es) "digitized" might point you in the right direction.

Let's take a look at the Departmental Archives for Calvados in Normandy (here).  On the right side of the webpage you will find the following box:

You will want to click on the second item down "Les archives numérisées en ligne".  This will take you to a page that lists their online collections.  There are two sets of resources.  The resources of most interest to genealogists are in orange and unfortunately you must pay in order to access them ("Nos consultations payantes").  The three collections that require payment are:
  • REGISTRES PAROISSIAUX ET D'ETAT CIVIL - Parish registers from the 16th century including baptism, marriage and burial records up to 1792 and civil registers since 1792  with birth, marriage and death records
  • CADASTRE NAPOLEONIEN - Land maps first instituted by Napoleon
These are three of the most common types of collections available on departmental archives websites.  The census, here "listes nominatives", will also sometimes be referred to as "recensements de population".  In some departments, these collections are free, but for Calvados a small payment is required. The rates (here) range from 2€ for two days to 200€ for a whole year.  Even if the collections are free, you may still need to register to use a departmental archives website.

Next, click the "consulter" button for "registres paroissiaux et d'état civil", probably the most important collection for genealogists.

 Now, let's take a look at the search form.

The first heading is "Vous connaissez le lieu?", "Do you know the place?".  In the first box you enter the commune you want to search for records in.  If you don't know what a commune is check this post. Under that box is a pull-down menu that will let you search by all the parishes and institutions in that commune.  For a large city you will have many choices, while a small commune may have only one parish.

Under the second heading you can search for a commune in an alphabetical list by clicking on the link in green.

Under the third heading, we can limit our search by date. You can put a single year in the box marked "Exacte" or a range starting with "Début" and ending with "Fin".

Finally, we have the heading "types d'actes", "types of records".  Here are the key terms:
  • Baptême - Baptism
  • Mariage - Marriage
  • Sépulture - Burial
  • Naissance - Birth
  • Décès - Death
  • Table décennale - (an index for civil records covering a ten year period)
When you are ready to search, make sure you hit "OK", not "ANNULER" which will clear the search box. Even if you have haven't paid yet, you can search and see what records they have; you just won't be able to view the images.  Play around and get a feel for the materials they have.  You can also try navigating other departmental archives with your new arsenal of words and phrases.

If you are still struggling you can use Google Translate, you simply need to enter the URL.  One limitation is that it will only translate regular text, not text in images. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Finding online French records

Many French records are available online.  You will usually find records at the departmental level. For a description of French administrative divisions, please consult this earlier post.  Many records like civil records, parish registers, and censuses are kept at the departmental archives.  Fortunately, many of these records have been digitized and are free and easily accessible. Lists of archive websites can be found on the following sites:
Each department is separate and may have a very different set of records available online, from very extensive offerings to none at all. If your ancestors lived in a city, records may be available through a municipal archive as is the case with the city of Nantes (see earlier post).

Next time, I'll present some key words that you will need to navigate the websites of French archives.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Tombstone Tuesday - Willard Davis

et 7ds

My fourth great grandfather, Willard Davis, is buried in Baldwin Cemetery in Baldwin, St. Croix Co., Wisconsin.  He was born in Franklin County, Vermont, and moved to Baldwin around the time of the Civil War

Ashes to Ashes
One thing that this inscription illustrates is the persistent use of Latin.  Although the use of Latin is more strongly associated with Catholicism, the language remained a mark of learning among English-speaking protestants.  The motto for the oldest university in the United States is the Latin phrase Veritas "Truth".  Latin is especially common in abbreviations.  Even, today, abbreviations like etc. are common.  So, if you can't figure out what an abbreviation is, consider the possibility that it might be an abbreviation of a Latin word.  In this inscription, we find the abbreviation Æ. for Latin Aetatis, meaning "of the age (of)". Of course, you can probably guess the meaning from the context.  The word aetatis may also be abbreviated as Æt. or Ætat. as it is on the tombstone of Ruth (Denison) Kingsbury (here).  Also, notice how the A and E are written as a single character.  This letter is called "ash" and was originally used in English to represent the vowel in ash.  It still has this use in phonetic transcriptions, like ash [æʃ].  This letter was also commonly used to represent the Latin combination "ae" even though this combination doesn't have the same sound.     

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Language identification challenge

Here's a challenge for you.  In a recent post, I described one trick for identifying the language of a genealogical record   Can you identify the language of the following documents from the small selections provided?  They are different languages from those in my earlier post. Can you tell what family the languages belong to?

Challenge #1

Challenge #2

Challenge #3
I will post the answers on Friday. Please feel free to leave your guesses in the comment section.

A tip for identifying the language of a document

When approaching a new document, the first thing you need to do is identify the language it is written in. Then, you'll be able to find an appropriate dictionary and other tools that will let you make sense of it. There are a number of ways to do this, but you often need look no further than the first three or four words.  Many records like birth, baptism and marriage records follow very common formats.  One feature of these documents is that they often begin with the date the event occurred or was recorded.  So, simply by knowing a few common expressions you can quickly and easily identify the language of a document.

My Schoendorf line lived for several generations in Peppenkum . Although now a part of Germany, this area was ruled at various times by both France and Bavaria.  Records for this predominantly Catholic area are written in at least three different languages, Latin, French and German, depending on the period and context of the document. For example, I have three different documents (all available at the Family History Library).  The first is from a marriage record in a church register from 1782 for Johann Georg Schoendorf and Catherine Conrad.
Source: Film 351837
The first words are "L'an mil".  L'an is a contraction of the French words Le, which is the definite article "the", and an, the word for "year". Mil is the word for "thousand".

Next is the marriage record for their son Johann Schoendorf and his wife Anna Maria Klinlger from 1817.

Source: Film 351839
The language has changed; in place of French we find the Latin phrase "Anno Domini milesimo".  Anno means "in the year".  If you just wanted to say "the year", you would use annus, but Latin has special endings that tell you what function the word plays (see this post).  In this case, the ending -o tells us that it means "in the year".  Domini means "of the Lord". Here the ending -i tell us that Dominus has a possessive function.  Finally, we have the word milesimo (usually millesimo).  For now, let's just say it means "thousand".  I have a post planned for dealing with Latin numbers, which are a bit complicated.

You may have noticed the similarities between the French and Latin words for year an and anno and those for thousand mil  and millesimo.  This is because French, like all Romance languages, descends from Latin.

The final record, from 1866, is the civil registration of the birth of Caspar Schoendorf, the grandson and great grandson of the above couples.

Source : Film 1057430
Once again we encounter a new language.  This time it's German.  The first four words are "Im Jahr ein tausend", which translates as "In the year one thousand".  This is almost a word-for-word translation of the English.  The only tricky part is the word "im" which combines the preposition in "in" with the definite article dem "the".

Because English is a Germanic language, you will notice the similarities between German and English.  The word Jahr, where the initial J is pronounced like English Y, is similar to the English word year, and tausend is very close to thousand.

The first few words in all three documents contain the same two words, "year" and "thousand".  Think of these as keywords; since you are very likely to encounter them in a document, they can help you identify the language.  It may not help for every record, but it is at least one way of narrowing down the possibilities.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Surname Saturday: Le Goff

Today, we continue with the Smith theme moving from the East back to the West.  So far, we have seen Germanic Smith and Slavic Kowatch.  Now, let's turn to the Western edge of Europe and the Celtic language family.

At one time, speakers of Celtic languages were spread across Europe over France, Spain and Central  Europe (see map here).  Celts settled as far away as Asia Minor (Turkey), where they are known as Galatians (as in Paul's Epistle to the Galatians). However, with the Roman conquest and later movements of people, including Germanic and Slavic peoples, the languages of the continental Celts were replaced by other languages, like the precursors of Romance languages, such French, Spanish, and Italian.  The Celtic languages survived only in the British Isles, where they were threatened by another invasion, that of the Angles, Saxons and other Germanic peoples.  Speakers of British Celtic were pushed to the West surviving in Wales and Cornwall.  Another group left Great Britain and settled in what is now Brittany.  The similarity between the names Britain and Brittany is not a coincident.  The Breton language has close ties to its British cousins, Welsh and Cornish.

To this day, the Breton language continues in Brittany, although it has rapidly lost ground to French over the last two centuries.  The language survives in many place names and surnames.  One common surname of Breton origin is that of my 7th great grandmother, Catherine Le Goff, the wife of François Marquer and the daughter of Pierre Le Goff and Marie Perrot.  The name Le Goff comes from the Breton word for blacksmith, gov.  Like many Breton surnames, it is formed by adding the French article Le before the Breton element, perhaps translating the original Breton article Ar.  Also, as is common with languages which were not standardized or used in written form until relatively late, the spelling of names often diverges significantly from the modern standard. 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Follow Friday: Extra, Extra!

I have in the past extolled the virtues of using foreign-language newspapers in genealogical research (here).  This week one of my favorite genealogy blogs, Midwestern Microhistory,  informed readers of a few exciting resources for those working on Chicago genealogy (here).

The most exciting for me was the Foreign Language Press Survey from the Newberry Library, which is a collection of translated articles from foreign language newspapers in Chicago between the years 1855 and 1940.  The project was administered by the Chicago Public Library with funding from the Depression-era Works Progress Administration.  The articles represent several different ethnic groups, with particular large numbers of articles from German, Polish, Bohemian (Czech), Greek, Swedish and Norwegian sources.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Tombstone Tuesday - Jean Lacoste and Anne Courcelle

Jean Lacoste and his wife, Anne Courcelle, are entombed at St. Louis Cemetery #1 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The vault inscription is typical of French inscriptions found in this historic cemetery.  For the most part, it can be translated directly into English without much trouble.  The phrase "Ici Repose" is literally "Here Lies".  The only major difference between the French original and English translation is the use of the definite article before the date in French.  For example, we find "le 2 Juin 1785",  not just "2 Juin 1785". The abbreviated style is also very similar to that of English inscriptions described in an earlier post (here).

Past participles in French
This abbreviated style is achieved by using a "past participle".  In English this form is usually formed by adding -ed. In many cases it is exactly the same as the past tense (died vs. died).  However, in other cases it is distinct from the past tense, like born vs. bore, been vs. was/were, sung vs. sang, etc. In French you can often identify the past participle by the ending -é, although like English there are many exceptions.  In place of born we find and in place of  died, décédé.  Another wrinkle is the fact that the past participle in French changes depending on whether it describes a man or a woman.  The feminine form of the past participle is created by adding -e.  Thus, for Anne Courcelle we have née and décédée, the feminine forms.  

This pattern for inscriptions can be extended to other languages, especially languages closely related to French such as Italian and Spanish.  In an Italian inscription in the same cemetery (here),  we find the same basic style using participles.  Like French, the Italian past participles also have special masculine and feminine forms, nato and nata (feminine) "born" and morto and morta (feminine) "died".

Ici Repose
né á Bordeaux le 2 Juin 1785
décédé le 10 Aout 1850.
son épouse
née le 21 Juin 1778.
décédée le  10 Juillet 1857.

Here Lies
born in Bourdeaux June 2, 1785
died August 10, 1850
his wife
born June 21, 1778
died July 10, 1857

Friday, March 16, 2012

Follow Friday - Éirinn go Brách

As St. Patrick's Day approaches, there has been a stream of very good posts related to Irish ancestry on genealogy blogs. Even though I have no Irish ancestry (at least of the green kind), I have long been interested in Irish culture and the Irish language.
  •  One of my favorite posts in the last week was the Surname Saturday post on the blog 'On a flesh and bone foundation': An Irish History. The post describes various government attempts to impose the English language and English surnames on inhabitants of Ireland.  This post points to some of the problems of assuming that the origin of a surname points to the ethnic origins of an ancestor, as they may have changed their name or adopted a new one, whether by choice or compulsion.
  • Anglo-Celtic Connections had two helpful posts informing us of two new Irish collections on, Belfast Newsletter 1738-1925 and Irish Probate and Marriage Index.  I plan to follow this blog closely as it focuses on topic relevant for my own research, British-Canadian genealogy.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Tombstone Tuesday - Herman Rich

I live close to the historic Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia, and enjoy strolling around the grounds.  My favorite sections are the two Jewish sections, where many of the monuments are bilingual, inscribed in English on one side and Hebrew on the other.  In an earlier post, I described how it is important to read both inscriptions because the information provided may be different.  Hebrew inscriptions commonly give the name of the father, whereas this information is typically left out in the accompanying English.

In the case of Herman Rich, the English inscription is very informative.  It gives the names of two children and a specific birthplace and place of death.

In fact, the English inscription is in many ways more informative than the Hebrew inscription.

There are a number of online sources that can help you translate Hebrew inscriptions. One of the most useful resources is on the JewishGen site.  They have a guide to reading Hebrew inscriptions which includes a vocabulary list and an explanation of the Jewish calendar (here).  They also have a very useful PDF on the site that provides an indispensable list of abbreviations (here) and a tool for translating letters to dates (here).  The translation of this inscription is as follows:

The great Rabbi Mr. Tzvi Rich
He was born in Kasschau in the country of Hungary [now: Košice, Slovakia]
in the year 5601 [1840/1841], and he died in the city
of Birmingham on the Holy Sabbath, 10th of Tevet
5668 [15 Dec 1907] May his soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life!

I have translated the verbs נפטר and נולד as "he died" and "he was born".  In Hebrew, the pronoun is included in the meaning of a verb, so a single verb can be a complete sentence.  You will often see these verbs translated simply as "born" and "died" following the common phrasing in English discussed here last week, but here I have chosen a more literal translation. In Hebrew inscriptions brevity is not achieved by writing in a shortened style like English, but rather by the generous use of abbreviations.  For example, "on the Holy Sabbath", which in Hebrew is בשׁבת קןדשׁ, is abbreviated as בשׁ''ק. Also, the scriptural passage at the end of the inscription is represented by five letters.

As an aside, coincidentally, Mr. Rich was from the same part of what is now Slovakia as the Kowatch family described in my last Surname Saturday post (here).  

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Surname Saturday - Kowatch

This month I am focusing on surnames that are in some way related to that most common of English surnames, Smith.  Like people, languages can be grouped into families that are related by descent from a common ancestor.  Languages in the same family will resemble each other in many ways.  Last Saturday, I talked about the surname Smith, which comes from the word for someone who works with metal. English belongs to the Germanic language family which includes German, Dutch and Scandinavian languages.  So, you find surnames like Schmidt in German or Smit in Dutch with the same meaning and origin.

In Europe there are three very large and important language families: Germanic in the North, Romance in the South, and Slavic in the East. In Slavic surnames derived from the word meaning Smith are also very common.  These include Kowalski and Kowalczyk in Polish, Kovář in Czech, Kováč in Slovak, Koval and Kovalenko in Ukranian, Kovalev in Russian, and Kovač in Serbian

Mathias Kowatch in the US Census

My second great aunt, Gertrude Schoendorf, married Matthew Kowatch.  This surname is most likely related to the Slavic surnames described above.  But, before we examine how it is related, let's take a look at my aunt's father-in-law, Mathias Kowatch  In a post earlier this week (here), I explained how we can use census to explore our linguistic heritage. Mathias Kowatch can be found in four censues (1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930).  Several different responses are provided for his place of birth. These include both the place listed on his enumeration and that of his son.

1900 - Hungary
1910 - Germany
1920 - Slk/Hun.
1930 - Czechoslovakia/Hungary

But in the three years where the mother tongue is provided, German is given.  What's going on here?

First, the 1910 census appears to involve a mistake.  I would guess that the enumerator assumed Mathias was from Germany because he speaks German.  This would fall into the category of an error.  For the other cases we have to understand something about the history of the region. Before 1918, much of eastern Europe was under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This empire was divided into two main parts: Austria and the Kingdom of Hungary. The Kingdom of Hungary covered modern Hungary along with modern Slovakia and parts of Romania and the former Yugoslavia.  The kingdom also contained large numbers of German minorities scattered throughout (See map of ethnic makeup of the empire here).  The pattern in the censuses suggest that Mathias was from what is now Slovakia and that he was a member of the German speaking minority.

Another clue comes from another error by the enumerator, but this time the error is in our favor.  Although the enumerator is only supposed to give the country of birth, sometimes a more specific location is given.  The 1920 census provides the following information:

This somewhat difficult to decipher place name may correspond to the town of Medzev, Slovakia, which is known in German as Metzenseifen.

The development of the surname Kowatch
Now that we have a better understanding of Mathias Kowatch, we can return to his surname.  One of the most common names in Slovakia is Kováč, meaning "smith".  In Hungarian, one of the most common names Kovács, which is spelled differentlyboth Slovak č and Hungarian cs are pronounced like English chbut sounds pretty much the same way.  The Hungarian name is a borrowing from Slavic.  The name Kowatch, which was probably originally Kowatsch, is the German spelling of this Slavic name; German w corresponds to v  and tsch corresponds to the ch-sound.  Tsch may have been changed to tch under the influence of English words like "watch".

It is possible that this Kowatch family was originally Slovak or Hungarian, but were later Germanized, but there is no way to tell from the available evidence.  Perhaps a DNA test would offer some evidence. This is a good example of how names are not always the best guide to the ethnicity of your ancestors.  Although the origin of a name may point to your ancestors' origins, this may be very remote with your ancestors having assimilated to another culture long ago or they may have adopted a name which is unrelated to their own family's origins.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Exploring your linguistic heritage #3: U.S. Censuses

Not many records will directly address the question of what languages your ancestors spoke. One notable exception is census records.  The U.S. censuses provide two relevant types of information.

Mother tongue
The first type of information is direct; censuses in some years provide explicit information about language. Both the 1920 and 1930 Censuses ask for the mother tongue or native language of foreign-born individuals, while the 1920 Census also asks for information about the mother tongue of foreign-born parents. Take my 2nd great grandmother Mary (Runiger) Kingsbury. She was born in Ohio, so her mother tongue is not listed in the 1920 Census, but her father was born in Switzerland and her mother was born in Germany, so their mother tongues are listed here as German.

The language spoken by an individual may also be listed in the 1910 and 1890 Censuses, but only if he or she does not speak English.  My 2nd great grandfather, Paul Schoendorf, was born in Germany and spoke German, but also spoke English, so his mother tongue, German, is not listed in the 1910 Census.

In contrast, his mother tongue is listed as German in both 1920 and 1930.


Make sure that you know what is being asked.  Read the column headings and the census instructions, which can be found on the Census Bureau website (here).

Place of Birth
The second type of information is more indirect.  All censuses since 1850 have asked about the place of birth of individuals and every census from 1880 to 1930 lists the places of birth of both the father and mother of the individual.  The place of birth can be an important clue to what languages your ancestors spoke.  This is also a case where it is useful to check out the the census instructions.  There are very specific instructions about how to list places of birth.  For example, the 1910 instructions direct the enumerators not to list "Poland" but instead either "Germany (Pol.)", "Austria (Pol.)" or "Russia (Pol.)".

Keep in mind that there are limitations to using the census.  First, not all enumerators followed the instructions very well.  In some cases, this can be to your advantage; they may add more specific information than requested by the census. In other cases, this may mean incorrect information; they may have incorrectly assumed the language of individuals in the census or simply not understood the person being interviewed.

Second, information, especially about parents, may be incorrect.  Your ancestors may not have known this information or may have had some reason to give false information.  You may have an ancestor where the place of birth of a parent seems to change with every census.  However, don't immediately assume that the information is false; there may be important clues even when the information is inaccurate or inconsistent.  For example, for my 2nd great grandfather, Alfred Eugene Madison, his father's place of birth  is listed as New Brunswick (C. Fr. [Canada French]) in 1900, Can. English in 1910, and Scotland in 1920. Of course, the last census is not compatible with the earlier ones, but maybe this indicates something about his ancestry.

Finally, the place of birth only tells us what languages our ancestor may or most likely would have spoken.  No country is purely monolingual and there are always linguistic minorities.  Remember that place of birth is only a clue, it's not direct evidence.   

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Tombstone Tuesday - The long and short of inscriptions

Information on a tombstone can be presented a few different ways. One of the simplest ways is as a name and two dates, sometimes just the years.  For example, the inscription for my wife's second great uncle, Albert Labiak, is done in this style.

In other cases, you have inscriptions in regular prose with complete sentences, as in the case of the inscription for my 7th great grandmother, Ruth (Denison) Kingsbury (image on Find A Grave):

Here Lies the Body of
Mrs. Ruth Kingsbury
wife to Deacon Joseph
Kingsbury she Departed 
This Life May 6 1779
 Ætat 93

She left five Children
61 Gran Children 132
Great Gran Children
15 Great Gran Gran 

However, this style is not very common in English, especially for more recent inscriptions.

A more common way of composing tombstone inscriptions in English involves a kind of abbreviated style of writing.  It is an example of economics influencing language; the effort and expense of inscribing a tombstone favors brevity.  Instead of full sentences with a subject and a verb, past participles are used. This style is used on the tombstone of my 3rd great grandparents, George and Prudence (Martin) Savage:

One reason that it useful to recognize these different styles is that understanding the language of tombstones in English can help you approach tombstones in other languages.  Over the next couple weeks I will show how particular styles are favored in different languages.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Parish registers in Quebec

Researchers working on French Canadian lines have access to a number of excellent online resources , including many primary documents. Catholic parish registers have been preserved to a remarkable degree and are easily available. The most convenient way to search the parish registers is through the Drouin collection available on The collection of vital and church records covers the Catholic Church and other denominations from 1621 through the 1940s, and in a few cases as late as the 1960s. The parish registers are fully indexed, but as always with French Canadian records be prepared for the variations that occur with French Canadian surnames described in earlier posts (here and here).

Parish registers can also also be accessed on (here). These records do not require a subscription, but are not fully indexed, so you will have to know the place and date when the baptism, marriage or burial took place in order to find the record. This collection also only goes up to 1900, so you will need to go to for later dates.

Both collections cover very similar territory, but don't assume that they are identical. Take the marriage record for my 6th great grandparents, Jean Baptiste Halé and Véronique Paradis, who were married in Lauzon on April 12, 1779. The quality of the digital images in this case differs considerably.
d'Augustin halé pere de L'Epoux
of Augustin Halé father of the husband
The second image makes it much easier to identify the name of the groom's father.

A final resource that can be very helpful in navigating these records is the PRDH which has a database called Repertory of vital events which covers many of the same records during the period from 1621 to 1799. The records in the database are extracts, not originals. The main advantage of this site is the standardization of surnames which makes it easier to search the records than at where you not only have to deal with numerous variants, but many poor transcriptions. You simply plug a variant into the name standardization tool and then use the standardized surname to perform your searches. Another advantage is the inclusion of marriage contracts from notarial records when the marriage was absent or incomplete in parish records and also the inclusion of a variety of other records. For a more complete description of the database go here. These records are available through a subscription.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Surname Saturday - Smith

Any person with substantial British ancestry probably has a Smith somewhere in the family tree. In my own tree it's my 6th great grandmother, Martha (Smith) Kingsbury (1710-1771) of Norwich, Connecticut. No English surname really compares to Smith in terms of frequency. In the United States Smith is still by far the most common surname occurring 2,376,206 times in the 2000 census, outstripping the next most common surname, Johnson, by more than 500,000 (Census Bureau website).

The name Smith is an occupational surname for people who originally worked with metal, such as blacksmiths, tinsmiths, etc. Although it is not entirely clear to me why this particular occupation would be so widely adopted as a surname, it is clear that it has. Not only is the surname exceedingly common in the English-speaking world, but surnames derived from metal-working professions are among the most common surnames across Europe, including the surnames Schmidt in Germany, Ferrari in Italy, Kowalski in Poland, Lefebvre/Lefèvre in France, De Smet in Belgium, Kovács in Hungary and several others. The main exceptions are places where surnames are mainly derived from patronymics such as Scandinavia and Spain (for earlier posts dealing with patronymics click here and here).

For the month of March, I am going to do a series of Surname Saturday posts on names in my own family that are related to or have similar origins to the name Smith.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The little bits, spelling and alphabetization

Not all parts of a name are created equally. Many names include function words like articles and prepositions. For English speakers, this type of formation is somewhat unfamiliar; English names don't include the definite article the or the prepositions of. However, in other languages, surnames that include these words are very common.

Names that begin with function words create a number of difficulties for genealogists due to their often inconsistent treatment. There are three main issues you have to consider.

One or more words?
There is a lot of variation in terms of whether the parts remain separate or are written as a single word. The preposition van "of" is characteristic of many Dutch names, including the 8th president of the United States, Martin Van Buren. It originally indicated the place of origin of the bearer of the surname and in Dutch it is left uncapitalized, Vincent van Gogh, literally Vincent of Gogh. In contrast, the Vanderbilt family, a prominent American family of Dutch origin, treats the name as a single word instead of van der Bilt "of de Bilt". You may also find in some cases a compromise where the name is written as a single word, but with internal capitalization, like VanBuren.

Disappearing words.
The second issue is that from generation to generation or even record to record the function word may disappear and then reappear. For example, on the marriage record of my 6th great grandfather, Jean Baptiste Blais, his mother is listed as "marie marguerite roi":

However, on her own marriage record from June 13, 1726 in Saint-Vallier, Quebec, she is listed as "margueritte Le Roy":

Both records are available as a part of the Drouin Collection on

Alphabetization. The final issue is how these words are alphabetized. You will find rules for alphabetization if you consult the MLA style guide or the Chicago Manual of Style, but don't expect these rules to be consistently followed. Be prepared to consider all options. This has been of special relevance to my research into my ancestors in Brittany.

In Lower Brittany names with a definite article are everywhere. My great grandmother, who was born in Nantes, had ancestry split between Lower and Upper Brittany. Her mother's ancestors were all from Lower Brittany, while her father's ancestors were from Upper Brittany. The division between the two parts of Brittany is partially linguistic. In Lower Brittany, Breton, a Celtic language, dominated, while, in Upper Brittany, Gallo and French, Romance languages, were the norm.

This linguistic divide is also reflected in the naming practices. I have 14 different surnames with the definite article Le among my ancestors in Lower Brittany, including Le Bourhis, Le Hiaric, Le Joudec and Le Bacquer. In contrast, I have yet to encounter such a name among my ancestors in Upper Brittany. In indexes from Lower Brittany, such as those from the commune of Plouguernével where many of my ancestors lived, names with an article are typically alphabetized by disregarding the article. For example, the name Le Bourhis is listed under "B" and is written as "Bourhis (le)". However, in indexes in Nantes where many in the family later migrated, the name Le Bourhis is found alphabetized by the letter "L" and is simply listed as "Le Bourhis". This does make some sense. In Plouguernével, because of how common names with the article are, it makes more sense to disregard it to avoid half the names being in the "L" section, but in Nantes where it is less common, this is less important.

In my own records, I generally take these names as a whole and just list the surname as "Le Bourhis". I think this is simpler and less confusing.