What's in a Family Name?
What's so important about your family name? Well, as it turns out, whether you're a genealogist or not, quite a bit. It is not only one of the terms that identifies you but it also identifies, in many cases, your parents and the rest of your family. Your name may reflect previous generations, be your mother's maiden surname, or be a means of hiding your true identity. Generally speaking, we are using "family name" as a synonym for your surname.
When I was a child, one of my favorite family members was my great grandfather. His given and last names were common everyday names but he had a rather unusual middle name. As I did research on his line later in life, I was never able to determine where that middle name came from. It appeared to be a surname but no one in the family except his own father had that same middle name. It certainly was not his mother's or grandmothers' family name. And no one in succeeding generations used that middle name until my first son was born. I loved my Grandad and wanted to preserve that memory by giving my son the same name. Perhaps my 2nd great grandfather was named after someone who had created a good memory for his parents.
Unfortunately, sometimes family names were changed due to circumstance. Perhaps the immigrant ancestor wanted to anglicize his name when he came to America or Canada. Perhaps the customs officer was unfamiliar with the spelling or even the pronunciation of a foreign name. Perhaps it was a name that denoted something negative. For example, many Irishmen dropped the O' from their names upon arrival in New York City when faced with signs in shop windows that read, "Help Wanted - Irish need not apply". If you had the same family name as someone infamous in history, you might have wanted to distance yourself from it - especially if you really were related! Women have the advantage in that they usually have the opportunity to change their family name when they marry, but have you ever wondered why some family names are no longer in use even though the ratio of male to female children is about the same?
Today it is a legal procedure to change your name - either given or family. Marriage is not the only time this can happen; it happens with adoptions as well. Formal adoption is a relatively recent event. In the 19th century and before, a child was considered an orphan even if his or her mother was still living. One had only to lose his or her father to be considered an orphan. Often, in cases where both parents had died or the surviving parent was unable to care for a child, other family members would step in and raise the child as though it were their own. In such cases, especially where a large estate was not involved, the child often retained his original family name. That is why, when you look at census records, you may find someone other than an obvious family member living with the family over several census years.
If you are researching your family tree, you may focus solely on your family name but that is only half of your lineage. It is always more difficult to follow your female ancestors because of the very fact that they did change their surnames but you owe them a debt of gratitude for who you are today as well.
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