Friday, August 6, 2010

What's In A Name?

For something like 80 years, my great-grandfather Joseph had eluded identification by all his descendants who had tried to track him back to his birthplace and his family. When he saw that I was going back over my previous research and was more determined than ever to find him, he finally relented and decided to give me the crucial clue in the middle of the night.

“Look at the names I gave my children,” he told me, as clearly as if he were physically standing next to my bed.

I woke up immediately, positive that this was a genuine message, not a product of my imagination. Once I looked at the family records again, I saw the value of what he’d said.

The recorded names were as follows: William, Philomena, Mary Ann, Eugene, Joseph, Antoine F., Henry (my grandpa), Francis Xavier, James J., Mary Seraphine, Anna, Peter, Leo, and Alexander.

Now, some of these are common enough names both in the US and in Quebec, although the spelling of some was naturally different. William was Guillaume in French; Marie-Anne and Anne were as common in Quebec as Mary Ann and plain Ann or Anna were on this side of the border. Antoine F. (the F “probably” was for François) is clearly a French name; Henry was Henri in French; Francis Xavier (very common in Quebec, where many of the early missionaries were Jesuits, the order founded by St. Francis Xavier) equates to Francis or Frank in the US; James was Jacques, Peter was Pierre, Leo was possibly Léon or Léo (both were relatively rare names in Quebec in the early part of the 19th century), and Alexander was either Alexandre or, more commonly, Alexis, on the other side of the border.

But where on earth had my great-grandparents come up with Philomena and Eugene and Seraphine? These were not common names at the time either in Quebec or in the area of Michigan where the family lived.

As I thought about it, I realized there was a distinct pattern to the names Quebec parents gave their children (just as there were some distinctive naming customs in Denmark). I’d seen it in enough parish records; I just hadn’t noticed it before, because until now I hadn’t been following specific families through time from the marriage date to the birth of the last child and beyond to the children's marriages and the births of grandchildren.

When, for example, a Jean-Baptiste and a Geneviève began to have children, the first boy would almost always be named Jean-Baptiste and the first girl would almost always be Geneviève (the usual exception was when either or both already had living “juniors” from a previous marriage—although one of my ancestral Jean-Baptiste Chaussés had two sons named Jean-Baptiste, one from each of his two marriages, and both of them survived, married, and still have living descendants).

If the first little Jean-Baptiste died, the next boy born to the couple would be named Jean-Baptiste; the same was true if little Geneviève died. (Some desperate couples had four or more “juniors” perish in infancy; sometimes none of them survived, poor things.)

Children who were not “juniors” would usually be named for a brother or sister of one of the parents or for a brother-in-law or sister-in-law. Persons so honored commonly served as godparents to their newborn namesakes (if they were alive and able to attend the baptism). Once a couple ran out of siblings and siblings-in-law, or if they wished to honor a close friend or important person in the community, it was extremely common to ask that person to be a godparent and to name the child after that godparent.

This means that it is important to extract all the details of a baptism record: not just the names of the parents and the child and the date, but the names of the godparents. You will generally find that the godparents are not chosen at random but are close relatives or otherwise important people in the lives of the family group.

Since the church register from Assinins had been lost to fire in 1982, I had no way to determine who were the godparents for my great-grandparents’ children. I was also missing the names of at least two children who had lived their brief lives between censuses and before the county began reporting death records to the state of Michigan. Since Joseph and Henriette’s first son (born about a year after their marriage) was named William rather than Joseph, he was probably named for a godparent or sibling. However, William could have been the surviving twin of a Joseph who had died in infancy; it was also possible that William was in fact a William Joseph (or Joseph William). All I really knew about him was that he was born about 1856 according to the 1860 census and was not listed on the 1865-66ish Status Animarum.

Going back to my fictional Jean-Baptiste and Geneviève, if Jean-Baptiste’s brother Antoine married an Angélique, Jean-Baptiste and Geneviève were highly likely to name a son Antoine and/or to name a daughter Angélique. If Geneviève had a brother François who married a Marie-Thérèse, another son of Jean-Baptiste and Geneviève was likely to be named François and little François was likely to have a sister named Marie-Thérèse. The pattern was that Jean-Baptiste and Geneviève would usually name children after themselves first, then name subsequent children after the parents’ siblings, siblings-in-law, or after the godparents. Oddly, it’s not very often that you find children clearly named for the grandparents (unless the grandparent's "junior" had died without issue).

In other words, I needed to search for a Joseph who had siblings or other close relatives named Guillaume, Philomène, Marie-Anne, Eugène, Antoine, Henri, François-Xavier, Jacques, Seraphine, Anne, Pierre, Léon, and Alexandre. He didn’t need to have all those names in his immediate family; but he had to have some of them, especially some of the uncommon names. It seemed to me likely, for example, that my grandpa Henry was named for his mother Henriette and that Peter was named for Henriette's father Pierre Forcier.

So now I could comb the Quebec registers not only for Josephs but for clusters of names, particularly the less common Quebec names like Philomène, Eugène, Henri, Séraphine, Léon, and Alexandre or Alexis. (Practically every Quebec family had a Marie-Anne, an Antoine, a François, a Jacques, and a Pierre somewhere in the mix.)

If I found a family with any of those fairly unusual names—even if the family name wasn’t Chaussé—those families might still be closely connected by marriage to a Chaussé. Any parish where those unusual names showed up, even if there was no Chaussé living in the parish, might prove to be near to other parishes inhabited by Chaussés who were related to the family using those names.

In other words, Instead of searching only for Josephs (of whom there were very many), I could search for Philomènes, Eugènes, Séraphines, Léons, and Alexandres or Alexises (of whom there were relatively few).

In effect, Great-Grandfather Joseph had introduced me to cluster genealogy: researching your ancestor not as a single individual but as part of the larger group of extended family, friends, associates, and the community.

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