We received many responses to our recent survey and column on surname changes. Below is a sampling of reader comments.
Dave Cummings of Cleveland, Tennessee: One of my Irish lines is Higman, or so I thought. I hit a brick wall about 1850–1860, when I could find no Higmans anywhere. Fortunately, I found the ancestral name was actually Hickman. The Hickmans were in Northern New York in the 1840s and 1850s, and it seemed the name just became Higman. Then I practiced my best Irish brogue and found Hickman can be pronounced Higman. My second example is of a place name change, but the principle is the same. Researching my ancestor Elias Sage, who ended up in Northern New York, I read affidavits collected there testifying to his Revolutionary War service. Several said Elias had earlier lived in Saundersfield, Massachusetts. I looked at maps and could not find a town of that name. A more experienced researcher suggested that the key to the puzzle might be the Massachusetts accent, and that the town in question might be Sandisfield. She suggested I practice a Massachusetts accent to hear how the name might sound.
Elden J. Johnson of East Jordan, Michigan: A French-Canadian family moved to the country where I live (Antrim County, Michigan) many years ago. They spelled their name “Paradis.” The “s” was silent. Americans who didn’t pay attention to the “s” pronounced and spelled the name “Parody.” Others pronounced the “s” and it became “Paradise.” All three versions are in use today.
Joseph F. Thompson: Not until I became interested in genealogy did I realize that my Scottish immigrant ancestors, who came to Quincy, Massachusetts, in the late 1870s, spelled their name “Thomson.” Before I learned this, I had only researched people with the “Thompson” spelling. Learning about the surname change taught me an important lesson about being flexible and open to many possibilities when doing genealogical research.
T. Langford: Beware of descendants changing ancestral names! A number of relatives insisted our Hindorff ancestors name was originally "von Hindorff." Document research could find no such name. Pursuing "Hindorff" however eventually found that Nancy Vaughn, who married P.G. Hindorff, proudly referred to herself as Nancy Vaughn Hindorff and descendants wrote it down the way it sounded: Nancy von Hindorff! Well, it sounded good!
Coincidentally, some interesting postings about surname changes have also been taking place recently on two genealogy blogs. You can visit Marian Pierre-Louis’s blog, Marian’s Roots and Rambles, on the topic, “Ellis Island: Did They or Didn’t They?” and Judy Russell’s blog, The Legal Genealogist, under “What’s in a Name?”
For those who would like to weigh in on this topic, please visit the NEHGS Facebook page or the NEHGS Discussion Boards to post your comment or story.