Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Old McDonald was an Irish Farmer?

I've been working for the past couple of years as a volunteer indexer and arbitrator for the Family Search Indexing project being done by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (See my previous post about the New Family Search for more details on the project.) As I've gone through thousands and thousands of United States census records, it is extremely clear that names can provide big clues to your ancestor's country of origin.

America is a big melting pot. Most of us who are more than first or second-generation Americans have a mix of ancestral origins from more than one country. If we meet someone for the first time, and we discover their last name is Johnson, most of us don't think "Wow, he must definitely have some Scandinavian blood in him." Of course, then again, too many Americans believe that Barack Hussein Obama's middle name MUST make him Arab. That is an incorrect conclusion to leap to simply on the basis of his name. (Disclaimer: This is not a plug for any political candidate.)

However, having said that, back in the 1800's and early 1900's in America, an individual's name could be a huge clue to where someone's family immigrated from. Of course, most of the US census years asked for each person's birthplace, so if you found an ancestor that was an immigrant, the birthplace field would tell you right away a fact about your heritage. What if you haven't yet traced a line back to the immigrant ancestor, though? What if you are looking at the first or successive generations who were born in America? This is where the names start to give us something to go on.

For example, Irish names can be very easy to spot. Common Irish surnames began with Mc, O', or Fitz, such as McDonald, O'Brien, or Fitzpatrick. Irish first names from these time periods tended to be good, strong Catholic names, such as Patrick, Thomas, and John. Or Bridget, Sarah or Mary for women's names.

German names are hard to spell and say, but are easy to weed out. Gustav, Augustus, Herman, and Frederick were common male names. Girls were often given names like Mathilde, Fredricka, Augusta, etc. Witbeck (a surname in my line) and Hoschouer are examples of Germanic surnames.

Italian monikers included Giuseppe, Luigi, Victoria, Rosina, and Emilia. Of course, we've all seen the Godfather, so we know that Italian last names are just as telling as the first names: Marinelli, Logar and Pensa are just a few Italian surnames in my husband's line.

How about Scandinavian countries? Well, at the risk of repeating information you probably already know, these surnames were based on the child's father's first name and appended with son or datter (daughter). For example, if you had an ancestor named Olaf, and his last name were Oleson, it's likely his father's first name was Ole. And Olaf might have had a sister named Britta Olesdatter. Other examples of Scandinavian names are Jonson, Knuteson, Olafson, Nelson, etc. These names make it harder to trace parentage as the surname changed every generation, but they make it easy to spot Scandinavian ancestry in America during the 19th and 20th centuries. Common first names include Kerstin, Britta and Marit for girls, and Axel, Per or Carl for boys.

Eastern European names also had much in common. Anton, Ladislav, Stanislaus, Frank, Mary, Nettie, and Elsie crop up frequently in census records. Pejsa, Chanda, and Choura are some of the Czechoslovakian surnames in my line.

Oddly enough, the more English sounding the name, the harder it might be to guess the surname's origin. And remember, it is still an assumption until you find other sources to back up your hunches.

In addition, looking at a census record and finding that you had an ancestor born in America whose name was Don Vito Corleone doesn't guarantee that he will be of Italian descent (or a mobster, for that matter), but it is one more clue that can lead you in the right direction to tracing your genealogical lines farther back and eventually finding your ancestral homelands.

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