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December 12, 2010

But I KNOW My Great Grandma's Name! So Why Am I Stuck?

Many of us know our great grandparents' names. One of my great grandmothers was a Vollick. I knew that, and I had proof (baptism, marriage, census records)

As I traced her lineage back, I found the trail stopped cold at *her* great grandfather, Isaac Vollick the Loyalist. I could not find him in New York before he arrived in the Niagara area of Ontario with Butler's Rangers. I hunted in every resource I knew of, to no avail. There simply were NO Vollicks running around south of the border in pre-Revolutionary times!

And then I stumbled on a very generous lady who steered me in the right direction with a casual remark "Oh did you know that your Loyalist ancestor Isaac Vollick used to be called Isaac Van Valkenburg?"

Huh? How the heck did one go from being a Van Valkenburg to a Vollick??!!! But she was absolutely correct in her statement. The reason I could not find any Vollicks running around south of the border was because it was not a "real" surname! My Loyalist ancestor simply adopted it. I think he adopted it as a nickname "Valk" (Dutch for falcon) from Van Valkenburg (meaning town of the falcon in Dutch) which may be what his comrades in arms called him. And it stuck. It became an established surname and there are thousands and thousands of Vollick descendants running around in America and Canada today.

There are also Follick descendants - because some of Isaac's sons and grandsons became known as Follick and that surname also stuck. I believe this alteration was due to the German/Dutch sounding "f" for "v". So instead of hearing Vollick, an English speaking/writing clerk no doubt heard Follick. And thus another surname was born!

That experience taught me to open my eyes to the possibility that a surname as we know may have changed greatly over the centuries. It may have been changed deliberately as in the case of my Isaac Vollick, or it may have been changed through mis-communication or mis-hearing.

For example my French LeRoy ancestor (prounced sort of like Le Wah in French - it's difficult to render it in text) settled in what is now Quebec in the mid 1600s. When he moved to New York, his name started being recorded as Larua, then Larraway. No doubt English speaking clerks mis-heard his name when he pronounced it! And so it began to be recorded as Larroway.

You must have an open mind when researching ancestors. You don't know if they changed their names. It may have changed due to mis-recording based on language differences. Did they change it to escape a bad situation? Did they change it simply due to having an established nickname that took hold? Whatever the reasons, if you are truly stuck on an ancestor, think about possible name changes. You may need to develop an entirely new area of thinking and researching!


Anonymous said...

Wow.....never underestimate random acts of kindness that changes our thinking, our direction...and in this case a name!
We have a similar situation with our Oseen family name ....after considerable work by the wonderful members of a Chinese web site...and, fortunately having two marriage certificates with signatures...we have found his name was HOU Sin...Oseen? well, guess the customs officials back in 1853 in Australia did what they thought best....

Barbara Poole said...

First, you have one of the best blogs around, and I first read it a good ten years ago, in a totally different format. As a person with a large number of New Amsterdam ancestors, I’ve been lucky to be able to use your information, many times over.

I have a lot of Laraways in my tree, direct line to my cousin. They came from New York and settled in the Eastern Townships area in Canada as Loyalists.

If I had seen your query, I might have been able to tell you about Van Valkeburg, as I read it some where. My Lourenz VanValkenburg m. Elizabeth Krans in Kinderhook, and also settled in the area of the Laraways. Thanks for this useful post today.

FranE said...

This is such a truth Great post

Cindy Phillips said...

I have had that on both sides of the family. I was stuck with my father until I finally found out the date (I had the month and year but needed the date) of his death and was able to order his death certificate. Then I was able to get his ss certificate. His name was MacDonald, but his fathers name listed on the ss certificate was McDonald. ONce I knew that I have gotten back to great great grandfather Alexander who came to PEI from Scotland. There I'm stuck because there are so many with that name and PEI is full of McDonald's.

Then on the Italian side, I'm stuck because there are so many spellings of Uliano, which was my mom's. name. However funeral home records have her dad as Juliano and I've seen something else as Iuliano. And my aunt things Mayor Guiliani is a far distant cousin.

S said...

I had this happen with my last name. My cousin, bless her, traced the family name back to Germany, and when she told me what the original name was, I was mentally going: o.O? How did it change from that to the current form? Until I realized that when you *said* the original last name out loud, particularly with German inflection, the 'dla' could have easily been interpreted as 'tlar' in the first American spellings and it makes perfect sense.

Very useful reminder!

Betty Dees said...

Lightbulb! We have hit dead ends on both my husbands and my ancestors that could well be attributed to pronunciation resulting in an alternative spelling. And all this time our families have denied the possibility. Maybe great-grandmother was onto something! I love this newsletter!

rodokmen said...

Wow! Great story and very interesting post! Thank you!:)

Kathy Reed said...

I had a name change throw me off for nine years -- only recently did I "crack the case." Not only did the good Sisters running the orphanage give her a new "baptismal" name, but legal papers in my possession cited two different men as her father. I finally solved it.

LindaS said...

You always have to hunt with your *ears*, at least as much as with your eyes. Not only could the ancestor have had an accent, but the recorder of the info might have had a totally different accent. What one said and the other heard can be.... really different.

And even among literate folks, spellings were sometimes pretty fluid, even for their own surnames on their own documents, a hundred or more years ago.

Search with your ears if you are stuck on a spelled surname.

McKollicks end up being McCulloughs. Kestlys end up being Koestles. Ears and accents.