The family always said your great-grandmother’s maiden name was “O’Toole.” But was it really? Have you collected documents about her that would list her maiden name, such as her marriage license, death certificate, obituary, or her children’s marriage licenses, birth and death certificates, and so on? You might be surprised to find out that her surname was listed as “Towle” instead, which sounds similar and could be a variant spelling. Or maybe she had a first marriage to someone named O’Toole, rather than that being her maiden name. These are some of the many reasons why you should try to confirm the first and last names you have been given by viewing official records about your ancestor, especially those where she would have been present at the time of the record creation (like her marriage license).
This happened recently to one of our patrons, when she learned that a family story was not quite correct. She told me her great-grandmother’s maiden name was “Nancy Delong”*. She was interested in finding Nancy’s parents, but had looked in all the counties in which Nancy had lived with her husband and found no one with the Delong surname. She wondered aloud to me if Nancy might have dropped out of an alien space ship, or just why else she couldn’t find her. When this happens, it's a red flag that something is wrong (besides an impending alien invasion)! The answer could be one of several possibilities:
1. The spelling of the name could be off, a little or a lot, in the records; perhaps because the name was misspelled, the handwriting was unreadable, or the same name night be spelled differently, such as Smith vs. Smythe.
2. The reported name of the family is incorrect.
3. The family may have changed their name – but this happened very infrequently.
4. They were in a different location than expected.
5. The family IS there in the expected records, even though the patron reported being unable to find them, indicating that the patron needs more education in how to search in that databases or source.
To find out what was going on in this case, we chatted about the patron’s ancestor further and in the course of that conversation, I asked her several questions:
1. How did she know Nancy’s maiden name? She said it was passed down through the family. Had she verified this information with official records? No. (Red flag!)
2. Where had her great-grandparents had married? She thought it was in Knox County, Indiana. I advised her to try to locate the marriage record, as that is the simplest way to learn a woman’s maiden (or previous married) name.
When she found the marriage record, the name was spelled “De Lorngne.” Aha! If the name was verbally passed along in the family, this name is similar-sounding to Delong, depending on pronunciation and regional accents. Do we know which one was her actual maiden name at this point? No, but finding more records about Nancy should clarify it further. A search of Nancy’s children’s marriage records seemed to confirm that Nancy’s maiden name was Delorgne, but with several more variant spellings. All those were noted, so that when the patron looks for this family in further records, she will have a list of alternate spellings to search under. This, as well as learning to search effectively in genealogy databases, will help make her search more successful. For example, to find records in the Ancestry database under all the variations of this family’s surname, she should search using the “Soundex” and “Phonetic” options; under both names, DeLong and DeLornge (which are not Soundex equivalents); and with and without a space between the De and L.
Back to the hunt for Nancy’s parents: Armed with the new version of the surname and list of alternate spellings, the patron was able to search more creatively in the census and find a possible brother living nearby to Nancy and her husband in Illinois. He had the same birth state listed as Nancy did (New Jersey) and the same uncommon surname, so it seems promising that they might be related. More research should be done to confirm or deny this theory, while continuing the search for Nancy’s parents.
Have you looked and looked for your ancestor under the name you were given for that person, and come up empty? Is it possible that the name you were given was wrong or that you are not searching effectively to find all possibilities? When you think creatively, ask for help, and learn better search techniques, you can break through many a brick wall!
* Name changed to protect privacy.