What's in a Name?

Published on 4 December 2020 at 00:57

For as long as I remember my grandmother, my mother, my aunt, everyone had called my great-great maternal grandmother Jane. Jane, it was told, was a thin woman with long dark hair and was a Native American. 


At least her physical description and ethnicity were accurate. A photo I had been given years later proved that much. One glimpse and you can tell she was without a doubt Native American. 


My grandmother told us all from time to time that my mother reminded her of Jane. Both women were talkative, thin, energetic, and had long dark hair. 


In 2008 I decided to join Ancestry.com, which was brand new at the time, and see what I learn about Jane. From studying history and having traced family members for other individuals, through documents, archives, and other offices, I knew certain records were harder to find than others.


In Jane's case, there was absolutely no information about her having been in my family, not even a death record. I knew she had lived in Alleghany County toward the end of her life, so not having a death certificate was a bit of a quandary.  


Keeping in mind that most vital records were not well maintained until the 1920s and those that had been kept in family Bibles. Although she is mentioned in our family Bible, I was still expecting to see some proof of her having lived and died here.


After a few years and having completed much of the family tree I circled back to Jane, feeling a little more hopeful the second time around. I tried using another search tool, also well known to many genealogists and historians in our area called FindAGrave. If you have loved ones who have been deceased and you want to find other relatives like a spouse, it can be a helpful resource to use. 


Having typed in Jane's name, surname, suspected DOB/DOD, once again had no more answers than I did the first time I tried researching her. More annoyed than anything I decided to try one other tactic. Searching for her husband. Once his name and DOB/DOD were typed in and the search button clicked, an image of the headstone came up. Staring back at me was not at all what I had expected.


Jane was not Jane at all. Picking up the phone I contacted my mother and asked, "Was Jane a nickname they had given her?" My mother responded, "No, her name was Jane." Shaking my head I took a screenshot and sent it to her. "Her name was Ellen," I answered, "Not Jane." There was a brief silence as my mother looked at the image at the other end. 


For years we had all assumed that my two times great-grandmother's name was Jane. It was not. Even more interesting is there are Several stories just like this one in the genealogy community, however, to be fair, my two-times great-grandmother's name of Jane was my great-grandmother's middle name. Bessie Jane. Once that hurdle was cleared, I learned Jane was a family name, but for Ellen, it was more or less a nickname. 


Genealogists depend on the names and surnames of individuals to be able to piece trees together accurately and honestly. When memory and records fail to provide researchers with an accurate picture of their loved ones it can leave us feeling inadequate to be the gatekeepers of such information. However,  equally, we do not let it. It is merely a sign that we are human and even back then family loved one another enough to give their relative nicknames. 


Contact Dividing Ridge Genealogy today for information, advice, or tips on how to further your family history research. Branch Out with us. 


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