What's in a Name?



Bay County is a complete melting pot, full of French, Canadian, English, Scottish, Irish, Polish, German, Dutch, Flemish, Ojibwe, and Eastern European heritage. Each of these groups brought their own unique cultures and traditions, many carrying on to today.


Naming traditions in the French, Spanish and Western European communities were based primarily on Catholic saints. Until the mid-1970s, the French government had a list of "approved" names that one could give a child. The list was based on the Bible and saints approved by the Catholic Church. Until the 20th century, most females from the French culture had hypenated names: Marie-Genevieve, Anne-Elisabeth, Marie-Antoinette. The tradition is based on naming the girl after the family patron (usually St. Mary or St. Anne), and then giving her a patron saint all her own. So finding a family of girls named Marie only means you found the family patron, but the individual would be named after her patron saint to distinguish her from her sisters. Spanish cultures, like the French, were rooted in the traditions of the Catholic Church. Every child had to have a patron saint, so every child would be named after a biblical or saintly person, less the family patron. 


In most western European nations, the tradition was to name the oldest son after his paternal grandfather, his next brother would be named after their maternal grandfather. Girls were likewise named after the paternal grandmother, then the maternal grandmother (or vice versa if one had recently died). Subsequent children would be named after people of influence (hence the large number of Napoleons appearing in French and Polish communities after 1830) or dear family friends.


Catholics often named their children after the patron saint whose feast day was celebrated the day the baby was born.  Ashkenazi Jewish couples named their children after people who had died so that the angel of death would not confuse the baby for the adult and take the wrong person. Polish Jews named their children after words that were never to be uttered by an evil spirit, such as Chaim (life) or Alta (old person). Protestant Francs tended to name their children after biblical characters, such as Jacob and Isaac.


In researching names in your own family, become acquainted with the culture and politics of the day.  Just as we name our children after prominent people of our own day, so did our ancestors. Hedwig/Edwige became popular in the mid-1800s because of a prominent actress of the day. John Paul became a popular name after the legend of John Paul Jones became part of school books in the early 1800s. Valentine and Napoleon became popular names in Eastern Europe after the invasion of the French under Napoleon.




Fitting into a new culture is much easier if you look like an established member of the community. Signs saying "Irish Need Not Apply" left many sons of immigrants changing their names to sound more British. Seamus O'Brian became James Bryant, Padric Kennedy took the name Patterson Cannady. Likewise, the French and Spanish dialects were very difficult for native born Americans to understand. Regis Bouthillet of St-Jude, Quebec became Richard Botiyette/Botette/Boutiyett of Bay City, Michigan. 


Nothing kept them from changing their names to blend in, especially as they  moved from one part of the country to another. So as you search, look for any possible name that you come across.


Similar, but Not Equal...


Being stagnant in your research by only looking for your ancestors will make your research so much harder. But that leads to the next trap, which is assuming that any similar spelling means someone is related to you. Back to our Boutillet ancestors, there are more than six separate emigrants to Noveau France with a name similar to Boutillet, including Boute and Boutillier. Though very similar, many reseachers through the years were sloppy in their research and assumed they were the same. So the descendents of Pierre Boutillet were often confused with the descendents of Pierre Boutillier. The result is that the majority of published information on either of these families is suspect and has to be researched all over again by each new genealogist.


Regis Bouthillet was the son of Pierre Boutillet and Marie-Genevieve Dompierre. Pierre was the son of Pierre Boutillet and Genevieve Jacob. One well-meaning researcher assumed that Genevieve Dompierre is a "dite" or alias for Genevieve Jacob. So in an article on the family that was published in a prominent New England genealogy journal, this assumption was published as a "fact", with the elderly Genevieve Jacob being listed as the mother of her grandchildren. Luckily for us, the Université de Montréal  publishes the very well researched "Programme de recherche en démographie historique" (PRDH), where the accurate records can be found and referenced back to original documents that still exist.


Integrity is the Key in Genealogy

The better our own research, the better our understanding of our ancestors. A good understanding of history, economics, linguistics, religion and sociology makes research so much easier. But the bottom line is to make the research your own and ensure that every branch is solid and the roots are strong. If you get information from someone else, research each piece of it for yourself and get your own independent documentation.  Always protect your originals and share only scanned copies of your information so that your own research is forever protected from loss.



Copyright © 2003 - 2005 all rights reserved Jan Nearing
Volunteers hold copyright to the material they have donated for this site.  Not to be copied and used in any format to any other site or in any other media. 


MIGenWeb Official Notices and Disclaimer

This server space page is provided by Michigan Family History Network genealogical server.