Grinning and bearing genealogy research
While spring-cleaning my computer, I came across an old email I had sent to my brother a few years ago. He was interested in researching our ancestor known only as Martha. Although I had exhausted many sources in trying to find more about her, the mystery of her true identify remains.
My brother had never done genealogical research before, so I gave him a few tips to get him started. Reading those tips now makes me smile. Although I wrote them jokingly, I was telling the truth. I suppose my sense of humour has gotten me through a lot in life, including running into multiple dead ends while trying to identify an elusive ancestor.
This woman he researched was probably named Martha, but since I found few sources with her name and the handwriting was questionable, she might not have been. She lived between 1800 and 1890 and married my great-great-grandfather William McDonald, son of Alexander.
Here are the tips I gave my brother.
1) Martha might not be her name. It might be Margaret or Mary.
2) There are a gazillion William McDonalds in Nova Scotia (equally matched with Alexander McDonalds, Marys, Marthas and Margarets).
3) William is often shortened to Wm. The nicknames associated with it include Bill, Will and Liam. The nicknames for Margaret include Mary, Maggie, Greta, May, Meg, Daisy, Maisie, Pearl, Peggy, Molly and Gretchen. Nicknames are fluid; one might be used in one record, while another is used in a second record.
4) McDonald was sometimes recorded as McDaniel or some spelling similar to it, including McDonal.
5) Alexander McDonald — the first McDonald in Nova Scotia — probably couldn’t write or read, so when someone recorded his name and information, he would not have known they had spelled it incorrectly.
6) Alexander McDonald probably didn’t speak English, and if he did, he probably didn’t speak it well. He probably spoke Gaelic. His children would speak better English but not perfect English.
7) It was not uncommon for a wife to die and a man to marry another woman with the same name. Unless a death record or a second marriage record is found, you might never know a second wife existed. Isn’t this fun stuff?
8) If a child died, it was common for the next child born of that sex to be given that name. William (born c.1793) had two sisters named Catherine. The oldest one is thought to have died before the second Catherine was born. This name game can cause a lot of confusion when sorting out how many children a couple had.
9) It is not uncommon in the 1700s and 1800s for all the boys born in a family to have the first name of their father. In life, they would go by their middle name. One of our ancestors had seven sons and all their names were John. Only the youngest went by John.
9) The name bank 200 years ago was small. Everyone was named William, Alexander, John, Martha, Margaret, Mary or Elizabeth. Just joking — well, not completely. Every family group in our McDonald line had a William, Alexander, John, Mary and Elizabeth, and they all married individuals with similar names.
In closing, I’d like to wish you luck. You have lots of hair, so if you pull a few handfuls out, you won’t be bald.
“It is not uncommon in the 1700s and 1800s for all the boys born in a family to have the first name of their father. In life, they would go by their middle name. One of our ancestors had seven sons and all their names were John. Only the youngest went by John.”