What’s in a Name?

hunley obeliskOne of my greatest discoveries almost never happened. I had turned down a project on numerous occasions because I felt the client expected me to arrive at a predetermined outcome. To be eligible to join a lineage society they wanted me to prove they were relatives of a notable person who was named, along with several others, on a cenotaph in Mobile Alabama and a grave marker in Charleston South Carolina.  I had explained that I did not do research this way. I was resolute in my position that the evidence must speak for itself and that no matter what the outcome; their desired outcome was not germane to the final answer.

On about my sixth phone call with this particular client, right before I was set to decline the project once again, the client said something that stopped me dead in my tracks. “You know that it is a rare surname,” they implored. I took pause and told them I would get back to them later in the day.

Rare surnames are a gift from the genealogy gods and when they appear you must seize the day. I have been fortunate to have had a few of them in my personal genealogy, and professionally I have dealt with quite a few. As stated in a past blog post, a large unique target is advantageous to correctly identifying somebody in the records, but nothing quite delineates a person from others than a unique name whether it is a given name or a surname.

I immediately started searching for the origins of the surname the client had provided. In relatively short order, I discovered that the name was very rare, even though it sounded common. Also, the name had a very specific origin in central England. The name first appears in the records of the early 14th century[1]; it has about a dozen different variants and links with two small English towns. This information was gold. I knew that any information I found that is pertinent to this project should lead straight back to these two towns. It also gave me another advantage, if I became stuck, I could always work the project in reverse to find records that could help resolve the question.

After discovering this information, I called the client to ask some more questions. I learned that the client’s family did indeed originate near the area of England associated with the surname. They explained to me that they did not have much information before the late 19th and early 20th century. I accepted the project on the conditions that the evidence would lead the research, and happen in ten-hour increments. At the end of every segment, we would reassess the project, its direction, and next steps.

After about two hours into this project, I had a suspicion that there was a problem with the given name of the project’s subject. The only people I found could not have been the person on the cenotaph and grave marker. There were two people in Mobile with the same surname and different given names. One person’s name shared the same first initial as the research subject.

I researched the cenotaph and the grave maker. The cenotaph, in Mobile, was erected on the 50th anniversary of the death of the men in Charleston. On the 100th anniversary of the passing of the men, a new grave marker was erected in Charleston. The information on the new maker came from the cenotaph. Meaning the only grave markers that were contemporary to the deaths of the men only had their first and last initials. H.H., R.B., J.P, T.P., C. M. H.B., J. M., and C.S. The names that history remembers, is etched in stone, and they are wrong.

After shedding the idea that these stones were true and accurate, I was able to find direct and indirect evidence of the research subject.  The evidence led to the same area of England as where the surname originated. The information included an obituary, in England, of his death in America including mention of the men who died with him. I was able to place him in a family, discovering his first wife and his daughter. All of the evidence uncovered in England led back to more information and evidence in Mobile and the Alabama State Archives. Blindly believing the inscriptions on the stones led to many of the roadblocks other researchers encountered on this case. All genealogical discoveries hinge on proper identification of the research subjects.

So what’s in a name?…a whole lot if you look closely. History, location, and uniqueness are just a few pieces of evidence contained in a name. “Crossing the Pond” to England and accurately placing this subject with his family, was a direct result of knowing from where he may have come. Knowing that his surname was rare and came from a specific place allowed for an easier solution to this problem leading to the obituary found mentioning him and his compatriots.  So if you are fortunate enough to find a rare surname, carpe diem and research the name itself. You will not be sorry.

[1] The Internet Surname Database, surname Brockbank, http://www.surnamedb.com/Surname/Brockbank, accessed: 19 November 2010.

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