Monday, 14 April 2014

Ancestral April Fool

Laughing fool, c 1500 (via Wikimedia)
This April, I've been fooled by a name.

I've started researching my father's grandmother's family, who lived in the same area of West Wales for - well, if you believe old family stories, many centuries. I've been looking for great-grandmother Sarah Davies, born in Llandyssilio[gogo], Cardiganshire, between 1853 - 56. And I thought I'd found her in the 1861, 1871 and 1881 Wales censuses. In 1881 this Sarah was living in an old farmhouse that's been in the family for generations. Right name, right age, right birthplace, right-looking address.

Wrong Sarah. I found her in the same house in 1891, but with the married surname James. 'My' Sarah had married Rhys Lloyd of Llandyssil/Llandysul before then.

We can all follow false trails. It's so easy to be fooled by the 'right' details. The fact that my ancestors were unadventurous in their naming doesn't help. Half my foremothers were called Sarah or Elizabeth, and a lot of the men were Thomases. And of course finding a married woman's maiden name can just complicate things even more. Poor Sarah has gone back into my 'to do' file, and I'm picking myself up, dusting my research off, and starting all over again.

There's an up-side, though, with names and false trails. I'm guessing that if you've looked at online family trees which have your own ancestors in them, you'll have found some cuckoos in the nest. A John Jones married 10 years after he was buried, perhaps, or a Jane Smith who emigrated in 1865 when records show she never moved from her Scottish birthplace. They're in your family's tree, but they don't belong there - and you have the documentary proof.

I've got my own cuckoos in the family nests. For instance, my 3xgreat-grandfather, Nicholas Delaney - the one who got me interested in genealogy - was transported from Ireland to Australia in 1802, and married Elizabeth Bayly (Bayley, Bailey) in 1808.

Reed warbler feeding cuckoo (Wikimedia)
A look at some family trees have him married before, in Ireland, to a woman with a very 'modern' looking name. Now fair enough, a name could be spelled in plenty of different ways, like Elizabeth's surname in the last paragraph. But when it looks extremely 20th century, like Kathryn, Debra or Barbra, you have to go 'hmm'. And if her second name is also not what you'd expect in rural Ireland in the 18th century - Jay, Kay or Dee, for instance - well, it's time for a pinch of salt.

It turns out that this cuckoo wife was born in the US (and would have had to cross the Atlantic as a young woman to live in deepest County Wicklow in order to meet and marry Nicholas). Digging a little deeper into her history, I find she was born in the mid-20th century. How she ended up in Nicholas's tree in the 1790s, I do not know.

So in this case the name is a hint that you need to look very closely at the proof for this claimed 'relative' - which Worldwide Genealogists would do anyway, of course!

When I start searching for great-grandmother Sarah Davies again, I plan to use names as clues. I've said that my lot were all very traditional in the forenames they chose, so maybe they followed traditional naming patterns, at least for the first few children (many of them had traditional large families, too).

In many parts of the UK, couples would use this pattern, strictly or loosely, until the later 19th century:

1st son - named after the father's father
2nd son - mother's father
3rd son - father
4th son - father's eldest brother

1st daughter -
named after the mother's mother
2nd daughter - father's mother
3rd daughter - mother
4th daughter - mother's eldest sister

Of course, it's never that simple in real life. Some people used variations on this pattern. Some only followed it for the first few children. Some didn't use it at all. Parents who were firstborns could choose another sibling's name for baby number four. Children could be named after other relatives, a powerful local family, royals, role models or political figures. And if someone had fallen out with a parent or sibling they might well not want to name their baby after its spiteful granny or criminal uncle.

Still, I'm glad of any clues which might help me track down those elusive ancestors hiding away in the records.

I'm looking at you, Sarah.

Apologies to all my fellow Worldwide Genealogy bloggers - in its wisdom Blogger/Blogspot has decided not to let me make comments once again. I thought I'd sorted out the glitches! (Sigh...) So I just wanted to let you know that I'm enjoying your writing and all the inspiring ideas and information. And please do comment on this post. I'd love to hear from you - I just won't be able to chat!


  1. I can relate so much to your fasle trail. I was the same in researching my husband's ancestors. I thought I had traced back to Samuel Donaldson born, according to the Old Parish Records, in Kirkbean on the Solway Coast of Scotland. I was so pleased at this. The date was about right, and Samuel later became a merchant and his sons mariners, which linked with the common coastal theme. We even had a short break in the area to follow in ancestral footsteps, so to speak. It was only when I was reviewing material, prior to writing a narrative that I stopped to think. I had absolutely no proof that the Samuel Donaldson born in Kirkbean, Kirkcudbrightshire , was the same Samuel Donaldson who had married in Leith, Midlothian in 1756, as it was not compulsory to record BMD and his birth might simply not have been written down,. Good luck in Searching for Sarah!

    1. ScotSue, I thought I would go crazy when I first started researching my Scottish ancestors. One ancestor had 13 children and all of them named a son for him, so within two generations I had 14 Robert Muirs in my tree!

  2. It is very strange the things you find in some trees - men married to two women living in different states, having children with each regularly. Before any sort of speedy travel. I wonder if people ever look at what they have. Then there are the ones where they duplicate everybody.

    1. I have actually had ancestors enumerated in the same census in two different locations. I could hardly believe it when I first found it, but they moved between the dates the enumerators came through.

  3. The difference between you and all those cuckoo nesters is that you looked for the inconsistencies and kept hunting Frances. (I've found similar cuckoos in online family trees, which sent me back to re-check my own findings).

    Mind you, your data was pretty convincing especially conjoined with the family house. I don't suppose she married Rhys Lloyd before James and that he may have died in the decennial period? You're bound to have thought of that, but just thinking "out loud."

    When I found my first family bigamy I didn't trust what I found, but it was definitely the case with one.

    Look out Sarah...she's on your trail, she's good and she's determined!


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