Strange Surname Spellings: Hohanlan for O’Hanlon

As I’ve mentioned before (e.g., in Spelling Doesn’t Count! [in Genealogy]), it’s extremely unlikely that an ancestor had a strong attachment to a certain spelling of his surname, if that ancestor never had occasion to personally spell his own name.

If my ancestor James Moran, for example, was not literate (and I’m pretty sure he was not), then he didn’t  always spell his name Moran (rather than Moren, Morin,  Murran, Murrin, or some other variation that I’ve yet to come across), because, well, he didn’t spell his name at all.  His name was written and recorded by the parish priest; by the county clerk; by the census enumerator … and he would have been in no position to correct the spelling of the recorder, of course, if he could neither read nor write. That’s what it meant to be illiterate.

So surname spelling variations are par for the course in genealogy (for a number of reasons, and not just because of the illiteracy of those named in various records), and the sooner we let go of the notion of a “proper” spelling (which can be surprisingly difficult to do, admittedly), the sooner we arrive at a properly historical understanding of the production of the records on which we rely.1

But while surname spelling variations are only to be expected, are, indeed, the historical norm for pre-20th-century populations, the particular, not to say the peculiar, French-Irish character of the Catholic records of the Ottawa Valley could produce some especially noteworthy oddities in surname spelling.

If your Irish Catholic ancestors emigrated to the Ottawa Valley area, they soon found themselves members of Roman Catholic parishes that included significant (sometimes predominant) numbers of French Canadians. In some parishes (e.g., Ste. Anne, Grand Calumet Island, Pontiac Co.), the French Canadians predominated, with the Irish as a significant minority. In other parishes (e.g., St. Isidore, March township, Carleton Co.), the Irish were predominant, with French Canadian parishioners as a significant minority. In still other parishes (e.g., Notre Dame, Ottawa; possibly St. John Chrysostom, Arnprior, Renfrew Co.?), the mix seems to have been about 50-50 French and Irish. (Note: I have not conducted a rigorous social-scientific survey of any of these parishes to arrive at a statistically reliable ethno-linguistic profile, or anything like that. I’m just going by my general impressions, after having read through hundreds of pages of said registers. Needless to say, my impressions may be way off…).

And the predominantly Irish parishes were sometimes served by French priests; while, conversely, the predominantly French parishes were sometimes served by priests imported from Ireland.

Needless to say, this French-Irish combination could give rise to some truly unusual surname spelling variations. Here, for example, is the burial record for my 3x great-grandmother Anne O’Hanlon, wife of George Vallely:

Paroisse Ste. Anne (Ile-du-Grand-Calumet, Pontiac Co., Québec), Register of Births, Marriages and Burials, 1846-1859, p. 28, S. 2, Ann Hohanlan (O'Hanlon) burial: database, Ancestry.ca (http://www.ancestry.ca/: accessed 6 January 2013), Quebec, Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1621-1967.

Paroisse Ste. Anne (Ile-du-Grand-Calumet, Pontiac Co., Québec), Register of Births, Marriages and Burials, 1846-1859, p. 28, S. 2, Ann Hohanlan (O’Hanlon) burial: database, Ancestry.ca (http://www.ancestry.ca/: accessed 6 January 2013), Quebec, Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1621-1967.

The record reads (with my translation):

Le vingt neuf Janvier mil huit cent quarante neuf, a été inhumé dans le cimetière de cette Mission, le [corps] de Ann Hohanlan épouse de George Vallallee, agée de quarante huit ans et décédée le cinq Juillet mil huit quarante huit. Présents John (Mobn?) et Thomas Power. J.S. St. Aubin, Pp./[The twenty-ninth of January, one thousand eight hundred and forty nine, was buried in the cemetery of this Mission, the (body) of Ann Hohanlan wife of George Vallallee, age forty-eight years and deceased the fifth of July one thousand eight hundred and forty-eight. Were present John (Mobn?) and Thomas Power. J.S. St. Aubin, Pp (parish priest).]

Notice the somewhat unusual delay between date of death (5 July 1848) and date of burial (29 January 1849). Ice, frost, and snow could certainly delay the burial of someone who died in late autumn to deep winter, could delay the burial until mid- to late-spring. But a summer (5 July) death followed by a deep winter (29 January) burial? I have no idea what was going on here.

But in any case, notice how O’Hanlon became Hohanlan in the above record. A seemingly bizarre surname variation, until you consider a phonetic spelling of an Irish surname by a French-Canadian priest.

You don’t get extra marks for “correct” spelling in genealogy. Your ancestors very likely didn’t care about the proper spelling of their surname; and, as a researcher, neither should you.

  1. Most of the records upon which we rely for genealogical information were not produced with future genealogists in mind. A family tree or a series of family events recorded in a family bible can certainly be said to have been written with future family historians in mind. An inscription on a headstone is also oriented toward future generations of the deceased’s family. But a census record? a civil marriage record? a sacramental record (e.g., a church record of a baptism, a Confirmation, a marriage, or a burial)? a register of a deed? a ship’s passenger list? Most “genealogical records” were not originally produced to serve as genealogical records at all. It is we, the genealogists, who now use the records as such, retroactively, and after the fact, so to speak. To approach these records historically means asking a series of “W” questions: Who wrote or produced this record? When was it written? Where was it written? Why was it written (to what purpose, or for what end)? Who was its originally intended audience? What assumptions and presuppositions are embedded in the document? and so on and so forth.