Surname Confusion: Lavallee, Lavelle, Vallely

Returning to the French-Irish theme (see Strange Surname Spellings: Hohanlan for O’Hanlon) with respect to surname spellings, here are three surnames which sound somewhat similar, and which are often misspelled in the 19th-century records in ways that make them look even more alike:

  • LAVALLEE is a French, and French-Canadian, surname. And just to complicate matters, it is sometimes (but not always!) a “dit” name: Paquet dit Lavallee, for example.1
  • LAVELLE is an Irish surname. According to Irish Ancestors, in mid-19th century Ireland, it was most numerous in Co. Mayo, but was also found in Co. Sligo, as well as in such Ulster counties as Armagh and Fermanagh.
  • VALLELY is an Irish surname. More specifically, it is an Ulster surname, predominantly found in Co. Armagh, but also found in the nearby counties of Tyrone, Monaghan, Antrim, Down, and Fermanagh.

In nineteenth-century Canadian records, Lavallee (French) and Lavelle (Irish) are of course easily confused, and I have seen many instances of such confusion.

For Vallely, I have seen numerous spellings, including Vallilee, Valaly, Valely,  Vallile, and Valley. At a certain point, the spelling for Vallely starts to bleed into something that approximates Lavelle (Irish), or perhaps Lavallee (French).

And then, not only is the Irish Vallely sometimes written out in the records as Valley, but the French Lavallee is sometimes rendered in the English records as Valley, too. Which makes sense, actually, given that la vallée means the valley.

If you have a “Valley” ancestor, and you’re not sure whether he or she was French or Irish, your best first step is probably to consult the 1851 census, and look for Birthplace. Born in Ireland? You can eliminate Lavallee from consideration, but be aware that both Lavelle and Vallely are still in the running. Born in Lower Canada (or LC), later Quebec? Lavallee is now the strongest possible contender, though of course it’s still possible you’re looking at a Canadian-born ancestor of Irish (Lavelle or Vallely) origin.

  1. On French “dit” names, see French “dit” names and Understanding Dit names.