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.
- 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. ↩