Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Trifling Matter of a Name Change

Ruby or Ruth? That is only the beginning of research woes as I begin to piece together the trail back through my ancestry. The woman whom I called my grandmother evidently had an alias—not for any  sinister reason; she just preferred a more thoroughly modern, perhaps more thoroughly northern, sounding name.

Born to a Floridian father yet arriving in a backwoods Tennessee setting may have complicated the birth records chase. My grandmother’s father, Rupert Charles McClellan, came from a family long resident in Florida. It was her mother, the former Sarah Ann Broyles, who had arrived there from out of state. And when it came time for the arrival of her firstborn, Sarah Ann returned home for the occasion.

In such a situation, young mothers-to-be often wish to be near their own mother during this new life experience. In Sarah Ann’s case, however, her mother had died many years previously. A trip home to be with mother meant reliance on a step-mother, instead.

Or perhaps she chose this circumstance because her own father was a doctor. That might have been enough to inspire confidence in this young mother to exchange the rural setting of the McClellan homestead for the rural setting in which she was raised.

For whatever reason, Sarah Ann Broyles McClellan found herself in a place which, only a year later, was designated in census records not even with any town name, but only as “Civil District 6” of Washington County, Tennessee.

Meanwhile, just down the road a piece—and into the next county—another woman had recently given birth to twins. Martha Cassandra Boothe Davis named them Rovy M. and Roby Jake. Though one died in infancy, the other grew to become my maternal grandfather.

Roby Jake also experienced several iterations of his given name—the one originally inscribed in the Davis family Bible. His middle name, Jake, seemed to become the working name for a while, although Jack later became the preferred substitute. A distant cousin researching the Boothe line once told me he had heard the name to actually be Jackson, though I’ve never seen any evidence of that. He mentioned that he had also seen the name sometimes spelled Robie.

Now there’s a mind bender: Robie ultimately ends up marrying Rubie. That alone would be enough of an incentive to initiate a self-imposed name change!

I’m sure there was more to it, though, than a scenario like that. Perhaps it was wearying, as others in my family have discovered, to exist as a middle-name-is-working-name person in a first-name-functionary’s world. Think of the umpteenth time the census taker insists on “and what is your middle initial” after giving your name as “Jack.” I could see the reversal as an easy capitulation. After all, it’s just for a government functionary. It’s not for life.

And then what happens? Generations and generations of family history researchers dutifully report the gospel truth of his name in perpetuity as “Jack R.”

With help like that, who needs to pay good money to legally arrange a name change?


  1. I know exactly what you mean. It's maddening to find people whose names flip flop with each census. I have an Elijah Nicholas who was indexed as Nicholas E., Elijah N., and even ELIZA!! And don't get me started on Columbia Ann who morphed into Leanna. In your case, the Roby/Ruby connection is just too funny.

    1. Okay, I'm thinking Eliza takes the cake on that one, Wendy! At least, now that we know, it makes for an amusing anecdote. It's before we find out that we tear our hair out...

  2. It seems to be a common pattern, the flipping of initials. I suspect the census forms were unclear for one (or more) year and that resulted in a large number of "middle initials first" I'd have to pay more attention to it, to see where (i.e., what year) it seems to happen frequently.

    I suspect the DAR (and others) see this commonly and don't get "hung up over it" (fingers crossed anyway!).

    The thing that strikes me most about this love-struck couple is that they were born so close together - grow up apart - and came together... it has the vague haunt of "destiny" to it... and then they "grew up" and through away the "cute versions" of their names for the more(?) acceptable(?) Jack and Ruth. It's like they wanted to hide their backwoods roots (or even what others might perceive of their ethnic backgrounds).

    Goes away humming, "After all, life is to enjoooooy..."


    1. Well, it certainly has been an interesting journey, trying to piece together the scenarios correctly. But you are right, Iggy, the DAR app may not get tripped up over this, since I have other documentation. I had an encouraging meeting with my DAR contact today, and all seems to be still looking non-problematic. Thankfully...as long as there are no more surprises :)

  3. Often times the Census takers were in a hurry and would talk to who ever came to the door..even children..and census takers were not known for their penmanship or spelling.
    I hope you had good luck today:)

    1. It sometimes makes me wonder just who, exactly, the census taker was talking to!

  4. Jacqi , Hi my name is Lisa and threw researching my family line I have Come across the Middle name and the first name flip flopping alot.. But I have also come across this thing with a last name flip flopping back and forth...I have a Foltz turn Huffman...then later I have a Huffman turns Foltz and back to Huffman...It is a strange thing...For mine it is said that the first Foltz changes his name to Huffman to exscape the cival war draft and get Married in another state...Then this same guys grand boys change from Huffman to Folts to exscape an intiution that they ran away from..But then one of the 2 boys who ran (my grandfather) changed his name back to Huffman a few years later when he got Married. the other died a Foltz....So I know exactly how it goes..Darn..Lisa

    1. Lisa, it is indeed aggravating to try and figure it all out! Well, at least in your case, you seem to know exactly what happened with your mystery ancestors. That name switch device sounded quite clever in evading the draft...although I'm sure they weren't the first to give it a try. All these antics sure give us a workout in our research capabilities.


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