Friday, January 17, 2014

Naming Names

When you were a kid, going to one of those stores where they sold bicycle “license plates” with boys and girls names printed on them, did you go and search for your own name? Ever discover that they didn’t have yours, and feel crummy that your name was left out?

If your name was Nancy or Diane or Mike or John—something fun, or stylish, or popular—you probably never got the chance to experience that kind of feeling.

Imagine if your name was Chevis. That kind of name might almost make you wish you had two names….

One thing I learned as a Northerner raised by the daughter of a Southerner: in the South, you didn’t just have one name. You were given two. And both of them got used on a regular basis—not just when you were in trouble.

That’s why it was Sarah Martha and not just Sarah.

With that understanding under our belts, it seems puzzling to find that the eldest daughter of Southerners Martha Cassandra and William David Davis was called, simply, Lummie.

Where was her middle name? She almost seemed incomplete without one, as if she weren’t a true Southerner. She had that middle name, of course—it was spelled Bernishie in the family Bible, but I’ve seen it spelled differently in other documents—but it was never used.

The situation with her younger sister seemed to be a hybrid between the Southern style and a naming tradition seen in some European cultures. She had two given names—Mary and Chevis—but both weren’t used in tandem. Like the Irish or the Germans, who may have given a child a first name in honor of some saint but never actually intended to use that name in daily life, this Davis daughter was always called, simply, Chevis. Never Mary.

Admittedly, Chevis is as unusual a name—at least to me—as Lummie. I had no idea what the name Lummie might have been short for until Wendy, a fellow blogger and reader here, provided a viable suggestion. Nor do I have any clue about where a name like Chevis might have come from.

Come to think of it, at this point, I don’t yet know what cultural background either of her parents claimed. I have yet to arrive at the juncture between American residents and European emigrants—although family lore claims Wales as the origin of the Davis surname. We’ll see.

But about Chevis: before we proceed, I just have to take this opportunity to disabuse you of any tendency to pronounce Chevis as if it were part of that well-known blended Scotch whiskey named Chivas Regal. It is not. As far as this Davis family pronounced it, the name sounded quite plain. With an accent on the first syllable and a hard “ch” sound like “church,” it was pronounced by everyone in the family I knew pretty straightforward.

When I was a kid, I got to thinking of it all as my mother’s aunts with the weird first names: Lummie and Chevis. I never really knew much about either of them, except that they were supposed to be real tall, and that one of them used to live in Arizona.

Once I started researching these Davis relatives, I found out quite a bit about Lummie, as you’ve already seen.

But Chevis? She was a mystery—and she still is to me, at least through her teen years. My mother had told me that Chevis married young—and, looking it up in the Davis family Bible, I saw that she had married on September 18, 1913. That would put her age as three months shy of her twentieth birthday. Not too young.

But Chevis was one of these family situations, I learned, where what I was told about her didn’t necessarily match up with what really happened to her. I discovered that, for instance, when I stumbled upon the marriage bond for H. M. Chitwood and “Chevis Davis.” Dated the same day as they were married, the record showed quite a different report: February 18, 1914. (Frustratingly, a separate marriage index gives yet another date for their wedding: January 18.)

I had run across this file only recently. Before that, those enigmatic initials had given me fits when I attempted researching the couple. Alternating between searches using “Mary” and “Chevis”—and then guessing all the possible misspellings of such an unusual name—coupling this search with a man’s name given only as initials made for some slow going.

Yet, September 18, January 18 or February 18, I did discover, quite early on, that Chevis was about to face some difficult times.


  1. Another dead railroader....

    Harvey M Chitwood, killed in 1914.

    1. Yes. One in my husband's family, and now one in my family, too. I get the feeling there were many of these...

  2. Seven months married and pregnant and a widow. Oh my. :(

    1. It's been so long since I first discovered this part of my family history, and it still pains me to know it. How awful it must have been.

  3. Good golly! That's a sad story.

    I have an odd name in my family also: Chillis Ann. Every time I read "Chevis" I think "Chillis."

    1. Now, that's a name I've never heard before, Wendy! But then, I never heard of Chevis, either--until I found out that was one of my aunts' name.


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