Sunday, August 23, 2015

Tapping Into a Genealogical Mother Lode

It's fascinating how the prevalence of some surnames can change over time. I once ran across an ad for a genealogical company in Great Britain, in which that very question was posed. There are actually surnames which, though once fairly widespread, may no longer be claimed by anyone.

Perhaps, as I've been discussing my research on War of 1812 veteran John Jay Jackson, you may have found his wife's maiden name to be among those not commonly encountered. If I hadn't lived in a city in which one of the streets bore that very surname, I likely wouldn't have been aware of its existence, either.

Now that I'm researching that name—Ijams—I'm seeing it pop up all over the place. Before I had spent much time with my friend Google, I had amassed several citations of that moniker. Did you know, for instance, that President Truman had an ancestral connection to that name? The genealogical records kept among his papers at the Truman Library include a listing of seven Ijams family members from Anne Arundel County in the colony of Maryland from the late 1600s.

Folks from around Knoxville, Tennessee, will perhaps wonder why I seem so stumped by a name like Ijams. According to one website, Ijams was the name of "Knoxville's leading bird expert," developing the bird sanctuary which eventually became the Ijams Nature Center.

Perhaps, like me, you are not a bird lover, and thus are nonplussed by such a fact (or perhaps you've just never been to Tennessee). The further I wandered with my friend Google, the more this search showed me the prevalence of the surname.

Resources at one genealogy site included a page labeled "The Ijams family of Maryland" and contained scanned copies of one book on the subject, which in turn referred to another volume, Anne Arundel Gentry. Having seen that location mentioned in the past, and knowing our Ijams family originated in Maryland, that title had popped out to me before—but, not having had the preparation of researching John Jackson's wife's line until this past month, I wasn't yet equipped to make any connections.

Those scanned copies provided me a review of the name's origin, which was helpful. I had seen this information before, but had neglected to note any source. Now I had one. According to these two sources, the surname Ijams had a number of alternate spellings. Eyams, Iioms and Iiams are among the earliest variants. If you have ever purchased the pet food brand Iams for your furry four-footed best friend, you are likely supporting a company named after yet another variant of the Ijams spelling. At some point, the letter "j" was inserted, adding yet another volley of spelling variants to the mix.

What was curious about flipping through the pages of these resources was that it didn't take long to locate our William Ijams' place in the family constellation of his time. I had already read that his father's name was John, and that his mother was a Jones. Yet, I hadn't been able to link him to this family which was being mentioned in so many of the references showing up during my tryst with Google.

Stumbling upon one book on the Ijams genealogy put all that into place, confirming—at least in one researcher's opinion—the connection between our lowly William Ijams whose gravestone is falling headlong into the dirt in Fairfield County, Ohio, and a family whose roots in England were said to have led to someone in the family serving under an appointment by Queen Elizabeth, herself. With our William Ijams showing up in Harry Wright Newman's Anne Arundel Gentry, and even as entry number 2702 on page 127 of The Descendants of Richard Cheney of Anne Arundel County, Maryland, it's as if we've struck the Mother Lode of the Ijams family genealogy.

Whether that was so, or not, I haven't checked for myself. But with one afternoon's searching online, it was interesting to see what came up for a surname we had barely heard of, before.

Now knowing that, it would be no small surprise to discover that, back in Maryland—the colonial origin of the family at its 1600s settlement in the New World—there is still a place known as Ijamsville. And—much as we might have suspected, reviewing all the spelling variations for this surname—the folks of that unincorporated community back in Frederick County, Maryland, have provided us with a pronunciation guide, lest we let that inserted "j" fool us into rendering the name incorrectly.

Let's just say, next time you see the name Ijams, you simply think of the dog food.

Above: Photograph of unnamed man, panning for gold in Alaska, circa 1916; photograph courtesy United States Library of Congress; in the public domain.


  1. You're not going to believe this -- but so many times when I've read this name, the thought has occurred to me that maybe the name is a variation on the dog food people. I have even gone back and forth pronouncing the name in my head.

    1. Well, you've got a better sense of it than I do, Wendy. I can't even remember how long it's been that I've pronounced that street name in my city incorrectly. Granted, it's not a street many people are aware of, so I've never heard anyone else pronounce it, either. But still...

  2. Now Iams I have heard of -- but still, I've never met one or know one personally. :)

    1. It would be fascinating to do a study of what has become of a given surname over the years--a One-Name study, with both a map and a timeline. After all, what events went into making Smith and Miller so prevalent (other than the generic descriptors) and other names face extinction?


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