Tuesday, February 9, 2021

One Name, Two People


One of the benefits embedded in the otherwise difficult challenge of researching my godmother's Russian heritage was a naming device often used by that people group. Broadly speaking, patronyms provide the incorporation of more than one generation's identity in a specific person's name. There are patronymic naming devices in many different heritages, but in the Russian heritage, the patronymic becomes an official part of a person's name, both in documents and when addressing a person verbally.

In the Russian tradition, the placement of that "middle" name—the patronym—reveals the connection to a person's father. The patronym thus is a combination of the name of the father and a suffix signifying "son of" (-ovich) or "daughter of" (-ovna), identifying two persons with that one person's name. In researching my godmother's father, Michael Melnitchenko, discovering the ship's manifest listing him as a crew member, though solely with his patronym and surname—"Ivanivitch Melnitchenko"—made me wonder if Ivan was, indeed, Michael's father's name.

Finding Michael Melnitchenko in other documents, even with the "middle initial" of "I," seemed to confirm I was following the right person. After all, how many people could there be, using a name like that?

That sense of research confidence should have been my warning that, perhaps, I was being lulled into a dangerous lack of skepticism. Just when we think we've got the case all but closed, something is sure to pop up and throw us a curve.

Sure enough, somehow I did encounter a document which made me question the assumption that I was viewing records for the one and only Michael Melnitchenko.

It was a World War II draft registration document which pulled me up short. That I even found the thing bordered on the impossible, for it was indexed at Ancestry.com as "Michael Juan Melnitchenko"—a sure sign of an unlikely culture mash-up. Upon inspection of the actual digitization, the "Juan," as I suspected, turned out to be "Ivan," a much more realistic match for someone with a surname like Melnitchenko.

Since I knew very little else about the man, other than approximations of the year of his birth from the ages he reported on the multiple crew listings I had located, all I could determine was that Michael was born about 1897—in Russia. Here, however, was a draft registration form for a Michael with a shortened form of what I presumed was his patronymic "Ivanivitch" and that same year of birth. What could possibly go wrong?

I always like to examine every line of a document before adding it to the collection of verifications for a given ancestor, and this was no exception. The more I looked, the more questions I couldn't deny were popping up—and, I have to admit, plaguing me with doubts that I had found the right man.

The draft card, for instance, had what looked like a reasonable approximation of the name I was seeking as well as the year of birth—not to mention, including not only the birthplace in Russia, but providing the name of a specific town—but I couldn't help noticing that this was not someone who resided in New York City. Forget that: here was a document signed April 27, 1942, when surely our Michael would be away at sea, earning his living.

The Michael in this registration card reported an address in West Hickory, Pennsylvania. Not only was that a location not in New York, but it was clear on the other side of the very wide state of Pennsylvania. Even worse, for occupation, this man had listed "tanner." Delving into the details on the reverse side of the card, I could see that this Michael had reported his height as five feet and eleven inches, with a weight of 181.

I remembered seeing such details on some crew lists, and flew back to those records to double check the stats. Sure enough, while Michael the tanner was five feet eleven, Michael the chief mate was five eight and 172—a different profile, indeed.

The more I puzzled over this one, the more convinced I became that I was looking at records for two different Michael Melnitchenkos, despite both being sons of Ivan. That meant I'd have to let go of my delicious find of the place of birth in Nikolaiev, Russia.

Still, the more I looked at the collection of documentation I had found, the more puzzled I became about the whole mess. Something was just not adding up in the narrative about the life of Michael Melnitchenko, at least in the pile of data amassed so far. There were a few other details which demanded I follow up on them. Embedded within his story, I wondered if there were yet another story. 

Above: Top line from the 1942 U.S. Registration Card for Michael Ivan Melnitchenko of West Hickory, Forest County, Pennsylvania; image courtesy Ancestry.com.



  1. Just when you think there couldn't be two people with this name in this place at this time, BAM. Maddening. I wonder if the two were cousins.

    1. In many cases, that would be likely, Wendy, and thanks for the hint. However, there may be some complicating factors in this Russian man's case which could preclude that possibility.

  2. Can't wait to hear how this plays out.

    1. I am really wishing I could get my hands on more documents, Miss Merry, because I'm not sure I'll be able to figure out the full story.


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