Monday, April 5, 2021

A Will, a Way, and Nicknames


Genealogists have gladly co-opted that oft-used observation, "Where there's a will, there's a way." While we hardly use the saying in the way it was originally intended, we family historians have put the revelations in last wills and testaments to good use in our own research.

In pursuing my goal for this month—documenting the parents of my mother-in-law's third great-grandmother, Mary Carroll Gordon—I was fortunate to find such a will. Wills, generally found at the local courthouse and often including a file—sometimes quite lengthy—of related material, have become an important tool in piecing together the puzzle of our family history.

We'll soon take a look at a will, filed in 1830 at Monongalia County in what was then the state of Virginia, which might help answer this month's research question. But first, we need to take a detour: we need to explore the use of nicknames in these earlier centuries of our forebears' records.

Unlike our current century—a time in which one cannot even deposit money into one's own bank account without first producing a photograph identification including not a mere nickname, but a full, legal name—earlier eras were not as concerned with a full accounting of the name pronounced upon a child's birth. In fact, if you push back to the earliest records of this nation, don't be surprised to see that same unconcern with variations in spelling of those same names—sometimes, even within the same document.

We'll save rants about spelling variations for a later time, but let's focus now on those alternative terms of endearment used for members of a family. There are several useful tips and searchable lists online for use in dealing with research involving nicknames.

One might expect to see a nickname for a given name as long as, say, Penelope—or for a name which might present spelling complications, like Genevieve. But we are now looking for any mention of a woman's name which is as simple as a four-letter sequence. How hard is it to say or spell a name like Mary?

When I first began researching family history, I had to get the hang of name substitutions such as Sadie for Sarah. Those name choices made by ancestors several generations back didn't just spring off my tongue like they might have for my fourth great-grandmother. That's why I kept that list of nicknames handy. And that's how I first discovered that children given the name Mary at birth might be, in later years, called anything but Mary.

That, as we'll see tomorrow, is exactly what we'll need to keep in mind when we review the will of one Anthony Carroll of Monongalia County. He mentioned his daughters in his will, alright, but he identified each of them, not by their given name, but by their nicknames. And, as we can see from those handy lists of nicknames, the woman mentioned as Polly could well have been a daughter whom her parents had named Mary.





  1. My current brick wall is a Mary (of course). Or maybe it is Maria or Mariah or Nancy or Polly. And it doesn't help that I am trying to prove she is the daughter of parents who would have named her sisters Nancy and Maria. (all different women, seriously, not just multiple entries)

    1. Sometimes, it just seems as if our ancestors chose their kids' names just to confuse their far-removed descendants!

  2. Mary Erwin, wife of John Tilson who is a brother to Peleg, used the nickname Polly. That’s how I discovered Polly could be a nickname for Mary. Never would have guessed!

    1. With the Tilsons, now you're talking my side of the family tree, Phyllis! Yes, that's just about how I first learned those nicknames, too: stumbled upon them. There are some nickname/given name combos that we just don't use anymore.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...