Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Considering the Letter "J"


When I begin a new family history research project, I generally like to start by reading up on the history of the surname I'm seeking. In the case of this month's project—finding more about the roots of Elizabeth Howard Ijams—before we even begin with Ijams, we'll need a crash course on the letter "J."

Why the letter "J," you ask? Just take a look at the many variants of that surname's spelling. While I am fairly certain my mother-in-law's fourth great-grandmother Elizabeth Howard married a man whose surname was spelled I-j-a-m-s, it is also possible that the English-speaking record-keepers in colonial America might have recorded such a name as Ijames. Or Iiams. Or even Iams, like the pet food manufacturer. There has been so much confusion about researching this surname that one family member, frustrated, posted a long commentary on the situation over twenty years ago; the fact that it still shows up in search results today may be telling.

In my opinion, one hidden cause of the spelling variations may be owing to the history of the letter "J" itself. For centuries, the letter J was merely a fancy, decorated form of the letter I. Depending on how stylized the scribe might have wished his manuscript to appear, that letter I could have appeared utilitarian and austere—or highly embellished.

Such a situation leaves us looking through colonial American records for the husband of Elizabeth Howard under several alternate names: William Ijams, or Iiams, or Ijames, or...

Strangely enough, it wasn't until I found some information embedded in a family history of Elizabeth's second husband, Major John Whistler, re-posted at Ancestry.com, that I got any clues of where to look next in seeking Elizabeth's roots.

Of course, you know how it can go with following unsourced family histories. Regardless, this is what I found on that shared document from an unnamed writer, concerning John Whistler's second wife, Elizabeth Howard:

She was the daughter of Joseph and Rachel (Ridgely) Howard of Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Elizabeth married first, William Iiams (Ijams) of Frederick County, Maryland and had ten children. Sometime before 1806, the family moved to Fairfield County, Ohio, near the present-day town of West Rushville. William Ijams died probably in late 1815.
Keep in mind, this passage was from a genealogy concerning the Whistler family composed by an unnamed researcher, re-posted onto someone's tree at Ancestry.com. It might be correct—or it could be horribly mis-informed. And yet, the passage included several resources named at the end of the document, including quoted material attributed to a second cousin, once removed, of my mother-in-law.

Of course, any named resources are fair game. Many such old books and periodical publications can now be accessed on Internet Archive, so I looked for what could be found. One thing led to another, following such clues as Elizabeth's supposed parents' names and locations such as Frederick County and Anne Arundel County in Maryland. And I found something: an old genealogy book.

Granted, a family tree published in 1933 or earlier is no more immune to errors than an electronically-published tree posted in a more modern century. But we can still use something like that as our trailblazer. We just have to keep in mind the goal of replicating those findings—and critically analyzing them for an applicable fit to our situation. Let's take a look at one of those books tomorrow.    

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