Ryan Taylor Changing times, changing names
Changing Names


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By Ryan Taylor

If we think about people using an alias today, we usually hark back to old-time bank robbers in westerns starring Roy Rogers. Nobody respectable in our families ever used an alias.

Actually, changing one's name was not so unusual in the past, and the reasons were varied. Pat Coles of North Bay showed me a church record from St. Clements, Ontario, which referred to her ancestor (in Latin) as Hermanus Henricus Hersterman, vulgo Bogel. 'Vulgo' is Latin, meaning alias. The family was always referred to as Bogel later.

Pat told me that there was another Herman Hersterman in St. Clements, her Herman's uncle and probable namesake.

This might explain the younger man's adopting another name: to help people in the village differentiate between the two men with the same name. In small societies in the past, nicknames (which are just another form of alias) were common to sort people out. In the 1890s in New Richmond, Quebec, for instance, there were three Bill Burtons. They were known as Big Bill, Red Bill and Butcher Bill.

The most common examples of this practice come from the French Canadians. The proliferation of descendants of the original settlers in Quebec meant that there were plenty of Tremblays, Cotes and Cloutiers. (There are those who say that Zacharie Cloutier, the first of that name in Canada, is the ancestor of every French Canadian, somehow.) The upshot was that people adopted other surnames so they could tell the various branches of the family apart, and they began to be called something in the form 'Tremblay dit Laforet'. After a time, the Tremblay withered away and the family was simply known as Laforet. This must have been what happened to Herman. People became so used to calling him Herman Bogel that everyone forgot that the family had originally been named Hersterman.

However, there may be another reason. People change their names because they quarrelled with relatives, or for inheritance, or to simplify (or anglify) them.

There is a commonly-held belief that immigration officials often changed people's names as they arrived in North America, because they could not spell or pronounce them. This has now been thrown into doubt, and is thought of more as an urban legend than fact.

Since everyone who might have known why Herman changed his name has died long ago, and none left a written explanation, it is likely that Pat will never know for sure why Hersterman became Bogel.

She was lucky that the priest in St Clements made a point of giving both names. In many church records where the use of an alias is known in the community, the clergyman will note both names, for clarity. Having both names in a record will enable the genealogist to make the connection (with proof) and continue researching without problem.


Dave Obee has published two more useful finding aids for western Canada.

Federal Voters Lists in Western Canada 1935-1979 provides a listing of ridings and the National Archives microfilm numbers for the registers. The microfilms are available on interlibrary loan from Ottawa. As usual, Obee supplies an informative introduction about finding and using the registers. Voters lists are a valuable source for 20th century genealogy, when we cannot as yet use the census.

His Western Canadian Directories on Microfiche and Microfilm is now in its third edition. As well as listing known directories, he indicates whether they are for sale from the Canadian Institute for Historical Microreproduction (based at the National Library), or can be found in various library collections. Since most of us know how to use the directories once we have them, the real problem is finding out where they are. Obee makes this easy, for western Canada at least. Both books are available from the Canada page at Interlink Bookshop.

Posted May 31, 2003
Column copyright © 2003 Ryan Taylor

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