Pesky people

Some of my ancestors are just plain pesky. We all have them, those ancestors who refuse, for seemingly no good reason other than to annoy us, to cooperate with our efforts to document them. For years I had tried to verify the parents of my maternal great-grandfather, Daniel McLeod, without any success. That he was born in New Brunswick, Canada in 1834 without any known church affiliation did nothing to help. Communications with the helpful staff at the Provincial Archives proved to me that I did not have enough information for a specific search of church birth records, so I searched all available church records, still without success.

I did know that he became an American citizen, so I went to the National Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts (before online access) to look for his naturalization record, hoping that would give more information. What I found was his oath of allegiance to the United States dated 2 September 1882, with his signature but nothing else. I eventually realized that the family had wandered across the Maine-New Brunswick border sometime after the Aroostook War which settled the state’s eastern boundary with Canada. Decades after the border dispute was settled, Daniel finally signed his oath of allegiance to receive U.S. citizenship.

I found the 1864 marriage record for Daniel McLeod and Frances Hall, the right couple in the right place and time, but parents’ names were not listed. On census records he gave his name as Daniel. Everything I could find gave his name as Daniel without identifying his father.

This family needed a longer list of available baby names.

My mother was adamant that his name was Daniel McLeod, and remembered the Scottish “burr” in his speech. She also thought his parents’ names were Donald and Janet (apparently it is she for whom I’m named). Her sister insisted just as strongly that their grandfather’s name was Donald MacLeod.

They were both right.

Dan is Don and Don is Dan? This family needed a longer list of available baby names. Note here that continuing to pursue this kind of research has some unforeseen hazards, the quicksand of genealogical research: once in it, you’re stuck, and continuing to struggle only makes things worse. Too late I discovered one, the song that played repeatedly in my head:

Her name was Magil and she called herself Lil
But everyone knew her as Nancy
Now she and her man who called himself Dan[i]

I kept struggling. On a 2007 business trip to Aroostook County, Maine, I visited the cemetery where I thought Daniel was buried. I found the headstone which clearly listed the members buried there: Donald MacLeod, with his wife Frances, daughters Alma, Marian, and Frances, and granddaughter Frances.

By working both variations of his given and family names, I finally discovered that his father was indeed Donald McLeod, born in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, Canada in 1808,[ii] and married to Janet (also spelled Jennett and Jeanette) Morrison.[iii]

However gratifying it was to find and document the information I was looking for, I still had conflicting data about my great-grandfather’s name. Was he Daniel, as he stated, or Donald, as he was born? Families often use nicknames for individuals, but this didn’t sound like a nickname.

By searching for the rest of the family, I realized that not only was his birth name Donald, his father was Donald, and his son was Donald, all contrary to a strict Scottish naming convention.  Although two of them had middle names and initials, they seemed to be entirely optional in that family! To distinguish himself from the other Donalds, he chose to call himself Daniel for most of his life.

Recently, I came across two documents that my mother had saved, documents that she had all along without realizing their significance: Daniel’s citizenship certificate (attached to his son Lorn’s original U.S. passport application), and Donald’s death record. It is now clear that they are the same person.

His name was Don but he called himself Dan/And his wife was always called Frances . . .

The sum of it all in iambic tetrameter. Feel free to hum along!


[i] Rocky Raccoon; Apologies to VB readers and The Beatles; Writers: Paul McCartney, John Lennon

[ii] St. Stephen birth record 1797–1808.

[iii] Donald McLeod and Frances Hall marriage record.

About Jan Doerr

Jan Doerr received a B.A. degree in Sociology/Secondary Education from the University of New Hampshire, and spent a long career in the legal profession while researching her family history. She has recently written and published articles for’s Cognoscenti blog: “Labor of Love: Preserving a 226-Year-Old Family Home and Preparing to Let It Go” and “The Value of Family Heirlooms in a Digital Age.” Jan currently lives with her attorney husband in Augusta, Maine, where she serves two Siamese cats and spends all her retirement money propping up a really old house.

31 thoughts on “Pesky people

  1. A favorite Beatles song! My mother’s given name was Olive Marie. Marie was fine, but she hated Olive! So she decided to be Patricia. She signed everything Olive P. Everyone knew her at Pat Gardner. My father died in his early 50’s and Mom remarried. Everyone knew her as Pat Eyre. When she died, the genealogist in me had quite the dilemma in deciding what name to put on her grave marker. It’s a flat bronze marker that only allows for so many letters. And she’s buried next to my dad, not her second husband, as he was a widower when they married, so he’s buried with his first wife. I finally decided on “Olive P. Gardner Eyre”. I figured anyone who knew her as Pat would see the “P”, know they were at the right place by the two surnames and think “her name was really Olive???” and I was being true to whatever records subsequent generations would find.

  2. The Daniel/Donald usage is certainly confusing. But Mc and Mac? It would seem fairly common to have a mix. My grandmother was a Sippel or Sipple, I am not sure which she preferred, as her siblings used both spellings.

    1. From my own genealogical research of my mother’s Scottish ancestors, I found that Highland Scots during the period around the 1600s to the early 1800s often used two names, a traditional Gaelic Christian name and an “English” Christian name. Thus, I learned that Donald (Domhnall, pronounced Donal or Donell) and Daniel were equivalent, as were Patrick (Padraig) and Peter. Those equivalents make sense given the consonants in common or similarity of pronunciation — but I’ve never been able to figure out why Archibald was chosen as the Anglicised equivalent of Gillespie (Gille espic).

      1. Also, in regard to the strict Scottish naming convention mentioned above, having three Donalds in a row in three successive generations is of course possible even in families that follows the naming convention strictly — it’s just a matter of each Donald’s birth order and whether or not his mother’s father was also named Donald. Sometimes a Scottish family ignored the onomastic tradition, but other times it may be that what looks like disregard for Scottish onomastic tradition is simply a case of a “missing” child in the family, a child who died in infancy and for whom there is no record.

      2. Ah, those Celts! One Irish family I’m tracking included a daughter Debbie or Abby Casey, saw both of those names for her used interchangeably. “Gubby Casey” showed up on a ship list. Turns out “Gubby” translates into both “Debbie” and “Abby”.

      3. This is so frustrating! My brick wall is Albert Morrison. According to census records he was from Massachusetts and born 1809-1811.
        I have yet to find such a being! I have always been convinced that Albert is a middle name or nickname, now I read your posts and am certain. Any suggestions what Gaelic / English equivalent names I could expect to find for Albert?

  3. What a great story. You can’t really make stuff up like this. How lucky we are to be genealogists and have this much fun

  4. My mother-in-law was Elsie Margaret and absolutely hated the Elsie. Even her mother only called her Margaret, but then Grandma Nora didn’t like her own middle name which was Texas after a grandmother. All her adult records are signed E. Margaret. She left instructions that her gravestone was to only have Margaret on it and that is what was inscribed.

  5. Interesting article, but with all due respect, those three meager source citations (one of which appears to be attached to the wrong record), are unhelpful and unworthy of a publication by the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

    1. I think you mistake the Vita Brevis blog, which is filled with posts describing works-in-progress (and which does not pretend to offer the last word on the subject of the post), for the finished (and duly footnoted) work published in The Register, American Ancestors, and Mayflower Descendant.

      1. Sorry, I disagree. No matter what stage of research we are in, we know what our source is and can cite it correctly. Whether its a quick blog entry or a finished publication is not a factor. Anything worth doing is worth doing properly.

        1. I would counter that it is a mistake to make a fetish of footnotes in what is, after all, an impressionistic account of many years’ worth of research. The piece could have been published without notes of any kind — for, as I write above, this blog features posts about the experience of research as well as results.

  6. Hi Jan. Thanks for the interesting “brickwall blog”. Any ideas about where your Donald McLeod (the father or grandfather) hailed from, i.e. before he got into New Brunswick? I have been working with the book “The Brave Men of Skye” (by Lt.Col. John MacInnes), and especially with one Donald MacLeod (or McLeod) of Summerdale & Bracadale, a scion of MacLeod of Gesto — among his descendants were MacLeods in the Netherlands. Kind regards, Dave Mitchell, Cape Town, South Africa

    1. Hi Dave. The father Donald’s parents, John and Barbara McKenzie McLeod, supposedly came from the Sutherland area of Scotland to NB by 1806, a supposition I have not verified. I don’t know of any of my McLeods wandering to the Netherlands. But my 9th g-grandfather Thomas Mitchell (1566-1628) was married in Leyden, Holland in 1608 and had 3 children there between 1609 and 1614 (again, unverified): Elizabeth, Thomas, and Constant (from whom I descend). Thanks for your comment! Jan

      1. It sounds as if we may have a connection. I’ve been researching a MacLeod family in Scotch Ridge N.B just outside St. Stephen. They came to N.B. from Sutherlandshire in 1803.William MacLeod m. Janet Morrison d. of Neil Morrison in 1829 and they had a son Donald (also known as Daniel.) This Donald MacLeod is my g grandfather. I don’t think this is the same Donald (Daniel) MacLeod you are researching but think it is very possible there is a connection. I have a great deal of information about this family’s immigration and would be happy to hear from you.

        1. Hi Lorna, I’m researching my family history and I can trace my lineage back to John MacLeod who was born in Sutherlandshire and was married to Barbara MacKenzie (?). They immigrated to the US/Canada in 1803 on the Fortitude and Nellie, and settled with a group of Scots on Scotch Ridge. Of their 7 childen, I’m related to Donald (Daniel) MacLeod who married Janet Morrison and had at least one son, John Campbell MacLeod (1848-1918). John married Marietta Eastman in 1872. My grandfather was one of their 13 children. If you have additional information about this family I’d love to hear from you.

  7. What a wonderful sense of humor in your writing, as well as sharing an all-too-familiar and frustrating search…so glad it finally worked out! Thank you!

  8. Four different ancestors and relatives in my family have been named Janet, or Jennet, Jennett, Jannett, Jennette, Jannette, or Jeannette, using different spellings at different times. I made a chart to keep track.

  9. Wonderful read, you had me on the edge of my seat. “Recently, I came across two documents that my mother had saved, documents that she had all along without realizing their significance” had me smiling and thinking how often this happens! Going back and checking and rechecking original material we already have often holds wonderful surprises. Thank you!

  10. argh! McLeod! I have searched for a Murdock McLeod – really, if there is a name more common in the Nova Scotia/New Brunswick realm I don’t know what it is. Hopeless.

  11. Hi Jan –
    Enjoyed your post. I also have a Janette/Janet except that most of the time (and on her gravestone) she is Jenneth. And I learned many years ago from some of my Scottish relations on Prince Edward Island that Donald and Daniel were interchangeable due to pronunciation of the Gaelic Domhnal/Domhnil. As Jared pointed out, it was pronounced Donnel or Dannel. Thought for a while that I had a case of twins! Also have McLeans who are often MacLeans but I’ve also seen them as McLains. Oh well, we go with the flow.

  12. Oh, this is too rich! I am enjoying this discussion immensely. My father’s family in particular repeated names not only down generations, but across them as well. There could be 3 or 4 cousins named William, all of whom went by their middle names. That tendency ran to other names as well, even when the first names were not the same. I think they simply considered themselves to have two first names, and took their pick. AND the middle names were nearly always also after other family members. This made figuring out the relationships sometimes challenging, but once I got what was going on, it became simpler. When I decided to use my middle name instead of my legal (for now) first name, it just came naturally.

  13. Your story made me chuckle! I’m going through the same frustration with many named George, Roderick and William!

  14. On “pesky” ancestors, I decided long ago they’ll only let us find them when THEY want to be found. Which has happened more often than not when I’ve totally given up and moved on to an entirely different line. Then the document or piece of information I’d search high and low for months will “magically” appear, i.e. a book in the genealogy section of a library will literally jump off the shelf and fall open to the “right” page, or my car will turn down a country road I had no reason to turn onto and end at a cemetery where one of those forgotten/ignored ancestors is buried. Anyone who believes the Deadly Departed can’t contact us from the Other Side has never been bitten by the genealogy bug!

    As for the names confusion, a friend’s birth name was Pauline Belle but before she could walk her dad dubbed her Penny and that’s what she’s gone by all her 90+ years. Few people will know to look for Pauline in official documents. In one of my lines from Cumbria, the two recurring names for first sons are Isaac and Philip. Earlier generations apparently had got stuck on Isaac, so one Isaac decided to stir things up and name HIS first son Philip, who named his first son Isaac, and leap-frogging
    Isaacs and Philips became the norm. Adding a middle name or mother’s maiden name was unheard of back then, so the only way I can keep them straight is by their wives’ names. Oh, for a time machine to go back and tell them what confusion repetitive naming practices will cause for their descendants 200 and 300 years in the future!

  15. I meant DEARLY Departed, not Deadly. Hate these new-fangled keyboards that auto-fill words before you finish typing them, even substituting a completely different word all together!

  16. I’m connected to a family that used the combination of George Bently Poore three times in a row. Plus one had a brother middle name Bently and a daughter with a middle name of Bently.
    My fathers initial was E. His father’s initial was E. No way to know if that was for Elijah or Enoch. If Enoch it would give me another reason to believe my great great grandfather was Enoch Poor of New York. What gets me is why middle names are given and rarely used. My brother had one that honored no one in the family. #2 son Edwin Robert (father’s name) Poor

  17. Thank you all! Whether it’s Olive Marie/Patricia, Gubby/Debbie/Abby, Elsie M., Murdock, or Mc/Mac (was her name Magill, McGill, or MacGill?), these Dearly Deadly Departed will continue to confuse us and make us laugh. And hum deeply-rooted tunes!

  18. Jan, you “only” had to deal with “Donald or Daniel”. I spent 20 years looking for a woman who never existed, based on the name my father gave as his mother’s mother on Grandma’s death certificate. He got her maiden name right – CONN – but her first name was so far off that if an opportunity hadn’t arisen to visit the courthouse in the isolated county on the KS-OK border she and my great-grandfather married in and see the marriage register, I’d still be looking for “ORILLA Conn” instead of ZERILDA! You bet I now routinely question information on death certs given by family members. ;-}

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.