Things that Make Time Detectives Crazy

Surnames (last names) weren’t used in Scotland until after the year 900. Only between 1300 to 1500 did the convention of using a last name become commonplace. If you trace a family name, it fades away as you near the year 1000, most often it disappears by the 1300's. Indeed, it's rare to trace your ancestors back even to the 1500's, given the scarcity of historical records.

When our ancestors came to America, they had thick accents. My great, great grandmother was Catharine Mc Ewan. But on her daughter’s death certificate, it said her (mother’s) name was Katherine Mc Quinn. I imagine “McEwan” and “McQuinn” sounded the same to non-Scottish ears.

Furthermore, the spelling of names changed throughout history. When searching for information about Catharine Mc Ewan, for example, I have to search (at least) for "McEwin", "Mc Ewen", "Mc Quinn", and "Mc Kweon".

Confusing the issue further, workers on farms in Scotland sometimes adopted the landlord’s surname. So, land owners might have a surname, like Wallace, while the manor folk did not. The domestic help and laborers on the Wallace manor, however, started referring to themselves as“Wallaces” because they worked for the Wallace’s; even though there was no direct genetic link.

Only first names were used in the early years (middle ages) and then only from a small pool of names. It was estimated that in the year 1200 in England, 30% of the males were named either William, Richard, or John.

Pregnancy was a risky undertaking even as late as the 1800's. It was not uncommon for children to be orphaned. A woman’s life was at risk every time a child was born. Mortality rates in maternity institutions in the 1800's sometimes climbed as high as 40 percent (Wikipedia). Orphans sometimes took the surnames of their adopted parents. So genealogists think they are tracing their Wallace ancestors (for example) never knowing that Grandma Sarah was really a Smith, kindly adopted by the Wallaces when her mother died during childbirth.

Illegitimacy is, of course, a genealogical nightmare. Only now do we have the genetic knowledge to scientifically determine the father. Throughout history, children were fathered outside legal structures and so the surname of the father likely was not given to the child. Furthermore, the actual father of a child may not have been known (for sure) and so a correct surname could not have been allocated.

Since Roman times fatherhood has been determined with this famous sentence: Mater semper certa; pater est quem nuptiae demonstrant ("The [identity of the] mother is always certain; the father is whom the marriage vows indicate") (Wikipedia

Keeping records is a recent historical phenomenon. Modern records are detailed and multiply preserved. As we move back into the past, we find messier and scantier records, until a time is reached when there are no records at all. Fire was a major destroyer of materials up until the 1900's; as were floods. Human indifference and negligence also took a toll. In 1941, a fire destroyed all records and files of the Almont Herald and Almont Times dating back to 1875. Major fires occurred in Almont in 1859, 1861, 1866, 1867, and 1874. Schools (and school records) burned in 1881 and 1921.

Census records are good in Scotland from the 1840's. Federal records in Michigan are also helpful from as early as 1840. There are earlier records in Scotland but they become less and less reliable and harder to mine. The same is true in Michigan. Since the first pioneers to come to Michigan arrived in the late 1820's and early 1830's, we have very few records to use for research, especially for those pioneering years.

All of the variables discussed above are designed to give time detectives migraine headaches. The confusion and lack of good data can make a genealogist depressed, especially as we probe deep into history. That’s why it is much more pleasant to study the recent past. So, for this study we will rarely go deeper than the 1700's or venture beyond the late 1800's. The phenomenon we call the Scottish Settlement emerged in the late 1820's and faded away after 1870.

There is one custom of the Scots that is very helpful for time detectives. They quite often followed a pattern for naming their children. Knowing this pattern helps Scottish researchers make educated guesses about the probable names of parents and grandparents. Here is the pattern:

The first son was named after the father's father.
The second son was named after the mother's father.
The third son was named after the father.The first daughter was named after the mother's mother.
The second daughter was named after the father's mother.
The third daughter was named after the mother.

In a conversation with Robert McKay in March, 2013, he pointed out that some familes, for example, the McKays, used surnames of cousins (presumably, or relatives) as middle names. Middle names used by the McKays included Wallace, Hunter, Mackie, Cameron, and Gray- all surnames found in the Scottish Settlement.