Picture of Dennis Prue

Dennis Prue

Dennis has been researching family trees for more than 30 years. His expertise has been invaluable in helping to break through brick walls.


This Old Tree, November 2013

This Month’s column is about surnames. Most surnames fall into one of the following categories:

First: Patronymic-based; Anderson – Andrew’s son, Jones or Johnson – John’s son and Dickinson – Richard’s son-in-law.

Second: Location-based; Hill, Mountain, Ford, Rivers, Blackridge or Oak or Oakes because the family lived in or near a grove of Oak trees. Also surnames can be based on an area, i.e. Bourgoin is a person from Burgundy, France or named for the town or city your ancestor came from. My 9th great-grandmother’s surname was Angers. It was not a common name where she lived in the 1500’s in France, but there is the city of Angers which is where her family moved from to Vaudeleny, Anjou, France, about 30 miles away.

Third: occupational-based; Hunter, Bowman, Smith, Archer, Kitchen, Outhouse, Shepard, Wheelwright, Cooper, Baker/Belanger.

Fourth: nicknamed-based; Brown, for man with Brown hair, White, Green, Small, Little, Tollman/Tallman. Also your family name may have been translated from one language to another such as the French name Chasse is often translated as Hunter in English.

Your family name may be pronounced and spelled differently now as compared to how it was original pronounced and spelled.

The example I am going to use is that of Henley. James Henley, a British soldier, stationed in Quebec, married Marie Elisabeth Cote on Feb. 10, 1796. The Anglican minister spelled James’ last name as Irley on the marriage record. Some places in England, if a name began with the letter H, it was silent. James and Elisabeth Henley had five children and the surname was spelled Irnley, Inley, Anley and Anny. James and Elisabeth’s only son, Jacques, married Marie Emond on Nov. 5, 1832. They had nine children and the surnames were recorded as Henley, Anley, Enny and Anny. Jacques and Marie moved in the 1850’s to the Wallagrass area in Maine. The surname often used in church and census records were Anley, Anny and Agney. Jacques and Marie’s son, Guillaume (William), is listed in a few town records as William Henley but was still recorded as Enny or Anley in church records.

Sometime later, William moved to the Ashland area. The parish priest recorded a few children as Anley and Arney. In Dec. of 1892, William’s grandson was recorded by the priest as Pierre Henry Harney. The following spring a new priest change the surname from Harney to Carney, which is what the family still uses today. So in a hundred years, the family name changed from Henley to Carney, with many other changes in between.

Creative Commons License
This Old Tree, November 2013 by Dennis Prue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at ac-gs.org.