Meet my 2nd great grandmother, Olivia. Or at least I think this is her. And I think that’s the name she went by. The truth is I’m not completely sure who she is or what she called herself. I do know that, despite her innocent look at the camera, she was a troublemaker. Confused? Let me explain.
One of my generous on-line relatives sent me this sweet picture of Olivia with a written note saying “This is a postcard picture addressed to Mr. & Mrs. N. D. James. Someone wrote ‘Grandma’ on it. The question is who?” Mr. & Mrs. N. D. James are my great grandparents, which means at the very least I know that this woman is a relative. And despite the title of this entry, I know she was never President of the United States.
Later, I was given the picture above with a note on the back that said it was Hazel’s grandmother on the James side. Even with the hat obscuring her face, I’m certain the two pictures are of the same woman. Hazel is a daughter of Mr. and Mrs. N. D. James, so, if the writer of the note is correct, then this is definitely Grandma Olivia.
Grandma Olivia was sneaky about her name. As you can see from the marriage certificate above, she is listed as Olivina. This record states Olivina married a man named Isaiah. But I know that isn’t true, since I have further documentation that an Olivina and Josiah James married on this very date in this very county. I have chalked this version of Olivia’s name up to carelessness of the recorder.
Researching her further revealed 6 more versions of her name: Olivielle, Lavina, Levinia, Olive, Olivinia, and, most ridiculously, Oliver. In the 1925 Iowa census records which list mother’s and father’s names of each person, I found even Olivia’s children weren’t sure what to call her. They either told the census taker that their mother’s name was Olivia or Levina.
These phone directories to the left show Olivia’s whimsy. The fact that she could list her name in the city directory and still be recognized leads me to believe that Olivia Levina were her first and middle names and that she was known by both of them. Or perhaps she didn’t speak very clearly. I know from numerous census records that she couldn’t read or write; maybe not having to spell it herself made her more comfortable with having an ambiguous identity. Or maybe she was just sneaky.
You can imagine finding her records after her husband passed was difficult. I never knew how her name would be spelled or which name she would give. I would never have been sure I had the right woman if I hadn’t found the phone directories linking those two names to the same person.
I’ve since learned that in Olivia’s time, going by one’s middle name was very common. At a time when parents often chose the names of their relatives for their children, middle names were used to distinguish people in the household. (No made-up names like Hashtag or Krimson Tyde for them!) I’ve talked about Eliza Ruffe. Eliza happens to be named after her mother. I found her listed as Jane or Janey on several censuses throughout her life. I’m sure this was to help the family distinguish her from her mother Eliza and her sister, Elizabeth.
Sometimes the middle name stuck around after adulthood, and sometimes the middle name was adopted after the person had grown up. I have a great aunt who was listed as Mary C. Romine for twenty years of documentation. Then, she just dropped off the records after she moved out of her parent’s house. I couldn’t find anything on her, but I noticed this woman named Delia Kindred was about the same age as her and lived down the street from Mary’s parents. I discovered a Delia Romine married a John Kindred in that small Missouri town. Later, I found Mary’s birth certificate. The “C.” stood for Cordelia.
As is the case with mine, middle names also came from the maiden names of the women in the family. They can be important keys to unlock the harder-to-find maiden names.
Knowing a relative’s middle name is important. I’ve used them to narrow down searches for ancestors with common names (as in the difference between John Smith and John Mortimer Basterton Smith). I’ve used them as hints at the family names further back in my family tree (I would bet that Basterton is a family name). I’ve even used them to pick back up on a relative’s paper trail after they seemed to have fallen off the face of the planet (I’d totally search for Morty Smith, if this were my relative).
But it’s also important to not assume a middle name or initial used once in a record is correct. Take a look at my great-grandfather Noah James in the phone directory pictures above and you’ll see why.
Some items I came across while researching that may come in handy in the future:
I needed to know what a city scavenger was. Look up Scaleraker.
More awkward poses captured in photography. (CAUTION: Don’t click if you don’t want to see pictures of dead people.)
Turns out former Presidents middle names explained a lot about where their people came from. Look at the family trees here, here, and here.