This is part 4 of the series the Problem with Names in which I discuss some of the difficulties surrounding Portuguese names. In this article, I tackle inconsistency. It can be the more confusing part for many genealogists to learn that their ancestor wasn’t all that hung up on their name or the spelling.
The Compound Surname
The main culprit of inconsistency is the compound or compound surname. Many Portuguese immigrants used compound surnames such as “Souza Medeiros”. To them, it was one, complete surname not a middle name and surname. To recorders, it was something to splice and dice at will. They had no idea how to interpret these surnames. So, they added to the pot their own interpretations. Because of this, variations abound!
Take the name “Antonio Souza Medeiros”. First off, Antonio can be recorded in any number of variations such as Anton, Antone, or Tony. How the surname gets recorded is up for grabs. Either surname may have been used first or not at all.
More frustrating than the butchering of names by recorders, is the lack of consistency by your ancestors themselves. We view our surname as something finite. If your surname is “Medeiros“, you wouldn’t sign “Maderos” one day and “Mederios” another. You’d always use “Medeiros”. Our ancestors treated surnames differently.
It isn’t uncommon to see an ancestor sign their name differently in various records. Why would this be? An obvious answer is illiteracy. Your ancestor may not have been able to read or write, but learned to sign their name. Or, their knowledge may have been limited. Ever sign your name wrong on a check and realize immediately how silly it looks? Without the ability to read, the order of letters probably wouldn’t stand out. Under this scenario, it’s easy to understand how someone could misspell their own name and not correct it.
But, what about the others–those who could read and write? These individuals sometimes used “Souza Medeiros”, some times “Souza”, and other times “Medeiros”. This becomes more difficult to explain. It’s possible that views about surnames weren’t as important as they are today. This may have been cultural. Also, previously these individuals probably didn’t sign their names to documents that often. Back on Sao Miguel or Madeira, their only contact with official records was probably the church records. These records fully written out by the Priest only needed to be signed at the end. In this same scenario, your ancestor could have come from a small village/town background. Everyone knew that Antonio Medeiros son of…was the same as Antonio Souza Medeiros. In a place where everyone knows everyone else, it may not be so important to be so specific. They all knew who they were talking about!
Whatever the reasons, the researcher tracing a compound surname must keep their options open. If you only look for “Medeiros Souza”, chances are you are going to miss valuable records.
Another form of inconsistency is the abbreviation of names. While we would consider abbreviating many words like “avenue” and “street”, names would be the last thing we would shorten in official records. While not widely used today, name abbreviations were very common at the turn of the century and earlier. Given names as well as surnames could be shortened.
Most likely, names were abbreviated due to lack of materials or minimal space on forms. There might not have been enough room on a form to write in the full name, so the recorder shortened the name to fit the space. In other cases, materials such as paper and ink were rare commodities. A recorder might abbreviate as many words as possible to record the appropriate information, but make sure that the supplies lasted until the next shipment arrived.
Some ways of abbreviating we are all used to from school or work. “A. Souza” or “Antonio S.” on lists wouldn’t seem strange. But abbreviations can come in many forms. It helps to keep in mind that abbreviations are unique to the individuals writing them. While some are widely known, others have many interpretations and skepticism should be used.
A Family By Any Other Name
Before recent times, a family was seen as a collective group using a similar surname. Your grandfather and his siblings were given their Father’s surname or a compound surname as part of the deal. While we assume this was the practice, you won’t have to go back very far in your tree before you hit two siblings with different surnames. Also, until the mid 1800s or so, it was the practice among the Portuguese to give children the maternal surname not the paternal.
Surname usage may reflect family heritage. A surname could pay homage to a grandparent or other relative. By giving children different surnames, parents can pass down the heritage of both sides of the family. An ancestor could be remember through the given name as well as the surname.
People may change their own surnames. Personal identity may be an issue if you grew up on a plantation where there were several Manuel Pacheco’s. You might have wanted to separate yourself from the pack, so you took on your mother’s surname or some other name.
Probably the most common cause of the “name change” is family conflict. There are many cases of family members who have gotten into fights and dropped contact with each other. To make the separation complete, they change their surname so they will no longer be associated with the other family member. Of course, everyone else knows they are related, but they, themselves, have severed all ties.
In summation, be sure to keep a look out for variations on the theme. If you cannot find your family in records, you may have to look for other family members to sort out the different surnames. So, it’s a good idea to collect as much information on siblings and children as possible.
Here are a few examples of possible inconsistencies:
Example: Antonio Souza Medeiros
Antonio S. Medeiros
Antonio M. Souza
Antonio Souza M.
Antonio Medeiros S.
Antonio Souza Maderios
Anton Souza Medeiros
Tony M. Souza
Abbreviations (Many of these could refer to a feminine as well as masculine name)
Jo–Jose, Joseph, John, Joao, Joaquim, Josephine, etc.
update 30 Jul 2015
© 2002-2015 Melody Lassalle
Note: This post was originally posted on yourislandroutes.com in 2002