A Pulitzer Prize-winning historian examines what's in a name in "The Art Of Family."
Concepts of self and family that we bring to our research, whether we are historians or genealogists, are shaped not just by biological facts but by law and custom, historical accident and personal choice.
Perhaps I can illustrate this by talking about the name tag I was given at a New England Historic Genealogical Society conference in Boston several years ago. It read, “Ms. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Durham, New Hampshire.” I was not in the building 20 minutes when someone came and asked me whether Ulrich was a German or a Swiss name. I answered, “It's my husband's name. Actually I'm English. My maiden name was Thatcher.” I remember how proud I was of the name Thatcher when I went with my father as a young girl to the Hezekiah Thatcher family reunion. I remember standing up, as I had been instructed, and saying with confidence, “I'm Laurel, daughter of Kenneth who is the son of Nathan who was the son of Hezekiah.” I looked around the park and tried to see the Thatcher nose, or whatever other evidence of family connection was there. I was happy to bear my father's name and pleased to be able to trace my lineage through him to Hezekiah.
But as I thought about that experience recently, the more artificial and strange it seemed. I am not just a daughter of Kenneth Thatcher, but a daughter of Alice Siddoway, who was the daughter of Alice Harries who was the daughter of Mary Rees who was the daughter of Eleanor Thomas, and there was no way on this earth that I would be able to say that at a family reunion — unless it was a reunion celebrating me. If I went to the Siddoway family reunion, I would be Laurel Thatcher, the daughter of Alice Siddoway, the daughter of Frank. If I went to the Harries family reunion, I would be Laurel, the granddaughter of Alice Harries, the daughter of Henry, and so on. At each point, I would have to connect back to a father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and so on, in a patrilineal succession.