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A Look Back: What’s in a last name?

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Looking back in our genealogy files and you will see a vast number of last names. It is always fun to find out what your ancestors did, where they lived and where did they come from, but what about their surname? Where did it come from? What does it mean?
Tracing the origins of surnames can help us gleam more insights into the lives of our ancestors.  Early last names were often linked to occupations, geographical features, nicknames or even a combination of their mother’s and father’s names.
Some names are easy to figure out. Jackson, son of Jack. Williamson, son of William. Mac and O’ are from Galeic and mean son and grandson of. If your family is Irish, Ni means daughter.
With Smith as a last name, it could be a name for a worker in metal — a blacksmith, tinsmith, etc. With Cooper as a last name, a trade of a barrel maker; Chandler, a candle maker or dealer of supplies for ship; Taylor, someone who is a tailor, Wheeler was someone who was a maker of wheels; and Miller, Cook or Baker as a last name, is pretty self-explanatory.
Way back, there was not always last names and you were known just by you name, Jack or Sally, and the town or area you were from. If you were an indentured laborer, you might take the last name of the person you worked for.
Some names were changed because of possible discrimination. After the world wars, some of the German, Polish and Russian Jews changed their names so they would sound more American. In some cases they simply translated their name in to English and thus that was their new name.
All this is a nightmare for people doing genealogy, especially when only part of the family changed their names while others in the same family kept their original name.
So how do you get past this to research? You could start in a family Bible, which will have dates and names when baptized, married, graduation and death. Public records, ship passenger list, old newspapers, church records, cemetery records and old maps all can help you get started.
Websites like ancestry.com, myheritage.com and newspaper.com are all good online sources as well. Going to libraries — they usually have some of these sites for free — or here at the Lucy Bensley Center you can research all three of these sites by stopping in.
Let’s have some fun. I am pulling some local last names and let’s see what they mean.
Erastus Briggs compiled the history of the town of Concord. His last name Briggs could mean someone who lived near a bridge, or a bridge keeper who builds and maintains bridges.   Christopher Stone, our first family here in town. Stone was a name for a person who lived near a prominent stone or worked with stone. Benjamin Fay was one of our founding fathers and served as a soldier during the War of 1812. His name comes from northern France and means beech tree. He went on to hold several offices in town and was a Justice of the Peace.  Ransford T. Foote came to this area in the early 1800s. His last name means a nickname for someone with a different or deformity of the foot. It is interesting that he was a shoemakers as well as a farmer, wouldn’t you think?
Archibald Griffith, who the schools are named after. His last name is from Welsh, meaning strong lord or prince. Glenn S. Warner, one of our more known about town folk. His last name means guard. Ira Woodward, one of the early settlers. His last name means Keeper of the Forest.
Jonathan Townsend, which is where Townsend Hill gets it name, means dweller at the town’s end. Well that makes sense. Lucy Bensley, our town’s beloved Librarian for 60 years. Her name is from Norse and means an area where beans were grown.
Dr. Ralph Waite, who founded the Antidolar Company, and was a pioneer in the use of novocaine as an oral anesthetics. His name means a watchman or watcher. We could go on and on. Some make perfect sense, and others not so much.
Stop by the Lucy Bensley Center located at 23 North Buffalo St. on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and we will help you look up your family and find out what your surname means. We have computers for you to use as well. You can email us at lucybensleycenter@gmail.com or call us at 592-0094.
Want to hear some good foot-stomping music? Stop by the Concord Mercantile/Heritage Building located at 17 Franklin St. on Tuesday or Thursday from 7 to 9 p.m. and hear the Mercantile Musicians play their tunes and sing — you can even sing along!
We are all volunteers and enjoy having people stop by and see us or to listen to the band. That is what keeps up going.

 

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