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Wabanaki Genealogy Tip
The Problem of Names

Last updated 12-Aug-00

While Native People where adapting to the demands of European culture, name changes were common. As town clerks began recording vital statistics for their communities, spelling and pronunciation created problems. Some are reasonably easy to spot, as they are just phonetic spellings or Anglicized versions of a name. Some are not so obvious, unless you are familiar with common Wabanaki names. The Wabanaki pronounce Marie as Mali, so you can be reasonable certain that any Native women from this neck of the woods with the name Molly will be found as Marie in Catholic records.


Did you notice the number of French names in the examples? Yes, many Abenaki were baptized in the Catholic Religion and received French baptismal names. These names were often used in documents and other formal occasions. However, a person may have had a native name and/or a nickname that they were known by to friends and family and this common name could change several times during the person's lifetime.

A knowledge of the Abenaki language is sometimes helpful. Joseph Watso might become Joseph Watson but Joseph Mountain is also likely since "wadzo" is Abenaki for mountain. See Common Abenaki Words for some assistance. A knowledge of French can be extremely helpful. We learned why Augustus Huart was also known as Augustus Loon. Huart is French for loon! See Anglicized Versions of French Names for more. It's easier when you have the right tools to work with. Occasionally you find documents which give an a.k.a. (also known as). But, why is Napoleon Pepin also known as Paul Marcue? All too often there is no way of knowing unless you have oral family history to go by. These are the ones we lose sleep over!

Now, if you haven't had nightmares yet, maybe you are ready for the good stuff. Joseph Paul probably named all 5 of his sons Joseph, i.e. Joseph William, Joseph John, Joseph Noel, Joseph Thomas, Joseph Napoleon etc. While dad was alive the sons used their middle names to distinguish themselves from dad. Joseph William Paul might call himself William or William Joseph. Once dad had passed over and no longer needed his name, the son might drop the middle name and use dad's name. Then you have the case where Joseph Paul's son could be Paul Joseph, just inverting the father's name. The son's children might use the family name Joseph or Paul or both or neither!

Many Natives were baptized by priests using only a single name. So, a child baptized simply as Joseph might later have a daughter baptized as Marie and referred to in documents as Marie Joe or Marie Joseph (meaning Marie, daughter of Joseph). BUT Marie Joe might also be Marie-Josephte, with Josephte being part of a compound name and having nothing to do with the identity of her parents or family name.

Women did not always take their husbands family name and children did not always take their father's family name. The son of Marie Joseph could be Joseph Marie. However, in the case of name inversions we must also consider that the clerk intended to write 'Joseph, Marie' but the coma has faded over time. We also have instances where a Native man marries a white woman and the entire family takes the wife's European surname.

Following are some examples and explanations given by the late Gordon M. Day in "The Identity of the Saint Francis Indians", National Museums of Canada, 1981[1]. Students of Abenaki history and genealogy will always be indebted to Mr. Day for his invaluable research work.

Some French names became the family name for the purpose of dealing with the whites while the Abenaki name remains known to the Abenaki as the family name. In these cases the French name of an early ancestor became the family name, sometimes officially, sometimes informally, by an Abenaki naming process which is not commonly understood. By this process the given name of the father may be used as the familiar family name of a child or even of a grandchild. The Abenaki diminutive may or may not be suffixed. For example, the sons of Louis Wawanolewat (or Wawanolet) were commonly known as Thomas Louis and Pierre-Joseph Louis even though their correct names were well known to be Thomas Wawanolewat and Pierre-Joseph Wawanolewat. Louis Nagazoa, the son of Pierre (Pial) Nagazoa, was invariably known as Louis Pial or Louis Pialsis Nagazoa.

"The early church records often contain only the French baptismal name, because the recorder was either unaware of or indifferent to the correct Abenaki family name. Given names and family names derived from given names are often found reversed, presumably because the recorder did not know which was the family name. Thus the Agent Pierre Michel in the Durham grant is probably the same man as the Michel Agent in the censuses."

"Sometimes two branches of the same family used their Indian and French names respectively as, for example, Pagon and Claude. The Abenaki name Kepinawos appears in two different abbreviated forms, Pinawans and Capino. The numerous Obomsawin family hived off successively two other families -- the Degonzague family from an early Degonzague Obomsawin and the Robert family from an early Robert Obomsawin."

"Sometimes a French given name is Abenaki-ized, then re-Gallicized by an uncomprehending recorder. By this process Michel Jean became in Abenaki Missal Azo which was heard and recorded as Michel Agent."

In case you haven't guessed yet, being a Wabanaki Genealogist will prepare you for a career as a detective - if you don't loose your mind first!

Written by: Canyon Wolf for Ne-Do-Ba