When we get involved in family history, it is because of our desire to know more about our family history. Where did we come from? Who were our people? What did they do? Often we wonder “What does my name mean?”
A great deal of study has gone into the origins of surnames. For the most part, surnames started developing in Europe toward the end of the Middle Ages. Prior to that time, people lived in small villages. Because the population was so small, every individual was known and family names were unnecessary.
Surnames developed differently in the various parts of Europe, however. In some places, such as Scandinavia, surnames developed as a system of patronymics. Thus Jan, the son of Erik, would be known as Jan Erikson. But Jan’s son Heinrich would be known as Heinrich Janson.
In England, surnames developed from a variety of different sources. They could devise from physical traits, locations, occupations, or more. A man who worked with metals, for example, would become John Smith. One who lived by the water might become Charles Rivers. Surnames were passed down from parent to child.
In Spain, surnames developed from similar sources. But another tradition was added to it. Children carried the surnames of both parents. When a female married, she dropped her mother’s name in favor of her new husband’s name, which was then attached to her father’s name. This tradition continues today. My friend Chris Child’s wife, for example, is Arlene Ovalle-Child.
Surnames also developed in a similar fashion in France. Jean Brunette would be a man with brown hair, while François Lamontaine would be a man who lived on a hill. But a tradition developed in the French military of giving individuals nicknames. This was an easy way to differentiate between individuals of the same name. Jean Brunette dit Jolicoeur, for example, would be a man who was always in a good mood.
This tradition of “dit” names was carried by colonists to New France. The number of colonists there was very small, and it made it easy to differentiate between different individuals of the same name. From generation to generation, however, this caused surnames to change. Individuals might drop the original surname in favor of the dit name, or they might drop the dit name altogether. My own surname, for example, is a well-known surname in France. However, in my family, my great-grandfather was the first to be born a Leclerc. His father was baptized as Abraham Houde dit Clair, married as Abraham Clair, and died as Abraham Leclerc. Abraham’s ancestor Gervais Houde married a woman named Jeanne Petitclerc. Their descendants carried the name Houde dit Clerc or Houde dit Clair. Some reverted to using Houde, while others became Clair, Leclair, LeClair, Clerc, LeClerc, Leclerc, and more.
It is important when trying to research your family to not jump to conclusions. Even Englishmen changed their names on occasion. Don’t assume that your family name has always stayed the same. It is entirely possible that it has changed through the centuries. Only by going back as far as possible can you know for certain what the family name was, and where it originated.