Why we love names and nicknames in genealogy

January 15, 2019

Why we love names and nicknames in genealogy

The sound of a massive book landing on a polished table boomed like a wrecking ball against an old house.

I sat and opened its maroon-colored hard cover, the spine cracking arthritically. I’ll bet decades had passed since someone last paged through that book.

The book was one of dozens of city directories for Cincinnati, housed in the basement of the famous Union Terminal, where one found the Queen City’s archives.

The directory with its hundreds of pages of names and addresses from the mid-1950s held my hopes of finding one name — Dorothy Lipp.

She, according to a nearly 60-year-old family legend, was the birth mother of my father, a young teenage girl who had an affair with my grandfather, George “Bud” Pidgeon. After my grandfather stole their baby and forbid Dorothy from seeing their son again, Dorothy had for all we knew disappeared.

A black-and-white photo of a young boy in a suit outside a house.
My father when he was about 4 years old, unaware of the circumstances surrounding his birth.

I began searching earnestly for Dorothy. Who was she? What happened to her? And if she was still alive, could I reunite my father with her?

While the name “Lipp” alone was unusual to hear, it was all the more so because no one in my family had ever associated with another family of that name. I truly began the investigation with no clear starting point.

Most of the morning at the archives I spent in a windowless room staring at the warm glow of a microfiche screen. I spun through three months of Cincinnati Enquirer editions from 1956, vainly searching for a birth announcement for my father.

When none appeared, I turned to the city directories. Paging through a whole decade’s worth of names and addresses, I compiled a list of several women named “Dorothy Lipp” and their addresses to see if somehow I could cross reference them with where the Pidgeons lived.

What I discovered pointed me in a new direction.

Names and Nicknames in Genealogy

If you’re looking for a metaphorical compass to lead you through family history, like a genealogical Indiana Jones adventuring through the temples of archives and sepia tone photos, it’s undoubtedly names.

Names. It’s the natural high we crave. It’s likely the source of our euphoria, as well as our frustration.

Scan a ship list from Ellis Island’s records and fail to find a name? Sigh.

Run across a name in a newspaper birth announcement, even a misspelled one, and you’re ready to shout your discovery from a rooftop.

Honestly, we all run immediately to our spouses or friends to brag about the name we found and what it means. They smile politely, like they want to pat us on the head, and say “good for you.”

Racks of documents
Names are the most common source of euphoria and frustration for family history investigators.

Other family historians understand this euphoria, though. Discovering a name on a grave stone or a birth certificate, a Civil War regimental report or ship manifest, throws open a door into a room of possibility. Dates, stories, context, it begins to fall into place.

All because you’ve discovered a name.

Remember, when you begin searching genealogical sites for names to use all manner of spellings and variations, common names and nicknames.

Make a list for the person you’re searching. A century from now I hope someone searching for me will look not just for “Dave Pidgeon” but also:

  • Pidgeon, Dave
  • David Pidgeon
  • David G. Pidgeon
  • David George Pidgeon
  • D Pidgeon
  • Substitute “Pigeon” for any of the above
  • Pidge
  • Suvid (college nickname — don’t ask)

And so on.

You can imagine my euphoria — then frustration — when I looked at my list of possible people named “Dorothy Lipp.”

Going Where I Did Not Expect

After looking through as many city directories as my weary eyes could handle, I found as many as six people named “Dorothy Lipp.” There was a student, a typist, spouses, and one who was the wife of a pipe fitter for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

I starred that last one. The B&O Railroad. My grandfather worked as a conductor for the New York Central. Could they have crossed paths because of railroads?

But none of the addresses for these Dorothy Lipp’s identified anywhere close to where my grandparents lived back then, on a small side street in Cincinnati’s Price Hill neighborhood.

Nothing seemed obvious. I couldn’t tell if I was closer to finding my father’s birth mother or not. Worry, too, settled in about whether I missed something or made a mistake.

The front of Union Terminal in Cincinnati
Union Terminal in Cincinnati.

I hoisted all the city directories back to the shelves, gathered my notes, and exited the archives. My next stop — Cincinnati’s health department, where vital records were stored.

There a friendly clerk asked if she could help. I said she could.

“I’m looking for a birth certificate for someone born about 1939 or 1940 named ‘Dorothy Lipp,'” I said. The clerk wrote the name down and walked back to a computer in the office.

Her fingers tapped the keyboard swiftly. Then she brought a hand to her chin as she studied a computer screen I could not see.

“Are you sure it’s someone from Cincinnati?” she asked. Likely, I told her, but she could be from anywhere.

“Because I have someone with that name born in 1940, but she was born in another part of Ohio,” the clerk said. “Do you want that one?”

Of course I did.

This post is part of Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks blogging challenge. The theme for this week is “unusual name.” Previous posts can be found on the Maintenance of Way page.

Dave Pidgeon is a writer and photographer from Lancaster, Pa. He writes about fathers of the past and his own journey into fatherhood here at CausingDadmage.com. You can reach him at dave@writingintheafternoon.com

More about Dave Pidgeon

    1. I call it “the thump”. Finding a name you are associated with . Maybe it doesn’t happen to everyone, but there is a deep part of me that seems to know if a name I’m searching for is a relative.
      Great story. I’m hooked.

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