What’s in a Family Name?

(Revised March 16, 2015 – see notes after post)

N-O-E-L-S. I automatically start spelling my last name before anyone starts to spell it because 99.5 % of the time, people will spell it incorrectly. Most people want to spell it like Beyoncé, K-N-O-W-L-E-S. The story passed down to me as to why our spelling was different from the one most commonly used, was that our original name was Noel and my great-grandmother felt it was easier to say “Noels” with an “s” than the original Noel without the “s”. When you are young you don’t question things much so that was the story that I went with.

Noels

Stephen, Amanda and Beecher Noel

Upon exploring my family ancestry, I soon found that the chance of that story being true was highly unlikely.  My late cousin, Hazel Noels, a genealogy enthusiast like myself, put together a Family Tree compilation titled “Noels Pressey Connections” and noted three different spellings of our family name: “Noel”, “Noels” and “Noles”.  According to Hazel, my great grandparents, Beecher and Ella May Noels, each had their own preference for registering their offspring.  Beecher’s parents, Stephen and Amanda, were registered as “Noel” upon their marriage in 1871.  Therefore, Ella May registered new arrivals as “Noel”.  Beecher, on the other hand, always registered his new children as “Noels”.  Hence, with 11 births in all, some of the family are registered one way and some another.  Later, when various members needed to apply for birth certificates, some were returned with the spelling of “Noles”.

Noels

Beecher and Ella May Noels

Exploring further into Beecher’s father, Stephen’s records, “Noel” was not the only spelling that he is registered with.   On the first census that he shows up in, 1851 at 2 years of age, he is Stephen “Knowls”.  In the 1871 census he is Stephen “Knowles”, 1881: “Noles”, 1891, “Noel” and finally “Noels” on his death certificate in 1921.  Stephen’s father, James, has much the same history with his last name only he has an added “Noal” which shows up on the 1881 census.  This dilemma has made it difficult to go back further into the history of my name.  Based on several census records, I know that James Noels originated from England as it is indicated as his place of birth.  What I can’t find, is when he married Mary Ann Tomlin, when he arrived in Canada and did he arrive already married with children?  Because there are so many different spellings, who did he come over as?  James Noels, James Noel, James Noal, James Noles, James Knowls or perhaps he came over as James Knowles?  In which case, perhaps my name’s origins are, in fact, that K-N-O-W-L-E-S that I have spent my life correcting people from spelling.

The exploration continues…

 

 

March 16, 2015

A Facebook conversation started with a couple members of my “Noels”-bearing family.  It went as follows:

Heather Noel: … I have no idea how Dennis and I became Noel and the 3 in the middle Noels when dad (Wilf) didn’t know he was a Noel until he got his birth certificate in the 70’s.

Vicki Noels Cornish: Hi Heather, I have Hazel’s research and I also have William listed as James’ father but I can”t find any documents to verify it. That’s why I’m trying to find out when James arrived and whether he was married or not. Then, hopefully, I can start linking everything. And as of right now, I am not a 100% certain we are truly “Noels” as opposed to “Knowles”. It’s looking like perhaps James wasn’t able to spell and therefore left the spelling up to whoever was in charge of the paperwork at any given point. Six different spellings for one person in federal records over a lifetime makes it difficult to verify which is the true one.

Christine Noels: For what it’s worth, I don’t think there’s any one true spelling. It’s only recently that people care if surnames are consistent. Back in Tudor times for example, even literate people would spell their own names in a variety of ways – and the further back you go the more you can see that names continue to evolve. I don’t think there’s a right way to spell it – although I’d pull a lot less hair out if there was!

Vicki Noels Cornish: Hear! Hear! Chris. It would just help me in figuring out which damn James is ours. I’ve gone back into the 1500’s with several family lines but I can only go back as far as 1816 with Noels. I want to know exactly what part of England we come from.  I enjoy the pursuit though. I will get it eventually.

Christine Noels: Me too and no matter which way I spell it I find too many men with the same name and a wife with the same name. I found one or two that could have come from England via the States too.

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