Tuesday, March 11, 2014

What WAS Her Name?

Edward J. Ellis, 1841-1916, was my great grand-uncle through my paternal grandmother's side of the family. In 1862, he married the love of his life, a woman to whom he remained married for 54 years until they were parted by his death. What do you suppose was her name?

In the 1850 U.S. Census, she was listed as 8 year old Serfenda Nickerson, living in Mercer, Maine with her parents and siblings. I have never heard of that name, have you? I just checked one of those name calculators, and there are fewer than 1,589 Serfendas in the U.S. right now.

From the 1850 U.S. Census

The census information at that time was handwritten, of course, which always gives lots of room for error. I think that a case could be made for that name actually being "Perfenda"--you'll see why in a moment.

According to the census transcription, her parents, the plainly-named Jonathan and Hannah, also had children named Alien, Orin, Manncea, Alvine, and Tilestio. You might agree with me, however, that a case could be made for a different interpretation--they might just as well have been called Ablein, Orion, Minnesota, Merino, and Filester!

Tracing our mystery woman through the years, we see that:

In the 1860 U.S. Census, she was called Prophenda Nickerson.

In the 1870 U.S. Census, now married to my Great Grand-Uncle Edward, she was called Fenda Ellis.

In the 1875 Rhode Island State Census, she was called Brofenda Ellis.

In the 1880 U.S. Census, she was called Profenda Ellis.

In the 1900 U.S. Census, her name was variously transcribed as Rorofenia/Profenda/Rofenia Ellis.

In the 1910 U.S. Census, she was called Profante/Profenda/Profant Ellis.

From the 1910 U.S. Census

When she died in 1918, she was buried next to Edward in a grave in Rhode Island that was unmarked,* but the cemetery records called her Profinder Ellis. Now, that's a version that makes me smile. If you think about it, this is exactly the way a New Englander would pronounce "Profenda." (As you know, they tend to carelessly drop the letter "r" where you would expect to hear it, then they pop it into places where it was never intended to go).

So, for the moment, I think that I will call her Great Grand-Aunt Profenda-pronounced-Profinder, although I'm pretty sure she would prefer to be called plain old Auntie Fenda (probably pronounced "Fender").

What do you think?


*I wondered why the Ellises were buried near the Huntoons, but research showed that one of Profenda's younger sisters, not born in time for the 1850 Census listing above, was named Callista Nickerson, and was married to a Huntoon.


  1. The only way I knew the name of Nickerson was Aunt Alma's 2nd husband, Guy.

    1. Cheryl, I am keeping Guy's family in mind as I continue to look into both of these Nickerson families. Wouldn't it be funny if both sides of my family had the same Nickerson family?

  2. From my sister, Jean: This is kind of funny - do you suppose the permutations are a result of the people giving the info to the clerks not knowing the spelling and just saying the name, or the clerks not asking for the spelling and just writing what they heard?

    1. From what I can tell, the spelling of names was inconsistent, creative, and non-standardized throughout much of the history of record keeping. You have hit on some of the reasons why names might vary. I always picture the busy census enumerator arriving at the house of a busy family, getting information from someone who may not know all the answers, or who is distracted or interrupted by family members.

      From one article I read on searching for an ancestor by name: "Finding the correct entry can be a tricky business with the existence of so many name variants, particularly in older records. Add to these the possibility of misspelling, or misinterpretation by clerks of court, session clerks, registrars or enumerators, transcription errors during indexing, abbreviation and deliberate or accidental misrepresentation on the part of the informant, and you may find you have a problem.: (Using Soundex and Wildcards; http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/content/help/index.aspx?562).

      Profenda/Profante/Rorofenia is one of the best examples of name variations that I have come across.


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