Recording maiden names in genealogy

The so-called “genealogy standard” is to use birth names for everyone, even in cultures where it doesn’t make sense.

The “encylopedic standard” makes more sense. As a mental shorthand, I think of it as “best known as”. For example:

Cokayne [formerly Adams], George Edward (1825–1911), genealogist, born at 64 Russell Square, London, on 29 April 1825, was the fourth son and youngest child (in a family of eight) of William Adams (1772–1851), LLD, of Thorpe, Surrey, advocate in Doctors’ Commons, and his wife, the Hon. Mary Anne (d. 1873), daughter of William Cockayne and niece and coheir of Borlase Cockayne, sixth and last Viscount Cullen. Dictionary of National Biography


William Jefferson “Bill” Clinton (b. William Jefferson Blythe III on August 19, 1946, in Hope, AR) was the 42nd president of the United States. He served from 1993 to 2001.

We could go on and on.

Maiden names and aliases

“In England, as well as in France and other continental nations, down to the seventeenth century, married women and widows not infrequently retained their maiden names, generally, however, with an alias ; and in certain parts of Scotland and Wales, such persons still sign by their maiden name in legal documents, even though described in them by the surnames of their lords. In Scottish deeds, they are almost always described by both the maiden and the marital surname ; a course which ought invariably to be followed, as suggested by Mr. Hubback, where they do not conform to the practice adopted in England of signing by the husband’s name.

George Seton, The Law and Practice of Heraldry in Scotland (Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1863), 392-93 (citing Evidence of Succession, 455).

Toba Eruption

I don’t follow closely, but one of the truisms of human genetics has been the impact of the Toba Eruption.

DNA studies seem to show modern humans are descended from a smaller than expected number of people. We seem to have lost some of the genetic diversity we would be expected to have.

One possible explanation is that there was a point in human history, maybe about 50 thousand to 100 thousand years ago, when the number of humans dropped dramatically. The cause of the drop was perhaps the eruption of the Toba Supervolcano about 75 thousand years ago. Fun, fun.

But no. Now they’re thinking maybe not.

I’m sad to lose such an interesting theory, but it is what it is.

Rachel (Roberson) Horne

Rachel Roberson has consumed a lot of my genealogical research time. She is supposed to have been Indian, or perhaps part Indian. I’ve wanted to find some answers but now years of research have given me so much information it seems almost impossible to say anything helpful.

She was Rachel (Roberson) Horne (1847-1944), my grandmother’s grandmother. More exactly, my father’s mother’s father’s mother. Traditions in different branches of the family tell me she smoked a corncob pipe, and she taught beading and basket weaving to her daughters and granddaughters. Rachel’s sympathies were with the South during the Civil War (“She was one of the onriest Rebels there was”).

My genealogy correspondents seem to be aware William Horne’s wife was Indian, but none of them have had any further information except to attribute his nomadic life and extreme poverty to her influence.

The 1850 and 1860 censuses show Rachel as the daughter of Rufus and Elizabeth (Lomax) Roberson. She is said to have had a brother Thomas Skidmore Roberson, as well as an unnamed sister who married a Lakota man. That marriage is implied to have been the origin of the connection between our family and the family of Pete Catches.

There is a curious tradition that Rachel was sold by her parents. It’s not clear whether she is supposed to have been sold to the Robersons by her Indian parents, or she is supposed to have been sold by the Robersons to Wiliam Horne as a wife.

Rachel is shown on censuses as the only child of Rufus and Elizabeth Roberson. This might support the tradition she was adopted but DNA triangulation seems to show she was probably their biological daughter. Her descendants have autosomal matches with descendants of Rufus Roberson’s brothers Benjamin and Craig.

I’ve found no evidence of the brother or sister Rachel is said to have had, except a magazine clipping of a picture of a Lakota boy in traditional dress on which my father wrote, “This is the grandson of Rachel Horn’s sister.” The clipping seems to be from a 1960s or 70s magazine such as Life or Look. I’m relatively certain the boy pictured is Pete Catches, Jr.


Were They Pawnee?

According to a tradition current among some of my cousins, my great great grandmother Rachel (Roberson) Horne (1847-1944) was Pawnee. I don’t think so. Nothing else points in that direction.

I asked my grandmother Evelyn (Horn) Miller one year at Powwow about our Indian ancestry. She said she had always assumed they were Pawnee. A few years later she told her daughter Fern she had lately changed her mind. She now believed they were Cherokee because they owned slaves, which is something the Cherokees did.

I think the idea Rachel was Pawnee was probably just an assumption based on geography. Rachel’s parents lived in Atchison County, Missouri, just across the Missouri River from the Nemaha Half Breed Reservation (established 1830, dissolved 1860), as well as from land ceded by the Pawnee in 1833. Rachel’s family settled in this area in 1839.


When Grandma Ran Away

Grandma Vivian (Luce) Swanstrom ran away from home when she was 25.

Her parents had great ambitions for her, but she had other ideas. They sent her to finishing school in Denver, but she didn’t like it. She came home to the ranch at Big Piney after the first semester, and refused to go back. She was an accomplished pianist, so her parents sent her to University of Wyoming to study music. She decided she wanted to be an actress. Her father told her he’d rather see her dead. That was the end of university.

Her next choice was to become a nurse, like her heroes Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale. Her parents didn’t like that idea either.

Her parents didn’t believe women should work outside the home. They wanted her to marry a rancher. Someone nearby. Someone with money. Someone who could give her a comfortable life.

They arranged a marriage for her, then another, then another. She was engaged five times. She broke off every one. She ended the engagement with “the Alexander boy” by throwing his ring back in his face.

Grandma plotted her escape. She was taking a correspondence course in millinery. She told her parents she was going to spend the weekend at the house in town so she could get some ribbons she needed. Secretly, she packed her saddlebags with everything she planned to take with her. Her cover story would give her a few days to make her escape–as long as her mother stayed at the ranch that weekend.

In town, Grandma boarded her horse at the livery stable, then caught the stage coach to Opal. She kept (and I still have) her stage ticket. In Opal, she caught the train for Rock Springs.

The plan worked. Grandma got away.

In Rock Springs, she went to the hospital to see if they would hire her as a cook. The gods were with her. They didn’t have any openings in the kitchen, but they were looking for young women to enroll in their nurses’ training program.

Grandma was in. She was able to live in nurse’s quarters while she trained. Later, she boarded with Mrs. Josephine Swanstrom, a Swedish woman she knew from back home.

This was 1926. Grandma graduated in 1927. She worked as a nurse in Rock Springs, with a few breaks here and there, until they forced her to retire. In 1966, I think. After that, she snuck in a few more years working as a nurse in Rawlins until bureaucracy caught up with her, they figured out her age, and she really did have to retire.

Did her parents ever forgive her for running away? Grandma never said, but I think they must have. When the story of her life resumes, Grandma has a 1927 DeSoto Roadster, yellow with red wheels, that her dad gave her. That says forgiveness to me.

Follow the Route

A few days I was looking at an old 1903 map of Wyoming. I realized it was showing me Grandma’s route. The ranch at New Fork to Big Piney to Opal to Rock Springs:

If you want to follow along, open the map. You’ll want to enlarge it for easier viewing.

We’re looking at the map on the right, along the left edge. Big Piney should be easy to find. It’s almost right on the county line. The Luce ranch was east of Big Piney, in the area between New Fork and Big Piney. The stage (postal) route runs south from Big Piney to Opal, then the railroad runs east from Opal through Green River to Rock Springs.

Jewish Khazars

Are Ashkenazi Jews descended from the Khazars? It’s a hot question. Many people, both Jews and non-Jews, have thought so, but nowadays it has become anti-Semitic to say it. I’m not exactly sure when it became taboo to question scientific research.

At one time, many years ago, I thought Arthur Koestler made a slam-dunk case for the Ashkenazi as descendants (primarily) of the Khazars (The Thirteenth Tribe: The Khazar Empire and its Heritage, 1976). “Khazaria was finally wiped out by the forces of Genghis Khan, but evidence indicates that the Khazars themselves migrated to Poland & formed the cradle of Western Jewry.”

Then, after more reading, I decided there is room for doubt.

Then I read Eran Elahik and was back onboard.

Back and forth.

It’s been a few years now. It feels like it’s time for me to re-visit this question, but I’m not making any headway.

Last time I jumped in, I was struck by one specific problem–no one is really sure how to resolve a basic problem with the DNA. There is no good proxy for the DNA of the ancient Khazars. Choose this group and evidence “proves” the Eastern European Jews must Khazars. Choose that group and clearly they are not. all this back and forth comes out of a problem with DNA.

That choice is grounded in politics, not science, no matter how dressed up it is.

Here’s an example that seems to be a well-considered dismissal. Until you notice all the strawman arguments and leaps of logic. I was looking for science, not diatribe.

The main argument against the Khazar Hypothesis is that if Jews are descendants of the Khazars then their occupation of Palestine is illegitimate. Anyone who believes it is trying to de-legitimize Israel, and is therefore anti-Semitic.

That strikes me as a particularly specious argument. I can see how it gets emotional play, but really, it’s already a stretch to think that Jews have enhanced rights to the territory their ancestors left 2 thousand years ago. You don’t need a link to the Khazars.

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Online trees

Are online trees worth it? I’m not so sure. I was a volunteer curator at for many years but ultimately left because of the breathtaking incompetence of some of my fellow curators (as well as a pervasive homophobia). The strongest and most vocal users are often those peddling fantasy. It wouldn’t have to be a problem but they’re abetted by curators with mediocre genealogy skills but with a strong need for social approval. Look at the area around Pocahontas if you doubt me.

I thought maybe would be better, but it turns out they have no will to correct errors. There is simply no way to remove information that is unsupported if the current manager likes it.

I did get a good story out of WikiTree, though — when I first became active there I received a series of messages from one of the admins advising me to get help before working further on my husband’s account. (What!?) Because they assumed I was a woman getting confused by all that hard DNA stuff. I was on the receiving end of quite a bit of mansplaining before I figured out what was going on. Then the admin huffily explained that he thought I was a woman because men don’t change their names. No apologies (and that seems on-brand for WikiTree).

They say the online trees will eventually coalesce into one massive online tree. From what I’ve seen so far, I imagine it will be a tree filled with massive and insolvable mistakes and pretensions.

The one I have the most hope for is It has more than its share of silly mistakes right now but I see it as less commercial and therefore more likely to make the hard decisions that lead to good genealogy. The others are handicapped by the need to pander to a paying public.

I welcome engagement on this subject.

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Revised Sept. 22, 2021 to add link.

Genealogical Standards

Reflecting on genealogical standards. This is an area that could use a lot of work, maybe get some modernization going. I’m not optimistic. Seems like genealogists as a whole are not a self-reflective bunch. The rules are the rules and we’ll burn you as a heretic if you don’t agree.

I’m not sure entering place names in the form current at the time of the event really makes sense, for example. The standard was created as a time and in a culture where knowing the older names and jurisdictions was the easiest way to find where records might be located now. This was a particular problem for Americans moving west, with new towns, counties, territories, and states being created all sides as families moved through the landscape to find new opportunities. It doesn’t make so much sense when the Internet makes it easy to find the history of any particular location.

Names are also problematic. The standard has been to record the name given at birth. That makes sense in a modern, Euro-centric culture where names are fixed at birth by custom and bureaucracy. It doesn’t make as much sense in cultures where a birth name is not the same as someone’s adult name, where a person might name might change due to adoption, where a person’s name might change routinely through different stages of life, where surnames might take the form of patronymics, or surnames might be fluid or event absent altogether. Prosopographers, being academics, have a much better handle on names. In prosopography, names are not essentialist badges of identity but rather transactional. This is the name that denotes the person in this record, and this other, perhaps similar or even identical name, is attached to the person in this other record. Major and minor variations are to be expected. We can choose one name to represent the person in our database. Call it the “best known as” name. Think of it as the “encylopedic standard”. It makes more sense to enter Bill Clinton as William Jefferson Clinton rather than William Jefferson Blythe, III. His adoption and name change is not headline.

This is a subject that interests me greatly. It’s hard to find anyone who wants to discuss, debate, and explore, so I’m mostly over here on the sidelines noticing little pieces here and there. I hope to write more on this topic in the future.

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Land Back: Settler FAQ

A lot of people are saying #LandBack. The idea seems to be settlers should give back the land their ancestors stole. I hear about it more from Canadians than Americans, but the idea is circulating in both countries.

I’m listening, politely I hope, but I’m not really sure about what I’m hearing. How far do they want to go? How much do they want to take? What happens to the people who live on the land now? How can we settlers all go back to Europe? We wouldn’t all fit now. How could we decide which European country has to take us when many of us are mixed? How can they say all White people are settlers when many of us have been here for 12 or 13 generations? How can they judge who is a settler and who is indigenous when some of us are mixed, in varying degrees? And come to that, how do we know #landback wouldn’t be just replacement of one elite with another? (And on, and on.)

These are all concerns I’ve heard from friends at just the slightest mention of #LandBack. It all sounds very alarmist, doesn’t it? Or in some cases, dismissive. It would be easy to go off halfcocked.

I’m thinking we need to do more listening first. There’s a core element of justice here. The land really was stolen. Let’s not lose sight of that. And you don’t have to be a historian to know that evolving ideas of justice always sound radical against a comfortable status quo. Our Revolutionary War ancestors heard voices condemning slavery and maybe sympathized a bit, but not enough to begin dismantling the institution of slavery.

I haven’t yet found the careful, thorough, and nuanced breakdown I’m looking for. I’m guessing that’s because the idea of #landback is still evolving among Indian communities. If we could really hear, I think we’d hear a variety of voices and opinions.

One of my early encounters with the idea of #LandBack was Nick Estes, “The Battle for the Black Hills,” High Country News, Jan. 1, 2021. (Took me awhile to go back and find the article for this post. I follow him on Twitter, so I was pretty sure I remembered correctly he was the author but it took me longer to figure out it had to have been in High County News.)

I already knew about the legal battle for the Black Hills, but I didn’t know about the NDN Collective and the LandBack Campaign. Seems like the perfect resource. I looked at their website. One of the four demands listed in their Manifesto is “All public lands back into Indigenous hands.”

Specific and predictable, albeit controversial, but then it goes further. Estes quotes Krystal Two Bulls, Head of the LandBack Campaign, as saying “Public land is the first manageable bite, then we’re coming for everything else.” Seriously? I’m back to thinking #LandBack is a moving target.

I’ve continued to listen. Recently I came across an issue of Briarpatch Magazine devoted to #LandBack–September/October 2020. (Yes, it was published before Nick Estes’ article, but I didn’t find it until a few days ago.)

In particular, there’s an interesting summary article: “What is Land Back? A Settler FAQ” (David Gray-Donald, Sept. 10, 2020). It’s easy, short, and provocative. It raises more questions than it answers. I like that. I’m going to start recommending it to my friends as a place to start. (And here’s a hint for you: there’s plenty more in that issue of Briarpatch–if you’re minded to explore a bit.)