A John by any other name would be Michael

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I sent for my great grandmother’s death certificate, Mary Elizabeth Collins, because I didn’t know her mother’s last name. I figured that this could help clear a few things up. I knew they had lived in Olean, New York because I had found them in the Census records. Her father’s name was Michael but in one year of the Census was recorded as Martin. Both of Mary Elizabeth’s parents seem to have died before the turn of the century so death documentation on them may not be available.


The death certificate came back and did have her mother’s last name on it, Taylor. It also had another piece of interesting information; it listed her father’s name as John. Death certificates can only be as correct as the knowledge of the person filling the form out. Mary Elizabeth had repeatedly lied about her age, so the birth year I knew was wrong although the birth place on the certificate was correct, just spelled wrong. Mary Elizabeth lived down the street from the person filling out the form, her son-in-law, Samuel Wilmer Rowles, who would have never met Mary Elizabeth’s father who died about the same time he was born. Michael was supposed to have been in the Civil War but none of the names above turned up any information on him.


Not everyone knew Samuel by his first name. Most of the family knew him as Wilmer or Shortie. That nickname was obvious as the man barely topped 5 feet tall. We kids knew him as Uncle “D.” A not so obvious nickname granted when he taught my oldest cousin how to write the letter “D” for his first name, David. His wife had her own nickname, used by us kids, what child can pronounce Aunt Ovedia, she quickly became “Auntie.” 


Nicknames drove my mother crazy and my father’s family was prone to hand them out generously. When I was born she decided to not name me Catherine or Kathleen but to call me Cathy to prevent me from having a nickname, it didn’t work, many people call me Kate amongst other nicknames over the years. My uncle named after my grandfather had a handful. He was Junior, that one makes sense, Windy, tall and thin, at the time, and ran fast and Van, earned in the army, a short form of Van Houtte. Rarely did anyone ever call him by his first name, Amos. The strangest one was Myrtle; mom didn’t seem to know or wasn’t confessing where that one came from. Mom mentioned that grandpa had signed up for food stamps during the depression, told the office worker he had 7 kids, and then gave the man 10 names.


My uncle Larry is still known as Budgie. My mother’s brother Dale couldn’t say brother and Budgie it was and stuck. My grandmother was Mary Helen and went by Helen. My next door neighbors, to us kids, were Uncle Kenny and Aunt Ellen although they were no relation at all.


Michael-Martin-John Collins is still a bit of a mystery. John could be a nickname or middle name or not his name at all. I’m not sure if birth records, death records, and social security records are going to make connecting the family dots any easier or harder in the future. For Mary Elizabeth, it didn’t clear up much.


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