July 28, 2023
As genealogists know, names can help solve genealogical conundrums. Unfortunately, they can also create puzzles of their own. Misidentifying names can lead to some colossal errors when filling out a family tree.
My favorite example from my own family tree involves a second great uncle whose name was John May Terry. Apparently, his distinctly feminine middle name caused some researchers to question his gender. For several years some of them were sure that John May was female and that his name was Joan May Terry.
Based on this premise, some researchers repeatedly changed John May’s profile on Family Search’s Family Tree to reflect his female gender and name. I changed Joan May to John May at least four times, only to have it changed back within a day or two. Eventually, I gathered my documentation showing that John May Terry was a man. There was a lot of it since he served in the Union Army in the Civil War, married, fathered seven children, and even homesteaded in Colorado under that name.
I submitted the information to Family Search, and they permanently changed Joan May Terry, female, to John May Terry, male. That solved the revolving sex changes for John May, but I suspect that there are still disgruntled folks who are upset with Family Search for doing it. After all, why would a man have a middle name like May?
Those of us who have studied John May Terry’s family in more depth know that his mother’s maiden name was May. His mother had a younger brother named John. It’s not surprising that Elizabeth May Terry named her second son John May Terry – clearly for her brother.
I don’t know whether John May himself suffered from a female middle name during his lifetime. It’s possible that he did since May was a common female name then. Whether he did or not, it didn’t deter later generations from passing along the John May Terry name.
Names that can be appropriate for either sex aren’t particularly rare. However, names that are almost exclusively used for one sex can confuse genealogists if they’re used for someone of the opposite sex. We may suspect parents who use such names of having a malicious bent, but sometimes they’re just following family custom.
It’s important for genealogists to be careful when they decide that a mistake has been made. Make sure to find out all the facts before you change the sex of a man named May!