Learning about “topographic monikers”.
Many years after graduating from high school in Dundalk, Maryland, I had the opportunity to discuss the origins of the “Greenwood” surname with our class sponsor. Mr. David Greenwood was a quiet man with an effervescent smile. His participation in our class didn’t end on graduation day. In fact, he attended nearly all of our class reunions.
Mr. Greenwood was also knowledgeable about his family’s genealogy. In fact, his family’s surname was originally “Boisvert”, before it was anglicized to “Greenwood”. Translating French names into their English meaning was typical for many Franco-American families. Doing so helped with their cultural assimilation. In fact, my husband’s family has a history of this. My father-in-law (William L’Heureux) was born in Connecticut, with the surname name “Happy”, before the family moved back to Canada, where they re-assumed the name L’Heureux. It wasn’t until my father-in-law applied for his World War I pension (he was drafted because he was born in Connecticut) when he learned about his birth name, whereby, he legally changed our name back to L’Heureux.
Mr. Greenwood’s family name was originally “Boisvert”.
“Did you know your family was French-Canadian?”. I asked Mr. Greenwood the question, while we were conversing at one of our reunions. (Our class seldom called him “David”, although he was only 10 years older than any of us.) As a matter of fact, the Greenwood family had done a lot of genealogy research. Therefore, we enjoyed a discussion about his French-Canadian ancestry.
Unfortunately, Mr. Greenwood died on September 13, 2017, in Maryland. Respectful of his memory, I did a little checking about his family’s surname. That’s when I found out about the use of “topographic monikers“. In other words, it’s a big term that really refers to how the name “Boisvert” came to be, because it described a particular environment where the original French family may have lived. Moreover, “Boisvert” is a French-Canadian “dit name’. Meaning, there is no comparable name traced to France. Genealogists trace “dit” names to the French-Canadian tradition of distinguishing special family units. Some French-Canadian families added a “dit” name to their surname for the purpose of distinguishing themselves from their relatives, especially when properties were being negotiated..
Here is information found on the Boisvert heritage webpage.
The “dit” names have an interesting origin. The English translation of “dit” is the past tense verb, “said”. The colonists of Nouvelle France (New France) added “dit” as distinguishable characteristics. For example, a settler might have wanted to differentiate their family from their siblings by taking a “dit” name that described the locale to which they relocated, or it defined their current professions.
French colonialists followed the customs of the French feudal system, in which land was divided among the first born sons (primogeniture). Soon, there was not enough land to divide any further. Possibly an adventurous younger son would decide to establish himself, with or without family, in another area… say, a fertile piece of land covered in maple and pine. He would add “dit Boisvert” to distinguish himself from his brothers.
Over the course of time, generations would alter their last names. Some would drop the “Boisvert” moniker and revert back to their original name, without this identifier. Others would only use the Boisvert surname, while still others would change the spelling or, upon reaching America, they anglicized their names. It is not uncommon to see several name alternatives within the same family group.
In fact, my family’s surname “L’Heureux” was likely a “dit” name among some ancestors. Like the name “Boisvert”, there is no comparable name traced directly to France.
A link to a page where the L’Heureux “dit” name is traced, explains the root of the family name. Genealogists have documented the root of the French-Canadian “L’Heureux” family name, began with the first ancestor, “Simon Lereau”.
“Dit” names also seem to differentiate Franco-American names from those of other French immigrants, who may have immigrated into the US directly, rather than entering via French Canada.