What’s in a Surname?

“What’s in a name?”  Juliet’s well-known question, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, implies that a name has no meaning, therefore Romeo could give up his family’s name without affecting Romeo as a person. Despite Juliet’s assertion, names, especially surnames, tell us a whole lot about a person. If Romeo had changed his surname, as Juliet asked him to do, he would have disassociated himself from his family, making it extremely difficult to prove his paternal identity.  And Romeo’s descendants, had he changed his name and lived to have children, would have had a very difficult time growing their family tree past Romeo. As both the Montagues and the Capulets knew, a surname is very important.

Roses or bacon?

Along with a surname comes an association with a larger group of people.  Your last name says a lot about who you are and where you come from.  Names, like all other words in the English language, have meaning.  If I give you a word, such as rose, a picture forms in your head. You have already made some sort of judgment based on that one word, and all I said was rose. In fact, this particular word implies not only a flower, but a specific smell accompanying that flower, making Juliet’s reply (to her own question) that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” untrue. If I gave you the word bacon accompanying a picture of a rose, a completely different smell would come to mind.  It’s true. They’ve actually done studies on it!  This particular phenomena, connecting words to ideas and things, is called semiosis.

But words change, making the meaning derived through semiosis change along with the words themselves.  This is called etymology (the evolution of words), and this is where we run into trouble when we do genealogy. We see this in many surnames today. For example, the patronyms Johnson and Johns both indicate that an individual has a forefather by the name of John.  One name, Johnson, typically indicates Nordic ancestry, while Johns indicates Welsh ancestry.  If you can get that particular patronym far enough back on your family tree, you will actually get to that specific ancestor by the name of John. I have noticed this phenomenon in my family tree. Once we’ve reached the ancestor with the name of John, we suddenly find that John was the son of  Harold, and in the next generation back, we learn that Harold was the son of George.  This patrilineal method of naming often causes trouble when trying to figure out the matrilineal line. Didn’t John, Harold, and George have mothers too?

An ad for Grandpa Rothsprack's bakery, 1934

Grandpa Rothsprack could have been Grandpa Baker

The etymology of names is evident in other ways as well. Surnames can change from one generation to the next, indicating adoption or a move from one location to another. Sometimes it’s just the spelling that changes. Other times, the name itself changes. This doesn’t mean that I did my genealogy incorrectly, it just means that the culture surrounding name-giving in that particular locality changed.  We can also run into problems when a child is born out-of-wedlock.  These children were often denied a patrilineal name, and the maiden name of that child’s mother was adopted instead. Going even further back, there might have been no surnames at all for either gender.

Surnames do not always point directly to a specific forefather. Sometimes they indicate a locality. Other times they indicate a profession or a behavior.  Take my grandfather for example. His last name was Rothsprack, coming from the two words rot and sprach in the German language; directly translated, the name means “red speech.”  Apparently someone in my past was an annoying loudmouth. Grandpa Rothsprack was a baker by profession.  Depending on cultural practices, he could have taken the surname of Baker.  As a matter of fact, I actually found a census listing from the state of Nevada that included my grandfather’s name as William Rothsprack Baker.

Kwiatkowo-mapGive me a name, and I’ll tell you a story. Take my surname for example: Kwiatkowski. A Polish surname.  To completely understand the name, you must first understand a little Polish.  Kwiatkowski  can be broken into three parts: kwiat, kow, and ski (having absolutely nothing to do with a quiet cow on skis ). The first two parts come from the words kwiaty, meaning flowers, and kowa meaning place. In fact, there is at least one township in Poland named Kwiatkowo or Kwiatkowa. You can also find a flower shop in Warsaw called Kwiatowa. The last part of the name, ski or ska, indicates gender; ski=male and ska=female.  Kwiatkowski is the americanized version of Kwiatkowska. So in Poland, my surname would indicate that I am a woman from the place of flowers. To even further complicate things, many people will further anglicize their names upon entering the U.S.. I know of at least one relative who changed his surname to Bloom. There are also Americans with the surname of Flowers who may actually be Kwiatkowskis.

To add to this mess, many servants and slaves changed their identity, purposely or passively, by taking the surname of their masters. There could be people out there by the name of Kwiatkowski who have absolutely no Polish blood in them whatsoever. And once we get our lineage back to that particular slave or servant, where do we look for that ancestor’s parentage?  Bills of sale? Work agreements? What if no written contract existed?

So what’s in a surname?  A whole lot of stuff. Surnames tell us a lot about our past–the people who came before us, what they did, where they lived, and how they behaved.  Surnames can also make it difficult to complete a family tree.  You have to watch for changes, different spellings, translations, and reversals in order making a surname a middle name.  Understanding  how surnames work can turn the chore of digging for your family’s past into a treasure hunt–one that can reveal amazing truths about who and what your ancestors were, making that hunt a little easier.  Watch for these changes in names as you search for your ancestors, you may come up with some interesting stories to tell.

How my Mormon Mom learned she was a Jew

Mom calls herself a “hidden child.” Although she doesn’t exactly fit into the hidden child mold, I think I agree with her. A “hidden child” is a child, often orphaned, whose identity as a Jew was kept a secret as they were sent away to be protected and raised by Christian families, or Christian orphanages,  during the Holocaust.  Many of these children did not learn of their Jewish identity until long after the Holocaust was over.  Some may have never learned of their true identity. And only a handful of these hidden children were reunited to their Jewish families due to the high mortality rate of the Holocaust.

Mom was never sent away from her family. Her mother lived in the United States when Hitler began his purification pogrom. So how could my mother be classified as one of the hidden children? Well, it does have everything to do with the Holocaust. But I think I’m getting ahead of myself.

Mom is the little one in the middle.

Mom is the little one in the middle. This is a good example of how Tante Leni did Mom’s hair. I think it’s adorable.

Mom’s side of story comes first.  Mom was born in 1940, and the war ended in 1945. She was the youngest of three girls–her closest sibling being ten years older than her. The year before mom was born, my grandmother’s sister, Leni, came to live with them from Austria.  Leni was a big help to my grandparents–she took care of my mother while my grandparents ran a ranch. Mom says that she remembers Tante Leni braiding her hair so tight that she thought her eyeballs would pop out.

Mom says she must have been right around five when she heard her mother crying late at night.  She also struggled with Tante Leni’s strange behavior–Leni would run and hide whenever anyone came to the door; someone else would have to answer, because Leni was nowhere to be found. Mom thought it was just a weird quirk Leni had.

Every springtime, relatives from San Francisco would bring matzah and other foods that her family never ate at any other time of the year. She remembers sitting down to enjoy a lamb dinner with the San Francisco relatives, but nothing was ever said about Jewish tradition. In fact, one of my favorite foods growing up was something my mom called “potato pancakes–” except they weren’t really pancakes, and mom always served them with meat.  It wasn’t until I pointed out that her recipe was exactly the same as latkes (traditionally served at Hanukkah), that Mom realized she’d been eating traditional Jewish foods all her life.

mom and dad wedding photo

Mom and Dad on their wedding day.

Mom’s family went to church on a regular basis. My grandfather was from Northern Germany. He came from a Lutheran family so his wife and children joined him on a regular basis at the local Lutheran church. When Mom was fifteen years old, Grandma invited the Mormon missionaries into the house so the family could learn more about the Mormon faith. Mom had heard bad things about the Mormons from friends at school and refused to sit with her parents and listen to the lessons. But she was curious, so she listened through the keyhole in her bedroom. Just as the second lesson was ending, Mom burst through the door and said “I want to be baptized!” Her parents were baptized along with her.

Mom went away to college at Brigham Young University where she met my father. Dad was also a recent convert to the church, and had been the only member of his family to join. At first, Grandma was not at all sure if she could trust the man my mother had chosen to wed. She had never met my father until the day Mom brought him home to marry. Grandma had to get to know my dad as a son-in-law.

Grandma loved my dad, and found it quite easy to talk to him. She told Dad things about her past that my mother never knew. After my parents had been married a few years, Dad brought a reel-to reel recorder over to Grandma’s  house and sat down with her in her kitchen.  Mom says I was a babe-in-arms then, and that she held me on her lap as she listened to Grandma and Dad talk.  Dad told Grandma that it was time for her to open up about her past, that she owed it to her descendants to tell the truth.  So grandma began to talk.

She talked about how difficult it was growing up in Europe during the first world war, and how she grew up with a guilt complex because other children told her that she was responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion. She talked about the Jews being treated differently, and having it even harder than other Austrians, who had it tough too. There was very little food or money to be had, and Grandma had to scrape to earn enough money to come to the United States.  She left her three sisters behind, but began saving to bring them to the U.S. too. As it turned out, she was able to come up with enough money to bring her youngest sister out of Austria before Austria was annexed to Germany, but two of the sisters were left behind.

Grandma and niece

Grandma and her niece at a family grave site in Austria.

Mom is very matter-of-fact about finding out she was a Jew.  She was just 25 years old when she learned the truth about herself, and  Grandma died just a few years later. If I have questions about it, she answers to the best of her ability, but no matter how often I ask, or how I phrase my questions, I am just not sure that I have been able to understand her feelings and emotions at the time. Mom says it was a moment of clarity for her, but she admits that  full understanding of what it means to be a Jew comes in bits and pieces. In fact, although I grew up knowing of my Jewish background, I have had to learn about being a Jew on my own.  As I learn more, Mom learns along with me.

So my mother counts herself a hidden child.  In a very real way, she understands that her mother was a refugee every bit as much as Tante Leni was. One of Grandma’s sisters in Europe married an influential German who kept her safe through the Holocaust, but the other sister didn’t make it out alive. I don’t blame Grandma at all for hiding the truth from her children. Mom is a hidden child not because she  was sent away from her family, but because her true identity as a Jew was kept hidden from her.

What Happened to the Skeen Family?

I wrote the original Untold Stories more than ten years ago.  At that time, there was little information to be found on the internet, and since I no longer lived in the area, I had to wait to get my questions about the Skeen family answered. I’ve been doing my research on my own free time, knowing that there was a story there. I haven’t been disappointed.  Thanks to a few phone calls, Family Search, Ancestry.comPlain City Utah.org, and one more trip to the Plain City Cemetery, I was able to find all the information that I needed to complete the Skeen’s story.  The story coincides with the history of  town itself, so it must be told as part of the town’s history.

William Skeen

William Skeen. Courtesy of Ancestry.com

William Dolby Skeen was born in 1839 in Steelville Pennsylvania, son to Joseph Skeen, and brother to Lyman Skeen, all of whom were primary settlers in the Plain City , Utah area. The three men were among a larger group of Mormon pioneers who had originally settled in Lehi, but left to scout out an area in Weber County for a place with rich land for farming and a good water source.  The area now known as Plain City lies at the edge of a delta where the Weber River fans out upon entering the Great Salt Lake. These early pioneers found that they could use water from the river for irrigation, and culinary water could easily be found by sinking wells. It was a good spot with plenty of water for their small party of pioneers. This group of men staked claim to the land, and are therefore among the founders of Plain City.

Caroline Smart Smith Skeen

Caroline Skeen courtesy of Ancestry.com

After lots had been divided, William Skeen returned to Lehi for the women and children.  His wife Caroline, and their infant son Joseph William (a.k.a. William Jr.) enter the picture here. Caroline was born in England, and had immigrated west along with other Mormon pioneers.  She was not yet nineteen years old when she took her child and followed her husband along with several other families to settle in their new home.  William’s mother, Maria Amanda Dolby, had passed on a few short years before, and was buried in Lehi.

photo 1 (3)

William Skeen’s stone house, circa 1863.

Most of the early settlers in Plain City built dugouts with “dirt floors and roofs, a fireplace in one end, and a door and a window in the other . . . Sagebrush was used for fuel, also for light”   (Plain City History Written by Daughters of Utah Pioneers). However, Joseph Skeen built a log house–the first in Plain City.   His son William also built a log house for Caroline and the baby. Not long after, Joseph Skeen began assisting homesteaders in building adobe structures.  Joseph Skeen is accredited with “having made the first adobes in Utah. He learned the process in California while with the Mormon Battalion and introduced it first into Salt Lake” (Plain City History  by DUP). Although William did add an adobe section to his log home, his growing family didn’t stay there long. “In 1862 or 1863, he built a stone house of rock hauled from the hot springs northeast of Plain City” (Plain City History by DUP). It was the first house made of stone in town. By that time, William and Caroline had three children, and 1864 a fourth was born. That house still stands, and is in use today.

Once families had begun to settle in to their homes in Plain City, it became necessary to establish a way to make a living.  The Skeen boys (William and Lyman) joined their father in the lucrative business of animal husbandry, specializing in horses and beef. William owned a couple of race horses, said to be famous in the area. He built a race track at the south end of town so he and his brother Lyman could race the horses brought by Lyman from Europe. William and his young family seemed to be doing quite well for themselves in Plain City.

They followed the Mormon faith, and in 1865 William did as many faithful Mormons did at the time–he entered into polygamy.  William’s second wife was a 19 year-old Welsh girl named Mary Davis–another immigrant. Although church leaders publicly abolished polygamy in 1890, William and Mary would have remained married on the records of the church,  as most other polygamists in Utah would have done at the time. Eventually, the old polygamist marriages died off, and church leaders denounced the practice.  On a side note: today any member of  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) who enters into a polygamous marriage is excommunicated, and only fringe groups actively practice polygamy.

Mary Davis Skeen and children born after the tragedy. Courtesy of Ancestry.com

Mary Davis Skeen and children born after the tragedy. Courtesy of Ancestry.com

Mary’s story fascinates me.  I wonder how she felt coming into Plain City and entering into marriage as the second wife. History has not treated polygamous wives kindly–especially those who were not the first wives.  It was difficult to find any information that mentioned Mary in the several histories of Plain City, although Caroline is nearly always mentioned in connection to William.  It was not until I found the Skeen family tree on FamilySearch.org that I realized there was a second wife. This seems unfair to me, given that so much of this story centers around Mary and her children.

In 1868, William sold the stone house and moved his family to a larger home in town. At that time, Caroline had five children and Mary had an infant son.  With two young wives, and six kids already, it seems clear that an even larger home would be necessary. By the fall of 1870, Caroline had given birth to another child, making six altogether. Mary now had three, and both women were expecting, bringing the total number of children to nine, with two on the way.

I could find no evidence anywhere of how smallpox came to Plain City, but I find it interesting that the Plain City epidemic coincided with a European pandemic of the same disease. The fatalities in Plain City were high compared to the population, and in Europe over half a million died. I see no relation betwen the two epidemics, although it is also interesting to note that vaccinations were available but not yet widely used. I think it is likely that William, Caroline and Mary had either survived the disease as children or were previously inoculated.

The first case of Plain City smallpox appeared in September of 1870, at which point all meetings in town were cancelled. It was a long, lonely winter for the residents of Plain City, since meetings were not resumed until March.  When the epidemic first appeared, the townspeople quickly constructed a hospital of sorts, a pest house, about a mile outside of town.  Not much mention is made of the pest house, except to say that the first pest house was poorly built, and was later torn down and reconstructed.  The purpose of a pest house is simply isolation.  Patients suffering from communicable diseases were left alone in the pest house to either die or recover.  Food and water was brought in on a daily basis, but no one stayed to take care of those inside.


Small pox. Image courtesy of stephenornes.com.

The incubation period for smallpox is about two weeks, the disease itself lasts two to three weeks,  and the first death in the Skeen household occurred in late November.  Since the quarantine began in September, it is probable that the disease was inadvertently brought into the home by an adult helping other families suffering from the epidemic. Six year-old Jane probably contracted the disease sometime in mid October, well after the quarantine took effect. Little Jane’s life came to an end on November twenty-third.

Not three weeks later, Caroline gave birth to a baby boy. As I studied family records, I found that the only mention of a child dying at birth, for either woman, is of Caroline’s son. Just two days after this somber delivery, Caroline lost another daughter–her ten year-old namesake.  I wonder if the stress of having the epidemic in the household caused Caroline to deliver prematurely?

As I mentioned previously, Mary had three children at this time–all boys: Elisha (4), Benjamin (3) and Thomas (20 months).  Elisha and Benjamin took their last breaths on January 2, and Thomas succumbed to the illness a few days later on January 8.  Mary’s young family was wiped out in less than a week.

Given the young ages of Mary’s children (and possibly even Caroline’s), I can’t imagine that their parents would have left them in the pest house to fend for themselves. It must have been that the children were cared for at home–resulting in even more exposure to the disease.

During this time, William reached out to community members for help.  Dinners for the family were made and left at the doorstep, but no one dared knock on the door or come in. William asked the elders of the church to come and give the children priesthood blessings but no one came.  No one would help him bury his children and he was not allowed to bring their bodies to the graveyard until all activity in town had ceased–at night. Townspeople were afraid for their lives. William was burying his little children on his own, in the dead of night, in the coldest part of the year.  I can only imagine his anguish.

Skeen Family burial pllot

The tall monument to the left is the Skeen family marker containing names and dates. To the right are the children.

After Mary’s children died, Caroline lost two more: seven year-old Amanda and thirteen year-old William Jr.  I think that William Sr’s biggest heartbreak must have come as he buried the babe-in-arms that accompanied him and his young wife as they settled in Plain City.  William Jr. was the very first child born, and the very last to succumb to smallpox. Out of nine children, only two survived: eight year-old James, and one year-old Mary Ann.  The big house must have seemed deathly quiet after losing seven children.

We can see the evidence of the family’s pain in the birth of Mary’s son born sixteen days after William Jr.’s death.  William insisted that the boy be named after his heart-break: Frenz Denial (friends’ denial). It was so hard for William to get over his pain that he quit attending church for awhile, and he was later excommunicated.  I don’t know when, or how, but his rights and blessings within the church were eventually restored.

Both wives went on to bear more children for William, although it was once again Mary who suffered grievous loss:  her six year-old namesake died in the fall of 1878. If you look closely at the photo above, you can count nine small headstones to the right of the tall monument.  These are for each of the seven small-pox victims, Caroline’s infant son born in the midst of the epidemic, and Mary Jr. Three spaces were saved next to the nine children so their parents could keep their children company when they finally left his world.  You can see the parents’ graves in the photograph–the three flat headstones between the memorial and the headstones of the children.

As I said in Untold Stories, there are other graves in the cemetery bearing dates ranging from September 1870 to February 1871.  Several families in the town were hit hard by the small-pox epidemic of 1870-1871.  None one were hit harder than the Skeens.


When I wrote Untold Stories, I said that I desperately wanted to tell this story. There is still much more to Mary Davis Skeen’s story, including a mystery surrounding her three year-old son Benjamin that needs to be solved. Just recently I came into contact with one of William and Mary’s descendants. I feel that I have just touched the tip of the iceberg here, and I am more determined than ever that Mary’s story really belongs in book form.  I can’t wait to speak more with the great-granddaughter of William and Mary Skeen. Finally, her story can be told.

What I found in Plain City

If you’ve read my Untold Stories essay,  you know that I had many questions that I needed answers to so I could finish telling the Skeen’s story. Over the years, I looked things up on the internet, just out of curiosity, and this last spring I made another trip to Plain City.  I took pictures this time, and added them to my collection of information from Family Search, Ancestry.com, and the history archives of Plain City.  I have pieced together a complete story, and I’m so excited to tell it!

Please be patient with me as I put the finishing touches on the story of the Skeen family. As I get the story ready, here are some teasers for you:

  • William Skeen was among the founding fathers of Plain City, and played a vital and memorable role in the city’s success.
  • William Skeen was a polygamist–he had two wives!  (I would have noticed this in 2002 if I had not been so focused on the death dates on the tombstone.)
  • I know exactly how the children died, and it is not a pretty story (be prepared to cry).
  • In the aftermath of his children’s deaths, William felt that he lost every friend he ever had.
  • The story’s ending has a very interesting twist–connected directly to William’s second wife.
  • I have uncovered two new mysteries related to the original story–this requires another trip to Plain City, and some more pictures. I think I’ll be able to make another story when I solve one of the mysteries. At the very least, I’ll update you on both of them–I’m a naturally curious person, so I realllllly want to know!

I am committed to introduce a new story to my blog every week.  I will post a new story every Wednesday. Of course next Wednesday I will finish telling the story of the Skeen family.  Here is what you can expect in the next few weeks (not necessarily in this order):

  1. What Happened to the Skeen Family
  2. The Hidden Child: how my Mormon mom found out she was a Jew
  3. Why Grandma Cried (another topic from the original Untold Stories)
  4. Solved (I hope): the mystery of little Benny Skeen
  5. The true Story of a Pony Express Rider
  6. A Rabbi, a King, and a Bishop–did not walk into a bar
  7. The Sunshine Sisters





From Untold Stories, 2002