The day when the fish were biting

Years ago when I first began my genealogical quest, curiosity about my middle name eventually drew me into a discussion with my mother. When I asked mama what was the influence behind the name she had given me, she simply replied that she did so “…just because I liked that name.” Wow. I was taken by her reply, as I thought surely I was named after someone in our family, a close friend, or perhaps a favorite celebrity. As it turned out, research eventually showed there truly wasn’t a smidgen of historical evidence of that name in my family.

It was soon thereafter during my research of my family that the reality of what the above meant hit me—I wasn’t the only child in our immediate household to have uniquely received a name that was simply just “likable.” All of my siblings had received “likable” names not patterned after current relatives, ancestral forebears, or conventional naming patterns unique to our family. Stunning.

Granted, when I was born it was still very common for parents to name their children after relatives, ancestors, close friends or associates, persons of special interest, or as a matter of generational tradition. Thus, my mother’s approach was a surprising departure from that tradition (graciously, I did receive my forename in honor of my father). Interesting, yet perhaps to a lesser degree, that dominant, once-upon-a-time naming practice in the United States still remains viable within today’s social practice.

On the subject of names, I got to thinking about the names I’ve encountered during census study. Man oh man, there have been some doozies that surely defy explanation. I’ll bet you too have come across uniquely humorous and strange names at one time or another in your research that garnered a double-take moment. The following case study contains a unique example:

Recently, while conducting followup study of my Piland ancestors of Gates County, North Carolina, I stumbled upon a family which was identified in that county’s 1850 federal enumeration with the proverbial common surname: Smith.1 In the Smith household was a 6-year-old child (reported as a female) who immediately caught my eye. The young girl (assumed to have been a daughter of Mr. and Mrs Smith) bore the most bizarre name I had ever seen in that county’s records—Fishbite Smith!

1850 census - Fishbite Smith

“Fishbite Smith? What in Adam’s house cat was mom thinking on the day Fishbite was born? Did her mother have a Johnny Cash, Boy-Named-Sue kind of moment? Poor child—that couldn’t have been her formal name. Maybe ‘Fishbite’ was just a nickname,” I rationalized. But I quickly concluded it would have been quite odd for parents to have bestowed such a stigmatizing name on a daughter. Seeking a sensible explanation, I asked myself, “Was Fishbite’s family perhaps Native-American with an attraction to nature?”

As the above image visually shows, the enumerator’s handwriting and precise spelling clearly identified the child’s gender as “F” (female), with her name intentionally written as Fishbite. So, that begs this question: was the enumerator’s 1850 census presentation flawed? At that point, I was stumped and couldn’t answer any of my questions with certainty. I needed more evidence concerning Miss Fishbite and her Smith family, so I began pursuit of additional records to see what could be learned.

Disappointingly, in a search of online census databases, I struck out. Fishbite was no where to be found beyond her 1850 appearance. Furthermore, search results of an even broader swath of record types revealed that name was virtually non-existent in the United States—either as a forename, given name, or even surname. FishhookIn lieu of this phenomenon and the scarcity of information, I concluded that perhaps little Fishbite had died prior to the 1860 census enumeration.

But that still didn’t help to answer the nagging question still in my mind: where was Fishbite’s mom on the day when the fish were biting?…

(This Smith case study will be further explored in next week’s post)


1. 1850 U.S. Census, Gates County, North Carolina, population schedule, no district stated, p. 15-A (stamped), dwelling 228, family 228, Fishbite Smith in household of Burten Smith; digital image, Ancestry ( : accessed 7 December 2015); citing NARA microfilm publication M432, roll 631.