(No. 1/2009– October 2009)
The Family with 54 Surnames (and Counting)
by Ben Weinstock and Lawrence Garfield
For many years we have been researching the history of our ancestors, who had a rare surname: Gavezniansky, which means "from the town of Gavezhno." Gavezhno (Howesna in Polish) is a town approximately 10 miles north of Nesvizh, in Belarus. Most likely, this family moved to Nesvizh in the late 1700s or early 1800s. There were also relatives who later moved to the nearby towns of Slutsk, Timkowitz, Kleck, and Baranovichi. Today, there are descendents all over the world. What is interesting about our research is that we have discovered not only numerous variants of the original name, but many other surnames that were assumed over the years.
Variants of Gavezniansky: These are the “original” family names that appear in Russian census records, draft dodger listings (from the Russian newspaper Minskie Gubernskie Vedomosti), listings of Nesvizh real estate owners and Slutsk District Duma voters, and from steamship records: Govezensky, Govezner, Gavazensky, Govozensky, Goveznyansky, Govechensky, Gavyeznyanskiy, Goveznyanski, Gaveschonsky, Gawischensky, Gawuzinsky, Gowisnansky, Gawishonsky, Gavshonsky, Gowizanski, Gowizansky, Goweznansky, Gawizanski, Gawisanski, Gawasinski, Gowizensky, Govizensky, Gowizonski, Gawischanski, Gawisansky, Goweshansky, Gavaschansky, Gowiesniansky, Gowezniansky, Gavizansky, Gavazansky, Govezonsky, Howisansky, Howiszanski, Howesninsky, Howegniansky, Howisensky, Howieznienski, Awezansky, and Abesansky. Today there are a few branches of the family in Argentina, Mexico, and Israel that retain versions of these original names.
An “alternative” family name: A common strategy, used by relatives, was to drop the original Gavezniansky name and to use the maiden name of one of the family matriarchs, Diamond (originally Diment). After a while, even relatives not directly descended from her alternated their surnames between Gavezniansky and Diamond.
Wives’ or mothers’ maiden names: Another strategy used was to assume the maiden name of their wives, giving rise to relatives named Green, Israelowitz, Rosen, and Wesler.
Shortened/ Anglicized names: A Howisansky who went to the Yukon Territory looking for gold shortened his name to Howe; a Govezensky relative in Mexico shortened his name to Gove; a Gavizansky descendent in South Africa shortened his name to Gavin.
Adopted name: One Gavezniansky relative who escaped from Russia “bought the papers” of a man named Rozansky and thus lost the original name.
New name: In what sounds like a Jewish anecdote, a Gavezniansky who went to Minnesota became “Johnson” as described by descendent Lynn Johnson:
Grandpa Sam Gavezniansky was on his horse-drawn wagon when a policeman ticketed him for not having a license. He was to get a license or appear in the courthouse within three days to pay a fine. While he was waiting in court for a license, the gentleman before him went before the judge. The judge asked his name, and he replied, “Johnson.” The man was appearing for the same offense – not having a peddler’s license. When it came time for Grandpa Sam, the judge asked, “What’s your name?” He said, “The same as his – Johnson.”
Corrupted versions of the original name: Sometimes the name was misspelled on birth records, marriage records, and on death certificates, such as Gaffadinsky, Gawersonsky, etc. Also, over the years, some family members couldn’t remember the original name and said it was Gobijonsky, Hawarjinsky, and the like.
In summary, genealogists should not discount “other” family names, especially when the original family name is long and somewhat difficult to pronounce.
Copyright © 2009 Belarus SIG, Ben Weinstock and Lawrence Garfield
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