If you have a surname such as O’Sullivan, LeBlanc or VanOostrum, determining your ancestral home shouldn’t be a major problem.
But what if your surname was Turtle, Cornfoot or Rattlebag? Or Pigfat, Craze and Suckbitch? These are legitimate surnames (that I found while looking into books on surnames at Acadia University) and somewhere in the world there probably are people who answer to them. However, determining their ethnic origin might be a problem. Unlike names starting with “O’, “Mac” or “Van,” there’s no clue to what their ancestry might be.”
For the most part, surnames derive from localities, occupations, physical appearance and so on. However, this doesn’t explain how some surnames originated. Take, for example, Turnipseed, Windmillyard, Windgate and Windhouse. I copied these names from a book on British surnames. According to the book, they can still be found today in the telephone phone books of Great Britain.
I found other unusual surnames in the British book that give absolutely no clue to how they might have originated: Demon, Clutterbuck, Greedy and Hardmeat, for example. Also Hogwood, Steer, Bracegirdle, Bonefat and so on.
Let’s take one of the surnames mentioned above – Rattlebag – to see the process by which unusual surnames are created. In A Dictionary of Surnames, Mark Antony Lower writes that Rattlebag can be found in documents from the time of Edward 1 and was applied to a man who was a rather tight-fisted moneylender.
We have – or I should say had – an unusual surname that originated in the Annapolis Valley and is unique to Nova Scotia. This is the surname Coalfleet, a name that was carried by several generations of Hantsport area families before dying out.
The story goes that this surname was given to an infant boy who was the sole survivor when a fleet of coal barges was wrecked off our coast in a winter gale. The boy’s name was suggested by the circumstances of his rescue. He became Peter Coalfleet and he sired several generations of seafaring Coalfleets who sailed out of Hantsport.
The story of Peter Coalfleet can be found in Hantsport on Avon, Hattie Chittick’s 1964 history of the town. Historian St. Clair (Joe) Patterson, who has been researching the Coalfleet family, told me that the last of the Coalfleets died in Hantsport in the 1960s.