Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Origin of the Names Jasaitis and Juknevicius

 In the search for clues to my Lithuanian connections I found two highly credible sources, LITUANAS Magazine and Lithuanian Heritage Magazine, along with several online history and genealogy sites. I learned that until the late 18th century when Lithuanians had need of formal documents like passports most of the villagers did not have patrilineal surnames, that is, last names in common with their fathers and grandfathers. Instead a man might be called by his first name followed by a second name, that of a saint or the area where he lived or who his brother was. His first name was a nickname given to him when he was young which differentiated him from others, such as Rudis for red-haired or Kalvis for blacksmith. With the addition of a Christian name Rudis might become Rudis alias Antanas (St. Anthony) then shortened to  Rudis Antanas. Or he might be Rudis brother of Rimgaudo written Rudis Rimgaudo brolis.

 Now what does all this have to do with my search for the Jasaitis and Juknevicius families, you might ask. For me it means these names are not very old, probably won’t be found in old Lithuanian records prior to the mid 1800s. In fact, before 1861 when serfdom was abolished in Lithuania there may be no written records of my family, not unless their local Catholic church recorded baptisms and marriages and that same church survived decades of occupation by Russians and Poles and Germans.

 Jasaitis is a form of the name John, based on the Polish or Belorussian root Jaś with the Slavic diminutives or terms of endearment adding the “aitis”. At the time surnames were added the official government language in Lithuania was a Slavic language, a combination of Belorussian and Polish. That means Jasaitis is not even a true Lithuanian name. It means “Johnny”.

 Juknevicius  derives from the Belarussian _Jukneviy_ which is a diminutive form of
Eufemiusz [Greek: "good" + "prophecy" or "well" + "spoken of"], according to my source David Zincavage writing on a genealogy website. No wonder there are so many Jukneviciuses in
Lithuania! Joe Good Guy would be preferable to most other options.

 By the time my Lithuanian relatives were settled in Westville, Illinois around 1900 they were no longer Jasaitis and Juknevicius. Instead they were Sites and Uknavage. Fortunately I have found documentation linking them to the old names and feel confident that the names in Lithuania were Jasaitis and Juknevicius despite many other spellings I’ve encountered. The ship’s manifest dated June 28, 1889 spells the names Jeschaitis and Juchnewicz. A church baptismal record for their child born in Pittston, PA in 1891 spells the names Jasaitis and Juchniewicz. An obituary in 1937 confirms the Jasaitis name change to Sites.

 There are many other spellings of those names that appear in records across this country such as Jesaitis, Josaitis, Yasaitis, Yukenavage, Juknevic, etc. but they are not my direct relatives. The “J” sound in Lithuanian is much like our “Y” sound which explains how customs officials may have misspelled the names upon arrival in this country especially since most of the newcomers were illiterate. The Juknewicz name was probably Polisized or Germanized before immigration and may be a clue to which region the family was from, but maybe not. On the 1889 ship’s manifest, the mother’s last residence was shown as Langenberg, a German city between Lithuania and the port of departure in Bremen, Germany, so the name may have been Germanized while they were there. But she's the only one listed with that residence. The husband, Josas Juchnewicz and their children have "Russia" as last residence so maybe it was a clerical error that linked them to Langenberg. How long they were in Germany before they left for the United States is anybody’s guess. And why "Russia" rather than a city or province in Russia? There is always the possibility they were running, hiding, burning their bridges behind them, figuratively speaking, of course.

 In summary, the names themselves offer few clues to my relatives’ lives in Lithuania. Unless I can find a document linking them to a town or region in that country my research may be stalled. However, I still have hope that on the Jasaitis branch I will find a naturalization record or death certificate which gives me that much-needed clue leading to an old Catholic village church.

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