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Palen Hypothesis

The Irish Palen Hypothesis


As is obvious, and mentioned repeatedly on this site, the spelling of family names has been very fluid in the past and has depended on many factors: literacy, phonetics, accents, local conventions, even poor handwriting etc. This is one reason why the genetic part of this study is so important and why researching similar sounding or otherwise related surnames is essential to a complete surname study.

One surname that has piqued my curiosity is Palen even though one might think it is quite distinct from Pelan. Palen is another surname of multiple and seemingly independent origins - Ireland, Wales, Netherlands, Norway-Sweden-Finland, Eastern Europe etc. So why is this so interesting to the Pelan study?

1. The first point to note that is that there are a handful of 19th century census records outside Ireland where people called Palen claim to come from Ireland. The strange thing is that the Irish records have virtually no one called Palen:
  • BMD indicies (as transcribed from the LDS copies) spanning many decades contain only two entries featuring the spelling Palen. One of these is a duplicate for a Pelan.
  • None on the Index to Griffith's Valuation (1848-1864)
  • None on the 1911 Census.
  • None on the Ulster Covenant (1912) transcription
  • None on the Freeholders' Records at PRONI (pre-1840)
  • None on the Will Calendars (1800s)
  • I cannot locate any in the Ulster trade directories

So could it be that the majority of Palens upped sticks and left Ireland and the remainder died/daughtered out? Was the spelling of their surname flexible and subsequently regularised in Ireland to something else, like Palin or maybe even Pelan? Did some people with Pelan/Palin-like names who moved abroad become regularised into Palens?

2. The second interesting point is that there is a death record in Carleton, Ontario, Canada of a William Palen (d. 22 Jul 1891) which states that his birth-place is Lambeg, Ireland - right in the middle of what I would regard as the Pelan heartland.

3. The third and most compelling fact is that there is a documented Pelan family also living in Ontario in the late-19th century who mysteriously turn into Palens. For example, there is a birth record of one of their sons Victor Pelan (b. 12 May 1885 in York, Ontario), father an Irishman Thomas Pelan. What makes it compelling is that the certificate is signed by Thomas as a Pelan;




The entire family it seems turns into Palens within 20 years for reasons as yet unknown, e.g. Victor was calling himself Palen unambiguously on his WW1 enlistment papers in 1916.

4. In the US state of California, there is a Palen mountain and dry-lake, purportedly named after a Matthew Palen, a miner from Ireland (See California Place Names by Erwin G.Gudde & William Bright). It is believed by some that this Matthew is connected to the Ontario Palens.

5. The weakest point is that the Palens of Irish descent appear to be from Protestant traditions - i.e. Methodist, Anglican etc. This may point to a common (Ulster?) origin but it is dangerous to make such assumptions.

6. The Belfast Newsletter reports the death of a child, Alice Edith Palen daughter of James Palen, in 1872 yet her official birth and death certificates cite her as Alice Edith Pelan. This may be a once-off error.


So we can suggest that some Palens (perhaps just those in Canada?) of Irish descent came from people that were not consistently called Palen in Ireland. One family of Irish descent were definitely using the name Pelan consistently within Canada and then switched to Palen - presumably as a result of direct or indirect influence from Dutch Palens coming north from the US.

Putting this circumstantial and anecdotal evidence together, the hypothesis is that some if not all "Irish" Palens are actually Pelans or are otherwise connected by a possible common origin. It would seem that only Y-chromosome testing is going to help prove this with any level of certainty - and it has!