There might be one alternative to “Alfre” as the name of Miss Petty who married John Ford, and that would be the name “Apphia”. To understand this possibility, phonology is necessary (phonology is the study of speech sounds).
The name “Apphia” appears in the New Testament of the Bible (Book of Philemon, Chapter 1, verse 2). It also appeared, from time to time, in colonial Virginia (e.g. Apphia (Hughes) Bushrod, and her granddaughters, Apphia Bushrod and Apphia Doggett, and her great-granddaughter, Apphia Fauntleroy).
First, consider the syllables; there are three, as follows: Ap---phi----a. Pronouncing them, we might get something like Ap-----fee-----uh. (Note the double “pp” and compare it to the word “success”, where the first “c” has the sound of “k” and the second “c” has the sound of “s”. Similarly, in the double “pp”, the first “p” has the sound of “p” but the second “p” combines with the following letter, h, to make the “ph” combination which has the sound of “f”.)
Next, consider the second and third syllables (“phi---a”). Compare it to the name “Maria”. In modern times, we pronounce the final letters “ia” as “eeee---uh”, probably influenced by our knowledge of Latin (the song “Ave Maria”), of Spanish (the girl’s name Maria) and even of the movie “The Sound of Music” and the main character, Maria von Trapp). There was a time, however, in the English language, when the name “Maria” was actually pronounced “Muh----rye----uh”. (For evidence, watch the movie “Stage Beauty”, set in 17th century London, in which the name of the lead female character is pronounced “Muh----rye----uh”. Alternatively, consider the name of the currently popular singer, Mariah Carey.) Under this English pronunciation system, the name “Apphia” might have followed the same phonological rules, and thus would have sounded like “Ap----fie----uh” (where “fie” rhymes with “lie” and “rye”) rather than “Ap—fee—uh”.
Third, consider the English accent (or dialect) as it was spoken by colonists in Virginia in the 1700s (today’s American South). Think of what we call the “R-less” dialect, where the letter “r” remains silent in certain positions in some words (so we get “Virginia” as “Vuh---gin--yuh” or the word “park” as “pahk”.
Now imagine that John Petty, John Ford and this Apphia (Petty) Ford herself, in speaking to the lawyer, notary or other draftsman who was going to write the Last Will or the deed, heard the name pronounced “Ap---fie----uh”. The person listening might have mistakenly heard a “b” instead of a “p” (the difference in pronunciation is slight; they are both described by phonologists as bilabial stop consonants, but one is voiced and one devoiced). In addition, the person listening might have assumed that the second and third syllables (“fie---uh”) had a silent “r” under the “R-less” dialect, and so should be spelled “fire”. This person listening then translated what he heard (that is “Ap---fie---uh”) into the spelling “Abfire”.
While this sounds convoluted, I believe it could have happened. As evidence, consider the 1783 tax/tithe list for Culpeper County, Virginia, in which another woman, Apphia (Thornton) Foushee, was recorded by taxman John Waugh as “Abifire Foshee”. See http://files.usgwarchives.org/va/culpeper/census/1783/1783tax01.txt, “Property Tax List Of Culpeper County Virginia And Names Of Slaves 1783”, compiled by Mrs. Garland C. Norris, Raleigh, N.C.
So was Mrs. John (nee Petty) Ford’s first name Alfre or Apphia? Surely it was one of these two? Does anyone know of a fourth documentary source that would show a spelling and help to resolve the issue?
One piece of evidence that might help is to find where John and Rebecca (Sims or Simms) Petty might have heard the name they gave their daughter. Did they know someone with this name? Perhaps a family member or a friend or neighbor?
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