What’s In a Name?

by Steven Dugan

Genealogists often stumble upon unique naming patterns in their research. These patterns can shed light on family traditions, beliefs, and cultural history. Genealogist Donna Przecha says that when genealogists track surnames, they are doing so in order to connect people who are related. Given names, however, are more personal and chosen with thought and feeling. They are part of our identity.

Naming a child after a relative is a popular way to honor a beloved family member. The popularity of names ebbs and flows throughout historical periods, but the repetition of names can indicate a pattern. In the book In Search of Your British and Irish Roots, genealogist Angus Baxter describes a naming pattern that was popular from about 1700-1875.  While not a hard and fast rule, you gain some insight as to how first names were chosen during this period (you might even find examples of this pattern in your own family tree!). Here’s how it goes:

The first son was named after the paternal grandfather.
The second son was named after the maternal grandfather.
The third son was named after the father.
The fourth son was named after the father’s oldest brother.
The fifth son was named after the father’s second oldest brother or mother’s oldest brother.

The first daughter was named after the maternal grandmother.
The second daughter was named after the paternal grandmother.
The third daughter was named after the mother.
The fourth daughter was named after the mother’s oldest sister.
The fifth daughter was named after the mother’s second oldest sister or father’s oldest sister.

Despite what looks like a convenient guide to name children, the reality is that each family makes their own decision. You will run across traditional names, such as John and Mary, as well as lines of repeated male names along with the suffixes Sr., Jr., I, II, and III. Repeated use of the same female name is also seen, but the use of suffixes is rare. This example from the Workman family shows a five-generation use of the name Thomas for the first-born son. What’s unknown from this genealogy is if any of these men named Thomas were Sr., Jr., etc.

C Workman Descendants 2
This descendant chart shows the repeated use of the name Thomas Workman for five generations from the early 1600s to 1764.  As you can see, the Workman family pattern shows the first-born son being named after the father instead of the third son.

If you do start to see a name being repeated, whether male or female, this might be a clue that you have found a pattern unique to your family. Be on the lookout for mixtures of traditional and non-traditional names. For every John and Mary you find, you might also encounter a Monroe or an Orlena, or even names of religious leaders such as John Wesley or Martin Luther.

Don’t be surprised either to see two children with the same first name (and even a middle name) in the same nuclear family. One child may have died young and the family reused the name to honor the first child. You will often see a multi-year gap between names being reused. This example from the Temple family shows the reuse of the name David Harrison by William Workman’s daughter Antonia Margarita and her husband F.P.F. Temple. Unfortunately, both boys did not live beyond the age of three.

Temple Family Group Sheet
This record for the Temple family shows the reuse of the name David Harrison for the sixth son, in honor of the fourth son, who died in infancy.

You might also find children named after popular historical figures. In 2008, when Barack Obama was running for President, 52 boys in the United States were born with that name. After he took office in 2009, that number jumped to 69. And not to forget the girls, there were 283 girls named Melania in 2017, showing that families on both sides of the aisle are inspired to name their children after popular historical and political figures.

If you’re interested in family history, we encourage you to keep an eye on the Homestead’s calendar of events for our bi-annual genealogy workshop called It’s All Relative. The workshops scheduled for this September are full, but two more will be offered in 2019. The first session of each workshop covers the basics of genealogy research, such as how to collect and organize facts, document your research, and access resources both online and in-person. During the second session, participants share their progress from session one, find ways to break through road blocks (those instances where the trail of an ancestor goes cold), and learn how to date photographs. New to this year’s workshop is a third hour added to each session that will include information on how to care for and store ephemera (paper articles) and family photographs.



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