Jul 8, 2022

Middle Names: Help or Hindrance

July 8, 2022

Naming patterns can sometimes be helpful in determining the parentage of ancestors. Middle names can also help us identify family relationships.


Sometimes the mere fact that someone was given a middle name can help us figure out when he was born. In the United States, middle names were seldom used until about 1800. Before that time, the child was given a first name and took his father’s surname. Occasionally, a child born before 1800 was given a middle name, but it nearly always was the maiden name of his mother. One of my husband’s ancestors received the name John Green Munyan. He was born before 1800, and it turned out that his mother’s maiden name was Green.


Knowing that middle names were unusual can help us determine if the information on a family tree is correct or not. My third great grandfather was named Timothy Terry. No middle name in any contemporaneous records. That’s not too surprising considering that he was born in 1798. Timothy appears on numerous online family trees. In nearly all of them he is listed as Timothy Peter Terry. Timothy had a grandson named Timothy Peter Terry. Before that, the name Peter does not occur in the Terry Family. It does appear in Timothy Terry’s wife’s family. Her father was named Peter. Whenever I see trees with my third great grandfather listed as Timothy Peter Terry, I tend to take everything in them with a grain of salt. If they got the name wrong, what else is incorrect? Probably a lot.


After about 1800, middle names were common for both boys and girls. In earlier eras, the middle name usually had family significance. It was often a maiden name of a mother, grandmother or other female relative. Sometimes it was the name of a famous person, such as Washington or Lincoln.


The middle names that drive a researcher crazy are the ones that appear as if they should have significance, but it’s not straightforward. For example, my husband’s grandfather had the middle name Duncan.  My husband had no idea where the name came from but thought it might be a family surname. For a long time, I thought that the name was his mother’s maiden name. Eventually, I learned that it wasn’t. Once I started researching this grandfather’s collateral relatives, I learned that Duncan was the surname of an uncle by marriage. My husband had never even heard the man mentioned by his grandparents.


Recently, I learned that my husband’s great grandmother’s full name at birth was Caroline Zern Usinger. Apparently, she never used her full name, but was always just referred to as Carrie. It doesn’t seem likely that her parents randomly chose the name Caroline Zern for their only child. As far as I can tell, there were never any Zern’s in this family. Adding to the mystery is the fact that this the Usinger Family is one of my long-standing brick walls. I have no idea who Carrie’s grandparents were. It seems likely that Zern fits into this family line somewhere. I just can’t figure out how. So far, that middle name is a mystery.


Nowadays middle names are often given just because they sound well with a first name. That wasn’t often the case way back when, so mysteries like Carrie’s are worth digging into. That Zern middle name might just break down a long-standing brick wall. Or, it might just end being an interesting detour with no real significance. You just never know with middle names: sometimes they’re a help, sometimes a hindrance.


Carol Stetser