April 17, 2020
Thinking about why our ancestors chose the names they did for their children can be an interesting way to while away a long afternoon confined to the house, but it can also be a way to get to know more about those ancestors and can help to break down brick walls.
In more modern times some folks pick names simply because they like the sound of them; my own parents told me they chose my name because they thought it was pretty, and they liked the sound of it. Remembering the number of Carol’s in my classes as I was growing up, I’m sure they were also influenced by the fact that Carol was a popular name in the late 40s and early 50s. As far as I can determine, they didn’t plan to honor anyone by naming me or to perpetuate a family name. However, in many of our ancestors’ times, names seem to have had more serious origins than just popularity. In those days of frequent early deaths, names were often chosen to memorialize an older, deceased sibling. My Norwegian great grandparents named three sons Kristen (Kristian). The first two died young, but the third one finally lived to grow up.
Other parents chose names to honor a child’s grandparent or other ancestor. In fact, in many cultures there was a semi-formal pattern to bestowing children’s names. It varied somewhat according to times and places, but roughly it meant that the first born son was named after his paternal grandfather, the second born was named after his maternal grandfather, and the third son was named after his father. The same pattern was used when naming daughters after their grandmothers and mother. If more children were born, they were often named after a parent’s siblings, especially ones who had died young before they could have any children of their own. This pattern was not a hard and fast rule since families often tweaked the pattern by naming the first son after his father rather than his grandfather or by giving the first born son his first name from one grandfather and his middle name from the first name of his other grandfather or by changing the pattern in other ways. However, looking at this type of naming pattern is often a good way to help figure out the first names of a child’s grandparents. One set of my second great grandparents had five children, and they named them in a variation of this pattern. The eldest was named Parshall Peter; Parshall was the name of the child’s paternal grandfather, and Peter was his maternal grandfather’s name. The oldest daughter was named Sarah Rhoda, with Sarah being the girl’s maternal grandmother and Rhoda being her paternal grandmother. Two other children were named after siblings of the parents, and the fifth received the name of a respected member of the parents’ church. As a beginning genealogist, I didn’t recognize this pattern for several years, and when I did, I didn’t trust it, so I didn’t follow up on it. I spent years trying to figure out the names of the wife’s parents with little result until I finally zeroed in on the naming pattern of the children and did more research on the names. The naming pattern on its own wasn’t enough proof of the grandparents’ names, but it certainly was one more piece of information that could be added to other records to confirm who the wife’s parents were.
Similarly, the use of specific first names might be an indication that the family line you are following isn’t really the correct one. If you run across a family where a group of brothers are named John, William, George and James, it’s fairly unlikely that the father of that group was named Noah. It’s even more unlikely if among that group of brothers, all of their sons are named the same John, William, George and James with nary a Noah in sight. It isn’t impossible, of course, but it probably is not the first possibility to consider.
The names a family gives its children can also tell a lot about them. For example, if a post-Revolutionary War family gave a child the name Lafayette, it’s almost certain that the family were not Loyalists during the War. Similarly, the other famous or not so famous folks who children were named for also tell us something about the family. A collateral family of mine named their five sons Benjamin Franklin, William Dwight, George Washington, Henry Clay and Benjamin Franklin. The names of founding fathers were frequently given to children, so it’s hard to place much importance upon them. It may just indicate that using those types of names was a fad that lots of people followed, but the other name on the list might tell us more about the family that used it (while Henry Clay wasn’t really a founding father, he is an important early American statesman). William Dwight probably doesn’t mean much to most of us now, but he was a well-known Union Civil War general. Young William Dwight’s father was a Civil War veteran who remained active in the GAR for decades after his service. Clearly, he was proud to have served his country and must have respected General Dwight.
These kinds of famous person names were extremely common and apparently were also somewhat embarrassing to their namesakes. In the above family, George Washington Terry lived a long life, making it to 86 years of age, but he always told his family that his middle name was definitely not Washington but that he had no middle name, just a middle initial
Research/Director at Large