Jun 3, 2022

Naming Patterns and Genealogy

June 3, 2022

Did your ancestors follow naming patterns when naming their children? In earlier times, many families did. One of the most common patterns was to name the first-born son after his paternal grandfather. The second son was named after his maternal grandfather, and the third son was named after his father. First-born girls were named after their paternal grandmothers. Second-born girls were named after their maternal grandmothers. Third daughters received their mother’s name.


Of course, not all families followed this pattern. Some didn’t follow these patterns at all. Others used variations of it. One of my ancestral families tweaked the typical pattern by giving their oldest son both of his grandfathers’ name. The son became Parshall Peter after his paternal and maternal grandfathers. The oldest daughter received both of her grandmothers’ names. She was Sarah Rhoda. I didn’t recognize the pattern involved until I was able to figure out who the children’s grandparents were. Once I did, the naming pattern helped confirm that I had the correct ancestors for this family.


In some cases, families didn’t use a specific pattern, but they did tend to name their children the same names over generations. Several generations of one of my ancestral families named their sons James, George, William and John and their daughters Sarah and Susan. While these are very common names, seeing them repeated so often can help a family historian identify earlier generations. If a family used the same common names for generations, it ought to give a researcher pause if he finds them all supposedly descended from a man named Barnabas, especially if there are no descendants with that unusual name.


In my family, Parshall is a surname that became a first name back in the early 1700s. Since that time, numerous family members have been given the name. Since it’s unusual, it helps me to identify men who most likely “belong” on my family tree.


Naming patterns by themselves are not proof of relationships, but they can be a hint. Faced with two possible ancestors named “Parshall Terry” and “David Terry,” I’m going to focus on the Parshall since I know it’s a common name in my Terry line.


It’s important to be cautious when assuming that you’ve found a naming pattern. If every generation of your family has a John in it, it may not mean much. However, if the family uses the same cluster of names over and over, it may have more significance.


Naming patterns are fun to discover in ancestral lines. They can be a sort of check that you’ve found the right families. When used with other research, they can be the icing on your genealogical cake.


Carol Stetser