Apr 3, 2020

Thinking about Names

April 3, 2020

For many genealogists, including me, extra time at home has allowed us to spend some time reviewing our family tree. In my case that has meant that I have been looking more closely at all of the family groupings on my tree and checking to make sure that the children of a particular couple really do belong in that family. That, in turn,  has led me to think about names – not just surnames – but given names as well. I think that I often discover the children of a couple and write down the children’s names without thinking much about them, but lately I’ve been looking at patterns in names and how they might impact our family research.


As anyone who has done much research knows, parents’ name choices for their children were not as adventuresome in the past as they are today. The majority of families (English speaking ones, anyway) relied on tried and true names such as James, John and George for their sons and Mary, Elizabeth and Sarah for their daughters. That can lead to frustration for a modern family historian who runs into four generations of James’ in his family tree, especially if it’s combined with a common surname. Add in a few cousins with the same name, and it’s clear why everyone complains about ancestors who are impossible to differentiate. Adding to the confusion is the middle name situation in many families. It’s important to remember that most people before about 1800 were not given middle names, with the exception of the occasional family who used the mother’s maiden name as a middle name. Be wary of internet family trees who include a lot of middle names for folks born before the 19th century. They’re most likely incorrect.


Occasionally, families did branch out from the tried and true when naming their children. My husband’s eighth great grandparents, Richard and Abigail Lippincott, certainly chose some unusual names for some of their children: Remembrance, John, Abigail, Restore, Freedom, Increase, Jacob and Preserved. John, Jacob and Abigail were quite common names, but the rest – not so much. Richard and Abigail originally emigrated from England to Massachusetts before 1640; they later broke with the Puritans and returned to England where they joined the Quakers. According to family lore, the names of the later children reflected their choice to join the Quakers and the trials and tribulations they faced for their faith. Freedom, for example, was born after Richard spent time in prison for his Quaker beliefs and was named for the relief Richard must have felt upon being released.


Be careful, however, when assuming that a name is unusual. Just like clothes and furnishings, names go in and out of style. A name that seems strange today may have been very common a hundred or so years ago. On one of my family trees I found a girl named Lucretia Hadlock. Lucretia was born in Vermont in 1817 and disappeared from the family records when the family moved west about 1835. I guessed that she’d married since I couldn’t find a trace of her under “Lucretia Hadlock.” Since I thought Lucretia was such an unusual name, I thought perhaps I could find her in the 1850 census by searching for only a first name and birthplace. Turns out that Lucretia was a fairly common name in Vermont, and there were a number of them born in Vermont around 1817. Eventually, I ran across Lucretia in a later census under her maiden name; she never married and spent the rest of her life in nearby New York.


Once in a while, if you’re lucky, you might run across a name that really is unusual. My mother’s family excelled in picking unique names. One of her aunts was named Elila and her sister was named Ansta. Both of those names are so rare that it’s possible to find both women in records throughout their lives by merely searching for them by their first names. Unusual names are great fun for genealogists, but I happen to know that they’re less fun for the people who carry them. My Aunt Ansta spent her entire 80 years always having to pronounce and spell her name; no one ever got it quite right. Her dentist always called her “A Santa,” and that was closer than many came.


Looking at names can be a lot of fun, but sometimes it can actually help break down brick walls. Next week I’ll write about a couple of cases where that has happened for me.


Carol Stetser

Researcher/Director at Large