September 17, 2021
Do your ancestors have unusual names? Some of mine do, and I can’t help wondering what their parents were thinking. Don’t get me wrong; most of my ancestors were pretty boring when it came to naming their children. My tree is full of Mary’s, Elizabeth’s and George’s.
It’s just that in addition to those there are the ones who had names like VaLois and Muriet. I had an aunt named Ansta whose name no one could ever pronounce or spell. Once her name was even written as “La Santa” on her hospital room door. If she hadn’t already been sick, she probably would have been after she saw that.
Some of the weird names in my family tree actually had good explanations and are even helpful in figuring out relationships. A number of my ancestors were given surnames as first names. Hence my Revolutionary War patriot Parshall Terry. His first name was his mother’s maiden name, and he started a line of Parshall’s that stretches up to the present. If I run across a man named Parshall in my research, it’s almost certain he’s related to my Terry line.
Sometimes it’s not clear exactly where the unusual first names came from, but they often persist in families, helping to tie an outlier into the family. For example, one of my great great grandmothers named three of her daughters Lucretia, Persina and Chastina. None of those are exactly common nowadays, although they were a bit more common in the early 1800s. However, the sisters named their own daughters those same three names, and the daughters followed the tradition when naming their own children. Even though all of these women had different married surnames, it’s still possible to see the traces of the original three sisters in the first and middle names of their descendants.
Sometimes the unusual first names aren’t as unusual as they seem. Sometimes they’re just old-fashioned or localized to a certain area. I was born and raised in Utah, a state which seemed to excel is unusual first names. It used to be common, for example, for a couple to name their first daughter in honor of the husband. This often took the form of using the husband’s first name plus the suffice “lene” or “ene.” Sometimes, as a variation, the daughter was given her father’s name with “La” in front of it. I knew a lot of Raylene’s, Carlene’s, LaGene’s and Ladean’s when I was growing up. Even more unusuall names sometimes crop up. One of my cousins was named Davene because her dad’s name was Dave. Some even suggested to my brother Mark that he name his daughter Markalene. Fortunately for her, he passed on that idea.
As a genealogist, I have to admit to having a soft spot for all of those oddly named ancestors. They are definitely easier to search for than the more common Fred’s and Jane’s. I never have to question whether the Bagwell Topping who pops up on a search result is mine. He always is. Sometimes I don’t even have to add a surname at all to know if someone is the “right” person. I usually don’t need to do much more than enter the first name Elila into a search engine to locate records for my great aunt. Same thing with my great grandfather Durbin. Who needs surnames with first names like those?
Whether my ancestors who had strange first names enjoyed them or not, I do. I love running across a “new” name like Therus or Tonenia, even if I’m not quite sure how to pronounce them. A tree with names like Iolanthe and Lebbeus on it is unique and quirky. Much as I enjoy these unusual names, I think they’re probably better left to dead people who can’t be annoyed by folks who can’t pronounce or spell their name. I stuck to plain James, Peter and Thomas for my own sons. Future genealogists will probably be disappointed, but so be it.
Researcher/Director at Large