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Naming Patterns

Naming Patterns

In the 18th and 19th centuries, many English-speaking families named their children following a pattern based upon birth order and the names of ancestors and/or other family members. The practice may have gone back even earlier but my information about families born before 1700 is too sketchy (and unreliable) to form an opinion. American families with roots going back to the British Isles frequently followed the same pattern found in their ancestral home country or region. In the late 1700's and early 1800's, perhaps as many as 90% of American families followed some sort of pattern in naming their children. In the United States, the practice seems to have all but died out by the time of the Civil War. The following are the patterns most frequently found:

English, Dutch, German, and Swiss Naming Pattern

1st son has same given name as his paternal grandfather
2nd son has same given name as his maternal grandfather
3rd son has same given name as his father
4th and later sons named for an uncle or friend (usually favorite brothers or friends of the father).

1st daughter has same given name as her maternal grandmother
2nd daughter has same given name as her paternal grandmother
3rd daughter has same given name as her mother
4th and later daughters named for an aunt or friend (usually favorite sisters or friends of the mother).

The Dutch/German/Swiss variation does not always hold for 3 rd and later sons and daughters.

Watch out for German/Swiss spiritual names (see below).

It sometimes happens that a given name might already have been used for an earlier child. For instance: if both grandmothers were named Mary, then the firstborn daughter would be named Mary (for her maternal grandmother). But, what about the second-born daughter? You don't want two sisters both named Mary. The rule in this case is to simply drop down to the next position in the pattern for the second and subsequent daughters. Thus, the second-born daughter would take the given name normally reserved for the third-born daughter (her mother's name), etc. The same rule applies to the Welsh/Irish/Scotch naming pattern below.

Welsh, Irish, and Scotch Naming Patterns

1st son has same given name as his paternal grandfather
2nd son has same given name as his maternal grandfather
3rd son named for an uncle or friend (often the eldest brother
of the father but could be a favorite brother or friend of either the father or mother).
4th son has same given name as his father
5th and later sons named for an uncle or friend (usually favorite brothers or friends of the father)

1st daughter has same given name as her maternal grandmother
2nd daughter has same given name as her paternal grandmother
3rd daughter named for an aunt or friend (often the eldest sister of the mother but could be a favorite sister or friend of either the mother or father).
4th daughter has same given name as her mother
5th and later daughters named for an aunt or friend (usually favorite sisters or friends of the mother)

A variation switches the position of the Paternal and Maternal grandparents for the 1st and 2nd sons and daughters. E.g. 1st son named for his mother's father. Reportedly, this variation is typically Scotch but my own-somewhat limited-experience is that it is just as prevalent in families of Welsh origin.

There was another Scotch pattern that was rarely seen in the American colonies-probably because, it is complicated and, in large families, it required knowledge of the family trees of both parents going back many generations. I suspect that, even in Scotland, this pattern was only used in noble families. I've listed this pattern but chances are you'll never see it with any of your American ancestors.

1st son has same given name as his paternal grandfather.
2nd son has same given name as his maternal grandfather.
3rd son has same given name as his father's father's father
4th son has same given name as his mother's mother's father
5th son has same given name as his father's mother's father.
6th son has same given name as his mother's father's father.
7th through 10th sons had same given names as their father's 4 great-grandfathers.
11th through 14th sons had same given names as their mother's 4 great-grandfathers.

1st daughter had same given name as her maternal grandmother.
2nd daughter had same given name as her paternal grandmother.
3rd daughter had same given name as her mother's father's mother
4th daughter had same given name as her father's father's mother
5th daughter had same given name as her mother's mother's mother
6th daughter had same given name as her father's mother's mother
7th through 10th daughters had same given names as their mother's 4 great-grandmothers
11th through 14th daughters had same given names as their father's 4 great-grandmothers

As with the other patterns, if a name had already been used, you just drop down to the next slot in the pattern. E.g. if both grandfathers were named John then the 2nd son would be given the name normally reserved for the 3rd son (his father's father's father given name).

Note that in all of the above English, Dutch, German, Irish, Scotch, and Welsh patterns, the rules are the same for 1st and 2 nd born children.

Another Popular Naming Pattern in America

First son has same given name as his father
2nd son named for an uncle (usually father's eldest brother)
5th and later sons frequently named for famous persons

Middle Names of English Speakers in America

Among the English-speaking nobility and aristocrats, middle names appeared around the 1600's. but the practice was not widespread. Middle names for English-speaking commoners in America were all but non-existent up until the American Revolution. Therefore, be very, very suspicious of family trees showing a middle name for an English-speaking American born before 1776. With the Revolution, the use of middle names for commoners became acceptable and slowly gained popularity. By the time of the Civil War, the majority of American men had a middle name and by the end of the 19 th-century, virtually all American men had middle names.

A pattern for middle names was often followed-but somewhat less frequently than the patterns for given names mentioned above.

Men's middle names:
1st son - mother's maiden surname
2nd son - grandmother's maiden surname (usually from the male line)
3rd son - great-grandmother's maiden surname (usually from the direct male line)
etc.

Hint: To find the maiden name of a female ancestor's mother, take first name of the ancestor's eldest daughter and the middle name of the ancestor's 2nd son.

Less frequently, a male child's middle name came from the township or county where he was born. For example, my granduncle, Virgil Perry Owens, was born in Perry County, Ohio.

Women's middle names:

Women's middle names often came from maiden names of ancestors in the direct female lines but they were not always assigned to every daughter. E.g. the 1st time a middle name was given to a daughter, it would have been her mother's maiden surname... the next daughter or two might not have a middle name but the 2nd time a middle name was finally given to a daughter, it would have been her mother's, mother's maiden surname, etc.

Swiss and German Middle Names

When baptized, German and Swiss children were usually given a name consisting of three parts.

The first name was a spiritual name (usually the name of the family's favorite saint). This name would appear on baptismal and other church records but would most likely be omitted in secular records such as property records, census records, court records, etc. Obviously, male children were given the name of a male saint and female children were given the name of a female saint. But-and this is important to note-all the male children in a family were given the same first name and all the female children were given the same first name. Thus, the brothers might be named Johan George Sigler, Johan Henry Sigler, Johan Adam Sigler, etc. And, the sisters might be named Catherine Ann Sigler, Catherine Marie Sigler, Catherine Eva Sigler, etc.

The second name or middle name was a secular name. This was equivalent to the first name or given name in English speaking countries. It was the name your family and friends called you in informal situations. For instance, George Henry Wetzel would have been called Henry Wetzel. Hint-Hint-Hint-if you want to find census, property, or court records for George Henry Wetzel, look for Henry Wetzel... don't even bother to look for George Wetzel or you might get a record for the wrong person..

The third name was equivalent to surnames in the English-speaking world. The child's last name was the same as the father's last name. However, the suffix 'in' was often added to the end of the last name of females. Thus, the daughter of John Konrad might be referred to as Marie Konradin.

After arriving in America, many German-speaking immigrants settled in communities with other German speakers. Residents in these communities often clung to the language and customs of their native land (including the Germanic form of names) for at least several generations. German-speaking immigrants who settled in or near English-speaking communities usually adopted the English form of their name immediately or soon after arrival.

As can be expected, many American genealogists and family historians have interchanged Germanic spiritual and secular names, which has resulted in mistakenly attributing records to the wrong person and putting individuals in the wrong family line. Fortunately, you have some help in trying to sort all this out because some of the names in German have a slightly different form for spiritual names and secular names. For instance, Johan (as in St. John) was used for spiritual first names, while Johannes was used for secular second names. Thus, when you see the name Johan, it is almost always the first (spiritual) name-don't expect to see it in any legal or secular documents. When you see the name Johannes, it is almost always a secular name-use Johannes or John when searching for him in legal or secular documents.

Exceptions

There are all sorts of variations to each of the above patterns. And, of course, families often made up their own rules. Even where a specific pattern existed, the pattern was sometimes interrupted for the following (and other) reasons:

a) A child (usually a son) might be named for a popular hero of the day e.g. George Washington, Francis Marion, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, etc. In my limited experience, at least one of these names appears in the majority of American families in the early 1800's. When it occurs, the normal pattern resumes with the next son as if the son with the famous name never existed.

b) It seems a little "odd" to us but in the 1700's and 1800's, the first child born in a second marriage was often given the same first name as the deceased first husband or wife.

c) In the 1700's and 1800's, if a mother of a female child died in childbirth, the child might be given the mother's name.

d) If someone was particularly fond of a relative or friend, they might interrupt the pattern to name a child after that person and then resume the normal naming pattern for subsequent children.

I've seen a number of families where they skip using the father's name for the 3rd or 4th son. This may have been done to avoid having two men in the same household with the same name.

Another fairly common exception is where a great-grandfather's given name might be used instead of the grandfather's given name. The same for women, a great grandmother's given name might be used instead of the grandmother's given name. I haven't researched it yet but I suspect this pattern may have been used when the great-grandparent was still alive (and living nearby) at the time his/her great-grandchild was born. This may also have been

  • A normal-but less used-variation.
  • A reflection of a parent's dislike for an in-law.
  • A tribute to an ancestor who may have been better known or more highly thought of.
  • An attempt to avoid the confusion of too many cousins all having the same name.
  • An attempt to gain favor with a wealthy relative who soon might be writing his or her will.

Of course, it may be some combination of all of the above.

Using Naming Patterns in Genealogical Research

Don't forget: The methods suggested below only work for children born in 1700's and first half of the 1800's. And, just because a majority of families followed a pattern, it doesn't mean that every family did (or that a family didn't bend the rules).

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to using naming patterns to gain genealogical insight is that we don't know all the names and birth order of individuals in our families of interest. Even when we think we know all about a family, there very well may have been children who died at birth or in infancy and therefore never show up in any records. Generally, women in their prime childbearing years gave birth every 1-1/2 to 3 years. So, when you see a gap of more than 3 years between children, you can suspect that there may have been a child that no one living today knows about. Of course, miscarriages, stillbirths, or just a natural occurrence might also explain a gap. But, when you see a gap in a naming pattern that coincides with a longer than normal gap between children, it's a pretty good indication that there may have been another live birth sometime within that gap. And, if you're lucky, the naming pattern may give you a hint as to what that child's name might have been.

Another pitfall is with famous names. Everyone today recognizes George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Francis Marion, etc. but who recognizes Horatio Seymore? My great-great-grandfather named one of his sons Horatio Seymore Evans. I was puzzled because I couldn't find any Horatio's or Seymore's elsewhere in the Evans family. Turns out that Horatio Seymore was the democrat who ran against Ulysses S. Grant in the 1868 presidential campaign. This was the first presidential election following the Civil War and, during that war, the Evans' plantation had been looted, burned to the ground, and destroyed by the troops of General Grant's drinking buddy and subordinate, General William T. Sherman. Needless to say, Grant's name was anathema to the Evans family and anyone running against Grant would have been their hero. Moral of story: if you see a name that looks out of place, Google it… it just might be someone who is little known now but was a hero in his day.

The following are some common problems for which naming patterns might provide a solution:

Problem #1 - You've found your family line in a bazillion family trees online but the trees don't agree with one another and you don't know which one to believe.

Solution - The tree(s) that most closely fit a naming pattern are the ones most likely to be correct.

Problem #2 - You've hit a "brick wall" trying to find the parents of a male ancestor.

Solution - Look at the given names of the 1st and 2nd born sons of the ancestor and the 1st and 2nd born sons of his brothers and sisters. The given name or names that pop up most frequently will most probably be the ancestor's father's name. For example: say your ancestor, John Smith, named his firstborn son, Ezekiel… three of his brothers also named their firstborn sons Ezekiel… and two of his sisters named their 2nd born sons Ezekiel. Now, look at the given names of the 1st and 2nd born daughters of your ancestor and his siblings. Say your ancestor and some of his brothers named their 2nd born daughters Emily… and his sisters named their 1st born daughters Emily. You can almost bet that the parents of John Smith were named Ezekiel and Emily Smith. Of course, it doesn't actually prove it but you'll probably save a lot of time and effort if you concentrate your search for proof on those names.

Hint: In the horse-drawn age, people usually married someone living within a one-mile radius of their home. Census records, tax lists, and plat maps can give you a good idea of who the neighbors might have been.

Problem #3 - You've hit a "brick wall" trying to find the parents of a female ancestor and you don't know your ancestor's (or any of her siblings') maiden name.

Solution - If the firstborn son of your ancestor has a middle name that appears to be a surname then that's probably the surname of your ancestor's father. And, your ancestor probably gave her 1st or 2 nd born son and 1st or 2nd born daughter the same given name as her parents (more often than not, it's the 2nd born son named for his maternal grandfather and the 1 st born daughter named for her maternal grandmother…but, sometimes that is reversed). For example: say your ancestor, Susan Smith, named her firstborn son Richard Johnson Smith, her second born son Michael Taylor Smith, her 1st born daughter Elizabeth Smith, and her 2 nd born daughter Mary Smith. It's not a 100% sure thing but the odds are more likely-rather than less likely-that your ancestor's parents were named Michael Johnson and Elizabeth (Taylor) Johnson. If that doesn't pan out then try Richard Johnson and Mary (Taylor) Johnson.

No doubt, you can find other ways to make good use of naming patterns. In the long run, making use of naming patterns will probably reduce-but not eliminate-the number of times you go "barking up the wrong tree". But, keep in mind that a pattern can only give you hints and theories about the blank spaces in your family tree. You'll still have to use traditional genealogical methods to actually prove (or disprove) the theory.

Copyright © 2011 Virgil Owens