by Karen Frisch
children's names were chosen for their beauty or
popularity, parents had other criteria for selecting names.
chosen not for their originality but often to honor
relatives, either dead or living. Consequently the same names tended
to be repeated through successive generations in European countries
as well as in Jewish and Chinese tradition.
naming children after family members has been a common
practice. If a name cuts across several generations, including
cousins, it usually indicates a family connection.
The desire to perpetuate names is so strong
that parents in the late
1700s and early 1800s took steps to ensure that a name did not die
out even if the child
did. Early American records contain listings of
a child being given the same name as a sibling who had died
The result is the appearance of a "Kent Wheeler 2d" who
appears in birth records for 1777, named after his brother by
same name who was born in 1771 but died prematurely. Kent was their
maternal grandmother's surname.
Repetition of names is helpful
to the modern-day genealogist intent
on determining family relationships. On occasion a child will be
given the complete
name of a family elder, as in the case of Israel
Drowne, born in 1810, when his father named him after his
own grandfather who was born one hundred years earlier in 1710.
a custom is evidence of considerable respect or affection within
arose in the Middle Ages out of necessity to differentiate
individuals with the same first name. They were also a way
acknowledge the occupation of the person--Miller or Cartwright, for
Both first and last names often became
Anglicized once a family came
to America. A name that originated as Margarethe in Germany, was
often changed to Margaret two
generations later when her namesake was
born in America.
were named after their mothers just as sons were for their
fathers. One family found among their ancestors eleven family
over seven decades who were given some combination of the names
Henrietta, Ernestine, and Augusta to honor
the family matriarch and
her daughters, who were born in the 1860s.
the tradition of reversing or varying names through different
generations, family relationships become easier to spot
in the record
books. It gets confusing, however, when the desire to bestow an
honored name upon someone results in
cousins who were born in the
same town being given the same name--especially when they both marry
women named Mary
two years apart. In such a situation genealogists
are forced to depend on other records to determine Mary's correct
Children named after maternal relatives can also help to
distinguish the two lines.
During America's colonial period families also favored names based on
virtues. Patience, Mercy, Benevolence, Thankful, Deliverance,
even Experience are on record. They were usually given to women, but
not exclusively. Such names were often paired
with a short last name,
as in the case of Experience White.
Military leaders under whom soldiers served
frequently appear as
children's names following the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.
The names Bertha and Betsey
are repeated over generations in the
Drowne family until in 1817 the name Tower begins to appear as a
Betsey's grandfather fought in the Revolution under
Captain Levi Tower.
Washington Smith who appears in birth records from 1809
reflects two things: a patriotism at the turn of the new century
a distinctive first name giving emphasis to the most common surname.
If you find yourself playing the name game
with your ancestors,
knowledge of family names can offer helpful clues.
Born and raised in Rhode Island, Karen Frisch has been an avid reader
since childhood when she also developed an interest in writing and
She has traced her lineage back thirty generations to the
year 1100 through England, Scotland, Germany, and Wales. A former
teacher, she received a
Master of Arts in Victorian literature from
the University of Rhode Island, with courses at the University of
London, and holds undergraduate degrees
in English and art from Rhode
Island College. She is the host and writer of "Pet Talk,"
winning cable television show on pets, and she is active with
Volunteer Services for Animals, working to
aid homeless animals. She
lives in Rhode Island with her husband, a daughter adopted from
China, and two dogs.