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by Karen Frisch


Long before children's names were chosen for their beauty or
popularity, parents had other criteria for selecting names.

Names were 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.

For centuries 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
previously. The result is the appearance of a "Kent Wheeler 2d" who
appears in birth records for 1777, named after his brother by the
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

Whitaker Drowne, born in 1810, when his father named him after his
own grandfather who was born one hundred years earlier in 1710. Such
a custom is evidence of considerable respect or affection within

Surnames arose in the Middle Ages out of necessity to differentiate
individuals with the same first name. They were also a way to
acknowledge the occupation of the person--Miller or Cartwright, for

Both first and last names often became Anglicized once a family came
America. A name that originated as Margarethe in Germany
, was
often changed to Margaret two generations later when her namesake was
born in

Daughters were named after their mothers just as sons were for their
fathers. One family found among their ancestors eleven family members
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.

With 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
surname. 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, and
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
middle name. Betsey's grandfather fought in the Revolution under
Captain Levi Tower.

A George Washington Smith who appears in birth records from 1809
reflects two things: a patriotism at the turn of the new century and
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
drawing. 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
University of Rhode Island, with courses at the
University of
, and holds undergraduate degrees in English and art from Rhode
. She is the host and writer of "Pet Talk," an award-
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. 

Karen is also the author of "Unlocking the Secrets in Old Photographs"

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In my family it gave me a hint to look for a mother’s family.