Updated: Jan 28
It may seem our ancestors made it difficult to track them by naming them after themselves and/or others in the family, however, knowing the traditional naming patterns in the family could reveal many clues and details about the rest of the family. For example, Margaret was a popular name given by supporters of Margaret, Queen of Scots. This is something to keep in mind when names that are not known to be in the family appear. Those who followed the rules left a trail of their ancestry via their children’s names.
The names of many of the early settlers were English and followed traditional English rules for naming children. Though in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the popular practice was to give the first born son the father’s name and the first born daughter the mother’s name, which was the German tradition, not the English. At any rate, this practice resulted in more than half of the females in the colony having the name of Mary, Sarah, or Elizabeth. The second born son, (or in some cases the first born son) was given the paternal grandfather’s name. This causes a great deal of confusion.
The English tradition in the 1700s and 1800s was to name the first born son after the child’s father’s father, the second born son after the child’s mother’s father, the third born son after the child’s father, the fourth born son after the child’s father’s eldest brother, the fifth born son after the child’s mother’s eldest brother or father’s second eldest brother. The first born daughter was named after the child’s mother’s mother, second born daughter after the child’s father’s mother, third born daughter after the child’s mother, fourth born daughter after the child’s mother’s eldest sister, fifth born daughter after the child’s mother’s second eldest sister or father’s eldest sister. If both the child’s father’s father and the mother’s father had the same name they would skip to the next naming rule, rather than naming two of their children by the same name, though it was very common to see the same name being used more than once within the same household if a child died young. For example, Alfred E. Leonard and his wife, Mary, named their first child Anna Rebecca Leonard. Sadly she died after living only four months in February 1837. Another daughter was born twelve months later, in February 1838, and she too was named Anna Rebecca Leonard. To their great disappointment, she also died early, living only to four years old. Their third daughter, who they named Mary, lived to adulthood and married.
The Puritans in the New World are easily recognizable. When they left England, they left behind many of the English traditions. Though they did name their children after other family members, they often gave their children names of virtue such as Mercy, Thankful, Patience and Charity. About 90% of the Puritans had Biblical names such as John, Joseph and Samuel, Mary, Elizabeth and Sarah. Naming a child the Sacred Name of “Jesus” or the name of any angel was strictly forbidden, deemed too precious to be used by mankind. On that note, if a child is named Michael, Gabriel, Emmanuel, or even Christopher, you can bet the family was not Puritan.
The German tradition was to name each daughter after the child’s mother, most commonly Anne, and each son after the child’s father, most commonly Johann (nickname Hans). Their middle name or “second name” would often be the name they went by. In some cases, the middle name was the name of their baptismal sponsor. In other cases, it was the name of another family member who had recently died. Other names used were the child’s mother’s maiden name, a saint’s name, or even a close friend’s name.
The Pennsylvania-German, however, followed a different pattern. See this article. (Thanks to Robert F. for sharing this!)
The Irish are easily recognizable with the name Patrick often given and with the last names preceded with “Mc” as in McDaniels. They tended to name the first born son after the child’s father’s father, the second born son after the child’s mother’s father, the third born son after the child’s father, the fourth born son after the child’s father’s eldest brother, and the fifth born son after the child’s mother’s eldest brother. The first born daughter was named after the child’s mother’s mother, the second born after the child’s father’s mother, the third born after the child’s mother, the fourth born after the child’s mother’s eldest sister, and the fifth born after the child’s father’s eldest sister. Many Irish names were changed when Penal Laws (c. 1607) outlawed the Irish language. For example, the Irish name “Sean” became “John”. The English version of the most common Irish names that were changed was Thomas, James, William, Patrick, Anne, Mary, Bridget, and Kathleen. Giving one or more children some part of the mother’s maiden name as a surname or middle name was another common tradition.
The Dutch custom of naming children can be helpful to genealogists, but can also cause much confusion. The first son was commonly named after his paternal grandfather, and the second son was usually named after his own father. The first daughter was named after her maternal grandmother, and the second daughter was often named after her own mother. Click here to see Dutch baptismal names and their variations and translations.
The Scottish naming patterns are quite informative. Traditionally, the first born son was named after his paternal grandfather and the second born was named after his maternal grandfather. The third son was named after his father and subsequent sons were named after their father's or mother's brothers. Similarly, the first born daughter was named after her maternal grandmother and the second daughter was named after her paternal grandmother. The third daughter was named after her mother and subsequent daughters were named after their father's and mother's sisters. If a child died, especially the first, second, or third born, the next child born would be given the same name, in order to preserve this tradition.
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