Naming Patterns and your Genealogy

Using naming patterns as genealogical evidence is becoming more common among modern genealogists.   The 21st century explosion in DNA projects, tied each time to surname by direct descent, brings a new and perhaps unknown dimension into your work.  How this dimension will affect evidence in naming patterns remains to be seen–it is just too early to tell.  Still a cautionary note is needed–back up all your evidence with actual documents each and every time, so evidence from one kind of information can strengthen or challenge the evidence from another.

Three cousins hired me to solve a really difficult research problem.  They all had taken a turn over a considerable length of time trying to resolve it.  They worked both ends of the period of time against the middle–all without success.  And I worked in the sources for over 14 months.  When I arrived to share what I had found, the hands of each cousin flew into the air.  “We are done with it,” they shouted.

You see, they had finally had their DNA traced.  Not one matched the others–they were all unique and different.  They were raised as cousins, named as cousins, and believed they were cousins.  They shared the costs of searching for their common ancestors.  And discovered, after all that work and money, they did not match!

Origins for many surnames are now available in computer databases, special studies which identify names with their origins, examples selected to demonstrate naming patterns–with the interest today in names, your ancestors may have already been placed in a specific locality or body of source material.  These Locator Indexes enable you by-pass the old “shot-gun” approach of seeking names that match.

Even so, there are a few pitfalls awaiting you with this kind of evidence–some of which I have discussed in other blog entries.

  1. Consider the role of godparents for a christening–among Anglicans children tended to be named for the godparent of the same sex.  Until 1865, parents did not serve as godparents in the Church of England.  Using non-kin to name your children affects the pedigree/name/relationship formulas found in other cultures.  Watch carefully.
  2. Name books state that only one given name was the general rule in American families before the Civil War.  And the census records seem to support this rule.  Except among Scots-Irish families, where two given names are common.  The census enumerators in South Carolina and Texas dealt with the problem by using initials to avoid writing cramps.  Except Roman Catholic families, where three and four given names are common.  Except German families, where a christening name and a given name precede the surname.  Again watch carefully.
  3. New England families of English background named the eldest son after his father 82% of the time.  Yet, David Hackett Fischer in Albion’s Seed discovered that families who had the right to bear a coat-of-arms in England, lived a three-generation naming pattern:  the first-born son was named for his paternal grandfather, the second son was named for his father.  When members of these families came to Virginia, they continued this same pattern.  By 1780, over 90% of the first-born sons in Virginia and Maryland were named for their grandfathers.

Watch carefully the evidence that your ancestors present to you in the names they select for their children.  And study carefully the DNA evidence your family members discover in themselves.  Both kinds of evidence require documents to support your conclusions.  Your favorite genealogist, Arlene Eakle

PS If this subject interests you, plan now to attend the seminar sponsored by the Clayton Library, Houston TX on 27 August 2011.  I get to speak on “Naming Patterns in the Southern United States” (among other topics).  And I will have these trends documented with chapter and verse for your instruction and entertainment.  It will be a great event–why not plan to attend.





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