Is there a story behind your name?

How did our ancestors choose names for their children?  As you research you often will find patterns in the method used for choosing names for children. When you hit a brick wall in your research sometimes naming patterns can help identify which line in a family is yours.

While repetition of given names can be strong indicators of relationships, there are certain general rules couples followed in naming their children, especially if the parents had British Isles ancestry, and most of us in Maine have at least one ancestor who came from the British Isles.

As an example from my own family tree let us take the couple Isaac and Rebecca.  Isaac’s father and mother were Peter and Lydia; Rebecca’s parents were Seth and Margaret.  It was generally common that the first son of the couple was named for the paternal grandfather (father’s father) and indeed Rebecca and Isaac named their first son Peter.  The second son was generally named for his father unless his father and grandfather shared the same given name.  In the case we’re following, Isaac and Rebecca named their second son Isaac.  The third son was usually named for the mother’s father and yes, they named their third son Seth. Two of these sons were given their mother’s maiden name, Damon, as a middle name.

The first daughter was usually named for her maternal grandmother (mother’s mother) and this couple’s first daughter was named Margaret.  The second daughter usually was named for her father’s mother and right on cue this couple named their second daughter Lydia. A later daughter was named Rebecca after her mother.

Other children were normally named for aunts and uncles by blood or marriage, very close friends, and often important people the parents admired.  Genealogical trees after the Revolution are full of George Washingtons and Benjamin Franklins and southern families often had a Robert E. Lee in their family trees after the Civil War.

The prevalence of family given names in the line of Isaac and Rebecca links the generations nicely and if you were trying to determine if this particular Isaac was indeed the son of Peter you’d have an important clue in the naming patterns, not only of his father but his mother’s given names showing among the children. You’d still need to prove it, but it would make you comfortable enough to research this family tree in the almost certain likelihood you had the right family.

As with all general rules there are notable exceptions.  Some couples balked at the idea of naming children after family members and struck into new and unfamiliar territory when they named their offspring.  Others broke the usual pattern in naming.  President John Adams was reportedly hurt that his oldest son John Quincy named his first son George Washington Adams and only named his second son after his father.

Watch for naming patterns in your own family lines.  They are valuable clues and significant road marks that you’re on the right path.  Often given names appear generation after generation among some families.

Nancy Battick is a Dover-Foxcroft native who has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft.  Nancy holds a MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist.  You can contact Nancy at nbattick@roadrunner.com.

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