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What’s in a name? For a genealogist, a lot!

By Carla Weber | Published Saturday, March 16, 2013

”What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Shakespeare said that, and while it’s true in the context of “Romeo and Juliet,” names are a peculiar part of genealogy.

Names are also one more reason that documentation is a must. I have long advocated for a law to be enacted that a child cannot be named for an ancestor for at least three generations. That would eliminate the juniors of the world and help control the use of name combinations to create like initials or the use of a family name in each generation.

On the other hand, it is kind of nice to know the origin of your name.

Me, I’m the middle child, not only in birth order, but in name order as well. My dad and my aunt each contributed their middle names to me. I’m thankful I was not named for two of the great-grandmothers – I’d have been Jessie Dessie. Both nice names, but together?

While I love the tradition of names flowing from one generation to the other (for those of you who remember the TV show “MASH,” think Charles Emerson Winchester III), as a genealogist I grit my teeth at the number of Johns, Jameses, Jesses, Davids, Benjamins and whatever other name is used over and over. I know a family that uses the name Thomas with each generation. I also know a family that shifts the first name of the father to the middle name of the son.

Of course, it’s not all the family’s fault for making things confusing by using such noble names and continuing the lineage of said monikers. It’s also the fault of the United States government.

That’s right, even genealogists can find a way to blame Washington and Uncle Sam. You see, the census records of old, beginning with the first one, didn’t care who actually lived in the household. It was mostly an accounting of people, and you know accounting is all about numbers. So the first several census records are simply numbers. Literally, the early census takers just listed the head of the household and how many people lived there.

Through the years, the records were broken down by age groups: males ages 5 to 10, females ages 5 to 10. You get the idea. This was still not enough information, but at least looking back on it, one can discern that this particular household could be that of your great, great, great, great, great-grandfather.

It almost got worse as the census records began to contain more information. Then the takers were expected to know how to spell and correctly write the names of those in the family. This accounts for some of the discrepancies found on the records.

My father was Gene, however, on the 1930 census he was listed as Jean with the feminine spelling. A great-grandfather to my husband is Tolbert G. One record has him as Thos (Thomas), another lists him as Tobe and then there’s the one that gets it right. The other problem was also the abbreviated versions: Thos (Thomas), Jn (John), Js (James), Ed, Ted, Ned or Edw (Edward), Rob’t, Rob, Bob (Robert), Mt, or Matt or the best one I’ve seen, Mattahugh (Matthew). Better yet, those who went simply by initials.

Then, of course, there are the names of females and those that have different spellings, and the names that are just different. Willoughby, for example, and Littleberry, Piety, Berryman, Pharoah (Faro), Tay (Toy), Narcissa, Dorky, and Pilgrim are all real names and are in my tree or that of my husband.

We tend to think that because there were not as many people in the world in the past as there are now, that our ancestors will be easy to trace. I looked for Andrew Jackson Hogan and found 38 who all lived within five years of one another.

It is important to have a point of reference with your ancestors. Did that family live in Georgia or Tennessee before coming to Texas? Once you have a starting point with location and year you can sort through all the ones with that name and determine who belongs to you.

To make it even more interesting, the most common female names are, of course, Mary, Sarah, Elizabeth, Catherine, and any form of these. That means that all those Johns, Jameses, Benjamins and Davids married Marys, Sarahs, Elizabeths and Catherines. Then, naturally, they named their children these same great names. I’m also finding that not only did Sarah name a daughter Sarah, but so did at least two of her siblings.

That creates a tangle. So, as you find your ancestors, do not allow the name game to confuse you. Talk to them. Ask them questions. (Have I mentioned that this hobby will cause you to speak to the dead as if they were in the room?) Call them some choice names, but keep climbing the tree.

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