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  • Writer's pictureTheFormidableGenealogist

Naming Conventions in History

Depending on the country of origin, the ethnic heritage, and the time period of the family you're researching, the names used in the family might be inspired by certain naming cultures.

For example, depending on the time and area, a first-born son might be named after his father, his paternal grandfather, his maternal grandfather, or the king. An eldest daughter could be named after her mother, one of her grandmothers, a virtue, a saint, the day of the week, or her father's previous, deceased wife.

A good tip for trying to sort out birth order, sibling groups, or possible parentage is to do a web search for the country or ethnicity plus the term "naming patterns," "naming customs," or "naming conventions." Whether you're looking for someone who was Spanish, Jewish, Swiss, an African-American enslaved person, a Quaker, or any other group, there were different influences at play when a child was named. Of course the naming culture of any place was not always strictly adhered to. But often, when surveying the list of children named in a will or in the family record, you'll see that there was indeed a familiar [pun not intended but I can't think of a better word] pattern.

However, we often have to approach genealogical problems with the information we're missing rather than the information we have. For the more frequent times when you do not have a will, family record, birth record, census tick mark, or anything else seemingly helpful, assigning a theoretical birth order to a sibling group can be guided by what their names aren't. Cleopatra Ogden or Missouri Bennett might be younger daughters in their families, as elder girls were likely named for family members rather than ancient queens and newly established states. Wellington Rogers, born between 1813 and 1816 according to census records, was probably born shortly after the summer of 1815 when the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. That would make Wellington Rogers his parents' fifth son...which seems like a reasonable point at which Robert and Mary Rogers couldn't think of any more boy names and needed some inspiration from an outside source.

One mystery I have yet to solve in my own family tree is identifying the grandmothers of Martin Arment, born around 1824 in Guilford County, North Carolina. I am confident in the identity of his grandfathers, but not their wives. I've isolated DNA cousins into two separate groups; one should be that of his father's mother and the other that of his mother's mother. From the geographic and chronological movement of people within the families suggested by the DNA, I have an idea which group should be his paternal grandmother's family and which should be his maternal grandmother's family. And that is where I am stuck. The names of Martin's only two sisters might suggest that the grandmothers' names were Anna and Sarah. Martin and his only brother Andrew were given names that don't appear to repeat from their ancestors who are already in my tree, so those names too could come from the unidentified branches. All four children may have been named for their maternal-line family members...or for absolutely no one in their family. It could be that their mother Mary was the rebel of the Piedmont, naming her children not what she was expected to, but what she wanted. More research is definitely needed for that mystery. Only in the end do we learn if our hunches about names was correct.

Someone else in my family tree was named after the daughter of the local doctor. Either the doctor saved someone's life, or his daughter's French-sounding name was just one worth copying. That Romaine Lemoine Holbert was the second daughter in her family makes me think that Dr. Lemoine must have provided a great service to the Holbert family, for which they were grateful enough to have honored his daughter with a namesake.

Just make sure it's clear in your family trees if a birth order or a date or a parent are theoretical, so others don't copy the potentially incorrect information and thereby promote it as fact.


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