Family Name History

We Can Learn Our Family History By Looking At Names

Names are interesting things! When a couple is expecting a child, one of the first things they think about is what they will name the baby. They may choose a name that could be used for either gender, or pick a name that is more gender-specific. Some cultures like to combine or invent names. Often an ancestor's surname becomes the given name of the new baby, or the ancestor's given name is repeated in a future generation. It is this last instance that is of most value to genealogists and family historians.

Names can be wonderful tools in researching family history! They can also lead you astray so you have to be careful. Finding an obvious surname as a given name does not necessarily mean that it is the mother's maiden surname. It may belong to a local or national hero or favorite wealthy patron. In my family history, an obvious surname given as a middle name has yet to be found in any previous generation. And one of my husband's ancestors is Seward Lincoln Breckenridge, yet there is no relationship to either William H. Seward (Lincoln's Secretary of State) or Abraham Lincoln. John C. Breckinridge was vice-president prior to Lincoln but that is another family and story!

A researcher also has to remember that adoption as we know it, with the legal name change from one surname to another, is a relatively recent occurrence. In past centuries (up until the early 1900s), a family could simply raise a child that was not their own and that child may or may not have taken the surname of the family.

Names in family history can help you decide which family is yours out of the many with the same surname. If you are looking for a known ancestor with an unusual given name, then he is more likely to come from a family that tended to unusual names rather than a family of Williams, Georges and Marys. Naming an infant for her grandmother or using her mother's middle name can also direct you to earlier generations. Some cultures have a "naming pattern". In Scotland, usually the first son was named after the father's father, the second son after the mother's father, the first daughter after the mother's mother, and the second daughter after the father's mother. After that it was anyone's guess!

Given names in family history can also be confusing. I am thinking specifically of instances when an infant was given the name of an older, and now deceased, sibling. I have even seen cases where there were living children with the same name, presumably because both grandmothers had the same first given name, or perhaps because the first child with that particular name was not expected to live and the parents wanted to keep the name in the family.

The history of family names can help a researcher determine not only which family is likely his but can also aid in locating the family geographically. Books have been written about the etymology of names, or where they came from and what they mean. These books are fine for determining what "clan" or "sept" your surname belongs to, or for deciding if you really want your child to grow up with that particular name. Names taken from family history lend a sense of "belonging" to children, a feeling that they are part of something larger than themselves as individuals.

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