Unlike surnames, which are automatically inherited, first names or given names represent a conscious choice by the parents of a child to bestow her with a certain name. As such, you can tell a great deal about what was important to your ancestors by paying attention to how they named their children. Did they use family names to honor relatives? Did they name their children after close friends? What Biblical figures did they choose to name their children after?
England in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
In eighteenth and nineteenth century England, the following naming pattern was common:
- The first son was named after his paternal grandfather
- The second son was named after his maternal grandfather
- The third son was named after his father
- The fourth son was named after his father's eldest brother
- The first daughter was named after her maternal grandmother
- The second daughter was named after her paternal grandmother
- The third daughter was named after her mother
- The fourth daughter was named after her mother's oldest sister
Of course, using family names this way was by no means the rule. If the paternal grandfather and the maternal grandfather had the same name, obviously parents would only give one child that name and then skip to the father's name.
Unique Naming Patterns
Parents may have also chosen to disregard this naming pattern altogether in favor of naming children after close friends or Biblical figures. The characters in the Bible that parents chose to name their children for also reveals their values; indeed, in eighteenth and nineteenth century England, naming one's children after figures in the Old Testament usually indicated religious dissent; only non-Anglican parents used Old Testament names.
Parents may have also chosen to name their children for virtues that they hoped they would possess: Felicity or Patience, for instance. You should also be aware of nicknames that were common in past eras that are no longer in use. You may not have known, for instance, that Polly and Patty were common nicknames for Mary, that Sally was a nickname for Sarah, and that Peggy was a common nickname for Margaret.
Common family names and naming patterns are different for every locality and every time period. In Mexico in the eighteenth century, nearly every girl was given Maria as her first name and went by her middle name throughout her life. For that reason, you shouldn't be surprised if your ancestor appears as Maria Josefa on her baptism record but then appears as just Josefa on her marriage record.
Parents in England and in Hispanic tradition also commonly "recycled" family names; if a baby boy died, usually the next baby boy who was born received the same name to honor the child who had died.
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