The Importance of Given Names

by Donna Przecha

In genealogy we usually concentrate on surnames since they are the most important way of identifying people who are related. A surname is usually inherited and, while it may be changed, some form of it is usually retained. Given names are more important in a way because they represent a voluntary choice by the parents or, sometimes, by an individual. A name is usually not given lightly. It represents thought and feelings and can be significant to the researcher.

Naming Patterns

You will often see the same names used over and over again in families. While certain names are popular in different areas in different times in history, the repetition could represent a pattern. Many cultures believe in honoring their elders and do so by naming children after them. Angus Baxter in "In Search of Your British and Irish Roots" describes a pattern that was popular in England in the 1700-1875 period:

  • The first son was named after the father's father
  • The second son was named after the mother's father
  • The third son was named after the father
  • The fourth son was named after the father's eldest brother
  • The first daughter after the mother's mother
  • The second daughter after the father's mother
  • The third daughter after the mother
  • The fourth daughter after the mother's eldest sister

If this pattern would result in a duplication of names — i.e., both grandfathers had the same name — then they would skip to the next one on the list. Similar patterns have been suggested for other nationalities. This could be a very helpful formula, but many genealogists warn against giving it too much credence. Given human nature, it would be very difficult to follow exactly. It would be pretty hard to convince a new mother of her first-born son to name him after a drunken, abusive father-in-law rather than her own beloved father who had just died.

You will probably see names of parents and grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles repeated, but not in any strict order. It is difficult to know whom a child called Ann or Mary was actually named after. While over half of the names in a family will probably appear to be repeats, there always seems to be a few totally different ones. A child might be named after a good friend or a popular hero of the times. Of the 12 names given to my grandparents' six children born between 1881 and 1896, I can identify the family namesake of 10. Of the other two, Urquhart is somehow associated with the family because an aunt's will mentions the Urquhart coat of arms and a bequest to a person with the middle name Urquhart.


Even if the family did not follow this strict pattern, the repetition of names can be significant, especially if there is an unusual name. Let us say you are researching a family group that went west. The family had children named Benjamin, Obadiah and Catherine. When these children married, they tended to carry on these same names. You know they came from New England, but have no proof as to where. If you find a family of that surname in Rhode Island with children named George, John, William and Ann and another family in Vermont with children Benjamin, Obadiah and Catherine, you will probably want to put your first effort into the Vermont family. It is not any proof in itself, but goes towards the preponderance of the evidence.

Some families may show an extreme fondness for one name. In one family, Samuel and William, both with the same surname, came to America. Twenty years later William signed a power of attorney to settle the estate of Robert who had died in Ireland. Most researchers have assumed, as a working theory, that these men were brothers and Robert was their father. A partial list of 77 descendants shows that in four generations of descendants of Robert the name William occurs 10 times. By contrast, Robert only occurs four times. This makes me a bit skeptical that Robert is really the progenitor of the family. He may have been an uncle or childless relative.

Names as a Virtue

Some of the most fascinating names come from early New England where parents sometimes named their children after virtues they hoped they would possess: Patience, Charity, Prudence, Thankful. Some names appear quite strange to modern ears. In view of 20th century meanings, "Freelove" does not seem to be an appropriate name for a daughter! Other names had special meaning. In early New England it is believed that the name Benoni was associated with sorrow and was used when the mother was not married or died in childbirth or if the circumstances were in some way unfortunate.

Recycled Names

Up until this century, parents could usually count on one third of their children not surviving. If a child died, the name was often used again. If a baby died, the next child of the same sex would often be given the same name. When checking birth records, you should never stop when you find the name you are looking for. You should continue for a few more years, because the first child could have died and your ancestor could have been the second child in the family with that name. If an older child died, a younger one would often be named for him or her. If you see George in the 1850 census as a six year old and then in the 1860 census as an eight year old, it may mean the first one died shortly after the 1850 census was taken.

Surnames as Given Names

Always note carefully a surname that is a given name, even a middle name. The mother's side will often be revealed through the use of family names for her children. One woman named her first son Henry and a later son John Henry. Since Henry is a first name, that did not seem unusual, but it was very significant because the woman's maiden name turned out to be Henry.

Consider the following: Thomas Simpson married Mary. After his death, Mary married John Wiswall in 1808. Thomas and Mary had one child, Ann Simpson, who married Francis Ullathorne. Sons of Ann and Francis:

  1. Thomas Simpson Ullathorne (named after Ann's father)
  2. Francis Ullathorne (named after Francis, the father)
  3. William Ullathorne (named after Francis' brother)
  4. John Ullathorne (b. 1802, named after Francis' father)
  5. Samuel Stevenson Ullathorne
  6. Charles Wiswall Ullathorne (b. 1808, middle name after Ann's stepfather. By the time he was born, Ann had already named one child John which may account for the different first name.)

I didn't know Mary's maiden name and I thought finding a Catholic marriage in London for the right Simpson would be impossible. However, I found a record of Thomas Simpson marrying Mary Stephenson about a year before the birth of Ann. The fact that Stevenson appears in family names makes me look very closely at this Mary Stevenson and I would look doubly closely at any Mary who had a father named Samuel Stevenson. Again, this is not proof but a very helpful directional indicator when trying to navigate through Stevenson records in a city like London.

In one family, a woman whose maiden name was not known had a grandson, 2 great-grandchildren and 1 great-great grandchild with the given names Joel Horton. Her maiden name turned out to be Horton, but her father was Ebenezer, not Joel. She did have a younger brother named Joel. In a case like this, the significance of the frequency was not as obvious because the later generations could have been named after the first man with that name rather than all going back to honor the maiden name.

A surname as a given name does not always mean it was a family name. The numbers of "George Washingtons" and "Lincolns" as given names in the U.S. do not indicate any family connection. A couple might also name a child after a respected friend.


You may think you have a relationship all figured out only to come upon a completely different name for the wife. Nicknames that were common in earlier times, especially for girls, may not be known nicknames at all today. I thought I never would figure out all the wives one man had. He was married to Ann, Margaret Agnes, Hannah and Nancy in different records. Fortunately, my life was simplified when I found out that Ann, Hannah, Nan and Nancy were all variations of the same name. Some even say that Agnes is a variation of Ann so his four wives became two at the most. Here are some others you may encounter:

  • Margaret: Maggie, Rita, Madge, Greta, Peggy, even Daisy (Marguerite is the French word for Daisy)
  • Mary: Polly, Minnie, Polette (Polly/Mary is very common in early America)
  • Minerva: Minnie
  • Alice: Lisa, Sonny
  • Amelia: Milly
  • Helen: Ailene, Elaine, Leonora, Nelly
  • Sarah: Sadie
  • Louise: Alison, Eloise, Lois

Most male nicknames are more straightforward, although Hal and Harry for Henry or Neil for Cornelius are a little less obvious. What frequently happens with men is they decide to go by their middle name. Everyone will know them by the middle name and they will be written up in county histories under this name. John William may be called Bill most of the time. But when it comes to some official documents, he will trot out his full legal name. You may pore over the census looking for Bill or Wm. and completely overlook John. Your best piece of luck is when you encounter a document where he uses both names together.

Baptismal Names

In Catholic churches especially, but also found in others, the Latin name will be used at the time of baptism. Most genealogists maintain that a person should be entered in the database under his baptismal name. Since this is often the only time the Latin name is used, I do not think using this name as the primary name is helpful for people trying to look up information on that individual. One person was christened Bonafacius but not one of his descendants would ever know to look under that name. All his life he went by "Bonaparte." Carolus is Latin for Charles, but not a name most people would use. I personally believe the primary name should be the name the person was known by for most of his life.

Translated Names

When foreigners came to the U.S. they often modified the spelling of their last name or even translated the name. Thus Schneider became Taylor. This happened even more frequently with given names because most names in European languages have an English equivalent. A German named Franz, a Pole called Franciszek, and an Italian named Francesco could all easily become "Frank." John is such a widely used name that it has many forms: Jan (Belgian, Czech, Danish, Gaelic, Polish), Hanna (Arabic), Ivan (Bulgarian, Russian), Hans (Danish, German), Hannes (Finnish), Jean (French), Johannes (German), Ioannes (Greek), Yohanan (Hebrew), Sean (Irish), Giovanni (Italian), Joao (Portuguese), Ian (Scotch), Juan (Spanish), Jonam, Jens (Swedish), Yochanan (Yiddish).

On the other hand a Spaniard named Diego, a Scotsman named Hamish or an Irishman called Seamus probably wouldn't change to James. What you have to do is keep an eye out for is switching between the two names — in the Polish paper he may be Wojciech but in the city directory would be listed under Albert.

German Names

In some German areas you will find that all of the sons had the same first name, frequently Johann, and all of the daughters also, often Anna. You might find a family with Johann Georg, Johann Jacob and Johann Michael. Usually they went by their second name. But when an official record was involved, they might revert to their full name. Hans is a nickname for Johann so you might also find records for Hans Michael or Hans Jacob. In the Alsace area of France, the administration of the area went back and forth between France and Germany so you may find some records in German and some in French. Johann Jacob or Hans Jacob would become Jean Jacques. Of course, he might also just be Jean (the original Johann given to the whole family) so it is hard to tell which son it could be. Occasionally, names would be reversed so that Michael Georg became Georg Michael, probably because Georg was the name he went by and Michael was only secondary.

"Sounds Like"

Some foreign languages do not have equivalent names so a direct translation is not possible. Asain names usually cannot be translated directly, but may be too awkward to use when dealing with Americans on a casual basis. In this case a similar sounding American name may be adopted. The Japanese Tamio became Tommy for everyday usage. Again, you have to be aware of the two names and keep an eye out for both.


Given names become even more significant in the patronymic system, as in Scandinavia, where the given name of the father becomes the surname of the son. If Eric Larson has a son, he will be John Ericson and his son will be Sven Johnson.

While given names do not have the importance of surnames, they should still be carefully studied because they can give valuable hints about your family history.

About the Author
I began genealogy in 1970 when we were living in Ogden, Utah for a short time. I was immediately hooked when, on my first visit to the local Family History Center, I found my great-grandparents in the 1850 Ohio census. I have been researching ever since on my own family and for others. I soon recognized the value of computer programs for keeping track of the data. I was a founding member of the Computer Genealogy Society of San Diego and editor of the newsletter. I have written a third party manual on ROOTS III and, with Joan Lowrey, authored two guides to genealogy software. Using ROOTS III and WordPerfect, I have written several family history books for others, but have yet to stop researching long enough to complete my own family history!