Given names can be so important in family research. Examining family names for three or more generations can give clues to who was important, who was beloved and who wasn't, especially if the family included some unusual names. A family consisting of William, John, Thomas, James, Mary, Anna, Sarah and Elizabeth may not leave as many clues as a family which included Landon, Lavinia, Laurel, Lindsey, Leander, and Leonidas. Given names can be clues to ethnic heritage or geographic settlings. The article by Abraham D. Lavender, "United States Ethnic Groups in 1790: Given Names as Suggestions of Ethinc Identity", published in 1989 in the Journal of American Ethnic History, introduces a set of eight male names, labeled "Traditional English Names":

  • John
  • William
  • Thomas
  • Richard
  • Robert
  • James
  • Henry
  • George

Lavender compares sets of given names from various geographic areas and ethinic subsets to see how each differs from the Traditional English Names and what percentage those Traditional English Names were of the total. He also compared the amount and variety of different names.

Some rules of thumb:

  • Biblical names like Samuel and Ezekiel were more apt to be used in New England areas settled and populated by Congregationalists.
  • Virtue names like Thankful or aspirational names like Prudence were apt to be used by Puritans in various areas of Massachusetts.
  • Anglican names, William, Elizabeth, John, Richard, Mary and Catherine were apt to be found in Virginia.
  • Saints names, Francis, Paul, Thomas, Teresa, Rose and Joan were apt to be concentrated in Roman Catholic families.
  • Old Testament or Hebrew names, Moses, Abraham, Levy, Mordecai, Debroah, Esther, Leah and Rachel were clustered in Jewish families.
  • Cornelius was more apt to be found in a Dutch family.
  • Names like Lydia and Samuel are apt to be sprinkled throughout Quaker families.
  • Jacob and Hannah might lead you to an Amish community.

Benjamin might be a biblical name from the Old Testament, but with the added middle name of Franklin, it has the geographical feel of Pennsylvania along with a hero attachment across the country. Ben is not always a nickname for Benjmain but can also be connected with Benson, Benedict and Benneville. Shortened to B. Frank or Frank, Benjamin Franklin starts to leave other clues, as Frank can be short for Francis, Franklin or Francisco. Francis in the Boston area might be a Roman Catholic named after St. Francis, while Francis in South Carolina might come from the Swamp Fox Francis Marion and amongst Methodist families, it could honor Francis Asbury. Other religious clues, Methodist -  Wesley from John Wesley vs. John Knox a Scotch Presbyterian. Oliver Caswell King who lived the greater part of his life in Morristown, Tennessee had a great aunt named Sarah Caswell (Cobb) Rutledge and a great-grandfather named Richard Caswell Cobb, all of whom draw the Caswell name initially from a neighbor, Richard Caswell who became the first governor of the state of North Carolina. Talk about a red herring, I looked for a Caswell family connection for ages since there were three different family members with that surname as a middle name.

In 2008, John Cotton published "The “name game”: affective and hiring reactions to first names" in the Journal of Managerial Pyschology, examining reactions to first names perceived as English/Caucasion orgin, African American origin, Russian origin and purely unusual. Pyschological reactions to various names and naming patterns have yet to be examined fully, it would be interesting to see if those names after heroes were more or less heroic in life terms.

Elcany Brown Tennessee Death Certificate 1925

Certainly hero naming throws a genealogist off the beaten track as far as surnames go, but can be illuminating as geography clues. Elkanah R. Delaney was a medical doctor in Sullivan Co., Tennessee in the the early 1800s and delivered many babies judging by the preponderance of men named Elkanah Delaney "Pick Any Surname" in Upper East Tennessee. When I see one I imagine Sullivan County roots as I did when I came across Elcany Brown aka Elkanah Delaney Brown in McMinn Co., Tennessee. 

Sarah Caswell (Cobb) Rutledge and Oliver Caswell King, both of whom descend from Richard Caswell Cobb, share his middle name and his Cobb line. For the longest time I thought there was a Caswell line back in that ancestry. However Richard Caswell Cobb, son of Pharaoh Cobb and Barsheba (Whitehead) Cobb, was named after a neighbor and friend, the first governor of North Carolina, Richard Caswell. Sometimes a name is just a name, not a clue.

So when is that middle name not a family name?

  • President
  • Vice President
  • Politician
  • General
  • Judge
  • Military Leader
  • Neighbor
  • Doctor
  • Lawyer
  • Indian Chief
  • Minister
  • Hero

Sometimes it is an onomastic red herring, sending you off into acres of untilled fields, for nothing, but underlying may be a geographic clue or at least a clue about political affiliation!

Ida Sherwood Bettis is my paternal grand mother. Aunt Clara is my great aunt. I can remember every nooks and crany of that house and yard...

Eric Bettis Eric Bettis 25. July, 2017 |

I would be happy to forward your name, connection, and email if you wish.

Barbara K. Henritze Barbara K. Henritze 06. November, 2016 |

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