Naming Conventions

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

Credit to: