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Article by Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG

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Los Angeles Times Syndicate, 1989

Myra Vanderpool Gormley is a certified genealogist, syndicated columnist and feature writer for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate and has written more than a thousand articles on the subject of genealogy. She is editor of RootsWeb Review.


Given Names in Early America:
Shaped by history, religion and traditions

By Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG

Given names have histories — just as surnames do — and for genealogists the study of the given names selected and passed down for generations by our ancestors can provide important clues to their ethnic origins, religions, educational and social backgrounds.

America is indeed a melting pot when it comes to our names. From the first immigrants to this country — mostly English, with a sprinkling of Dutch, French, Irish, Spanish, Jewish, Scandinavian, Polish, and African ancestors, to today's multi-ethnic families from around the world, our given names reflect this rich heritage and link us to the past.

The earliest English-speaking settlement in the United States was the Raleigh Colony of North Carolina which was settled in 1587. It disappeared, mysteriously, thus becoming known as the Lost Colony. However, the names of the pioneers remain — and many of their given names are still popular today. Of the 99 men and boys in the Lost Colony, 23 were named John; 15, Thomas; and 10, William. Henry and Richard, seven each; George and Robert, three each; and Hugh, Michael, James and Roger, two each. Among the 17 women's names recorded were Jane (3), Elizabeth (2), and Agnes, Alice, Audrey, Eleanor/Elynor, Emma, Joan, Joyce, Margaret, Marjorie, Rose and Winifred.

The Jamestown, Virginia colony which was established in 1607 shows many of the same popular English names: William, John, Thomas Richard, plus David, Daniel, Abraham, Jonas, Nathaniel and Samuel. The latter six show the signs of the Puritan influence it is claimed by George R. Stewart, author of American Given Names (New York, Oxford University Press, 1979). Stewart also notes that among this group, Edward Maria Wingfield, possesses one of the first middle name recorded in America. His middle name was that of the Virgin, which was commonly so used on the Continent for a man, but not in England. "One guesses that his parents may have been bold eccentrics, under Catholic influence," Stewart says. This Wingfield was a leader of the Jamestown colony and went down in history as one of the first Englishmen in the New World to keep chickens.

In 1620 when the Mayflower arrived there were 68 men and boys aboard and their names were all recorded: They were similar to the given names found at Jamestown: John, William, Edward, Richard, Thomas. However, the Puritan influence already appeared stronger among them than in the Virginia colony with the names of Samuel, Joseph, Elias, Isaac, Moses and Solomon, Resolved, Love and Wrestling.

These famous immigrants brought with them a cross- section of English names, with a slight Puritan flavor. Since they were young —most christened about 1590-1600 — it is obvious that Puritan influence was gaining strength. The Puritans, in an attempt to mark their children off from what they regarded as the godless masses, began to rely more on Old Testament names. However, many strange given names began to appear as they selected such "names" as Desire, Given and Love, and the classic example of "Praise-God" Barebones. In England between 1580 and 1640 is when so many of these so-called Puritan names were rife, but the first three or four generations of Mayflower descendants, especially, contain unique names. For ancestors born during this period you are likely to find such given names as: Much-Merceye, Increased, Sin-denie, Fear-not, Renewed, Safe-on-high, and Repentance. During the 17th century there was hardly a name in the Bible which was not used, regardless of its associations for a given name, even though the more conservative religious leaders did not encourage the use of such names, but recommended the use of the names of virtuous persons mentioned in the scriptures. Nevertheless, you may discover ancestors named Antipas, Cain, Tamar, Bezaleel, Habakkuk or Bathsheba.

The names of the children of Nicholas Byram, who was born in 1610 in England and was an early settler of Bridgewater, Mass., are fairly representative of the popular names of this time period. They were: Abigail, Susanna, Deliverance, Experience, Nicholas and Mary. Some of Byram's grandchildren, born ca 1680-1700, were called: Bethiah, Margaret, Mehitable, Nicholas, Mary, Ebenezer, Susanna, Josiah and Joseph; while some of his great-grandchildren (born 1716-1732) bore names like: Ebenezer, Eliab, Japhet, Naphthali, Hannah, Mary, Abigail and Jepthah.

Popular given names in the 17th century in this country were: John, William, Edward, Richard, Thomas, and Joseph for boys. Also many Old Testament names such as Ira, Seth, Jedediah, Elihu, Benjamin, Samuel and Daniel were frequently chosen. You will discover the names of your female ancestors of this period were usually called Mary, Elizabeth, Sarah, Hannah, Abigail, Rebecca, Ruth, Lydia, Anne or Martha, or you may discover Puritan naming patterns when you run across a Hope, Faith, Charity or Patience.

Three biblical female names that are found in early New England lines — Jemimah, Keziah and Keren-happuch — have puzzled researchers for centuries. These were the names of Job's beautiful daughters who received an inheritance with their brothers. Why these names were so appealing is something we can only guess. It has been suggested that this triad of names helped out at a time of that rare happening, a birth of girl triplets. However, the names of Jemimah and Keziah continued to be popular well into the 19th century, but one seldom find a Keren-happuch.

Toward the end of the 17th century there was a heavy immigration of Germans into Pennsylvania. They are credited with being the first group to use two given names consistently, providing what we call a middle name. Frederick, Johann and Matthias were popular German names, and soon became "Americanized" to Fred, John and Matt. Barbara and Veronica are female names found frequently in early German and Swiss groups.

The Scots and Scotch-Irish also were influential in shaping American name patterns. Among their favorites for boys were: James, Andrew, Alexander, Archibald and Patrick. Gaelic names such as Duncan, Donald and Kenneth also became popular in Colonial America. The Welsh contributed Hugh, Owen and David.

By the 18th century there was usage of classical names for girls, such as Lucretia, Cynthia, and Lavina, and more parents began to use middle names. Nancy, Sally and Betsy became established as completely independent names, not nicknames.

Romanticism in the latter part of the 18th century probably influenced the revival of such old Anglo-Saxon names as: Alfred, Egbert, Harold, Edmund and Edith, Ethel and Audrey. Tennyson's "Idylls of the King" no doubt was responsible for the female given names of Guenevere, Enid, Elaine and Vivian. Sir Walter Scott's writings must have played a part in parents choosing to name sons: Bruce, Douglas, Donald, Roy, Ronald and Kenneth.

The 19th century — a colorful, but restless period in American history — was a time of heavy immigration of non-English-speaking people to America, great internal migration, new frontiers were being explored and settled, and the economic chaos of the Industrial Revolution erupted. There developed a tendency to "Americanize" foreign-sounding given names, thus Heinrich and Johann quickly became Henry and John.

Parents still tended to name a son for the father and the use of "Junior" flourished. However, sons were often given their mother's maiden name as a middle name, and in some localities this practice became fairly prevalent for the naming of daughters.

Many sons were named for well-known figures, local and national ones. Every genealogist whose families were in America by this time stumble across ancestors and relatives named George Washington Smith, Daniel Boone Williams or Abraham Lincoln Jones.

Civil War heroes provided many names for our ancestors. Robert E. Lee, or a combination of his name, is borne by many of our Southern male ancestors. The names Stonewall Jackson and Jeb, for J.E.B. Stuart, also became popular. In the northern states, Lincoln and Grant became common given names, while many parents named their daughters for states, such as Missouri, Tennessee or California.

Romantic minds took an interest in the foreign and exotic, probably accounting for the popularity of naming daughters Charlotte, Maria and Henrietta. The 19th century was highly literate as the majority of people knew how to read and many inexpensive books became available. Shakespeare's writing is credited with popularity of several names for girls, such as Juliet, Rosalind, and Viola.

If you find a peculiar given name in your family tree, check all the given name dictionaries (also called font or baptism names, and personal or Christian names) at your libraries. Also search the surname dictionaries because many of these have been handed down as given names in American families.

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