Comments on Naming Patterns

I generally discourage fellow family researchers from making hypotheses based on the names parents give to their children.   There are articles all over the internet explaining that families of some particular time and place followed some specific set of rules in naming their children.   But I’ve never seen an article that offered any sort of evidence for those claims.  The notion that families honored loved ones by bestowing their names on children is perfectly reasonable.  But the idea that parents followed some set of rules or standards which one can use to draw genealogical conclusions is much harder to swallow.

I am not talking about given names that are obvious surnames.  Nor am I talking about obviously honorific names (like George Washington Jones).  I’m referring specifically to whether honorific patterns existed in bestowing “typical” given names to children.  And whether those patterns were specific enough to be useful clues to ancestry.

With that in mind, I looked for studies on the subject.

Studies of Southern Colonial Naming Patterns

To the best of my knowledge there have been only two studies of naming patterns in the colonial south, one in Prince George’s County, Maryland and one in Middlesex County, Virginia.  The results of both studies were very similar, showing that

  • naming patterns changed considerably from the late 17th century to the early 18th century, and
  • the naming patterns used in the south were nearly the opposite of the widely reported patterns of New England.  New Englanders, it is often said, tended to name their eldest children after themselves and later children after their own parents.  The evidence is that families in the southern colonies did just the opposite.

17th century southerners tended to name their eldest sons for paternal grandfathers and their second son for the father.   Kulikoff’s study of Prince George’s County, Maryland showed that roughly 80% of all eldest sons were named for one or the other.   In the late 17th century, the great majority of eldest sons were named for their fathers.  However, the percentage of eldest sons named for their fathers declined steadily over the next hundred years —  from about 65% in the late 17th century to about 35% by 1720-40, and to about 25% by 1770.  Over the same period, the percentage of eldest sons named for one of their grandfathers rose from about 15% to more than 50%.

A similar pattern existed for daughters.  Roughly 80% of all eldest daughters were named for either their mother or a grandmother (usually maternal).  In the late 17th century, the numbers were about equal – roughly 40% of eldest daughters were named for their maternal grandmothers and another 40% for their mother.  But within the next twenty years, by the early 18th century, there were nearly twice as many eldest daughters named for grandmothers as for mothers.  That remained consistent throughout the 18th century.

A study of Middlesex County, Virginia naming patterns in the period 1650-1750 reached similar conclusions.  Only 11% of first-born sons received their father’s name, but 44% were given a grandfather’s name.  [Another 16% had a name which was shared by both ancestors.]   For daughters, 15% were named for their mothers and 46% for their grandmothers.

Later children of 18th century families also tended to be named after family members.  After using grandparents and parents names, the majority of later children were given names of their aunts and uncles.  This is generally thought to have been the result of the agricultural family-centered society of the south.  The majority of the southern colonial population were members of relatively large family groups.  For those not part of these groups, none of these patterns can be assumed to apply.