Senior, Junior & Name Suffixes in General

Senior and Junior

Genealogists cannot assume that persons designated Senior and Junior were father and son.   In colonial times, and for most of the nineteenth century, the use of Senior and Junior did not imply any relationship at all.

Family researchers attempting to sort out persons with identical names should also know that Senior and Junior were not a permanent part of a person’s name as they tend to be in today’s world.  In modern times, men tend to identify themselves more or less permanently as “Sr.”, “Jr.”, II, III, IV and so on.  But in colonial times those suffixes were not generally a part of a person’s name but rather a more or less temporary designation to differentiate two people with the same name.  The designations might change as persons died, moved elsewhere, or for other reasons.

Whenever two persons of the same name lived in the same jurisdiction, some means was needed to differentiate them from one another.   The use of Senior and Junior was the most common means of doing so – meaning merely that one person was older than the other.   Two persons in the same area with the same name were likely to be related to one another, and often that relationship was one of father and son.  (Or mother and daughter.  Women could be designated Senior and Junior as well.)   But we should not confuse the cause with the effect.   The use of Senior and Junior was merely a means of differentiating two people with the same name, whether related or not.   If there was a relationship between the two persons, its nature must be discovered by other means.

In my own research I have seen a modest but significant number of identically named persons who were called Senior and Junior but were not father and son.  Within my website, for example, there are several cases of uncles and nephews being called Senior and Junior, as well one case of two first cousins.   There are also instances of Senior and Junior used to differentiate grandfathers and grandsons, and more than one case among the families in this website in which the Senior and Junior were not related at all.

Alternatives to Senior and Junior

Two identically named persons sometimes differentiated themselves in other ways:

  • The use of “the elder” and “the younger” was less common, but meant exactly the same thing as Senior and Junior.
  • A trade or profession was sometimes used.  For example, I cite within these pages the case a man who styled himself “John Hendrick, carpenter” throughout his life to distinguish himself from his first cousin and next-door neighbor who was also named John Hendrick.
  • Occasionally the differentiators were familial.  For instance “John Smith, son of Samuel” and “John Smith, son of John” might distinguish two cousins.
  • Geographic descriptors were also used, as in designating one person as “John Smith of Fishing Creek” and another “John Smith of Deep Creek”.

These descriptive adjectives gradually fell out of favor as middle names began to be used.   Middle names became a permanent way of distinguishing between persons with the same first and last name.  During the colonial period, middle names were quite rare.  Although they did not become truly common until well into the 19th century, they served the purpose of differentiating individuals. (See the separate paper on the use of middle names.)

The use of occupation as a suffix can cause confusion, as clerks who recorded documents and events often omitted the comma between the surname and the occupation.  For instance, John Hendrick Smith and James Hendrick Cooper might  be Hendrick brothers with different occupations.   It’s good to get into the habit when dealing with abstracted records of checking indices for “cooper”, “smith”, “carpenter”, “clerk”, and so on just in case the abstractor misunderstood the name.

Suffixes of Social Status

Esquire (Esq), Gentleman (Gent.), and Yeoman are the most commonly encountered suffixes indicating social status.

Esquire originated as a social rank below Knight (it comes from the word squire).   At the time America was being settled, Esquire was a poorly defined honorific used to designate elder sons of knights and certain elder sons of peers (esquires by birth) and justices and certain other office holders (esquires by office).  In colonial America the latter was the dominant form, and it came to be applied mainly to current or former justices.  (Lacking definition, it could theoretically be claimed by almost anyone though.)  Today, the title is used by attorneys, some diplomats, and at least one fraternal order.

Gentleman was originally a social rank between Esquire and Yeoman, which included the rest of the gentry — the remaining sons of peers, younger sons of knights and esquires, and any other descendant of the nobility or gentry who could not lay claim to a better title.  It gradually came to apply as well to anyone who had sufficient income to avoid working for a living.   In America it was commonly applied to men of education, wealth, high office, or prominent family without any real definition.   Eventually, of course, anyone could claim the title.

Yeoman, in the early days of New World settlement, was a term describing a sort of middle-class freeholder.   Although loosely defined, it was generally applied to small landholders or relatively prosperous tradesmen.  By the time of the Revolution the term was usually applied to family farmers.

Suffixes of Legal Status

Just to be thorough, we also find name suffixes indicating some legal status — Deceased, Estate, Widow, Orphan, Feme Sole, Feme Covert, Relict (widow) and so on.   The meaning is usually obvious.

Minor edit 28 July 2018