Genealogy: What first names may reveal

Featuring names from Logan Connections

We may know very little about an ancestor, g-g-g-g-aunt, or 4th cousin twice removed. The records just aren’t there. But that ancestor, aunt, or cousin’s given name sometimes reveals clues about their parents: their politics, heroes, whims, religion, even a rough idea of when a child was born. Those things, in turn, can lead us to other sources to find family information.

Politics. We may not have voting records or a diary entry or a campaign souvenir, but if a father named his son Andrew Jackson Logan, you can be pretty sure that that father was a Democrat. (We’d say you could “take it to the bank” but Andrew Jackson didn’t believe in the national bank.) The parents also may have been celebrating Andrew Jackson’s Scots-Irish roots or the fact he was the first so-called “man of the people” elected President. Probably all three.

Franklin Pierce Dodson’s parents were obviously supporters of the northern Democrat. But they bet on the wrong namesake. Franklin Pierce is generally considered one of the worst Presidents in U.S. history.

We know the politicians and statesmen some parents admired:  John Randolph (Logan), John C. Pinckney (Logan), Benjamin Franklin (Logan), Patrick Henry (Logan), Albert Gallatin (Williamson). Presidential names are sprinkled throughout Logan Connections: George Washington Bomar and Thomas Jefferson Rendleman. People never name a child after a politician they despise, after all.

Heroes, myths, and legends: Our ancestors knew their Greek and Roman history, mythology, and literature. Names bestowed among our Logan and allied families include Leander, Achilles, Leonidas, Homer, and Marcellus. While those names might not lead to any further genealogical information per se, they nonetheless reveal clues about literacy and personality.

Admired qualities: The given names Grace, Honor, Charity, Queen, King, and Reason possibly reveal traits or filial aspirations important to these individuals’ parents.

Religion: We may have no clue what someone’s religion was without church records, a marriage license, christening information, diaries, or other data. But if parents named their child John Wesley Logan, you can be fairly certain they were Methodists. If they named their son John Calvin Logan, you know they were Calvinists or that there were Calvinists in their family line.

Rough idea of birth: In the absence of birth records, a family Bible, or an extant tombstone, the given names April, May, and June at least narrow things down. (Of course, young April may have been named for an aunt, but still, there’s a clue there.) One of the pretty names in Logan Connections is Mayday. We immediately picture a beautiful spring day in May and the birth of this little girl. (Unfortunately, the latter invention of “mayday” as a distress signal gets in the way of our modern ears, but still….)

The name “Pamela” didn’t exist until 1740. This helped establish that an ambiguously-spelled name (and corresponding nickname) prior to that time was probably “Permelia,” though many had her as Pamela. Impossible since “Pamela” hadn’t been invented yet.

Admired military figures: The given name Lafayette is found among our families as is  Francis Marion (Logan). Francis Marion was the “Swamp Fox” of Revolutionary War fame. Both were extremely popular names at one time. The allied Gaffney family looked farther back to William Wallace when naming new baby Gaffney. And for every Robert E. (Logan), there’s a George B. McClellan (Chorpenning).

Biblical names, of course: These were Biblical figures parents admired or wanted their child to emulate or perhaps were favorites from Bible stories: names like  Hannah, Delilah, Mary, Rebecca, Achsah, and Rachel; Moses, Levi, Zachariah, Joseph, David, Benjamin, Joshua, Enoch, and Reuben. This list could go on and on.

Ethnicity and geography: When parents named their daughter Caledonia, they were proudly signaling their ethnic origins. Caledonia was the Roman name for Scotland. We have several parents who named their children for states, among them Missouri, Tennessee, even Texanna.

So, in genealogy, what’s in a name? Often, a lot. We think of the surname being the best clue we have to an ethnic or geographic area and that’s often true. But first names can help enrich a life and tell a story as well.







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