The Use of Middle Names

The use of two given names – a first name and a middle name – was essentially unknown in Europe until the late Middle Ages, and even then the practice was limited to a few distinct cultural groups.    Middle names among English-speakers were essentially nonexistent until the mid-1600s, remained quite rare for another century or so, and did not become common until well after the American Revolution.1

I find that genealogists regularly add middle names or middle initials to their ancestors of two hundred or more years ago, which would doubtless come as a shock to those ancestors themselves.   Among the British stock of the southern colonies middle names were rarely bestowed on children until after the Revolution and did not become customary until the mid-1800s. 2

Middle Names Were Rare Prior to the American Revolution

Prior to 1660, the Virginia Settlers Research Project found “only 5 persons out of over 33,000 had genuine middle names.”3   Not one person born by 1715 in St Peter’s parish of New Kent County sported a middle name.   Surry County’s records, which are unusually complete for the latter part of the 17th century, record only one person who used a middle name.   Other studies of public records confirm that seventeenth-century parents gave their children more than one name so rarely that the practice was essentially nonexistent.

Middle names began to find favor among wealthy extended families in the late 1700s.  Aristocratic families increasingly began giving their children two names, so that by the time of the Revolution a quite small but detectable proportion of southerners carried middle names, mainly those from upper class families.   A study of the births and baptisms recorded in Virginia’s Albemarle Parish Register shows that about 3% of children born between 1750 and 1775 were given middle names.4

By the end of the century middle names were still rare among typical Americans.   Only three of our first seventeen presidents (all born by 1809) carried middle names, for instance.

Middle Names Become Customary in the Nineteenth-Century

In less than a single century middle names were transformed from a faddish rarity to a practical requirement.  The practice did not really catch on with the middle class until around teh turn of the century, and became increasingly common within a generation or two.   Although only a small percentage of children born around 1800 were given a middle name, it had become nearly customary by the time of the Civil War.   By 1900 nearly every child born had a middle name.  In fact, the enlistment form used in World War I was the first government form to provide space to write a middle name – a reflection of the assumption that nearly every soldier had one.

Sources of Middle Names

Initially, middle names tended to be lineage-related.   When the practice first arose among the aristocracy these names were typically drawn from within the family.  One study of aristocratic families showed that three-quarters of the middle names bestowed in the 1700s and about half in the early 1800s were taken from inside the family.5 The maiden names of mothers and grandmothers were particularly popular.

Middle names can therefore be a clue to lineage.  But genealogists should be cautious in using naming patterns to draw conclusions.  The same study showed that one-quarter of the children in the same families born in the early 1800s were named for Revolutionary heroes and another quarter for other unrelated persons.    And that proportion increased dramatically as the century proceeded.

Another reason to be cautious about the genealogical implications of names is that lineage names followed no discernible pattern and often went far afield.   For example, John Quincy Adams, the first President to bear a middle name, was named for a maternal great-grandfather.  The next two Presidents to sport middle names were named for a paternal uncle and a maternal grandfather.   None of them bore his mother’s maiden name.  In fact, only one of the next six Presidents with middle names bore the maiden name of his mother.   Of the other five, three were named after unrelated persons, one for a paternal great-uncle, and one for a paternal grandmother.6

By the time the middle class adopted the custom, lineage names retained popularity but most children were given the names of unrelated persons.   The single most popular namesake of children born in the first quarter of the 1800s was George Washington — which almost single-handedly accounted for the increase in the popularity of the name “George”.   One study found that 40% of families in the Chesapeake region named a son after him.   (Incidentally, George Washington was himself named after a lawyer friend of his mother.)   By the time middle names became the norm later in the century, the proportion of lineage-related names had declined significantly, and the middle name was often just a second forename, with little or no lineage-related context.

Exactly why middle names suddenly became popular within the space of a few generations is not completely clear.  To some extent it may simply have been a social trend or fad that eventually became the norm.  But its popularity must have been encouraged by the obvious practicality.  With increases in population density and the size of extended families, the presence of multiple persons in the same vicinity carrying the same first and last names became commonplace.  Distinguishing among several persons of the same name became, for the first time, a practical problem.  Whatever the driving forces, the custom eventually became just that: an entrenched custom.

For genealogists, middle names not only help us differentiate among similarly named people, but they can provide lineage clues as well.   But we need to be cautious in turning clues into facts.  Americans not only named their children after relatives, they also honored friends, politicians, military heroes, religious leaders, and even distant (but often wealthy) relatives.  This is obvious when a child was given a name like George Washington or John Wesley, but perhaps not so obvious when a child was named after Lorenzo Dow, Seaborn Jones, or Furnifold Green.7

Before we wonder if a child’s name might be lineage-derived, it’s best to research the names of regional and local ministers, politicians, and military men.  Even then, we need to remember that people did name children after close friends and those from whom they curried favor.

Mutation into Uniquely American Given Names

One interesting result of the movement to name children after popular or admired figures is that by the mid-1800s we begin to see Americans using given names that were completely unknown in Europe and England.  Uniquely American given names like Jackson, Columbus, Lee, Jefferson, Wesley, Luther, Washington, and the like were clearly derived from honorific naming practices.

 

  1. By the 15th century, Germans were giving their children two names: a spiritual name (usually a favorite saint) and a secular name (the name by which the child was known). []
  2. In my own genealogies, I can identify two within the same family.  Thomas Vicesimus Ivey, born perhaps 1625, was the twentieth child (Vicesimus is Latin for “twentieth”) and the second son in the family to be named Thomas.    His grandson Robert Smith Ivey, born just after 1700, was named for his maternal grandfather. []
  3. Kent. P. Bailey and Ransom B. True, A Guide to Seventeenth-Century Virginia Court Handwriting (1980). []
  4. The author’s own study, unpublished as this is being written. []
  5. Kulikoff, p250 []
  6. Ulysses Simpson Grant, the 18th President, was not born with that name.  He adopted it when he entered West Point, abandoning his birth name of Hiram Ulysses Grant. []
  7. Lorenzo Dow was a famous itinerant Methodist preacher and author, Seaborn Jones a famous lawyer and early Georgia politician, and Furnifold Green was a military figure in central North Carolina who contributed his name to several local children. []