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.
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. 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 proportion 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 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 often 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. 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 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. I got in the habit early on of checking indices of abstracts for “cooper”, “smith”, “carpenter” and so on just in case the abstractor misunderstood the name.
Family researchers attempting to sort out persons with identical names should remember that these terms were not a part of the name itself. The designations might change as persons died, moved elsewhere, or for other reasons. Thus a man might be Junior for several years, and then become Senior.
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 also 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 American 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 (meaning widow) and so on. The meaning is usually obvious.