Why isn't there more discussion or notice of surnames used as middle names?

+17 votes

This question is not asked only to the Wikitree community but to genealogy in general.

I have seen in many American profiles, most usully in the 19th century, the use of a surname (usually maternal) as a child's middle name and sometimes as their first name.  I come across it quite often and it is great tool to help identify ancestors, especially maternal ancestors.

In the greater discipline of genealogy, does this phenomenon have a name?  Is it part of the genealogical education process to learn about it and to look for it?

For those of us without a formal genealogy training, do you often see it and has it helped you to identify parents, grandparents, and family lines?

As just one example, my 4th great-grandmother Nancy Savage Umphlet takes her middle name from her mother's surname: Nancy Savage.

There are no formal records that tell us her mother's surname, daughter Nancy is known only to the official records as the daughter of John Umphlet and Nancy Unknown.  It is from the back of an old photo that we see the explanation:

While searching for her birth parents I now have a surname to look for: Savage.  As I see this repeat again and again, I being to look for particular maternal ancestors surnames when I see odd first or middle names that look more like a surname.  I have one line where a son and grandson both have the middle name Richardson and the mother's surname is unknown.  I'm convinced that the surname is Richardson and I've concentrated my search efforts there.

I'd love to hear all of your opinions and experiences with these naming conventions.

WikiTree profile: Nancy Wiles
in The Tree House by SJ Baty G2G Astronaut (1.1m points)
edited by Ellen Smith

What an interesting topic for study! Wish I had time. I have found many of my ancestors of that time period were named after somebody. Some were political figures and others were extended family members like the husband of one's sister. Perhaps he was local talent. Maybe the use of a middle name was in vogue and they wanted something that sounded "cool." There was a time when a name such inferred money or class. 

This is one of my favorite such family groups. They all seemed to have been named after somebody:


10 Answers

+10 votes
I find this tremendously helpful.  Note that not always is the mother's maiden name used; it can be the grandmother's, or even further back.  My own father's middle name was Murch; that name doesn't appear until his great grandmother.  But it is always so helpful when the child has been given a first name of something very common like John or Elizabeth.
by Ros Haywood G2G Astronaut (1.5m points)
Both of my Uncle's forenames (Gordon (paternal) and Newton (maternal)) were last names of earlier generations.  My Mum used to say he was fortunate they both worked for first names.

I have bunches of cousins who were landed with last names as forenames, some lines the entire batch of kids got the same second forename.   For some lines, it has been a boon I finding cousins, or missing siblings.  (Sometimes you see a known name, but there's no apparent relationship, even though you KNOW it's there, somewhere!)

I managed to trace an entire family "loop" (from a collateral cousin on my maternal line to a collateral cousin on my paternal line) by following the name.  That was a fun journey!
+12 votes

I've noticed that in many families in early 19th Century Maine (the time and place I've been working in recently), the mother's maiden name was used as the middle name for multiple children: for example,the family of John Warren Bigelow and Osca (Bradford( Bigelow, where "Bradford" is the middle name of two sons, or the family of Abner and Eliza (Bemis) Moore, where both of a set of twins had as their middle name the mother's maiden name, "Bemis".

It was also relatively common to use a mother's parent's full name as the first and middle names of a child; for example, Ezekiel Eastman Stuart, named after his grandfather, Ezekiel Eastman. This can be a real help in tracking down an ancestor; in the Eastman/Stuart case, I looked for years for the father of Ezekiel's mother Abigail Eastman, until it dawned on me that his name might be a clue.

by Stu Bloom G2G6 Mach 9 (94.5k points)
It's not just a historical practice, I went to high school in the 1970s with 3 brothers all of whom had their mother's maiden name Rickard as a second name.

A benefit in tracing the Peacock branch of my husband's family was the use of the mother's and grandmother's maiden name as a second name for the children of his 3 X grt grandfather
I thought this might be more common in the South. Family surnames are common names. You also see full names transferred. An extreme case may be my ggrandfather-John Isaac Newton Black Kirk. Issac Newton Black was the local doctor. His parents had picked up the Isaac Newton.

In some of those large families, it was harder to come up with names for the younger children!
I think it may be more common in the southern U.S. perhaps because many of the earlier immigrants were of Scots and Irish descent where the practice of using mothers and grandmothers last names as first or second name was done.

My personal experience of this is/was in Ontario, Canada
I know it was pretty common in early 19th Century Maine. Whether it was more common somewhere else I would not know. Might be a fruitful area of research for someone's Ph.D. dissertation.
+11 votes
It reminds me a bit of the way patronymic naming works (or matronymic if that applies to your area).


In many countries family and first names are created from a combination of the names of parents (eg Portugal, Spain). Given the fact that the USA has many immigrants from other countries, it might be some adoption of that system?
by Michel Vorenhout G2G6 Pilot (262k points)
edited by Michel Vorenhout
Possibly.  And there are a lot of other places that have patrynomic naming systems: Russia and the Persian Gulf come to mind.
+9 votes

I see these patterns quite often, also using the father's surname (e.g., Rood, Reed) and the given name of the parents, grandparents or aunts and uncles. The pattern also appears in the given name - I assume the gravestone for Sanford is not correct.

Another even earlier example https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Scranton-206

by Kay Knight G2G6 Pilot (487k points)
edited by Kay Knight
+11 votes
In New England, in the 1700s, during the period before middle names became common (in the early 1800s), it was common for maternal line surnames to be given to children as first names to honor their maternal line. That's how Chase became a first name -- children named after maternal line ancestors who were descendants of immigrant Aquila Chase.
by Chase Ashley G2G6 Pilot (256k points)
+8 votes

While surnames as middle names often honored a female line, that was not always the case. My great-great-grandfather was William Hence Higginbotham. His middle name was not an ancestral surname; instead, he was named after an uncle-by-marriage, William Hence Willis.

by Jessica Key G2G6 Pilot (254k points)
+7 votes
There was also the scenario of a baby born out of wedlock given the putative father's name as a middle name - possibly to shame him into paying for child support!
by Ros Haywood G2G Astronaut (1.5m points)
+8 votes

Within my English-descended family lines (on my father's side) I have often looked at middle names (also first names) as clues to maternal surnames in the family -- and in several cases those hunches have led me to solid documentation that supported the hunch. The family has often used family surnames for the middle names of children down to the present day, so it seems reasonable to think that the same practice existed in earlier times.

But not every surname that is used as a middle name is a family name. I knew that first-middle name combinations like Benjamin Franklin probably weren't family names. However, when I first found a family member with the given name of 'Harriet Newell,' I spent a little time looking for a Newell in the family until I discovered the story of Harriet Newell, who was the namesake for many 19th-century girls.

by Ellen Smith G2G Astronaut (1.3m points)
+6 votes
I have a Category in my Colville name study for Colville middle names. It’s a good way to keep track of the maternal line.
by Joelle Colville-Hanson G2G6 Pilot (132k points)
That is a really good idea! Have you suggested this to other One Name Studies aficionados?
+3 votes
In my family, a maternal ancestor’s surname sometimes becomes a given name. For example, if I recall the sequence correctly, Poulter Tweed, son of Poulter Tweed, whose mother’s surname was Poulter.

My second middle name, Driscoll, is actually my paternal grandfather’s birth surname.

He was born after his father, a mariner, died, and he acquired the double-barrelled Driscoll-Tobin when his mother remarried.

Through my father, the hyphen was omitted.
by Geoffrey Tobin G2G6 Mach 1 (15.2k points)

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