Guide to Ancestor Middle Name Research for Genealogy

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this guest blog post, Duncan provides a guide to understanding your ancestors’ middle names, and how to use middle names in your family history research.

As a genealogy consultant, I often get questions about the significance of middle names. This article will cover many of the common reasons behind middle names, and discuss their usefulness when doing family history research. (Since I am discussing the middle names of ancestors, I have used the past tense in this article—but the information can apply to the present day as well.)

Middle names can offer significant and important clues about your ancestors. Or not. Let’s cover the cautions first.

Things to Remember When Researching Middle Names

The first thing to keep in mind is that not everyone had a middle name. Nor does every middle initial have a name associated with it. Harry S. Truman is a well-known example of this; the “S” did not stand for a middle name. Sometimes this was done to distinguish family members with common names, such as George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush. George H. W. Bush brings up another point: it is possible for someone to have multiple middle names. A friend of mine has seven!

a photo of U.S. President Harry S. Truman

Photo: U.S. President Harry S. Truman. Credit: Wikipedia.

Is It a Middle Name or First Name?

Some names that appear to be middle names are actually part of the first name. In my own family and circle of friends the following double first names appear: Rose Marie, Mary Beth, Alice Ann, Mary Jo, Terry Kay, and Mary Ann. While these are more common among females, there are similar male names. Conversely, some of what appear to be middle names may actually be part of the last name. This is common in Latino names or some European names like Van Wagonen or Mac Graw.

Some middle names were used like a first name. A person named John David Smith may have never been addressed as John at all. He may have used the name J. David Smith or just David Smith or even David J. Smith. Sometimes this is done when the first name is also the parent’s or a relative’s first name. For example, the world knows this famous British author as Rudyard Kipling—but his full name was Joseph Rudyard Kipling.

a photo of British author Rudyard Kipling

Photo: British author Rudyard Kipling. Credit: Wikipedia.

In the U.S. South, the first and middle name could be switched back and forth making it unclear which name was originally intended for which purpose. It was also not uncommon for several siblings in a family to have the same middle name or, less commonly, the same first name with different middle names.

How Middle Names Are Chosen

It’s also possible that middle names may have no significance at all. In some cases, the parents just picked them because they liked the name and/or it sounded good with the first name. Middle names may have been influenced by the culture at the time. During the 1970s and 80s many girls were given the middle name of Marie or Ann simply because they were popular. Parents may have liked an uncommon name but didn’t want to give it as a first name, so they chose it as a middle name. These could include common words being used as middle names, nature-inspired themes, virtues, and so on.

The middle name may be a common name used among the family. My own middle name is the same as my mother’s. One of my brothers carries the middle name of our father and grandfather. But neither name has any real significance. Incidentally, neither my brother nor I liked the middle names we were given, and the tradition with those particular names ended with us. As in my family, the name may be another family member’s first name. Both of my sons have middle names that are also the first name of an ancestor or living relative. It is not uncommon for a son to have for a middle name his father’s or grandfather’s first name. This can also happen with daughters although not as commonly.

Is It a Middle Name or Last Name?

Sometimes the ancestor’s middle name appears to be a surname. This can happen for males or females. A surname used as a middle name may come from the mother’s maiden name. This is yet another reason why it is important to conduct research on everyone in a family and not just your direct line. However, don’t assume the unusual middle name is the mother’s maiden name as there are other reasons why this could occur. When you find a surname used this way, do some research on others in the area with that last name. You may discover that the parents just used the name because they liked it. Or you may discover a hidden secret. The following are three middle name examples I have found in my own genealogy research.

Middle Name Research Case #1

My great grandmother’s middle name was Bell. Initially, I believed this was a misspelling of the name Belle, which means beautiful. But then I discovered her father also had the middle name Bell, as did several other relatives. I have found many Bell families living near them as well. I now suspect that the name was “borrowed” from the Bell family, but at this point I have not yet found a clear connection. They may have just been friends or there may be another reason.

Middle Name Research Case #2

On another line of the family I found the middle name Bowles. Searching the neighborhood I found a prominent man named William A. Bowles. William was also the given name of my ancestor. It is possible that my 4th Great Grandparents named their son William Bowles after this man. So I did a little digging into GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives for more information on this man. I have to admit, I didn’t like what I found.

William A. Bowles became somewhat famous. He moved into the Indiana area in 1830, just two years before my ancestor bearing his name was born. William A. Bowles was a Mexican-American War colonel, newspaper editor, and prominent community leader. This William Bowles may have been a founder of the Order of the Sons of Liberty, a great-sounding name for what in reality was an abhorrent group of the Knights of the Golden Circle—a secret society in favor of slavery and against the Union. The hope of gathering Bowles and his followers to the Southern cause was one of the reasons Confederate General John Hunt Morgan marched his troops into Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio during the summer of 1863, a Civil War expedition known as “Morgan’s Raid.”

I had initially held some hope that my grandparents named their son after this man, but that was prior to my research revealing the extent of his pro-slavery beliefs. However, their son proudly used his middle name Bowles as his first name in the census returns following the Civil War. While I can’t prove the motivation for using this name, I can guess at the political leaning of my ancestor and am disturbed by it. While I am disgusted by their probable pro-slavery, anti-Union beliefs, I now know more about them than I did before investigating William A. Bowles.

obituary for William A. Bowles, Elkhart Weekly Review newspaper article 10 April 1873

Elkhart Weekly Review (Elkhart, Indiana), 10 April 1873, page 4

Middle Name Research Case #3

Sometimes babies were named after prominent political or community leaders to attract support from them. A poor family of several multiple births (twins, triplets, etc.) named two of their sons after political leaders. This was obvious in the name of one boy: Theodore Roosevelt Spyhalski. The plan to curry President Roosevelt’s favor was answered when he, a fan of large families, sent the parents a signed self-portrait as a congratulatory letter. The second son’s name was less obvious: Samuel Jones Spyhalski. However, a quick search in GenealogyBank’s newspaper archives shows that Samuel Jones was the mayor of Toledo, where the family was living. The plan worked very well when Mayor Jones offered a job to the struggling father and tried to help the family as much as possible.

So keep in mind that searching on an ancestor’s middle name may—in some cases—prove very helpful to your genealogy research, turning up family history information you might not have found otherwise, and sometimes leading you to additional, unexpected searches.

Do you have any genealogy stories or tips about researching ancestor middle names? If so, please share them in the comments.

How to Find Tricky & Common Ancestor Names in Newspapers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary provides some tips and tricks to find ancestors that are difficult to search for because they have common names, such as Smith or Jones.

One of my favorite genealogical expressions is: “My ancestor must have been in the Witness Protection Program, as there is absolutely no evidence of him [or her]!”

I always feel for people when they can’t find even the tiniest tidbit about an ancestor when they search in an extensive collection of old newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

Very often, information about the target ancestor is in the old newspapers—but the ancestor search may be made more difficult because their name may be tricky. This is especially true for ancestors with diabolically vexing common names, such as John Smith, John Jones, or William Scott (the name of one of my ancestors).

This blog article shows you some search tips and tricks to find these difficult ancestors with common names in newspapers.

Finding Your Target Smith or Jones

As is well known, Smith and Jones are incredibly common names, as are John and William. In this 1844 newspaper article, take a look at how many people named Smith and Jones attended this family’s Christmas party.

I can’t fathom how many historical characters were named John or William—and I know from first-hand experience, sorting them out is challenging.

Note how many Johns there were in this tongue-in-cheek account of an annual Smith Christmas party. Not only are there numerous family members named John Smith, but there seems to be an equal number by the given name of Charles, not to mention all of the John Joneses and their wives, famously known as “Mrs.”

article about an annual Christmas party for the Smith family, Commercial Advertiser newspaper article 8 January 1844

Commercial Advertiser (New York, New York), 8 January 1844, page 1

Although you may never sort out a complicated family such as the one attending the Smith Christmas party, let’s review a few genealogy tips on how you might proceed with newspaper searches for ancestors with common names.

One-Name Ancestor Name Studies

Although tedious, consider undertaking a one-name study for a specific area, and cross-reference the results with persons by the same name in the same location. It will serve as a prospective list, and help you determine who’s who.

For example, in the GenealogyBank search box do a search for all the John Smiths in the Boston area.

screenshot of a search for John Smith in Boston on GenealogyBank

By incorporating a date range, such as 1844-1846, and a location, you may discover births, marriages, deaths, and even charming stories—such as this one, found doing a different John Smith search using the date 1856.

The John Smith in this newspaper article was a mate of the good ship Sally, and one day when the captain discovered him sleeping during his watch, John reacted vociferously: “do you supposed that I’m a d—–d horse to sleep standing up?” This quick and witty response caused the captain to laugh all the way back to his cabin, thereby allowing John Smith to finish his nap!

article about John Smith, Times-Picayune newspaper article 5 February 1856

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 5 February 1856, page 1

Search for Ancestor Names by Category

Another useful technique is to narrow a query using the various newspaper article categories found on GenealogyBank’s Search Results page.

For example, when I did the search above for Boston and John Smith with the date range 1844-1846, this was the Search Results page.

screenshot of search results page on GenealogyBank for a search for John Smith in Boston

First of all, this Search Results page shows there are 844 records matching the query. Notice the box on the left-hand side of the page: it breaks these 844 results down into various categories to make your searching easier. The most popular historical newspaper categories are shown first, including these results:

Initial Search Results

  • Historical Obituaries 19
  • Marriage Records 8
  • Passenger Lists 48
  • Newspaper Articles 203
  • Legal, Probate & Court 15

That accounts for the first 293 results. And the rest? See below the list of initial search results, where there is a blue arrow and it says “551 More”? Click on that blue arrow to see the remaining 551 results organized by category.

screenshot of the expanded search results page on GenealogyBank for a search for John Smith in Boston

Expanded Search Results

  • Newspaper Letters 7
  • Poems & Songs 1
  • Ads & Classifieds 540
  • Commodity & Stocks 2
  • Political & Elections 1

To select a newspaper category, click on the blue link. Try not to rule out seemingly less interesting categories—even an advertisement can hold a clue to a family business or probate record.

When dealing with a return as large as 844 hits, it makes the task of examining the results easier if you break them down into smaller groups by category, then examine each category one by one—the lesser totals will help you retain your focus, and it’s quicker to examine results when they’re grouped by category because you know what to expect and can accelerate your examination.

Narrowing Your Ancestor Name Search

When an extended family has chosen to name many offspring with similar or identical names, sharpen your search by looking for nicknames and other appellations (such as Senior and Junior), along with search terms that denote a particular characteristic of your ancestor, in an attempt to find that one specific individual you’re searching for.

Ancestor Nicknames & Distinctive Physical Characteristics

If you think we have a hard time straightening out complicated families, so did our ancestors. One of the ways they avoided confusion was to give people nicknames. The following comical 1876 newspaper article illustrates a breadth of creative nicknames.

A “respectable-looking old gentleman from the Eastern States” was trying to find a man named Smith in Austin, Nevada. The boy assisting him wanted to know which Smith the man was looking for and made many helpful suggestions, including: Big Smith, Little Smith, Three-fingered Smith, Bottle-nose Smith, Cock-eye Smith, Six-toed Smith, Mush-head Smith, One-legged Smith, Bow-legged Smith, and many more.

The old gentleman retorted: “My son, the Smith I am in search of possesses to his name none of the heathenish prefixes you have mentioned. His name is simply John Smith.”

To which the boy promptly responded: “All them fellows is named John!”

Looking for Smith, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 2 June 1876

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 2 June 1876, page 3

Searching by Generational Suffix: Senior & Junior

A common genealogical trap is thinking that “Seniors” and “Juniors” are related. From a historical perspective, senior means older, or of an advanced age, which is exactly how our ancestors interpreted the generational name designation. Two people with the same name, one a senior and one a junior, were not necessarily related.

  • Senior: indicates that there were two or more persons by the same name living in a community, with the senior being older than the junior.
  • Junior: indicates that there was another person by the same name, who was older than the person under discussion.

Distinctive Physical Characteristics

As seen in the humorous account of the many John Smiths of Austin, Nevada, people are often associated with their distinctive physical characteristics, whether it be their hair color, weight or height. An example from my own ancestry is finding two William Scotts, both of Revolutionary War fame.

Although cousins, one of the William Scotts (my ancestor) was shorter than the other. Family and other historical accounts refer to him as “Short Bill,” and the other as “Tall Bill.”

Prefix Name Titles & Initials

If someone held a position of honor, the title or the given (first name) might be ignored or abbreviated. Here are some examples of common name prefixes, which you could incorporate into an ancestor search:

  • Gen. Smith
  • Col. E. Smith
  • Rev. Dr. Smith
Passengers, Charleston Courier newspaper article 7 September 1849

Charleston Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), 7 September 1849, page 2

If you are searching for an ancestor with a common name, make note if you ever run across that ancestor’s nickname, title, or distinctive characteristic—then incorporate that information into your search. You just might get lucky and find that individual needle in the haystack of common names.

Search Photos to Find Your Ancestor with a Common Name

One advantage to large families with common names is that you might find a family reunion newspaper article and—if lucky—a reunion photograph. Here is an example, displaying the “Largest Family in Mississippi,” all related to William Smith and his wife Catherine Pinkie Smith—with each individual clearly identified.

Death Invades Circle of 'Largest' Family in Mississippi, Times-Picayune newspaper article 12 March 1922

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 12 March 1922, page 39

Search Locations, Dates & Publications

Finally, try searching for your ancestor with a common name by specific locations, such as New York or New Hampshire.

After selecting “New York” as a target area, I searched for my ancestor William Scott (he was from the Saratoga Springs area) and found some good information.

screenshot of search for William Scott on GenealogyBank

By expanding the search to all of New York, I found death notices in newspapers that were published outside of Saratoga Springs. These newspaper articles provided many exciting life details, including William Scott’s approximate date of immigration prior to the Revolutionary War, information that he had fought in the battles of Bunker Hill, Trenton, White Plains and Saratoga, and that he had 38 battle wounds!

obituary for William Scott, Orange County Patriot; or, The Spirit of Seventy-Six newspaper article 15 August 1815

Orange County Patriot; or, The Spirit of Seventy-Six (Goshen, New York), 15 August 1815, page 1

As in all genealogical searches, these death notices led to more searches with even more results, including information that William Scott had actually been captured at the Battle of Bunker Hill! If you search for more newspaper articles about him, you’ll even discover that he wrote an account of what happened to the prisoners of war. This is a pretty cool research discovery for an ancestor whose common name posed search challenges, isn’t it!

Here is one of the newspaper articles about William Scott that I found in my additional searches.

casualty list for the Battle of Bunker Hill, Pennsylvania Journal newspaper article 27 September 1775

Pennsylvania Journal (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 27 September 1775, page 2

So don’t despair if you’re trying to find information about an ancestor with a common name. Yes, your first search may have turned up so many results you felt hopeless trying to weed through them, looking for information about your target ancestor. But if you use the ancestor search tips and tricks discussed in this article, you just might make that family history discovery you’ve spent years searching for! Good luck and have fun ancestor name hunting!