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.

Genealogy Humor: Unusual & Funny Names of People

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary shares some of the odd and humorous names she’s run across while researching family history in old newspapers.

Like anyone else, genealogists enjoy a good laugh. Sometimes, when searching through old newspapers, we run across an old article or announcement that provides a welcome chuckle. This can be especially true with some of the old names we find while doing our genealogy research, such as those shown in this Blog post.

Some people seem to think that my own last name is “funny”—to be polite, they often comment that my hyphenated name is “unusual.”

If you think about the name “Mary Harrell,” it somewhat rhymes. Some people find that funny—although it’s an honorable name, and one that suits me well! And I’ve always said: if someone can spell my name correctly, he or she would make a wonderful proofreader!

I often wonder how other families select their children’s names, especially when I encounter people’s names that seem more unusual than mine. Certainly the baby name choices affect the children throughout their lives—and when one has to deal with an unusually outrageous name, hopefully the child will grow up with a good sense of humor.

Preserved Fish

Take, for example, the name Preserved Fish.

Throughout history there have been numerous people by this moniker, including the Preserved Fish who married Mary Shepherd in 1840. The writer of their 1840 matrimonial notice reported:

“Not the first time that a Shepherd has hooked a fish. The victim is a great catch, for, though there is nothing scaly about him, he has plenty of shiners; and his nett income is immense.”

marriage announcement for Preserved Fish and Mary Shepherd, New Bedford Register newspaper article 30 July 1840

New Bedford Register (New Bedford, Massachusetts), 30 July 1840, page 1

Harry Bear

Ever met a Harry Bear? In 1913, Mary Myers married Harry Bear in Hagerstown, Maryland. So Mary married Harry, and was therefore in good company. I counted 25 Harry Bears at Find-A-Grave, which makes one wonder what happened when any of these Bear families gives birth to their first child.

Miss Mary Myers and Harry Bear Wed in Md., Patriot newspaper article 28 October 1913

Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), 28 October 1913, page 3

Were they subjected to this kind of fairy tale banter?

“So Pappa, how are the three bears? Was this morning’s porridge too cold, too warm or just right—or did Goldilocks come by and eat every bite?”

What about Byrds?

I’ve got a close friend whose maiden name is Byrd. Although she has a fairly common given name (Linda), her parents could have had fun with it. Have you ever heard of Earl E. Byrd, Lady Byrd, or Southern Byrd? And to take this further, there are even a few Byrds who were known to marry a Fish or a Bear.

birth announcement for Kenneth Southern Byrd, Patriot newspaper article 20 December 1915

Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), 20 December 1915, page 7

Sterling Silver

It can be funny when people with unusual names work in related industries, such as tailors who were Taylors, aviators who were Pilots, funeral directors who were Graves, and Silvers and Sterlings who were jewelers. This report from 1961 notes that Mrs. Sterling Silver was a clerk at C. H. Lee’s Silver and Jewelry Shop, and that her first name was Goldie!

Funny Old Town, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 27 November 1961

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 27 November 1961, page 23

Kitty Graves

Along this line are various kitties, including Kitty Graves of Stephenville, Texas, who gave one of the “swellest dinners of the season” in 1900.

notice about Kitty Graves, Dallas Express newspaper article 13 January 1900

Dallas Express (Dallas, Texas), 13 January 1900, page 7

Nutts

Ever met any real Nutts? If so, it shouldn’t surprise you that W. N. Nutt was elected president of the National Nut Growers Association, or that Mr. Thomas James Nutty of Mamaroneck, New York, petitioned the court to change his surname to Nutley.

job notices, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 11 November 1915

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 11 November 1915, page 12

Ima Hogg

Here in Texas, we defend the honor of philanthropist Miss Ima Hogg (1882-1975), almost more than we do the Alamo.

She was the famous daughter of Sarah Ann “Sallie” Stimson and Governor James Stephen “Big Jim” Hogg, and a beautiful young woman. Her residence, the extraordinary Houston treasure “Bayou Bend,” is part of the Museum of Fine Arts and one of my favorite places to visit. (See www.mfah.org/)

Here is a photo I took last month at the visitor center.

a photo of the Bayou Bend Visitor Center (Houston, Texas)

Photo: Bayou Bend Visitor Center (Houston, Texas). Credit: Mary Harrell-Sesniak.

But let’s dispel the myth that Ima Hogg had a sister named Ura; it certainly isn’t true!

Kahaha Ka

Hawaii, our 50th state, has its share of residents with curious names, including Kahaha Ka. The daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Andrew J. Bright, she was named in honor of her uncle John E. Maia, who passed away after completing a fast of forty days. According to this newspaper article, her name means “40 days.”

How Hawaiians Get Their Funny Names, Tucson Daily Citizen newspaper article 2 February 1922

Tucson Daily Citizen (Tucson, Arizona), 2 February 1922, page 7

Unusual British Names of People

In 1891, it was reported that the British registry of births has many names of “dull propriety,” but also some that put a smile on the clerk’s face. A few of these were Ether Spray, Foot Bath, River Jordan and Rose Shamrock Anthistle, “whose name must please any patriotic man.”

an article about British names, Jacksonian newspaper article 3 December 1891

Jacksonian (Heber Springs, Arkansas), 3 December 1891, page 3

Weather & Holiday Names for People

There are also amusing weather and holiday people names, such as O. Snow, Mary Christmas and Chris Cringle of Cleveland, Ohio; Slay Bell of Merrysville, Ohio; and even A. S. Kating of Iceland—all distinguished guests of Richard’s Euclid Avenue House in 1878.

The Euclid Avenue House, Plain Dealer newspaper article 19 December 1878

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 19 December 1878, page 4

Genealogical Challenge

Other funny and unusual real people names that I’ve encountered in my genealogical research are B. A. Mann, B. A. Husband, Mother Hubbard, Peter Piper and Rose Bush. Do you suppose there is someone out there stuck with R. U. A. Crook or Justin Case?

It’s possible, but readers—perhaps you have uncovered more humorous name examples!

So here is your genealogical challenge.

Let’s see who can find the most belly busting, giggle producing, ridiculous or funny name ever to be found in newspapers! Share them with us in the comments section. Of course, if the name is too off-color, please check with us first. (No XXX rated examples.)

I’m thinking my Nantucket ancestors, Tristram and Dionis (Stevens) Coffin, had their share of death and dying jokes whenever someone in their family passed away!

“We’re going to need a coffin for Coffin.”

article about the Coffin family in Nantucket, Baltimore Patriot newspaper article 21 July 1826

Baltimore Patriot (Baltimore, Maryland), 21 July 1826, page 2

And certainly anyone by the name of Dunn heard “done” jokes, as was reported when Miss Gertrude Buell Dunn was “done” with her supposed soul mate, Ferdinand Pinney Earle.

The 'Soul Mate' [Gertrude Dunn] Is Coming Home, Grand Forks Daily Herald newspaper article 15 September 1909

Grand Forks Daily Herald (Grand Forks, North Dakota), 15 September 1909, page 1

Now that I am “done,” it’s your turn to share your funny name finds with us in the comments!

Clues in Petitions: Did Your Ancestors Petition the Government?

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary writes about our ancestors’ petitions to the government, an often-overlooked source of family history information.

From the establishment of companies, to divorces, to relief from tobacco weighing, the right to petition the government “for a redress of grievances” is a constitutionally-protected right in the U.S., ever since the Bill of Rights came into effect on 15 December 1791.

These petitions that our ancestors sent to their government, reports of which can be found in old newspapers, can be a valuable source of family history information.

Here is an example of several petition notices published in a 19th century Virginia newspaper.

citizens' petitions to the government, Richmond Whig newspaper article 1 January 1850

Richmond Whig (Richmond, Virginia), 1 January 1850, page 2

Many genealogists have not yet discovered their ancestral petitions—but in all likelihood, family historians will be able to locate them with a little digging into newspaper archives.

When our ancestors petitioned the government, a typical procedure was to have a public representative or prominent citizen present their case in front of Congress.

In this example, Mr. Wayne (i.e., General “Mad” Anthony Wayne) presented a petition “praying compensation” for Revolutionary War surgeon John Davis, who, according to The Life of John Davis (William Watts Hart Davis, 1886), served valiantly under Wayne at the Battles of Monmouth, Morristown, etc.

petition by John Davis, Massachusetts Spy newspaper article 1 December 1791

Massachusetts Spy (Worcester, Massachusetts), 1 December 1791, page 2

This historical newspaper article also reports on similar pleas for Revolutionary War service compensation that were referred to the Secretary of War. We can also review a variety of other requests: Philip Bush had lost a certificate, the Branch Pilots of Pennsylvania wished an increase in their fees, and Mr. Wicks prayed compensation for a vessel and cargo damaged during the late war.

Some petitioners’ names were not identified in the news articles, probably due to the publisher’s need to conserve space. To make further identification in such cases, search archives of official congressional papers.

Petition requests are valid evidence for genealogical proofs. Whether or not the petitions were granted is another story. But whatever the outcome, our ancestors’ pleas are a treasure trove of data waiting to be mined. There are so many government petitions that (in my humble opinion) this is a project waiting to be tackled.

Wouldn’t it be great to have an indexed book on petitions, divided into subtopics, such as debt relief or the Temperance movement?

The crusade against drinking sparked a number of petitions in 19th century America. For example, in 1850 a “Mr. W.” presented fifteen petitions from citizens of Massachusetts, asking that the spirit ration of the Navy be abolished.

petition against Navy's liquor ration, Daily National Intelligencer newspaper article 1 January 1850

Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), 1 January 1850, page 2

Were these concerned Massachusetts citizens members of the group that met at Gibbs’ Hotel in Boston, where Sons of Temperance meetings were held?

Gibbs' Hotel advertisement, Boston Herald newspaper 1 January 1850

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 1 January 1850, page 3

I haven’t yet completed the research, but my hunch is that Gibbs’ Hotel is where the teetotalers of the temperance petitions were meeting. My suspicion was enhanced after discovering this delightful old 1800s poem.

poem dedicated to J. B. Gibbs, Norfolk Democrat newspaper 29 March 1850

Norfolk Democrat (Dedham, Massachusetts), 29 March 1850, page 3

To locate petitions in GenealogyBank, search using the “Legal, Probate & Court” category in the Newspaper Archives.

GenealogyBank's search form for legal, probate and court notices

GenealogyBank’s search form for legal, probate and court notices

Include keywords such as pension, military or relief, along with an ancestor’s surname.

Have fun searching for petitions in GenealogyBank. Some are serious, and others are not.

Here’s an example of a petition I found in the “not so serious” category—and I see that some things never change.

This 1810 Georgia petition shows that, the same then as now, lawyers—as much as we need them—tend to infuriate us!

“We pray your honorable body to make such laws as to dispense with and totally obliterate the most useless pests that ever disgraced the human society, to wit, the lawyers, who have so successfully learnt the trade of living.”

Georgia petition against lawyers, Connecticut Herald newspaper article 2 January 1810

Connecticut Herald (New Haven, Connecticut), 2 January 1810, page 6

Yes, petitions in old newspapers can help us a great deal with our family history searches. And if, every now and then, one of our ancestor’s petitions manages to give us a chuckle or put a smile on our face—so much the better!