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.

Julia Child (1912-2004)

This week the nation is remembering Julia Child – how much she contributed to our lives and how much fun she was to be with – via her books, newspaper columns, TV Show – The French Chef and interviews.

Julia Child was born Julia Carolyn McWilliams – this week – August 15, 1912 in Pasadena, California and died this week – August 13, 2004 in Montecido, California. She married Paul Cushing Child over a long Labor Day weekend – 1 September 1946. She had met Paul Child while stationed in Sri Lanka with the OSS during World War II. The OSS is now known as the CIA. For her life’s work she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2003. She was 92 years old.

She is celebrated in Meryl Streep’s new movie – Julie & Julia


and she is in GenealogyBank too – from her numerous recipes; articles about her books & TV series; numerous obituries published in newspapers across the country and her death record in the SSDI.

Cook like Julia Child

.

National Archives Celebrates 75th Anniversary this Friday!

National Archives Celebrates 75th Anniversary on Friday, June 19th.

Susan Logue (Voice of America) distributed this commentary on the 75th Anniversary of the National Archives.

Before the National Archives was founded, many governmental records were kept in poor conditions. On June 19, 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the legislation creating the National Archives. “There was a recognition by historians, by public officials and others that the history of the nation was being lost,” says assistant archivist Michael Kurtz. “Records were kept by the agencies that created them. Fires, floods and other disasters really ate away at the nation’s documented heritage.”

A visitor to the National Archives examines the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S.

Constitution Seventy-five years later, it is home to some of the most treasured documents in the United States. Every day, visitors fill the rotunda of the National Archives to get a glimpse of the documents that are the foundation of the United States government: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

But there is much more to the National Archives than just the so-called Charters of Freedom. More than 9 billion records preserved.

Since 1934 it has been responsible for all official governmental historical records: judicial, legislative and executive. Of course, not every government document is saved. Only one to three percent are deemed valuable enough to permanently archive. But, as Kurtz explains, that still adds up to more than nine billion records. While the paper records are vast, there are records in other formats as well including video, film, and digital.

“You have wikis and blogs, digital e-mail, all capturing government business,” says Kurtz. He notes they present new challenges to the Archives. “Preserving them is not like having temperature- and humidity-control vaults for paper records, which will ensure the paper records last for hundreds of years. Digital media is much more fragile.”

On the other hand, Kurtz says, the digital age has presented some opportunities for the National Archives, which can provide access to holdings to people who will never be able to come to the National Archives in person.

The National Archives is celebrating its 75th anniversary with lectures and panel discussions, screenings of films, and an exhibit called “Big!,” featuring some of its more unusual holdings. “The original premise was to showcase some unique items that normally don’t get displayed because of their size,” says exhibits specialist Jennifer Johnson.

Those items include a Civil War-era battlefield map of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, that measures four meters square and a bathtub modeled after the one made for President William Howard Taft, the largest U.S. president. He weighed about 145 kilos (320 pounds). “There were a series of items that were custom made for him, including his bed,” says Johnson. “We have a telegram where it is asking for a bathtub, listing the dimensions and describing it as ‘pond-like.’”
When the exhibition, Big!, closes next January, Shaq’s shoe will go to the George W. Bush presidential library. Presidential libraries are also part of the National Archives. There is also a shoe that belonged to basketball star Shaquille O’Neal, which was given to President George W. Bush, and a casting of dinosaur footprints.

Johnson says that was presented to Richard Nixon by two boys who discovered the fossilized prints in New Jersey. “When they discovered these footprints they petitioned Nixon to preserve that area of land so they could study it, and he did. So they gave him a casting of the footprints.” Today, she notes, one of those boys is one of the leading paleontologists in the U.S. There are also more conventional records in the exhibit, illustrating big events and big ideas in American history, like the lunar landing and D-Day, the Normandy invasion that led to the Allied victory in World War Two.

Exhibits like “Big!” give visitors a glimpse of the vast holdings of the National Archives, but the stars of the collection remain the Charters of Freedom.
.