Genealogists have strong opinions. But are they always correct?
I've been following some online genealogy discussions recently and noticed that we genealogists often answer questions with an emphatic point of view. Very often the answer is an extreme leaning one way or the other, with no middle ground or room for a “perhaps…”
One recent discussion began after a seemingly simple question -- were there naming patterns for children in the 1800s in [fill in blank with any country].
Genealogists began to respond with their opinions. Almost all gave a simple YES or NO. Some provided reasons or rationale or examples to support their YES or NO stance.
But no one jumped in with "Maybe... Sometimes... It depends… Yes, but...."
Let's get real! Naming patterns existed. That is correct. Historically parents often named a child in honor of a relative – father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, or other family member.
BUT…Were naming patterns identical in all cultures? No
Did all countries have strict naming pattern conventions? No.
Did naming patterns follow the same rules over the centuries? Were naming patterns in one country during the 16th century identical to naming patterns in the 19th century? No.
Were existing naming patterns used by all families? No.
Our Ancestors Were Just Like Us
It's easy to forget that our ancestors were people like us. They fought, they loved, they cried, they laughed, they had good days, they had bad days, and they made decisions for many of the same reasons we make decisions – including what names to give their children.
Even if there were established naming patterns that were used most of the time, as is the case with the Dutch who settled in the 17th century in what is now New York, as researchers we must keep an open mind as to whether or not the customs were always followed.
Reasons a Couple Might Not Follow Traditional Naming Patterns
Perhaps your ancestor fought with his father or mother and vowed to never name a child in their honor.
Perhaps your ancestor was a free spirit and loved the name Lancelot so broke with tradition even though the first born male in her family had been called James for the last ten generations.
Perhaps your ancestor wanted to cozy up to his rich great uncle so he named his first born son after that person instead of his father.... and gave his second born his father's name.
Perhaps the birth parents had died young and one of the spouses wanted to honor their adoptive parents.
If you find seven children in a family and six are named after known family members such as paternal grandparents, maternal grandparents, aunts, and uncles, then there is a good chance that the seventh was also named after a family member. However it’s important to remember that this is not guaranteed. The couple might have named that child after a good friend, or an important contemporary person, or a benefactor.
Let’s look at a different scenario. In your research you are trying to find the names of the parents of your great-great grandmother. You have a theory as to who her parents are. Then you notice what looks like a naming pattern of her siblings. This pattern fits with the parents you theorized are the correct parents. But one parent's name is missing from the pattern. What to do? That's not the time to toss out your theory! There may be a missing child, one whose existence you aren't aware of, or who died. That child may be the missing link, and may be named after that one parent who is missing from the pattern.
Think about this the next time you are tempted to accept an absolute and emphatic yes or no to the question “Do Naming Patterns Exist?” The editor of the New York Biographical and Genealogical Review told me once that absolute answers are never a good idea and that one should always leave oneself some “wiggle room”. In other words don’t back yourself into a corner by giving an absolute answer. There are often exceptions to rules.
So be sure you leave yourself some wiggle room next time you answer a question, and if you are the person asking the question, take absolute answers with a grain of salt.
Use naming patterns as a guide. That's all they are, they are not a set of rules set in stone.
Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.