The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

April 22, 2013

Frankie Meyer: First, middle names can be important clues

By Frankie Meyer
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — Have you reached a brick wall in your family history research? The first and middle names of your ancestors may provide the clues you need.

For example, one of my ancestors was named Phoebe. Her family lived amid Quakers in North Carolina in the 1700s. A search of Quaker records shows that Phoebe was a name sometimes used by that group but rarely used by others.

Based on that clue, I plan to research the neighbors to learn where they previously lived. Her parents may have been Quakers at one time and migrated from the same area as the neighbors.

Perhaps your ancestors were Puritans or Quakers. If so, notice that their daughters were often given first names that reflect positive traits, such as Peace, Charity, Patience and Comfort. The two groups often used Biblical first names for their children, too.

When researching ancestors who lived in colonial times, you may notice that the same first names were repeated in each generation. This occurred when the family used a naming pattern. The common system was to name the first son after the father's father, the second son  after the mother's father, the third after the father, the fourth after the father's oldest brother, and the fifth after the father's second oldest brother or after the mother's oldest brother.

In a similar fashion, the first daughter was named after the mother's mother, the second daughter was named after the father's mother, the third after the mother, the fourth after the mother's oldest sister, and the fifth after the mother's second oldest sister or the father's oldest sister.

Unfortunately, the naming system created a confusing conglomerate of many family members with the same first names who lived in the same area. To cope with the problem, descendants often ignored their first names and become known by their second names.

For example, the name of William N. Capps is found in early records in Virginia, but then the fellow seemed to disappear. The mystery of his disappearance is found in his probate record. The record notes that his full name was William Niel Capps, while all other records referred to him as Niel Capps.

Occasionally, ancestors chose to use the mother's maiden name for a child's middle name. As the child grew to adulthood, he or she became known by the middle name.

An example is Hubbard Capps of Pike County, Ill. A veteran researcher of the Capps line would realize upon seeing his name that the fellow could be an important link between the Hubbard and Capps families who lived in Madison County, Ken. in the late 1700s. Thus, research in Pike County could yield clues to the family history.

Census records are often confusing, because they contain lists of children whose names change from one census to another. One explanation is that the children were using nicknames.

Some examples are Sally or Sadie instead of Sarah, Betsy or Betty instead of Elizabeth, and Polly or Molly instead of Mary. Jenny was another form of Jane, Fanny was another form of Frances, and Nancy was another form of Ann.

When you notice similar discrepancies, do a search of the Internet to see if the odd names could be nicknames.


Suggestions or queries? Contact: Frankie Meyer, 509 N. Center St., Plainfield, IN 46168 or e-mail