What’s in a name
What is in a name? In our modern times there are three parts to a name. The first, or given name. Then there is the middle name, usually a name that a set of parents like or sounds good and, in many cases, a family name that gets passed down through the generations. Finally is the last, or surname, which is a hereditary name common to all members of a family. Surnames, which generally did not start coming into use until after the 11th century, usually denotes some characteristic of an individual; trade, father’s name, location of birth, or physical characteristics. For example, my surname Long, the ancient roots of the family name denotes someone who is big or tall (which is fairly accurate, as many in my family are tall).
Generally speaking, middle names were very rarely used in the colonial era of our country. There were exceptions to this rule though. In the 18th century, Germans began to flood into the colonies, mainly into Pennsylvania as it was a colony known for its religious tolerance. The colony of Virginia also had a population of Germans who were established at Germanna in modern day Orange County. Many Germans carried middle names; for example, my 7th great grandfather was John Jacob Gochenour who came to Pennsylvania from Switzerland in 1732. Aside from some exceptions as this, most colonists in the colonial era did not have middle names. Middle names were illegal in Europe for use by others not of the nobility class.
Middle names were in use, on rare occasions in other colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries. Some more famous examples of middle name usage in the 18th century were the brothers and founding fathers, Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee, signers of the Declaration of Independence. It was extremely rare for women to have middle names prior to the 19th century, with the exception of German families who immigrated to the colonies. Anne Catherine Spotswood, my 7th great grandmother is a good example of an exception to this rule. She was the daughter of Virginia’s royally appointed lieutenant governor, Alexander Spotswood.
With the advent of the 19th century, middle name usage began to be used and as the century progressed, this usage became more common. What is the explanation for the increase in usage of middle names? The two main reasons are increased population, the need to distinguish others of the same name and, simply put, it just became a fashion or a fad to have a middle name. One of the fashions of middle name usage in the 19th century was to name a child after a famous person of the day or era. A couple examples of this are John Adams Eberly and George Washington Partin, both 3rd great grandfathers of mine. Both were named after presidents, probably because their fathers were admirers of these two illustrious men. In other instances, middle names were used by parents, to remember the death of a child. For example, my 5th great grandfather, John Stephen Woodson was named after two brothers who died before he was born.
The other use of middle names was to pass down family connections and surnames to provide future generations links to their past. My grandfather for example was named Wilfred Spotswood Long. His given name, Wilfred, came from his father’s uncle. His middle name, Spotswood, was given to him by his mother as she and her forebearers were descendants of the previously mentioned royal governor. Another good example is my 4th great grandmother, Mollie Brooke Temple. She was named after her grandmother, Molly Brooke Baylor, a daughter of Dr. Robert Baylor and his wife, Molly Brooke. In our modern times, middle names are still used to honor famous people and show connections and honor past ancestors. So when you name your child, get creative with giving them a middle name. Think of someone you respect, someone you want to honor or remember, or reach back into your family history and continue an old family name, it makes for a good story as to how or why you named your child the way you did.