Monday, April 28, 2014

What's in a Name? A lot as it happens.

If you have done any digging into your family history or genealogy research, especially for ancestors who lived before the 20th century, you have probably come across multiple issues with their names, both forename and surname. Spellings may differ from document to document. Spellings may differ from line to line on the same document. Is there multiple children with the same name or a single child with more than one possible year of birth? Is her name Mary or Polly, Sarah or Sally? And these are issues with English ancestors, ancestors from non English speaking countries have a host of other larger obstacles for which I have yet to scratch the surface.

Lately I have run into several name issues with two particular ancestors that illustrates some of the confusion caused by naming patterns in families and spelling of the family name. Rather than finding this defeating, I am plunging myself into the morass of what I call the "Colonial American Name Game". Here is what I have learned so far. 

same name, so many ways to spell it

I have a few ancestors who seem to have had multiple ways to spell their surnames.  In a will written in about 1770, William Thorington was named as an heir to Thomas Little.  His sons, John and Thomas Thornton were also named. Why is the father called Thorington and his sons Thornton? Another ancestor had the last name of Hammond. His name was recorded as Hammond, Hammand, Hammat and Hamment, as well as any other variation you can possible come up with.  Why so many variations in spelling.   Why would fathers and sons have different spellings of their surname? Did no one know how to spell back then?   

The answer to the last question seems to be yes and no. The problem wasn't so much that they didn't know how to spell, rather there was no standard way to spell.  The first American Dictionary was not published until 1823. It was written by Lexicographer Noah Webster, a proponent of standardized reformed spelling of the American English language. Until then people wrote words like they sounded, to them. 

In an article about family surnames Barbara Kransner-Khait, asks the question for family researchers, "does spelling matter?". Her answer, "In a word, no".  She goes on to say, "be prepared for lots of spelling variations" and "spelling didn't seem to matter much-the sound was what was important". She stresses that if you limit yourself to a singular spelling you will just might miss out on a lot of information. 

In the National Institute for Genealogical Studies course work on Orthography, the lecture by Dr. Penelope Christensen tells us that before 1900 most people did not know how to spell their last name, and they did not care. She goes on to say, "genealogist ignore spelling variations at their peril! Author John Titford is correct in affirming that the greatest difference between professional and amateur family historians is that the professional takes a more flexible approach to the form and spelling of a surname."

Because so many people did not know how to spell, they relied on the record keepers to write their names for them.  The record keeper wrote down what he thought he heard and how he thought it ought to be spelled.  He might spell the same name differently on the next entry. Members of the same family may have had their name spelled differently from each other, as in parish records for baptisms, marriages for death. This wasn't about spelling incorrectly, it was about spelling inconsistently. 

My case in point is the Sanders/Sanderson family of Watertown, MA.  Three men whose surname was Sanderson lived at some point in time in Watertown. Robert Sanderson lived there for about 10 years.  His name is not found very often in the Watertown records, but it was recorded as both Sanders and Sanderson.  William Sanderson was also recorded in both Watertown Records and Middlesex County Court Records, Middlesex County deeds and in the Groton town records.  The same goes for Edward Sanderson, he is Sanders, Sandors, Saunders, and Sanderson. Are these different men, I think not. I believe there was one Robert, Edward and William whose surname had no fixed spelling. 

naming patterns-multiple children, same name

So, whats the deal with these families having multiple children with same name? It seems that from the time of the middle ages children had been  interchangeable, they  were viewed as part of a unit, the family, and not as an individual.  When a child died, it was not seen as an individual loss, but rather a loss of part of the whole.  The next child born, of the same sex, would be given the deceased child's name, making the unit whole again. 

My case in point is Mary Egellston who married Edward Sanderson in Watertown in 1645. Many family researchers say that she was the daughter of Bigod Eggelston of Connecticut. Bigod's daughter Mary was baptized in Norwich, England in 1614.  When her marriage was recorded, the only time her name appears in any colonial record, it was not spelled the same as the current standard spelling of Bigod's surname.  This inconsistent spelling does not rule her out as a daughter. But there is another issue with Mary that I believe does rule her out.

Bigod and his first wife had three children born in England.  They were James, Mary and James. Did they have two living children named James?  No, the first son named James died and the family reused his name when the next son was born. Fast forward a few years and Bigod is living in Massachusetts. His first wife had died and he was remarried. The first child of this marriage was a son named Samuel.  The second child was a daughter guessed it, Mary.  Now, does Bigod have two living daughters named Mary or it much more likely that the first daughter had died and they reused her name for the next living daughter. This is what I believe happened.  This does not rule Mary Egellston out as a relative of Bigod's, a cousin or niece maybe, but not a daughter.

What do you think?

Now accepting any polite comments or corrections, no ranting allowed!


Anderson, Robert Charles, The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England, 1620-1633. Boston; New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1995.

Fischer, David Hackett, Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York; Oxford UP, 1989.

Kotre, John, N. and Hall, Elizabeth, Seasons of Life: The Dramatic Journey From Birth to Death, University of Michigan Press, 1990, p. 106.

Kransner-Khait, Barbara, "What's in a Name?", page 23, "Surnames: Family Search Tips and Surname Origins", Family Tree University, 
Surnames: Family Seach Tips and Surname Origins- ebook

Christensen, Penelope, English-Understanding Names in Genealogy, The National Institute for Genealogy,
Dr. Christensen's course work on familysearch

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