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Overheard in GenForum: Naming Traditions
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

August 16, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: The middle name of Stockton runs with my husband's line. His grandfather, his great-great uncle and his third great-grandfather's middle initial was S. Does anyone knows what this means? I believe they came from Pennsylvania. Could this have been a maiden name for the woman that helped start this family? Any suggestions? -- Julie

A: Naming traditions are something that genealogists often don't take the time to investigate. This is a shame, as there are some naming patterns both in given names and middle names that may be of help in the research phase.

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that we see some names so often. We just begin to ignore them. Instead we should be paying attention to the frequency of different names, both given names and middle names.

Names may hold clues to families.

Overlooking the Obvious?

As researchers we are trained to concentrate on surnames. In fact, I would venture to say, we obsess over surnames. We become obsessed with understanding the origin of the surname as though that will magically give us all the generations on that line that we are looking for. There are times when the clues may be found in the given names.

While it is necessary that we look for surnames, it should be just as important to pay attention to the given names and middle names that we find. Many times they turn out to have some direct relationship with past generations.

Known Trends

While you already have the middle name, some people may still be searching for that. There are some records, generally birth records, marriages, and death records, that are more apt to supply you with that all-important full name.

There are some known naming traditions. For instance, in Scottish families, you may find the children were named after one of the grandparents:

1st son - named for the father's father
2nd son - named for the mother's father
3rd son - named for the father himself
1st daughter - named for the mother's mother
2nd daughter - named for the father's mother
3rd daughter - named for the mother herself

There is a similar naming convention for Irish families. An additional naming practice for the Irish is the fourth son is often named after the father's older brother. Similarly, the fourth daughter is named after the wife's older sister. Interestingly, if the father remarries after his first wife dies, the first daughter born to this new marriage is named after the deceased wife, and includes her whole name.

The End of a Line?

As women marry, their surnames changed. I have found it was common practice, especially in New England for women to give at least one son their maiden name as a middle name. This way at least the name survived another generation. I myself preserved my maternal grandfather's surname, for one more generation, by giving it to my youngest as her middle name. If I wasn't already doing the family history research, a researcher down the road would find this and perhaps be on the look out for that surname.

Another example of the disappearing surname was the result of a friend's family history. Her great-great grandfather came over from England to Pennsylvania. He was born in England, Edward Arthur Newth. When he got off the boat in Pennsylvania he was George Morris. As I found the births of his four sons, I discovered that he had given all of his sons the middle name of Newth. We were never able to discover why he changed his name. Even his own memoirs simply stated that a new country and new hopes deserved a new name. How fortunate for us that he had given his sons Newth for a middle name.

In Conclusion

It is more than likely that Stockton is a family name. As you are researching your known lineage's, keep a look out for the Stockton name. As you look for your ancestors in various indexes, take a few moments to see if there are any Stocktons listed in the same record. It may be that the link is indeed many generations back. But at least it is a clue to a potential line, and in genealogy, any clues are a bonus.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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