Naming Trends and KinshipTerms




California Genealogy and History Archives


Naming Trends and Kinship Terms
This information comes from a lecture given by Marsha Hoffman Rising in 1991

Too often the genealogist focuses research on those individuals bearing the surname and often only in the direct line.  For this reason, records which may clarify relationships, "prove" ancestral connections or add evidence to support a hypothesis can be overlooked. It is important that the researcher emphasize the family network rather than linking via surname.

This is about  finding your family by early naming practices and studying collateral kin.  Since data regarding the direct line is often not available, you can make the connections by studying the collateral kin.  One of the ways of finding your collateral kin is by utilizing naming practices.

In the early colonies, the law of primogeniture was in effect.  It is an exclusive right of the eldest son to inherit the father's estate. To ensure that the eldest son inherited, in the event the father died intestate, the eldest son was generally given the same name as his father.  The second son was often given the first name of one of his uncles, generally the father's oldest brother.  Later, families devised their own system to ensure that their offspring inherited.  i.e., giving all children the same middle name, denoting the fact that all with that name could inherit, and not just the oldest son.

As many families were very large,  it is possible to find collateral kin, and thus an earlier ancestor by studying the names of your ancestors siblings.

As stated earlier, the eldest son had the same name as his father, the second son, the first name of one of his uncles.  (paternal usually, unless the father had no brothers, then a maternal uncle).  The middle name was either his mother's maiden name, or grandmother's maiden name.  Basically, as more children were born, more maiden names were used, but generally those in the direct line.  Great grandmothers, great great grandmothers, etc.  Interestingly, after the fifth child, there will be names of famous people.  i.e., Joseph Wheeler, Robert E. Lee, etc.

Second generation immigrants often deviated from the original family names.  They often named their children after local heroes.  It is not uncommon for a southern family to name male children after famous southern political personalities, such as Robert E. Lee, Francis Marion, Jackson, Jefferson Davis, etc.  However, the following generation often returned to the names of the previous generation.  Therefore, when you find a generation of "local heroes", don't be discouraged.  Ignore the names and try to concentrate on the more common names.  This will help guide you back to the earlier ancestors.

Women's names follow the same practices as men's names, but generally follow the maternal line.  The eldest daughter is often named for her maternal grandmother.  Once again maiden names are often used as middle names.  Sometimes, if the family is very large, you will only find one or two of the daughters with a maiden name as a middle name.  Ironically, to find your female ancestor, you might have to take the first name of the eldest daughter, and the middle name of the second son.

Another interesting tidbit regarding women's lines.  If you have the marriage record of your ancestor, and have no information about the wife other than her name, make a note of the person that married them.  Many times the minister who performed the wedding is a relative.  Her name may be different because she was a widow, thus being referred to by her first husband's name, instead of her maiden name.

It is often difficult to prove identity when there are several individuals with the same name.  Aside from analyzing the family through the naming trends, one should attempt to learn everything about their ancestor; wife, children, children's spouses, minister, debtors, creditors, occupation, religion, neighbors, siblings, politics, etc.

Find his neighbors by studying  the description of every parcel of land that he owned.  Try to learn as much about his neighbors as possible.

If you own primary research, assume this to be true until you find out differently.  Reconstruct and track the lives of the various same name people in question.  Study the people, not just the names you are looking for.

There are some key principles to remember when researching collateral lines.  First, names may change, particularly with women, but the relationships will remain, no matter how often the name changes.

The strongest kin ties appear between women.  The most enduring bond occurs between mothers and their grown daughters.  This means that you may find more information by looking for a different surname than the direct line you are researching.  Ties to the wife's kin are generally stronger than those to husband's, unless male ties are crucial to the husband's occupation.  It is therefore necessary to learn the occupation of your ancestor.

Social relationships among kin are not broken by geographic mobility.  This is important because you may be looking in an area where the records have been destroyed.  You may find your information from one that is geographically removed from the destruction.

Genealogical organizations and literature are based on surnames.  Too often, female lines are neglected.

Be sure you understand the meaning of kinship terms in the period in which you are working.  In colonial times, "in-law" referred to the relationships that we now call "step".

Terms of Relationship

A stumbling block to the correct interpretation of genealogical records is that terms used to denote degrees of relationship sometimes had different meanings than they have today.

Affinity:  relationships which exist because of marital ties. The contemporary term for these relations is "in-laws."

Alias:  the use of two surnames, joined by the word "alias" in early American records usually indicates an illegitimate birth and that the person has joined the surname of his reputed father to that of his mother.  However, there were other reasons for the adoption of two surnames.  Sometimes when children inherited through their mother, they used both the father's and the mother's names.  Sometimes the name of the natural father, who had died, was joined to that of a stepfather.  In case of adoption, the original name and the name of the adoptive parent were sometimes used together.

Augmented family:  extension of nuclear family to include people bound together by law, rather than blood; e.g. half siblings, adopted children, step-parents, step siblings, etc.

Aunt:  in American society, this term can refer to a woman in four different relative positions: father's sister, mother's sister, father's brother's wife, mother's brother's wife.

Brother:  the term "brother" could indicate any one of the following relationships by blood or marriage:
1)  the husband of one's sister,
2)  the brother of one's wife,
3)  the husband of one's sister-in-law,
4)  a half brother, or
5)  a stepbrother.
Sometimes the term brother did not indicate any relationship by blood or marriage at all, but was used to refer to a brother in the church.

Collateral family:  referring to relatives who are "off to one side" i.e. not in the direct lineal ancestry, but who share a common ancestor. In western society, these people are called aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.

Consanguinity:  refers to persons who share common descent or biological heritage.

Cousin:  very general term in American society referring to someone with whom you share a common ancestor.  Can refer to a person occupying relationship on either mother or father's side; may also refer to someone related only by affinity.  If this person is in a different generation, the term "removed" is used giving the number of generations apart.

Extended family:  when families of more than two generations compose a household or relationship.

Full sibling:  one who has the same biological mother and father (thus the same ancestry) as oneself A half sibling has one of the same parents (and therefore shares only one side of the lineage) as oneself.

In-laws:  the terms "father-in-law," "mother-in-law,"  "son-in-law," and "daughter-in-law" have always indicated a relationship by marriage rather than by blood.  When you find these terms in early American records, they may have the same meanings we give them today, i.e. the father or mother of one's spouse and the husband and wife of one's child.  But they may also have very different meanings.  In colonial society, this term also referred to relationships created by the marriage of a parent, currently called "step" relationships. Thus a "mother-in-law" in the 17th century, may have been a father's second wife. "Father-in-law," and "mother-in-law," may refer to a stepparent and "son-in-law" and "daughter-in-law" may refer to a stepchild.  The terms "brother-in-law" and "sister-in-law" are more likely to have the same meanings we give them today.  For instance, "brother-in-law" almost always indicates either a sister's husband or a wife's brother.

"Natural" Son:  when the term "natural" son is used the researcher should not jump to the conclusion that it denotes an illegitimate relationship.  What it always indicates is a relationship by blood as distinguished from a relationship by marriage or adoption.  In seventeenth century English wills, it was more common to refer to an illegitimate child as "my base son" or "my bastard son."

Nephew/Niece:  the term nephew derives from the Latin "Nepos" meaning grandson.  Occasionally an early will refers to the testators grandchildren, both males and females as "nephews."  However, for the most part the term was used as it is today to mean the son of a brother or sister and occasionally, the daughter of a brother or sister.

"Now" wife:  when this term is used in a will, it is often assumed that the testator had a former wife.  This may be true but is not necessarily so unless he refers to children by a first wife and children by his "present" or "now" wife.  When the term is used without reference to children, it more usually means the testator is indicating that the bequest is intended only for his present wife and should not go to any subsequent wife he may have. This is one phrase has confused many experienced genealogists.

Nuclear family:  a family group consisting of mother, father and dependent children.

Senior/junior:  prior to the nineteenth century it is not safe to assume that the use of the terms "Senior" and "Junior" refers to a father and son.  The relationship could have been that of an uncle and nephew or of cousins.  Before the use of middle names, it was not uncommon to have two or more men in a family with identical names.  The older man was known as "Senior" and the younger as "Junior."  A still younger person of the name might use "3d" following his name.  It is important for the researcher to keep in mind that a man known in his younger years as John Jones, Jr. may have been known as John Jones, Sr. after the death of the older man.

Step sibling:  one related by virtue of a parent's marriage to an individual with children by a former marriage or relationship. While no relation by blood, there can be strong ties of emotion and tradition between step siblings.

Uncle:  in American society this term can refer to a man in four different relative positions: father's brother; mother's brother; father's sister's husband; mother's sister's husband.

Conclusion:  too much should not be built upon casual mention of relationship in early records.  Conclusions about the relationship between any two people must rest on a preponderance of all of the available evidence.

Checking the Averages

If your research in the pioneering period (before 1850) has "dead-ended", it's time for creative thinking.  You may find these trends helpful in analyzing your problems.

  1. There are approximately three generations per century.
  2. Average age for men to marry was 24.  They rarely married before age 20.
  3. The average age for women to marry was 20.  They rarely married before age 16.
  4. First marriages were usually between couples near the same age.  Women generally outlived their husbands.  But older widowers frequently married much younger women, who had never been married before.
  5. Births generally occurred at two-year intervals.  Frequently the first child was born a year after marriage.  As a woman aged, the interval between births grew slightly.  Child bearing generally ended around 45.
  6. Families and neighbors usually migrated together from their old homes.  Women rarely traveled alone.
  7. Men usually married women from their neighborhood, but if a seemingly "strange" woman turned up, check the man's former home.  Often men returned to their proper residence to find a wife.
  8. If you can't find an old parent, chances are he/she "went West" with a son.
  9. If you have a male ancestor born around 1840, strongly consider Civil War service.
  10. Studies show that after 1850, Ohio pioneers frequently moved to counties in other states on the same latitude as their home county in Ohio.
  11. If your ancestor has a virtue name (e.g. Patience, Silence...), consider a New England heritage.
  12. Children were often named for grandparents, both male and female.
  13. Frequently middle name or even a first name was the mother's or grandmother's maiden name, especially if the name was repeated through several related families.


Naming Chart

Our ancestors often used the following naming procedure when picking out a name for a new child. This explains why certain names are very common in a given family line. Watching for these patterns can help in your genealogy research.

1st son = father's father
2nd son = mother's father
3rd son = father
4th son = father's oldest brother
5th son = father's 2nd oldest brother or mother's oldest brother
1st daughter = mother's mother
2nd daughter = father's mother
3rd daughter = mother
4th daughter = mother's oldest sister
5th daughter = mother's 2nd oldest sister or father's oldest sister