If you have been doing genealogy for any length of time, you will no doubt have noticed the seeming significance of middle names in many families. The question you may need to answer, as a genealogist, is what the significance of those middle names really is. Answering it can unlock all kinds of clues to your family history. The fact is, there are about as many reasons behind middle names as there are middle names, and they can be extremely useful tools when doing genealogy research. This usefulness applies to research on both long ago ancestors and present-day relatives.
Middle names can be incredible clues as to a person’s ancestry, or they can mean nothing at all, just a name a parent or parents liked. It is your job as a genealogist to determine which is true; then, if the name has significance, you must determine the nature of that significance. Here are some things you need to know when researching middle names, to get the most out of your work in this important and often overlooked area of genealogy.
Pitfalls You May Encounter in Middle Name Research
The first thing you should remember is that not everyone is going to have a middle name. While they seem pretty common, some parents just don’t bother with them. Or, since it is so common for people to use their middle initial in their signatures, some parents simply provided a letter as a middle name, and not an actual name at all (and, some people without middle names choose middle initials for themselves when they grow up to make their signature look more prestigious). A good example of this is with former U.S. president Harry S. Truman. The “S” did not stand for anything. It was simply a letter his parents inserted between his first name and surname.
It is also possible for someone to have more than one middle name. If a family enjoys naming or has many relatives on both sides of the family they want to honor, or if they have a name they like and a family name they want to use, someone could easily end up with two middle names. I have seen it several times in my own genealogical research. Actually, there is no limit to the number of middle names someone can have. There are instances in history of people having ten or more. And, in the English royal family, having three or four middle names is common.
One more thing to remember about middle names is that they are a relatively recent invention in western society. The Germans started using them in the 17th century, and the custom gradually made its way to the rest of Europe and America in the 18th century, usually in Germanic communities. However, by the 19th century, having a middle name moved beyond the German population and into the western world at large, becoming a common custom for everyone. So, when researching ancestors before the mid-1800s, you might not find too many middle names unless those ancestors were German or in German expatriate communities. You might find a few here and there in the early 1800s and mid to late 1700s, but the middle name as a common feature of western names doesn’t really become the usual thing until the mid-1800s. So, keep this in mind when doing your middle name research.
One thing that can trip up genealogists researching middle names is that some names that appear to be middle names are actually a second part of a first name. These are called double first names. These are names where two names are always said together as one. Examples include names like Anne Marie, Betty Jean, Sally Mae, Mary Jo, Mary Jane, Rose Marie, and Jenny Lynn. The double first name is more common with females than males, but you might run into it in a male, so be aware. Look for signs of another middle name with double first names on research documents; you will often find one. Not always, but often.
There are also times that surnames can appear as two names, and you might think the first part of the surname is the middle name. Celtic, Germanic, French, and Spanish last names can sometimes appear as two names, such as Van Buren, Mac Connell, la Pina, and la Fleur. Keep these types of last names in mind, and look into the full name of the individual closely to make sure the first part of the last name isn’t a middle name, and to find the actual middle name.
Be on the lookout for middle names that are used as a person’s first name. They may always be referred to as one name in just about every record you encounter until you find their birth, death, and/or marriage certificate when you discover what you always thought was their first name is actually their middle name. The famous author Rudyard Kipling was always known as Rudyard, but it was actually his middle name; his first name was Joseph. Likewise, the fiancée of Britain’s Prince Harry is always referred to as Meghan Markle, but Meghan is actually her middle name; her first name is Rachel.
One more thing to look out for when researching middle names is particular to the American south. Particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries, southerners often used first and middle names interchangeably. It is sometimes done so frequently in documents that you have no idea what the real first and middle name are. During my research for William Green Thomson, used so many different versions of his name that it took a few years for me to find concrete documentation that his first name was William. In various documents, including his Civil War records, he is referred to as W.G. Thomson, W. Green Thomson, and Green Thomson. He was never actually referred to as William in anything until his widow applied for a widow’s pension from his Civil War service, and then I found the death certificates of some of his children that all gave his first name as William. I discovered through letter writing that this ancestor’s name was Green when it was actually William.
The Significance That Can Be in a Middle Name
While middle names have long been used as indicators of family significance, they don’t always have to be. Sometimes, a parent chooses a middle name simply because they like it, or because it is a popular cultural middle name at the time. That is why you find so many women with the middle names of Marie, Jo, Lynn, and Anne… they were popular in the 1950s-1980s. Other times, parents may have liked an unusual name but didn’t want to saddle their child with it as a first name, so used it as a middle name.
Often, however, the middle name is given because it is significant to the family. Giving the mother’s maiden name as a middle name is a very common way of using middle names. Middle names may also be handed down in a family, usually among the women exclusively, or the men exclusively. My own family has been using the middle name Franklin among the men of my mother’s father’s line since the 1850s. Each generation in that line since then has had at least one, and sometimes more than one, man with the middle name Franklin in it. The significance of Franklin is that it was the maiden surname of the grandmother of the first ancestor in that line to give it to her son.
In fact, boys are often given their father’s first name or middle name as their own middle name. It happens with girls and their mothers, too, but not nearly as often as with boys. My own family has three successive generations of men with the middle name of Francis.
Middle Name Mysteries
Usually, if the middle name has family significance, it is obvious what that significance is and from where it came. However, there can be times when a middle name seems to have family significance, but that significance is not so clear. This is when you really have to bring out your genealogy sleuthing skills and do some deep research into not only your family, but the people around them, and even the times in which they lived.
As an example, a branch of my family with a frustrating lack of records beyond 1813 has two successive generations in the 1800’s who gave the middle name Bumgardner to their sons. I’ve long suspected that Bumgardner may have been the maiden name of the mother of the first son in that line to receive Bumgardner as a middle name. I know her first name was Loucile, but have thus far not found her maiden name. The courthouse in the county where they lived burned in the early 1900’s, so any proof of her maiden name is gone, unless something new and previously hidden shows up. There were two Bumgardner families living near this family at the time a marriage to a Bumgardner could have taken place, and one of those two Bumgardner families had adjoining land to my family branch a daughter could have married into. However, extensive research on both of those Bumgardner families reveals no daughter named Loucile in either of them.
What conclusion am I to draw? There are several. One is that one of these two Bumgardner families had an unrecorded daughter named Loucile. The second is that the family, the Greenlee clan, were simply good friends with the neighboring Bumgardner’s, and the two families shared such a close bond that the Greenlees used Bumgardner as a middle name for their sons. Third, the Greenlees may have admired the Bumgardner family. Four, there could have been a nationally, or internationally, a famous person with the first, middle, or last name of Bumgardner at that time.
This shows that when the family significance of a middle name seems to be there, but its origin is not clear, one must not only research the family, but neighbors and even the people and events of the time period to determine if there is actually any significance to the middle name. I still haven’t figured out the significance of Bumgardner to my 1800’s-era Greenlee clan, but since Bumgardner is an unusual name, and it was given as a middle name to two successive generations of boys in that family, it seems there must be some significance to it. If it turns out Loucile was a Bumgardner, then the middle name is a clue to the previously unknown maiden name of a female ancestor. Or, it could tell me something about the social circle of the family, or their values during this time period. I continue to research it, and one day I will crack the mystery open and find the truth inside.
The values of your ancestors are often reflected in middle names. In the early 1800’s, and up until the Civil War, there were plenty of children born with the middle names of Washington and Jefferson. This can clearly tell you who their parents admired, and even sometimes what their political leanings were. After the Civil War, middle names like Lee, Jackson, Davis, Grant, Lincoln, and more prospered. Guessing the political leanings of parents who used those middle names with their children isn’t difficult. And, those middle names weren’t always applied to boys. I have a great-great-great grandmother who was named Martha Washington Moneymaker. Obviously, her parents admired George Washington and named their daughter after his wife.
Don’t just look for national political figures to discover the significance of an ancestor’s middle name. The first name or surname of a prominent local hero or politician may have been used as the middle name. The middle name might also belong to someone local who helped out the family in some way, such as by giving the father a job or providing them with financial assistance, land, or something else they needed when they needed it most. The middle name could even be the first name or surname of the pastor of the church the parents attended… maybe even the minister who baptized the child who bore his name as a middle name.
These are just some of the ways in which middle names can be significant to a family, and, as a result, important genealogical searching tools and clues. Look closely into any middle name you come across in your research. It may be there just for show, but if it has any significance to the family, it can tell you more about your ancestors than you could ever find in written records, and can also lead you to earlier generations you may never have otherwise located.
Will Moneymaker founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his surname. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)