Famous namesakes

Malcolm Scott Carpenter (1925-2013)

Last month, I wrote about the tradition of given names. I postulated that given names were either chosen by parents because they honored a family member (both living and deceased) or because parents liked the way a name sounded, and subsequently named their child after “a stranger they met in a bar” (thank you to commenter Deane Taylor). In fact, when the blog posted to Vita Brevis, many of the commenters verified my theory: most were named for complete strangers or in loving memory of family and friends. However, a third group also emerged from the comment section: those who were named for a famous person, event, or cultural icon (thank you to commenters Carole and Carole).

And, when my colleagues read the blog, they shared similar stories of their given name’s cultural significance:

  • Ginevra Morse (education team). Named for the only Leonardo da Vinci painting on public view in the Americas, Ginevra de’ Benci. The painting was acquired by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1967, when Ginevra’s parents were living in Maryland. And, when Ginevra came upon the scene about 20 years later, her mother remembered the painting and gave the name to her daughter.
  • David Allen Lambert (library team). When David’s parents gave the good news of his impending arrival to his older sister, she asked for the honor of choosing his first name. And, because of the popularity of The Monkees at the time, she chose David after David Thomas ‘Davy’ Jones.
  • Rhonda McClure (library team). Named for the glamorous Rhonda Fleming, a popular movie and television star from the 1940s to the 1960s. Rhonda starred in more than 40 films and acted alongside famous actors such as Ronald Reagan, Rory Calhoun, and Bing Crosby.
  • Scott Steward (publications team). Born during the height of NASA’s space program, Scott was named for Scott Carpenter, who flew on Project Mercury’s second manned orbital flight on the Mercury-Atlas 7 rocket, and for the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was enjoying a Renaissance at the time.

Now, this tradition may seem modern, but we actually see evidence of this custom throughout American history. For example, during the 1870s and 1880s many children were named after the founding fathers, a nod to the one-hundredth celebration of American independence.

In fact, when I quickly examined birth records in Massachusetts, I found that more than 250 children were named after one of the first six U.S. Presidents (George Washington McCarthy, Thomas Jefferson Keefe, and Andrew Jackson Totman, to name a few) during those years. And this search did not consider those who were only given the first name of a president – George, John (2x), Thomas, James (2x), and Andrew – and not his full name. As a result, the number of children named for a U.S. President from 1870 to 1890 was likely much higher.

And while this tradition was common, I would like to warn those who believe they have an ancestor named for a famous person, event, or cultural icon. Specifically, you should determine whether or not that famous person was popular at the time of his or her birth, and not years later.

For example, while working on an article for The Root, we were searching for evidence of the parentage of Grover Cleveland Ryman Jr. It was proposed that his father was also named Grover Cleveland Ryman Sr.; however, when we examined the details further, we concluded that this was not his father’s original name, given that Grover Cleveland was wrapping up his service as Sheriff of Erie County, New York in 1875 (the year Grover Cleveland Ryman Sr. would have been born); Cleveland would not become U.S. president until 1885. Grover Cleveland Ryman may have adopted the name later in life, but he was not given that name at birth.

Do you have an ancestor who adopted a famous given name later in life? If so, do you know their original given name?

About Lindsay Fulton

Lindsay Fulton joined the Society in 2012, first a member of the Research Services team, and then a Genealogist in the Library. She has been the Director of Research Services since 2016. In addition to helping constituents with their research, Lindsay has also authored a Portable Genealogists on the topics of Applying to Lineage Societies, the United States Federal Census, 1790-1840 and the United States Federal Census, 1850-1940. She is a frequent contributor to the NEHGS blog, Vita-Brevis, and has appeared as a guest on the Extreme Genes radio program. Before, NEHGS, Lindsay worked at the National Archives and Records Administration in Waltham, Massachusetts, where she designed and implemented an original curriculum program exploring the Chinese Exclusion Era for elementary school students. She holds a B.A. from Merrimack College and M.A. from the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

44 thoughts on “Famous namesakes

  1. My parents had a friend who named his three children John, Philip and Sousa. I also know of a family with children Geoffrey, William and John, named for Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton.

  2. My husband and I couldn’t agree on a name for our third child which we knew was going to be a boy, so our older children began referring to their prospective brother as Thomas after Thomas the Tank Engine. After his birth, we kept the name Thomas, although I rationalized it to myself as being for our Great Migrations ancestor Thomas Minor.

  3. Odd to see Scott Carpenter’s photo on my favorite blog. On May 24, 1962 I got up to watch his space flight and was soon aware I was about to have my baby who was a wee bit overdue. I missed everything on tv because it all went so quickly and my second son was born at the exact moment that Scott went into space. We had picked out the name Zachary for the baby but it just didn’t fit so he was named Scott. Scott Carpenter sent a lovely photo and letter and talked of his other son Mark. Our Scott had a brother Mark as well….just one year older.
    I have never been sorry that Scott is named Scott. It fits perfectly. He is a musician of Celtic music and owns an Irish Pub. Thought he was Scots on my side but DNA says Irish. Who knew?

  4. I’m not aware of anyone ‘adopting’ a famous name but the famous name I find very frequently in my genealogy is Francis Marion, sometimes the ancestor is a woman and the spelling is tinkered with a little. When I first started noticing this name turning up I did some research and discovered General Francis Marion was long viewed as both a romantic and courageous figure.

  5. Our daughter was named for a friend of mine if she was a girl (in our day we didn’t know for sure which was going to be born) we had a boy’s name ready too. But we shortened her name just to the first part of the name Then it happened that when our daughter was born the attending Nurse at the Hospital also had the same name.

  6. I’m Elizabeth — after the Queen mum. And Jean — after my mother’s doll (that’s crazy).

  7. My husband’s great-great-grandparents, from Chester County, Pennsylvania, named three of their sons after prominent men: Wilmer Worthington Reed was named after Penn. state senator Wilmer Worthington, M.D.; Winfield Scott Reed after the U.S. general, and Edgar Poe Reed after the author. The middle name Poe has been continued in Edgar’s line through five generations of Reed men.

  8. Lawyers, ministers, and others change their names to sound more distinguished. I have also found middle names the same as their God parents but thers is question as which came first.

  9. This doesn’t pertain to question- I missed the first article…but my mother’s three sisters were Lila, Dora and Elva..Their mother was Rebecca…Mother was called Alice reportedly because her father wanted her named after his favorite song “Alice Blue Gown”..Other maternal relatives were Belva, Cleova and Reva. My father had 2 aunts: Arvella and Vesta..They were born in early 1900’s and I have wondered about the source of these names…Jerri

    1. I’ve found that feminine names, in particular, may derive from a story being serialized in magazines or newspapers at the time of the baby’s birth. In more recent times, many were named after a character in a TV show, especially a soap opera. Our descendants are going to have fun with those!

    2. I put a reply on here just awhile ago but don’t see it here yet although I did confirm when the email came on my WordPress site. We have Benjamin Harrison as first and middle names of one of my Dad’s brothers and and my maternal Grandfather first & middle names were Grover Cleveland. Also wanted to mention I have early cousins with names so similar Geraldine to those you mention, a Belva and Arletta, with a brother whose middle name was Arville. Their Mother was French, maybe the names were from her side of the family. I don’t know that mich about her, it was their Father I who was a Great Uncle. My paternal Grandmother was his sister and she was seen as Reva in the 1910 Fed. Census, although her name was Mary..

  10. The prevalent given names I have noticed in my own research are Benjamin Franklin, William Wallace (Scottish hero), Winfield Scott (American General), and John Wesley (Founder of Methodism).

    1. Speaking of John Wesley, my father-in-law was given that name, and his younger brother was named Charles. I’d assumed that Charles’s middle name was also Wesley, and that both men were named for the famous Methodist brothers, since their father and grandfather were pillars of the Methodist Church in their area. Turns out that Charles’s middle name was Glenn (his mother’s maiden name) and John Wesley was a co-worker of my father-in-law’s dad!

  11. We’ve got a “Horace Greeley Spencer” on my wife’s side of the family — but at the time he was born, Horace Greeley was an unknown. And sure enough, the old Spencer family Bible and the U.S. Census both clearly say this relative’s name originally was “Horace J. Spencer.” The Bible’s birth entries call him “Horace J. Spencer,” but on the next page, the death entries in the Bible spell out his name as “Horace Greeley Spencer” (which is also his name on his death certificate). It looks like he changed his middle name out of admiration for Horace Greeley. (But we have no idea what the “J.” of his original middle name stood for.)

    1. P.S. We’ve got a similar, albeit somewhat more baffling, problem with Horace Greeley Spencer’s older brother William Penn Spencer, my wife’s great-grandfather. Named for the founder Pennsylvania, right? Maybe not. The family Bible’s birth entries (written by Penn’s and Horace’s parents) call him “Penn K. Spencer,” although in this case the handwriting is difficult to read and we’re not sure the middle initial is a “K.” It doesn’t look like it’s any other letter, though. Oddly enough, the U.S. Census calls him “Ziba P. Spencer.” We assume that “P” stands for “Penn.” He did have a paternal uncle named “Ziba,” so we guess he was named after his uncle. But in all later records, Penn (which is what he usually went by) is called “William Penn Spencer,” or W. Penn Spencer, or W. P. Spencer, or just Penn Spencer. The family Bible’s death entries call him that, too. We guess that he may not have liked the name “Ziba” (and if so, we really can’t blame him) and may have decided that if his middle name was in honor of the founder of Pennsylvania, why shouldn’t he take William Penn’s first name too? But we really can’t be sure, since his birth entry in the Bible doesn’t match the earliest census record of his name.

  12. Other names I have found were in honor of Revolutionary and Civil War heroes. General Francis Marion was one I had to look up, as this name occurred several times in related families.

  13. I was named “Kathy” after “little Kathy” on Father Know’s Best – my daddy thought she was just the cutest thing ever!

  14. My brother was five years old when I was born and was allowed to give me my middle name. He settled on Dale because Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were his TV idols. I guess I could have gotten Trigger or Bullet. 😉

  15. My sons’ ancestry includes 13 George Washingtons (not including 13 more George W.’s), 5 Thomas Jeffersons, 4 Benjamin Franklins, 3 Winfield Scotts, 2 James Garfields, 2 Horace Greelys, 1 James Monroe, 1 Daniel Boone. My Reynolds family seem to have made a habit of naming a son, Colonel. I guess they ran out of names when they named a son Reynolds Reynolds.

  16. My husband’s grandfather (born 1901) was given the name Cody, the first time this name appeared in the family. We think he was named for William F. Cody, who was wildly popular with his Wild West Show at that time. The name has carried down for five more generations now.

    Other names in his ancestry (all within the past 150 years) include Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Wesley, Charles Wesley, Gustavus Columbus, Robert Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Francis Marion.

  17. In the beginning of the 19th Century, you will find many men with the first and middle names “Lorenzo Dow.” Don’t look for anyone by the name of Lorenzo or Dow in that person’s background. He was almost certainly named after a famous itinerant American evangelist who lived from 1777 to 1834.

    1. The younger brother of Brigham Young was named Lorenzo Dow, and the two of them went to England to evangelize for the newly-formed LDS church. My aunt’s husband’s mother’s family, the Quayles, were among a party brought from the Isle of Mann to the United States, and subsequently part of the hand cart migration to Utah. They later made their way to Southern California as missionaries, and married into the family of Lorenzo Dow Young. This all came as a surprise to me, since Uncle Mike—who happens to be my sixth cousin 3x removed through a slightly different branch of his family—did not grow up in the LDS Church, and no one currently alive had any idea that they were related by marriage in multiple ways to the Young brothers. When I discovered that Uncle Mike’s father had died in Salt Lake City, I wondered whether the LDS faith had continued longer than suspected (it was his wife whose grandparents came with the Young brothers to that city from England)…but it was sadly just a coincidence. In fact, he was en route from California to Boston—where he was working at MIT as part of the Manhattan Project—when he became a victim in the 1942 United Airlines crash just outside of Salt Lake City.

      1. Oddly enough, when I was growing up in the Mormon Church in Boston in the 1960s, there was a Quayle family. They were from Utah, but I had no idea of their background.

    2. My GG Grandfather’s name was Lorenzo Dow Allen, born in Washington county, New York in 1819, There were also a few Abraham Lincoln’s too!

  18. My mother said that I was the only baby (youngest of three girls) who had a female name picked out before she went to hospital. Her best friend didn’t have any children and asked her (I assume joking) if I was a girl if she would give the baby to her. My mother said no but she would name the baby after her. That is how I got the name Dorothy. I assume that my mother’s friend was named after Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz since the friend was born about 1910 and the Wizard of Oz was first published in 1900. Dorothy quickly became the 2nd most popular name in this country (after Mary). According to the Social Security list it hasn’t been in the top 1,000 in this century.

  19. My father’s name has a great story! His father was notoriously cheap throughout his life. When my father was born in 1929, my grandfather worked for a man named Mr. Oakley. Mr. Oakley said he’d give my grandfather $5 if he named his son after him. So, not one to miss out on $5, my father became Francis Oakley Long!

  20. In 1839 my husband’s Smith ancestor named his first son George Washington Smith. So far so good, but when George had sons they each named a son after their father, and it continued multiplying like that down to my husband’s great grandfather who put a stop to it. It’s been nearly impossible to tease out which George is which, as early on the cousins were all close in age.

    Oh, and same family: an aunt was named Verlie for a pretty trapeze artist who came through town with a traveling circus. Or so the story goes.

  21. I have 4 George Washingtons in my tree, but I think Marquis De La Fayette Barnes (1784-1878), who usually went by the name Marcus, is the most unusual.

  22. I have a second great grandfather Dewitt Clinton Farrington (born 1833), no doubt named for the governor of New York who advocated for construction of the Erie Canal.

  23. My paternal grandparents were from different religious backgrounds. My grandfather, Roman Catholic Irish. My grandmother, from a long line of English Methodist preachers. Hell and brimstone ensued in their families. In disgust, my grandparents became Unitarians, and in 1909, the 100th anniversary year of Charles Darwin’s birth, they named my father, of course, Darwin.

  24. I’ve long wondered whether my third great grandfather Alden Brooks, a housewright in Medford, Mass. or his wife Hannah, who came from Portmouth, NH, were antiquarians, as am I. They named their children (born 1831-1841) Wentworth Alden, Stephen Higginson, Catherine Arazelia, Luther Storrow, and Ellen Arabella. Seems to me they were interested in New England history, at the very least!

    1. Taking a break from my own family, I have been researching the builders of my 1850 limestone Federal, and re-reading some of my books about that era… “Our Own Snug Fireside” one of them. Illus. #43 is “The Happy Family” woodcut in Mrs. Sherwood, “Home” New Haven, 1833. Private Collection. Can I find any info about her? I am also using your Fabrics for Historic Bldgs,. and Wallpapers… the closest paper I can find for my small DR is the re-issued Mr. Jones navy/red/cream from Laura Ashley. Hope you approve! Your grateful fan.

  25. My maternal grandmothers family had12 children. The youngest, b. 1919 was the only one born in a hospital. The story goes that none of the other children knew that their mother was pregnant and it came as a shock to the siblings when their father told them that their mother was in the hospital and had given birth to a baby girl.

    One of the older sisters was in high school and did not go to school the next day in order to visit her mother and new sister. When this girl returned to school, she explained to the nun what had happened and the nun told her that as she had never missed a day of school before, she would not record the absence if the baby was named after her.

    Hence, my great aunt was named Regina after Sister Regina and the name passed down a generation as my mother and one of her cousins have the name too!

  26. In my Todd line, a number of generations had a Marquis de Lafayette Todd. Most were called Lafe, but one was known as M.D.L. Todd.

  27. I was born not long before D-Day in 1944, when everyone was waiting for something big to happen in the war, so my parents named me Victoria.

  28. My wife’s gr-gr-grandfather was given the name Henry Channing Beeman, b. 1847 (as per his father’s Bible record) perhaps named for William Henry Channing (1810-1884) Unitarian Clergyman. However, through his adult life, and to his descendants, he was always known as Henry Clay Beeman, perhaps the name Henry himself preferred in honor of the War of 1812 war hawk from Kentucky. Henry C. named his son Roscoe Conkling Beeman (U.S. Senator from NY).

  29. I believe the practice of naming children for the Founding Fathers dates back much earlier than the 1870s to the first half, even first decade of the 1800s. As a researcher of BREWERs and BROWERs I know of many George Washington Brewers, Thomas Jefferson Brewers, Benjamin Franklin Brewer, James Madison Brewer and even a few Marcus (Marquis) Laffayette Brewers, born in the early 1800s. And I find that southern Brewer families prefer James Monroe Brewer as well. A bit later we see numerous Andrew Jackson Brewers. In addition religious leaders are represented by Lorenzo Dow Brewers and even more John Wesley Brewers.

  30. My great grandfather Merrick Silas Perrien Benton Dean named two sons after Civil War heroes: Richard Ellsworth (Dean) and Frank McClellan (Dean). The Benton in his name was from his mother and the Perrien was from his mother’s father, Stephen Perrin(g) of Grqnby Ct.

  31. Correction: the Perrien was from his grandmother Dean’s father Stephen Perrin(g) of Granby, Ct.

  32. My grandmother’s middle name was Simmons, and her two brothers’ had the middle names of Smith and Ingersoll. There are no other people in my family tree with those names, and I have wondered for a long time why they were chosen…

  33. I have an ancestor named Lorenzo Dow Stone. At first, I assumed the Dow was a family name, and had no idea on the Lorenzo as we definitely weren’t Italian. He should be easy to research, I thought with that unique “Lorenzo Dow.” Unfortunately, it turned out that Lorenzo Dow was a famous journeyman preacher and hundreds of kids were named after him.

  34. I was to have been named for my mother’s best friend, Loma Linda, but after looking at the first birth announcement my father filled out, mom decided Loma Linda Lee was just too alliterative, so my first name became Linda and middle Carol, after my mother.

  35. After reading this post and all the comments I decided to take a second look at some of the more unusual names in my ancestry. I was very surprised to find my cousin Troubadour Francis Reynolds was more than an odd name. Not being Catholic I didn’t know St. Francis of Assisi was sometimes called “God’s troubadour”. I just wonder what my cousin’s friends called him?

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