Digging for Family History Names: Abby’s story

September 17, 2013 Abby Sandel

by Abby Sandel of

I love a family name.

It doesn’t matter if the family is the ruling house of a sovereign nation or the neighbors down the street.  If you would like to tell me about the great names on your tree, I’m all ears.

So when my aunt mentioned that she had inherited boxes of old family photos from her mother, my grandmother, I immediately volunteered to sort through them and upload information to a genealogy website as we worked.

Aided by wine and technology, we delved into three huge bins.

It was thrilling to discover pictures of my ancestors – great-uncles and great-grandparents as children, other photos from so far in the past that we determine exactly who was in the picture.

But the biggest thrill for me was discovering so many great names.  I’d always thought that there wasn’t much excitement, name-wise, on my dad’s family tree.

I was so wrong.

The same must be true for most families.  A little bit of digging could reveal tons of intriguing name possibilities.  If only I could leap in a time machine and be in the room when all of my ancestors talked about what to name the baby!

Here are my finds, and the stories that go with them.

Anna Elizabeth – My great-grandmother Anna lived into my childhood.  And yet none of us knew – maybe no one ever knew – that she was the second Anna Elizabeth.  She’d had a sister, just a few years older, who died before she was born.  Anna Elizabeth received the same first and middle name.  What looked like conflicting information in US Census records was actually an untold story.  We used to recycle names without hesitation, while today that would be unthinkable.

Ellyn – Name stories are everywhere, but many are lost.  I learned that my aunt’s middle name wasn’t Ellen, but Ellyn, the spelling changed as a nod to her dad’s given name – Ellery.  Maybe a future generation could have pieced that together, but I also learned that Ellyn was chosen to honor Ellery’s sister, Eleanor, who had died as a child.  What a fascinating string of choices and compromises to arrive at an honor name – and I never had a clue.

Lane – More than one of my dad’s cousins has the middle name Lane.  I can’t figure out why our family started using the name, and it died out in my generation.  But it’s a great possibility, the kind of meaningful middle that could easily be revived.

Juniper – If you’re a traditionalist, choosing names from places your family lived might not appeal.  But I’m all for a broadened definition of family names, so I was delighted to learn that my grandparents’ home was on Juniper Street.  They moved shortly before I was born, so I’ve never seen the house.  But I now have a stack of letters that my father wrote home from the Navy, all mailed to the house on Juniper Street.

Olwen, Olwyn, or maybe Olewyn – My great-aunt received an unusual family name, a Welsh name to reflect her heritage.  If you think that spelling Jayden or Hailey is dicey, check this out: my great-aunt’s name has at least three spellings in official records over the course of her life.  She preferred Olwen – at least that’s what dominates towards the end of her life – and since that’s the correct Welsh spelling, I assume Olwen is what her parents intended.  But after the Ellen/Ellyn discovery, I’m not so sure.

Harvey – The more history you know, the more names emerge.  My extended family vacationed at Lake Harvey in the early twentieth century.  It’s still a resort today, a quiet little corner of Pennsylvania.  With Jimmy Fallon’s recent lake-inspired baby name, and the popularity of Henry, Harvey has some real possibility.

George – Some generations abandon long-standing patterns.  My fabulous uncle George didn’t have kids of his own, so there’s no George Edward, Jr.  I hadn’t realized he was already George Edward III because his dad answered to Ted.  Knowing how much history is behind that name, and how quickly he’s fading out of use in our family, I’d be tempted to use George for a future son.

Jonas – Before there were Georges, the family name at the top of the tree was Jonas.  It isn’t one I’d ever especially liked, but suddenly it seems as worthy of consideration as other names that I’ve shortlisted over the years.

VidaRemember the string of girls named Vita and Vida a few years ago?  There was Matthew McConaughey’s daughter and Bret McKenzie‘s little girl, plus the middle names for David Boreanaz’s Bella Vita and Nick Hexum’s Maxine Vita.  What a surprise to realize that Vida was hanging out on my family tree the whole time, bestowed as a middle name back in the 1920s.

Margarete – Unlike some of the re-spelled and changed names, my great-great-aunt Margarete was definitely Margarete, even though the family called her Greet.  I’m intrigued by the alternate spelling, and the evolution of her unusual nickname.

Do you have any great names on your family tree?  I’d love to hear your stories, too!

Abby Sandel is the creator of the deservedly popular baby name blog.

About the author


Abby Sandel is nameberry's Senior Editor and resident Name Sage. Look for her baby name news round-ups every Monday, and her Name Sage columns on Wednesdays. Abby is the creator of the baby name blog Appellation Mountain and mom to Alex and Clio. For a chance to have your questions answered, contact Abby at

View all of Abby's articles


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