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Digging for Family History Names: Abby’s story

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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.

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Abby Berry Juice profile image

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.
View all of Abby's articles View all Berry Juice Bloggers


26 Responses to “Digging for Family History Names: Abby’s story”

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baileyann1105 Says:

September 18th, 2013 at 12:37 am

My great-great grandmother was Lena Pearl, something I’ve always found beautiful Her sister was Belle Mavis, which is interesting. Other interesting family names include Opal (my great grandmother), Tempe Olita (another great-grandmother), Americanus Thespusus (great-great-great-grandmother, nicknamed Mery), George (husband of Mery, nicknamed “Bunk”) and Sylvester Horton IV (a cousin, nicknamed Sly).

tori101 Says:

September 18th, 2013 at 3:03 am

There literally no interesting family stories about names.

From my mother’s side of the family there are just very strong Jewish names such as Moses, Solomon, Abraham, Miriam, Esther, and Ruth. As well as Leonard, John, and even Minnie (who was just Minnie) furthermore there are Polish names on her family tree such as Mikael, Jakub e.t.c.

On my father’s side of the family there’s Elizabeth’s, Aisling’s, Niamh’s, Robert’s, John’s, Rooney’s, Margaret, Felix, Janet, Elsie e.t.c very stereotypical Irish/Scottish Catholic names.

Abby Says:

September 18th, 2013 at 6:21 am

@baileyann1105 – what fascinating names – and Lena Pearl would be just as lovely in 2013!

@tori101 – Rooney, Minnie, Felix, Ruth – those are some great possibilities to have on your family tree, I think …

EmmaF Says:

September 18th, 2013 at 6:22 am

I have one great-grandmother named Ida Mae, one named Minnie May and one named Mamie!

Aveline_Bellefleur Says:

September 18th, 2013 at 8:36 am

Oh dear, I feel like a may be repeating myself as I only just posted on Today’s Blog :s

My grandmother, Barbara Rose, had many brothers and sisters though unfortunately the only full name I recall ( aside from a younger sister whose fn was Hazel) is Rita Marguerita.

My grandfather was born George Hilary Wallace, joined the Airforce and only ever went by Wal thereafter. The name George is used on my partner’s side of the family too, so I too would def. consider using this name for a future son. Georgia would not be an option, however.

This was a wonderful read Ms. Sandel, I loved it! At the risk of sounding cheesy, I truly believe that their no greater story than that of our past 😀 Great job!

Aveline_Bellefleur Says:

September 18th, 2013 at 8:45 am

Auto-correct i do not like you one bit…

*their = there is

jjayx Says:

September 18th, 2013 at 9:44 am

William and Frank are recurring names on my dad’s side of the family, as is Harold. I know of us having a Clara, Martha and James, too, all names that I love and would gladly use.

eleanortilney Says:

September 18th, 2013 at 1:09 pm

My portuguese great great grandmother was called what would literally translate to Pleasures. Not really sure if she was Mary of the Pleasures, since it was pretty common for women to be called stuff like Mary of something, probably because of Virgin Mary and the saints.
My (living) grandmother is called Dolores, which besides being a Harry Potter name, literally translates to “pains” in spanish. Why, I ask.
I also have a great aunt Alexandrina and an aunt Geraldine.
But, to be fair, there’s plenty of good names in my family too: Louis (dad), aunt Sophia, grandfather Aurelio, great great grandmother Theresa and I actually kind of like my name, which is Beatriz (pronounced Bee-ah-treesh).

tinkerbell Says:

September 18th, 2013 at 1:29 pm

We’ve got mostly normal (but very pretty) ones on my dad’s side–Eleanor/Elinor, Estelle, May, Viola, Dorothea, Amelia, Willa, Marjorie, Sylvia. But we also have some very interesting ones–Vasty (two of them, mother and daughter), Septimus, Ansel, Augustus, Irving, Emery (string of fathers and sons), Ludlow, Enslin, Milligan, Kirkland, and Scovil.

I don’t know as much about my mom’s side, but I know that there was an Angeline, Cleo, Estelle, May, Thomas, and Leslie (boy).

Both of my grandfathers were named Richard. My paternal grandmother’s maiden name is Cassidy.

My biggest issue is that my father’s family has an entire genealogy website, and I just keep flipping through and finding names that I love. Most of the male names are fairly common (William, John, Charles, Thomas), but a lot of the female names are gems.

tinkerbell Says:

September 18th, 2013 at 1:46 pm

And now I’m finding the interesting boys names: Theophilus, Gustavus, Adolphus, Ellsworth, Lorenzo, Arlington, Wellington, King, Ransford, and Brown.

And more interesting girls names: cousins named Jessie Bessie, Euphemia Fortune, and Josephine Jemina.

Eleanor/Elinor/Elliner are very common on my dad’s side, as well as Isabel/Isabell/Isobel (but no Isabelle’s yet).

GrecianErn Says:

September 18th, 2013 at 2:34 pm

Mom’s side has some unusual and some common names:

Mary Anne and Mary Jane are my mom and grandmother, Harold was my grandfather
Anna Adelia and Kenyon (unusual!) and William and Clara Anna Margaret Lawson are my greats.
various Great+ aunts and uncles: Christian, Lois, Thomas, Leonard, Ethel, Rosanna, and my favorite Lula Belle (and we used her whole name!)

Dad’s side:
Flora Elizabeth and James Arnold, grandparents
Lillian Elizabeth Harrington Bledsoe was my great-grandmother, Lee was the other
various family names: Evelyn, Neal, the Marys (there were 3), Lucy, Michael – great names on my grandma’s side.
On my granddad’s side, I can go all the way back to England in 1662! In no particular order: John x2, Benjamin, Elizabeth, Flynn x2, Lydia, Samuel, James, John, Daniel, Boone, Proctor, Damon, Christopher, Katherine… classics

KateMP91 Says:

September 18th, 2013 at 3:17 pm

I love so many of the names on my family tree.

Benjamin (sometimes spelled Benjamen, always called Ben) was my great grandpa and some of his siblings had some awesome names: Solomon (called Samuel after immigration to US), Johannes, Maria (or Mary, not sure which is correct), Ella, and Gustav.
Dorothy was my great grandma’s name, and I love it!

Further back in my ancestry are the names:
Casper (must be a modernized version of Kaspar, as Casper is Kaspar’s grandson)

Can you tell my nationality from these? lol

From the other side of my family, some notable first and middle names are:
Stinston (my great great grandpa’s middle)
George Washington and Andrew Jackson (first and middle, my great great great grandfather and his brother, apparently, I come from a very patriotic family)
Montana Jane (this was back 1868, I’d say they were ahead of the times!)
Tennessee Ellen (Tennessee was Montana’s aunt!)
William Meredith
Morning (this was used as a first and middle for girls over a few generations)
Chief Red Cloud (and many other Red Clouds…as proud as I am, that’s a long list of amazing names to add)

Long post, but there are way too many good names on my family tree!

alp Says:

September 18th, 2013 at 4:09 pm

My grandfather had five sisters named Icie, Olly, Minnie, Mary and Louise. I’ve always thought maybe Louise felt left out of the naming pattern.

megan_roma Says:

September 18th, 2013 at 5:04 pm

In my family tree, I have 2 Myrls. I have a great-grandmother named Rosella Engle and she had many kids but the one that sticks out is Elanore Coats. My grandma Bonnie Mae had sisters named Mint Peace, Rhoda, Mamie, and Flora. There’s a Patty and a Jeannie. My cousin named her daughter Horizyn. Other than that, here’s a list of other odd names:

Leandry (boys name)

TaylorBlueSkye Says:

September 18th, 2013 at 5:51 pm

I recently found out my great-grandmother known as “Berta” was actually called Ma.thilde Cath.arina Reb.ecca. A big name in our family tree is Johann, also the variations Johannes and Jens. I might consider Johann or another form of it as a middle.

Erin91 Says:

September 18th, 2013 at 6:01 pm

My dad’s mother is Olligene Hope (goes by Hope) and she had 3 sisters (2 now deceased) named Roberta Joy, Linda and Sharon (still living). Their mother was named Lorene. (pronounced Lorraine I think). I’m not sure what their father’s name was.

My dad’s father is Lloyd and his ( my grandpa’s) brother was Richard.

My mom’s father is Thomas and he has a sister named Virginia and 2 brothers named Charles and Lee Ray. Their mother was Zelma Grace (went by Grace) and their father was Creed.

My mom’s mother is Dorothy and she has 2 brothers named Dale and Carl. Their mother (my great- grandmother) is named Pauline. I believe their father (my great-grandfather) was named Homer.

ebenezer.scrouge Says:

September 18th, 2013 at 7:17 pm

My nana is Jamesie and my grandma is Isobel Anne Mary Margaret. I don’t know too much about my family unfortunately my last names too common to search through

bluejuniper Says:

September 18th, 2013 at 7:54 pm

I was pretty excited to see both Story and Hart as surnames in my family tree 🙂

MaScha2 Says:

September 19th, 2013 at 6:59 am

I was looking in my family tree. My great grandparents were Sam and Virginia and they immigrated from Italy. I just learned that they changed their names when they came to America to fit in with society. Their real names are Salvatore and Vida.

emilybk Says:

September 19th, 2013 at 10:27 am

I love using family names! My daughter’s name is Cates Margaret – Cates was one great-grandmother’s maiden name, and Margaret was another great-grandmother’s (never-used) first name. Other interesting family names are:

Jo Ann
Tunie (my grandmother, Margaret, was nicknamed Petunia, which was eventually shortened to Tunie, and she went by it her entire adult life)

And then there are the names that go beyond “interesting” into “just weird.” I have a great-aunt and -uncle named Ena Vearl and Geter. My husband has an aunt Dovie Lee (but pronounced Dovalee… we live in the South…). Probably won’t be using those.

LuMary Says:

September 19th, 2013 at 10:59 am

I’ll have to look at my family tree. My maternal grandmother is Lottie Leona, and her married name begins with an ‘l,’ too. Off bat, I can think of a few Georges, and an August. One of my relatives is related to Oceanus Hopkins who was born on the Mayflower.

AnuthriumInvidia Says:

September 19th, 2013 at 4:27 pm

Some fun/Interesting family names:

The Women

Emma Electa
Eva Hallelua (sister to Judson Bliss)
LouElma Bidona (sister to Orson Wells)
Antoinette Isabella
Permelia (very popular in my family tree)
Roxena (also very popular)
Talitha Cumi

The Men

Orange Sylvester
Weller Draper
Judson Bliss (brother of Eva Hallelua)
Addison Bishop
Harlon Edward
Ezra Alpheus
Orson Wells (brother to LouElma Birdona)

Unknown Gender


Elina Says:

September 20th, 2013 at 3:28 am

My family tree has quite a few interesting names in it:

Florence Maud
Ivy Regina
Georgina Ethel
Marguerite Cecelia
Beatrice May
Edith Annie
Annie May
Joyce Corrie

William Henry James
Nelson Frederick Sydney
Reginald Wilfred
George Cyril
John Henry
Arthur Frederick
Cyril George Peter
Brian Arthur

There a quite a few more but I think I’ve mentioned enough!

saraallison Says:

September 20th, 2013 at 12:25 pm

Lyda (not Lydia): I love it; it was my great-grandmother’s sister who died in childhood
Dixie: another sister to great-grandma
Dorothy: ditto
Great grandma’s mn was Clio (fn Alma–I’m not a fan)
Sarah Susan and Anna Susan

Netta5187 Says:

September 21st, 2013 at 6:51 pm

My still-living Great Grandmother is named Delfina, a name which I find beautiful! I also have my Great-Aunt and G-Uncle, Martha and Roger, My late grandmothers Benita and Alice, and others including Patricia, Paula, Nellie, George, Jazzie, Nole, Joanne, Sylvia and Hector.

Names Spotted at Home and Abroad: Winter Edition | Waltzing More Than Matilda Says:

October 2nd, 2013 at 4:06 am

[…] from Appellation Mountain did a Nameberry post about some interesting names from her family history. Most of the names from my family tree aren’t too exciting. However, when I looked way, way, […]

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