A Ruth by any other name

Ruth Will Little
My great-grandmother Ruth (Will) Little

When I was a child, my classmate Jimmy would often tease me about my middle name: Paine. “Why is your name ‘Pain?’ Were you a pain to your mother when you were born? (Tee-hee!)” When I complained to my mother that my name was a problem and a target for Jimmy’s teasing, she replied, “Well, the name Paine is an old and extremely honorable name. You are, in fact, a descendant of Thomas Paine, who wrote the famous pamphlet Common Sense, which was one of the main inspirations for the American Revolution!” Wow! Was Jimmy impressed!

Not only do I have an old and honorable name, I’m also the descendant of a famous patriot! Of course, Jimmy stopped teasing me and I became a bit of a third-grade celebrity, for a day or two, anyway. Fortunately, in those days there was no internet, and the ability for Jimmy to google ‘thomas paine descendants’ and find out that the famous patriot had no children who lived past childhood was not a possibility. Much later, when I developed an interest in genealogy and began visiting the NEHGS library, I discovered that I am a descendant of Thomas Paine, just not ‘The’ Thomas Paine.

This experience caused me to get interested in names, particularly first and middle names. It is clear that first and middle names are often chosen in honor of an ancestor or another relative. Our daughter is Katharine Ruggles Sturgis, named after her maternal great-grandmother, Katharine (Ruggles) Barstow. Our son, on the other hand, is David McCarthy Sturgis, named David because we liked the name, and McCarthy, in honor of my maternal grandfather’s family. I only recently learned that my grandfather McCarthy had a brother named David. And another recent discovery is that ‘David Sturgis’ was the name of my great-great-great-grandfather. Are both our children named for their ancestors? You bet! (As it turns out.)

Cyrus Cressey (Genealogical and Family History of the State of Maine V 3 p 1550a)
My great-great-uncle Cyrus Cressey

My paternal grandfather was named Cyrus Cressey Sturgis, and I always wondered where that ‘Cyrus Cressey’ came from. Yep, his mother, Susan (Cressey) Sturgis, had a brother Cyrus Cressey, of whom I recently located an illustration.1 Cy Sturgis’s younger brother James Hartman Sturgis was named after his maternal grandfather, and his older brother William Paine Sturgis was named after his paternal grandfather.

But back to Mom. She had told me that, when she was born, her mother had wanted to name her Peggy. However, she was born in a Catholic hospital, and when a nun came to ask the baby’s name for the birth certificate, the reply was, “Peggy? Peggy isn’t a Christian name! We’ll have to make it Margaret. And the child needs a middle name, how about Ruth?” According to mom, her mother was in no condition to argue and said “Sure.”

I’ve since learned that the mother of my grandmother (who supposedly reluctantly agreed to the middle name Ruth) was named … you guessed it, Ruth. The original Ruth had died several years before my mother was born. Ruth’s daughter (my Mom’s mother) was named Martha Minetta Little. I was pretty sure that there were no ancestors with the surname Minetta, so that name had me stumped for a while. But, then, as I was looking for the 1900 birth certificate of Martha Minetta Little, I found not only that birth certificate, but a death certificate for the same name in the same year. Huh? What’s happening here? It turns out that Martha Minetta Little (my grandmother), born in June 1900, was named after her father’s sister, who died four months earlier, in February 1900.

So, what’s in a name? Sometimes, it’s a mini-family tree, and sometimes, it’s just a convenient way to get an annoying classmate to stop teasing you.

1Genealogical and Family History of the State of Maine, Volume 3, p. 1550.

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About Sam Sturgis

Sam was born and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He received B.S. and M.S. degrees in Psychology from Eastern Michigan University and worked as a Human Factors researcher in automotive safety for 13 years. He entered the field of commercial software development in 1983 and acted as software developer and development manager at Wang Laboratories and The Foxboro Company. Sam joined the NEHGS staff in 2005. Sam's interest in genealogy began shortly after moving to Massachusetts, when he and his family chanced upon the Sturgis Library in Barnstable, during a vacation on Cape Cod. There he discovered that he is a descendent of the Sturgis family that settled on Cape Cod in the 1630's. Sam and his wife Gail live in Medway, Massachusetts. They have two grown children: Katie, a Registered Nurse in Wrentham, and David, a software developer in Somerville.

11 thoughts on “A Ruth by any other name

  1. My father- Moorman Percy Prosser – with his mother’s maiden name and his father’s middle name, found them burdensome (the Percy completely disappeared and when he lived on the East Coast he was “Paul”) and so we five all have very simple but still family names. The curiosity is the current generations love of OTHER PEOPLE’s family names,so we have many little boys who are Cooper, Pierce, Ross, Morgan etc.

  2. Great post! It’s funny how names recur in a family tree, both intentionally and unintentionally. I named my daughter Julia Evelyn. Julia is a family name on my mother’s side and we just liked Evelyn. A few months later, I learned that my paternal grandmother’s half-sister was also Julia Evelyn. I’d only ever known her as Aunt Julie.

    I also chuckled at the Thomas Paine revelation. It’s funny how you can grow up with the idea that you’re descended from so-and-so, and then have that idea dashed by a simple Google search. It’s happened to the best of us!

  3. My grandmother and her two brothers were each given middle names which are surnames: Simmons, Smith, and Ingersoll. At first I thought these names must be clues, but after 10 years of genealogy, I have found none of these names anywhere else in the family. If I find them, great! But if not, oh, well!

  4. Well my middle name is Ruth. RUTH means Friend I believe. It was on old habit I think to call people by their middle name instead of their first name as I noticed with ancestors of mine.Great Grandpa John Melvin French was call “Mell” in old letters.

  5. Sam I grew up in the south where it seems everyone has a first name for a middle name like Sue or Ann. When people asked what my middle name I was I hated to tell them. Being from the east coast my parents gave us all surnames from out great grandparents. I was the first girl and got my paternal grandmother’s mother’s maiden name of Lindstrom. Today of course I’m very proud of my name and continue to research that name and bring as many Swedish traditions into my home as I can find. Oh and another thing is the length of my name, Kristina LIndstrom Cleveland. No fun spelling that out as child.

  6. You just might be related to a less famous, but notable Paine — John Knowles Paine (1839 – 1906), noted concert organist, gifted composer, and the very first professor of music in the United States. He commenced his pedagogical career as instructor at Harvard’s newly established school of music in 1862, and was promoted to full professor in 1876. He is my eighth cousin six times removed, so we might also be distant cousins! Oh, by the way, my middle name is my mother’s maiden name.

  7. My grandmother from Freeport Maine was born Ada Harrington Shaw, but there are no Harringtons in the family. I’ve always suspected that she was named after a friend of her mother.
    My great-great-grandfather Marcus Morton Inman, born 1839 in Burrillville, RI, on the Mass. line, was obviously was named for the Mass. Governor Marcus Morton.

  8. After reading your comments, I had to select one of my families’ many “name after” selections to reply. I think that my grand mother, Mary H. (Manning) Malley’s brother George Washington Manning b. July 5, 1876 wins the prize!

  9. My great grandfather’s brother’s name was Fredericksburg Gettysburg Wetmore, known as Fred G., born (of course) during the Civil War, on July 23, 1863.

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