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.)
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.