[Editor’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 4 February 2015.]
Bonus note: Vita Brevis blogger Penny Stratton is retiring from NEHGS today after ten years on the Publications team. In honor of her departure, I asked her to pick a post to run again. The finalists involved one about apostrophes; one about changes in technology during her career; one about her late father; and the one here—about family names. Penny will continue to do occasional work for NEHGS and promises to contribute more posts to Vita Brevis, and to continue to correct grammar and punctuation in whatever publication she is handed.
When my daughter was born, we chose the name Emma for her. Like many first-time parents, we considered and discarded many names. But we kept circling back to Emma because it’s a family name, and it follows an interesting pattern:
Emma Powell, born 1836 in Bristol, England
Ella Byrt, born 1860 in Chicopee, Massachusetts
Emma Ladd, born 1886 in New York
Ella Clark, born 1915 in Richmond Hill, New York
Ella Clark is my mother-in-law; she had no daughters. Thus we felt almost compelled to name our daughter Emma. I was thinking of all this the other day while leafing through family photos, including those of all the Ellas and Emmas. I was seated in our guest room, near the large portrait of Emma (Powell) Byrt, now known in our family as “the original Emma.”
Several years after Emma was born, we had a son, and the idea-generating and idea-discarding began again. We had always liked the name Samuel, and it had the advantage of being my father’s middle name.
My dad, George Samuel Rohrbach, never mentioned something that my genealogical investigations later uncovered: he was named for his maternal grandfather and his paternal great-grandfather: George Turnbull and Samuel Rohrbach, respectively. So now we have Samuel–George Samuel–Samuel, another level of depth to our naming choice. I haven’t been able to trace the Rohrbachs into Switzerland yet; perhaps there are even more Samuels to be found. (For that matter, there may be more Emmas—and Ellas—to be found in English records.) As Scott C. Steward mentioned in a post last summer, sometimes names bring with them far longer histories than we know.
I’ve now been populating our family tree with names for a decade or more. What if I’d known some of these names when my children were born? We’d already considered, and discarded, Stonewall, the middle name of my husband’s grandfather (a one-off name, a tribute to the general himself). As a Ladd descendant, my husband has lots of Daniels and Nathaniels in his line. There’s Ray, a surname (of Abigail Ray) picked up as a first name. François J. G., named for the founder of phrenology, and—going way back—one of my favorites, Hatevil. Among the female ancestors, there are Sarahs and Marys and Abigails and a Lucy Ann.
On my side, we have the Georges. We also have Sylvia and Orella and Caroline and Maria—and, translating from the Finnish, Johns and Isaacs, Abrahams and Gabriels; and Maia Lisa, Elina, Serafia. But I can’t imagine Emma as anything but Emma, with her strong connection to my mother-in-law and to the other Ella and Emmas. And I can’t imagine Sam being anything but Sam, with the special relationship to my dear late father—and to great-great-grandpa, the immigrant Samuel Rohrbach.