An invented middle name?

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Last year I wrote about the family register that I was given detailing the family of my great-great-great-grandparents Robert Thompson (1795–1854) and his third wife Emma Russell (1808–1872) of Industry, Maine. I mentioned in the post that their eldest daughter (and my great-great-grandmother) was named Alice Goodrich Russell Thompson, in honor of her father’s first wife and Alice’s mother. As I hung this register on the wall of my house, I wondered if these two middle names were “really” correct.

As I had mentioned in my post last year, Alice grew up in Industry and was a schoolteacher. Along with her sister, Olive Russell Thompson, Alice moved to Neponset, Illinois, in her thirties where she met her future husband Josiah Challender, a widowed Civil War veteran. After having their four children in Illinois, the family moved to Kansas, where much of my mother’s family remains.

The register lists my ancestor as “Alice G. Thompson,” as does her marriage record in 1875. She is listed the same way on her birth in Industry in 1844. The 1893 history of Industry refers to her as “Alice Goodridge Thompson.”

After her marriage, on every state and federal census, in her lengthy widow’s pension from her husband’s service in the Civil War and her death certificate, on her gravestone, and in her obituary, she is called “Alice T. Challender,” with the T. in reference to her maiden surname of Thompson. Kansas marriage licenses do not list parents, but even on the death records of Alice’s children, Russell is absent. So where does this second middle name come from?

A way to honor Alice’s own mother?

The short answer is that I don’t know. It first appears in Josiah Challender and his Descendants, a family history written by a relative in 1987. The second middle name of Russell appeared on all of my great-aunt’s charts (which were probably based on said genealogy), and today appears on numerous online trees!

While rare, I have seen examples of two middle names in the United States before 1844. In The Descendants of Judge John Lowell, of Newburyport, Massachusetts (which I wrote with Scott C. Steward), the Rev. Charles Lowell (1782–1861) had three children with two middle names born between 1810 and 1816. As I myself have two middle names (the second one appears on only one government record that no one besides myself would have access to), it’s possible Alice had two middle names and only had the first one recorded (or initialized) on records – but I doubt it. Russell was her mother’s maiden name, she had a sister named Olive Russell and a brother named Russell B., and she named her son (my great-grandfather) Alton Russell Challender. I’m thinking this got added in subsequent generations as a way to honor Alice’s actual mother rather than her father’s first wife, but I could be wrong.

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About Christopher C. Child

Chris Child has worked for various departments at NEHGS since 1997 and became a full-time employee in July 2003. He has been a member of NEHGS since the age of eleven. He has written several articles in American Ancestors, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and The Mayflower Descendant. He is the co-editor of The Ancestry of Catherine Middleton (NEHGS, 2011), co-author of The Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2011) and Ancestors and Descendants of George Rufus and Alice Nelson Pratt (Newbury Street Press, 2013), and author of The Nelson Family of Rowley, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2014). Chris holds a B.A. in history from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.

12 thoughts on “An invented middle name?

  1. I have a few 19th century Virginia ancestors named George Spinks. Without exception, by the time each one died, he had assumed a middle name to become George Washington Spinks.

  2. In Great Britain, middle names started popping up as early as the mid 1700s. One unusual example is my ancestor, George Eden Meggison. He was baptized as just “George Meggison,” but later adopted the Eden middle name, possibly as a tribute to his ancestors that included the family of Sir Anthony Etan (later prime minister of England.)

  3. Very interesting!

    We’ve got a somewhat similar case of double middle name on my wife’s side of the family — my late mother-in-law’s great aunt Ida (Riggs) Ketner (1885-1968). An old typed Riggs family history that was mimeographed and distributed at a Riggs annual family reunion about the mid-20th century gives her maiden name as Ida Mae Frances Riggs. So far, however, I haven’t found any “official” sources to document the second middle name Frances (several sources document the first middle name, but sometimes spell it “May” instead of “Mae” — a phenomenon I see a lot with women with that middle name), and it’s notable that none of her siblings had second middle names. But I don’t really doubt it’s correct — the typed family history was distributed in her lifetime, and Ida came to the annual reunions, which was easy to do since she lived close by, and I haven’t come across anything that suggests she objected to the typed family history’s account. Nevertheless, there’s bound to be at least some little question whether that was her given name at birth, a baptismal Christian name given later in life, or a name she gave herself because she liked the sound of it or just wanted to have two middle names.

  4. Names are fascinating. One might consider Catholic or Anglican confirmation names if the second middle name is a saint. I have had several of those appear on gravestones and nowhere else in the records, apart from a long gone confirmation certificate, presumably.

  5. And those with German ancestry frequently had 2 or more middle names before the mid-1900s. My grandfather was Henry Herman John _______

  6. Chris, exploring the English paternal roots of two of my grandkids, I was amazed to find a direct ancestress whose full name at birth was **Elizabeth Martha Maria Hole Tuckett**, subsequently abbreviated, for good reason, in family and court records to “Elizabeth M. M. H. Tuckett”. She was the eldest daughter of Nicholas Tuckett and wife Martha Hole, who apparently saddled her with all of the female family names in fear she might be their only daughter. Fears unfounded, it turned out, as several more daughters followed, all of whom (per the traditional naming norms of the time) had no middle name whatsoever!

  7. Interesting topic. In my limited experience, second middle names are often ethnic. English and German, for instance, are more likely to have multiple names than, say, Dutch. Germans typically have the same first name for all the children in a family, often a saint’s name, while the middle name or names differ. It would get very confusing to refer to a German child as “Johann 1” or “Maria 3” for instance. So each Johann/Maria has his own middle names, and used that in common parlance, though on legal documents it may show up with the entire string of names, or just Johann or Maria. Confuses the heck out of later generations of genealogists.

    My family has two instances of multiple middle names that I’m aware of. I inherited the New Testament belonging to a paternal ggg grandmother, who lived in the Schenectady, New York area. It was printed in Dutch in Amsterdam in 1743, so was an heirloom when given to her, as she was b. in 1781. She recorded her children’s birth names, dates, and places. She and her husband had eight children between 1802 and 1821. One stillborn daughter was not given a name. One had a single name; four had double names, and two had three names. One of these was my gg grandfather, Nicholas Schermerhorn H. Bastianse. While the H. is not spelled out, and I’ve never seen it anywhere else, his father’s name was Hendrick, so I’ve always assumed that’s what it stood for–rather a long name! He was b. 1808, and almost all official references to him are simply N.S. He signed family letters as Nicholas. One of his sisters, b. 1818, was listed in her mother’s NT as Eve E.J. but I have a photo of her with Eve Eliza Jane on the back. One of her descendants told me she went by Eliza.

    A century later, a maternal aunt was born in early 1918. Her first birth certificate simply gives her name as “female Harrison.” According to my mother, who was her older sister, my grandparents couldn’t decide on a first name for their fifth and final child. Ultimately the doctor who delivered her in Devils Lake, North Dakota, said that if they didn’t come up with a name by the next day, he’d decide. They settled on Margaret, though neither had anyone by that name in their family. They had previously agreed on Claire for a middle name. But they settled on Libby as a second name. Why? As a compromise for “Liberty,” in hopes that The War to End All Wars would soon be over. My grandfather had just had to sign the “Old Man’s Draft Card” and neither he nor his wife wanted him to go off to fight. My aunt hated that part of her name, never admitted to it when she could avoid it, and when she married, dropped both middle names in favor of Margaret Harrison Johnston as her married name, in spite of her affection for her Aunt Clara, the source of the Claire part of her name.

    Names are fascinating. Growing up, I hated mine, as I never knew anyone of my generation named Doris. I was named after my father’s favorite sister.

  8. Names are wonderful! And how people choose for their children even more so. A friend and his wife had 4 children, all of whom were given the rank order name from lists the parents both created, and the highest combined total won. Another friend carried her distinctive double name on stage and screen – her mother had read it in a wedding announcement in an LA society page. A great niece carries names from her Jewish father’s family + “Pippin” because its fun, and her brother has two from our family – one from the 17th C and one, a professor at Cornell,where both parents received their Phds.

  9. My mother told me the last of her 3 names, Irma Helen Wilhelmina Breitzmann (b. 1926) was a “baptismal name”. ?? Her father was Frederick John (Americanized), his father was Johann Friederich. But I also have an Irish great-grandmother, Margaret Theresa Hassett . And I know someone who was named after Albert Payson Terhune’s book about his Collie, “Bruce.” Luckily not “Laddy” or “Wolf” or “Grey Dawn”

  10. Then there is the custom, common in the southern US, of naming boys with just initials. My in-laws, long time Texans, had several such names. My father in law was called “Frank” by his friends, but his mother always called him “C.F.” I always thought she was just using a nickname for the name “Cody Franklin” which came from his father and grandfather’s names. But when I located his birth certificate in my genealogy research, I realized the name he was given at birth was “C.F.” When I asked family members, they said when he joined the US Navy during WWII, he was told he could not use just initials in his paperwork, so he started going by Cody Franklin. Even my husband never knew that his dad’s first name was just the initials.

  11. We live in such a standardized world today that it’s difficult to imagine anything else. When I was in high school I decided I didn’t like the middle name (a family name) that I’d been given, so I started using the first name of my paternal grandmother whom I’d never known. My first name was for my maternal grandmother. That lasted only until I grew up a bit, but my high school diploma has the made-up combination of names. My mother had an initial for her middle name, but it happened to be the same as the first letter of the names of both her mother and her grandfather, so if asked she would answer one or the other. Going back into Palatine ancestry I often see a middle initial that stands for the father’s name, frequently distinguishing cousins who have the same first name.
    I have an ancestor born about 1775 whose name was Elizabeth Eliza. She was born a Baptist, in Wales, so there is no baptismal record, but she used both first names at her marriage and on the baptismal records of her children. I’ve never seen that repetitive combination of names and wonder if anyone else has?

  12. This makes me think of a couple of things. One of my great-grandfathers listed his father’s given names as Frederick William on official records, but I found distant cousins online who listed him as Frederick Henry. The man in question had died when my great-grandfather (the oldest of nine children) was only 11, so he would not have been around long to impart this information. Since Frederick had immigrated as a young boy from Germany and many of his siblings had three or even four given names, I thought perhaps that he had been given both Heinrich and Wilhelm as supplements to Frederick…but according to transcribed baptismal records, he was named only Friedrich Heinrich. Not sure where Pa got the William from…

    Another great-grandfather was named Fred Goodrich Athearn, and he fully believed that his mother’s maiden name was Goodrich (as it appears on his parents’ marriage records and in the family Bible). However, it turns out that his mother…who died when her sons were only 1 and 3…had been a widow. My great-grandfather was actually named for his mother’s late first husband, Frederic Aug. Goodrich of Leeds, Maine (perhaps a distant relative of your family, Chris; it was also spelled Goodridge by other close relatives). If only I could tell my great-grandfather the truth about his name!

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