Pesky middle initials

My recent post on “Retroactive surnames” prompted a few comments on the topic of “retroactive middle names,” something that has happened in my own matrilineal ancestry and that of my father’s, as well as with a great-great-grandmother being given a second middle name after her death. Most often these are guesses that balloon on online trees that copy from one another.

The desire to figure out what a middle initial stands for can be captivating, and I have certainly gone on many wild goose chases trying to find a nineteenth-century person intent on going by just a middle initial, and these chases are occasionally successful. My wife and younger daughter have no middle name, although somehow a middle initial for my wife ended up on one of our monthly bank documents, which has been repeated elsewhere. I chuckle what later generations might think what that initial might stand for, since no middle name exists!

I caution anyone just guessing on what a middle initial might stand for from posting it online, since the caveat that it is just a guess is often omitted by subsequent adopters. In my post last year on writing an article that led to my first and only Mayflower line, something that I had also tried to pursue was the middle initial of my great-great-great-grandmother, Marion P. (Botsford) Severance (1838-1893) of Allegany County, New York. All of the genealogical papers I gathered from my great-aunt gave Marion that middle initial P, and it was included in a 1995 genealogy on the Severance family (although my great-aunt was the source of that information).

I caution anyone just guessing on what a middle initial might stand for from posting it online…

When I figured out Marion’s maternal grandparents, that give me an idea of what the P might stand for, based on a name in her maternal family. I ordered the Kansas death certificates of all three of her sons, which only listed their mother was “Marion Botsford.” Going back to all the New York records I had on my ancestor Marion, I could find no indication she even had a middle name! Before her 1856 marriage, she is simply “Marion Botsford,” and then afterward she is “Marion B. Severance,” the B. clearly referring to her maiden name. The earliest I could find the P written down was on my great-aunt’s family charts, written in the 1980s, nearly one hundred years after Marion’s death. Was this P added on later? and what was it meant to stand for? Or was her married middle name of B misread somewhere as a P? I am not going to tell you what I thought the P stood for so as to not let that cat out of the bag!

My recent post on Mark Wahlberg’s matrilineal ancestry prompted an email exchange with Rich Hall, who had also worked on the actor’s ancestry, and had worked on a couple projects for Wahlberg’s company Unrealistic Ideas. The only middle name I could not determine in the actor’s matrilineage was that of his great-great-grandmother, Alma E. (Taylor) McKittrick (1871-1942) of Wilmington, Massachusetts. I had searched all civil vital records on Alma and her children, as well as a few Catholic church records, in search of her middle name, and came up empty. As her great-granddaughter (Mark’s mother) was born Alma Elaine Donnelly, I had always suspected that Alma E. (Taylor) McKittrick’s middle name was also Elaine, but I could never be sure.

After I shared my suspicion in a private email to Rich, he told me that in his notes (but not on his website), he had her middle name as Elizabeth, citing a transcribed Catholic church record. He had not followed up on looking at the original. Within a few minutes, Rich found the original, which is on our database of Boston Catholic Archdiocese Records (which we had only digitized a few years ago). It was an adult baptism record for Alma in 1871, a year after she married George McKittrick. As this record was not contemporary to Alma’s birth, and was not her own marriage or baptism or birth of any of her children (or their marriages or deaths), it was a record that escaped my notice. Thanks Rich! I am glad I never told anyone else I thought Alma’s middle name was Elaine!

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.

21 thoughts on “Pesky middle initials

  1. My ggg grandfather Simeon P Bradford has no middle name I can find. I suspect however that he was named for his great uncle the pirate/privateer Simeon Potter who was rich and childless. The family story is that many nephews were named for Simeon as he had several sisters who pehaps had expectations?

  2. My 3-G Grandfather, Clement Drew, born 1775, has had a middle initial “N” added by various people over the years. It came from his 1812 army discharge certificate, which shows what looks like an N roughly inserted in another hand between his first and last name. None of this family had middle names. Could it have been a check-mark of some kind? Could it have meant to someone that he was “of Newfield, Maine” ? Who knows! Some online trees have totally invented a middle name, Nathaniel, for him.

  3. That goes right into an interesting family quagmire that I have. My ancestor on Prince Edward Island captain Georges Eden Meggison, was baptized is just George Meggison in Northumberland England in 1756. Apparently after his death he started to be called George Eden Meggison. His son actually was baptized as George Eden Meggison in 1797, but who *really* was George Eden the first soon became George Eden the second and plain old Capt. George Meggison also became George Eden Meggison the Elder.

  4. My great-great grandfather Stephen Decatur Gray (1822-1913) of the coastal community Brooksville, Maine, son of Andrew Gray, was likely named for either naval officer Stephen Decatur Sr or Jr in that era when male children were often named for famous people — George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Martin Van Buren…To the best of my knowledge, his father Andrew (1799-1883) did not have a middle name. I have not found one in vital records, and his cemetery marker does not include either a middle name or initial. However, online trees declare he was Andrew Decatur Gray. I may be wrong, but I neither believe this middle name is correct or logical given that his son Stephen was named for a famous person.

  5. My most interesting middle name story is one that appears to have been conjured up (inconsistently, no less) by the person himself.

    I have a 3rd great-grand-uncle Thomas Pratt (1820-82?), who had a first cousin once removed also named Thomas Pratt (1820-90), about 1 month his senior, both born in Horsford, Norfolk. Because of the same name and very close birth dates, and that their wives were named Mary Ann and Mary, it took quite a lot of digging to sort them out. Neither of their baptismal records or marriage records has a middle initial.

    To add further confusion, the elder Thomas started using the middle initial “T.” in the 1871 Census. His burial record names him as “Thomas Thaxton Pratt”. The marriage record of his son Alfred in 1879 names him as “Thomas Salisbury Pratt”. I have no idea where either of those middle names came from.

  6. I know where my middle name came from, it was also my paternal grandfather’s middle name which he used as a youth and in his later years was known as P.C. Except to my grandmother who called him Clinton.
    My father was called Roger Williams after the 17th century New England cleric. My grandfather was a Baptist minister and was impressed by Roger Williams.
    His brother Guilford Bevil, known as G.B., was named after their grandfather Granville Bevil.
    After that I am stuck.
    I have been transcribing older cemeteries here in Toronto and often have come across William H. I have no idea what the H. stands for, but we have assumed it is Henry without any proof.

  7. In researching Welles-descended Joshua Robbins of Pittsfield, Mass., I found that two of his sons by his second wife used middle initials N and K. Their mother I later discovered to be Experience Kinne. A descendant of the N-initialed son let me know he had used the name Newcomb. Experience’s mother died when she was a toddler and her stepmother’s maiden name was Newcomb. How easy it is to think that Prospect K. Robbins used Kinne as his middle name. Now on Ancestry I have him as Prospect “K[inne]” Robbins. I just can’t seem to let that understanding go unrecorded. Square brackets were my solution. The fascinating thing is that he surveyed the Fifth Meridian.

    1. Barbara, do you have a copy of Joshua Robbins and Experience Kinne’s marriage certificate? My lineage is through the son Joshua Newcomb Robbins (brother of Prospect K) and I can’t find proof of his mother, or of his birth record, or even death record. Judy Meyers

  8. I have been working on Find A Grave and have found that many times the middle initial put on a gravestone for a woman actually stands for her maiden name.

    1. I’ve found this often in records. I’m always wary when I have a middle initial for a married female which is the same as that for her married name.

  9. Another example from my family. Thomas Williams was born in Wales 1851. He and his family emigrated to Scranton Pennsylvania in 1882 where he soon became known as Thomas K. Williams as there were a great many Thomas Williamses there already.
    At some point the K. became Kenneth on the posted trees. No records I have found give his middle name as Kenneth. Furthermore, the name Kenneth was vanishingly rare in Wales in the 1850s. Who knows?

  10. Sewall H. Gould of Holliston, Milford, and Upton, MA’s middle name was a complete mystery to the family. But in the 1980s, his daughter Clarinda Gould Cheney’s grandson Ora Cheney’s estate was auctioned off in Hopkinton, MA. I bought a “goodie box” of miscellaneous stuff in which there was a framed photograph of Clarinda’s brother. On the back, in the handwriting of Clarinda’s son Harry, was written “Son of Sewall Harding Gould.” Thanks Uncle Harry!

  11. I have to laugh at all this because I have trouble with folks using the wrong initial for my name. My maiden name used my middle-name initial while my married name uses my maiden-name as the middle initial. This means that my passport holds all four names, my license is my married name, but applications with limited letter space make a mess of the whole thing. How will my descendants every keep it straight?

  12. I agree completely. At birth, my first husband was given a middle initial, but no middle NAME. I long suspected that his mother wanted to use her maiden name, which started with the same letter. No matter how many times I asked or how many people in his family, including his mother, sister, and him, they said his parents had given him the initial but not the name. So if you do find the initial, DON’T assume anything.

  13. I had one ancestor with a retroactive middle name due to a transcription error on a genealogy website. He is listed in a book of Revolutionary War soldiers as “Morse, James, Hutchinson” with the Hutchinson referring to where he enlisted, but he was indexed for the website with Hutchinson as his middle name. I haven’t checked lately, but for years he was frequently listed in family trees as James Hutchinson Morse.

  14. Another source of middle initial confusion can be the adoption of the Confirmation name as a middle name by family members who were Roman Catholics. As a confirmation name was bestowed at the time of that sacrament being received, not at birth it is frequently not found in a written document. Confirmation typically occurred in early adolescence and the person being confirmed was often given the choice as to what name to use. If no middle name was given at birth or the Confirmation name was preferred it frequently became the person’s middle name.

    1. Absolutely! Senator Robert Francis Kennedy (1925-1968) was born “Robert Kennedy” and Francis was added at his confirmation. For French Canadians in New England, birth and baptisms will frequently have three given names (usually always including a Joseph or Marie), with the person later going by two of three names as an adult.

  15. My grandmother born in 1894 in Illinois was Clara Greensfelder. I have found no middle initial in any early records for her. She later filed a delayed birth certificate as Clara B. Greensfelder so she could apply for Social Security. Her brother provided an affidavit affirming her date of birth. When I began working with my mother on her family research, she told me her mother added the initial B when she opened her beauty shop in about 1920 which I confirmed by looking at city directories. Apparently my grandmother thought her name looked more professional with the initial. I have found trees online giving her the middle name Belle which is not correct.

  16. My father’s middle name was “Merrill.” When I found a record of his grandfather’s death, I learned that his grandfather had lived with a man surnamed Merrill and I assumed that was where the name came from. (On his birth record, he has no name at all and the 1900 census used only his first name, but said he was female!) Finally, I had the good sense to ask him about the name (I’m thankful that he lived to be over 90 with good memory) and he said, “I gave that name to myself!” Asked why that name, he said that as a young man he lived near the Merrill Packing Company and thought that would be a nice name.

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