What’s in a Name?

Names carry significance.

For a genealogist, a name can hold a clue to who the person was, who their parents were, how family relationships worked.

Henry Beeson

Henry Beeson, my five-times great grandfather and the founder of Uniontown, Pennsylvania

Henry Martin Harris (1811-1876), my great-great-great grandfather, was named after his grandparents.  Henry Beeson and Mary (Martin) Beeson were influential members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) in Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio.  Henry is known for founding the town of Uniontown, Pennsylvania on July 4, 1776.  Henry and Mary donated the land on which the Mount Pleasant (Ohio) Quaker Meetinghouse was built in 1814;  it was the first yearly meetinghouse west of the Alleghenies.

Often, a first son was named after his father’s father (his paternal grandfather).  By this system, Henry Martin Harris should have named his first son Jonas.  But for some unknown reason, Henry and his wife Mary picked the name Cornelius.

I haven’t been able to find any Cornelius among Henry or Mary’s family. The name Cornelius barely made the top 100 most common male names in the 1830s (according to an analysis of census records available at Given Name Frequency Project).

Following a normal naming convention, a second son was named after his mother’s father (his maternal grandfather).  Henry and Mary almost followed this rule–they named their second son Lewis Kinsey after Mary’s brother.

For their third son, they chose the name William.  Perhaps they made this choice because Henry’s grandfather was named William, as was his uncle.  On the other hand, it could have also simply been because William was the second most popular male name in the 1830s.  They did give William the middle name Henry, presumably after Henry himself.

After three sons, Henry and Mary had a girl.  They named her Margaret, for no apparent reason.  Often girls were given names based on their grandmothers’ names.  But I can find no Margaret on the family tree.

Lewis K. Harris

Lewis K. Harris, my great-great grandfather

Then came the fourth son, whom they named Israel.  I have no idea why they chose this name.  Israel is just slightly lower than Cornelius on the popularity list for the 1830s.  And I find no record of any Israels in the family before him.

Finally, Henry and Mary had another daughter, Rebecca.  I know almost nothing about her and have no explanation for her name whatsoever.

Mary died seven years later and Henry remarried to a distant cousin, Elizabeth Beeson.

Henry and Elizabeth had two children together–Lemon and Alpha.  I have no idea where these names came from or what they say about Henry and Elizabeth.

Trying to make sense of the names Henry and Mary (and Elizabeth) chose for their children is challenging.  I wonder if Henry and Mary’s choice not to use their fathers’ names indicates a distance from their fathers, or even a lack of respect toward them.

The decision to honor Lewis Kinsey (Mary’s brother) is interesting.  Lewis was a well-regarded minister in the German Baptist Brethren (Dunkard) church–a county history later said “he was a good man and a good citizen and was held in the highest esteem by his church, his friends and his neighbors.”  But Henry and the Harris family before him had been Quaker for over a hundred years; Henry’s son Lewis Kinsey Harris would become Quaker and marry into a staunchly Quaker family.  Some of L.K.’s descendants remain Quaker even to this day.

Perhaps religion was the reason the names ended up so different.  Maybe when Henry (a birthright Quaker whose parents’ families had been Quaker for a long time) married Mary (whose ancestors included ministers and trustees of the German Baptist Brethren tradition going back to the early 1700s), they became so marginalized that the family connections were no longer significant.  Maybe they wanted to start their own naming traditions.

It’s possible that Lewis Kinsey Harris, who was named after his Brethren-minister uncle, was the only child of Henry and Mary to end up Quaker.

Names are significant, but they don’t always tell the whole story.

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6 Responses to What’s in a Name?

  1. pokedpotato says:

    This was a very interesting read. Maybe they just liked some of those names? I am guessing that Henry had the low vote in the names, so the names were a reflection of his wives’ personality. Or like you said, maybe religion. Although Lemon doesn’t seem very religious to me. Maybe Alpha. So weird that Lemon is the boy name & Alpha is the girl. That really surprised me.

    • Thanks, Rebecca.

      I suppose it could be that they liked the names. But often (then and now) names have some other meaning too. I’m guessing Henry may have had low vote (maybe he just didn’t care), since one of the kids by his first wife is named after her family and the two kids by the second wife have such “different” names. It strikes me too that they named their last child (the one born when Henry was 59 years old)–Alpha! I guess Omega was just a little too weird.

      Thanks for reading.

  2. mirroredImages says:

    we should have named Alex Cornelius. Or maybe Lemon. And let me just say, I’m very glad you don’t take after your great-great-however many greats grandfather Henry Beeson in physical appearance. Yikes?

    • Then we could have called Alex “Corny” just like we call Max “Maxie.”

      So you don’t see the resemblance between me and Henry Beeson? Maybe I should grow my hair longer and wear a shirt like that and see if we can see it then…

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. bronxboy55 says:

    The names are interesting, but so too is the fact that Henry Beeson founded Uniontown on July 4, 1776. Was he influenced by the activities taking place in Philadelphia and elsewhere?

    Another question: Why is it so common for a male child to be named after his father or grandfather, but so unusual for a girl to be given the name of her mother or grandmother?

    • The general consensus is that Henry Beeson didn’t know that July 4, 1776 would be such a significant date when he founded Uniontown on that day. Because news traveled much slower then and because the fourth of July was not a day picked in advance but simply the day when things came together, my guess is that it’s pure coincidence. One historian of the town wrote: “Of course, no one here knew what was happening in Philadelphia on that date. But our little town was thus begun on the same date as our nation. It is perhaps the only town in the United States which has that honor.”

      Regarding the naming of daughters after mothers and grandmothers, in my experience it was a much more common practice in the 19th century than today. It drives genealogists crazy, trying to sort out one Elizabeth from another. Especially when an infant who was named after a mother (and maybe a grandmother) dies and the family decides to name the next-born daughter the exact same name. It’s dizzying.

      My grandmothers’ names are Evelyn and Arbutus. I’m glad we didn’t have girls.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

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