Naming a child born out of wedlock

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I was recently asked a question about how surnames were assigned to illegitimate children born in the seventeenth century: Was the surname of the father, or the mother, given to the child? Since illegitimate births were uncommon in New England during the 1600s (about 92% of first children born through 1680 were delivered nine months or more after their parents’ marriage), the illegitimate child could have been given the surname of the mother OR the father, depending on the circumstances. Typically, the illegitimate child would assume the surname of the mother when the identity of the father was unknown. For example, Elizabeth Pederick was the illegitimate daughter of Elizabeth Pederick, baptized in Marblehead 9 December 1694. No father was listed.

Fulton 2However, if the identities of both parents were known, the child’s birth record would be filed under the surname of the father, while still indicating the name of the father and the mother. For example, Ben Naomie Abbot was the illegitimate daughter of Benjamin Abbot and Naomie Lovejoy, born in 1684 in Andover, Massachusetts.

Fulton 3In other circumstances, the illegitimate child could have been given the surname of the mother, then, later, the surname of the father (or step-father). For example, Abilene Barnard, the illegitimate daughter of the widow Sarah Barnard, was born on 24 August 1686. The record specifically states that Abilene was born out of the state of marriage.

Fulton 4Twenty-three days later, on 16 September 1686, Sarah Barnard married Richard Waite. This may point to evidence that the illegitimate child, Abilene Barnard, was the biological daughter of Richard Waite.

Fulton 5Later, on 14 March 1689/90, Abilene Waite, the daughter of Richard Waite, died.

While one cannot know based on these records whether Abilene Barnard/Waite was the biological daughter of Richard Waite or his step-daughter, the records do prove that illegitimate children could adopt a surname over time. To prove a more definitive connection between an illegitimate child and a (proposed) father, researchers should expand their research to include records such as probate records, pension files, or church records.

About Lindsay Fulton

Lindsay Fulton joined the Society in 2012, first a member of the Research Services team, and then a Genealogist in the Library. She has been the Director of Research Services since 2016. In addition to helping constituents with their research, Lindsay has also authored a Portable Genealogists on the topics of Applying to Lineage Societies, the United States Federal Census, 1790-1840 and the United States Federal Census, 1850-1940. She is a frequent contributor to the NEHGS blog, Vita-Brevis, and has appeared as a guest on the Extreme Genes radio program. Before, NEHGS, Lindsay worked at the National Archives and Records Administration in Waltham, Massachusetts, where she designed and implemented an original curriculum program exploring the Chinese Exclusion Era for elementary school students. She holds a B.A. from Merrimack College and M.A. from the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

11 thoughts on “Naming a child born out of wedlock

  1. I have a printed Taufschein that may be for an illegitimate infant I’d love to include a photo if I could.

  2. I have one ancestor whose surname was a combination of his mother’s first name and “son”: Liddeason. An indenture of apprenticeship recorded in “The Old Town Book,” now rebound and called “Third Town Book,” p. 389. The indenture is between Job Liddeason, John Whipple Jr, and “Liddea,” the wife of John Whipple, This son was later recorded elsewhere as Job Whipple.

  3. I recently ran across Caleb W. Cooke (1792-1858) in East Greenwich RI. His death record show his “parents” to be simply Phebe. However an 1818 deed shows his full name as Caleb Whitford Cooke. I suspect dad may have been named Caleb Whitford. That would be a good way for mom to make the father’s identity known.

    1. My grandmother had a child out of wedlock in 1901 and named him after the father, Homer Charles Baker Bolt (Bolt being her maiden name). When he entered the service he chose his name to be Homer Charles Baker.

  4. My ancestor, Wait Milliman, born out of wedlock to Abigail Miliman in 1747 was the son of Caleb Wait, who was ordered by the court to support “Abigail Milliman’s bastard child.” Wait carried the Milliman name all his life, although his mother married – not to Caleb Wait – a few years later. I’ve wondered if his father approved of his receiving his last name as his first name.

  5. I have an ancestor born out of wedlock but “baptised under ye care of” his maternal great uncle & wife. The boy was raised by this couple and left 1/3rd to “the child that I raised from his birth” even though this great-uncle had other sons who inherited nothing. The child was listed in one town as ye “child” of the above couple then crossed out years later. We always speculated that this man was the father of the child since his niece became pregnant while she was living in the household at age 34 when the child was born. She then disappeared from all known records in MA and surrounding states nor does she appear in Maine where her immediate family had migrated. No death record has been found for the mother at the time of the birth of the child or shortly thereafter. The boy used his mother’s maiden name as his middle name and his great-uncle’s name as his surname. Where do we go from here? .

  6. We had the jolly fun of finding out our third great-grandfather was illegitimate after we had the DNA of two cousins tested. He took his mother’s name, we found out, after a little work. He named his children after his mother and step-father, and his mother’s parents, as well as after his wife’s parents. Later, we found a deed that refers to his beloved grandfather, his mother’s father. There’s nothing new under the sun!

  7. For further information in the 17th century, also consult court records for fornication charges. These often name the father.

  8. I have an Illegitimate great-grandfather. Both biological mother and father had the same surname. 1st cousins, bit she was married to a man a few weeks of at the age of 12. Her son later was acknowledged as his father’s heir while still a minor

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