Know your suffixes

Moses Lyon
Moses Lyon (3d, 2d) of Woodstock

In writing about the marital travails of my great-great-great-great-grandfather Moses Lyon (1793–1865), I was reminded of another topic that comes up frequently in consultations with NEHGS members: the use of suffixes such as Jr., 2nd, 3rd, etc. Today most people named Jr. are the child of someone with that name, and suffixes such as III , IV, or V usually denote a descent from an earlier ancestor with that name. It is often assumed that this was the practice in earlier times, which was not the case at all, even a century or more ago.

Usually the notation “Jr.” or “2nd” just meant that someone else with the same name lived in the same town and was older. That was really all there was to it. They could be father and son, uncle and nephew, first cousins, or not related at all. The suffix of the “3rd” meant that there were two older people in the town with the same name. In such cases, when the oldest person with that name died the “2nd” would drop the suffix and the “3rd” would now be called “2nd.”

Marriage Moses Lyon 3d Tryphena Kendall 1823

In the case of my ancestor Moses Lyon of Woodstock, in the decade between his first marriage in 1823 (shown at left, second from the bottom of the page) and his third in 1833 he is always called “Moses Lyon 3d.” Among his direct Lyon ancestors, Moses is the first of this name. The other Moses Lyons in Woodstock were his second cousins – Moses Lyon (1769–1839) and Moses Lyon 2nd (1780–1862). As the chart shows below, my Moses was their second cousin through his paternal grandmother, and a third cousin through males only, as his paternal grandparents – Caleb Lyon and Margaret Lyon – were first cousins.

Moses Lyon chart

The first Moses Lyon died in 1839, and at this point my Moses Lyon becomes “Moses Lyon 2d” and the second Moses becomes simply “Moses Lyon.” The second Moses died in 1862 as “Moses Lyon,” as did my Moses in 1865, as all the other, older Moses Lyons had died by that point. Evaluating how a suffix is used during this period, whether in vital, land, or probate records, can yield important familial connections and help determine who else of that name is around (or not), once it’s understood how the suffix was generally used.

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.

31 thoughts on “Know your suffixes

  1. Hmmmm. That’s news to me, too. Going to look back into Capt. Reuben Dickinson and Reuben Dickinson, Jr. of the Revolution. Thanks!!!

  2. Thanks for the reminder to look at the customs of the time.
    I have the suffix *II* in my name. When my grandfather died, my mother expected me to drop the suffix but I refused. My grandfather is in books and articles on stock market and NY history and I am not him. My mother would write checks to me without the suffix and I would counter-sign with a large suffix .

    1. Another confusing title can be Brother or Sister. I inherited many letters from the 19th century. Siblings in writing to the spouse of a sibling would start the letter “Dear Brother” or “Dear Sister” or sign the letter “Brother” or “Sister.” Sometimes the address on the envelope would give a clue but, in many cases, I do know whether it was the sibling or the spouse of the sibling who was involved.

      In another instance, the youngest was named Abiel. He had an uncle Abiel and a grandfather Abiel, all with the same last name. Each letter addressed to or signed by Abiel created a guessing game!

      1. Here’s another twist on the identity of a brother/sister. My 3x great-grandmother Lydia (Starbuck) Athearn, and her sister Eliza (Starbuck) Coffin, referred to their nephew George Howland Folger as “brother”; he referred to them as his “sisters.” His mother, Susan (Starbuck) Folger, was much older and died when he was a toddler; he was then raised for several years by his maternal grandparents, and since he was only three and five years younger, respectively, than his aunts, it was natural that they felt more like siblings. The Nantucket Historical Association quite naturally had mis-identified a letter to Eliza (Starbuck) Coffin signed “I am truly your brother George” as being from George Starbuck–original occupant of one of the Three Bricks on Nantucket’s Main Street–to his sister, the legendary Nantucket genealogist, Eliza (Starbuck) Barney.

  3. One of the customs I had to learn was that of assigning suffixes to just about every male in my paternal grandmother’s German hometown. Because there were so many Johanns and Niklauses with just one branch of a family, the way for the pastors to keep them straight in the church records was to assign suffixes. E.g., my great-great-grandfather Johannes Launspach IX of Reiskirchen. I thought at first he must be the ninth male of his line to have that given name, but soon found he was just the ninth Johannes in his extended family to have it – a cousin had been #8.

  4. Thanks, Chris, for reminding me that logic is the bane of an English speaking genealogist, or perhaps it’s just free-will. In my ancestry, I have also found “elder & younger” and “north & south” as delineations for individuals. Having some Elders as friends, I am thankful that my name is not “North”, unintentionally, of course. Keep up the fantastic work you have always done.

    1. Using “den eldre ” and “den yngre” is very frequent in Norwegian usage. But I once read one of those online trees in which the compiler thought that he came from a long line of church deacons!

  5. When I was transcribing the records of the First Church of Norwood (Dedham Second Parish), I came across “Ezra Morse Turtus” yikes. what? I google search I found the definition! then Sr. died and “tertus” became “jr”…..
    but by today’s standards, Tertus, was really “jr”…because Sr. was his father…..and the other guy was a cousin!

  6. Good Afternoon Christopher, I too have links to the Lion/Lyon/Lyons family who are also related to Royalty also to Presidents of the United States – George Washington and more of them. I really appreciate getting the info re the Numerical annotation. The Lyon family goes back to at least John Lyon V- 1345 born in Glanis, Angus, Scotland. The great comments from all of the NEGHS Staff and members is certainly appreciated. Sincere Best Wishes, Paul Morris Hilton, Harvey Station, New Brunswick, Canada

  7. Another good example of this is Benjamin Marsh in Sutton Massachusetts in the 18th century. The 2nd and the 3rd moved up the order as elder Benjamins died. Two were father and son, but the third one was a nephew of the eldest Benjamin. Because the nephew was older than the son named Benjamin, the nephew was Benjamin Marsh the 2nd and the son was Benjamin Marsh the 3rd–at least while they were all still alive. It confused me at first when I encountered it 20 years ago.

  8. May I copy your post on suffixes to the Facebook page of the Contra Costa County (California) Historical Society. Very useful info for people who use our archive.

  9. Wow Chris, great information and it was very well timed as I have been confused by a John Jr. in our family tree from the 1600s. Riddle solved, thanks!!

      1. Our Whitmore line has 22 Johns, 19 Francises (and 2 Franceses) living in Massachusetts and Connecticut within a few years after arrival in the mid-1630s. None, of course, had a middle name. During one period, there were four Francises living in Middletown, CT. And in 1716 two Elizabeth Whitmores were born three months apart (both daughters of Francises), in the same town. And a dozen more lived in the neighboring vicinity.
        I pity the mail sorter and school teacher.
        Maybe if they had suffixes, it would help me when I read references to one of these duplicately named people and wonder which one does this refer to?

  10. I have a similar experience but the clerk designate the by rank and also by a jr and a 3rd. Massachusetts, Town and Vital Records, 1620-1988, Walpole, 1780-1833. The August 4 1783 report of the “selling” of the pew in the church. There were many Boyden families several headed by Johns ( also Jona, Joshua, Ezekiel) but their ranks were substituted for their called names Ensign, Lt (Lieut), Sgt and Capt only John 3rd got a called name. Samuel Boyden Jr got a pew but there is no other Samuel.
    These are the town Council proceeding minutes and actions. Pretty interesting if also time consuming 🙂
    Source Information Massachusetts, Town and Vital Records, 1620-1988 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2011.
    Original data: Town and City Clerks of Massachusetts. Massachusetts Vital and Town Records. Provo, UT: Holbrook Research Institute (Jay and Delene Holbrook).

  11. This is helpful, as I’ve got several such instances in my lines. I also appreciate the comment about informally using “jr” for women. One of my gg grandmothers was Eunice Jewett (1828-1891) who married Nicholas Schermerhorn Bastion (1808-1884). One of her daughters was Eunice Jewett Bastion. The mother’s maiden surname was Jewett with no middle name we’ve been able to find. (Though some family trees give her “Jane,” it’s not in the family Bibles in my possession. One census does have Jane, but five of six names in that census are at least a bit off; I know it’s them by his profession and everyone’s ages.) Her daughter’s given name was Eunice Jewett, her surname Bastion. For clarity’s sake, the family genealogists informally call them Eunice sr. and Eunice jr. I try to be careful to be specific about my usage, so as not to confuse future genealogists. My “shortcuts” are usually in emails to relatives, after I’ve explained what I’m doing. I’d never do this in a family tree, for fear of confusing posterity.

    BTW, Bill Gates is known to his friends as “Trey.” He was named after his father, who was named after his own father. I’ve most often seen his father referred to in newspapers as Bill Gates, Sr, and the Microsoft founder and philanthropist without a suffix at all. I guess fame overrides protocol here.

    1. I first noticed the use of Jr. for women in the Salem Witch Trial accounts. Ann Putnam Jr. was one of the accusers. Is there any information on when that tradition began, and in our family records should we always use that Jr.? It is referred to here as “informal.”

  12. These traditions still persist in some families and places. I grew up with a boy who was a “III”. People often assumed he was the third in a line with the same name (ie, son, father, grandfather) but he explained that both he and an uncle were named after a great-granduncle. He was very proud of his name, and said that he planned to keep the “III” suffix all his life, as it honored his family. I thought that pretty cool. I’ve met some other people with the same suffix for similar reasons, and several women who referred to themselves as “Jr”. Why not? As for the other issue mentioned, that of keeping track of people with the same name in different generations and lines but related, I simply add their birth date in parentheses. That differentiates them without implying direct descendency or relationship. In my own family, the many same-named men often went by their middle names once those came into fashion in the mid-1800s. Many women did (and do) as well, including myself.

  13. I’m a bit off as it has been a brick wall for me. I have a Thomas Franklin Hayes of Boston, Mass. Followed by his son Thomas Franklin Hayes again no Jr. Then the second Thomas had his son and named him Thomas Franklin Hayes Jr. Then his last son he named him Thomas Franklin Hayes III.
    I know about the Junior but the father and grandfather are a mess to sort out.
    The first Thomas was in the Civil War but to where he lived and died is a mystery. He was married in Somerville, Mass. That and the war is all I can find.
    How do they disappear so easily?

    1. I’m guessing that your second Thomas had moved to a different town from his father, who was not known to his new neighbors. In following generations, to keep things straight, the traditional Jr., and III were added.
      In our case, a Francis moved to Middletown, CT., but his father Francis stayed in Lexington, Mass. Then each of the Connecticut Francis’s children named a son Francis. After a few generations, there were 19 Francises and a couple of Franceses. So far, I haven’t found a suffix added to any of them. Pity the mail sorter.

      1. Re – Pity the mail sorter. Although my father was not named after his father [I am], in the upstate New York village where we had a place, all mail addressed to him from local stores, etc., was addressed to Jr so the post office did know which mail slot to put it in.

  14. Well my gosh, I learn something new every time. I have a John Johnson, noted as the 7th, in his Rev. War Pension papers. I was puzzled, now I understand. Thanks

  15. And sometimes the numerical suffix is the legal name. I am recorded as the II (being named for a grandfather – there was no Jr.) on my birth certificate

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