ICYMI: The Name Game

[Editor’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 4 February 2015.]

Bonus note: Vita Brevis blogger Penny Stratton is retiring from NEHGS today after ten years on the Publications team. In honor of her departure, I asked her to pick a post to run again. The finalists involved one about apostrophes; one about changes in technology during her career; one about her late father; and the one here—about family names. Penny will continue to do occasional work for NEHGS and promises to contribute more posts to Vita Brevis, and to continue to correct grammar and punctuation in whatever publication she is handed.

The first Emma, Emma (Byrt) Powell.
The first Emma, Emma (Byrt) Powell.

When my daughter was born, we chose the name Emma for her. Like many first-time parents, we considered and discarded many names. But we kept circling back to Emma because it’s a family name, and it follows an interesting pattern:

Emma Powell, born 1836 in Bristol, England

Ella Byrt, born 1860 in Chicopee, Massachusetts

Emma Ladd, born 1886 in New York

Ella Clark, born 1915 in Richmond Hill, New York

Ella Clark is my mother-in-law; she had no daughters. Thus we felt almost compelled to name our daughter Emma. I was thinking of all this the other day while leafing through family photos, including those of all the Ellas and Emmas. I was seated in our guest room, near the large portrait of Emma (Powell) Byrt, now known in our family as “the original Emma.”

Several years after Emma was born, we had a son, and the idea-generating and idea-discarding began again. We had always liked the name Samuel, and it had the advantage of being my father’s middle name.

My dad, George Samuel Rohrbach, never mentioned something that my genealogical investigations later uncovered: he was named for his maternal grandfather and his paternal great-grandfather: George Turnbull and Samuel Rohrbach, respectively. So now we have Samuel–George Samuel–Samuel, another level of depth to our naming choice. I haven’t been able to trace the Rohrbachs into Switzerland yet; perhaps there are even more Samuels to be found. (For that matter, there may be more Emmas—and Ellas—to be found in English records.) As Scott C. Steward mentioned in a post last summer, sometimes names bring with them far longer histories than we know.

The first Ella, Ella (Powell) Ladd.
The first Ella, Ella (Powell) Ladd.

I’ve now been populating our family tree with names for a decade or more. What if I’d known some of these names when my children were born? We’d already considered, and discarded, Stonewall, the middle name of my husband’s grandfather (a one-off name, a tribute to the general himself). As a Ladd descendant, my husband has lots of Daniels and Nathaniels in his line. There’s Ray, a surname (of Abigail Ray) picked up as a first name. François J. G., named for the founder of phrenology, and—going way back—one of my favorites, Hatevil. Among the female ancestors, there are Sarahs and Marys and Abigails and a Lucy Ann.

On my side, we have the Georges. We also have Sylvia and Orella and Caroline and Maria—and, translating from the Finnish, Johns and Isaacs, Abrahams and Gabriels; and Maia Lisa, Elina, Serafia. But I can’t imagine Emma as anything but Emma, with her strong connection to my mother-in-law and to the other Ella and Emmas. And I can’t imagine Sam being anything but Sam, with the special relationship to my dear late father—and to great-great-grandpa, the immigrant Samuel Rohrbach.

About Penny Stratton

A veteran of the book publishing industry, Penny Stratton retired as NEHGS Publishing Director in June 2016; she continues to consult with the Society on publications projects. Among the more than 65 titles she managed at NEHGS are The Great Migration Directory, Elements of Genealogical Analysis, Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research, and the award-winning Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts. She has written for American Ancestors magazine and is a regular poster on Vita Brevis. With Henry B. Hoff, Penny is coauthor of Guide to Genealogical Writing: How to Write and Publish Your Family History; she is also the author of several Portable Genealogists on writing and publishing topics.

5 thoughts on “ICYMI: The Name Game

  1. Congratulations to Penny on her retirement! We will all miss her excellent posts and classes.

    And thank you for running this post again- I apparently did miss it, and enjoyed it very much.

  2. We have a long line of Katuras that follows the maternal line….but always named for an aunt or grandmother, never a mother. We have a family ring, passed along with the name
    , jokingly called “the Katura Topaz”. This generation there are two, so we’re not sure to whom it should go! And, as it turns out, our “original Katura” HATED the name! If you haven’t heard it before, it was once quite popular in New England, a variation of Keturah, Abraham’s second wife.

    And congratulations on your retirement, Penny!!! Have loved reading your contributions and sad to see you go, as we all are, but I’m sure it’s a well-deserved reward for working for so many years. Now you’ll have time to work on your family history! (Sorry, but I just couldn’t help saying that, heehee. 🙂 Enjoy!

  3. Best luck in retirement, Penny! I loved this blog post the first time…and the second time. Although my husband and I did name our two sons after family members, I wonder how the names might have been different had I known my family history more in depth, especially my father’s side of the family.

    My father and grandfather were both given the name Folger (no middle name), and my brother is named Lloyd Folger after both of his grandfathers. Of course when we were young, I loved to torture my brother by telling his friends about his middle name, so that they would call him “Folger’s Mountain Grown”! My mother told me that the “A” in J. A. Folger—founder of the coffee firm—stood for Athearn, which is my maiden name, but I doubted it. When I asked my father how he and his father came to be named Folger, he responded that a Mr. Folger “back east” had tracked down my orphaned great-grandfather in the wilds of Southern California to bestow a legacy that had enabled him to finish college. In gratitude, my great-grandfather named his first-born son after him…but the exact identity of this Mr. Folger (whom I had assumed to be an attorney) was not described, if my father even knew it.

    One of the many exciting genealogical discoveries I’ve made is the exact identity of that Mr. Folger: George Howland Folger, Junior. He completed the mission that his father had not been able fulfill due to advanced age, and so my grandfather and father (and brother) carry on the names of both men. I also discovered that George H. Folger, Senior, who was the “brother” (actually nephew) of my great-great-great-grandmother, had been very supportive of her family when my great-great-great-grandfather fell on hard times. Thanks to letters and receipts in the collections of the Nantucket Historical Association, I’ve been able to piece together a lot of details and obtain pictures of the gentlemen in question. Every December 6th (the feast of St. Nicholas) I now set out a picture of George H. Folger, Senior, sporting lovely white whiskers…my family’s personal Santa Claus. I’m honored to perpetuate his memory and to thank him for his kindness to my family over a century ago.

    A few months ago, I found out another special thing about this man: he and two of his uncles (Henry Coffin and Obed Starbuck), plus two other Nantucketers, owned the schooner “Exact” when it carried the first white settlers to Seattle. Since my mother’s father’s father’s father died in Seattle decades after crossing the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon, I’m thrilled to have a connection to this city on both sides of my family.

    And about the “A” in James A. Folger’s name standing for Athearn, that’s actually true. George H. Folger’s first cousin was named for my 4x great-grandfather, James Athearn. A couple of weeks ago I was even contacted by a descendant of James Athearn Folger wondering how our families—who both lived in Alameda County, California—were related. Every genealogist’s dream, right?

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