Shedding Light on the Family Tree: Naming Names

The 23rd in a series of posts about my family tree

Prompt: Popular Names

Giving someone a name is pretty serious business. There are traditions we live up to; bump up against, or simply choose to ignore. Some traditions demand first-born sons be named for the father; similarly first-born daughters for the mother. In larger families children might receive the names of aunts, or uncles, or grandparents. And so, the same names float from generation to generation with the occasional twist of originality when the name of a family friend or a cultural icon is adopted.

When first searching for the most popular given names in my family tree I felt I had a pretty good idea of what might top the list ~ William and Elizabeth. I wasn’t far off. Upon closer study of the direct lines (doing it the old-fashioned way with pen and paper to make notes as I surfed fan charts on FamilySearch because I don’t yet have software that will calculate this info) these are my findings.

Top Ten Popular Names

Following are the top five male and female names which appear in the maternal direct line up to the 10th generation, as available. Included is a brief summary of each name’s meaning and an explanation for its popularity as sourced at and


1) John (22)
English form of Iohannes, the Latin form of the Greek name (Ioannes), itself derived from the Hebrew name (Yochanan) … “God is gracious.” … This name was initially more common among Eastern Christians in the Byzantine Empire, but it flourished in Western Europe after the First Crusade. In England it became extremely popular, typically being the most common male name from the 13th to the 20th century (but sometimes outpaced by William). During the later Middle Ages it was given to approximately a fifth of all English boys.

Example: My maternal 11th great grandfather, 18th Connecticut Governor, John Webster, (1590-1661) was named after both grandfathers, John Webster III (1535-1594) and Sir John Aston (1535-1594) (from a long line of John Aston’s before him.) (Counted 22 through 10 generations)

William Alexander Gordon
Source: Family Archives

2. William (20)
From the Germanic name Willahelm meaning “will helmet,” composed of the elements wil “will, desire” and helm “helmet, protection.” Generally translated as “strong-willed warrior.” The name was common among the Normans, and became extremely popular in England after William the Conqueror was recognized as the first Norman king of England in the 11th century. From then until the modern era it has been among the most common of English names (with John, Thomas and Robert).

Example: Both maternal great grandfathers were named William ~ William Alexander Gordon (1880-1954) was named for his father; William George Stephen McDonall (1877-1949) was named for his grandfather, William McDonald (1811-1886). (Counted 20 through 10 generations.)

3. Thomas (18)
Greek form of the Aramaic name … meaning “a twin.” In the New Testament this is the name of an apostle. … Due to his renown, the name came into general use in the Christian world. In England the name … became very popular due to Saint Thomas Becket, a 12th-century archbishop of Canterbury and martyr. It was reliably among the top five most common English names for boys from the 13th to the 19th century, and it has remained consistently popular to this day.

Example: My maternal 4th great grandfather, Thomas Hunt Sumner (1791-1880), named after his grandfather, Thomas Sumner (1734-1820), named after his grandfather, Thomas Hunt (1664-1746), named after his grandfather, Thomas Hunt III (1604-1642), etc.

4. Samuel (Nine)
From the Hebrew name (Shemu’el), which could mean either “name of God” or “God has heard.” … As a Christian name, Samuel came into common use after the Protestant Reformation. It has been consistently popular in the English-speaking world, ranking yearly in the top 100 names in the United States (as recorded since 1880) and performing similarly well in the United Kingdom.

Example: My 5th great grandfather, Samuel Lockhart Sumner (1766-1822) named for his maternal grandfather, Samuel Downer (1699-1799)

Edward (Five)
Means “wealthy guardian,” derived from the Old English elements ead “wealth, fortune” and weard “guard.” … This was the name of several Anglo-Saxon kings, the last being Saint Edward the Confessor shortly before the Norman Conquest in the 11th century. He was known as a just ruler, and because of his popularity his name remained in use after the conquest when most other Old English names were replaced by Norman ones.

Story: Though much about my 2nd great grandfather, Edward Moffat Robson (1847-1905) remains a mystery, his daughter (my granny, Alice (Gordon) McDonall) noted the following in her memoir:

My grandfather Robson was born to a successful and quite a rich family [with interests in Clyde shipbuilding]. He was rebellious and ran away from home as often as possible. One time searchers found him working (as a very young lad) in a coal mine. The suspicions of his co-workers were aroused because of his clothing and manners. He had on a velvet suit and fine boots. For some reason he turned his back on his family. He found his life in the army and foreign service. He said to my mother that he would curse anyone of his family who ever went after any money of the Robsons. Also, no children were ever to be named Edward. My father and mother did name their last baby Edward. He was expected to die and only lived for 13 days.

Memoir, Alice (Gordon) McDonall


1) Elizabeth (19)
From Elisabet, the Greek form of the Hebrew name (‘Elisheva’) meaning “my God is an oath,” derived from the roots (‘el) referring to the Hebrew God and (shava’) meaning “oath” … or “promise of God.” Among Christians, this name was originally more common in Eastern Europe. It was borne in the 12th century by Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, a daughter of King Andrew II who used her wealth to help the poor.
It has been very popular in England since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century. In American name statistics (as recorded since 1880) it has never ranked lower than 30, making it the most consistently popular name for girls in the United States.

Example: My Irish 2nd great grandmother, Elizabeth (Sparling) McDonall (1851-1915), named for her grandmother, Elizabeth Barry (1800-1878). Her mother-in-law was Elizabeth (Jackson) McDonall (1816-1885).

Mary Lewis (Belton) McDonall
Source: Family Archives

2) Mary (15)
Usual English form of Maria, the Latin form of the New Testament Greek names (Mariam) and (Maria) — the spellings are interchangeable — which were from Hebrew (Miryam), a name borne by the sister of Moses in the Old Testament. The meaning is not known for certain, but there are several theories including “sea of bitterness,” “rebelliousness,” and “wished for child.” However it was most likely originally an Egyptian name, perhaps derived in part from mry “beloved” or mr “love.” Due to the Virgin Mary this name has been very popular in the Christian world … In England it’s been used since the 12th century, and been among the most common feminine names since the 16th century. In the United States in 1880 it was given more than twice as often as the next most popular name for girls (Anna).

Example: My great grandmother, Mary (Lewis) Belton, was born in 1881 in Fremont, Michigan. Named for her mother, Mary Jane (Crouse) Belton (1850-1932) who had a sister, Mary Margaret (Crouse) Orr (18455-?) and an aunt Mary Elizabeth (Sumner) Mark (1831-1904).

3) Margaret (13)
Derived from the Latin Margarita, which was from Greek (margarites) meaning “pearl.” Saint Margaret, the patron of expectant mothers, was martyred at Antioch in the 4th century. Later legends told of her escape from a dragon, with which she was often depicted in medieval art. The saint was popular during the Middle Ages, and her name has been widely used in the Christian world. … As an English name it has been very popular since the Middle Ages.

Example: My 4th great grandmother, Margaret Springer (1880-1862), named for her grandmother Margaret (Bennoit Oliver) Springer (1735-1820), who was named for her grandmother, Margareta Schuyler (1685-1723).

4) Anne/Ann/Anna (10)
Similar to Hannah ~ from the Hebrew meaning “gracious, merciful.” Imported to England in the 13th century, but didn’t become popular until three centuries later.

Example: My Scottish maternal 2nd great grandmother, Ann Skene (1853-1934) was named after her mother, Ann Shepherd (1817-?). Her mother-in-law was Ann McPherson (no dates available). Ann Skene’s son, my great grandfather William Alexander Gordon, and his wife Jane (Robson) Gordon named their second daughter, Ann Skene Gordon (1907-1914).

5) Ruth (Seven)
From … the Hebrew word (re’ut) meaning “friendship.” This is the name of the central character in the Book of Ruth in the Old Testament. … As a Christian name, Ruth has been in use since the Protestant Reformation. In England it was associated with the archaic word ruth meaning “pity, compassion.” The name became very popular in America following the birth of “Baby” Ruth Cleveland (1891-1904), the daughter of President Grover Cleveland.

Example: My 3rd great grandmother, Ruth Sumner (1825-?), named for her grandmother, Ruth Fairchild (1763-1856), who was named for her grandmother, Ruth Beach (1683-1721), named for her mother Ruth Peck (1661-1686).

The Final Word

While these have been identified as the 10 most popular names others appear fairly regularly as well: James, George, Henry, Sarah, Alice, Jane/Jean. And then there are the outside-the-box monikers of some of the New England families: Submit, Increase, Risby, Thankful, Mehitabel, Friendly, Jemima, Azubah, and Burgess.

Naming children after those who have gone before always has been a matter of honour and pride. Living up to the name becomes a whole other matter. ❦

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