Middle Names in the US

Middle Names in Colonial America

Both multiple forenames and the practice of going by a middle name crossed the Atlantic Ocean with the Europeans who explored and colonized the New World. In fact, the first European credited with laying eyes on the Americas after the Vikings was the Spanish explorer Rodrigo de Triana, baptized Juan Rodrigo Bermejo–a Middle-Namer. Although middle names were still rare in seventeenth-century England, it was, nevertheless, an Englishman who brought the first multiple forename to what would become the United States. One of the founders of Jamestown in 1607, and the man who was briefly Virginia’s first colonial governor, was Edward Maria Wingfield, the eldest son of Thomas Maria Wingfield who bore the same middle name.

Among the hundreds of women who came to Virginia during its turbulent first decades was Mary Ann Utie, who arrived in 1621 with a small son, following her husband, Robert Utie, who had come a year or two earlier. After being widowed in 1638, Mary Ann married Richard Bennett, later Virginia’s 7th colonial governor. Her son, Richard Bennet, Jr., married Henrietta Maria Neale (b. 1647) from Maryland, whose mother was Anna Maria (Gill) Neale. Mary Ann Utie Bennet’s sons George Utie and Richard Bennett, Jr., gave a double name to one of their children: Mary Ann Utie (b. ?) and Susanna Maria Bennett (b. about 1666) The latter of these gave double names to two of her eleven children–Susanna Maria Lowe (b. 1687) and Henrietta Maria Lowe (b. 1702). These few examples demonstrate that middle names were not unknown in the early days of Virginia and Maryland.

Although New England’s Puritans shunned multiple names for several generations, such names began appearing in the baptismal records of the lower colonies as early as the 1650s. Religious dissenters such as Anabaptists and Quakers did not baptize infants, however, so the names of their children might not appear in any similar record. Custom being as it was, probably very few unrecorded children had multiple names–but we know that some did. A Quaker infant born in Virginia in 1739, for example, whom we know only because she became Daniel Boone’s wife, was named Rebecca Ann Bryan.

Multiple names appeared in colonial New York and Pennsylvania, as well. Anna Margariet van Rosenvelt was born in 1654 in New Amsterdam, and William Penn named a daughter Hannah Margarita Penn (b. 1703/08), after her mother and his second wife, Hannah Margaret (Collowhill).

Even if a multiple name appears in a baptismal register, that record does not indicate which component was intended as the primary name. However, comparison of multiple records sometimes indicates that certain individuals were, indeed, known by a middle name. For example, because Mary Ann Utie is identified only as Ann in some records and as Mary Ann(e) in others,  we can assume she was a Middle-Namer.(1) Some records identify Martha Susannah Waters, born in Virginia in 1660 and one of President Obama’s ancestors, by both given names while others give only Susannah, suggesting that she, too, was known by her middle name. A similar comparison of records indicates that Jane Ann(e) Stith, born in Virginia in 1665 (one of  Robert E. Lee’s ancestors), and Anna Margariet van Rosenvelt of New Amsterdam (mentioned above), also went by their middle names.

Though rare compared with the overall population, examples of multiple forenames abound among Virginia and Maryland colonists. However, these names belonged to girls far more than to boys. Robert W. Baird, a genealogical researcher for over forty years, estimates on his website that fewer than one in a thousand male Virginians of British stock carried a middle name during the seventeenth century.(2)

With few exceptions, men of English descent did not begin receiving multiple given names until wealthy colonists adopted the custom then spreading among England’s landed gentry of giving a family surname–often the mother’s maiden name–as a middle name to sons (e.g., Robert Treat Paine, b. 1731, and George Rogers Clark, b. 1752) as well as to daughters (e.g., Hannah Harrison Ludwell, b. 1701, mother of Phillip Ludwell Lee, Thomas Ludwell Lee, Richard Henry Lee, and Francis Lightfoot Lee). Some English colonists began giving a parent’s forename as a middle name, such as George Washington’s brother, John Augustine.

The Mason family exemplifies the trend. George Mason, a Royalist member of Parliament, immigrated to Virginia in 1652 and founded one of what are called Virginia’s “first families.” He gave two conventional forenames to his daughter, Sarah Elizabeth Mason (b. 1672), but only one to his son, George Mason II. Although this son gave single names to all six of his sons and four of his daughters, he gave his wife’s surname as a middle name to his first daughter, Ann Fowke Mason (b. ca. 1689) and a different surname as a fourth name to his last daughter, Simpha Rosa Ann Field Mason (b. 1703). One of his sons, George Mason III, married Ann Stevens Thomson, named after her father, Stevens Thomson, and they gave his surname as a middle name to their daughter, Mary Thomson Mason (b. 1731). They also gave it as the only forename to their youngest son, Thomson Mason (b. 1733). This son gave Thomson as a middle name to all eight of his children (b. 1760-ca. 1783), including three triple-namers–Abram Barnes Thomson Mason, Dorthea Anna Thomson Mason, and William Temple Thomson Mason. His first son, Stevens Thomson Mason, passed the middle name on to four children and gave a different surname as a middle name to another, Emily Rutger Mason. Other Mason children followed the pattern and continued it down the generations. A study of Virginia’s aristocratic families showed that three-quarters of the middle names bestowed there in the 1700s were ancestor surnames.(3)

Middle given names were as rare in the American colonies as they were in England, but they did exist. There was no law against them. Only custom and prejudice kept English Anglicans and Puritans from giving multiple names while Catholics, Lutherans, Quakers,  Germans, Swiss, Dutch, and French had no qualms against them.

Colonial America saw an influx of middle names and Middle-Namers late in the seventeenth century as thousands of German immigrants poured into Pennsylvania after the founding of Germantown in 1683. Thousands more came to the newly established colony of Georgia and the neighboring Carolinas after 1733. Known as Pennsylvania and Georgia “Dutch,” these German settlers spread into neighboring colonies and by the mid-1700s comprised one-third of the colonial population. Researchers note that a large number of these German-Americans went by their middle names.(3) Three such immigrants from Germany were (John) Peter Zenger (b. 1697, immigrated 1710), the New York printer whose 1735 acquittal from charges of seditious libel helped establish freedom of the press in the United States; (Johann) Peter Rockefeller (b. 1682, immigrated 1723), founder of the wealthy Rockefeller family; and (Johann) Wilhelm Gerhard von Brahm (b. 1718, immigrated 1748), a cartographer who served as surveyor general of Georgia. A notable German-American born in the colonies was (John) Peter (Gabriel) Muhlenberg, a Lutheran minister who served in Virginia’s House of Burgesses.

The practicality of middle names became apparent as the population grew and it became increasingly likely that several persons might share the same forename-surname combination. During the Revolutionary Era, two prominent North Carolina statesmen were cousins named Joseph McDowell (b. 1756 and 1758). To distinguish between the two, the public referred to one as “Quaker Meadows Joe” and the other as “Pleasant Gardens Joe,” after their respective estates. But the lack of distinguishing middle names has resulted in frequent confusion in historical records.

By the time of the Revolution, multiple forenames were not uncommon. Eleven percent of the delegates to the Continental Congress and five percent of the signers of the Declaration of Independence had middle names. Five percent of the officers of the Continental Army had middle names, including at least six who had three forenames. While it cannot be determined how many persons of this era were known by a middle name, it is apparent that a considerable number were, especially among the German-American population.

Middle-Namers in the United States

At the end of the eighteenth century, nearly a quarter of the members of the 5th Congress (33 out of 138) had middle names, including one Middle-Namer–(Abraham Alfonse) Albert Gallatin, who later was Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents Jefferson and Madison.

The trend toward giving middle names escalated during the early decades of the new nation, spurred perhaps by the influence of foreign soldiers (two-thirds of foreigners who served as Continental officers had more than one given name) and by the naming of children after Revolutionary heroes. George Washington was the most popular namesake of children born in the early 1800s (e.g. George Washington Owen, b. 1796, and George Washington Custis Lee, b. 1832), but many sons were also named Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, James Madison, James Monroe, etc. Early Americans gave other honorific names as well, naming children after religious leaders such as Martin Luther, John Calvin and John Wesley, or simply after an honored local hero or friend.

Regardless of whether they were family names, lineage names, honorific names, or conventional forenames, middle names had become popular. The family of Jacobus Roosevelt illustrates the trend. All six of his children born before 1800 received only one forename, but of the six born after 1800, all but one received two forenames. Similarly, only three of the thirteen U.S. Presidents born before 1800 had a middle name, but of those born after 1820, only one has not.

As more Americans had middle names, the number of Middle-Namers increased. Among famous Middle-Namers born in the early decades of the nineteenth century are transcendentalist writer Amos Bronson Alcott; journalist-author Sarah Margaret Fuller; journalist-editor Lydia Maria Child; philosopher-author Ralph Waldo Emerson; abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison; and author-reformer Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Child, Emerson, Garrison, and Higginson are known to us today by both given names, but to those with whom they were on a “first name” basis, they were known by their middle names. Another man of this time known to us by both given names is Henry David Thoreau. Called Henry from his birth in 1817, Henry was his middle name until around 1837, when he began reversing the names in his signature.

Another Middle-Namer born around this time was Hiram Ulysses Grant, called Ulysses or Lyss by his parents. But when he entered West Point in 1839, bureaucratic bungling made his middle name his first name. The Congressman who nominated Grant for appointment to the academy assumed that Ulysses was his first name and registered him as Ulysses S., the S being a reasonable guess at a middle-name initial since his mother’s maiden name was Simpson. Unaware of the error when he reported to West Point, Grant attempted to enroll as Ulysses Hiram Grant because, legend says, he did not want to go through life with the initials H.U.G.  But administrators insisted he register under the name by which he had been nominated, so he embraced the new name of Ulysses S. Grant and used it ever after.

The Civil War was a benchmark in the history of middle names in the United States. By that time, more Americans had middle names than did not, a fact born out by the composition of Congress. In 1828, only 40% of members of the 20th Congress had middle names, but in 1858, 73% of members of the 35th Congress did, including Middle-Namers (James) Pinckney Henderson, (Francis) Burton Craige, and (James) Morrison Harris. Three-fourths of the men who served as generals for both the Union and the Confederacy had middle names, and of these, several went by those names. In addition to Grant, Union generals included (Samuel) Emerson Opdycke and (John Henry) Hobart Ward. Confederate generals who were Middle-Namers include (Thomas) Howell Cobb, (James) Johnston Pettigrew, (Lawrence) Sullivan “Sul” Ross, (Gilbert) Moxley Sorrel, and (George Washington) Custis Lee. The cavalry commander whom Grant called the “Swamp Fox of the Confederacy” was Middle-Namer (Meriwether) Jeff Thompson.

During the last half of the century the country received a large immigration of people from Scandinavia. In Sweden, two baptismal names had become widespread early in the nineteenth century and, like Germany, it developed a term to indicate which of several forenames was a person’s “call name”–tilltalsnamn. The term came from tilltal, meaning to underline, and suggests the practice also used in Germany of underlining the primary name in church and civil records. And in Sweden, as in Germany, this tilltalsnamn was frequently a person’s middle name. Some of the Swedish immigrants to the United States during this time, or children of Swedish immigrants, known by a middle name include (Albin) Walter Norblad, 19th Governor of Oregon; (Carl) Eric Wickman, founder of Greyhound Lines; electrical engineer (Otto Fredrik) Gideon Sundback; landscape painter (Sven) Birger Sandzen; sculptor (Peter) David Edstrom; artist (Johan) Albin Hasselgren: and (Carl) Oscar Hedstrom, cofounder of the Indian Mororcycle Company.

Other Middle-Namers were prominent in public life during the last half of the century. (Francis) Bret Hart entertained the nation with stories of pioneering life in California, while (Aaron) Montgomery Ward founded the world’s first mail-order business, making his name a household word for over a century. In 1881, (Isaac) Wayne MacVeagh became the U.S. Attorney General. Four years later, (Stephen) Grover Cleveland became the first Middle-Namer President of the United States. Two of his cabinet members–(Julius) Sterling Morton and (Michel) Hoke Smith, who served as Secretary of Agriculture and Secretary of Interior, respectively–were also Middle-Namers. Financier J. Pierpont Morgan became known to the public as the founder of General Electric and the J.P. Morgan financial company.

Many Middle-Namers came before the public as entertainers. In 1885, sharpshooting (Phoebe) Annie Oakley joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and became the nation’s first female superstar. Popular vaudeville performers included (Leila) Marie Dressler, Ada May Campbell (known as May Irwin), (Helene) Anna Held, (Beulah) Maude Allan, (Angela) Isadora Duncan, (Mary) Margaret Anglin, (George) Jack Warren Kerrigan, and magician (Thomas) Nelson Downs. Beginning in 1892, the African-American soprano sensation Matilda Sissieratta Joyner Jones, known as Sissieratta Jones, performed in the White House for four consecutive Presidents.

By 1900, nearly every child born in the United States had a middle name. The enlistment form used in World War I was the first government form to provide space specifically for a middle name–a reflection of the assumption that nearly every soldier had one.

While the vast majority of Americans were still known by their first forename, the nation was used to people going by a middle name. In 1903 the nation cheered as Middle-Namer (Horatio) Nelson Jackson won a thrilling competition to see who could cross the continent in an automobile. In each of the next two decades a Middle-Namer became President of the United States–(Thomas) Woodrow Wilson in 1913 and (John) Calvin Coolidge in 1923. During the twenties, the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald (full name, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald) offered Americans glimpses into the privileged life of Eastern elites. In the 1930s, (Anna) Eleanor Roosevelt went to the White House as the nation’s first Middle-Namer First Lady. In 1935, J(ohn) Edgar Hoover became the first director of the newly established FBI. Olympic swimmer (Peter) John “Johnny” Weismuller entertained the nation as the silver screen’s Tarzan, while (Ruth) Elizabeth “Bette” Davis and (William) Clark Gable became silver screen heart-throbs. (George) Orson Welles’s 1938 realistic radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” gained him instant notoriety and fame. The nation was stunned by the retirement of beloved baseball great (Henry) Louis “Lou” Gehrig in 1939, forced by a neurodegenerative disease that came to be known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

By the time the United States entered World War II in 1941, Americans were expected to have a middle name, and anyone entering the military without one had the letters NMI (no middle initial) inserted after their forename in military records. Nevertheless, one branch of the military insisted that a person’s “official” name was his or her first name and refused to address soldiers by their middle name. It is not clear when the Army adopted that policy. WWI had Middle-Namer (Herbert) Norman Schwarzkopf as a WWI Major-General, but WWII General Dwight D. Eisenhower, named David Dwight at birth,  transposed his names upon entering West Point, perhaps because of its policy. Other branches of the armed services, however, had no problem recognizing middle names as “official” and in 1959 sent Navy test pilot (Malcolm) Scott Carpenter and Air Force officer (Leroy) Gordon Cooper to NASA to become part of the original Mercury team of astronauts .

How Many People Go by a Middle Name?

As the twentieth century progressed, nearly every avenue of American life was represented by notable Middle-Namers. They were Olympic medalists and professional athletes, state governors and big-city mayors, leaders of large corporations and Nobel Laureates, movie stars and musicians, Pulitzer Prize winning authors and journalists, Attorneys General and another First Lady. But the public generally could not tell they were Middle-Namers unless they used a first-name initial with the middle name–such as Watergate figures G. Gordon Liddy and H. Howard Hunt; business tycoons J. Willard Marriott, J. Howard Marshall, T. Rowe Price, and T. Boone Pickens; FBI Director L. Patrick Gray; Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard; Secretary of the Treasury W. Michael Blumenthal; Surgeon General C. Everett Koop; high-profile lawyer F. Lee Bailey; or Presidential contenders H. Ross Perot and W. Mitt Romney. When famous televangelist Oral Roberts died in December 2009, few obituaries even noted that he had a dormant first name–Granville.

It is impossible to know how many Middle-Namers there have been in the general populace of the United States at any point in the twentieth century. Neither the Census Bureau, the Social Security Administration, nor any other agency charged with keeping track of the U.S. populace distinguishes a person’s identifying forename from others. And it appears that no polling or research organization such as the Gallup Organization or the Pew Research Center has ever surveyed the populace on this topic. The only scholarly study to distinguish identifying names from other forenames was a 1984 study of mothers’ naming choices in small towns and rural areas of southeastern Oklahoma.(4) It found that of the 421 children in its sample, 7.8 percent were called by a middle name or a derivative of that name.

It is noteworthy that this study indicated children who were Middle-Namers as a result of the mother’s choice. A small, informal survey of Middle-Namers in the upper Mid-West in 1990 showed that 95% of Middle-Namers went by a middle name because it was what their parents had chosen to call them, and they had been known by that name since birth or early childhood.(5)

If the composition of Congress can be considered “representative” in this matter, the number of Middle-Namers in the populace  during the last half of the twentieth century has hovered around 10%. In the 80th Congress (1967-69), 10.2% of the members of Congress were known Middle-Namers, but in the 90th Congress, only 7% were. In the 100th Congress (1987-89), 10.7% were Middle-Namers, and in the 106th Congress (1999-2000), 9.5% were. Two of seventeen Presidents during the twentieth century, or nearly 12%, were Middle-Namers, and in 2009, 10% of the nation’s sitting governors were known Middle-Namers.

So we might “guesstimate” that by the end of the twentieth century, about 10% of the United States population, or thirty million, were Middle-Namers.

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1.  Not all family genealogists have made the connection between (Mary) Ann(e) Longworth (Langworth), who married Captain John Utie in England in 1616, and the Mary Ann Utie who married Richard Bennett in 1643. Identified only as Ann(e) Utie in some records and thus by some genealogists, she is the same woman who was widowed by John Utie in 1638 and who married Richard Bennett in 1643. Some genealogists confuse the 1616 marriage date of Ann and John Utie or the 1619 date of their first son’s birth with the date of Ann’s birth, and thus assume she must have been the daughter of Utie rather than his wife. Comparison of the following internet sources make her identity less confusing: “Captain John Utie,” William & Mary Quarterly, 4:2 (July 1895), pp. 53-58; Janestowne Society, “Washington and Northern Virginia Company: Biographies of Ancestors of Members– John Utie”; “Richard Bennett,” Encyclopedia Virginia by Virginia Foundation for the Humanities; “Richard Bennett (Governor), Wikipedia; “Bennett Surname”, Shirley Family Association; “Mary Ann Utie,” familytreemaker; “Mary Ann Langworth” and “John Utie,” rootsweb ancestry.com.

2. Robert W. Baird, “The Rise of Middle Names,” at genfiles.com.

3. George Fenwick Jones, The Georgia Dutch: From the Rhine and Danube to the Savannah, 1733-1783 (University of Georgia Press: 1992), pp. …. ; Charles F. Kerchner, “18th Century Pennsylvania German Naming Customs and Patterns,” kerchner.com/germaname.

(4) Richard D. Alford, Naming and Identity: A Cross-Cultural Study of Personal Naming Practices (New Haven: HRAF Press, 1988).

(5) Unpublished survey conducted by the author.

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