Colonial America – Early Naming Patterns


Anyone who has ever tried to trace their families’ roots, and has gotten back to the early American colonies, has probably run into a situation where there are 4 Johns, or 5 Williams in one generation, or the 7th child is a Jr. Why is that?

English Naming Patterns

Up until the revolution, and sometimes until the 1850’s, most families of English descent (and the Scots who settled in North and South Carolina) followed the following naming pattern:

  1. First-born son named for Father’s Father
  2. Second-born son named for Mother’s Father
  3. Third-born son named for Father
  4. Fourth-born son named for Father’s eldest brother


  1. First-born daughter named for Mother’s Mother
  2. Second-born daughter named for Father’s Mother
  3. Third-born daughter named for Mother
  4. Fourth-born daughter named for Mother’s eldest sister

Any subsequent children where usually named for other ancestors.

For example, a family found in Halifax County, Virginia has the following names and ages: James (33), Mary (35), John (12), Evin (10), Mildred (8), Adolphus (6), James (4), Mary (1), Martha (1), Richard (4 months). Living next door are James’s parents, named John and Mildred.

Let’s apply the naming pattern. The father’s father is John, as is the eldest son. We can assume that either they had a daughter who died or that Mary’s mother was also named Mildred, since the eldest daughter appears to be named for the Father’s Mother. The fourth son is named for the father, which is a slight variant from the pattern but the third daughter is indeed named for the mother. If you look at other information this family, you may find siblings of the parents named Richard and Martha.

A frequently found variation from this pattern is: Eldest son named for Mother’s Father Second son named for Father’s Father Eldest daughter named for Father’s Mother Second daughter named for Mother’s Mother.


The first settlers in New England generally bore names with English origins, Biblical connotations or moral significance. Biblical names were generally preferred over names connected with the Church of England. Common names among the Puritans included Chastity, Love, Obedience, Patience and Mercy. Other popular names included Mary, Elizabeth, Sarah, Ruth and Hannah for girls while John, Joseph, Samuel, Nathan and Josiah were popular for boys. Often the eldest son and daughter would be named for their parents.

In Virginia and the Southern colonies, biblical references were less common though not unseen. Often children were given classical Greek names and popular English (folk) names. Boys could be named William, Richard, Edward, George, Adolphus, Theophilus, or John. Girls were often named Margaret, Martha, Elizabeth, Jane, Catherine and names such as Penelope, Permelia, and America were not very uncommon. First-born children were also often given their parents’ names in lieu of the names of their grandparents.

The Quakers in Pennsylvania and Delaware generally followed the English naming pattern. Also popular were biblical names such as John, Joseph, Thomas, William and George for boys, Mary, Hanna, Esther, Elizabeth, Sarah and Phebe for girls. Names denoting moral virtues such as Patience, Preserve, Grace and Chastity were also favored.

The frontier settlements of early America generally followed the same naming patterns of the southern colonies, but also tending to make up more unusual names for their children. These settlers were German, Irish, Scottish, French, Dutch and Scandinavian and tended to Americanize their children’s names in an effort to fit into their new country (this included surnames as well as given names). Some popular names in these regions included Alexander, Charles, James, Percy, David, Richard, Robert and John.

One last common naming pattern was the use of surnames as given names. For example, the child of John Woodson and Catherine Haynes might be Haynes Woodson. After the Revolution, it was common to see surnames given as middle names.

A Word About Middle Names

Before the American Revolution, it was against English Common Law for commoners to have middle names. The German population generally ignored this law, giving two or three given names to each child. If a man was known by more than one name before the Revolution, it was generally a nickname or a name used to tell him about from the other John’s in his family (as in “John the elder”) After the Revolution, the giving of a middle name became common. Often, a surname was given as a middle name, such as the name of a maternal grandmother or other distant relation.