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Using Middle Names in Your Family History Searches

Should you enter your ancestor's middle name in the search box when doing family history research online? What is the significance of a middle name, if any? This article explains many of the common reasons behind middle names, and discusses their usefulness when doing genealogy research.

Middle names can offer significant and important clues about your ancestors. But then again, they sometimes can be misleading or have no real significance.

Things to Remember When Researching Middle Names

The first thing to keep in mind is that not everyone had a middle name. Nor does every middle initial have a name associated with it. Harry S. Truman is a well-known example of this; the "S" did not stand for a middle name.

Photo: U.S. President Harry S. Truman. Credit: Wikipedia.

Another U.S. president, George H. W. (Herbert Walker) Bush, reminds us of another point about middle names: some people have more than one.

Is It a Middle Name or First Name?

Some names that appear to be middle names are actually part of the first name. In your own genealogy research you may have encountered double first names such as these: Rose Marie, Mary Beth, Alice Ann, Mary Jo, Terry Kay, and Mary Ann. While these are more common among females, there are similar male names. Conversely, some of what appear to be middle names may actually be part of the last name. This is common in Latino names or some European names like Van Wagonen or Mac Graw.

Some middle names were used like a first name. A person named John David Smith may have never been addressed as John at all. He may have used the name J. David Smith or just David Smith or even David J. Smith. For example, the world knows this famous British author as Rudyard Kipling—but his full name was Joseph Rudyard Kipling.

Photo: British author Rudyard Kipling. Credit: Wikipedia.

In the U.S. South, the first and middle name could be switched back and forth making it unclear which name was originally intended for which purpose. It was also not uncommon for several siblings in a family to have the same middle name or, less commonly, the same first name with different middle names.

How Middle Names Are Chosen

It's also possible that middle names may have no family history significance at all. In some cases, the parents just picked them because they liked the name and/or it sounded good with the first name. Middle names may have been influenced by the culture at the time. During the 1970s and 80s many girls were given the middle name of Marie or Ann simply because they were popular. Parents may have liked an uncommon name but didn't want to give it as a first name, so they chose it as a middle name. These could include common words being used as middle names, nature-inspired themes, virtues, and so on.

The middle name may be a common name used among the family. The name may be another family member's first name. It is not uncommon for a son's middle name to be his father's or grandfather's first name. This can also happen with daughters although not as commonly.

Is It a Middle Name or Last Name?

Sometimes the ancestor's middle name appears to be a surname. This can happen for males or females. A surname used as a middle name may come from the mother's maiden name. This is yet another reason why it is important to conduct research on everyone in a family and not just your direct line. However, don't assume the unusual middle name is the mother's maiden name because there are other reasons why this could occur. When you find a surname used this way, do some research on others in the area with that last name. You may discover that the parents just used the name because they liked it. Or you may discover a hidden secret. The following are three middle name examples that could help with your own genealogy research.

Middle Name Research Case #1

A family historian found a great grandmother whose middle name was Bell. Initially, the genealogist believed this was a misspelling of the name Belle, which means beautiful. But then the researcher discovered her father also had the middle name Bell, as did several other relatives. Further research showed that there were many Bell families living near her ancestors as well. Perhaps the name was "borrowed" from the Bell family, but it will require more research to establish a clear connection. They may have just been friends or there may be another reason.

Middle Name Research Case #2

A genealogist found the middle name Bowles in a line of her family. Searching the area where her ancestors lived at the time, she found a prominent man named William A. Bowles. William was also the given name of her ancestor. Thinking it possible that her 4th great-grandparents named their son William Bowles after this man, she did a little digging into GenealogyBank's Historical Newspaper Archives for more information. She discovered some interesting information—but didn't like what she found.

William A. Bowles became well known—and somewhat infamous. He moved into the Indiana area in 1830, just two years before the genealogist's ancestor bearing his name was born. William A. Bowles was a Mexican-American War colonel, newspaper editor, and prominent community leader. This same William A. Bowles may have been a founder of the Order of the Sons of Liberty, a great-sounding name for what in reality was an abhorrent group of the Knights of the Golden Circle—a secret society in favor of slavery and against the Union. The hope of gathering Bowles and his followers to the Southern cause was one of the reasons Confederate General John Hunt Morgan marched his troops into Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio during the summer of 1863, a Civil War expedition known as "Morgan's Raid."

When she began her research the genealogist was hoping that her grandparents named their son after this man, who seemed a prominent and respectable man—but that was before her further research revealed the extent of his pro-slavery beliefs. She also discovered that her ancestor used his middle name Bowles as his first name in the census returns following the Civil War, perhaps indicating admiration for this pro-slavery leader. While she admitted being disturbed by her ancestor's possible pro-slavery, anti-Union beliefs, she's glad she pursued research into the Bowles middle name, as it may have turned up some important aspects of her ancestor's character. She's continuing to look into this connection.

Elkhart Weekly Review (Elkhart, Indiana), 10 April 1873, page 4

Middle Name Research Case #3

Sometimes babies were named after prominent political or community leaders to attract support from them. A poor family of several multiple births (twins, triplets, etc.) named two of their sons after political leaders. This was obvious in the name of one boy: Theodore Roosevelt Spyhalski. The plan to curry President Roosevelt's favor was answered when he, a fan of large families, sent the parents a signed self-portrait as a congratulatory letter. The second son's name was less obvious: Samuel Jones Spyhalski. However, a quick search in GenealogyBank's newspaper archives showed that Samuel Jones was the mayor of Toledo, where the family was living. The plan worked very well when Mayor Jones offered a job to the struggling father and tried to help the family as much as possible.

Woodbury Daily Times (Woodbury, New Jersey), 6 January 1903, page 1

So keep in mind that searching on an ancestor's middle name may—in some cases—prove very helpful to your genealogy research, turning up family history information you might not have found otherwise, and sometimes leading you to additional, unexpected searches.

[Editor's note: this article was adapted from a post Duncan Kuehn wrote for the GenealogyBank Blog.]