Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Ancestral "Scrabble" Name Game

Earlier generations countered the battle against higher mortality rates by raising larger numbers of children, hoping to beat the odds for surname survival. But that meant having to come up with more names for more children than parents these days generally face.

It reminds me of the period in my life when I was a musher, and when it came time to breed and raise a litter to replenish the ranks of our sled teams, we noticed that other mushers (those who raised multiple litters to use or sell) would often give theme names to their litters. I recall one musher who had dogs with the names Exxon, Texaco, and Mobile (and these littermates clearly looked alike). The solution my first wife, Sharon, had was to call our own little littermates by the names of famous department stores -- hence, our pups received the names Penny, Macy, Bloomie (for Bloomingdale's), Tiffy (for Tiffany's), Alex (Alexander's), and Bucky (a stretch for Sears and Roebuck -- good thing for us the litter only had six pups!)

The experience did, however, give me empathy for what my grandparents were in for when they elected to populate the Texas Panhandle with extra farm hands named Todd. My father's first and middle names (Dexter Lamar) as well as those of his brothers and sisters -- for a total of eight siblings -- are a case in point.

I always marveled at the odd and sometimes strange names my paternal grandparents chose for their children, and a little digging revealed those names were mined (mostly) from my grandmother's side of the family tree. Nonetheless, it's been quite an eye-opener to realize why my grandmother saddled so many of her children with names that sounded like desperation Scrabble words, compelling many of her children to invent alternative nicknames for themselves.

Okay, you get the idea. For other genealogists who wander onto this post, enough said. You get the drift. What follows is perhaps of more interest to the descendents of my own immediate family of Todds.

A.P. and Mae Todd's Children

Let's list my dad's siblings in order of birth, ending with my dad's own name, and including the nicknames many of them adopted. I've emboldened those names on the list that have analogues to earlier relatives (at least, the antecedent relatives I've identified so far).
  1. Maggie Alice (b. 1901)
  2. Thomas Clifton "Cliff" (b. 1903)
  3. Byron Franklin "By" (b. 1905)
  4. Milton Lewis "Bill" (b. 1908)
  5. Cyrus Edwin "Ed" (b. 1911)
  6. Lola Bess (b. 1914)
  7. Hardy Buford "Boots" (b. 1915)
  8. Dexter Lamar "Deck" (b. 1918)
"Mae" (Wilson) Todd
on her wedding day, 1900
A.P. Todd, on his
wedding day, 1900
Certainly, the continuous string of birthdates -- an average of almost one new child every other year for seventeen years -- seems to me sufficient justification for my grandmother, Mary "Mae" (Wilson) Todd, to have earned naming rights. And she exercised that right until the final two children (doubtless too exhausted to care by then), when she seems to have ceded to my grandfather, A.P. Todd, the opportunity to offer a couple of names from his side of the family. But he, too, must have felt compelled to go with his wife's trend of using more -- shall we say, distinctive? -- names from his lineage.

My maternal grandmother's parents were Benjamin Frankin Wilson and Sarah Hoover. (In the late eighteenth century, the latter's surname changed from HΓΌber to Hoover only one generation after that branch of the family immigrated from Bavaria to Pennsylvania, but that curious name-change phenomenon is blog grist for a separate mill.)

Here's the siblings list again, but this time with the antecedent namesakes and relationships to my dad's mother (#s 1-6) and father (#s 7-8):
  1. Maggie Alice (Mitchell) -- Mae's older sister was named Maggie.
  2. Thomas Clifton "Cliff" -- still looking for antecedents for these names.
  3. Byron Franklin "By" -- Mae's father was Benjamin Franklin Wilson. (And the antecedent for her father's name was clearly an homage to the famous eighteenth-century American statesman.)
  4. Milton Lewis "Bill" -- Mae's grandfather was named John Milton Wilson (antecedent given and middle names for the famous English Renaissance poet?) while Mae's grandmother had the maiden name of Lewis.
  5. Cyrus Edwin "Ed" -- Mae's older brother was named Cyrus.
  6. Lola Bess -- still looking for antecedents for these names.
  7. Hardy Buford "Boots" -- AP's father was named Hardy.  
  8. Dexter Lamar "Deck" -- AP's initial's stand for Atha Poindexter. (And the antecedent relative for Atha's first name was his great-grandfather, Athanathan!)
Of the sixteen given and middle names for these eight siblings, half have clear ancestral antecedents within the famly's previous three generations, which is consistent with the common practice of drawing upon the names of forebears as a source of subsequent generations' names.

In my own generation, I got my dad's first name for my middle one (fortunately, my folks refrained from reinstating the "Poin-" prefix for Dexter); to his chagrin, my brother Stephen got his middle name of Watt as a namesake for the nicknames given to our own mother's father and grandfather (their real names were both Watkins but both father and son went by "Watt"); and our sister got our mother's first name of Mary although our sister decided to go by her middle name of Suzanne.

The Ancient Egyptians believed that a person never died as long as their name was spoken by the living. In some ways, the tradition of naming descendents for ancestors accomplishes the same thing. Besides, it's reassuring to realize how our ancestors live on not only in our DNA but also through our names.

* * *
Mark and Kym Todd are volunteers on WikiTree, a project to create the entire human tree.
Profiles, sources, and documents for individuals described above are on WikiTree:


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