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October 20, 2017

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Naming patterns offer clues, but be careful

Stefani Evans

Stefani Evans

Naming patterns can provide powerful clues, but they can also be frustratingly misleading.

I have an Abraham Van Vleet family that lived in Somerset County, N.J., at the turn of the nineteenth century.

The couple named their first son Jacob Rutsen Schenck Van Vleet; they named their second son Dennis Van Lieuw Van Vleet, and later named their third son William G. Van Vleet.

Since I don't know Abraham's parents I followed the unique names as clues.

The owner of the large farm abutting the small Van Vleet farm in Somerset County was Dennis Van Lieuw; Jacob Rutsen Schenck was a large political figure in Somerset County.

So far the only connection I can see between the Van Vleet family and Dennis Van Lieuw or Jacob Rutsen Schenck is that Van Lieuw granted Van Vleet a $250 mortgage on his farm. Rutsen Schenck witnessed the mortgage document nine months before young Jacob Rutsen Schenck Van Vleet's birth and two years before Dennis Van Lieuw Van Vleet was born.

As for William G. Van Vleet, born after the family moved to Ohio? I do not know his son William's middle name, so I cannot investigate possible namesakes with as much clarity as I would like.

Abraham Van Vleet was active in his Presbyterian church. A possible source for William's name is the couple's pastor who baptized the newborn Van Vleet son. The pastor was named William Gray.

In the case of the Van Vleet sons, naming may be a red herring that reflects family associates rather than kinship. And yet, because naming is such a powerful clue, and because the Van Vleet daughters bear given names consistent with their mother's probable family, I can't rule out the possibility of kinship with the sons' namesakes even though I've so far found none.

An excellent source for Dutch naming patterns in America is "Dutch Systems in Family Naming: New York--New Jersey," by Rosalie Fellows Bailey, FASG, published May 1954 as Genealogical Publication No. 12 of the National Genealogical Society (NGS), reprinted from the NGS Quarterly March and December 1953. The publication is available new at NGS or Heritage Books, Inc. Bailey notes that in New York and New Jersey systematic Dutch naming patterns held well into the nineteenth century; she cites examples of patronymic, place-origin, occupational, and personal characteristic surnames.

We must also acknowledge our American penchant for naming children after favored politicians, military heroes, and figures of popular culture. Hence, my great-great grandfather, Winfield Scott Clark, first son of his parents. He was born in Ohio in about 1850 at the height of General Winfield Scott's popularity, and well before Scott, nicknamed "Old Fuss and Feathers," lost favor and resigned his command in 1861. My ancestor's name reflects no kinship—his name indicates that my ancestor's parents shared the popular opinion in 1850 regarding General Winfield Scott. Likewise, some citizens today pay homage to U.S. President Barak Obama and his family by naming newborns Barak, Obama, Michelle, Malia, and Sasha; the names do not indicate kinship with the Presidential family, but their use does imply admiration.

Child naming can be a useful tool when we combine it with other evidence. But our ancestors didn't necessarily follow a script when they named their children. For example, the 1850 census index at reveals 179 persons named Winfield Scott [plus surname]; that number does not include individuals indexed as Winfield S. [plus surname].

We can't ignore the names our ancestors used, but we mustn't be so wedded to a hypothetical naming pattern that we miss other clues the ancestor left.

Stefani Evans is a Board-certified genealogist and a volunteer at the Regional Family History Center. She can be reached c/o the Home News 2275 Corporate Circle, Suite 300, Henderson, NV 89074, or [email protected].

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