The job of a genealogist is much like that of a police detective.  Success in both pursuits depends on searching predictable hidden places where evidence would be expected.  A true detective genius, however, finds traces of clues out in the open – signs within plain sight yet invisible to the average eye.

Detective Dupin in “The Purloined Letter”

In The Purloined Letter, the short tale that Edgar Allan Poe considered his best detective story, the Paris police are unable to solve a perplexing mystery despite several days of searching every possible hiding place they can imagine within a small apartment.  The clever detective Dupin cracks the case by discovering that the missing item is hidden not where the police have searched for it, but within plain sight.

When you are looking for clues in the family tree, sometimes you have to go no further than the hints that are staring you right in the face: first names.  As Christine Rose wrote in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Genealogy, “Today’s parents-to-be thumb through books of names looking for ideas for the baby’s name.  Although there have always been trends in first names, your ancestors didn’t rely on book lists.  They thumbed through the Bible, or they named their children for friends and relatives or famous people.”  Or, if they were Catholic, they named them after saints.

Much of genealogy is about surnames, but given names can provide additional clues that help to crack cases in the family tree. On today, September 12, the optional memorial of the Most Holy Name of Mary, let’s look more closely at “what’s in a name”.

William begat William who begat William: The first name as a legacy

Clues can sometimes provide confirmation of connections to a family.  When I found what I believed to be my 3rd great-grandfather’s 1823 passenger list from Cork, Ireland to New York City, I discovered that the dates matched pretty closely with the handwritten information I had received from family members.  I was also happy to see that fifteen-year-old Patrick Cowhey had traveled with a companion: Ellen Cowhey, five  years his senior.  Since Patrick later had a daughter named Ellen (possibly named after his traveling companion who may have been his big sister), this information gave me further confidence that I had found the correct young Patrick on his trip to America.

Ship William passenger list departing Cork for New York, c. 1823 (Listed are Ellen and Patrick “Cowhy”)

Given names can provide clues to a family legacy.  Within that same Cowhey family, I have often found names repeated from generation to generation.  This was very common through the end of the 19th-century in many Irish Catholic families. John, Patrick, Michael, Mary and Bridget occur with incredible frequency within Irish families.  In the Cowhey branch of my family, Williams and Anns are especially numerous.  Following the branches down the family tree can be very confusing.  When a generous cousin first showed me the family Bible in his possession, he was under the impression that it belonged to his Aunt Ann.  Looking at it closely, I realized that it had to be older than that and thought it had belonged to another Ann the generation before her, who had shared the same name. Further investigation brought out the truth: the Bible had been owned by a third Ann, the original matriarch of the family in America – Ann Cowhey, wife of the young immigrant Patrick Cowhey mentioned above.

Ann Cowhey family Bible, c. 1844

Another naming pattern that I have observed on the Hungarian side of my family is that of naming a new baby after a sibling or other relative that has passed away.  I was surprised to discover that my grandfather had another younger brother named Lajos who had been born in Hungary and immigrated along with the family to the United States. No one currently living in my family had ever heard of Lajos.  Sadly, he passed away as a young child after the family made the trip to their new homeland.  Months later, as I looked through birth and death records for the Hungarian village where my great-grandfather and his family had lived, I learned that my great-grandfather, too, had a brother named Lajos that had passed away as a young child.  In naming his son after his deceased brother, he probably never imagined that his son would follow in his uncle’s footsteps in that tragic way.

Birth record of Lajos Toth, Gelej, Hungary, c. 1906

Naming patterns and clues to geography

“Given names have histories – just as surnames do,” wrote Myra Vanderpool Gormley in her article Given Names in Early America: Shaped by History, Religion and Traditions, “and for genealogists the study of the given names selected and passed down for generations by our ancestors can provide important clues to their ethnic origins, religions, educational and social backgrounds.”

Many cultures have traditional naming patterns.  In some areas of Ireland and within other cultures, for example, it was once common to name the eldest son after the paternal grandfather and the eldest daughter after the maternal grandmother.  Some Irish families continued this type of pattern by naming their second child after the other grandparent of the same gender, naming the third child after the father or mother, and naming the fourth child after the eldest brother or sister.

I have not seen that type of pattern within the Irish branches of my family, but I have noticed a few names that may provide clues to geographic origins of the family.  I understand that the name William was more common in the north of Ireland – where many families named their firstborn son William. Learning this bit of information is another clue pointing me to the origins of my McCue ancestors in the north of Ireland, since their surname is more common there also.*

WWI draft registration card for my great-grandfather George William McCue whose family’s origins in Ireland I have yet to confirm*

*Update: I’ve since discovered that the McCue family did indeed originate in the north: in County Monaghan, one of the four counties within Ulster that did not become part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland. The clues were right!

On the Eastern European side of my family, I was surprised many years ago to learn that my “Hungarian” grandmother’s family was actually of Croatian origin. Her parents had emigrated during a time when their home village was under the rule of Austria-Hungary, they had spoken both Hungarian and Croatian, and after they settled in New York City they became involved with the Hungarian Catholic church.  My grandmother and her siblings believed, therefore, that they were Hungarian. The ethnic origins of this branch of my family have long intrigued me.  I was interested to learn recently that it is common in Slavic countries for girls to be named after their mothers, although this is not usually true in Hungary.  I have seen this in my Croatian-Hungarian family tree – we have three successive generations of Ilonas that are each near and dear to my heart.

Happy birthday name day! – Saints in the family tree

Hungarians put more emphasis on patron saints’ “name days” than birthdays

A well-known practice in many Catholic European cultures – such as that of my Hungarian ancestors – was to give the newborn child the name of a saint. The name might have come from the saint on whose feast day they were born, the patron of their birthplace, or a saint special to the family in some other way.  Many modern Hungarians still put more emphasis on the celebration of a person’s “name day” – the feast day of their chosen saint – than their birthday.  In my family the feast of King St. Stephen of Hungary is a big one – there are loads of Stephens, Istvans, Stjepans, etc. in the family tree!

Given names with saintly origins can provide clues to possible birthdates, special family affiliations, and even religious beliefs.  I was surprised to discover that one branch within my Hungarian family tree included a 2nd great-grandmother of Greek Catholic origin.

Studying the names and dates in a Catholic family tree alongside the liturgical calendar can provide some interesting discoveries. I recently made the surprising connection that my great-grandmother, who faced much sorrow throughout her life, passed away on September 15, the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows.  I was touched to see that God chose that day to call home this woman of such strong faith who had dealt with tragedy during her life as a wife and mother.

When comparing ancestral given names and birth and death dates to the days in the Catholic liturgical calendar, it is important to note that many of the saints’ feast days changed with the introduction of the Novus Ordo calendar back in 1962.  (Stay tuned for more information about the Catholic liturgical calendar within an upcoming article here at The Catholic Gene.)

One of my daughters and her friends stopping in to visit Jesus at church on All Saints’ Day

What’s in that name? – Family mysteries

While there are some family name choices that may seem pretty easy to understand in light of cultural and religious traditions, there are also those that leave the family historian asking more questions.  For example, St. Casimir was a 15th-century Polish saint who is very highly regarded primarily in Poland.  The choice of the very Polish name Kasmir (an alternate spelling of Casimir) by my great-grandparents for one of their sons has always intrigued me.  I am told that my great-grandfather was able to speak seven languages, including Polish. Could it be that the family has a Polish connection through his side of the family?  That is a mystery that I have yet to solve.


I hope that this tour of some of the given names within my family tree has gotten you thinking about the clues that might be found within yours.  As I mentioned earlier, in Poe’s The Purloined Letter, detective Dupin wisely explored the simplest clues, and I hope that you will, too.  When the prefect of the Parisian police came to Dupin for help with the case, Dupin gave a suggestion that every family detective would be wise to consider. “Perhaps it is the very simplicity of the thing that puts you at fault… Perhaps the mystery is a little too plain, a little too self-evident.”