The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, March 29, 2002


Naming Carlisle children, 1744-1849 John, Sarah, George and Martha

Debra and Jimmy named Kristin and Matthew, who are now naming Madison and Chase. Naming ways (onomastics) change as generations grow up and have children of their own, evolving in response to changes in the culture. They also signify the preferences and values of their historical era.

Naming ways in eighteenth-century Carlisle closely correspond to those found throughout New England. During the second half of the eighteenth century, Carlisle parents overwhelmingly chose their children's names from the Bible, both Old and New Testament. Sarah, Mary, Hannah and Lucy were the most popular names for girls, followed by Rebeckah, Sally (a form of Sarah), Ruth and Lydia. Elisabeth and its variations, including Betsy and Betty, were also popular. Boys were also given biblical names, the most common being John, Thomas, Samuel and Joseph. Also popular were Jonas, Reuben and Jonathan. William was as common as Joseph, although like Lucy for girls, it is one of the few names not taken from the Bible.

Names during colonial times

Also found among the records were the unusual names that we often associate with the colonial era: Mehitable, Ruhamah, Hepzibah, Azubah and Dorcas for girls; Nehemiah, Eliezer, Isachar, Zacheus and Zebulon for boys.

Names were frequently passed down in families, and almost as often from mothers to daughters as from fathers to sons. Parents' names were usually given to the first-born sons or daughters, but there are examples of parents waiting until several children had been born before bestowing their own name. Without exception, boys named for their fathers were given the exact name, whereas girls named for their mothers might receive a variation on the name. Examples include Elisabeth Flint naming her daughter Betsy in 1779 and Sarah Heald naming her daughter Sally in 1786.

Nineteenth-century names

As the eighteenth century gave way to the nineteenth, changes in naming ways are observed. Although a quantitative analysis shows that Mary and Sarah were still the most common names for girls (Mary more so than Sarah), a new kind of name began to appear. Names popular for girls in the first half of the nineteenth century were Martha and Maria, and the shortened version of Elizabeth, Eliza. There was also a greater incidence of the use of compound first names like Mary Ann and Eliza Jane, as well as an increase in the addition of middle names. Better record-keeping practices provide us with a more accurate account of children's names, but compound names are also a sign that more elaborate naming ways were in use. Often parents combined an older, traditional name with a more contemporary name. Nineteenth-century records provide numerous examples of names such as Sarah Amelia, Mary Joanna, Hannah Almira and Thankful Maria. Similarly, boys' names include William Henry, Caleb Sumner, Thomas Albert and Abijah Warren. In addition to these are names that appear in the records for the first time in the nineteenth century: Fanny, Charlotte, Louisa, Emily, Paulina, Clarissa and Georgianna for girls; Austin, Marshall, Oliver and Palmer for boys.

Changes in spelling

An examination of nineteenth century records also found changes in the spelling of some names so that Elisabeth became Elizabeth while Rebeckah became the simpler Rebecca.

While nineteenth-century parents continued to use John, Thomas and Samuel for boys, they were also partial to George, Benjamin and James. Charles was not used for Carlisle boys during the eighteenth century, but it became popular in the nineteenth, along with David, Stephen and Timothy. As with girls, many of the old names persisted. There were still many boys named Reuben, Jonas, Abel, Asa and Rufus, often because of the practice of passing down names in families.

Looking to famous names

for sons

In addition to biblical names, nineteenth-century parents increasingly looked to famous men when naming their sons. Samuel and Dorcas Adams named their sons John Quincy (1826) and George Washington (1831). Benjamin and Sarah Barrett named their son Benjamin Franklin in 1802, as did Thomas and Abi Heald in 1809. Captain Timothy and Hannah Heald named their son James Madison when he was born in March of 1809, the same month and year that James Madison was inaugurated the fourth president of the United States, and in 1829 Abram and Betsey Hutchins named their son Thomas Jefferson, three years after the death of the third president. Henry Clay Robbins was born to Ephraim and Ann in 1836 and Daniel Webster Robbins to John and Caroline in 1845. Several boys received the name Elbridge, possibly for Elbridge Gerry, Massachusetts politician and James Madison's second vice-president. Girls were named for famous people much less often than boys, although the nineteenth-century rise in the popularity of Martha corresponds to the use of the name George for boys.

In a time of large families the use of necronyms (the practice of naming for someone who has died) was not uncommon and throughout a century of records there are many examples of this practice. For example, Azubah Robbins died in 1786 at the age of ten months. When her sister was born four years later, she was also named Azubah. Similarly, when Aaron Fletcher was born in 1777, he received the name of his brother who had died in 1775.

Analyzing naming practices is fun and interesting, but names are more culturally significant than we might think. The naming of a child is not just a personal decision, but one that is an integrally tied to the culture, as well.


Source of records

Vital Records of Carlisle, Massachusetts to the end of the year 1849. Salem, Massachusetts: Essex Institute, 1918.

Additional information

Fischer, David Hackett. Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Norman, Teresa. Names Through the Ages. New York: Berkley Books, 1999.

2002 The Carlisle Mosquito