Introduction to Onomastic Evidence in Genealogy

intro to onomastic evidence

#52Ancestors: Delilah Townsend Cornell and her namesake [Tweet this]

Onomastics, or the study of the origin, history, and use of proper names, is sometimes a useful indicator of relationships in genealogy research, but in stories where identities and relationships are well established by other documented facts, a naming pattern may end up overlooked as mildly interesting but irrelevant. Do those cases warrant a closer look at the onomastic evidence?

According to the place history Landmarks of Steuben County, New York, Delilah Townsend was the first wife of Smith Cornell and died in 1829. The 1830 Federal Census indicates five sons and two daughters, but so far, I only know the identities of four of the sons: Smith, Hiram, Socrates, and Hamilton.

Hamilton T. Cornell lived an adventurer’s life—or perhaps a scoundrel’s life, depending on your perspective—but either way, the word “wanderlust” was coined for such as him. He left his wife and six of his eight children behind in New York to seek his fortunes—fortunes that involved lawsuits, miner’s camps, miracle elixir sales, and making it all the way to California with two more wives and at least five more children (see: 1850, 1855, 1860, 1860, 1870, 1875, 1880) in his wake.

One of them, he named Delilah.

Onomastic evidence can take many forms. Traditional naming patterns can provide clues to parents names. Names might hold clues to the parents’ priorities (as with Biblical names, for example). Namesakes can hint at the regard parents may have held for the honoree.

I find it fascinating that long after Delilah Townsend Cornell passed away, and far from the eyes of his family, Hamilton the Adventurer would name a daughter for his mother.

With limited details in genealogy, I think it’s sometimes easy to forget that people are complex. The details Hamilton Cornell left in officials records and in print form one composite picture, and it’s easy to overlook the details that don’t support it–details that suggest that the footloose adventurer loved and missed his mother.

Other views

I’m no expert on onomastic studies, but it is one area that I’m hoping to learn more about throughout this year. I’ll definitely write more on this topic in the future! In the mean time, here are some resources you can view!

What about you?

Ever had a breakthrough that began with clues seeded in a personal or family name? Tell me your amazing discoveries related to onomastic evidence in the comments below!

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It’s all fun and games until your genealogy research uncovers something terrible. Next week, we’ll talk about what to do when it happens to you.


6 Replies to “Introduction to Onomastic Evidence in Genealogy”

  1. I’ve found this especially helpful when looking for a maternal line within a given community. Not just a parental naming pattern (eldest son after his father or paternal grandfather, or eldest daughter after her mother or maternal grandmother, depending on the culture, for instance) but of clustering of siblings’ names, too. It’s helped me repeatedly narrow the focus.
    In one case, it also narrowed the shock when my ancestor appeared in bastardy court records. The mother never married the man I’d correctly deduced was the father, even though the surnames that were generally applied to the child weren’t the legal one.

    1. Sounds like you’ve got a winning strategy, Jnana! At various times I’ve seen some helpful sibling names that strengthen my case for relationships, but I haven’t figured out a methodical way to search for name clusters. That’s a great idea!

  2. I am just in the initial stages of piecing my family tree, but was startled today to find an ancestor named John, whose father was Johannes and his father was Johannes. So perhaps a son named John is understandable. However, this list of children’s names makes me wish for the whole story – was he extraordinarily unimaginative? Stubborn? What was the effect on poor Phillipus? There is a seven year gap between Phillipus and the only other male non-John, so I don’t suppose they would build a “No Johns Allowed” clubhouse and shoot spitballs together.

    John Herman b. 1846
    John John b. 1848
    John Henry b. 1851
    John George b. 1851
    Phillipus b. 1854
    Margaret Louise b. 1856
    Caroline Fredericke b. 1858
    John Edward b. 1861
    Herman b. 1861
    Mary Catherine b. 1869

    In my imagination, Mama puts her foot down after the first set of twins. “I’ve given you four fine sons, all named John, the next one’s MY turn”. So she names Phillipus and the girls, then when the next set of twins comes along it’s Papa’s turn again. He gets all creative with the Herman, however note that the eldest is probably called by that name. Pretty hilariously mystifying!

      1. Oh my, THANK you! That totally explained it – now I can stop maligning my stubborn, unimaginative ancestor and think of him as . . . keeping tradition alive in the new country :-). I still feel bad for poor Phillipus, though ;-).

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