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Why Did Our Ancestors Have Strange Names?

Anyone who spends much time researching their family tree will eventually stumble upon given (first) names that cause them to pause and wonder why this person was given this name. Here, learn how and why our ancestors sometimes have names that seem strange to us.

Why Did Our Ancestors Have Strange Names?

In this post, I’ll tell you some examples of some “crazy” names in my own family tree, and explain how our ancestors first names can actually give us some insight into what was important to people at the time, including cultural, political, and religious influences.

Don’t forget to post your ancestors weird, crazy, or unusual names in the discussion below, and include the story behind the name, if you know it. We all have at least one ancestor with an unusual name.

Strangest names in my family tree

To start off the discussion, I’ll make a list of the strangest names in my own family tree.  I’m willing to bet that many of you have spotted these same naming trends in your tree, so I think it will be helpful to you to read about why some of these names were popular.

  • Theodosia
  • Experience
  • Remember
  • Chestina
  • Phebe
  • Jerusha
  • George Washington (Washington as the middle name)
  • Tecumseh

Where did our ancestors strange names come from?

Some of the names from the list above are easier to explain than others. Below, find some of the most common reasons that we find unique names in our family trees.

Some “odd” names are due to religious influences

One thing that I noticed in a lot of my Eastern European lines is that almost everyone seems to have the same (regular, common) name.  Sometimes, this can be due to people wanting to baptize their children with “good” Christian names, sometimes after Catholic saints. 

In Mexico, it was, and in some places still is, customary in some communities to give a child the name of the saint dedicated to that day, and since every day has its own saint, there is an ample – yet limited- supply of baby names. Many of these names, though not all of them, of course, are viewed as old-fashioned these days, and so the modern genealogist might view them as unusual.

For those of us who had ancestors in the United States during colonial times, we might notice that our ancestor’s names were also influenced by the dominant religious beliefs of the time.  In this case, specifically, it was the Puritans who did the influencing. 

Puritan beliefs stemmed from a religious “reformation” that occurred in England during the 16th-17th centuries. 

Puritans believed that both the Catholic Church and the Church of England had veered away from the basic beliefs of Christianity.  In fact, Puritanism was one factor that led many people to leave England to go to North America. 

They sought religious freedom and opportunity that could not be found in England.

While there certainly were some very unusual names given by Puritan parents to their Puritan children, most of the names fall into the more “sensible” ones like from the list that I included towards the beginning of this article. 

Remember, Thankful, Experience, Felicity, Hope, Prudence, Amity, and Verity are among some of the names that are less offensive to modern sensibilities. It is important to note that the names that we might see as weird Puritan names today were perfectly acceptable and normal names during the time that they lived.

Other odd names are given due to current events or famous individuals

Our ancestors were just influenced by modern trends in naming babies as we are today, which means that sometimes their babies were named after famous people.

You don’t see too many George Washingtons nowadays, but let me tell you that back in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, he was a very popular man.  Something about helping to found a country? 

In fact, George Washington was the most popular person for people to name a son after in the early part of the 1800s.  Some historians give George Washington credit for being solely responsibly for the rise in popularity of the name George that occurred.

I have a George Washington in my family tree, but I also have someone else who piqued my curiosity.  My 4th great-grandfather’s middle name was “Tecumseh”. 

Embarrassingly, I had never heard of Tecumseh, the great Shawnee Chief who fought valiantly to protect his people, unite native tribes, and to form an independent nation for Native Americans west of the Mississippi.  He had quite a reputation, and left a significant mark on our culture. 

My 4th great-grandfather was not the only person named after him.  Several generals carried his name, generally as a middle name, including the Union General Sherman.  We’ve all heard of him, but few of us knew that his middle name was Tecumseh and why he was named so.

Odd names can sometimes make genealogy research easier

The unusual or odd name can help in genealogy research because it is often easier to be sure that a record belongs to a particular ancestor when they have an uncommon name. One of the challenges of family tree research is deciding which record is about an ancestor, and it is compounded when an ancestor has a common name.

I have “Smiths” in my family tree, and so you can imagine how difficult it is to be sure that I have found the right John or Mary Smith in a genealogy record database. How can I be sure I have the right person when there were 20 people with the same name born that year?”

While there are ways to know which record belongs to an ancestor, the unusual names certainly do make it a bit easier.

To be honest, I’d like to personally thank the parents of all of my ancestors who chose odd names for their kids.  I’m sure that they weren’t thinking of it at the time, but they’ve made my job easier! 

I love it when I’m not looking for John and instead am searching for Tecumseh.  It does make life easier!

No offense to John, of course.

Unusual names can sometimes provide clues about our ancestors’ origins

Sometimes, researching the names that our ancestors had can help us find clues to help our family tree research. For example, an unusual middle name could actually be the surname of the ancestor’s mother.

Other times, an unusual name can provide us with an important hint about where to direct our research, which is exactly what happened for me during research for this article.

Looking through my family tree trying to find my favorite unusual names led me to spot something that I found very interesting.  I had been searching for some time trying to figure out the person who is “wrong” in my family tree, and I believe that I found it! 

Based on ethnicity estimates and DNA matches, I had reason to believe that one of the parents of my paternal grandmother had a fairly recent ancestor from Scandinavia. I noticed that one of my grandmother’s great-great grandmothers has an unusual middle name that matches that of some Norwegian immigrants to the town where she was born.

She’s my grandmother’s great-great grandmother, and I believe that one or both of the people who I thought were her parents weren’t really her parents.  Now that I know where to look, I can use some of my other DNA analysis strategies to help me figure it out.

If you are interested in taking a DNA test to see what you can learn (which is how I figured out that there is something wrong with the family tree that I grew up with), click the link below to get your Ancestry DNA test.  I’ll get a super small commission, which of course doesn’t affect your cost – and I appreciate your support:

Discovery the story AncestryDNA® can tell

Ancestors with weird names pinterest image with name card


I hope you enjoyed reading about the explanation behind some of the more common “unusual” names, even if that does make them a little less unusual. 

I know that you have some really cool names in your family tree, so don’t forget to share them in the discussion below.  If you have any questions or comments about something that you read here, I would love to hear from you in the comments below.

Thanks for stopping by!

Share the knowledge!

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Sunday 22nd of January 2023

My Father in law's name is Onas. I have been told by a non family member it is an Indian word possibly Cherokee but I have not found any proof of that.

Joseph Filip

Monday 10th of May 2021

Two of the more unusual names on my Czech side are Jan Nepomucena and Karel Borromeo. Both are Saints, with this Saint John being a Czech martyr. Curiously, the Czechs did not use middle names at all. The above names, as well as Anna Marie or Marie Terezie, are considered to be the child's first name. Depending on both the era and area, most Czech babies were baptized with the names of Saint's whose Saint Day was near to the birth date. And then sometimes you come across a tiny village where half the girls are name Florentina for several years in a row!

Dan Myers

Sunday 9th of May 2021

Mercedes, I have a public tree linked to my DNA. I also have a small additional tree for the purpose of trying to check a possible parent that is not in my public tree.

In the second smaller tree I have DNA matches with the only two grandchildren of their grandfather. l suspect this grandfather is my father for two reasons. His one granddaughter has a 823 cM (second on my DNA list), and the second granddaughter has a 717 cM (5th on my DNA list of hundreds). The second reason, my fathers (the man I've believed all my life to be my genealogical father) comes from a very large family. From his line, I have not been able to find any DNA connections while on my mother's side there are many. The grandfather of the two grandchildren mentioned above had unlimited opportunities to be my father. He and his wife actually provided a home for my mother before her marriage to my assumed father. I was not born until 18 months after my parent's marriage. Even so as a child I remember this older man visiting often during hours when my father was away working during WW II

Now my question: I believe I'm correct that I can link my DNA to only one tree. Is there a way to link to this small tree which includes three generations of my suspected father? In that tree, I'm also present as well as my mother. All members of that tree have now passed with the exception of one of the granddaughters. I only have DNA of the two granddaughters mentioned above.

Thank you,

With appreciation for your excellent weekly letters.


Sunday 9th of May 2021

Although strange names can be a clue, my father’s middle name was not. When I asked my grandmother why she chose the name “Kelso,” she replied, “I just liked it.”

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