Minneapolis City Directory, 1859-60

Choosing a Baby Name from the Family Tree

Mrs. GeneaLOGIC and I are expecting!

You know what that means. It’s time to dive into the family tree to find potential baby names.

How people choose names

Naming a child is a special event. The name we choose will shape other people’s first impressions of him or her from day one and it will affect our child’s self-identity as s/he grows up. It’s a big decision. We took it seriously with our first child, a daughter named Eliza, and we’re taking it seriously again. But how should we choose the best name?

Some people choose names that are popular at the moment. We all know the names that were popular when we went to school. Linda and Bob? 1950s. Jennifer and David? 1970s. I bet you can guess my age pretty accurately if I I tell you is that I was high school friends with triplets named Amanda, Megan, and Sara.

Other people name their children after famous or important contemporary figures. How many of you have a George Washington [Surname] or Thomas Jefferson [Surname] in your family tree? One collateral family in my tree contains sons named John Wesley Nelson, Columbus Washington Nelson, Henry Clay Nelson, George Washington Harrison Nelson, and Zachariah Winfield Santa-Anna Nelson, among others. In the last instance, the parents obviously couldn’t decide which Mexican-American War general they wanted to honor and decided to reference them all.

Zachariah Winfield Santa Anna Nelson's name cropped from his death certificate
Zachariah Winfield Santa Anna Nelson’s name cropped from his 1921 death certificate. Virginia Death Certificates, Ashby, Shenandoah County, primary registration district 851a, file 4446. From Virginia, Death Records, 1912-2014 on Ancestry.com.

Many names from European cultures originally carried a literal meaning. Today, people generally don’t know the underlying meaning of most names and only go searching when expecting a baby. But even though people don’t know such meanings by heart, they still affect which names many parents choose for their children.

Biblical names like John or Elizabeth derive from Hebrew and in their original language typically spelled out the child’s relationship to God: Yochanan, “Yahveh is gracious,” or ‘Elisheva’, “My God is abundance.” Most Western versions of Hebrew names passed into common use via a Bible written in Greek or Latin, and so we have inherited Johannes (Latin from Greek) and John rather than Yochanan, and Elisabet (Greek) rather than ‘Elisheva’. For many Christians through the ages, the underlying Hebrew meaning was less important than the name’s association with important Biblical characters.

Other familiar English names originated from archaic forms of Celtic, Germanic, Greek, Italic, or Slavic languages. They likewise originally carried a literal meaning or referred to nature or divinity. Frederick, for example, derives from two Germanic components, frid “peace” and ric, “ruler.” Fiona comes from the Irish word fion, meaning “vine.” Danica was a Slavic personification of the Morning Star, Venus. And so on.

Immigrant groups from outside Europe are adding new names to America’s pool of names and meanings every day. To give just one example, a state congressional district here in Minnesota recently elected former Somali refugee Ilhan Omar as its representative. Fittingly for a politician, her given name means “to state something eloquently” in Arabic. Several names more commonly found in African-American families, such a Imani and Tariq, also derive ultimately from Arabic words and may reflect a much older link to the Muslim communities of East Africa.

For genealogists, family names are especially important. Because our family trees are bigger and we often know them by heart, we typically have more family names to choose from. We can dig deeper into the past to find the best fit. Indeed, one of my stipulations is that the names we choose must come from somewhere in our child’s direct ancestry.

Baby GeneaLOGIC's family tree
Baby GeneaLOGIC’s family tree.

Having said that, choosing a family name is just one of several important factors. There are practical things to consider like spelling in elementary school and job applications as an adult. Here are the general criteria we are using to choose names for for our children, in rough order of importance. (We never formally spelled it out like this. This is essentially a summary of many conversations over dinner and before bed.)

  1. A name we both like
  2. Goes well with our last name (probably no alliteration)
  3. From a direct ancestor (ideally a person who led an interesting or inspiring life)
  4. Sounds cute for a kid AND respectable for an adult. It has to look good on a resume.
  5. Standard spelling. Sorry to all the Jaiessuns out there, but why make a simple name more complicated?
  6. Not in the Top 10 most popular. No offense to the Lindas of the 1950s or the Liams of today, but we don’t want our child to share his or her name with half the school room. A certain degree of individuality is a good thing.
  7. Not too obscure for the United States in the 21st century. (The flip side of #6.)
  8. Ancient/original meaning is fitting and aligns with our values
  9. Initials don’t spell something unfortunate

This genealogist’s first attempt

We named our first daughter Eliza Pauline. It was important to me as a genealogist to find meaning in the names we chose from the personalities or life histories of the namesake ancestors. Ultimately, that’s why we do genealogy, isn’t it? Our ancestors don’t care whether we remember them. They’re dead. But we find meaning in their lives. They help us figure out our place in the world. They may have passed skills or personality traits down to us. They can teach us how to live (or how not to live). Choosing a name of an ancestor for a new child reflects how we, as parents, understand our heritage right now.

The name Eliza comes from my side of the family and Pauline from my wife’s. There are two Elizas in our daughter’s direct ancestry.

Eliza Nelson Carnes headstone in Swiggett Cemetery, New Salem, Pike County, Illinois.
Eliza Nelson Carnes headstone in Swiggett Cemetery, New Salem, Pike County, Illinois. Image posted on Findagrave.com by user Linda Simpson Davidson 03 Dec 2012; photograph taken May 2008.

Eliza Nelson is my 4x-great-grandmother on my dad’s old-stock American side. She was born around 1810 probably in Frederick County, Maryland. I don’t know many details of her life. In fact, I only have three primary sources that give her name: an 1831 marriage record from Harrison County, Ohio; the 1850 census from Pike County, Illinois; and her gravestone, erected presumably in 1857 when she was buried.

Eliza Kinney was born to Irish immigrants in Canada around 1845. She is my 3x-great-grandmother on my mom’s Irish side. Eliza moved many times in her life. As a girl, she traveled with her parents from Canada to Vermont and then to northern Pennsylvania. In 1864, alongside her new husband James Daly, she moved west to settle with her new family in southern Wisconsin. She left her parents and many siblings behind in Pennsylvania. Only five years later, Eliza was on the move again, this time traveling farther west to cut a new farm out of the prairie in southwestern Minnesota. By age 30, Eliza had already made five major cross-country moves—all without automobiles and mostly without trains. Later in life, Eliza’s family made a final move, another 100+ miles northwest to a farm near the South Dakota border. This Eliza is also a bit of an enigma. After her husband’s death in 1913, I can’t find her again. Her gravestone, marked “1845-1931,” is the only evidence of her whereabouts after 1913.

Though we don’t know much about the personality of either Eliza, we can still draw meaning from their stories. Both Elizas were migrants, especially Eliza Kinney. Like her namesakes, we hope our daughter Eliza goes where life takes her, or rather, takes her life where she want it to go, wherever that may be. Like her ancestors, we hope she grows up to change her own circumstances for the better.

Family photograph of Pauline Shoultz outside home, 1940s.
Family photograph of Pauline Shoultz outside home, 1940s.

Pauline Shoultz was my wife’s grandmother. We know a lot more about her personality. Even though she was an “old” grandma (she was almost 71 when my wife was born) my wife and her sister got to spend a lot of time with Pauline while they were growing up. I also got to know her a little bit before she passed away. She was a spirited if uncompromising woman of fully German descent. My wife remembered her this way. “She wasn’t like other people’s grandmas—polite, sweet. She was a spitfire with her own sense of humor. Grandma Pauline wasn’t a proper lady. She liked sports and hanging with the old guys at the coffee shop. She said a lot of really funny things, intentionally and unintentionally. At the same time, she was an emotional rock, steadfast and determined.” These qualities helped her live to be 98 years old.

When our daughter Eliza Pauline is a little older, we’ll explain to her why we chose the names we did. We’ll teach her about her ancestors. We’ll share our desire for her to grow into an adventurous, independent woman who is also kind, loving, and loyal.

Great family names . . . for someone else’s child

Yes, we like old family names. There aren’t a lot of Elizas or Paulines these days, but both names fit the resurgence of names that were popular around 1900.  Of course, not all old family names make good names in 21st century America. My wife’s 2x-great-grandmother was named Svanhilde. It’s a unique old Scandinavian name that was first documented in the 18th century in the same county in western Norway where our Svanhilde lived. (Her grandmother, born in 1775, was also named Svanhilde and may have been the first recorded bearer of the name since the Viking-age sagas.) I have teased my wife about naming our next child Svanhilde so much that she is frankly tired of the humor. (I think she’s taking our naming duty more seriously than I am.)

With Svanhilde at the head of the list, here’s a list of old family names we will not be using for our next child (but that I like to threaten to write on the birth certificate while my wife is still recovering):

Svanhilde Mathiasdatter portrait
Family photograph of Svanhilde Mathiasdatter (1841-1914), after whom we will NOT be naming our next child. (Sorry, Svanhilde. I’m sure you were a lovely lady.)


  • Svanhilde
  • Olga
  • Josephte
  • Ambjør
  • Euphroseine
  • Orlaug
  • Jacquette


  • Ladislav
  • Asbjørn
  • Ole
  • Václav
  • Mareen
  • Désiré
  • Burgess
  • Vavřinec
  • Gunnar
  • Livinus

Yes, all of these are given names in our future child’s direct ancestry. Most of them sound distinctively “ethnic” in 21st century America. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For example, searching the Social Security baby names lists for a few other “ethnic” names from our family tree, I discovered that more than 550 American girls were named Ingrid in 2008 and more than 650 boys were named Johan in 2016. Bridget is an evergreen name of Gaelic/Irish origin.

That said, such names do tend to raise questions about where a person is from. Svanhilde, Ambjør, Orlaug, Asbjørn, and Ole are all Norwegian in origin. (They’re “old” names in Norway now, too.) Gunnar is Swedish. Désiré and Livinus are Dutch/Flemish. Ladislav, Václav, Vavřinec, and Olga are names of some of my Czech ancestors. Josephte is a distinctively French-Canadian female name while Euphroseine is a Greek name carried by a handful of my female French-Canadian ancestors. Mareen was a French Huguenot man who settled in colonial Maryland. Burgess is an archaic given name of Scottish or English origin and the given name of Eliza Nelson’s paternal grandfather. All are interesting names for different reasons, but none fit our family in this time and this place.

So which name will we choose for baby #2? Well, you’ll have to wait for a birth announcement! We still have the boy name we chose from my wife’s first pregnancy (and we still like it). We recently agreed upon another girl name. I think we also recently agreed that, just like our first pregnancy, we won’t find out the baby’s sex until s/he is born. We like the mystery. Doing it the old fashioned way also makes naming the child a part of the birth event itself. I still remember calling Eliza by her name for the first time right after she was born. It was moment I’ll never forget.

Minneapolis City Directory, 1859-60

The Obsolescence of Microfilm

For anyone who called herself a genealogist in the past century, spooling microfilm onto a special microfilm reader and scrolling through its pages was a rite of passage. Finding a record of your long-lost ancestor hundreds of pages into the roll was something to celebrate. But it’s the beginning of the end of the microfilm era. A major sign of the transition appeared a couple days ago.

On Monday, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) announced that it would suspend distribution of microfilm rolls on September 1, 2017. The church, which incorporates genealogy into its theology, owns about 2.5 million rolls of microfilm full of genealogical data from all over the world. For the past 80 years, the church has distributed microfilm rolls to designated research centers upon request, to the great benefit of genealogists everywhere.

Microfilm has so many benefits. It condenses information and saves archival space. It allows users to see faithful copies of original documents without risk of damaging the originals (and with very little risk of damaging the microfilm itself.)  It allows the contents of parish record books and other large documents to be sent through the mail at minimal cost. Its material components decay very slowly.

But these are not exclusive benefits. Many of them apply to digital information too. And that, indeed, is the future for LDS collections. According to the official LDS statement, “The change is the result of significant progress made in FamilySearch’s microfilm digitization efforts and the obsolescence of microfilm technology.” The church has already digitized more than 1.5 million microforms, with most of them available online at FamilySearch.org for browsing or searching. The rest, says the statement, “should be digitized by the end of 2020.” Three-and-a-half years of waiting isn’t that long for genealogists. I mean, we’re already halfway to the release of the 1950 census on April 1, 2022, and that seems (to me at least) like it’s just around the corner.

For me, the discontinuation of microfilm distribution raises two questions, one immediate and practical and one more general. First, why not continue distribution of undigitized rolls until 2020 for the sake of accessibility? The whole point of both microfilm distribution and digitization is accessibility, right? Well, LDS has a solid answer to this  question on a related FAQ page. Below is their  explanation. I included it in full because it gets to the heart of the bigger issue of obsolescence.

The microfilm industry has been in decline for a couple of decades since the advent of digitization. The cost of vesicular film used to duplicate microfilm for circulation has risen dramatically while demand has decreased significantly. At the same time, it has become increasingly difficult and costly to maintain the equipment, systems, and processes required for film duplication, distribution, and access. It is not feasible for FamilySearch to continue the microfilm distribution service for longer than it already has. Meanwhile, digitization is nearing completion and many of the records FamilySearch has not yet digitized are available on other websites accessible to FamilySearch patrons. By reinvesting resources in digital efforts, FamilySearch can accelerate and improve electronic access.

Microfilm is dying for economic reasons, plain and simple. Microfilm technology is now a niche market. Production equipment, replacement parts, and people with the proper skills to maintain microform technologies are all harder to find, which puts a premium price on the whole niche. It is easy to understand how the church arrived at its current solution.

John in the Minnesota Historical Society Library
Researching family history using microfilm in the Minnesota Historical Society Library.

The other question raised by the LDS discontinuation of microfilm distribution is about the future of microfilm itself. The technology is still widely used in libraries and archives around the country (and LDS microfilm collections will continue to be available at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City). I still use microfilm all the time at the Minnesota Historical Society to search for death certificates, naturalization papers, historical Minnesota newspapers, and more.

Microfilm has a few advantages not shared with digital images. Most notably, microfilm is an analog technology. All you need to read it is a good light source and a magnifying glass. Digital archiving, in fact, presents a much more complicated system of preservation in the long run. File types and software change frequently, so that obsolescence is just as much of a threat to digital media. And just like physical objects, digital objects decay with use. Obviously, the advantages of digital media (color, share-ability, ease of access) more than compensate for the new challenges it presents. Yet I wonder if―because of its simplicity―microfilm will continue to have a place in libraries and archives, including genealogical archives, for decades more. Maybe the end of ordering LDS microfilm rolls isn’t quite the end of the microfilm era.

Minneapolis City Directory, 1859-60

23andMe’s Ancestry Timeline vs. Reality

Beware of ethnicity estimates, especially the new timeline one from 23 and Me. (Here’s another genetic genealogist’s case study of how unreliable 23 and Me’s new Ancestry Timeline is.) It’s nearly impossible to identify from the DNA alone the date one of your ancestors was last “purely” from any one country or ethnic group. There are two issues in play.

First, our genes are wildly mixed up. While different ethnic origins can sometimes be assigned to different DNA segments, this only tells you about the background population from which those genes derive. It cannot on its own identify when a particular person came from that country. The article linked above gives the example that someone with 39% British Isles ancestry might have a parent from England, or, as is actually the case, a bunch of really distant British ancestors up several different lines. If genes from those people happen to be inherited in sequence on a number of different chromosomes, it might appear that the genes originated as a single unit in the recent past rather than the reality that a bunch of different segments were inherited from many different people who ultimately came from the same population centuries ago (i.e., roots in New England).

The second issue is historical. National borders that exist today did not exist a few centuries ago. Migration has always taken place. Putting these two together, you can understand how someone of French extract—let’s call her Angelique—might have a mix of genes that appear to the test to be Scandinavian and Mediterranean (Italian) rather than Western European. For Angelique, the current French border obscures the deeper history of Roman occupation and the Viking settlement in Normandy. Even if everyone in Angelique’s document-able family tree spoke French and lived in northern France, Angelique’s genes suggest that she happened to inherit more genes derived from Roman and Viking fore-bearers than, say, Germanic (Frankish) ones.

Taking this example one step further, it’s impossible for commercial DNA tests like 23andMe or AncestryDNA to determine on their own (without documentary evidence of some kind) whether Angelique’s Mediterranean ancestry in fact came from an underlying Roman genetic pool or instead originated in a smaller population descended from, say, a troop of Italian craftspeople who intermarried with the local French population after migrating to France to help build a 14th-century castle. The history is simply too complex and the DNA too fragmented to tell the difference without serious scientific study of particular genes or without much larger pools of historical DNA to compare with.

In the end, population history and population genetics make something like 23andMe’s ancestry timeline an impossible endeavor. It may make good marketing, but it doesn’t make valid history.