Blog 2022 01 23 2022 Those pesky middle initials

Do you determine your connections based on an initial?  Do you exclude people who may be your connection simply because they do not have the correct initial, some other initial, or no initial at all?  Do you know when the average person in America started having middle names or initials?  We will take a look at a couple of scenarios to help you determine when to rely on them and when to consider ignoring them.

In colonial America, middle names were almost exclusively used by only those with royal titles.  The average colonist did not have middle names and you typically do not start seeing them until after 1781.  Even then, that initial may change a half dozen times.  You may often see someone start using their middle name and either drop a middle initial or make a middle initial from their first name.  You simply cannot trust it, you must use it as a simple clue like everything else.

Have you ever seen where middle initials mysteriously appeared and wondered where it came from?  Sometimes, it can be quite simple, especially with the illiterate ancestors.  Over time, they learned to make an initial of either their first or last name and began putting that instead of an ‘X’ or ‘+.’

John X Doe
John J Doe

Gets transcribed into John J. Doe.  And voilā, mystery resolved. Everyone thinks he had the middle initial of ‘J.’

So how did a literate man suddenly get an initial?  The answer I believe is quite simple if someone stops to think about it and apply logic along with some simple detective work.

Take the case of a prominent, literate man, Courtney Norman (Circa 1718?? – 1770).  Throughout his entire life, he signed his name to numerous legal, land, and other documents.  For example, he clearly signed Courtney Norman on a tract of land he sold to a man named Henry Stringfellow. [i] Then why do researchers put Courtney C. Norman?  I believe it all stems from his will, where it looks like it is signed Courtney C. Norman. [ii]

However, if he signed Courtney C. Norman, then why did someone add, “his mark?”  If he did not sign his name, then why not?  The answer I think is given in the will.  We are uncertain on exactly when Courtney was born and 1718 is a logical guess.  In today’s day, 52 years old is not considered old, but Courtney wrote, “being sick in Body.”  The ‘C’ may have been all he was able to write.

We as family researchers must take great care not to attribute information to an ancestor that does not belong and do not assume what someone else wrote is correct simply because it looks good.

[i] Culpeper County, Virginia, Deed Book B, pages 440, Clerk of the Court, Culpeper, Culpeper County, Virginia, (www.FamilySearch.og: 19 December 2021).

[ii] Culpeper County, Virginia, Will Book B, Page 238, Division of Courtney Norman Estate, Clerk of the Court, Culpeper, Culpeper County, Virginia, ( accessed 19 December 2021).