Why are so many people in our family named Joseph?

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We always talk about the “old days” when we followed traditions the family held onto, mostly in reference to food, family gathering, religious practice etc. These are all a great part of our family history, but they don’t help us with our genealogy research. Some of those traditions are so ingrained that they are never talked about. They just “are.”

One of the areas of ‘tradition’ we look at as genealogists is the way our Italian families named their children. Even if we grow up Italian and choose to not research the family tree, if we see a chart made by someone else, it’s often the first thing we notice. “Geez, why are there six Josephs in this family?” or “Nonna had four grandsons named Carlo, and six granddaughters named Maria.”

Another tradition of the older days was having larger families, so the number of similarly named grandchildren would be easy to spot. The younger generations are not only having fewer children, but not always using the naming traditions of our forebears.

I hope to clarify a few things about the “naming tradition” that can throw people. What I usually hear from people who are new to genealogy is “So the first grandson is named for his paternal grandfather, and the second for the maternal grandfather.” “And the first daughter is named for her father’s mother and the second daughter is named for her mother’s mother.” Most of the time, this is true, but not always. For one thing, let’s confine this discussion to Italy. Many of our families continued this tradition in America, but with the intermarrying of Italians and non-Italians who do not observe this tradition, the Italian-American family chooses to observe this tradition deliberately. My research would show that generations of Italians followed this almost universally, even though it was not an edict from the Italian government, the Catholic Church, or any other authority. It just “was.”

So let’s get back to why they might deviate from this tradition. One situation would involve if the baby’s father died before the baby was born. If a baby is born posthumously, it would be named for the father. Even if the baby were a girl, she would be named the female version of her father’s first name. So if baby girl Addante was born to Maria and the late Giuseppe Addante, instead of naming her for Giuseppe’s mother or Maria’s mother, the baby would typically be named “Giuseppa” in honor of her late father, regardless of who her grandmothers were.

Though the tradition stresses honoring the grandparents, for some reason the parents are left out of this tradition directly. They’ll get honored with a slew of grandchildren named for them later on. But even if a family had 12 children, typically none of them would be named for either the father or the mother. Only if the father died before the birth of the baby would he be so honored. The mother, who could certainly have died as a consequence of the childbirth, would medically have to survive the birth of the baby and therefore we don’t have any children named for their mother using the same logic.

Why else would the family deviate from this? During the era of high infant mortality, a family would have 12 children but several of them might die from poor medical care or cholera or other reasons. The naming tradition would usually name the next son after the previous son, if the previous son was already gone. Same for the daughters.

So you could have a bunch of sons all named for their paternal grandfather, as long as they each died before the birth of the next brother. Once one brother proved to be strong enough to survive, there would be no further boys with that name. Once the next boy is born and his brother survives, the next boy would be named for his maternal grandfather. If the survivor brother suddenly died in his teens, the next boy born to this family would almost inevitably be named for the brother who died. This is true even if the brother or sister in question arrived later in the family and thus not already named for a grandparent.

Lastly, the most obvious reason why a child would NOT be named for the mother’s parent, is….(drum roll……cymbal crash) the mother’s parent had the same first name as the father’s parent. You can’t name two sons in the same family with the exact same name, just because they have two grandfather’s both called “Vito,” or two grandmothers both called “Maria,” or both.

Here is an example family where a number of these traditions come together.

Carlo, son of Vito and Maria, married Giovanna, daughter of Vito and Isabella, and the begat:

  • First son, Vito is named for Carlo’s father, and by extension Giovanna’s father too
  • First daughter, Maria, is named for Carlo’s mother, but she died aged 2 months
  • Second son, Giorgio, is named for an uncle, because you can’t have two Vitos
  • Second daughter, Maria, is named for Carlo’s mother and her late sister
  • Third daughter, Isabella, is named for Giovanna’s mother

Maria the second daughter was alive when Isabella was born, but has since died

  • Fourth daughter, Maria, is named for Carlo’s mother and the other two sisters
  • Vito, the first son, now dies and there are no more children in this family.

So, ironically, there are no surviving sons named for either grandfather in this family.

As you research in Italian records, it is very important to find all children in the family of each set of ancestors. Find all the births first. You can use the naming tradition to learn more than you know.

When you find the names of the first son and first daughter, you now can be very certain of the names of the father’s parents, even if you have not found them on a document yet.

When you find a second son or second daughter with the same first name in the same family, you can be very certain that the first son/daughter had died already, and you can then easily find the death record of that earlier child, in the records between the year of the child’s birth and the year of the birth of the sibling.

If you go through several years and find no further births to this family, there are several possibilities. 1) The father came to the USA for a while and thus no more children; 2) The father or mother died in Italy; 3) stillborn children

You might want to check for a passenger list for the father coming to the US. You may also want to check the birth records marked “bambino/bambina non viva” in the index. These are stillborn babies who are not indexed by surname for some inexplicable reason. If you find one that belongs to your family, it explains the gap between living children.

By the way, if you find a regular birth record that lists the child’s name as “Giorgio e che io riconosco essere senza vita,” you have found a stillbirth, and you can record the death date of the child the same as the birth date. There will typically not be a death record for that child separately. Sometimes, in the older records before 1865, the stillbirths will be recorded in the Atti Diversi as “Atti di Nato Morto” and those children won’t be found in the regular births or deaths.

Also, if you see a birth record that lists the child’s name as “Giorgio……gemelli” or “nato primo” than you probably have a twin. Check the very next record(s) for the twin birth or even a triplet! Watch out for the “senza vita” on the same line as the birth because twins frequently did not survive back then.

Next month, I will go through some techniques for finding all children in one family. It is not as easy as it sounds but it’s well worth the effort.



About Dan Niemiec

Dan Niemiec has been the genealogy columnist for Fra Noi since 2004. For the past 25 years, he has researched his genealogy back 17 generations, plus tracing descendants of his ancestors, yielding 74,000 relatives. His major focus is on civil and church records in Italy, Chicago vital records, Chicago Catholic records and most major genealogy web sites. He has given dozens of presentations to many local and some national genealogy societies on topics such as cemetery research, Catholic records, Italian records, Ellis Island and newspaper research, among others.

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