Linking Us to the Past, Name By Name

Found in the 1790 census in Spartanburg, South Carolina: Truelove Sparks.

Found in the 1790 census in Spartanburg, South Carolina: Truelove Sparks. 

By Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG
Copyright © 2006—All rights reserved
Do not post or publish without written permission

When the first census of the United States was taken in 1790, the machinery of our federal government had just been constructed, but many of our ancestors had already been here for five or six generations.

At that time Congress consisted of 91 members—26 in Senate and 65 in House of Representatives, the numbers specified by the Constitution—pending the enumeration of the inhabitants of the states. In 1790 the United States consisted of 13 states with Vermont being the first addition, admitted in 1791, before the first census had been completed. The gross area of the United States at this time was 820,377 square miles, but only about 29 per cent of it was settled.

For genealogists, the 1790 federal census is an important source for clues as to where their early American families lived and additional statistics about them. If you can locate your families in the first census, chances are also good that some of your ancestors participated in the Revolutionary War, and that you descend from some early American lines.

That first census (from the states for which that schedule still exists) reveals there were about 27,337 different surnames. Estimates are that the entire number of surnames in our country at that time did not much exceed 30,000—with most of them believed to be of English and Scottish origins. No doubt many Germanic and French surnames had morphed into sounding “English” by this time.

It is not difficult to understand why some of the surnames that appear in 1790 census have passed out of existence because people tend to avoid and change peculiar ones, especially those that can be ridiculed. Myriad given names, which appeared frequently in the 17th and 18th centuries, and even in the early part of the 19th century, have become obsolete. Our names, particularly given names, have always followed popular trends.

Some unusual and amusing (at least to our 21st-century ears) combinations of given and surnames noted in the 1790 census are:

Anguish Lemmon, Mercy Pepper, Pleasant Basket, Cutlip Hoof, Hardy Baptist, Truelove Sparks, Snow Frost, Mourning Chestnut, Boston Frog, Jedediah Brickhouse, Hannah Petticoat, Hannah Cheese, Ruth Shaves, Christy Forgot, Joseph Came, Joseph Rodeback, Agreen Crabtree, River Jordan, Booze Still, Comfort Clock, Sharp Blount, Sarah Simpers, Barbary Staggers, and Noble Gun.

While genealogists researching their early American lines often chuckle upon finding an ancestor with a “funny” name, we soon learn that our family tree contains many names—surnames as well as given names—that fall into this category.

The most common surnames found in the 1790 census are: Smith, Brown, Davis, Jones, Johnson, Clark, Williams, Miller and Wilson. These nine names alone represented about four percent of the total white population at that time. Another interesting fact has been discovered about the names that appear in that first census: Few middle names or initials occur, suggesting that this naming custom did not gain popularity until sometime after the beginning of the 19th century. The Declaration of Independence was signed by some of the most distinguished men of the period—and one assumes they would have signed their complete names—yet, on this famous document only three signatures appear with middle names: Robert Treat Paine, Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lighfoot Lee.

Those who have seriously studied the names upon the schedules of the first U.S. census are impressed by the fact that a large proportion of the total number are derived from common nouns or other parts of speech related to the daily affairs, occupations, events and surroundings of the individual and the community.

Of the approximately 30,000 different surnames found in these records, 9.4 percent were derived from parts of speech. Many surnames of 1790 fell into the following general classes: Household and domestic affairs—food and eating, drink, clothing and sewing material; nations and places; human characteristics; games, religion, music and literature; property; nature; ocean and maritime subjects; war; death and violence; time; and some unusual and ludicrous combinations of common nouns and of given names and surnames.

Under the household and domestic affairs category appear surnames such as: Soup, Oyster, Trout, Pork, Lamb, Stew, Quail, Goose, Tripe, Tongue, Kidney, Ham, Eggs, Olives, Mustard, Vinegar, Onions, Pancake, Jam, and Pepper. From drinks were: Brandy, Goodrum, Redwine, Punch, Freshwater, Beer, Booze, and Wine.

Surnames related to clothing are: Petticoat, Bloomer, Redsleeves, Feather, Highshoe, Jumpers, and Boots; to sewing materials: Linen, Silk, Lace, Mendingall, and Patching.

Nations and places included such surnames as: England, Ireland, Hungary, Germany, Holland, Spain, Poland, Athens, Boston, Canada, Bohemia, Venice, Parliament, Paradise and Bedlam.

Human characteristics: Tidyman, Biters, Fakes, Boor, Crook, Outlaw, Goodfellow; Short, Barefoot, Dumb, Howling, Mauldin, Toogood, Witty, Underhand, and Toobald.

Surnames that fall into a category of ailments and remedies (or so we assume) are: Fatyouwant; Boils, Measles, Ache, Cough, Quack, Salts, and Pill. From games, religion, music and literature were such surnames as: Dance, Waltz, Preacher, Church, Steeples, Bell, Sinners, Music, Fiddle, Fife, and Jingles.

Property and related terms pertaining to kind of house and building material and belongings, furniture and tableware, merchandise and commodities provide many interesting surnames, such as: House, Brickhouse, Oldhouse, Halfacre, Gable, Plank, Kitchen, Stable, Barns, Warehouse, Wharf, Platter, Forks, Saucers, Stove, Wood, Cowhorn, Gravel, Hornbuckle, Pencil, Rags, and Whips.

There are surnames connected to money such as: Dollar, Shilling, Nickels, Pence, and Money. Colors were represented by such names as: Black, White, Gray, Green, Brown, Red, Ruby, Pink, Purple, Seagray, Lavender, Blue, and Scarlet.

Objects of nature or feature of landscape obviously provided the locality surnames of: Mountain, Lakes, Meadows, Bridges, Bogs, and Pool.

Using the 1790 census can help genealogists discover the variant spellings under which our ancestors’ surnames may appear in other records. For example, the surname of Morgan is also listed as spelled Maughan, Maughon, Morgain, Morgen, Morggen, Morgin, Morgon, Moughan and Moughon. And, you don’t even want to speculate about how the surname of Magdalena Fenis can be rendered.