Inspired by Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors topic this week: Unusual Names, I decided to write not just about one ancestor with an unusual name, but several in one family…including myself and my relationship with my own name.
I struggled a great deal when I got married and changed my surname to my husband’s. It was something I wanted to do, but it was still difficult to give up that part of me that was so linked to my identity. It may seem trivial to some, but I had grown up believing that a name is a terribly important thing, an intrinsic part of identity. Names can be a source of pride or embarrassment. There may be a story behind your name that links you to someone or something. Since diving into genealogy research, I have also found it to be important when looking up records and attempting to differentiate between people. A unique name is a blessing – thanks for the foresight, Mom and Dad!
My parents knew that they wanted to name me something unusual. My surname was ridiculously common and they wanted something to balance it out. Both of them being romantic with a literary bent, they came across the name Zoe in the Lord Byron poem, “Maid of Athens, Ere We Part” which goes a little something like:
Maid of Athens, ere we part, Give, oh, give back my heart! Or, since that has left my breast, Keep it now, and take the rest! Hear my vow before I go, Zoë mou sas agapo. (which translates to either, “My Zoe I love you” or “My life I love you.”)
I was named Zoe a little more than 15 years before it became popular (thanks, no thanks, to Sesame Street). It was terribly uncommon in the United States then to the point where no one knew how to pronounce it (versus today when no one knows how to spell it). I was quizzically referred to as Zo? more often than not.
There were no other Zoes in my elementary school where Megans, Laurens, and Jessicas reigned supreme. As a child, all I wanted was to fit in and wished that I hadn’t been cursed with such a strange name (I wanted to be a Megan desperately). However, I soon realized that my name was what made me special, what made me different, like a super power. My 1st cousin, Kelly, and I were very close and when we were together I noticed that she was always complimented on her gorgeous, coppery red hair, while I received attention for my interesting name. I grew to love it and it became a welcome and beloved part of who I was. I would not meet another Zoe my age until college; the two of us shared the distinction of being the only 2 Zoes in our school of 9,000. Fast forward to today with Zoe being among the Top 50 most popular girl’s names. I remember the first day its popularity became apparent. I was at a museum with my family and someone called, “Zoe!” I turned out of habit, as until that moment “Zoe” always meant me. Not this time. My family and I were flabbergasted – it was the end of an era. In truth, my mom has still not gotten over it and to this day refers to me as “the original Zoe,” something I have to remind her is not quite correct considering the name had been around long before it found me.
I have since gotten used to not being the only Zoe in a crowded room, but I still love my name. I attribute my relationship with it to why I, in turn, took naming my daughter so seriously and why I still feverishly check in to the Social Security website at the beginning of every year to make sure it’s not gaining too much in popularity.
So, when I go through my family tree, I am always interested and delighted when an unusual name pops up.
My 9th great grandfather, Henry Martin Luce, immigrated to America from England in the early 1660s (the first record of his presence in America was 1666) and settled in the Martha’s Vineyard area of Massachusetts. He was one of the first settlers in that area and ended up having one of the largest families. Shortly after his arrival, he married Remember Litchfield (my 9th great grandmother), whose family had immigrated sometime before Luce, as Remember is thought to have been born in the States. Remember is one of those fabulous, strange names that I gravitate towards, but, I would find that it was not as uncommon as I originally assumed.
In the 1600s and 1700s, virtue-based names were a common trend characteristic of the Puritans, specifically. The Puritans were Protestants in and from England in the 16th and 17th century. They wanted to reform the Church of England under the Protestant religion and, by doing so, eliminate the Catholic practices that had formerly been the status quo (pre- King Henry VIII’s overhaul). Many Puritans would migrate to North America for religious freedom and an escape from the large scale violence and unrest due to the power struggle between Catholics and Protestants. Basically, they wanted a blank slate. According to The American Descendants of Henry Luce of Martha’s Vineyard, the Luce family was described as “regular Church of England people” with an “Evangelical tendency almost puritanical,” which is assumed to be a reason why they ended up in North America. Traditional Christian names made frequent occurrences in the Luce’s naming trends, but so did these interesting, virtue-laden Puritanical names.
In order to distance themselves from common names, seen as worldly, and to differentiate themselves from other religious communities, the Puritans took to naming their children these virtue-based names. The names were unisex, though it appears as though certain names tended to be applied more to females and others to males. This makes sense considering the Puritans did not view men and women equally; men were the leaders and heads of the family while a woman’s role was mostly subservient. They would often choose names whose purpose was to remind the child about desired characteristics or warn them against sin. Some truly cynical parents even chose names such as Helpless, Anger, and Forsaken for some unenviable few.
My family appears to have been a little more lighthearted than some. In addition to Remember, names like Experience, Thankful, Desire, and Mercy made frequent appearances in my family tree right alongside the Johns and Marys. This naming trend was not exclusive to my family. About 40 years before Henry Luce arrived, a little ship called the Mayflower beat him to it, bringing over passengers with names like Resolved, Desire, Love, Humility, Wrestling, and Remember.
These names began to die out around and after the 17th century, though some have been resurrected today (so it goes!). I am all for this trend, though I can’t imagine I’ll meet a Forsaken on the metro or in a Starbucks any time soon.
Curiosities of Puritan nomenclature, by Charles W. Bardsley; 1888; Chatto and Windus, London.
McCourt, Martha F. The American Descendants of Henry Luce of Martha’s Vineyard. vol. 4 4, Boston, MA : New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1994.
*the above is a wonderful resource for Luce descendants and is viewable, in it’s entirety of 4 volumes, on archive.org