Early American Names

Learn about the names used in Colonial America.

Early American Names

What's in a Name

The American name Virginia was fashioned by early settlers to honor the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I, who drove the establishment of English rule in America. In August 1587, the first child born in America of English parents was given this name, earning it a star role in the new American name pool.

Name Dropping

If you're looking for truly classic girl names, you can't beat such monikers as Sarah, Elizabeth, or Mary. Even during the days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, more than 50 percent of all females bore these ever-popular names.

While the Spanish explored the New World for some time before the English arrived, it was the colonies established by the English that would form the basis for the new nation that was to follow. Such cities as St. Augustine, Florida (founded in 1551) and Santa Fe, New Mexico (founded in 1605) were both established by Spanish explorers. But a battle between Spain and England left the once-powerful Spanish Armada in shambles in 1588, and eroded Spain's exploration efforts in the Americas.

England was now positioned to be the ruler of the sea. Queen Elizabeth seized the opportunity to extend her country's power by using the routes established by the Spanish to launch her own expeditions to the New World. Early English settlements met with disaster more often than not—whole communities, like the one established in 1585 on Roanoke Island on present-day North Carolina's Outer Banks, were destroyed by disease, starvation, and attack by local Indians, who didn't take kindly to the intrusion. It wasn't until the Mayflower set sail in 1620 that significant settlements were established in the New World. That little ship brought a total of 102 men, women, and children, as well as a group of names that would form the basis of the fledgling American name pool, including:

  • Classic Norman given names, such as John, Henry, and Edward.
  • Names derived from revered biblical virtues, such as Prudence, Patience, Mercy, and Faith.
  • Biblical names, especially ones from the Old Testament.

The prominent names of this period, either borne by passengers of the Mayflower or by explorers who came before or after them, included:

  • Anne: Although she followed Puritan leader John Cotton to the Massachusetts Bay colony, Anne Hutchinson was banished from Boston for so-called heretical interpretations of sermons. She preached her own form of Puritanism that emphasized faith overall, and, although the crowds liked what she had to say, she was excommunicated from the Puritan religion and banished from her home. She left there and settled Portsmouth, Rhode Island, eventually moving to Long Island, New York, where she and her family were killed by local Indians.

  • Edward: A very popular name among the kings of England (there were eight of them!). It means “wealthy defender.”
  • Elizabeth: It's from Hebrew and means “pledged to God.” One of the most popular girls' names the world over, borne by two queens of England: Elizabeth I, who supported the settlement of English colonies in the New World, and Elizabeth II, the current reigning monarch.

  • Ephraim: Hebrew for “fertile” or “productive.”
  • Enoch: Meaning “vowed” or “dedicated,” Enoch was the name of the father of Methuselah in the Old Testament.
  • Esther: The Persian word for “star,” it was the name of the Old Testament orphan who saved her people by becoming the wife of King Ahasuerus.
  • Henry: It means “estate ruler,” and maybe that's the reason why it became such a popular name for royalty, as it was borne by no fewer than eight kings of England. And dare we leave out Henry Hudson, the renowned explorer who mapped much of the northern U.S. and Canada?
  • John: One of the most commonly used names in the world, of course, had to come to America via the Mayflower. Famous colonists with this name included Captain John Newport, who piloted the ships that bore the settlers of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the New World; Captain John Smith, the leader of the Jamestown colony; and John Winthrop, who established Boston, Massachusetts and served as governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony.
  • Josiah: It means “the Lord supports.” Josiah was an Old Testament king.
  • Miles: Miles Standish was a famed Pilgrim leader. His name was a variant of Emil, derived from Latin and meaning “eager to please.”
  • Roger: This name, which means “renowned spearman,” was the first name of Roger Williams, the founder of Providence, Rhode Island.
  • Sarah: The revised name of Sarai, the wife of Abraham, given to her after God appoints her husband as “the father of many nations.”

What's in a Name

The classic Pilgrim-inspired name Miles was the first name chosen by Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins for their son. Comedian Eddie Murphy used it for one of his children as well.

  • William: Another kingly name, it has Old German roots and means “will-helmet” or “one who protects.”

Later arrivals included Dutch settlers, who at the time had the world's largest merchant marine fleet. They focused their sights on what would become the state of New York, establishing a bustling trading village called New Amsterdam that would eventually be renamed New York City. Peter, the New Testament name meaning “rock” that was the Anglicized version of the Dutch “Piet,” was brought to America by Peter Minuit, the man who negotiated the purchase of the island of Manhattan from the Indians.

  • The Complete Idiot's Guide to Baby Names
    The Complete Idiot's Guide to Baby Names
    New parents can reference this book for ideas on naming there new baby.