Every so often, a historian gets an intellectual itch that needs to be scratched, an irksome question that just won’t go away, so off to the side goes the current project until something of an answer might be found to temporarily satisfy the curiosity. And so it happened to me yesterday, after writing a blog post about #SaveSweetBriar. In it, I referenced Felicity Merriman, the principal character of one of the most beloved American Girl books, created by my friend, Valerie Tripp, about a young woman who lived in Virginia during the age of the American Revolution. Having a keen scholarly interest in the way that young people develop passions for the past (mine started with The Mystery of the Old Musket), I’m especially curious about the role that Young Adult and related fiction plays in that process and have been rather surprised by the number of adult women, whom are now themselves historians, interpreters, archivists, and at least one award-winning journalist (my wife), who can trace their interest directly to Valerie’s Felicity. (I’ll share a guilty secret and reveal that I own and have read all of the books, including “Felicity’s Mysteries,” and find them utterly charming.)
Except there is a problem. As a historian of colonial Virginia, I could not recall having once come across anyone named Felicity. Not one. In fact, I couldn’t remember having ever seen any name like it in correspondence or ledgers or on a gravestone or anywhere else. Given names like that are common enough in New England records and graveyards, deriving as they do, I believe, primarily from a sort of Puritanism fueled by hefty doses of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, which resulted in such permanent reminders of the virtues that one should pursue to lead a good Christian life. Consequently, names like Charity, Prudence, Mercy, and, yes, Felicity, can be found throughout 17th- and 18th-century New England. But I could not think of one in colonial Virginia.
So, knowing that my loyalists will wait, I decided to take a look. I just happen to have built up, over the last ten years, a sizable prosopographical database (using Zotero) that focuses on the men and women, free and enslaved, who lived in and around the Chesapeake between 1600 and about 1820 (that later chronological edge keeps slipping further and further into the 1800s). Having already completed a broader study on male (free and enslaved) naming practices in the Chesapeake (to map birth legitimacy traits), I already had a model ready into which, in my search for Felicity, I could plug the female names and see what came out the other end, in a somewhat scientific analysis.
And I couldn’t find Felicity. Or Charity. Or Prudence. In fact, the only, for lack of a better way to describe them, “New England” name in our entire household belongs to our dog, Mercy Otis. Of 483 free females in my database whom had anything to do with the Chesapeake in the 17th and 18th centuries, only one — Fortune Randolph (a first cousin of Thomas Jefferson’s) — had a given name even close, and she had to be excluded in the end because she actually lived in Bristol, England, and never saw America. Interestingly enough, a full 45 percent of them were named Elizabeth (which is actually the name of Felicity’s best friend in the books and comes from a family of good loyalists), followed closely by Mary (33 percent). The next closest was a version of Anne (including Ann and Anna) at 12 percent. The remainder are a wide variety of Susannahs, Lucys, Sarahs, Janes, etc.
Of course, the next question occurring to any historian is “why?” Why such a tremendous difference in naming practices and, honestly, why so many named Elizabeth and Mary (more than three-quarters of the total)? The easy and quick answer is also the most interesting: it’s a fantastic illustration of the striking cultural differences between the different parts of colonial America. Religion is the most obvious difference, as my sample was comprised almost entirely of Anglicans, rather than Puritans or their Congregational successors. There are other issues to go into–the use of diminutives, for example, such as Betsy and Molly, which seems to me to be a class matter–but they will have to wait.
As my loyalists are beckoning me, I’ll leave you with my findings, in descending order of occurrence. Ladies and gentlemen, as Train would sing, meet (colonial) Virginia:
Elizabeth, Mary, Ann/Anne/Anna, Lucy, Martha, Susanna/Susannah, Jane, Sarah, Frances, Alice, Rebecca, Hannah, Maria, Margaret, Isabella, Charlotte, Dorothy/Dorothea, Ariana, Winifred, Judith, Catherine, Ursula, Priscilla, Ellen, Joanna, Christina, Agatha, Clara, Letitia, Edith, Amy, Eleanor, Lydia, and Pauline.
2 thoughts on “Where’s Felicity?: What’s Not in a Name in Colonial Virginia”
I suppose you know the Williamsburg novels of “Elswyth Thane” written in the 1940s–historical romances that jump from the Revolution to the Civil War to the Spanish-American War to the World Wars. The heroines of Dawn’s Early Light are Regina (a Tory until she saw the light) and Tabitha, or Tibby. The Civil War heroines are Eden and Susannah, but their mother (born c. 1820) is named Felicity.
I’d seen them and know about Thane but hadn’t managed to read through the works. Do you recommend them?