Saturday Diary: Names are more than labels

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What's your name?

It's the first question a stranger asks you, but your answer often tells the questioner more than just the label that identifies you to the world. It may tell them about your family, your ethnic background, maybe even a little about the people who gave you your name.

I was going to be Anthony until my oldest sister, Mary Beth, intervened. She thought Tony sounded more like an Italian kid than one whose grandparents were German, Scottish and Irish. Sure enough, I met lots of other Irish-looking Kevins at St. Benedict Elementary School and, if you search my name on Linked In, you'll find twice as many Kevins as Anthonys with my last name.

This has been on my mind lately because I finally wrote about the Kirkland who landed me my first job interview 27 years ago. The first question a managing editor in Winston-Salem, N.C., asked me was whether I had any family in that part of the country. When I said "no," I found out that one of his hobbies was researching a Sgt. Richard Kirkland who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

I didn't get that job, but I did find one in Newport News, Va., and two years later, one in Fredericksburg, Va. There, I heard about Sgt. Kirkland again, as several locals wondered if I was related. When I asked who he was, they directed me to a statue at the edge of town, depicting a Rebel soldier holding a canteen to the lips of a wounded Union soldier. The inscription said the 19-year-old South Carolinian had risked his life to aid dozens of his enemies at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862.

After that, when people asked, I was tempted to claim Sgt. Kirkland as family. But I knew it wasn't so, not unless we shared a common ancestor 300 years ago in Scotland, well before his Kirklands owned several plantations and 100 slaves in Kershaw County, S.C., and mine were farmers near Montreal, Canada, settling later in central New York.

Recently, I dug out a typed genealogy begun by my first cousin, Kirkland Darling, when he was a boy growing up in Vestal, N.Y. Now a retired schoolteacher, he has added to it throughout his life, fleshing out names and dates with research and stories gathered from family members. He noted that Thomas Kirkland and Agnes Gibb baptized two sons named Thomas, one in 1828 and another in 1835. When a child died it was then common to give another the same name, he wrote.

Canadian records show that Thomas' brother James immigrated to the same area along the St. Lawrence River at about the same time, and apparently liked the same names as his brother. Between them they had two Hughs, two Jameses and two or possibly three Agneses. The next few generations also liked the name James (my father's name) and introduced Robert, Mary and Angela (I have first cousins with those names). First names that didn't make it to another generation included Isabella, Alexander, Esther, Merrellee, Antoine and Imogene.

In December, when I decided to write about Sgt. Richard Kirkland and the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg, I went to Ancestry.com to learn about his family. In his family tree, I found an incredible collection of first names, some of them probably last names of other families that married one of Richard's five brothers or sister. How else to explain his sister Mary's second oldest son, Middleton Seaborn Truesdale?

Two of Richard's brothers named daughters Nannie. One Nannie named her girls Luna, Willa and Lena and the other, Nannie Loma, had a daughter, Loma Kate. But my favorite namers of all were his brother William and his wife, whose maiden name, Mary Margaret Kirkland, suggests she was a cousin. Their nine children included Coke, Ida Neta, Willie Floyd, Sidney Hagood and Lula Belle.

Their son, Samuel, married Minnie Drakeford and though they had only four kids, they chose their names well: Hagood, Mary Ellen, William and the youngest, Willie Lucille.

So does this all mean anything? Well, it does to someone.

About a month after my article about Sgt. Kirkland appeared on the Internet, I heard from Shane Sitter, an Aurora, Colo., woman who recently began tracing her genealogy. A South Carolina Kirkland on her father's side, she had heard as a child that she was related to Sgt. Kirkland but didn't know how. Through her grandmother, Willie Lucille Kirkland, she found she was related to William Kirkland, Richard's brother.

I sent her all I knew about her family tree and copies from the Camden, S.C., archives of two letters her great-great grandfather sent home during the Civil War. In the first, dated July 18, 1862, William thanked his brother again for sending him a new pair of boots and begged to repay him:

"I don't owe any of you anything except for the boots and I don't want to owe anything, for death is sure and life is uncertain. Nothing more but believe me to be your sincere Brother till death, William."

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Kevin Kirkland is the magazine, homes and real estate editor of the Post-Gazette (kkirkland@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1978).


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