The Old Paths: What’s in a name

By Leslie Bray Brewer - Special to The Stokes News

It’s that March Madness time of year again. I reckon I’m as guilty as the next sports-lover of becoming perhaps too invested in the various conference tournaments, followed by the NCAA tourney.

As an NC State fan who hasn’t had much to cheer about since the days of Jim Valvano, I don’t get too wrapped up in the whole Duke-Carolina rivalry. I do tend to pull for Duke over Carolina because let’s face it: No self-respecting Wolfpack fan can cheer for those Heels without some measure of shame.

So during the last clash of these ACC titans, while my Tar Heel-loving son was nearly praying for them to eke out the win, I was busy noticing an interesting phenomenon. I do not believe I have ever seen as many Jr.’s, II’s and III’s on the court as when Duke played Carolina this season.

In my childhood, a lot of my male friends had the same name as their dads, but they were always called “Junior,” not “The Second.” Maybe it’s a new fad; it does sound rather classy, I admit. In this modern age of multitudes of baby name books with many unusual monikers, I had assumed that passing down the family name was going out of style. Maybe not.

Names were a topic of conversation again recently at a Walnut Cove Ministerial Association luncheon. A local pastor who hails from Ohio noted that the popular Stokes County surname “Lawson” is heard up there, too, but that other common Stokes County names seem to be very specific to this area. My first thought was “Mabe.” Before I could say it aloud, the pastor did. He has only heard “Mabe” in Stokes County, he says.

That got me to pondering surnames. As a Stokes County native, I can hear a last name and immediately guess (often correctly) in which part of the county it is most predominant. If you say “Goins” or “Collins,” I think of Francisco and Westfield. Toss out a “Hauser” or “Spainhour,” and I picture King. “McGee” and “Westmoreland” can be King or Germanton, while “Watts” and “Tuttle” can be Walnut Cove or Germanton.

“Stevens/Stephens” is heard a lot up in Lawsonville, and “Shelton” and “Amos” have leanings toward Sandy Ridge. Since the Hairston, Lash and Bailey slave plantations were in the Walnut Cove area, those surnames are still prominent in the black communities of Walnut Cove. Toward the Rockingham County side of Stokes—Pine Hall, in particular—the Dalton, Price and Scales names are still heard frequently, due to plantations owned by those families long, long ago.

If I hear “Wall,” “Manuel” or “Mabe,” I tend to think of the Meadows/Danbury area as a rule. “Petree” takes my mind mainly to Danbury. I could go on and on with this, and so could you Stokes County folks. And of course we know that through migration of families, any of these names can pop up in any region of our county and beyond, but I’m talking about long-lived traditional names in the various reaches of our county.

The one name that tends to crop up everywhere is “Smith.” Wikipedia says it is the most popular surname in the U.S, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand; the second most common surname in Canada; and the fifth most-heard surname in Ireland.

Why does “Smith” hold the number one spot in the English-speaking world? Were the Smiths just that prolific in childbearing? Not necessarily. Since surnames originated primarily from a person’s occupation, I believe it is logical that “Smith” is most common.

The name came from an Old English word that meant “to strike with a hammer,” so it was used to describe a metalworker. On the old paths, every medieval village had at least one “smith” (or “blacksmith”) to take care of the area’s metalworking needs.

Before automobiles, what did everyone need for transportation? A horse. And what did you need to ensure that your horse had properly-made metal shoes? A blacksmith. Before factories, where did people get their metal tools and implements for farm and home? From a smith.

I heard one scholar ask why the name “Farmer” isn’t a top surname in English-speaking countries, since there were more farmers than smiths back in the day. I cannot answer that. My guess is that the occupational names were used more often to describe those who worked a very specific commercial and/or mechanical trade which wasn’t plied on every street corner, such as the town blacksmith.

Since farmers were a dime a dozen, perhaps they gravitated more toward surnames that described where they lived. For example, John whose home was in London became “John London” to distinguish him from “John Hamilton” who lived over in Hamilton. Perhaps Farmer Joseph lived near some streams; he might have been known as “Joseph Brooks.” His neighbor who had a lot of acreage may have been called “Thomas Fields.”

Farmers may have also taken surnames that stemmed from their fathers’ names. “Richardson” was the son of Richard, while “Jackson” was the offspring of Jack. Was your family known to be tall? Perhaps they took the surname “Long.” Short folks in your lineage? Your last name might be “Little.”

Character traits and colors often played a role in assigning surnames. Were your folks known to have courage in battle? Your last name may be “Strong.” Did your ancestors have rosy countenances? Your surname could’ve been “Red” which morphed into “Reed.”

Not sure what to say about you people named “Green” or “Craven.”

“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare once said. These days, probably nothing, when you’re talking about surnames. In the old days when surnames were newer and used to describe people, there was a lot invested in a name.

We often joke that in our teetotaling family, it’s ironic that my married surname is “Brewer” and my sister’s is “Booze.” Right now I’m more interested in seeing how I’m kin to former Cincinnati Reds pitcher, Bill Bray, or Notre Dame’s basketball coach, Mike Brey. I figure we share some common ancestors—maybe athletic ones. I suppose we’re all cousins down the road somewhere—the whole human race. That’s why racism is really ridiculous when you think about it; if you believe in the story of Creation, we all share a couple of common ancestors—Adam of Garden of Eden fame and Noah who built that ark and rode out the great flood. We’re all one big family—just with different surnames. Check yours out and shoot me an email some time. I’d be interested in hearing what’s in your name.

Leslie Bray Brewer can be emailed at Her blog is at

By Leslie Bray Brewer

Special to The Stokes News