What does the name “Benoni” mean?

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My fourth-great-grandfather, born in 1777 in Mt. Carmel, Connecticut, had the curious first name “Benoni.” The Dickerman genealogy (Families of Dickerman Ancestry: Descendants of Thomas Dickerman, an Early Settler of Dorchester, Massachusetts), published in 1897, states that Benoni’s father, Enos Dickerman, died of disease during the American Revolution while on duty in New York, adding:

His youngest son was born after his death and was named Benoni in allusion to the story in Genesis, xxxv. 18—commemorating thus the grief of the family.

The Bible chapter referred to tells of the death of Jacob’s wife Rachel in childbirth:

And it came to pass, as her soul was in departing (for she died) that she called his name Benoni: but his father called him Benjamin.

The name Benoni is translated as “son of my pain” or alternatively, “Alas, my son!”

I found this explanation intriguing, describing not only the story of the fatherless child but the 18th century habit of using Biblical references in naming children, at least among the Puritan settlers of New England.

It turns out that the name Benoni, although not particularly common even in that era, was repeatedly applied to boys born under tragic circumstances, according to an article by Grace M. Pittman, published on http://www.americanancestors.org/, the New England Historic Genealogical Society website.

Pittman identified 100 boys named Benoni, born in New England from the period from the seventeenth to the mid-eighteenth centuries. When she studied the dates of their births and of their parents’ marriages and deaths, she found that the majority of the boys fit one of five situations:

  1. The mother died in childbirth or soon afterward.
  2. The father died before the child was born.
  3. The child was illegitimate or conceived before marriage.
  4. The child died soon after birth.
  5. The child was named after his father or another relative.

How fascinating to learn that this naming of my ancestor was not just a family quirk but a practice known throughout New England!

And also stunning that a genealogist would undertake such a detailed study just to understand the meaning of a name and the social pattern that lay behind its usage.

One of Benoni’s sons was given his name, despite its mournful association. The Dickerman genealogy states that Benoni, Jr., born in 1810, was a poet and a “zealous and efficient” conductor on the Underground Railroad. The author further comments:

In 1883 he published a small volume of poems under the title of “The Blood Stained Cross.” He writes in 1889 that he has in mind to publish another volume, but may fail “being in the evening of life.”

Family records indicate that Benoni, Jr., died in 1891.

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3 Responses to What does the name “Benoni” mean?

  1. Barbara J Carter says:

    You always research well

  2. I’ve got a whole bunch of men named Benoni in my tree too, ranging from the Revolutionary War era right on up until the 1930s. I might have to look a little harder into what was going on in the family when the name started showing up there. Hmm.

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