Tuesday, January 1, 2013

How Pawpaw Got His Name

My maternal grandfather's name was Corbett Sullivan Stevens.
Pawpaw was born in 1892 in Winkler, Elliott County, Kentucky.  We think.

Corbett Sullivan is not really a Kentucky name.  It has no hillbilly roots.  And, there is absolutely no namesake, no naming pattern, nothing that would elude as to why he was given this name.

His own father died at a very young age.  He was only 27 years old, and his mother eventually married again.
The Stevens name is quite common in eastern Kentucky.  Many of them are descended from Gilbert Stevens/Stephens, a Revolutionary War patriot who eventually moved to Morgan County, Kentucky.  It has not been difficult to follow his descendants.

My mother often said that Pawpaw didn't really know his own birthdate.  When asked to provide one for military service or Social Security, he basically made one up.  The date he made up was 6 Sep 1892.  Apparently, it was good enough.

Recently, I was talking with my uncle, the last of the long line of children from Corb and wife Bertha's family.  I asked him if he had any idea how his father had gotten his name.  Uncle Dick replied that he thought he was named after a prize fighter.

A prize fighter?

I came home and began to do a Google search on anything about the name Corbett Sullivan.  A whole new world opened up to me.

James J. Corbett was quite the prizefighter.  He was a professional boxer and World Heavyweight Champion.  His father brought the family from Ireland.

His most famous fight was against John L. Sullivan, which took place on 7 Sep 1892.  Now, scroll upwards and look at the birthdate of my grandfather again.

John Sullivan was the first American athlete to earn over a million dollars.  He was born in the South End of Boston to Irish immigrant parents, and was known as The Boston Strongboy.  In 1892, he agreed to defend his title by fighting Gentleman Jim Corbett in New Orleans.  Tickets went for the hefty price of $5-15, and the venue was filled with 10,000 spectators.

Corbett was younger and faster, and was able to dodge the blows from Sullivan.  After 21 rounds, it was over.  Corbett had won the fight against Sullivan.  Later, Sullivan remarked, "If I had to get licked, I'm glad I was licked by an American."

Apparently, news of this fight made it all the way to the hills and hollers of Eastern Kentucky.  And quite possibly, my mother's family knew of it.

Now, do I know for sure that my grandfather was named in honor of this famous fight?  No.  I don't know that I'll ever know that for sure.  What I do know is that for several earlier generations, there is absolutely no one named Corbett or Sullivan in the Stevens family of Eastern Kentucky.

I am grateful for www.wikipedia.com for providing the information necessary for this blogpost.  I would never have known about it otherwise.


  1. Peggy, This is a fascinating story about figuring out how relatives get named. My Mother always said that her father named her after his favorite movie star !

    I thought I would let you know that I listed you in my nominations for the "Wonderful Team Member Readership Award", which you can get more information on by going to:


    Magda ( www.hungarianfamilyrecord.org)

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, Magda!!! This was indeed an eye-opener for me. Little did I know...

      And, thank you for listing my blog. I appreciate it.

  2. Just reading your blog- My great grand father was Thomas Jefferson Coffey. His brother was James Madison Coffey. I am also descended from Kentuckians and Appalachians. Many of the family were named after famous people or places. Around the 1880s state names were popular. My ggrandmother was Louisiana, her sister was Alabama. Another relative was named Queen Victoria. Places, famous people, even events are go to sources for naming practices.

    1. I have seen those state names! I suppose there was a type of honor when someone had the name of a famous figure, or even a state.