All About Surnames: Find Out Where Your Last Name Comes From

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If you wade around online message boards and mailing lists, you’ll notice that most genealogists sign off with a list of their ancestral surnames. Obviously, last names are an important tool for identifying families and genealogical connections. You can open the door to even more genealogical finds by using these seven surname research strategies.

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Barker family photo taken in 1906. Charles, father John, Byron, mother Mae, Irma Erwin, Ella, Raymond. 

1. Find out what it means

Learning your surname’s meaning is fascinating and might even point you to an ancestral homeland. Last names came about gradually as populations grew to the point a single name was no longer a sufficient identifier. People generally added an occupation, physical characteristic, place or landmark (also called habitational names), or father’s name (patronymics). That’s how you got James Smith (blacksmith), Herbert Short, Aaron Hill and Terrence Johnson (son of John). Of these four naming conventions, patronymics probably can most trip you up, since its forms change with the language and culture.

How to find out where your surnames came from? Online, you can use’s Last Name Meaning Search, whether or not you subscribe to the site’s databases. You’ll see Facts About Your Surname; click Name Meanings and enter yours. If you’re more of a bookworm than a surfer, check’s source, the Oxford University Press Dictionary of American Family Names by Patrick Hanks.

2. Study same-named folks

Of course, you’re not related to everyone who has your surname. But also can give you information on people who had your name, which may suggest starting places for your research. Just choose the fact you want: place of origin, occupation, name distribution. Again, use the data as clues, not absolute answers. To give you a country of origin, looks at the number of immigrants with your surname departing from a specific country. But people often left from ports in countries besides their own. And the site’s records only go back so far. The earliest Hendrickson immigration records it has are from 1851, but I know my relatives were in Kentucky by the mid-1700s.

3. List variations on the theme

Our ancestors weren’t as persnickety as we modern folks when it comes to spelling. In the 1800s and earlier, many people couldn’t read, write or spell. Phonetic spelling was common: A census taker hearing a name pronounced in an unfamiliar accent probably didn’t spell it the way your ancestor did. Your relative may have spelled his own name various ways in records, and branches of the family may have used variants.

Searching for variations and phonetic spellings is especially important in the census and other indexes: If you’re not on the alert for every conceivable spelling variation, you could miss your ancestor. It’ll help to keep a list of your surnames and all the variations you can think of.

4. Look into DNA surname studies

The link between the Y-chromosome and surnames-barring “nonpaternity events,” our male ancestors passed both their Y-DNA and their surnames to their sons-makes genetic genealogy helpful for determining whether two men share a common male-line ancestor within recent history.

If you join a DNA surname study with lots of participants and a well-documented lineage back to England, Ireland or Scotland, your chances of making a match are high. In that case, DNA testing can leapfrog you back 100 or more years. Even a negative result can help: My family believed most Hendricksons descended from “the frontier Hendricks” family, but DNA proved otherwise. If you join a surname study with only a handful of participants and find no matches, it’s generally because the study doesn’t yet have enough people to test against, or the family had an adoption or other undocumented parentage.

5. Join a society or one-name study

Both surname societies and one-name studies collect biographical data and vital records about everyone who shares a surname, often posting findings online. Surname societies give members access to research, host get-togethers and coordinate DNA surname studies. Some society Web sites contain password-protected areas where members can post photos and family information. To find a surname society, do a Web search for “surname society” plus the name. Generally, one-name studies cover all known variants of a surname and follow that name’s occurrence throughout history. Most studies include all people of that surname, even those who acquired it by marriage.

6. Surf surname Web sites

Surname Web sites provide another source of information and a way to network with other people researching the name. These personal surname pages might focus on a single name or on a surname plus affiliated families. RootsWeb’s Surname Resources page has links to tools and sites for thousands of names. Look at the Personal Home Pages category on Cyndi’s List, too, and click on the letter of the alphabet for your name. In addition, use the search box at the top of each page pick up surnames that are listed as allied families on a Web site for some other name.

7. Network on forums and lists

Some of my best online surname finds have come via two tools that have been around as long as I can remember:

  • RootsWeb mailing lists: If you sign up for a surname mailing list, you’ll receive e-mails from everyone on the list. You also can browse and search list archives so you don’t miss out on a potential lead in a past message. Search for a list for your surname on RootsWeb, then follow the instructions to subscribe or search the archives.
  • GenForum: This popular Web site hosts message boards for seemingly every surname under the sun. They’re free, but you need to register to post. I particularly like the ability to search a specific forum. For example, I could select the Ballard forum and enter Williamsburg in the Phrase field to find posts about Ballards who lived in that town.

Find more resources for researching your family’s surname at Family Tree Shop, including: