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Where Did Your Last Name Come From? How to Research Surnames

By Nancy Hendrickson Premium

I’ve often wondered what it would’ve been like to do genealogy in the days before surnames. It’s hard to imagine living in a town so small that everyone knew who “short Herbert” was. Genealogy would’ve been a sticky wicket—who knows how many diminutive guys named Herb lived in the same area? And how would you be able to tell whether “knobby-kneed Norman” or “rotund Robert” was his father?

Despite their importance to genealogy, surnames didn’t come along until fairly recently. And we genealogists are glad our families finally adopted these identifiers—they make sorting out the Herberts and Normans and Roberts much easier. But surnames’ value to family historians doesn’t stop there. You can open the door to even more genealogical finds by using these seven strategies for learning what your last name means.

1. Look up what your surname 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.

Some commons origins of surnames include:

  • occupations (such as “Smith,” for a blacksmith)
  • physical characteristics (such as “Short”)
  • places or landmarks (such as “Hill”)
  • patronymics, or father’s name (such as “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.

Specific ethnic groups often had their own naming conventions. In Russia, -vich is a common suffix, as in Ivan Nikolayevich (Ivan, son of Nikolay). In Nordic countries, -son or -sen indicates “son of.” The suffix -dotter, -dottir or -datter means “daughter of.” Gaelic patronymic surnames start with Mc, Mac, O or Fitz. (There’s no factual basis to the belief Mac is Scottish and Mc is Irish — Mc is just an abbreviation of Mac.)

Some families have been in America so long, modern members don’t have a clue where the name came from. How to unravel the tangle? In some cases, as with Cooper, Wright, Brook, MacKenzie and O’Connor, we can guess the meanings. For others, such as Samora, Deeming and Winton, the waters are muddier.

How do you find out where your surnames came from? Online, you can use Ancestry.com’s last name meaning search, whether or not you subscribe to the site’s databases. Enter your surname to learn the name’s origin and meaning, plus its prevalence in the United States, England and Canada. You’ll also find quick links to researching that surname in key Ancestry.com record collections.

FamilySearch has a somewhat similar surname tool. And under Activities>All About Me, you (if you have a profile) can view how many people share your name, plus origins and meanings for both your given name and surname.

If you’re more of a bookworm than a Web surfer, check out the Oxford University Press Dictionary of American Family Names by Patrick Hanks. That’s how I found out about the name Winton, a “Scottish and English: habitational name from any of various places called Winton.” The dictionary goes on to describe how several of those places got their name: “Those near Edinburgh and in North Yorkshire are named from the Old English byname or personal name Wine (meaning ‘friend’) + Old English tun ‘enclosure,’ ‘settlement’.”

Keep in mind your ancestors may have changed their name or altered its spelling from the original. I would’ve sworn my Shore family was from Britain, but I discovered through research they adopted Shore based on their Swiss Schorr surname. (Read more about name variants in strategy 3.)

2. Study families with the same name

Of course, you’re not related to everyone who has your surname. But Ancestry.com’s Last Name Meaning tool also can give you information on profiles in its tree with your name, which may be starting places for your research. Again, use this data as clues, not absolute answers.

3. List surname variations

Our ancestors weren’t as persnickety as we modern folks when it comes to spelling. My own family indiscriminately used Hendricks, Hendrixson and Hendrickson. Likewise, your relative may have spelled his own name various ways in records, and branches of the family may have used different versions of a name.

In addition, in the 1800s and earlier, many people couldn’t read, write or spell. For those who could write, 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. For example, my North Carolina ancestor wrote Ferginny for Virginia.

Keep a list of common misspellings and variations of your ancestor’s surname. We’ve got a free Surname Variant Chart to help you keep track of them.

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.

You also have to contend with variations caused by indexers’ interpretations of old-fashioned handwriting. As anyone who’s ever sat staring at a census microfilm will tell you, recognizing your own name can be a challenge. In some 17th- and 18th-century documents, the capital letters I and J look almost identical, as can U and V. Lowercase letters also might throw you—for example, the so-called “long s” (frequently used as the first letter in a double-s configuration) whose drooping tail makes it look like an f or a p.

If you suspect this is the case with your name, look at original records whenever possible and identify words with letters you can read, or can guess based on context. Once you see how this particular scribe formed certain letters, you’ll have a much easier time interpreting them. 

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. Family Tree DNA offers both Y-DNA tests and a database of DNA surname projects.

Autosomal DNA tests, offered by companies such AncestryDNA and MyHeritage DNA, can also be helpful, since these companies provide DNA matches as well as lists of ancestral surnames you and your matches share. Expert genetic genealogist Blaine T. Bettinger compares the pros and cons of autosomal and Y-DNA testing in this article.

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 DNA 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 websites even contain password-protected areas where members can post photos and family information. To find a surname society, 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.

One-name studies are popular in Britain because a national index of births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales gives researchers access to records of everyone sharing a name. They also can track names back to 1841 using the every-10-years censuses.

In places without a national register (such as the United States), study administrators collect one-name data from censuses, electoral rolls, military service indexes, deeds and even telephone books. Many researchers also use the International Genealogical Index and other data from FamilySearch. The Guild of One-Name Studies has a registry of projects with administrators’ contact information.

If you’re interested in starting a study or society, it’s best to choose a less-common name. Organizing a database of all Smiths, for example, would be a next-to-impossible task.

6. Surf surname websites

Surname websites 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. Available information varies and can include old photos, family legends, GEDCOMs, maps and pedigree charts—or nothing. Some sites may contain little documentation, so be sure to verify what you find.

Look at the Personal Home Pages category on Cyndi’s List as a starting point, 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 website 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. A typical message would read: “Looking for anyone connected to Joseph and Mary (nee McFarland) Calhoun, who were in Philadelphia in the 1900 to 1920 censuses.” 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 website hosts message boards for seemingly every surname under the sun.

A version of this article appeared in the May 2008 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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