Desperately Seeking 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 so few people in any given town that a reference to a guy named “short Herbert” would be enough for people to know who I meant. I’m pretty certain 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?

Amazingly, surnames didn’t come along until fairly recent times. In Britain, for example, they weren’t common until the 12th to 14th century, and even then the practice wasn’t universal. Many European Jews began using surnames only when it was mandated in the late 18th and 19th centuries. We genealogists, of course, 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 surname research strategies.

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 in different places 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. 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.)

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. 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?

For online and print dictionaries listing meanings and origins of common surnames, you can consult’s Learning Center <ancestry com/learn>, whether or not you subscribe to the site’s databases. Click Get Started, then Find Family Facts. Enter the surname and choose Name Meanings from the drop-down menu.

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’.”

Are you more of a bookworm than a Web surfer? Check’s source, the Dictionary of American Family Names edited by Patrick Hanks (Oxford University Press). 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 same-named folks.

Of course, you’re not related to everyone who has your surname. But’s Family Facts tool also can give you information gleaned from its records on people who had your name, which may suggest starting places for research. Just choose the fact you want from the menu, including place of origin, occupations, name distribution, immigration year or ports of departure. For example, if I look up Hendrickson, I’ll learn the majority of Hendrickson immigrants came from Sweden.

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. Its earliest Hendrickson immigration records are from 1851, for example, yet I know my relatives were in Kentucky by the mid-1700s. publishes these facts in print-on-demand surname books, available through <>. (But watch out for bogus surname histories.) Although the surname information doesn’t always produce a definitive “aha!” moment, it can point you in the right direction.

You also can see maps of where in the United States your surname was most common at several points in history at US Surname Distribution <>. For names in Britain, visit <>.

3. List variations on the theme.

Our ancestors weren’t as persnickety as we modern folks when it comes to spelling. Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark spelled mosquito 15 different ways in their journals. This casual attitude extended to names — 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 the 1800s and earlier, a large portion of the population couldn’t read, write or spell. Many of those who could write spelled phonetically — and due to colloquialisms and regional dialects, name spellings changed depending where you were. For example, my North Carolina ancestor wrote Ferginny for Virginia. A census taker hearing a name pronounced in an unfamiliar accent probably didn’t spell it the way your ancestor did.

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, you can go to the original document on microfilm and look for 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 in recent history.

A DNA test can show whether two same-named men are related, and if so, estimate the number of generations that separate them from their most recent common ancestor. Two men who exactly match on 37 Y-DNA markers probably share an ancestor within five generations. The more markers tested (labs can test from 10 to 67), the more precise the match. Most surname studies suggest testing at least 25.

Mitochondrial DNA tests for women are available; however, they aren’t used in surname studies because they trace maternal lines. But a woman can participate in a surname study by having her father, brother or male-line cousin tested.

If you join a 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 and save you hours of research. Even a negative result can help by ruling out particular scenarios. My family, for example, believed most Hendricksons descended from “the frontier Hendricks” family, but DNA proved otherwise (darn it!).

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.

Don’t rely solely on surname studies, though. Genetic genealogy is best used in conjunction with traditional “paper” research, as each helps verify the other. Once a DNA match places your ancestor in a geographic locale, you’d go back to paper genealogy and look for records in that new region.

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 (though all members of a group aren’t necessarily related), often posting findings online.

Two fairly typical surname societies are the Ames Society <> and the Spencer Historical and Genealogical Society <>. They 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 encompass all known variants of a surname and follow that name’s occurrences throughout history. For example, at Sterry Worldwide <>, the administrator adds new information such as immigration records from Castle Garden and Ellis Island. 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 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. 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.

Finding surname sites is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. RootsWeb has a Surname Resources page <> with links to tools and sites for thousands of names. I searched for one of mine and found close to 20 personal surname sites. Some no longer existed, but others had photos and GEDCOMs for download.

Look at the Personal Home Pages category on good old Cyndi’s List <>, too, and click on the letter of the alphabet for your name. Remember, these pages are listed by the name of the Web site, so if you use only this list, you may never find a site focusing on your name. Why? Say you’re looking for Evans family pages. Evans may not be in the title of the page, but rather, sitting on a site titled Babs’ Family History Home Page. Don’t despair, though, because you can search all of Cyndi’s List using the search box at the top of each page. This also will help you pick up surnames that are listed as allied families on a Web site about some other name.

One of my favorite surname sites after all these years is still Jim Hume’s Hume Family site <>. A few years ago, it had 29,000 people in its database; today, it has almost 51,000.

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 <> and GenForum <>. If anything, they’ve improved with age — maybe because they’ve had lots of time to pile up year after year of surname resources.

Mailing lists: If you sign up for a surname mailing list, you’ll receive e-mails (one at a time or in digest mode, depending which you select) 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 at <>. Once you’ve found one, 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 if you want to post on them. The site protects you from spammers’ e-mail address harvesters by embedding your e-mail address in a graphic when you post.

One GenForum feature I particularly like is the ability to search a specific forum. For example, I could select the Ballard forum and enter williamsburg in the Phrase field to look for posts about Ballards who lived in that town. Tap this and other resources suggested here and see what surprises you find behind your surname.
From the May 2008 Family Tree Magazine