Now What?: Finding Surname Origins

By Family Tree Editors Premium

Q. How can I find out the origins of my surname?

A. You can look up your surname in a variety of references. has a surname meaning and origins database. Type in the surname for information about the meaning (if available) and stats on US residents with that surname, such as states where they lived, their places of origin, and when they immigrated. This doesn’t mean your family definitely lived in a particular place or immigrated in a particular year, but information can be clues for further research.’s surname meaning information comes from The Dictionary of American Family Names (Oxford University Press). Your library may have this and other surname origin books for you to consult, such as A Dictionary of Surnames by Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges (Oxford).

You also can find references focusing on a particular nationality or ethnicity, such as The Surnames of Wales By John Rowlands and Sheila Rowlands (Genealogical Publishing Co., available in Family Tree Shop), and Dictionary of German Names by Hans Bahlow (Max Kade Institute).

Another surname research strategy is to participate in a Y-DNA surname study. (If you’re a woman, you’d need to have a male relative who inherited the surname through male lines take the test.) By comparing your test results to the results and research of others in the study, you’ll get an idea of where your family members with this surname originated. For more details on surname studies, see the September 2010 Family Tree Magazine.

Keep in mind, though, that the present version of your surname may have been altered from the original. Immigrants to the United States, for example, often changed their names to sound more “American.” Our contributing editor Nancy Hendrickson always thought her Shore ancestors were English, but she discovered through genealogical research that the name had been changed from the Swiss Schorr. Having a surname that’s common in a certain country doesn’t necessarily mean that’s where your family came from.

You can learn more about how surnames developed and types of surnames in American Surnames by Elsdon C. Smith (Genealogical Publishing Co.), available from Family Tree Shop.

For more advice about how to tackle tough research questions, see Family Tree Magazine‘s book 101 Brick Wall Busters: Solutions to Overcome Your Genealogical Challenges, the Family Tree Magazine webinar recording Brick Wall Strategies: Advice and Ideas for Getting Past Research Dead Ends, and the Family Tree Problem Solver, all available from Family Tree Shop.