Count on the cluster
Go for given names
Cast a spell
Find the game changers
More common than choosing an unusual last name in America, of course, is “Americanizing” the surname on arrival here. Even though the “changed at Ellis Island” explanation is a myth, many people did simplify or Anglicize their names after arriving in their new country. So your Portuguese ancestors may have changed from Ribeiro to Roberts or even to Brooks. Your Polish Zapatoczny family might have become the slightly less unusual Zepp, or Barankierowczek became simply Brown. Passenger lists and naturalization records are good sources for immigrants’ original names. Use our Genealogy Workbooks dedicated to these record types.
Research extinct surnames
Some surnames that weren’t so uncommon in centuries past but have started to die out in recent years. According to MyHeritage’s blog, “endangered” last names with fewer than 20 contemporary “bearers” include:
- Villin (Villan)
Surnames that are presumed to have gone “extinct” since 2011, according to the same source, include:
- To learn the meanings and origins of your ancestors’ surnames, use the last name lookup at Behind the Name.
- Read our guide to see how odd your surname is.
What’s in a Surname?
Two ways to learn more about your unusual surname and connect it to genealogical finds are “one-name studies” and surname DNA projects. One-name studies attempt to research all occurrences of a surname, sometimes restricted to one geographic area. According to the Guild of One-Name Studies, “a study may concentrate on aspects such as the geographical distribution of the name and the changes in that distribution over the centuries, or may attempt to reconstruct the genealogy of as many lines as possible bearing the name. A frequent aspiration is to identify a single original location of the name, especially if the name appears to derive from a place name.”
20 most common surnames
Tracing ancestors with common names
Seven surname-searching strategies
Surname-based genealogy research
Guide to finding female ancestors
Surname meanings and origins
American Surnames book
Google Surname Search Secrets class
Stellar Surname Search Strategies video course