Last names only started being used because of a need to record the citizens of the countries. Governments wanted accurate records, so they needed citizens to adopt hereditary family names.
This first started in ancient China around 2800 BCE, when Emperor Xuanyuan Huangdi made adopting a hereditary surname mandatory. In Europe, family names have been used since around 1000 CE. In some places, like Iran, Turkey, and some countries in Southeast Asia, hereditary family names have only been mandatory since the 19th century.
There are several origins of American family names, including names adopted due to land ownership or nobility. The large majority of American surnames come from four main sources.
Patronymic names are passed down from the father to the child. The surname was formed by using the father’s first name with the suffix (or the prefix) meaning “son”.
Let’s look at some countries where patronymic surnames were tradition and which affix was used:
Occupational surnames were adopted from the family or the father’s profession. The most common American surname is Smith, which was a name given to a metalworker. Other occupational surnames include Farmer, Miller, Carpenter, Fisher, and Taylor, to name a few.
Let’s look at the most common one, Smith, and some variations from different countries:
Toponymic surnames were derived from places or well-known landmarks. Some American surnames that use this naming convention are Brook, Moore, Lee, and Scott. The majority of these types of surnames came from northern Europe, like Wales, Scotland, England, and Scandinavia.
However, toponymic surnames were also used in parts of Asia.
Here are some examples of the countries that used toponymic surnames and their meanings:
Many common surnames originated from a given nickname. For example, the surname White could have been given to someone with very light hair or complexion. Another example is the surname Grant, one origin of which is the Anglo-Norman word graunt, meaning “large” or “big”.
Here are examples of countries that used this naming convention. All of these surnames mean “ruddy complexion” or “red hair”:
A common last name will help with tracing your lineage because there will be many records with your name. On the other hand, it can make it difficult to trace your lineage directly to you. Let’s go over some things you can do to narrow down your search.
Learning the meaning of your surname can both be an interesting journey and help you trace your lineage. A good place to start is by asking relatives, someone could have already researched the family name or created a family tree. Other great sources are websites like 祖先, Forebears, Geneanet, and FamilySearch.
It’s recommended to list down spelling variations of your surname, as the spelling of names changed over time.
Knowing your ancestor’s first name will make your list much shorter. Many places had traditional naming conventions for the first name of a person long before surnames became mandatory. For example, in Italy, a person’s first daughter was named after the father’s mother.
Another tactic is to start from the past and work your way forward. For example, you can research records from the time your ancestors arrived in the USA. Land records are also useful in helping you narrow down your search. They will typically have other names recorded along with the owners of the land, like the names of the owners of the neighboring properties.
Though your ancestor might have a common last name, maybe one of their siblings or parents had an uncommon one. Another thing to consider is uncommon middle names. In many cultures, middle names were adopted from the mother or father.
Cluster genealogy is a tactic used by genealogists to trace lineage. When people migrated, it was commonly done along with a group of people or a cluster.
These clusters normally consisted of relatives, friends, neighbors, or even business associates. Though your ancestor had a common last name, it is likely others didn’t.
If you type a common name into Google’s search bar, you will get hundreds of millions of hits. Luckily, there are certain words and symbols you can use to narrow down those hits. Let’s look at examples of how they work using the name “John Smith”.
When typing “John Smith” into Google, it will search for the name as a whole, but also give you results for “John” or “Smith” separately. Putting the name into quotations will only show you pages that have the whole name. Many sites list names with the last name first, so remember to include that as well.
Example: “John Smith”, “Smith, John”
The plus sign (with no space after) can be used before a search term to only show results that include that term. The term could be a place name, a date, or a profession.
Example: “John Smith”, “Smith, John” +1910
Perhaps you don’t know the year to search for or you want to lower the hits even further. The minus sign (with no space after) will exclude any pages that have a specific term. The name John Smith brings up many hits relating to John Smith the explorer or the captain, so you can exclude those terms using the minus sign.
Example: “John Smith”, “Smith, John” -explorer -captain
Any additional information you have on your ancestor will help you lower the hits on Google. Places like residences, villages, towns, cities, and states are very useful in tracing your lineage. Dates and obituaries are also extremely useful. If people or places that aren’t relevant keep coming up, you can exclude those from your search by using the minus sign.
The best place to start tracing your lineage is with yourself, then work backward. A simple tree could include you, your siblings, your parents, and your grandparents. A more detailed one could include aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, and other extended family members.
There’s a lot of genealogy software out there, but the best one comes down to which one you like best and which works for you. Many of them have free trials or a guarantee, so you can try them out before making a purchase.
You can use multiple family tree websites and resources to create a family tree. You can print one out or create a document and share it with your family. Talk to relatives and ask for documents, pictures, heirlooms, or baby books. Be sure to record important details in a log for later reference. You could also look into life events like marriages, buying property or land, births, and deaths.
The key to finding where your ancestors come from lies in your family history. You can find clues by researching history for migration patterns or talking to your family to learn about family customs and last name origins. You can also find lots of information by researching records of deaths, marriages, or immigration.