Where Did Your Last Name Come From? It’s Time to Find Out!

words Al Woods

We often forget the importance of our family name in our day-to-day lives. It’s only on those pivotal occasions, such as births, marriages, and funerals that we are reminded of the role our last names play in connecting us to the past, present, and future.

What’s in a name? A lot, it turns out! If you’re interested in learning more about your surname origins, you’re in luck. These days, there are dozens of sites dedicated to helping you learn about your roots, like Kris Duggan’s site, which details the fascinating history of people sharing the same name. 

Your Last Name

Before we delve into some further resources you can use to investigate your name’s origins, let’s take a look at the history of family names.

Prior to the conquest of Britain by the Normans, surnames weren’t commonplace in the West. It was only after 1066 that the practice was popularized. The reason behind this largely relates to increased population mobility. 

Until this time, most Europeans inhabited small villages that were divided up by large swathes of farmland. People lacked the means to move freely between villages, meaning that (somewhat like small towns today) everybody in town knew everybody.

In the Middle Ages, these villages grew and so did our ability to cover large distances. While wealthy merchants relied on horses and carts, it wasn’t unusual for peasants to walk 30 miles in a day to trade goods or seek work. With people from different villages and towns now intermingling, a need was born to distinguish people by more than just a common first name. After all, having 10 different Williams all selling potatoes in the town market could a lot of confusion.

These days, we are born into our names, but how did our ancestors decide on their monikers? 

1. Occupation

One of the most common ways was by occupation. For example, Richard the fletcher would become Richard Fletcher and Thomas the fisherman might become Thomas Fisher. The most popular surname in the United States today, Smith, points clearly to blacksmithing origins.

2. Location

Another factor that might have influenced your family name is where your ancestors came from. Names were often derived from features of the local landscape or titles of local towns and estates. We can see examples of this today in common surnames such as Hill, Wood, Knoll, and Burrows. Those who did not own their own land may have taken on the name of the estate they worked upon.

3. Christian or Patronymic Names

Baptismal or Christian names were also common. For example, a father might bestow his own name upon his son. In practice, the son of John would inherit the last name Johnson. Though names tended to be patronymic, there are also recorded instances of “son” being added to mothers’ names.

4. Characteristics

One other way that your ancestors might have gained their last names is through traits or characteristics that started as nicknames. If your ancestor was known for his or her pure morality, you might now be left with a family name such as goodman. If your distant relative was very comely, perhaps you’re now Fairchild. A common name that follows this vein is Armstrong, which originally referred to the fit and courageous. 

Does your name fit into one of the common four last name origin types above? You can learn more about your last name here:

– Ancestry.com 

Ancestry is known best for providing amazing insights into users’ genealogy through the use of DNA testing and a huge collection of online records. However, you don’t need to pay for the full service to get some fascinating information about your family name. By simply typing your last name into the search service, you can pull up details about where the most people with the name currently reside or even what the most common occupation is.

– Forebears.io

Forebears is another fascinating (and free) site you can use to research your family name. Not only does it give you the meaning behind the name, but it also provides other demographic information, such as average heights and even average earnings of people with your name.

– Your Local Library

For information about your heritage that is a little closer to home, check out your state library. Most state libraries hold a records collection, which includes registries of births, deaths, and marriages. Searching this can give you vital clues as to the history of your last name and even help you track down distant living relatives.

Your family name is a part of your past, present, and future. Learning about it can be a great way to stay connected to and celebrate your roots.


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