Last name research is an important part of genealogy
When you’re searching for information about the family groups in your family tree, searching for last names, aka surnames, is one of the top, most repetitive things you will be doing. (You’ll do it a lot!) It may take you a long time to do research on one particular last name. Eventually you will think that you have exhausted all possible resources for information on that particular name. There is always more information to discover! It is likely that you will have to find new, more creative ways to research last names in your family tree.
Last names (aka surnames) in America
We often use a lot of terms interchangeably to mean the same things. Examples of similar terms that we use are: maiden name, married name, family name, surname, last name. Each has a slightly different meaning. For this post, I’ll use the term last name and word surname to mean the same thing.
According to the 2010 US Census Bureau, the top 10 surnames in America were:
The best ways to search a last name
First, write down the surname of the person or family you are looking for and then write down all of the different ways the name could possibly be spelled, both correctly and any misspellings you have encountered.
An example is: Johnson, Johnston, Jonson, Joneson, Johanson, Johannson, Johansson, etc!
Family stories about last names
Write down any family stories that may help you understand the family surname. This includes where grandma or grandpa thinks the name may have originated or the country most associated with their nationality. If the last name was rumored to have changed at any point in time, make sure to write that down, as well. Whatever story you hear, write it down. The story may give good clues as to the history of the last name. Make sure to ask an older relative about a family surname. You may find out how the name got passed down with a new spelling or how it changed altogether.
Search the internet for your surname
Now that you have a list of last names, do a Google search for the surname you want to research. When I do a search for a last name, I usually search for the word “surname” followed by the actual last name. For example, if I wanted to search for the last name of Miller, I would type into the Google search box this exact phrase: “surname Miller”. Some of the sites that I have found most helpful have been Ancestry.com, HouseofNames.com, Wikipedia.org, and Forebears.io.
There are under 300 people in the USA with the last name Jetson
Who knew? Although I’m not related to George, Jane, Judy, or Elroy, I did have a little extra fun searching for last names. If you’d like to kill a little time too, head over to Forebears.io. (You won’t be disappointed!) You’ll find some interesting facts on this site! There are fun reports that tabulate the wealthiest surnames, most prevalent surnames by country or state, religious and political affiliations and more.
I’ve also found good and helpful information there (not a waste of time). I combined the information from Forebears with my Ancestry DNA test results. My Ancestry DNA calculated that I am 85% northwestern European, with Ireland/Scotland being 28% of that.
How does this help YOU or me?
When I search on Forebears.io, my maiden name (Morrison) is currently ranked as the 16th most common surname in Scotland. I’m sure this isn’t the most scientific way to prove that my roots are Scottish. But I used my Ancestry DNA test results to help place my origins in this region for further researching. You can also narrow the name search even further by clicking on the country, like the US, and Forebears will show you how your surname ranks in each state! (I hope they eventually add a feature to show surnames by county!) Pretty cool!
Same last name, different spellings
Once you start your last name research and visit some of the websites mentioned above, you’ll likely find different variations or spellings of the last name. Some of the different spellings may be completely new to you. You may not have thought about some of the variations when you wrote your list, so be sure to add them now. It might be hard to wrap your brain around the idea that a last name so common to you and your family for so long may not actually be the original name or spelling of that name. Many people find this to be the case in their own searches and it is more common than you may think.
Why did the spelling change?
Our ancestors may have had another way of spelling their last name when they were in “the old country”. It’s possible that when they immigrated to a new country with extended family, they wanted to have their own spelling to set them apart from the others. It is also possible that at some point in time that the family had a falling out and the spelling change indicated a separation and distinction from those “other people”. If the last name was a difficult name to pronounce or spell, then it is also possible that the family changed the name slightly to make it easier for them to live in a new country and fit in.
I can identify two different surnames in my family tree where the families broke away from the long-standing spelling of their last name. In both cases, my ancestors were the ones who made the change and took on a new variation of their last name.
Search using each of the different surname spellings
Keep a list of possible ways to spell each name and also keep a list of all of the different ways the name is actually spelled on documents and letters. The misspellings are important, too! Sometimes an incorrectly spelled name may get repeated by a well-meaning relative or friend and show up on another document incorrectly. Variations and misspellings can be used in newspaper or census searches, and city directory searches. When you hit a road block, this is the time to think about using some of those other surnames in search engines and genealogy sites.
Searching censuses for misspelled last names
Censuses are especially common places to find misspellings. With the influx of the numerous and varied immigrants in early America, the census workers may have had a lot of trouble understanding all of the different linguistic accents they came across in their work. A wrong or misspelled surname on a census could also have come from your relative’s neighbor. Their intentions may have been good but the names and ages collected may not have been completely accurate.
What last name research can tell you
If you know or can find out the ethnicity of the last name you’re searching, this could tip you off to the area of the city your relative may have lived. Often, immigrants would live in areas where they shared language, religion, and customs with others. People from the same ethnic groups would probably have shared the same pastimes, viewpoints and values. Knowing their last name can help you discover more about their background.
Same last name but different spelling?
How do you know if it’s the same family?
When you come across a record of interest for the last name you are searching and the last name is a close match, save the information. For a long time, I kept passing over search results that weren’t exactly the same as the one I was researching. The last name I wanted ended in a “o” but there were a lot of similar results with the last letter in the surname being an “a”. Considering that it’s a very unusual last name, I should have paid more attention right away. The results kept coming up every time I did a search!
Last name research and DNA results
When my DNA test on Ancestry.com linked my DNA to people with a last that I had seen but didn’t think was related, I knew that the DNA test was going to finally pay off. Contact the people you’re matched to and ask for information or photos. There are many people who will gladly share their information with you if you ask. I found out when the last name changed, who changed it and why.
Last name research is important for genealogy
Keep track of the last names you’re searching for and write down all the variations you find. Be sure to periodically search for all of the names until you get the information you’re looking for. Maybe you’ll have a big break-through you weren’t expecting. Use surname variations and misspellings to search documents, censuses and websites. If you have a favorite site for searching last names or any other comments, let me know below!