Last names have not been around forever. It seems that they first began to be used in England around 1250, possibly as a need to identify individuals beyond their immediate family and locality. The Norman feudal system provided one reason for this need for surnames: so too did the development of subsidy rolls at parishes around the country.
There appear to have been four main origins of surnames:
- family patronymics (i.e. names deriving from first names)
- names describing a location (where one lived)
- and occupational or trade names.
The Scandinavian nomenclature seems to have provided one early form, particularly in the north of England. William son of John therefore became William Johnson and so forth. Alternatively, the suffix “s” was used, the “s” denoting the genitive or “of.” Thus Roberts or Williams. In the twelfth and thirteenth century, William, Robert, Richard, and Thomas were the most used first names. John became popular in the fourteenth century, as did Henry and Roger. These names became the bases for the most common surnames.
Nicknames describing appearance also became surnames, by complexion (such as Brown or White), by characteristic (Young or Savage for instance). Some of the nicknames describing traits, with Old English roots, may have been the earliest surnames. Lewis came from the Old English leofwyne and meant “loving friend.“ Baldwin meant in fact a bold person, Curtis, with its roots still understandable, courteous. Some names are less flattering. Crump meant bent or crooked, Morley ill-omened and someone to avoid.
Sometimes, the nickname signifies an outsider (i.e. Walsh or Welsh being Welsh and Scott Scottish). In time, Welsh-origin names such as Evans and Griffiths came into England, as did Scottish names as well
Many people were also named by where they lived. Thus John who lived by a wood became John Wood, Thomas who lived in a hall (probably as a servant) Thomas Hall. The location names were either singular or with the suffix “s” (denoting “of”), such as Banks or Rhodes.
A later naming (apparently) was that due to occupation. Every village had a smith or a tailor and Thomas the smith became Thomas Smith, Robert the tailor Robert Taylor. Other common occupational names were Baker, Cook, Cooper (a barrel maker), Turner (a lathe operator), Walker (a fuller of cloth), and Wright.
Many surnames in England today reflect these origins.
Some names are more prevalent in one region of the country. Some are localized within one particular area. Some less common names often have more than one geographic origin. And some come from a single place or forebear.
Overall, the process of surnames looks to have become the norm for everyone throughout England by the early part of the fifteenth century. And these names, which describe our long-since vanished medieval way of life, have stayed with us to this day.
Scottish, Welsh and Irish Surnames
Scottish surnames divide between Highland and Lowland names. In the Highlands, hereditary surnames developed late. The clan structure resulted in a large number of people with the same name, but no specific surname of their own. Clan chiefs increased their followers by conciliation or coercion and all took the name of the clan. The modern bearer of a clan surname, such as Fraser or MacDonald, therefore is not necessarily a member of the clan by blood or heredity. Gaelic surnames do occur; but they are relatively rare. However, the number of names beginning in “Mac” or Mc” (son in Gaelic) shows that its heritage has been handed down.
Lowland Scottish surnames reflect the proximity to England. Many early surnames, such as Hamilton, were in fact those brought by Anglo-Normans into Scotland. Lowland surnames developed on the same lines of those in England, although they were slower to become hereditary. Many names were in fact still undocumented in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Hereditary surnames in Wales are a post-sixteenth century development. Prior to that time, the prototype for the Welsh name was the patronymic, such as “Madog ap Jevan ap Jerwerth” (Madoc, son of Evan, son of Yorwerth). The system worked well in what was still mainly an oral culture. Many in fact would take pride in being able to recite their forebears by memory and would decry the English practice.
Norman names came into the frame in the 1500’s. Names such as John ap Madog, Edward ap Richard, and William ap Robert point to the the future preponderance of the Welsh Jones, Williams, and Roberts.’
Surnames began to appear in Ireland in the tenth century. They were patronymic, formed by prefixing an “O” to the grandfather’s name or a “Mac,” somewhat later, to the father’s name. They were originally Gaelic names and often clan or sept names. Examples of these surnames today are O’Connor, O’Sullivan and MacMahon.
However, the Anglo-Norman invasion brought with it the English language. The invaders stayed and many became large landowners. Over time their Norman French names changed to fit the local landscape – de Burgh to Burke, de Leon to Dillon, and de Lench to Lynch for instance.
For a time, names acquired two forms, one Irish and one English. By the 18th century, however, the move towards English-style surnames had accelerated. Irish names might either be translated or changed to a better-known English surname (hence O Blathmhaic became Blawick and then Blake).
The names of Irish immigrants to America were often further corrupted in pronunciation and spelling, thus adding further difficulties to ancestry tracing. In addition, many Irish families in more recent times have chosen to re-adopt their original surnames, thereby complicating the picture further.
The Spread of Surnames
The world opened up for the English in the seventeenth century, first to America and later elsewhere. They came in a variety of guises, religious dissenters seeking freedom of worship, land seekers and adventurers, and refugees from hardship and oppression; and some came involuntarily. Large numbers were forcibly transported as convicts, first to America and then to Australia. Each of these colonists or migrants brought with them their English name; and the English language.
Where English became the lingua franca, the surnames that they brought became the most common, despite more recent immigration from elsewhere.
The English surname preponderance in America owes much to African Americans generally adopting English type names after emancipation; and to many other immigrants anglicizing their names on arrival or soon after. Canadian and Australian names remain heavily English and Scottish in origin.
Most African Americans, to the country’s shame, arrived in America as slaves. They were usually given a single name by their slave-owner, but not a surname. When they came to enter American society, either individually when they secured their freedom or collectively after Lincoln’s emancipation of the slaves in 1863, they needed to adopt an American surname.
Some but not that many took the name of their former master, although a nearby name might instead have been taken. Interestingly, Washington is the “blackest” surname in America today, with close to 90 percent of Washingtons being African American. Perhaps Washington was chosen because of President Washington’s widely known gesture of freeing his slaves in his will. The next “blackest” surnames are also Presidential, Jefferson and Jackson. Irish surnames are often found, perhaps because of black and Irish inter-marriages at some stage. Murray became a common African American surname in Maryland. Mohammed Ali famously discarded his Kentucky “slave” name of Clay.
In the Caribbean, the British Government had provided in 1834 a short list of surnames that slaves were allowed to take on being emancipated. That list was largely ignored. Some chose the name of someone who they liked or who had been good to them or who was famous. But many did take the name of their property owner. That is why, for instance, Campbell is one of the most common surnames in Jamaica today.
For the spread of surnames throughout the English-speaking world, you might want to check the following two sites:
- The Top 300 Surnames. The top 300 surnames by number are listed, broken up by numbers in the UK, America and elsewhere – from number one Smith to number 300 Tate.
- The Top Ten Surnames by Category. The categories here are countries (England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) and categories within the US (African American, Germanic, Jewish, and Hispanic).
Surnames from Elsewhere
These were initially French Canadian surnames, such as Bernard and Durant, that were brought by French settlers in the 17th century to what was then New France. Many were then found in Louisiana after the Acadian exodus from the Canadian maritime provinces a century later.
Then there are the Huguenot names, surnames brought by Protestant refugees from France in the 17th century to England and America. Pertwee and Brokaw today are English modifications of earlier French Huguenot names.
The first wave of German immigration into America came in the early 1700’s from the Rhine Palatine and from Switzerland. They were fleeing religious persecution at home. Most ended up in Pennsylvania, bringing their Mennonite church with them. Their Germanic names often changed under English rule to English-style names. Thus Schneider became Snyder, Hubner Hoover and so forth.
The American surname Myers may have started as Meyers or Moyers in Switzerland, Mayers in Austria, and Meyers in southern Germany.
The reasons for immigration were different in the 19th century, in search of a better life usually. They came from all German states and went not just to Pennsylvania but all over as the middle and west of the country was opening up. And they brought German skills with them, notably beer-making, with which the Schaefer name became known.
The Jews were banned from England in 1290 and did not return there until the 1650’s, in the guise of Portuguese traders. They were to make their mark as merchants and financiers in London and many families prospered. There was another larger but poorer Jewish influx into England in the late 1800’s.
In America the early settlement was of Sephardic Jews in Charleston, South Carolina. In the 19th century Ashkenazi Jews began to arrive from Germany. Later came a larger immigration, escaping pogroms, from the wider Jewish diaspora of the former Russian empire and other parts of Eastern Europe.
Some Jewish surnames such as Cohen reflect ancient Biblical names. Some have come from early place-names where Jews resided, such as Halpern (from Heilbronn). Many more came about in the early 1800’s when Ashkenazi Jews were forced by Governments to adopt surnames. The names chosen at that time were often ornamental ones – Bernstein or Goldberg for example. Then again their names could have changed as an immigrant on arrival in America at Ellis Island.
People from Scandinavia – from Sweden, Norway and Denmark – started migrating to America from the 1850’s onwards. They settled in the Upper Midwest mainly, states such as Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Their surnames were patronymic surnames, with conversion from the Scandinavian “-sen” and “-sson” to the American “-son,” such as Carlson or Peterson, usually taking place on arrival or soon afterwards. Even by the 1860’s many Scandinavian patronymic surnames were not hereditary. Thus it was that Carl and Helga Erickson came to America in 1861 with their son Swan Carlson.