Surname History

As the field of genealogy rapidly grows, more and more Americans are becoming interested in their surname history as well. Surnames are derived from many different places.

  • Patronymic surnames. Surnames are most commonly patronymic in origin. Patronymic surnames are derived from one's father's name. Anderson and Jackson are examples of patronymic surnames; so are McDonald and McGregor, since the prefix mac means "son of" in the original Scottish-Gaelic. Many Hispanic surnames are also patronymic; first names are turned into surnames by tacking on an "-ez" at the end. Thus Pedro becomes Perez and Gonzalo becomes Gonzalez.
  • Locational surnames. Some families took their surname from the estate where they resided or from a place they lived. Sutterfield, Brooke, and Atwater are examples of this kind of surname.
  • Occupational surnames. Many Americans can trace their surname history back to an occupation. Baker, Brewer, and Tanner are examples of occupational surnames.
  • Descriptive surnames. Some surnames came into being when they were used to describe the characteristics of an ancestor and were passed down to their descendants. The surname Little is an example of this; so is the surname Schwartz, which means "black" in German.


So let's take a look at some of the ten most common American surnames, according to the 1990 U.S. federal census, and figure out their surname history. Smith, listed as the most common American surname, is occupational. It refers to a blacksmith or goldsmith. Johnson, in the second-place spot, is patronymic, referring to the son of John. Miller is no doubt occupational; those with the surname Miller have an ancestor somewhere in their family lines who owned and operated a mill. The surname history of Taylor is also clearly occupational, referring to a tailor. The surname history of Moore is locational; someone who lived on or owned a moor. Wilson is patronymic, meaning "son of Will."

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