Surnames provide an enormous amount of information and are fundamental in your genealogical research. Not only do they reveal the identities of your ancestors, but they can also provide more details about their lives. If you find you're getting stuck with your standard surname searches, try thinking more broadly about the name and what the surname itself can tell you. We've put together a list of just a few of the things a surname can tell you about your family history.

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Here are some key details you can learn from a last name:

1. Location of your ancestors in terms of topography

Many family surnames are derived from location, specifically the geographical topography of where your ancestors lived. One example from my records is my mother's maiden name, Dale. The origins of the word "dale" are from Old English dael related to Old Norse of dalr, which relate to dell. All of these variations translate to valley, so my ancestors could have lived near or within a valley. I searched the surname "Dale" in the Birth, Marriage, and Death (Parish Registers), and one of the entries is a baptism record from August 5, 1599, and the county the baptism occurred in was "Yorkshire (North Riding)," and after researching the area, it is still, to this day, filled with hills and valleys. Now, I can't make any final conclusions about my family's history given this information alone, but it does give me more possibilities to continue my search and overcome brick walls!

Other names that could be derived from topography include:

  • Hamilton meaning crooked hill
  • Ford meaning a shallow place in a river
  • Moore could be derived from the word "moor" meaning open, uncultivated land
  • Acosta means "coast" indicating a coastal locale

Thinking more broadly about a surname can help give you more details about their lives that you may not have realized at first.

2. Location of your ancestors in terms of city, village, or county

Some surnames are derived from location, specifically the area or surrounding city your ancestors were from. The name, Lincoln, for example, could be derived from the city of Lincoln in Lincolnshire in England. Bayer could be derived from the German Bayern, which means Bavaria, which is a region in Germany. If you're stuck, it's worth looking into your last name to see if you can pinpoint a city, village, or county that your ancestors might have lived in.

3. Occupations of your ancestors

Often surnames were based upon the occupation of your male ancestors, which is helpful for learning more about the lives your ancestors may have lived! Smith is one of the most common surnames in the United States and the word smith means metalwork! If Smith is your last name, it is possible that one of your ancestors was a blacksmith! Miller is another surname that is from Old English or Scottish origin and is derived from the act of milling food, most commonly grains. Taylor, another common last name in the United States, is derived from the word tailor, which is from the Anglo-French tailour which means "to cut." If your last name is Taylor, it is possible that someone in your past helped repair or prepare fabrics for clothing or other goods. Another example is the surname, Clark, which is derived from clericus meaning "scribe," which could indicate a scholar or someone who was educated in your family history. Learning more about how our ancestors lived and worked is a great way to uncover more details about their lives.

4. Descriptions of your ancestors

Sometimes surnames can give some descriptive insight about your ancestors! The last name Goodfellow comes from Middle English and is a nickname for a friendly companion! The surname Swift could've meant that your ancestor was a fast runner! The surnames Brown and other similar types might indicate hair color or other aspects of physical appearance. These details can be helpful in forming the story of your ancestors.

5. More about your male ancestors

Surnames are great for providing information about the male ancestors in your family and for tracing your roots back. Johnson and Jones are both derived from son of John, so it gives you more information on your male ancestors. In the Irish records, it's important to note that Mac and O are from Gaelic and mean son and grandson. For female names in the Irish records, Ni means daughter, so it can help trace your ancestors.

When building your family tree, it's important to take all of the data you uncover about surnames with a grain of salt because names change and evolve and so you want to be diligent about having all the facts to help create your family's story. Surnames can provide invaluable insight into many areas of your family's history and are a great way to get started or break down brick walls!

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