Surname Research

By Carolyn L. Barkley

Over 20 years ago, I agreed to be the Clan Barclay International’s genealogist. I was suddenly plunged into the world of surname research and one-name studies. In those days, one-name studies were a time-consuming process of extracting “all� entries of a particular surname and its variant spellings from such things as census enumerations, telephone books, indices of all kinds – literally any listing that could be found. Needless to say, this work created lots of piles of extracted information.

The universe of surname research has changed greatly in the intervening years as technology has either made the job much easier or eliminated the need for it altogether. I thought I would share some background information about surnames as well as point out some helpful sites. Why should we be interested? Simply put, because by researching a large number of individuals with the same surname, particularly in key geographical areas, we may eventually be able to tear down whatever brick wall we might be facing in our research.

When the world seemed a much smaller place in which most people didn’t venture over the next ridge line, surnames were superfluous. It was enough to add a label or modifier to someone’s given name to differentiate him from the next person with the same given name: Piper John or Tailor John, or Eric the Red, or Richard the Bald. These attributions were not passed down from father to son. As time passed, these names began to look more like the surnames of today, although they still were not necessarily used by succeeding generations. In Europe they tended to fall into one of four categories: place names (Richard Whiteacre or Joseph Bridges), patronymics (Llewellyn ap Llewellyn, John McIver, or Paul Sorenson), occupations (John Saddler or Albert Fletcher), or descriptions (James Little or David Lawless). To oversimplify, as time passed these names became identified with a specific family, rather than a specific individual, and were passed down the generations as the surnames that we know today.

Genealogical research offers us many opportunities to become “stuck,� unable to document earlier generations of a family or identify matrilineal lines. In-depth research of a particular surname may help resolve the problem. I recommend learning first about surnames in general and then about the surnames in your specific geographical interest in particular. Print titles offering such information include George Redmond’s Surnames and Genealogy: A New Approach (New England Historic Genealogical Society), Elsdon Smith’s American Surnames, George F. Black’s The Surnames of Scotland (New York Public Library), Charles Wareing Bardsley’s A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames, Edward MacLysaght’s The Surnames of Scotland (Irish Academic Press), Lyman D. Platt’s Hispanic Surnames and Family History, George F. Jones’s German-American Names, and Sheau-yueh J. Chao’s In Search of Your Asian Roots: Genealogical Resources on Chinese Surnames.

It is also important to know the geographic distribution of a particular surname. If you’ve located your ancestor but don’t know where to look for his origins, targeting areas that are most likely to have families with the given surname will focus your research. I recommend several websites to assist you in learning about surname distribution.

Hamrick’s U.S. Surname Distribution Maps provide four snapshots of surname distribution in the United States, based on data from the 1850, 1880, and 1920 censuses and from 1990 telephone books. The site not only provides a color-coded map indicating density of the surname across the country but also allows you to see changes over time due to population growth and migration. One caveat is that you need to be able to recognize a state by its shape as there are no mouseovers. I always have a problem remembering which midwestern state is which, and I imagine that researchers in different parts of the country have corresponding knowledge gaps. The maps can be captured and entered into newsletters or other printed documentation.

In Great Britain, the National Trust sponsors a project, “National Trust Names,� based at University College, London. The site provides maps of distribution of surnames in Great Britain, both current (1998 from a variety of sources) and historic (1881 census). Mouseovers are available to help identify the various districts. The site indicates that it will soon have a world surname profiler available, although it currently provides some distribution data (not map) for surnames in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. For example, a search for the surname “Duncan� indicated that Aberdeen, Scotland, had the highest concentration in the U.K., with Keith as the top postal code; in Australia, the Northern Territory was the top state; in New Zealand, Nelson was the top province; and in the United States, Arkansas was the top state. It was the 169th most common name in the U.K. in 1881, but only 205th in 1998. If I had a Duncan brick wall in Scotland – which I do and have had for years – it would appear that Aberdeenshire would be the best place for me to concentrate my research.

Other countries, such as Italy, have similar sites. The Italian site provides a less artistic map than do the previously mentioned sites, but some time spent on the site will yield at least two varieties of maps illustrating surname (cognomen) concentrations.

Finally, the U.S. Census Bureau provides statistical information based on the 1990 census. By using this site, I learned that the surname “Barkley� ranks 2,584th in frequency among surnames in the U.S., possessed by .005% of the population, while “Moore� ranks 9th, possessed by .312%.

The Internet is rife with sites for specific surnames. In a previous blog, we discussed DNA surname research projects, and I recommend searching to see if one exists for your surname. They contain a wealth of information and possibilities for connections to relatives. In addition, sites such as cyndislist and GenealogyForum provide surname centers with links to information about surnames, GEDCOMs from researchers in your surname, message board links, and much more.

Be very careful in choosing the surname site. I found some that spelled “genealogy� wrong and even included the word (shudder) “sirname,� or offered bogus family coats of arms. Choose a site with active and current links, accurate grammar and spelling, and a reputable sponsor or author. One example of such a site is England’s Guild of One-Name Studies. You can search their site to see if anyone has registered a study concerning your surname of interest, or join and register your own study.

You will always find sites that surprise you. As I’m the Clan Barclay genealogist and maintain the Clan Barclay Genealogical Database, I was surprised to discover that the Surname Genealogy Website (online since 1996) included a Barclay Surname Resource Center which was, I felt, remarkably incomplete as it didn’t include any reference to my database. Clearly I have my work cut out for me – but at least it’s better than copying entries out of phonebooks!

Leave a Reply

Next ArticleUsing New Resources Effectively