Common Surnames: How Unique is Yours?

Common surnames can make genealogy research more challenging. But learning more about your last name (including how common it is) can also enrich your family history. Check out 4 free online tools for learning more about your family’s surnames. Then share what you learn the next time your relatives get together!

common surnames

If you have common surnames on your family tree, you may have become frustrated at times trying to determine whether the “John Williams” or “Elizabeth Smith” you’re looking at in a record belongs to your John or Elizabeth. Would it make a difference if you discovered they lived in an area where there very few folks by those names during that time period? It would. Furthermore, it would probably also be nice to know things like where else in the world–or within England, for example–that surname is found now (or was in the past).

The enormous amount of census, vital records, and family tree data now online is making it easier to answer questions like these. Below, find free online tools for mapping common surnames (and less-common ones, too) across time. They include surname search tools hosted by a couple of our Genealogy Giants, Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.com. What can you learn from the following sites? Do they agree with one another? Check them out!

Your surname in the 1990 and 2000 U.S. censuses

common surnamesThe US Census Bureau has created databases of last names that appear in recent censuses. You can look at the results a couple of ways:

  • Click here to search for your surname among the most common 150,000 surnames from the 1990 and 2000 censuses. These surnames cover about 90% of those who participated in the census.
  • Click here to view a list of all surnames that appear 100 or more times in the 2000 census. (Smith, Johnson, Williams, Brown, Jones, Miller and Davis all top a million occurrences!) According to this webpage, the top 15 surnames have remained fairly steady in the most recent three censuses with one exceptional trend: Spanish-origin surnames are starting to make the lists.

common surnames england walesCommon surnames of England and Wales

Find out how common your surname is today in England, Wales, and the Isle of Mann. The Surnames of England and Wales – the ONS List has a searchable database of almost 270,000 surnames shared by 54.4 million people (it excludes surnames occurring fewer than 5 times in the total database of nearly 60 million people). The list compiled between 1998-2002 does have some duplication and misspellings: “experience suggests that multiplying the result for your surname by 0.93 will give a good idea of the living population for your surname.”

What’s in a name? Ancestry.com answers

Ancestry.com hosts this fun and free tool for those with roots in the U.S., England, Scotland, and Wales:

Remember, it’s not a precise genealogy research tool. But it can prove interesting. When I ran this search for the married surname of our Genealogy Gems DNA expert, Diahan Southard, I was shown (among other things) this interesting map illustrating how the Southard family was spread across the United States in 1920:

common surnames

Surname directory at MyHeritage

MyHeritage.com hosts a searchable surname directory taken from data found on its site. To search the surname directory, choose the first letter of the last name from the alphabet shown below the search screen. (If you enter a name in the blue search boxes, you’ll be taken into their record-searching area, which isn’t the same):

common surnames

You won’t find all names surnames here, though you may find variant spellings of yours. (I never knew McClellan could be spelled in so many different ways!) Here’s a map of how they find my husband’s surname, Morton, scattered across the globe:

common surnames

Looking for more surname distribution maps? Click here to find a list organized by country.

Next Steps: Try this with your common surnames

common surnames Google search strategiesIf you’ve taken a DNA test…Thousands of people are compiling their same-surname DNA test results into surname projects. Click here to learn more about how to “social network” your yDNA test results in a surname project.

If you’re a Genealogy Gems Premium subscriber…you can watch Lisa Louise Cooke’s fabulous video tutorial, Common Surname Google Search Strategies. Use her tips to find even your most commonly-named relatives online! (Not a Premium member? Click here to learn more–for one low price, you’ll get a year’s access to hundreds of Premium videos and podcast episodes!)

Colonial Genealogy: Find Your Early American Ancestors

Early American Ancestors Research
Elevenses with Lisa Episode 33

Lindsay Fulton, VP New England Historic Genealogical Society NEHGS

Lindsay Fulton, VP New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS)

In this episode we head back to 17th century New England with Lindsay Fulton of  the New England Historic Genealogical Society and AmericanAncestors.org

Lindsay Fulton is with American Ancestors and New England Historic Genealogical Society where leads the Research and Library Services team as Vice President. She is a frequent contributor to the NEHGS blog and was featured in the Emmy-Winning Program: Finding your Roots: The Seedlings, a web series inspired by the popular PBS series “Finding Your Roots.”

Watch the video and follow along with the show notes below as we cover how to get started researching our early American ancestors. Lindsay will also provide her top genealogical resources.

Getting Started with Colonial-Era Research

During this period of American history, New England includes:

  • Connecticut
  • Maine
  • Massachusetts
  • New Hampshire
  • Rhode Island
  • Vermont

To get started in Colonial-Era genealogical research, Lindsay says the first thing you need to do is put your ancestors into an historical context:

  • When did they arrive in New England?
  • Where did they migrate to?

Significant dates and events at this time include:

  • The Mayflower’s arrival in 1620
  • The Great Migration: 1620-1640, with the peak years between 1633 and 1638.
  • The Civil War in England, which slowed migration.

Turn to the book The Expansion of New England, The spread of New England Settlement and Institutions to the Mississippi Rover 1620-1865 by L. K. Mathews. Published in 1909 this important book includes 30 to 40 historical maps.

More Resources for 17th Century American Genealogy Research

Book: Genealogists Handbook for New England Research, 5th Edition. Edited by Michael J. Leclerc. This book includes important detailed information on towns, cities, and states. It will help you determine where to look for records during a given timeframe.

Resources at the American Ancestors website

  • AmericanAncestors.org > Town Guides  (Free)
  • AmericanAncestors.org/town-guides/ for New England

Early New England Finding Aids

Finding Aids provide a comprehensive list of all the available records for a person / family.

The first place to look for people settling in New England prior to 1700: New England Marriages Prior to 1700 by Clarence Almon Torrey. This book includes scholarship prior to 1962. Learn more about it here.

The next place to look: Founders of Early American Families by Meredith Colkert. Scholarship goes a little further than 1962 and ventures beyond New England. This book covers 1607-1657.

The next place to look: New Englanders in the 1600s, A Guide to Genealogical Research Published Between 1980 and 2010 by Martin E. Hollick. At the beginning of the book there is a key to all of the original sources. For example, TAG refers to The American Genealogist.

From Lindsay: “The thing about 17th century research, like a said at the beginning, the most studied people on the planet. So, don’t reinvent the wheel, don’t drive yourself crazy trying to find all of this information on your own. You have to stand on the shoulders of those who have come before you. There are all of these people who have done all this research before. Please look at first. Always look at with a little bit of hesitation because there’s always possibilities that mistakes were made. But at least take a peek at what’s already been done first!”

Colonial-Era Study Projects

The first example that Lindsay provided of a study project for early American ancestors is the Great Migration Study Project (searchable online database at AmericanAncestors.org)

  • Directed by Robert Charles Anderson, FASG
  • Started in 1988
  • Genealogical and biographical sketch for immigrants to New England from 1620 to 1640
  • Fourteen published volumes
  • Newsletter (bound versions available)
  • Tours and other educational programs
  • Searchable online databases

Published Volumes:

  • The Great Migration Directory, Immigrants to New England, 1620-1640
  • The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England 1620-1633 (3 vols.)
  • The Great Migration: Immigrants to New England 1634-1635 (7 vols.)
  • The Pilgrim Migration: Immigrants to Plymouth Colony 1620-1633
  • The Winthrop Fleet: Massachusetts Bay Company Immigrants to New England 1629-1630
  • The Great Migration Newsletter, vols. 1-20
  • The Mayflower Migration: Immigrants to Plymouth, 1620

Those who are included in the study project:

  • If person appeared in a record
  • Direct or indirect implication of arrival
  • Appearance of an immediate family of a person known to have arrived

The second study project example was the Early New England Families Study Project

  • Directed by Alicia Crane Williams
  • Genealogical and biographical sketch for those who married in New England from 1641 to 1700
  • Grouped by year of marriage
  • Two published volumes
  • Searchable online database
  • New sketches posted online

Who is included:

  • Using Clarence Almon Torrey’s New England Marriages Prior to 1700 as guide
  • Anyone who married in New England in this time period and included in Torrey

Compiled New England Genealogies

There are millions of compiled genealogies available for early American ancestors. Lindsay discussed three publications (available in book form) that are state specific:

  1. Pioneers of Massachusetts 1620-1650 one of many book by Charles Henry Pope
  2. Genealogical Notes, or Contributions to the Family History of Some of the First Settlers of Connecticut and Massachusetts, by Nathaniel Goodwin
  3. Genealogical Dictionary of Maine and New Hampshire by Noyes, Libby, and Davis
New England Compiled Genealogies - Free Webinar

Example from a New England compiled genealogy.

Periodicals

  • New England Historical and Genealogical Register (published since 1847)
  • New York Biographical & Genealogical Record
  • The Mayflower Descendant
  • The American Genealogist
  • and more!

These can be searched on AmericanAncestors.org: Database Search > Select the Category Journals and Periodicals, and then scroll through all of the available items. They are fully searchable. You will be able to see the actual record. You can download and print the items.

Mayflower Research Resources

The Silver books and the Pink books done by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants. It’s looking at those passengers with known descendants. These are only available currently in book form. If you are interested in applying to the Mayflower Society, they accept these as original records. You can cite the pages. (Learn more about Mayflower related resources at American Ancestors.)

Mayflower Families 5th Gen. Desc.

  • Available at AmericanAncestors.org
  • Index of all the 5th Generation descendants,
    their spouses and children
  • 31 volumes in total.
    • Over 385,000 searchable names

Visit: Database List A – Z at American Ancestors.  

If you click Mayflower Families Fifth Generation Descendants, 1700-1880, it will take you to a search page where you can search by names and years, or search by volumes. It will bring up all of the available records.

General Society of Mayflower Descendants (GSMD) Membership Applications, 1620-1920

  • New – available soon. Only on AmericanAncestors.org
  • Contains all Mayflower Society Applications for applicants born before 1920. Approximately ~30,000 applications
  • All data indexed for each generation
  • Available to: American Ancestors & NEHGS Members, FamilySearch Affiliate members, and GSMD Members.

New England Genealogy Records

When doing New England genealogy research look for the following records:

  • Vital Records
  • Church Records
  • Cemetery Records
  • Probate Records Court Records
  • Town Records
  • Military Records
  • Notarial Records

Usually you’ll be looking at the town level. This is why you must know where your ancestors were living, and what the place was called at that time, and what the borders were.

Be sure to check out 17th-Century New England Research page at the American Ancestors website for more New England tips, tricks and strategies.

Answers to Questions about Early America Genealogy Research

You can schedule a consultation with an expert genealogist on staff at NEHGS.
Length: 30 minutes to 2 hours
Conducted over Zoom or over the phone. A recording is provided.
Contact: research@nehgs.org
Fee: $85 (members) or $105 (non-member)

More on Using the American Ancestors Website

Premium Podcast episode 177 (Genealogy Gems Premium Membership is required.) In this episode we explore the New England Historic Genealogical Society’s American Ancestors website with Claire Vail, Director of Creative and Digital Strategy for the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

Answers to Your Live Chat Questions About Colonial American Genealogy

One of the advantages of tuning into the live broadcast of each Elevenses with Lisa show is participating in the Live Chat and asking your questions.

From Susan W: Is there a source for Rhode Island? (I’m not sure if she was thinking about one particular resource you mentioned or generally. Perhaps she just needs a RI finding aid?)
From Lindsay: Yes! American Ancestors-NEHGS has a fantastic guide to Rhode Island research, which you can access with a free guest membership here.

From Cindy A: What percentage of the items you showed would require a paid membership?
From Lindsay: The majority of the databases shown are included as a benefit of membership with American Ancestors-NEHGS, but if you are interested in Colonial American genealogy, you should consider membership. We have hundreds of databases that will help you to discover more about your 17th and 18th Century ancestry. You can learn more about these databases (and books in the library) with a free guest membership.

From Sue M: What resource was Nathan Snow in. He’s related to my BATES family.
From Lindsay: Nathan Snow was included in the American Ancestors-NEHGS database, Mayflower Families Fifth Generation Descendants, 1700-1880. This database supports the following searchable fields: First and last name, Year, Record type, Location, Family member names: Spouse, Mother and Father (where available), Keyword – for names in the lineage text of direct descendants.

From Kathy M: Excellent. Can you comment on both land inheritance (i.e. did it follow English primogeniture) and on best sources for finding 1600 female ancestors’ family names.
From Lindsay: Alicia Crane Williams wrote a blog post about this entitled, Probate records: Part One, where she states, “for the most part, a testator could leave anything to anyone, unless they were dealing with colonies such as Virginia that followed the laws of primogeniture where all real estate was left to the oldest son. This did not apply in New England, although it was customary to follow the legal model of giving a double share to the oldest son. A legitimate heir who was left out of a will could potentially contest it in court, thus the bequests of one pound or one dollar to cover any claim that someone had been accidentally forgotten.” For more information about land inheritance in New England (and the U.S.), you should examine Wade Hone’s Land & Property Research in the United States. It is an excellent deep-dive into land records. As for female ancestors’ family names in the 1600s, I would recommend examining Torrey’s New England Marriages and Hollick’s New Englanders in the 1600s. Those are the two best places to start your search for the ladies in your family (I covered these in the episode too).

From Louann H: Suggestions for time period 1660-1776? 
From Lindsay: Many of the resources discussed during the presentation covered the 17th century, and would be your best bet for resources for 1660-1700. You can learn more about these databases (and books in the library) with a free guest membership. After 1700, there are few compiled resources similar to the Great Migration Study Project; however, you could start with a search of the American Ancestors-NEHGS Library catalog. We have thousands of published genealogies that may cover your family history in the first half of the 18th Century.

From Jane C: This has been wonderful, doing Mayflower research. What are Notarial Records?
From Lindsay: Notarial records are a private agreement written by a notary in the form of a contract. Some of the most common ones are marriage contracts, wills, estate inventories, leases, and sales contracts. While they were not common record keeping practices in New England and New York, notarial records were plentiful in Quebec. You can learn more about them by watching our free webinar called Navigating Notarial Records in Quebec.

News You Can Use: Google Photos Update

Google Photos is currently the home of more than 4 trillion photos and videos of users around the world. According to Google, 29 billion new photos and videos are uploaded every week. They just announced that starting June 1, 20201 “all new photos and videos backed up in High Quality will count toward the free 15 GB of storage that comes with your Google account or any additional storage you may have purchased, the same way other Google services like Google Drive and Gmail already do.”

Watch Elevenses with Lisa episode 23 to learn more about Google Photos.

Google Photos for beginners

In that episode we discuss that “High Quality” is the slightly compressed version of images and videos and “Original” quality are full size, uncompressed images and videos. In the past you could upload “High Quality” for free.

All “High Quality” content uploaded before June 1, 2021 is exempt from counting against your storage. On that date they plan to launch a new storage management tool that they say will help you easily identify items you’re currently storing that you may want to remove if they are low quality or otherwise unwanted. This will help you reduce the amount of storage you use.

If you don’t want to pay for additional storage, here are some tips:

  • Use Google Photos as a tool for specific projects rather than a complete storage system.
  • Turn off auto-sync of your photos from your phone and other devices.
  • Carefully select and manually add images and videos.

Resources

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Bonus Download exclusively for Premium Members: Download the show notes handout. 
Become a Genealogy Gems Premium Member today. 

Please leave a comment below:

  • Do you have a question?
  • Do you have a favorite 17th century resource?
  • Do you have New England success story?

Please share in the Comments below.

Search the SSDI for Your Family History

Are you tracing the family history of someone who lived in the U.S. during the 20th century? Check out a wonderful free database in the United States called the Social SSDI SearchSecurity Death Index, or the SSDI. Keep reading for 5 FREE online sources for the SSDI, 7 tips for searching the SSDI and what you can do with SSDI info.

In 1935 the Social Security Act was signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt, and consequently more than thirty million Americans were registered by 1937. Today, the Death Master File from the Social Security Administration contains over 89 million records of deaths that have been reported to the Social Security Administration and they are publicly available online.

Most of the information included in the index dates from 1962, although some data is from as early as 1937. This is because the Social Security Administration began to use a computer database for processing requests for benefits in 1962. Many of the earlier records back to 1937 have not been added.

The SSDI does not have a death record for everyone; and occasionally you may find an error here and there if something was reported inaccurately, but overall it’s a terrific resource! It’s especially great for many people who were missed in the 1890 census or whose birth predated vital records registration in their home state. Remember they just needed to live past 1937 and to have worked to have been included. So they could have been born sometime in the later 1800s.

5 FREE Online Sources for the SSDI

Several genealogy websites provide free access to the SSDI, including (click to go right to the SSDI at these sites):

On the Search page, enter your relative’s name and other details you’re asked for. Hopefully you will get back results that includes your relative!

7 Tips for Searching the SSDI

If  your relative doesn’t show up in the SSDI, even though you know they worked after 1937 and you know they have passed away, try these search tips:

1. Does the website you are using to search the SSDI have the most current version available? Look in the database description on the site to see how recently it was updated. Try searching at other sites.

2. Make sure that you tried alternate spellings for their name. You never know how it might have been typed into the SSDI database.

3. Many SSDI indexes allow you to use wildcards in your search. So for example you could type in “Pat*” which would pull up any name that has the first three letters as PAT such as Patrick, Patricia, etc.

4. Try using less information in your search. Maybe one of the details you’ve been including is different in the SSDI database. For example it may ask for state and you enter California because that’s where grandpa died, when they were looking for Oklahoma because that’s where he first applied for his social security card. By leaving off the state you’ll get more results. Or leave off the birth year because even though you know it’s correct, it may have been recorded incorrectly in the SSDI and therefore it’s preventing your ancestor from appearing in the search results.

5. Leave out the middle name because middle names are not usually included in the database. However, if you don’t have luck with their given name, try searching the middle name as their given name. In the case of my grandfather his given name was Robert but he went by the initial J.B. But in the SSDI his name is spelled out as JAY BEE!

6. Remember that married women will most likely be listed under their married surname, not their maiden name. But if you strike out with the married name, go ahead and give the maiden a try. She may have applied for her card when single, and never bothered to update the Administration’s records. Or if she was married more than once, check all her married names for the same reason.

7. Don’t include the zip code if there is a search field for it because zip codes did not appear in earlier records.

While most folks will appear in the SSDI, there are those who just won’t. But knowing where information is not located can be as important down the road in your research as knowing where it IS located, so I recommend making a note in your database that you did search the SSDI with no result. This will save you from duplicating the effort down the road because you forgot that you looked there.

What You Can Do with SSDI Information

Now, here comes the most exciting part of the SSDI: what you can do with that information. First, it usually includes a death date (at least the month and year) and sometimes a state and last known residence. Use this information to look for death records, obituaries, cemetery and funeral records. And use that Social Security Number to order a copy of your relative’s application for that number: the SS-5. Click here to read more about the SS-5 and how to order it.

Up next, read:

Get Started: How to Find Your Family History for Free

7 Great Ways to Use Your iPad for Family History

How to Find Your Family Tree Online

Best Genealogy Software

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