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!)

Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 251

Free Online Records at the Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center

If you’re looking for a wide array of free online genealogical records for your family history, look no further than then Allen County Public Library’s Genealogy Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It’s the second largest genealogy library in the country. In addition to the in-house collection, the Genealogy Center offers a vast amount of free digitized resources through their website and partnerships with other websites. 

I invited Allison Singleton, Senior Librarian at the Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana to the show. She is taking us on a tour of the website and sharing her tips and strategies for finding genealogy gems. 

To Listen click the media player below (AUDIO ONLY):

Genealogy Gems Premium Members Exclusive Download:

This audio from this episode comes from Elevenses with Lisa episode 31. Log into your membership and then click here to download the handy PDF show notes that compliment this podcast episode. 

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Don’t miss the Bonus audio for this episode. In the app, tap the gift box icon just under the media player. Get the app here

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Get Unlimited Photo Enhancement and Colorization at MyHeritage

Get genealogy records and unlimited Enhanced and Colorized photos as a MyHeritage PremiumPlus or Complete Plan Subscriber. Click here to start a free trial.

MyHeritage

MyHeritage.com is the place to make connections with relatives overseas, particularly with those who may still live in your ancestral homeland. 

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Podcast Resources

Download the episode mp3
Show Notes: The audio in this episode comes from Elevenses with Lisa Episode 31. Visit the show notes page here. 

Front Page News! New York Tribune Archive on Flickr

Women of President Taft’s New Official Family at Washington, New York Tribune, March 7, 1909. Cover, illustrated supplement. Library of Congress image, posted at Flickr. Click to visit webpage.

The Library of Congress has a Flickr album that’s front page news–literally! It’s a New York Tribune archive with newspaper covers dating back more than a century.

“This set of cover pages from the New York Tribune illustrated supplements begins with the year 1909,” explains the album. “The pages are derived from the Chronicling America newspaper resource at the Library of Congress. To read the small text letters, just click the persistent URL to reach a zoomable version of the page.”

“Daily newspapers began to feature pictorial sections in the late 1800s when they competed for readers by offering more investigative exposés, illustrations, and cartoons. In the 1890s, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer tapped into new photoengraving techniques to publish halftone photographs, and other newspapers soon adopted the practice. The heavily illustrated supplement sections became the most widely read sections of the papers and provided a great opportunity to attract new customers. The daily life, art, entertainment, politics, and world events displayed in their pages captured the imagination of a curious public.”

How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers

Available at http://genealogygems.com

We don’t often find our ancestors splashed across front-page news. But we can read over their shoulders, as it were, to see what was going on in their world and what others around them thought about these events. Newspaper articles and ads reveal fashions and fads, prices on everyday items, attitudes about social issues and more. Read all about using old newspapers for family history in How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers by Lisa Louise Cooke.

Find Australian Ancestors and More: New and Updated Genealogy Records Online

These new and updated genealogical records span three continents and date to the Middle Ages: Australia colonial portraits, New South Wales and Queensland; millions of new U.S. marriage records, a WWI online exhibit, Liverpool church records, a Romanian digital archive, German (Bavarian) civil registers, Confederate musters (GA), PA obituaries, and a Minneapolis newspaper.

Featured this week: Australia Colonial Portraits, New South Wales and Queensland 

The State Library of South Australia announced a newly-digitized collection of more than 1,000 photographs of South Australian colonists. The original photos have been on display at the State Library. “In 2017 they have returned as facsimiles (along with new indexes and online catalogue records),” says a Facebook post. Click to explore the men’s photos or women’s photos online for free. Several people have already identified their ancestors in these collections, judged by comments on the Facebook post. Even better news: the images may be freely copied and used. The Library responded to a question about use with, “The images are well out of copyright. We just ask that you cite as appropriate.”

Subscription website Findmypast.com has posted new Australia content, too:

  • New South Wales Parish Registers, Christ Church Cathedral Newcastle.The records span the years 1804 to 1900 and will reveal the names of your ancestor’s parents,” states Findmypast. “Currently the collection holds just over 5,000 baptisms, around 2,200 marriages records, and just over 3,300 burials. Some burials have also been transcribed from newspapers and other sources.”
  • 1881 British Census, Crew and Passengers on Ships arriving in New South Wales. “Over 19,000 records….These records pertain to British and non-British passengers and crewmen arriving at Sydney from 1 January to 31 March 1881….Each record will reveal the individual’s age, status, nationality, occupation and details of their voyage.”
  • New South Wales, Closer Settlement and Returned Soldiers Transfer Files. “Over 19,000 records have been added….These land transfer records can help you determine the property dealings of your New South Wales ancestors and see if they were involved in transferring land ownership. The records also include files relating to returned servicemen from the First World War who took part in the soldier settlement scheme.”
  • Queensland School Pupil Index. “This database covers over 1.6 million names drawn from 1,022 Queensland schools,” says the collection description. “The earliest date of admission is 1864…. Schools range from large city schools with admissions in the thousands to one-teacher country schools with a total enrollment of only hundreds. Some schools have long ceased to exist; others are still functioning.”

Europe – Digital image archive

Just shy of a half million images from the cultural heritage digital archive Europeana are now part of the new Creative Commons (CC) search database. Now it’s even easier to discover and share images about an ancestor’s life–and to identify images you can re-use without copyright restriction.

“A tool for discovery, collaboration and re-use, CC Search enables users to search a variety of open repositories through a single interface to find content in the commons,” explains a Europeana blog post. “The new beta version of the project, which was released in early February, includes simple, one-click attribution, making it easier to credit the source of any image. CC Search beta also provides social features, allowing users to create, share, and save lists as well as adding tags and favorites to the objects in the commons….These records can all be used for commercial purposes, and are also open for modifications, adaption, or to be built upon. Click here to learn more about WWI and other genealogy-friendly content at Europeana.

England – Liverpool

Ancestry.com has updated its collections of Church of England parish records for Liverpool, England. These databases include baptisms, confirmations, marriages/banns and burials, along with a combined database of older baptisms, marriages and burials dating to 1659.

Germany (Bavaria) – Vital Records

Ancestry.com has published a new collection of Freilassing, Germany, Births, Marriages, and Deaths, 1876-1985. “This collection contains civil registry records from Bavaria,” states the collection landing page. “It includes births covering the years 1876-1899, marriages from 1876 to 1932, and death records for the years 1876-1985. Freilassing is a community in Berchtesgadener Land, Bavaria. It is situated immediately on the German border with Austria and is adjacent to the city of Salzburg. Until 1923, Freilassing was called ‘Salzburghofen’ and this is the name given in many of the records.”

Romania – Digital Archive

Thousands of documents from medieval Romania have been digitized and published online at Arhiva Medievala a Romanie. It’s the first collection of its kind for the country, says an article at Romania-Insider.com. Because of the age and content of these documents, they likely don’t have direct genealogical research value for most people. But anyone with Romanian roots might enjoy getting a sense of the country’s deep history.

United States: WWI, Millions of Marriages and More 

A new online exhibit from the Library of Congress can help you better picture your U.S. ancestors’ experiences during and after World War I. “‘Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I‘ examines the upheaval of world war as Americans confronted it— both at home and abroad,” states the webpage. “The exhibition considers the debates and struggles that surrounded U.S. engagement; explores U.S. military and home front mobilization and the immensity of industrialized warfare; and touches on the war’s effects, as an international peace settlement was negotiated, national borders were redrawn, and soldiers returned to reintegrate into American society.”

Also in the U.S.: Findmypast has added over 6.7 million records to its U.S. marriage records collection. “New additions covering 127 counties across 18 states have been added to our collection of US marriages,” states a press release. “This is the first time ever these records have been released online, providing you with brand new opportunities to expand your family tree.” The 18 states with new records are Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia.

More from across the U.S.:

  • Georgia: Confederate Muster Rolls. The Georgia Archives has digitized and published its collection of Confederate Muster Rolls. According to the site, “The majority of the company muster rolls in this series are from military organizations created by the State of Georgia during the Civil War for service within the state. These military organizations include the Georgia Army (1861), the Georgia State Guards (August 1863-February 1864), and the Georgia State Line (1862-1865). The Georgia Militia is referred to as Georgia State Troops.  Some units were later turned over to Confederate service. There are also nearly 250 muster rolls from Georgia Volunteer Infantry.”
  • Minnesota: Newspapers.com now hosts the entire run of The Minneapolis Star Tribune, which dates to 1867. That’s more than 54,000 issues, among which are a 1976 headliner about a teenage star in the making: Prince. (See that article here for free, just because you can).
  • Pennsylvania – Obituaries. A new collection of Beaver County, Pennsylvania obituaries (1920-1969) is now online at Ancestry.com.

2 Free Resources for Finding Australian Ancestors

 

Source for our lead image: Click here to view map of Australia

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

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