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!)

No More Late Fees! Check Out Free Genealogy Magazines and eBooks at Your Local Library

Your local library may offer free genealogy magazines and ebooks. Why choose them over print? So many reasons! No more late fees. Read on the go. Choose your font size. So go ahead: check out digital versions of that Genealogy Gems Book Club title you’ve been meaning to read, or the current issue of Family Tree Magazine. Here’s how.

genealogy library freebies

Here in the U.S., it’s my favorite time of year: back-to-school! The weather slowly cools. My children shake off summer’s mental lethargy. My own schedule resumes a more predictable, productive rhythm. And after months spent outdoors, I rediscover my local library. Top on my library list this fall: free genealogy ebooks and magazines I can check out on my mobile device. It’s on-the-go reading for my favorite hobby–with no searching under my bed when items come due to avoid those pesky late fees.

Free Genealogy eBooks and Magazines

Genealogy Gems Premium Member Autumn feels the same way about free genealogy gems at her local library. Here’s a letter she wrote to Lisa Louise Cooke:

“I’m really enjoying both the Premium and free podcasts. I also like the addition of the Genealogy Gems Book Club. I haven’t read all the books yet but am adding them all to my wishlist on Overdrive, a free app that allows you to check out digital books for free from your local library. They don’t have every book but they have many, many books including some from the book club. Most libraries have a lot of biographies and histories available through Overdrive for free that are of interest to genealogists as well. Some libraries are adding video to their Overdrive offerings too.

Many of these same libraries offer magazines free as well.  My library…use[s] Zinio, a magazine app. I only subscribe to a couple of magazines now because I can get so many for free through my library (not to mention keeping my home neater by not having them laying everywhere).”

genealogy book club family history readingIt makes me happy that Autumn is enjoying the Genealogy Gems Book Club. We hear from many avid readers who love browsing our list of mainstream fiction and nonfiction picks for family history lovers. As part of our book club, we interview every book club author, too–from beloved novelists like Fannie Flagg to acclaimed journalists, memoir writers, and historians who take their own unique approaches to family history themes. Hear excerpts of these interviews on the free Genealogy Gems Podcast; full interviews run on the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast, available by subscription.

Overdrive and Zinio

At Autumn’s recommendation, I started using Overdrive through my local library. I love it! I’ve listened to several digital audiobooks on the road and at the gym through Overdrive and have read several ebooks, too. (I’m always on the hunt for the next Genealogy Gems Book Club title.) The books just disappear at the end of the lending period (hence the “no late fees” bonus).

Genealogy Gems Service Manager Lacey Cooke loves Overdrive, too. She sent me these four reasons why:

1. Download for Offline Listening: “You can download the ebooks, audiobooks, magazines etc. to your device so that you can enjoy them offline (great for traveling). They’ll still disappear once your lending period expires, but having them available offline is awesome. You don’t have to worry about data charges or slow internet connections.

2. The Wishlist: Autumn briefly mentioned the Wishlist feature. I love this feature because it gives me somewhere to save book titles that I’m interested in reading at some point, but I’m not ready to check out just yet.

3. Bookmark/Syncing: You can bookmark a page, then pick up where you left off. If you have the Overdrive app on multiple devices, the app syncs. I can start reading on one device, and pick up on another right where I left off.

4. Format Adjustments: You can adjust the font style, size, and color to make it easier for you to read. I like to pick a nice, clean font in a big size so there’s no strain on my eyes.”

It’s worth noting that if you don’t already have a library card with your local library, you may be required to sign up in person to get a card, even if you only plan on using the Overdrive app to request items online. New releases or popular titles may have a wait list to check out the ebook or audiobook (especially if the library only possesses one copy). If you do have to place an ebook on hold, you will be notified via email when it becomes available to you, so if you don’t check your email regularly, keep that in mind when you place a hold. Each library system is different, so of course, your experience may vary.

Another helpful tip: not every library offers Overdrive ebook checkouts. But sometimes you can use another library’s Overdrive privileges. Autumn sent a link to these instructions on how to do so. (Thanks, Autumn!)

Autumn also mentioned the Zinio app. My library doesn’t offer Zinio yet, so I spent a little time on its public search portal. That doesn’t have a browsable genealogy category, and searches for the terms family history, genealogy and ancestry came up empty. But I did finally find these titles:

Lisa Louise Cooke, Genealogy Gems DNA expert Diahan Southard, and I are all frequent contributors to Family Tree Magazine, which we {heart} and recommend for its easy-reading research tips, hands-on tech and DNA tutorials, and the eye-candy layout.

More Free Genealogy Resources at Your Local Library

Of course, your local library may offer many additional free genealogy research and reading materials. Of tremendous value is access to Library editions of popular genealogy databases such as Ancestry, Findmypast, Fold3, and MyHeritage, along with institutional versions of historical newspaper databases. (Click here to learn more about the differences between the major genealogy websites.) Call your library or browse its website to see what resources may be available with your library card on site or even remotely from your own home or mobile device. And remember to watch for your library’s e-media options like those recommended by Autumn.

As a special shout-out to all the free genealogy resources at your library, Lisa Louise Cooke has granted free access for everyone to Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode #125. In this episode, Lisa has a full discussion about more free genealogy gems at public libraries with Cheryl McClellan. Cheryl is not only my awesome mom, she rocks professionally as the Geauga County, Ohio public library system staff genealogist!

This Premium episode is usually exclusively for Genealogy Gems Premium members. If you love it, and you’re not already a member, consider gifting yourself a “back to school” subscription. It’s the most fun, energizing, apply-it-now genealogy learning experience you may ever have.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Stories: A Patchwork of Little House Gems

Patchwork of Little House GemsSince featuring Pioneer Girl in the Genealogy Gems Book Club, so many Little House gems have surfaced that we wanted to share this patchwork of Laura Ingalls Wilder documents and stories with you.

The Wilder Homestead Claim

A year before he married Laura Ingalls, Almanzo Wilder proved (or secured) his homestead claim to a tract of land he had been steadily improving in Dakota Territory. Click here to read an article about Almanzo’s claim and see a copy of the document. (Find federal land claims for much of the Midwest and West at the Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records website. Genealogy Gems Premium members can learn more about the Homestead Acts and land claims that may have been filed by their ancestors in Genealogy Gems Premium podcast #33.

Little House-Inspired Fabric Series

Thank you to Barbara from NY who wrote in to say, “Lisa, I know you are very crafty so I wanted to let you know about a new fabric line that is coming in the fall.  Andover Fabrics is putting out the Little House on the Prairie fabric line.  In their ad it gives a quote from the book, “The attic and the cellar were full of good things once more and Laura and Mary had started to make patchwork quilts. Everything was beginning to be snug and cosy again.” I thought this went well with the book club book for this month.” Thank you, Barbara! We’ll have to look for some heritage projects that will theme well with these fabrics!

Writing and Editing the Little House Series: A Mother-Daughter Effort

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series didn’t come to press until decades after her childhood. By that time, her daughter Rose Wilder Lane was a freelance writer who knew the market. She saw the value in her mother’s memoirs and wanted to help her shape them into marketable books. This article talks about how stormy their collaboration could be, as they haggled over how best to memorialize Laura’s memories for modern children.

We heard from Chris on the subject of Rose’s editorship. “I also read Pioneer Girl and frankly enjoyed it a lot,” Chris says. But Chris has always wished Rose got more credit for the extensive editing and rewriting she did for her mother’s work, which apparently remained largely unknown. “As genealogists, we want to give all credit where it is due.” She recommends that Little House fans read A Wilder Rose by Susan Wittig Albert, which tells Rose’s story. Knowing Rose’s role doesn’t diminish Chris’ love for the Little House books, just gives her added perspective on the story-telling behind the stories.

Anyone who has ever tried to write a life story (their own or someone else’s) in a format for others to read will be fascinated by the letter shown in that article. Rose is trying to convince her mother of the need to whittle down her stories to the strongest story lines. “It is beyond all human power to tell all the facts. Your whole lifetime spent at nothing else would not tell all the facts of one morning in your life, just any ordinary morning when you get up, dress, get breakfast and wash the dishes.”

Resources

The Genealogy Gems Book Club Selects Pioneer Girl as Featured Book

Interview with Editor of Pioneer Girl: Laura Ingalls Wilder (This is an excerpt from the full interview, which will run in an upcoming Genealogy Gems Premium podcast episode.)

How to Reconstruct Your Early Childhood Memories and Stories

Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast Episode 116 for Life Story Writing Tips with Laura Hedgecock, author of Memories of Me: A Complete Guide to Telling and Sharing the Stories of Your Life (Premium membership required to access)

 

Genealogy Gems Book Club Genealogy Family HistoryThe Genealogy Gems Book Club brings you great titles like Pioneer Girl, along with exclusive conversations with the authors. We’ve featured best-selling novels and memoirs, nonfiction books like this one and less-discovered titles we love. Click here to see other books we’ve featured and listen to the author interviews.

Who else do you know who might enjoy the Genealogy Gems Book Club? Please share it with them?

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