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Last Name History - The History of Last Names

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The ready availability of information on the Internet has led to an explosion in genealogical research. Before the 1990s, genealogies had to be painstakingly recreated by hand by full-time professional researchers who spent hours or days reading through old birth records and marriage certificates. However, now a simple click of the mouse can lead even the most amateur of researcher trace their family tree. As more and more official records are digitized every year, the process continues to get easier and easier. One of the major keys to genealogical research is a person’s last name, and the history of that name. This study of the history of last names is sometimes referred to as onoastics, and it incorporates etymology, history, and various other fields of study to determine the geographical and historical origin of names.

Last names, also called surnames or family names, are a relatively new development in naming. The use of hereditary family names was common in China beginning around 3000 BC, but until the thirteenth century, most Europeans did not have last names. Travel was infrequent and difficult, and many people did not know enough people with similar names to make distinguishing between them a problem. In most cases, only the nobility had family names, and these were most often just a reference to a family castle or locale.

However, as Europe moved out of the middle ages, the increasing flow of information and slowly rising literacy meant that certain names were known more widely. The popularization of certain names like Richard, John, or William made it more and more difficult to tell persons apart. In particular, as more intricate legal systems were developed, it became essential to tell people apart based primarily on their name for contracts and other written documents. So people began using qualifiers, such as John the son of Hans, William the cart maker, and Richard from the Forest, which were then modified to names like John Hanson, William Cartwright, and Richard Woods respectively. Many last names have their root in a father’s name, location or geography, occupation, or descriptive term (like Short or Black). By the seventeenth century, the majority of Northern Europeans carried a last name, and when they began to travel throughout the world for trade and exploration, they took the practice with them to other regions, particularly the New World.

One of the first place to begin studying about the history of a last name is by questioning elder relatives. In many cases, grandparents in America today are the children or grandchildren of immigrants, and they may have information about what country a last name originated or if there have been any modifications in the name.

In some cases, the last name itself can be a clue as to how to start. Names ending in “sson” or “son,” such as Johnson or Henson, tend to be from Scandinavian countries, whereas names with a leading O, like O’Leery, are likely Irish in derivation. Names ending in “ski” often are Eastern European, where as leading L’s are possibly French. Of course, this is not always the case. Often times when immigrants would come to the United States, they would change their name for political or economic reasons. For instance, after World War II, many Germanic last names were changed to remove the connection to Nazi Germany, such as “von Braun” being changed to “Brown.” During the 1900s, it was fairly easy for a new immigrant to simply pick a new name when arriving in the United States to assist in the assimilation process, and therefore it is important to find the original form of a last name whenever possible.

In the case of European names, there is often a National Archive of names and traditional family locations for those names. For instance, Scotland maintains an active organization of clan leadership that preserves traditional Scottish last name derivations and their geographic distributions.

Of course, there are many websites that can assist anyone looking to research their last name. The most popular are Ancestry.com and Genealogy.com, both of which offer some basic services for free with an option to hire a professional researcher should one wish for more detailed information.

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