General Information & Where to Start Your Surname Research

This guide is designed to help in finding information on the origins of surnames and to act as a starting point for finding more information on specific family names.

Until the 12th century, most people were called by their first or given name. However, the use of surnames gradually became an accepted practice throughout western Europe in the Middle Ages. Today, the naming system is thought to be divided into four types of surnames based on their origin. The patronymic type are those names derived from the original bearer name or from religious naming conventions. Local surnames represent names whose origins were derived from features of the local landscape such as Hill or Underwood. Similarly, many names are a reflection of the original bearers Occupation. Examples of this type of name include; Skinner, Baker, and Smith. The fourth category are surnames that orginated from Nicknames. Examples of this type are names derived from an aspect of the persons personal character (i.e. Stern) or physical composure.

If you are interested in learning more about the history of European surnames the Dictionary of Surnames, by Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994 will serve as a good starting place and reference source.
Another good printed source is, American Surnames Maryland: Baltimore, 1969 by Elsdon C. Smith.

The P. L. Duffy Research Centre

at Trinity College, Perth, Western Australia, (, offers an extensive collection of online links to surname resources.

You may also want to search your local public or college library catalog for other titles related to the history of surnames. A good way to search for this information is to use the Library of Congress Subject Headings:

Names, Personal—Dictionaries
Names, Personal—English or, for a specific country search use a LCSH heading such as;
Names, Personal—German—Dictionaries.
Also, ask the reference librarian for other search strategies.

Most public libraries use the Dewey Decimal Classification System to organize their collection. You can use Dewey Decimal call numbers either to browse the library shelves for books on this topic or to query the library catalog.

Look in the:
929 section for general Genealogy and Ancestry sources
929.4 section for Surname sources

Internet resources

There are several good resources on the Internet for surname information. Internet-based resources provide an additional feature that the print-based resources do not and that is the chance to exchange surname research with other researchers. Most of the surname sites have searchable databases and family contact information.

A good place to start online research is The Surname Genealogy Web Project The site is divided into four main sections that are easy to use; a surname registry, a surname resource center, a surname ring (mailing list), and a section that provides hundreds of links to other surname homepages. Individual homepages are good resources to check once you have selected the area you are interested in. Homepages tend to specialize in on specific topic area such as; surnames affiliated with a certain region of the country, a specific name (i.e. Brown), or surnames of a particular group of people (i.e. Revolutionary War Soldiers & Their Descendants).

Other good Internet resources include:

RootsWeb Genealogical Data Cooperative
Roots Web maintains several valuable resources for persons interested in genealogy and surname research. The Roots Surname List contains over 300,000 surnames and researcher contact information. The Surname Index can be searched by name or by soundex code and will soon be searchable by geographic location. Roots Web also maintains a mailing list ROOTS-L which can be a good way to ask specific questions and to share surname information. The Roots Web also has several specific web links for genealogy, surname resources and individual surname homepages.

Roots Web is a good source for both global information links such as the WorldGenWeb Archives and more local link sources such as the Bishop Hill, Henry County, Illinois Colonist and Descendants surname index.

You may also want to check the Yahoo category. Yahoo has links to several indices, individual homepages, and associations. Surname information is located in the main category Arts-Humanities-History-Genealogy and in the sub-heading Genealogy-Lineages and Surnames.

Once you get going in your surname research you may find that you want to join a UseNet group discussion. There are several Usenet discussion groups devoted to surname research. The focus of each group tends to be quite specific so you’ll want to check the

Surname Web for the group that will fit your research needs.

Lastly, you can share your interest of surname research by joining an association devoted to the promotion of surname research. There are many associations that focus on surname research. The scope of their missions range from organizations like the Guild of One-Name Studies which advocates further study of all surnames, to associations formed to promote research of specific family surnames. An example of the latter type includes, the Sears Family Association.

This pathfinder was created by Nancy Deromedi. Updated by Sena Roth.

You may also wish to see the IPL Genealogy Pathfinder | IPL Genealogy FAQ

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