Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Can You Determine Where Someone Is From Based On Surname?

The surname Melvin is recorded as Molvill in 1690's Maryland. In Scotland Melvin was a variant of Melville

I've been trying to establish where my American ancestors migrated to the colonies from? Most of those coming to America from the British Isles during the colonial era left no trace of their exact origins. They could have come from England, Wales, or Ireland? Those coming from Germanic areas are a bit easier to nail down since they were not British citizens and had to account for their origins in court, and sometimes came with a travel pass from the area they migrated from. Surnames can be a clue to origins, but as I explain below they can be misleading.

Some people wanting to know their origins in the old country have purchased surname histories. Some of these turn out to be accurate when backed up with research on your family. In many cases they do not reflect the actual place your ancestors came from. Doing research using documents is the best way to confirm a families origins.

Using sites with surname information can be a good start when you know nothing about the possible origins of a surname. Here are a few sites and books with such information:
  • The House of Names presents mainly the most common origins of a surname. You need to have the old world spelling of your surname otherwise the information may be wrong for your family. The immigration information they present tends to be accurate, but doesn't provide information about everyone with that surname who came to America or Canada.
  • Surname Database has the most accurate origins as far as my own names go. They give more possibilities regarding origin. 
  • Ancestry.com provides some information about where surnames could be found in the more recent past. If your ancestors migrated to America after the mid 19th Century this information would be useful. The 1891 Census was used for the British Isles statistics. In some cases the places where the name was common does reflect earlier places of origin for the surname. There was so much migration within the British Isles, however, in most cases it's impossible to narrow down where your ancestors may have come from. 
  • Geneanet provides a map with a slider at the bottom. The slider allows you to see where a surname can be found over time. You can adjust the slider to approximately when your ancestor came to America. 
  • Patronymica Britannica (1860) is a book of British names. 
  • Varieties and synonymes of surnames and christian names in Ireland My very favorite Irish surname book. 
  • German-American Names By George Fenwick Jones
  • The Scottish Surnames of Colonial AmericaBy David Dobson
  • Dictionary of American Family Names

Some challenges in determining the origin of surnames 

    If you would like to know where in the British Isles your ancestors hailed from you would need more than just a surname. Your ancestor with an English surname may have come from England, Scotland, or Ireland. Your Scottish or Irish ancestors with English surnames may have English roots, or came by that name in another way such as anglicizing their Gaelic surname.

    The plantation of Ireland with Scottish and English colonists in the early 1600's resulted their surnames now appearing in Ireland. The Union of Scotland and England also resulted in more English migration to Scotland.

    I believe the number of Scots and Scots-Irish who settled in America is underestimated. Surnames have been used to determine the percentage of Scots-Irish in America. Surnames can be deceiving and the Scots and Scots-Irish could have anglicized surnames. 

    Many people who immigrated to the US decided to anglicize their names. Some Ashkenazi Jews translated their names from German to English. The German name Sommer could have been translated to Summer. This name can also be an English surname.

    Your ancestors with Germanic names could be from anywhere in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Especially if they came to America after the mid 19th century.

    Showing where people with German surnames may have come from

    The British also had an Empire which colonists may have migrated from. Some British ancestors may have migrated to America from Jamaica. They may have some African heritage due to that.

    Changes in spelling can throw the search for origins off too. The spelling of my surname was changed by my grandmother from Kappel, to Kapple. In the old country it was spelled Koppel. My paternal Grandmother's surname Mason sounds like the family has British Isles origins. The name was originally Masson, and French in origin.

    You really need to research your ancestry if you want to know where your ancestors migrated from. A person with the name Brower could be English or German. My Brower ancestors settled in German areas of Pennsylvania, hinting that they were ethnic Germans. The first names they used were also Germanic such as Ludwig. Another tip off to German ancestry would be that they were Lutherans or belonged to another religion common in Germanic Europe.

    I had Colonial American ancestors named Callahan. Even though this family had Irish roots they also had Scots-Irish. or English roots. also as hinted by their Protestant religion and early migration. 

    I've found places of origin in the old country appearing in county histories. More recent immigrants often appear on passenger lists, and applied for Naturalization. Those documents often provide specific places of origin. In the case of Colonial ancestors it's often impossible to determine an exact place or origin.

    Although if you have a very rare surname you may be able to more easily find the place of origin. The surname Huane is a very uncommon Irish surname. It's mostly found in a small area of Co. Mayo. We know it originated in the Irishtown area of Mayo. Searching the name will bring up information for the family in Mayo, but it also can bring up Chinese surname results.

    Y DNA tests can also narrow down the place of origin for a surname. Our Forgey surname was thought to be possibly French or Scottish? DNA testing is pointing to it being a Scottish variant of Ferguson. Most of our Y matches are either Fergusons, or have Scottish roots. 

    You can never make assumptions based on a surname alone. Beginning with a surname search is a good start, but only provides hints to origins. 


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