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Searching Common Surnames

One of the most frustrating research projects is looking for an ancestor who has a very common surname. To see what a researcher is up against, in the United States alone there are some 2,000 common surnames.

Ranked as number one most common surname in the United States is ‘Smith.’ Then, follows the next nine names based on the 2000 U. S. Census representing the top ten; they are Johnson, Williams, Brown, Jones, Miller, Davis, Garcia, Rodriguez and Wilson. Approximately 888 people are named Smith out of 100,000 Americans. For Smith, that is roughly 2,376,206 people who share the same surname as of the 2000 U. S. Census. For the tenth listing, Wilson, there are 290 people out of 100,000 or some 783,051 Americans. When you factor-in the all those people named Smith who lived and died over America’s history the number is staggering.

You would imagine then that all Smiths would be of the same ethnic and cultural background. This is not the case. Based on the 2000 U. S. Census, about 73 percent were white of European background, 22 percent were African-Americans, 1.5 percent were Hispanic, 1.6 percent were of mixed race and 1.25 percent were Asian, Native Indian or Pacific Islander in ethnic origin.

When working on genealogy with a common surname you have to check about the various methods of spelling a surname. Many immigrates Anglicized the name immediately when they arrived, some it was years or decades later. A Smith ancestor could have been Smythe, Smit, Szmidt, Schmidt or Smijth and originated from Germany, Holland, Russia or Poland. Many people adopted that surname; such as Native Indians, former African slaves, or Jewish settlers who took the name Smith so as not to stand out when settling into their new homeland. The surname of Johnson could be spelled Johnston, Johansen, Johnstone, Jonsson, Johansson, Jovanovic and Jonson. They could be from Sweden, Norway, Germany, Serbian region, England or Scotland.

With so many variations, you never assume the spelling of the name today is the same as it would have been even 50 or more years ago. The big assistance will come by learning as much on the family and its members as possible. Each ancestor is an individual, unique in their own history.

Instead of focusing on the one ancestor with the common name, look for the extended family members. Writing out all the uncles and aunts and distant cousins with their full names will help to sort out your family branch. Tie-in where the family lived. If they moved, create a time line of dates and locations. Keeping a list of any known relatives in that family will make locating the particular ancestor a bit easier because you will see a link. For example, if a witness at your great uncle’s wedding was his nephew, you can start to make a match. Also, there could be a sibling of your ancestor with a more distinctive given name, making that easier to find the family.

If the ancestor with the common name had an unusual occupation, owned property, served in the military or ran for political office, these are traits that set that ancestor apart.

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