Family Name – Our Connection to Our Ancestors

Besides the DNA (genes) you inherited from your ancestors, one of the most important elements to tie you to your ancestors is a surname.

It appears most surnames originated due to certain factors. They are geography or location, geographical features, an occupation, personal – physical characteristics, an estate name, your ancestry, or patronage.

Some names tend to be very common, not meaning that family branch had many sons, but rather it was a popular name taken on by those needing a surname.

For the English-speaking nations, the number one surname is ‘Smith’. It comes from the English and Scottish occupational name from the Middle English period (1150 AD — 1470 AD) for someone who works with metal, such as a blacksmith. Its original Old English spelling would be ‘smitan’ which means to hit. In the United States there are approximately 2.4 million people with the name ‘Smith’. Famous Smiths include: actress Jaclyn Smith; actress Amber Smith; Frederick Smith-founder of FedEx and actor Taren Noah Smith. 

Looking at the nation of China and the world for that matter, the number one last name is ‘Wang’. Approximately 92.8 million have the Wang surname. The change came when Chinese dynasties would change, so new names were adopted. Another popular Chinese surname is ‘Li”, originally meaning ‘minister’. Famous Wangs include; designer Vera Wang and actor Garrett Wang. 

For Spain and Portugal and nations in South America, the surname ‘Garcia’ is popular. This Spanish and Portuguese name is found in medieval records in the Latin form Garsea, meaning bear. Even in California and Texas with many people of Spanish descent, Garcia is a popular surname. The famous people with the Garcia name are musician Jerry Garcia, baseball player Freddy Garcia, and actress Joanna Garcia.

Several new surnames came about due to various forms of another name. The given name of ‘John’, later is Jones, Johnston, and Johnson (the second most common American surname).

Müller is the most common surname in Germany, Switzerland, and parts of France. The English version, is Miller, is one of the top 10 surnames in America. It refers to the occupation of a miller, one to mills – grinds wheat and corn. Those famous Millers include: Ice hockey player Kevan Miller, comic Dennis Miller, actress Christa Miller and playwright Arthur Miller.

An interesting twist, that ninety percent of Americans with the surname ‘Washington’ are of African-American descent, a far higher black percentage than for any other common name. You can see why with George Washington being the first president, the end of slavery and blacks were allowed to select a surname, many choose the first president’s surname.

It is fascinating to investigate the origins and meaning behind our family surnames, that includes your mother’s side of the family. Here is a long list of surnames on – Surnames, with each’s history, interesting facts and famous people with that same name.

Photos:  Dennis Miller, Jaclyn Smith and Vera Wang.

Related Blogs:


What Are Surnames About?

Directories of Names

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