Oldest Surnames

The family surname or also called the ‘family name’ or ‘last name’ is very important as you do your family research. It is the keyword or phrase as you begin because it is what ties a family together. Not that you won’t have many surnames on that family tree due to female’s maiden name and marriages. What can add a twist in doing the research are different spellings for a family surname over the years. One branch of my husband’s family had their surname spelling changed by them five times over a period a hundred years.

Another factor is that for most European natives the surname is one and last but in those with Spanish or Portuguese speaking countries, two or more last names may be used. Then those with native backgrounds from China, Hungary, Japan, Korea, Madagascar, Taiwan, Vietnam, and parts of India, the family name is placed before a person’s given name.

Of course, many European names were the only name a person had. Also called a ‘byname’. It was based in medieval Europe to denote a person’s occupation or area of residence.

It is interesting to look at what many classify as the oldest and still used surnames. You just may have one or more of these surnames on your family tree.

Cohen, Courtenay, Hatt, Katz, King, O’Brien, O’Cleirgh, Priest, and Smith.

These names from different European locations date back to 900 A.D. to 1300 A.D.

Of course, the spelling for some has changed. For Smith – there was Smeeth, Smight, Smiijthe, Smythe, and Smithe.

One surname agreed on as one of the oldest is ‘O’Brien’ – referring to the grandson of Brien and from County Clare in Ireland in early 900s A. D. Another oldest Irish surname is O’Clery (O Cleitigh) dating to 916 A. D.; similar to O’Brien.

Then you might have one of what is titled ‘endangered’ last names with fewer than 200 descendants today. Surnames such as: Villin, Miracle, Relish, Loughty, and Sallow.

Use the FamilyTree.com index for surnames that has its origin, meaning and famous people with that name.

An interesting search would be to examine the surnames of the hometown where your parents or grandparents or great grandparents lived. Use the US Census for the years they lived there. It is easiest if they lived in a small town but even New York City with its neighborhoods is good to check.

Photos: Surname numbers; Map of surnames and US Census results for 1990-2000 & 2010 surnames.

Related FamilyTree.com Blogs:

Common European Surnames

Directory of Surnames

American Surnames

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