Surname Changes and Genealogy


What is a surname? A surname is the last name of person that is usually obtained through birth, adoption or marriage. In cases of marriage, historically the bride took the last name of the groom. Genealogy research often involves doing record searches with the surname of the person we are most interested.

We are also told that the surname we are given actually goes back in time for several thousand(s) years in history and can be traced back along the paternal line of our father’s father and his father, etc.

Is this true? In some families I would say that it is possible to trace the surname within one family. However there are cases when this understanding about surnames is not completely correct and can lead to discovery errors in a family pedigree. Are you related to the same Smith two generations ago, for example? The answer may only be partially correct. In cases where the name is not so common or of English origin you may even have a harder time. Misspellings of a name on a passenger list record may not really be the actual surname in the country of origin. It might be the creation of the Ship Captain or official at the port of entry in the United States. The pronunciation of names may have evolved over centuries too. Patronymic naming practices, in which a child’s surname was formed from the given name of his father, were in use throughout much of Scandinavia well into the 19th century—resulting in each generation of a family bearing a different last name. Lastly, the effect of literacy has an impact on what form a surname may have taken. Many of ancestors within the last 200 years or less may not have known how to read and write in their language of origin, so the surname we have today may not be exact when we conduct searches in place of origin. There are other reasons for possible last name changes, desire to fit in the culture, break from the past. For African-Americans of course they did not have that option, they were given or took names of their plantation owners.

The history of two names – first and last name – in the span of human time is relatively new. Generally the development of a surnames began in Europe in the middle ages, as the population started to grow, and life expectancy also increased. People also began to come more mobile and moved into towns where people with same first names but different family connections.

Recently I had a client where various surnames have been found – within a couple generations. Families from Northern and Eastern Europe many times have non-Latin or Slavic Language origins, that have different length, accent and tones when said or spelled. The client’s story on maternal side is one that has seen 3 changes to surname within two generation, one is name change upon father’s citizenship in US. Other reasons are early deaths of husbands and re-marriage. Thereafter some of the children changed their name back to birth father’s surname in adulthood.

Last name searches are not as simple and should not be assumed when doing Genealogy research. Be open to other possibilities to expand your searches of past ancestors.

Surname Changes and Genealogy

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