Surnames as Pieces of History


Our names are the first piece in the puzzle of our family history.  Although our first names may have been passed through our family; it’s our surnames that are the most important name. To trace your surname is to find the birthplace of your family;  to see all the generations that have come before you. But surnames are not as old as we think and can lead us down all kinds of rabbit holes.  

It is around 1450, that most English families had surnames to pass down. This can be disappointing for some as the trail can go cold at that point, as parish registers only go back to 1538 at the earliest. (The Oxford dictionary of surnames have nearly 40,000 family names native to Britian and Ireland.)  

It was only with the Norman Conquest in 1066 that surnames were even introduced in England. Once the Vikings come they wanted to know who everyone was to make sure they collected their share of taxes. Surnames were also seen as a way of showing wealth as they could be taken from the estate that wealthy family owned. It was almost ‘uncouth”, to not have a surname and a gentleman always had a surname.  

So the communities went from having a single name to adding a surname to distinguish all those in the area. This meant that over time more details had to be added. So instead of “John” it became “John” the “Butcher”.  Or instead of “Ben” it was “Ben” from “Cloncurry”.  

There are a number of other ways that surnames come about. They could be local place names, or even parts of a place like the hill or tree or suburb in the town, or even an estate in the area. They could come from occupations and nicknames. Or they can come from baptismal names such as “Roger” son making “Rogerson” for the next in line.  

However, many names over the years have lost their original meaning and spelling. As many people were not literate or could spell very well when their name was written down for immigration the surname was translated quite loosely. This can be were a trail can go cold in tracking down your family ancestry as the surname may have been changed to avoid trouble in a new country.  

One world famous family had to change their name to avoid trouble. It was only in  1917, during World War One, King George V changed the royal surname from the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor. The British royal family saw a need to change their surname due to tension about their German background. This has been the same for many families moving from their homeland or going through conflict. 

So the biggest tip for researching when following family names is to be open to different spellings and to know that if you get to 1538 you might be at the end of your surname trail, unless you have some noble blood.  

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