Nationality of Surnames

old photo of father and son

Your surname may offer valuable clues about your family's country of origin, adding extra dimension to your genealogy research or family tree project. Finding the origin of a surname isn't an exact science, but there's a process you can use to help you search.

How to Find the Nationality of Your Surname

Step 1: Identify What You Know

The first step in establishing the roots of a family name is making a list of what you already know. It's okay if you don't know anything about the name, but any clues you already have will make your search easier.

Ask yourself the following questions before you begin your research:

  • Are there any family stories about the origin of the name?
  • Has the name been changed over the years to reflect a different ethnicity?
  • Do genealogy records show different spellings for the surname or do other branches of the family spell it differently?
  • What is the oldest record you have that reflects this surname?

Check Immigration Records

ship records

If you know when your ancestors immigrated to the New World, you can check immigration records for information about their home country. To search effectively, you'll need to know the port where your family entered the country and the year in which they came. Records from Castle Garden and Ellis Island are especially helpful if your family emigrated in the late 19th or early 20th centuries.

If your family came over before that, or if you want to find more information, you can also check ship passenger lists for your family members. These lists frequently included information about the passengers' last known residence or general nationality.

Search Census Records

Census records are another great resource. On most census forms, the census taker had to fill out the place of birth. For first generation immigrants, this was their birth country which will often correspond to their surname's nationality. Some census years also ask about native language, which gives you an even more reliable indicator of nationality.

Consider a DNA Test

These days, you can take your research to the next level using genetic genealogy. DNA testing can offer clues about the origin of your surname by matching you up with other people who have the same DNA sequence and are related to you within a few generations. By comparing your tree to the family trees of other matches, you can find common ancestors with established home countries. This type of research requires some investment of time and money, but it's a very effective way to establish the nationality of your surname.

Look for Clues in the Name

Prefixes, suffixes, and other spelling clues in the name can reveal its nationality. Studying these indicators is another way to find out where your surname comes from.

Search Online Databases

The Internet is a great resource for name origins, especially if you use more than one source to conduct your search. There are several great databases with origins and surname meanings. Try the following:

  • The Internet Surname Database - This huge resource contains almost 50,000 last names originating all over the world. Searching is easy; just type your name into the search field. You can also browse the names alphabetically. Searching is free.
  • Behind the Name - Another huge free database, Behind the Name covers a number of different nationalities, including English, Scandinavian, Jewish, and Chinese. You can search by typing in your name, or you can browse by first letter or nationality.
  • Ancestor Search - You can conduct a free search at this site, using the Last Name Dictionary. There are hundreds of entries for many nationalities, and you can search by name or browse. You can also use Soundex to find alternate spellings of your name.

Additional Perspective

Learning about the nationality of surnames can give additional perspective to your genealogy research. This information can provide clues about the culture and customs that were familiar to your ancestors, and it may even help you learn about their immigration experience.

Nationality of Surnames