The United States is known to be a melting pot — a metaphor for a society with people and cultures and religions from all over the world, blending together. If you do some digging on your last name and its origin, you’ll see your family tree goes back decades to those born in other countries, entering a new country for a better life, and your American last name has way more history to it than you thought.
So what happened? How did someone with a Vietnamese or Irish last name come to make a name in America? Two words: Ellis Island.
Quick History of America
There’s a small island in New York (and close to New Jersey) known as Ellis Island. From 1892-1954, it was a port for over 12 million immigrants to enter into North America. The first wave of immigrants (1855-1890), even before Ellis Island really became a port, there were people coming in from England, Ireland, and Germany. At the beginning of the 20th century (1907), there were approximately 1.25 million immigrants who entered the United States.
But let’s take a step back to the Civil War. This was an American war between northern and southern states from 1861-1865, over the controversy of the enslavement of black people. It wasn’t until 1863 that President Abe Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, stating that all African Americans held as slaves should be free.
According to Time,
In 1860, about 13% of the U.S. population was born overseas—roughly what it is today. One in every four members of the Union armed forces was an immigrant, some 543,000 of the more than 2 million Union soldiers by recent estimates. Another 18% had at least one foreign-born parent. Together, immigrants and the sons of immigrants made up about 43% of the U.S. armed forces.
Immigrants who were already in America had responded to the war and took a part of it and honestly, the North couldn’t have won the war without them.
Names and Marriage
In the middle ages, most people were known by one name and one name only. However, as time went on and the population grew, it was difficult to keep track of all the names and the people who shared those same names. Evidently, the concept of “surnames” came to be.
It wasn’t until the 9th century that women/wives would have to take her husband’s surname. At the time, this was because of an absurd law stating that women had no identity apart from her husband. Thankfully, the Married Women’s Property Act in the mid-1880s came to be and gave women legal status as an individual, for business purposes.
Today, 20% of American women keep their maiden names after marriage. Some newlyweds combine their two last names to create a new name and a new “identity.”
The history of names is quite simple in that they can either be descriptive (Brown), occupational (Smith), or locational (York).
What’s your family name? Smith? Miller? Gonzalez? Carter?
What about your first name? Kelly? Edward? Colin?
The 2000-2010 census claims these are (some of) the most common last names in the United States:
- occupational name of a blacksmith
- derived from Scottish/Middle English origin
- the #1 most common surname in the world
- English origin
- patronymic surname
- means “son of John” and the personal name “John” means “gift of God”
- means “son of William” and William means “desire” or “will”
- Scottish/British origin
- descriptive surname for someone who is “brown-haired” or “brown-skinned”
- Hispanic surname
- “son of Garcia” (the Spanish form of Gerald) and “Gerald” is a Germanic origin word meaning “rule of the spear”
- German origin
- occupational name for someone who worked in a grain mill
- Old French/Middle English
- occupational name: a tailor
- can be a first or last name
“son of David” (“David” meaning “beloved”)
“son of Rodrigo” (“Rodrigo” meaning “famous ruler”)
Hebrew personal name Adam, from the Catholic Bible’s book of Genesis
“son of Lope” from the Spanish form of “Lupus” which means “wolf”
locational name of someone who lived near a village green
“son of Andrew” (“Andrew” meaning “brave”)
comes from “Martinus”, derived from Mars, the Roman god of fertility and war
“son of Thomas” (“Thomas” meaning “twin”)
most common last name (Vietnamese with Chinese origin) meaning “musical instrument”
“son of Sancho” (“Sancho” meaning “sanctified”)
form of “Michael” which means “big”
“son of Ramon” (“Ramon” meaning “wise protector”)
occupational name meaning “builder, worker, craftsman” (derived from the Old English word “wryhta”)
locational name – someone who lived near a tower, from the Latin word “turris”
Common last names here in the United States have origins of Irish, English, Latin, Welsh, Germanic. If you visit the United States Census Bureau, you will see some of the top names over the years, their origins, and how the percentage of the population fluctuates.
If you look up your genealogy and go back to see your ancestors, you’ll see that they were a part of the Civil War and more than definitely immigrated into Ellis Island. If you live in America, you know that your last name has a ton of history to it, with a long line of ancestors from all over the world. You might be “American” but you are so much more than that.
So, what are your names?
More Cool Last Names and Their Origins
Below are more last name articles that lead a reader to discover more about their surname and family history.