Gophering for British Surname Origins
Although similar resources can be had for surnames for other places, in this post we are concentrating on British origins. Doesn’t really matter what side of the Atlantic you are on, some time or other you will face families that left no bread crumbs as to where they hark from. If you are lucky the surname will be obscure and will drive you to a specific area. For the rest of us with SMITH, JONES, CARPENTER, FULLER, TANNER etc those occupational names can occur anywhere. I am not promising these resources will solve your dilemma but I recommend you check them anyway, but especially if you have more unique surnames. And don’t forget the friends and family plan. Maybe your SMITH married a MUMFORD. That might be a major clue.
One of my very favorite resources is Guppy’s Homes of Family Names in Great Britain, which lucky for us is available to search on the internet. So make sure you look up close associates or families they married in to when consulting Guppy. If we consult Guppy for the SURNAME SHELDON we find them under Derbyshire we mentions both the hamlet in Derbyshire and the parish in Warwickshire. Here’s the church of SHELDON in Warwickshire and we shouldn’t be surprised to find a Nicholas de SHELDON as one of the early rectors.
Perhaps our favorite names are what Guppy calls Peculiar names. These are names that are found in specific geographic areas and not widely distributed elsewhere, which helps us home in on where they come from. Let’s take a look at Guppy’s list for Warwickshire:
Looking at our names from my last Blog post we find mentioned above is the name MUMFORD. Guppy says it appears in 4-10 counties. And if we flip to the back of Guppy we find he gives the relative distribution of MUMFORDS per 10,000 in 1890 when the book was published. So this reduces our list of places to look for MUMFORD from all the shires in Great Britain down to just 4 with the highest concentrations in Bucks and Warcs. It’s definitely a good start. And since we think the MUMFORD’S in Windsor Connecticut may hark from Warwickshire it gives us another tidbit of evidence. If we end up with a Peculiar name like BURBAGE we have likely found our origin.
As much as I love Guppy he’s not perfect but definitely worth your checking. He does not have some of the rare surnames like BISSELL and GRESWOLD for Warwickshire. So we turn next to Surname distribution maps. There are several Available you may want to check the links here at Family search.
These suggest that there is a fairly high odds that A BISSELL in America from the 1600’s has origins in the midlands with the hotspot in Warwickshire. If we chose a more common name like KNIGHT the results are going to be more ambiguous.
Where else can we look for clues? if the name might be geographical—that is taken from a particular place we can do a Google Map Search and see what turns up. (In my first example SHELDON is also a place name occurring several places in England). For instance one of my ancient families is SHIRLEY and this shows up as a town in the parish of Solihull, Warwickshire and the later family seat of the SHIRLEY family is some 25 miles south in Ettington and is now a lovely hotel.
If your surname is a geographical place you might want to find out more about the place in a Gazetteer or at Open DOMESDAY. I searched for the surname AUDLEY turns up a place in Staffordshire. “Audley was a settlement in Domesday Book, in the hundred of Pirehill and the county of Staffordshire. It had a recorded population of 7 households in 1086, putting it in the smallest 40% of settlements recorded in Domesday.”
Our fifth place to look for origins is at Family Tree DNA whether you have done a DNA test or not. You will want to check here for surname projects and then look at the DNA results page to see if any specific places turn up. And you might want to take a look at the British DNA project by County. You can search by surname or by county to see if you get any clues.
And finally for Americans you might find your ancestor in the maps generated from the Great Migration Project. Well worth checking those out as well. Of course the above resources are in addition to all the typical searches you might do at Family Search, Ancestry, MyHeritage, Find My Past etc. When you are gophering for Surnames there are few diamonds to be found other than peculiar names. But sometimes when you have nothing, any little bit helps.
- Consult Guppy’s Homes of Family Names in Great Britain Check indexes front and back and various Counties
- Try your hand at a surname distribution Map index here
- If you have a name that may be a place name try a Google Map search
- If it looks like a geographical name try Open DOMESDAY
- Check out DNA projects by surname and the British DNA project by County
- Finally check the Great Migration Project
Even if you don’t find the answer you are looking for familiarizing yourself with these tools will serve your future gophering. Get digging.
Kelly Wheaton Copyright 2021. All RIghts Reserved.
alas, few of my family surnames are in Guppy … but it’s a great resource regardless 🙂 Thanks for bringing all this to my attention.
You are most welcome!