How to Find the Origin of Your Last Name

by Robin Hewitt ; Updated November 15, 2017

Your family reunion is coming up, and you want to make a display board about your family tree. You’d like to include a piece about the origin of your family name, but you’re not quite sure how to research the information. Finding the origin of a family name usually isn’t too complicated, and with a bit of sleuthing and some solid investigating, you’ll have the family name facts in no time.

Step 1

Ask your father and grandfather what they know about your family name. Last names are passed down from the paternal side, and often a history or family story is passed down to younger generations with the name. Make a note of any stories they have to tell about the origin of your family name.

Step 2

Check old family bibles, as well as birth, marriage and death records. Often a family name has been changed from the original version, especially when the family has immigrated from Europe or another continent. Look at the last names and see if there is an earlier version, such as “Woodinski” being shortened to “Wood.”

Step 3

Research your grandparents and great grandparents on the US census. Census records are divided by states and counties, and every decade from 1930 and before are available for public research. A census record of your grandparents will show where your great grandfather was born, as well as the state or country in which his father and mother were born.

Step 4

Log onto Input the various last names you have discovered in the search box to learn their origin and meaning. The free name-origin search throws up a wealth of information including where people of that surname were living before they moved to the U.S. If you want to explore the entire collection of more than 3 billion personal records, you'll have to sign up a monthly membership plan.

Step 5

Take the resulting name versions from your search and check them in a surname directory, which you can find either at your local library or online. While an online surname directory may be faster, doing a library search will enable you to validate the source of the information to ensure you have the correct root name from the correct country from which your family originated.

About the Author

Robin Hewitt began her writing career in 2008. She is the coauthor of several books, including "The Joyous Gift of Grandparenting," which covers the nutritional and fitness needs of both grandchildren and grandparents.