How Far Back Do Surnames Go? A Brief History


Last names are a lot of fun – but sometimes they aren’t super easy to track. Then again, it’s also a lot easier to track family history when you’ve got a family surname to help you make sure you’ve got the right Charles! So how far back do surnames go?

Surnames in China date back 4000 years, with non-royal surnames dating back to 221 BC/BCE. European surnames date to the 11th century, with the first legally hereditary surname recorded in 1267. Worldwide, surnames took several centuries to become standardized, fixed, and hereditary.

Surnames have a fun history – and when they were first emerging, people changed their last names any time they wanted to (if they wanted to). Or maybe their local ruler changed it for them! So let’s dive into our (relatively brief version) history of surnames and family names.

But before we start, let’s get the usual disclaimer on dates out of the way, shall we? The actual date (or year) that surnames date back to is going to depend on which source you’re quoting. We’ll share everything we’ve found – both the legend and the recorded dates. That way, you can see exactly how far back surnames go (or are reported to go).

Surnames Date Back to 2852 BC

No matter who you ask or which record you cite, it’s the Chinese who first adopted, standardized, and spread the use of surnames. Depending on the source, they began this practice between 3,000 and 5,000 years ago.

Royals and aristocrats were the first to adopt surnames. Merchants and artisans followed suit by adopting a surname within a few decades. Commoners were almost always the last to adopt surnames. Depending on the country, this spread of surnames took anywhere from a few years to several centuries.

Or it just took a royal decree by the Chinese emperor. So let’s start there.

A (brief) History of Chinese Surnames

Legends say that Emperor Fu Xi standardized surnames of all Chinese people during his rule back in 2852 BC/BCE. Per those same legends, he also defined the matrimonial relationship at the same time. He did this in order to set up a proper census system.

Some other sources say that prior to the fifth century BC/BCE in China, only the ruling class and aristocracy had surnames. These sources say that surnames for the general Chinese populace began to spread starting in 221 BC/BCE.

In any case, these surnames are among the oldest recorded in the history of the world. The Chinese even recorded a book of surnames in the 10th century. It’s one of the earliest surname books ever written and has been one of the most popular books in history, thanks to its combining genealogy with several other popular subjects and studies.

A (short) History of European Surnames

Europe started using surnames in the 11th and 12th centuries. The first surnames were a general way to tell one John from the other John. This practice started with the nobility and took time to trickle down to the general population.

The exact timeline varies from one European country to another, with Scandinavian countries taking up to several centuries longer to adopt a set, family surname (when compared to other countries).

In England, the Normans introduced last names in the year 1066 (or thereabouts). These surnames didn’t always stick, though. In fact, they changed frequently – and often were a descriptor of the person or where they were living.

Over the next few decades, though, surnames became more of a reliable thing for the nobility and aristocracy.

The first recorded use of a hereditary surname in England is from 1267. That’s nearly 200 years after surnames were introduced! Okay, fine – it’s 199 years later, which is why we’re rounding up to 200. 🙂

Over the next few centuries, surnames became a thing for everyone – and not just the ruling elites.

A (quick) History of Worldwide Surnames

Generally speaking, the same patterns we’ve noticed in China and Europe are exactly what happened worldwide.

When the population was smaller, there wasn’t a huge need to differentiate family lines. Some cultures still did so, but it was usually along several lines. Differentiation came by tribe, clan, or group. Then, there may also be a distinction based on who a person’s father was.

For example, in the Bible we read that Joshua was the son of Nun. He belonged to the tribe of Ephraim (who was the son of Joseph). These kinds of distinctions happened worldwide.

However, as populations grew and the ideas of using a standardized surname began to spread, so did the surname usage. Today, they’re the way we do things.

There are definitely some exceptions and unique ways to do surnames, though, even today. For example, my Latinx friends have two surnames – one from their mom’s family name and the other from their dad’s family name. My Chinese friends have a family name, but it’s legally and culturally listed first (before their “first” name).

This is by no means an exhaustive history of surnames. But it should be a quick enough lesson that you can have a better idea of how far back they go – and how to keep going. But don’t worry – we aren’t done with this topic just yet. We’ve still got a few more aspects of the history of surnames to cover.

Did Everyone in 1400 Have a Last Name?

As of the year 1400, not everyone had a last name, no. And those that did? Well, they could still change their surname if they wanted to – depending on where they lived, of course.

The earliest people to use surnames and family names were royal families or other leadership (aristocrats). Even once it trickled down to common folks, the usage of surnames was hit and miss for a while before they became consistent. And by “for a while,” we mean up to several centuries! Even so, we mentioned the year 1400, so let’s look at the statistics.

In 1400, it’s estimated that only about 75% of the population of England used a hereditary family surname. It would take another 50 years for hereditary surnames to become the norm. And even then, that’s just in England.

In countries with a tradition of using a “son of dad’s name” style surname, those surnames still changed every generation well past the year 1400. Examples of such areas include (but aren’t limited to) Wales, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark.

For example, my Swedish line’s surnames were changing every generation back in 1400. At least I assume they were because it gets really hard to track back that far with a constantly-changing surname. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that my ancestors finally adopted a place-based surname and stuck with it from one generation to the next.

Even then, not every country had made surnames a required thing. From our research, it appears that some countries didn’t standardize (or require) surnames until well into the 20th century. Here are a few such examples from Ancestry.com’s website.

  • The Netherlands only required surnames once Napoleon made them mandatory in 1811.
  • Thailand didn’t require standardized surnames until 1913.
  • Turkey began to require surname usage in 1934.

To this date, there are still some countries that don’t have, require, or standardize surnames. Based on research done by Ancestry.com, some of those countries include parts of Eastern Africa, Burma, Iceland, Tibet, and Java (Indonesia).

What Was the First Last Name?

Unfortunately, this is a bit of a loaded question. The first-ever last name is, sadly, something that’s most likely lost to unrecorded history. However, we can look back to the first-recorded last names and areas that have unique histories of having last names. So let’s look at those and see:

  • What last names are traditionally seen as some of the oldest, even if we can’t pinpoint exactly how old they are.
  • The first-recorded last names.
  • And let’s do this for both the ancient East and West, as those timelines are very different.

Let’s start with China, as its recorded history dwarfs everyone else.

The First Chinese Last Names

Per tradition, China started using surnames under Emperor Fu Xi as early as 2852 BC/BCE. Emperor Fu Xi, per tradition, standardized last names in order to facilitate the census. In ancient China, there were two types of surnames:

  • Clan names (xing). These were generally believed to be matrilineal (passing from mother to daughter), with one exception. The Han family xing name has a 2000-plus year tradition of being patrilinear (passing from father to son). Clan names were seen as more important than the next type of surname.
  • A surname for your family’s branch (shi). Most ancient Chinese surnames were shi-based. Shi was seen as a sub-surname to help distinguish seniority between shared family lines.

Three other ancient Chinese last name trends are worth noting. First, women didn’t usually change their surname when they got married. And second, people tended to marry someone with a different last name. Third, the tradition of matrilineal names changed to purely patrilineal in or after the Shang dynasty (between 1600-1046 BC/BCE).

Those ancient usages are now much different than today’s meanings. Just to help you keep clear on current usages of those words, here is what they mean today.

  • Shi: Today shi means the clan name or a maiden name.
  • Xing: Today xing refers to the surname.
  • Xingshi: this combined term can be used to refer to the family names or surnames.

Clear so far? Okay. Now let’s take a look at the first-recorded Chinese last name. And that’s going to date back to the same time, as Emperor Fu Xi had a last name – or at least a clan name. He was, after all, the emperor.

However, if we’re talking about last names of non-nobility, then we’d want to look up the book mentioned earlier from the 10th century. It’s titled “Hundred Family Surnames,” but “old hundred last names” is a colloquialism for a commoner. So it’s a book that records more than 400 last names of the non-nobility.

The First Western Last Names

Let’s turn our focus more westward – and take a look at the first last names outside of China. The first recorded and traditional surnames were usually one-off monikers for a single person. They were usually a description or a “son of” style last name.

For example, if I told you that I was talking about Alexander the Great, you’d know exactly which Greek Alexander I’m talking about. I mean Alexander III of Macedon, who lived from 356-323 BC/BCE. It’s not that “the Great” was his actual last name, but it kind of was. It’s how we know him today. However, Alexander’s family didn’t inherit nor continue that moniker, so it held true to the fact that most ancient surnames were just for that single person.

Again, think about Leif Erikson or Erik the Red. We know exactly which Viking explorers those are: Erik Thorvaldsson and and his son Leif. Erik was exploring and lived back in 950-1003.

But if you’re wanting to know about the more-modern-sounding, oldest last names of the western world, then we have to go to 916 AD in Ireland. According to Ancestry.com, the first-recorded use of a last name (outside of China) happened then. And that last name listed was O’Cleirigh.

Why Did Surnames Begin?

Surnames and last names started as a quick and easy way to tell all those Charles, Johns, Eriks, and whoever else had the same first names apart.

Let’s think about it: back when the whole extent of your world was your village, then it was pretty easy to tell everyone apart. There simply wasn’t a lot of first name duplication. And even if there was, then you could tell one Mary from the other by adding a “the one with red hair.”

However, as the population grew, the number of first names available didn’t match pace. So instead of coming up with a new first name for your child, you’d just give them a family name to help differentiate your James from your best friend’s son James.

That’s by no means the only reason that surnames developed, but it is a driving force. Here are a few other reasons that surnames began, in an easy list format.

  • Population growth (too many Charles’s)
  • Wanting to be distinguished from others
  • Rise of clans, families, and surname use at baptism for Christians
  • Immigrants adding name variety to the area
  • Corruption of names by accident, misspelling, or intention

We got this (abbreviated) list from Family Search’s wiki page – if you want to see the whole thing, you can open that page in a new window by clicking hereOpens in a new tab..

Want a fun example of how surnames started out and work? I’ve got two brothers named Jason (yes, really). So when I introduce people to my brothers, I use the addition of where they’re living as a differentiator. Then I point out that they’ve got different surnames because I’m from a yours-mine-and-ours family and this is 2020, not 1400. 🙂

Common Origins of Family Names

As surnames names became more and more popular, they kept spreading. And their origins usually fell into one of these four categories.

  1. Patronymic (relationship-based) and patronage-based – like John’s son became Johnson. Or Patrick’s followers adopted the surname Kilpatrick.
  2. Occupation based – like the local blacksmith’s surname became Smith.
  3. Location-based – local landmarks were adopted as last names, like the family who lived next to the forest adopting the surname Wood.
  4. Adjective based – an ancestor with a descriptive surname stuck and was adopted by the whole family. For example, Old Man Michael’s family could have adopted the surname Oldman.

There are other ways that last names developed, but these are the main four categories.

And if you want to know why some family last names are way more common than others, make sure you go read our article titled “Why Are Some Last Names So Common?” by clicking that link.

Then, make sure you go read our article about 15 origin stories for nature-based last names. We’ll tell you about surnames like Moore, Flores, Ross, Holmes, Ramos, and more.

How Far Back Does My Family Name Go?

How far back you’ll be able to trace your family’s line will really depend on what the surname is, what areas of the world your family lived in, and where they moved from before (or after) that.

If your family dates back to regions of the world with earlier (and more thorough) record-keeping, then you’ll be able to go back further in time and paperwork. On the other hand, if your family lived in a region with spottier records or events that damaged those records, then you’ll be more limited in how far back you can find your family’s history via the paper trail.

Generally speaking, if you have family history in Europe, then about 1500 AD/CE is as far back as you can realistically expect to trace your family. But if your family traces back to China, then you could probably trace your family’s lineage back to 1500 BC/BCE.

If you want to get a good idea of how far back records go for your family’s line, make sure you read and bookmark our article on how far back records go. That way, you can make sure you’ve got an idea of how far back to search for records.

Then, remember this important note: many surnames date back to before written family records. So in most cases, you may not be able to find the ancestor who adopted your family’s surname. That doesn’t mean you won’t find that information. It just means it may not be possible yet. So keep looking. Maybe you prove to be the exception to the rule!

Here’s a quick example.

  • My dad’s line is Swedish. Back until the early 1800s, they’re fairly easy to trace as they adopted a standardized, set family name. But before that? They had the patronymic-based surname that changed every generation. They get a little bit harder to track.
  • On the other hand, my mom’s line is very Irish, but they were Irishmen who immigrated to Scotland for a few hundred years before immigrating to the United States. Finding all of their information is hard because apparently census workers struggled to understand their thick, Scottish brogue with Irish names.

My genealogy work is going to be limited by the fact that the earliest documents available in each of those countries don’t go back nearly as far as they do when compared to Chinese genealogy.

Even so, I was able to find when my Swedish line adopted a set surname in the 1800s. But they weren’t the first people to adopt that surname – and so far, I can’t find the very first person to do so. I’ll keep looking, but I’m going to remember that I’m limited by what documents are available and searchable. And that’s pretty limited when compared to unwritten family history.

What Are the Rarest Last Names?

In terms of genealogy, having a rare last name is actually awesome. They’re a ton easier to find and follow! However, some last names aren’t as rare as you first think they are (I’m looking at you, my maiden name and all those Charles’s!).

However, the rarest last names are going to strongly depend on what kind of “rarest last name” list you want to look at.

For example, if you want to know about the 20 most endangered last names, then MyHeritage has a great article about family names that have fewer than 20 people who carry it to this day (click hereOpens in a new tab. to go read it in a new window).

Or if you’d rather read about the 100 rarest last names in the latest US Census, then Family History Daily has that data from the 2010 census available hereOpens in a new tab. (that link opens in a new window).

Final example, if you’re wanting to know about rare last names from the 1800s, then you’re going to need to search through available records from whatever region it is you’re wanting to research. If you’re wanting rare Irish last names from 1855, then you’re going to need different sources than if you’re curious about Russian surnames in 1876.

So it’s hard to put together an ultimate, all-time list of rare last names. That would make this article WAY too long. So instead, let’s say that “it depends.” And then let’s dive into a few final thoughts.

Final Thoughts

Last names are amazing. They’re full of a lot of fun, rich history – and family stories. So treasure and cherish your family’s history. Will it be perfect? Um, no. There’s no such thing as a perfect family history. But that’s okay!

Because having an imperfect family history (or an “imperfect” family name) means that there are real people in your family. And that can help you learn that, no matter what, your family pulls together through both the good and bad times. And that can help your family members immensely to know that they aren’t alone. They have ancestors who’ve done hard things, too.

Knowing that information can help your family’s narrative – and it’s one of the most important reasons why people study genealogy. So go read our article on why genealogy is worth studying. Then, go find a story about an ancestor and share it with your family.

Happy genealogy detective work, friends.

Related Questions

What Are Some Origin Stories of Nature-Based Surnames? Nature-based family surnames can give clues to where they lived, where their house was, or local landmarks. Read our article here for more information on nature-based family names (including 15 origin stories).

Why Are Some Last Names So Common? Surnames based on occupation are more common than other surnames, as some occupations were more widespread. Read our post on common surnames for specific examples and more details.

How Does My Family Tree Work with Cousins? While cousins aren’t generally included on a published family tree, they can definitely (and easily) be included on a digital family tree. Read our article on cousins and family trees for more details, ideas, and information.

Sources

  • “10 Rare English Surnames About to Go Extinct.” Ancestry Blog, 1 Sept. 2020, blogs.ancestry.com/cm/10-rare-english-surnames-about-to-go-extinct/.
  • “China Names, Personal.” FamilySearch Wiki, www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/China_Names,_Personal.
  • “Chinese Surname.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 13 Oct. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_surname.
  • “England Surname Origins (National Institute).” FamilySearch Wiki, www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/England_Surname_Origins_(National_Institute).
  • Fryxell, David A. “Researching Unusual Last Names for Genealogy.” Family Tree Magazine, 9 Sept. 2020, www.familytreemagazine.com/premium/unusual-last-names/.
  • “How the History of Surnames Affects Your Ancestry.” Ancestry Blog, 2 Sept. 2020, blogs.ancestry.com/cm/how-the-history-of-surnames-affects-your-ancestry/.
  • Michael Cariaso October, et al. “These Are Some of the Rarest Last Names in the US: Do You Have One in Your Tree?” Family History Daily, 1 May 2020, familyhistorydaily.com/genealogy-help-and-how-to/rarest-last-names/.
  • “Not Smith and Jones – Rare British Surnames On The Cusp Of Extinction.” MyHeritage Blog, 20 June 2019, blog.myheritage.com/2011/04/rare-british-surnames/.

Kimberly

I'm a ginger who loves reading, eating, being a nurse, doing genealogy, spending time with my family, and writing about it all. I believe humor is the best medicine, followed very closely by chocolate and tacos. To read more about me, click here.

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