Five Myths About Your Surname

Vintage Women and Boy from 1920Our last names can tell us so much about ourselves. They provide a way to connect our present to the past and give us more insight into how our families formed, moved and experienced what they did.

While there’s a lot about our last names we do know, there are certain myths and legends that have persisted over time about the surnames of people in the United States. Here are five major myths.

  • 14-Day Free Trial
    GIVE ME ACCESS

1. Family surnames were changed at Ellis Island.

One of the most prevalent genealogical myths? Ellis Island officers changed people’s last name as they arrived in the U.S. It was said the officials working at the New York island’s entry port weren’t familiar with all the immigrants’ languages, so they had to anglicize the names.

However, records show that the names of passengers were actually collected in Europe and used for the ships’ manifests. Therefore, the officers at Ellis Island only needed to check names off these lists, not write them out.

Then why were so many names changed during the immigration booms of the 19th and 20th centuries? One possible conclusion for the various surname changes: The immigrants may have changed the names themselves in order to fit in better in their new country.

2. If your last name is the same or close to another person’s last name, you are related.

If you have the same last name as a historical figure or a modern celebrity, it’s easy to draw conclusion that you must SOMEHOW be related.  Sometimes that’s true (woot!). But that’s not always the case.

Last names started in Western Europe during Medieval times, and there were a few ways people could get a last name. It could come from the location they lived or their occupation.


  • Learn the meaning and origin of your last name
    Find your last name

Not all blacksmiths were related, despite all having the same last name. Thus all modern day Smiths aren’t necessarily related.

3. Every African American person’s surname comes from the family’s name that owned their ancestors.

While not every African American person has ancestors who were enslaved, enough African Americans can trace their family roots back to enslaved ancestors that this myth about surnames and slave owners came to be.

And while some slaves took the last name as their master, not every slave held the name of the men who owned them. Records from the time even show that slaves on the same plantation often didn’t have the same last name, which could possibly be explained by being sold from one plantation to another.

However, after slaves were emancipated, many former slaves were able to choose their own last names. Some emancipated slaves stayed near their former plantation, and it behooved them to keep their former slave family’s name.

Meanwhile other people reinvented themselves by taking new surnames such as Freeman or Newman or that of two of the founding fathers: Washington and Jefferson.

4. Just because someone’s name sounds like it originates from one country does not mean that it actually does.

Don’t assume your last name is Italian just because it sounds like an Italian word. Your surname could have been changed by your ancestors, either intentionally or accidentally, over time.

Also, it’s worth noting that map lines change, and languages are used in countries other than their homebase: i.e. People speak primarily German in countries that aren’t Germany.

And over generations, families migrate. So even if your last name originates from one country, it doesn’t mean most of your ancestry does. One woman named Julie Martini, for instance, had an Italian last name and assumed she was Italian. Then she discovered her family had moved to Germany hundreds of years ago, so she was more German than Italian.

5. Coats of arms are associated with surnames

Coats of arms can be traced back as early as the 11th century. In the English, Scottish, and French traditions coats of arms were tied to a single person, not to a family.

The emblem could be passed down to that person’s direct heir, but it was not used by the rest of the family.

This reflects the original purpose of coats of arms, which was to identify individual soldiers on the battlefield, as they were heavily armed and otherwise hard to distinguish.

Uncover the Myths Behind Your Last Name

As you go on your journey into your family’s past, the best way to dispel myth from fact, yarn from true account, is to keep these myths in mind and go all in.

Take an AncestryDNA test and explore your family’s records on Ancestry. You can start by discovering the meaning of your last name.

Past Articles

The Secret to Finding Long Lost Relatives is in Your Family’s DNA

Go back a few generations in most American families, and you’ll find roots abroad. And even in this country, most of us have branches of our family with which we’ve lost touch over the years. With AncestryDNA, a simple test can help you discover family you never new you had. Whether it’s a cousin in Chicago or an a relative in Germany, it’s never Read More

What Your Father’s Last Name Can Tell You

There’s an old saying that no father could ever be sure that his child was truly his genetic offspring. Today of course we have DNA testing, but for many years, what men did — and continue to do —  is to give children their names. In many cultures, men give not just their family name to Read More

What 2 Million People Learned When They Took DNA Tests

Millions of people around the world are taking DNA tests. What drives them? They want to learn more about themselves. They’re looking to feel more connected to their families – and make surprising discoveries about their past. Meet just a few of the 2 million people who have already taken AncestryDNA tests. AncestryDNA test takers are finding new family members Read More

6 Wild Things You Can Discover About Your Family’s Past

Ever wonder what life was like back in the old days? What was your family up to back then? Ancestry has some handy tools that let you take a quick peek into the past to uncover old family photos, precious documents, and other family history gems. Here are 6 wild things you can find out about your family’s Read More

The Departure Gates: How Your Ancestors Came to America

For many European immigrants to America, the transatlantic crossing was just part of a long journey. First, they had to travel to their point of departure. The passenger lists on Ancestry show that many traveled hundreds of miles before they ever set foot on a ship. Immigrants crowded into rail cars or local boats to Read More

What Happened to the Last Queen of Hawaii — and Her Furniture, Too?

Abigail Kawananakoa wants to know where her great-grand-uncle’s bed is. His royal bed. The bed that David Kalakaua, the last king of Hawaii, slept in. When the royal family of Hawaii was deposed in 1894, King Kalakaua’s 19th century ebony and gilt bed was sold off, along with many of the palace’s other contents. Today, Read More

Left in Cardboard Boxes, Sisters Find Each Other 50 Years Later

People Magazine featured the story of sisters abandoned in cardboard boxes as infants being reunited after 50 years and then finding their birth mother. This is their story.  In 1948 a baby girl named Abbie Green was born and then given up for adoption that same day. Growing up she was always curious about who her “real” Read More

What Does Your German Surname Say About You?

German-Americans are the largest single ethnic group in the U.S. If you are one of 46 million Americans with German ancestry, your surname could yield some interesting clues to your family history.

What Does Your German Surname Say About You?

German-Americans are the largest single ethnic group in the U.S. If you are one of 46 million Americans with German ancestry, your surname could yield some interesting clues to your family history. The the most common form of German family name is occupational. It can often be identified by its ending: -er, -hauer, -macher, or Read More