Salvador Rodriguez Cigar Co., Tampa, Florida, 1909. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Salvador Rodriguez Cigar Co., Tampa, Florida, 1909. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Changing Surnames Reflect America’s Immigrant Influence

We all know how popular baby names come and go. One year little girls are named Madison. A few years later, and we get millions of Olivias.

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It’s a different story when it comes to surnames in the United States. Or at least it has been—until recently.

For 150 years, surnames in the United States have hardly budged. Here are the top 10 surnames for 1860:

1860: Smith, Johnson, Brown, Williams, Jones, Davis, Clark, Taylor, Thompson, Hall

Fifty years later saw Miller, Anderson, and Wilson edging out Clark, Thompson, and Hall:

1910: Smith, Johnson, Brown, Williams, Jones, Miller, Davis, Anderson, Wilson, Taylor

The next seven decades saw even less change. Brown dropped out of the three spot, and Moore edged up to replace Anderson, which was hovering at number 11, with almost identical numbers to Taylor (10) and Thomas (12):

1990: Smith, Johnson, Williams, Jones, Brown, Davis, Miller, Wilson, Moore, Taylor

But that was about to change.

Regardless of their varying backgrounds and cultures, one constant remained in our ancestors’ immigrant journeys:  their last names came with them. Surnames, then, become one measure of immigration to the U.S., though you sometimes have to look beneath the surface for what they’re saying. For example, how many German immigrants changed Schmidt to Smith or Müller to Miller upon arrival on American soil—or in response to anti-German sentiment surrounding World War I? Smith, of course, is the number one surname in England as well, but more Americans actually identify themselves as having German roots than any other ethnic group. Other countries that sent large numbers of immigrants to the U.S. included Italy, Poland, Great Britain, Ireland, and Mexico.

But it’s taken more than two centuries for changing immigration patterns to finally move the needle on the American surnames meter in an obvious way. As the new millennium began, both Garcia and Rodriguez made it into the top 10 for the first time:

2000: Smith, Johnson, Williams, Brown, Jones, Miller, Davis, Garcia, Rodriguez, Wilson

And what about first names? They didn’t used to be so fickle. John and Mary were the most popular first names in 1860 and 1910. But that was then.

Neither made the top 25 in 2010.


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