Johnson: A History of the Popular American Surname

5 November 2014

[Photo credit: Library of Congress]
The English surname Johnson is a patronymic, meaning the name was originally derived from a father’s name. When people started adopting last names, the first Johnson was the son of a man named John. What’s thought to be the earliest recorded use of Johnson as a surname — spelled Jonessone — was in England in 1287. The given name John itself derives from the Latin name Johannes, meaning “Jehovah has favored.”

Johnson is a common surname in the U.S.: the second-most common on both the 1999 and 2000 U.S. censuses, in fact. In 2000, there were 1,857,160 Johnsons in the U.S., behind only the Smiths (2.3 million). In the UK, it’s the 10th-most common surname.

In the 1840s, more American families with the name Johnson were concentrated in New York and Ohio than anywhere else in the country. Some lived elsewhere in the east, with a few in the Midwest. By time the 1880 census rolled around, though, the name had a strong presence throughout the eastern half of the United States.

johnson 1880

By the 1920s, the most Johnson families, per the census, were in New York, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, and Texas.

Data from the 1891 England and Wales census shows most Johnson families in the north, in Yorkshire and Lancashire. In Scotland, the Johnsons were particularly prominent in the Shetland Islands — this was the case in the censuses of 1841, 1861, 1881, and 1901. And in Civil War service records on Ancestry, the name Johnson appears substantially more often in Union records (though this may have more to do with the relative size of the armies and the number of records available than it does which side your Johnson ancestors may have fought on).

johnson civil war service records

As you would expect for the second-most-popular surname in the U.S., has millions of birth, immigration, census, voter, military, and other historical documents for folks named Johnson. Visit and we’ll help you narrow down your Johnson ancestry search.

—Leslie Lang