Documenting my family's past for future generations. My family tree includes the Smith/Mansell families of Alabama and Oklahoma, the Castle/Day families of Kentucky and Oklahoma, the Wheat/Ming families of Texas and Oklahoma, and the Bell/Roberts families of Mississippi, Tennessee, and Oklahoma.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

What's in a Name?

A friend of mine recently got her DNA results from and was showing me her Ethnicity Estimate. I remembered that Ancestry had come out with a whole new version of ethnicity results last fall, and I had never really looked at mine since the new version appeared on their website. So I did.

On a previous post, "Where in the World Am I From?" I reported the results from my first ethnicity profile on Ancestry. I was 44% Central European, 33% British Isles, 21% Scandinavian, and 2% Uncertain. I knew that Ancestry got a lot of flak from experts in the field of DNA genealogy for the high proportion of Scandinavian ancestry in a large number of people who wouldn't be expected to have it. I wasn't especially skeptical of my Scandinavian numbers, because first of all, it's cool to be a Viking, and second, I figured my Irish and Scots forefathers probably did have some Scandinavian ancestry.

Well, now they don't. My new Ethnicity Estimate is 79% Great Britain, 15% Ireland, and 6% Trace Regions. These include 3% Europe East, 1% Europe West, 1% Italy/Greece, <1% Scandinavian, and <1% Iberian Peninsula. I've gone from 21% Scandinavian to less than 1%. However, I'm not really surprised at my overwhelmingly English/Scots/Irish roots, as I would be hard-pressed to find a surname in my tree that can't be traced to those regions.

I thought it might be fun to do a little survey of the surnames in my tree--where they come from and what they mean. Since none of my ancestors are recent immigrants and I haven't been able to trace very many of them conclusively to their mother country, surnames are the only evidence I have for country of origin. Let's see if my surname origins match up with the origins that estimated from my DNA.

FYI: Surnames did not come about until the Middle Ages, when populations grew large enough that individuals with the same given names had to be differentiated from each other. There are four major ways in which surnames were given: based on the father's name (for example, Johnson, "son of John"); based on the occupation of the individual (John the Baker, John the Carpenter, etc.); based on a place (John Hill, John Meadows, John London); or based on a characteristic (John Little, John Brown.)

On my dad's dad's side, I have Smith, Williams, Simmons, and Soles. Just for fun, let's throw in Banks and Perkins, the surnames belonging to my brother's y-DNA matches. We know they are related to us--we just don't know how. I'm using's surname information, which can be found at

SMITH--English: occupational name for a worker in metal
WILLIAMS--English (also very common in Wales): son of William
SIMMONS--English (southern): son of Simon, or Anglo-Norman: son of Simund
SOLES--Old English; from sol, a muddy place, or possibly from Middle English (Latin solus), "single" or "unmarried", or if spelled
SOULE or SOULES--uncertain origin; perhaps derived from "soul" as a term of affection
BANKS--English or Scottish: name for someone who lived on the slope of a hill or by a riverbank
PERKINS--English (also mid and south Wales): son of Perkin

On my dad's mom's side, surnames include Castle, Sargent, Bays, Day, Lewis, Reed, Horton, Kendrick, Lea, Oney, McGrady, Cock, Patrick, and Henson.

CASTLE--English: someone who lived or worked at the castle (However, if the original spelling was Kassell or Cassell, as many Castle genealogists have speculated, my Jacob "the Longhunter" would have had a German, not English, origin.)
SARGENT--English and French: originally, an occupational name for a servant
BAYS--English: son of Bay
DAY--English: a pet form of David or other personal name; or, from a root word meaning "to knead" (related to dough), name for a dairy maid or servant of either sex
LEWIS--English (but most common in Wales): from the Norman personal name Ludovicus, or from the Welsh Llywelyn, or from the Irish/Scots Lughaidh
REED--English: nickname for a person with red hair or a ruddy complexion
HORTON--English: from one of many places in England with this name; from Old English horh "dirt" + tun "enclosure" or "settlement"
KENDRICK--Welsh, Scottish, or English: from the Welsh personal name Cynrig; shortened version of the Scots MacKendrick; or from the English Cyneric, meaning "royal power"
LEA--English: someone who lived near a meadow
ONEY--English: probably originally Olney, from two different places in England. One meant "Olla's island"; one was originally Onley, "single" + "clearing"
MCGRADY--Irish: son of Bradach, "proud"
COCK--English: "male bird or fowl," originally someone who struts like a rooster, then became generalized to "youth" and incorporated in names such as Alcock and Hancock
PATRICK--Scottish and Irish: son of Padraig, originally Latin Patricius, "son of a noble father"; popularized, of course, by St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland
HENSON--English: son of Henne (short for Henry), Hayne, or Hendy

On my mom's dad's side, I have Wheat, Farris, Stephenson, Whitley, Ming, Beasley, Fullen, Bordley, and Logan.

WHEAT--English: grower or seller of wheat, from hwit, meaning "white" because of its use in making white flour
FARRIS--Scottish: son of Fergus; in southeast England, possibly variant of Farrar, "worker in iron," "shoer of  horses" 
STEPHENSON--English and Scottish: son of Stephen; sometimes shortened to Stinson. My Stephensons are supposed to be Scottish.
WHITLEY--English: place name, from hwit "white" + leah "wood"
MING--English: of uncertain origin; perhaps from shortened version of personal name, Dominick
BEASLEY--English: from a place in Lancashire; perhaps beos, meaning "bent grass" + leah, meaning "woodland clearing"
FULLEN--English: same origin as Fuller, an occupational name for a person who helped make cloth by wetting and walking on it
BORDLEY--English: place name, originally bord, "board" + leah, "woodland clearing"
LOGAN--Scottish or northern Irish: from a place name, originally lagan, "hollow"

And finally, from my mom's mom's side of the family: Bell, Roberts, Powell, Fowler, Crudup, Cooper, Battle, Dixon, and Huff. DNA evidence also points to Pharris, Broyles, and Wilhoit.

BELL--Scottish or northern English: bell maker, or someone who lived near the bell
ROBERTS--English: son of Robert. Very frequent in Wales and west central England.
POWELL--English (of Welsh origin): Anglicized form of Welsh ap Hywel, "son of Hywel," a personal name meaning "eminent"
FOWLER--English: occupational name for a bird-catcher (a common medieval occupation)
CRUDUP--Probably an Americanized version of North German Gratop, a nickname for an old man. From German gra (gray) + top (braid)
COOPER--English: occupational name for a maker and repairer of wooden barrels
BATTLE--English and Scottish (of Norman origin): habitational name from the place of a battle
DIXON--Northern English: son of Dick
HUFF--English: habitational name, meaning "spur of a hill." German: from the personal name Hufo. My Huffs were Dutch, so probably the German meaning.
PHARRIS--Irish variant of Farris. I'm still not completely certain that my Farris and Pharris ancestors weren't originally the same family.
BROYLES--American form of German Breuhl (one of my Germanna families)
WILHOIT and various spellings--German: from Willeit, wil "small settlement" + leite "slope" (another Germanna family)

Kindof fascinating, isn't it? Certainly bears out the ethnicity estimate of almost 95% Great Britain and Ireland. It's also fun to see what characteristics distinguished a person or place back then and to compare medieval occupations to those we have today. Can you imagine having a job that required you to walk on wet cloth or catch birds?

Try this little exercise with your own list of surnames. What does it tell you about the origins and occupations of your ancestors?

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