By Patricia Hartley
One of the first things most people do when starting a family history project is research their own surname. And, even though we can only learn a small part of our family’s past from doing so, it is always a fascinating undertaking. Our surname ties us to the generations who came before and it can be great fun to know where that name originated.
If you are lucky enough to have an unusual surname, it can also make your search of the past a little easier (or harder, depending on who you ask). After all, there were certainly more women named “Mary Brown” than “Mary Niedergeses” in old records. But even if your last name is common you are likely lucky enough to have a few rare gems in your family tree as a whole. If you have been doing research for a while, you know which ones they are.
Curious as to how rare these surnames really are? If so, many of you have probably used Ancestry’s fun tool to see how the distribution of various surnames has changed throughout American history (with data available between 1840 and 1920), but did you know that the U.S. Census Bureau provides more recent information on surname usage?
The Bureau has been keeping track of the frequency of surnames reported by Americans every ten years, and has compiled Census Surname Tables for the 1990, 2000, and 2010 census returns. You can download the latest data, a spreadsheet of surnames and the exact number of those claiming them, right here.
Interestingly, the five most common American surnames as of 2010 haven’t changed that much over time and are Smith, Johnson, Williams, Brown, and Jones. But the bureau also compiled lists of the fastest-growing surnames in the United States and these include Zhang, Li, Ali, Liu, and Khan – a testament to the wonderful diversity of our nation.
According to the bureau’s data, there were nearly 6.3 million distinct surnames in the United States in 2010 and while they don’t, unfortunately, share the rarest of these names (those that belong to less than 100 people), they do share those last names with only 100 entries each.
The list below is a selection of these rare names, of which there are just over 1200. To see them all you will need to download the complete list here and scroll to the bottom to locate surnames held by the least amount of people.
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Here are 100 of the Rarest Last Names in the U.S. as of the 2010 Census
Interested in Researching Your Surname or Those in Your Family Tree?
Researching the origins of last names in your family tree can be a fascinating journey and well worth the effort. We suggest reading What a Surname Can REALLY Tell You About Your Family’s Past first to help you clear up confusions and get you started. Then, consider checking out some of the helpful resources below for more guidance.
- Ancestry Last Name Meanings and Surname Search
- FamilySearch Surname Search
- FamilySearch Surname Research Guide
- Forbears.io Surname Meanings and Distribution Tool
Image: “John Nygren who lives alone in a shack near Iron River, Michigan.” 1937. Library of Congress
For nearly 30 years Patricia Hartley has researched and written about the ancestry and/or descendancy of her personal family lines, those of her extended family and friends, and of historical figures in her community. After earning a B.S. in Professional Writing and English and an M.A. in English from the University of North Alabama in Florence, Alabama, she completed an M.A. in Public Relations/Mass Communications from Kent State University.
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