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, whether it’s a rare one or a name you share with thousands of others, ties us to the generations who came before and it can be great fun to know where it originated.
If you are lucky enough to have an unusual last name, 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 your surname is? If so, many of you have probably used Ancestry’s fun tool to see how the distribution of various last names 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?
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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 last names as of 2010 (data from the 2020 census is not yet available) 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. So we can’t know what the rarest last name is, but we can get close.
The list below is a selection of these uncommon last 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 in the US.
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.
It’s easy to make assumptions about what your family name can tell you about your ancestry if you’re not cautious. Know that a name, no matter how rare, can have many origins. Make sure you take the time to research the line (often paternal in the US, but not always) that provided you with your surname. See where this family line takes you before making determinations about what it may mean.
How can I research a family tree with rare last names?
Researching a family tree that includes rare last names should be done in the same manner as any other tree. You’ll want to start by interviewing family members for details about recent individuals (parents, grandparents etc) and then enter this information into a solid family tree program. Carefully research each person, adding as much factual data as you can prove (and always record your sources).
As you work backwards in your tree more and more information will become available via your own research and the presentation of record suggestions (if using trees that provide them, see the above linked article about family tree programs for help with this). Sometimes it only takes a few generations before you’ll begin to see where a surname originated – other times you may have to research further back, especially if you have early US colonial ancestors.
Once you can discover an origin for your uncommon last name, you’ll be able to better research the people who carried it and perhaps even locate exactly why it was created (many surnames have fairly recent origins).
Knowing that you only share your surname with a small group of people can be exciting and may help you reveal forgotten stories about your family. For more help building a family tree so that you can get started with your research read our quick guide to building a family tree or consider taking an online course.
You may also like to consider checking out some of the helpful resources below for more guidance.
- Understanding Surnames and What They Mean
- Making Sense of Suffixes on Names
- 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.