50 Most Common Last Names in America (Update for 2023)
Baby names are an important cultural tradition across the world, and have been for thousands of years. Different cultures have a variety of ways to choose given names, so it’s only fitting that the nomenclature of a surname, or last name, is just as complex.
From Smith to Sullivan, Sanders to Myers, and Reyes to Roberts, read on for the most popular family names found across the United States!
The History of Last Names
Surnames, also known as family names, were first used during medieval times and usually referred to a person's occupation (i.e. Turner, Miller, Tailor, Potter, Weaver, Baker). These are called occupational names.
Surnames could also come from places — a hint that a name comes from a place might be the endings -field, -ford, -brook, or -wood, for example. The original locative name of “Henry of the Marsh” might be shortened over the years to Henry Marsh.
The trend of naming people after the places that they come from goes beyond the English language, as many German, Dutch Norwegian, and Swedish last names end in -berg (which means mountain in those languages).
Patronymics & Surnames
A lot of these same principles apply in other languages, particularly when discussing the system of patronymic naming.
This was another common surname convention, which originated from a father's first name, and then "son" was added, as in Stevenson, Davidson, Robertson, or Richardson.
And the same patronymic system carried over into foreign languages, as well. For example, those of Spanish descent have an interesting way to denote familial lines through the last name alone. In fact, the suffix "-ez" in Spanish names is a patronymic addition, akin to "son". In that tradition, Martínez then would be the descendant of Martín.
By the same principle, Iceland has patronymic and matronymic systems that include both “son” and “daughter” suffixes that help people identify familial lines, which have existed for centuries. For people using this system, Icelandic surnames are not solely predicated on family names, but on the first name of the father or mother of the child.
As such, you will find many Icelandic surnames ending in -son or -dóttir, translating respectively to “son of” or “daughter of”, connecting to the genitive form of the father or mother’s name preceding it. Some examples of this naming convention include a Viking settler of Vinland in North America, named Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir; author of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”, Stieg Larsson; and the first female prime minister of Iceland in 2009, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir.
Where Do the Most Popular Last Names in America Come From?
The United States has long been a melting pot for various cultures from across the globe. As such, it should come as no surprise that the U.S. statistics for last names are influenced greatly by the number and ethnicity of the immigrants who have joined the ranks of Americans. From Scottish settlers to Portuguese migrants, America is full of diversity — including in terms of names.
Ethnicity, Immigration, and Surnames
Some of the most influential ethnicities that have changed the fabric of American family names include Spanish, Portuguese, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, and English settlers who arrived on North American shores and brought their familial nomenclature with them.
Because these settlers were some of the first Europeans to arrive in the New World and would go on to populate much of the vast, unsettled country, their names have stuck around for centuries. Such surnames include Roberts, Lewis, Phillips, Edwards, Evans, Cooper, Hughes, Rogers, Bailey, Scott, and more.
In other places across the country — particularly in the southwest — Hispanic or Latino populations arrived with a completely different tradition of family names. These can include Chavez, Diaz, Ruiz, Cruz, Gutierrez, Mendoza, Jimenez, and many others.
And across the west coast and Hawaii, you might find last names of Asian descent, including Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, or Japanese. Names rising in popularity over the past few decades include Nguyen, Lee, Zhang, Wong, and Kim.
American History and Last Names
History is another factor in determining surnames. For example, during the period before the American Civil War when slave-owning was legal, many indentured people were forced to take on the names of those who purchased them, such as “Roberts”, “Jacobs”, or even last names that denoted skin color (like “White”, “Black”, or “Brown”).
Similarly, when the Native American populations were forced into residential schools or reservations, many had their identity stripped away by the state and the government. Indigenous peoples were made to take on “white” or Catholic names instead of the traditional ones they had carried for centuries.
But these ripple effects through history and immigration status have led to the country we have today and the last names that you, your friends and family, and your acquaintances are known by.
What Is the Most Common Last Name in the U.S.?
So, depending on the history and the ethnic makeup of a particular state or county, the popularity of certain surnames will vary wildly. And it also depends on which year you take a look at!
For example, in the United States, Smith was the most popular surname in 1990 and retained that spot ten years later. Garcia jumped in popularity from the 18th-most-popular name in 1990 to the sixth-most-popular last name in 2010. Robinson was the 20th most popular name in 1990 but fell off the list, as Latino surnames become more common.
But now that we have briefly explored the origins of names, let’s take a look at 50 of the most popular and common last names in the United States.
|SURNAME||RANK||FREQUENCY (COUNT)||PROPORTION PER 100,000 POPULATION|
Source: Census Bureau, 2010 U.S. Census (latest update in U.S. Census Bureau Frequently Occurring Surnames).
Summing Up Surnames
Did you find your last name on any of these lists? You might be surprised at how common a surname can be, even if it’s not one that you hear every day. But no matter how popular, your last name is one of the most important ways to trace your identity and familial descent through the years!
If you are curious about your own name, visit Family Name Search to discover the meanings and origins of last names. Or if you’re curious about America as a whole, why not take our U.S. States Quiz and test your knowledge?
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