Lynn Broderick | Apr 17, 2018

What Is a Surname Distribution Map?

This is the second in a three-part series about surnames, surname distribution maps, and where to find these maps online. Read part one.

During his presentation at RootsTech 2017, Darris Williams taught that surname distribution maps are “one of the easiest ways to help people engage in talking about family history.” He shared that these maps can provide a glimpse of how surnames increase understanding of “the historical, geographical, political, and religious context that our families lived in.” Williams, an accredited genealogist in Welch research, gave a number of examples from Great Britain. However, this tool can assist many family historians researching in other geographic areas.

A surname distribution map provides a visual look at the demographics of a particular surname data set. In genealogy, these maps typically reflect statistics from names on census pages, taxation records, electoral registers, and telephone directories. Vital records are a great source when available. The information is displayed to show the concentration of a surname found in a designated jurisdiction. Traditionally the darkest area on a map shows the greatest concentration of the name. It is essential to know the time period from which the data is extracted to determine its relevance. Some surname distribution maps will allow the user to choose a time period if information is based on multiple years from the same source. Usually, the family historian is interested in the maps that show the time period during which the ancestor lived in that jurisdiction.

The International Society of Genetic Genealogy (ISOGG) suggests that “surname mapping is a useful technique for a surname DNA project. Many surnames have regional distribution patterns. Mapping the distribution of a surname at different points in time will often reveal the origin of the family name and will thus provide a narrower focus for further research …”[1] A surname distribution map may also broaden research if pockets of concentrated surnames appear in other parts of the world.

According to Williams, George Redmond, a linguist and the author of Surnames in Genealogy–A New Approach, suggests that certain data sets are indicative of the population even 200 and 300 years earlier than the reported time period. One such resource is “The British 19th Century Surname Atlas” based on the 1881 Census of Great Britain.

Williams shared the story of a patron who came into the Family History Library with two bits of information about his Colonial American family: the family he was interested in was from Wales and their surname was Bevan. Williams plugged the name Bevan into the program and the highest concentration was from Glamorganshire. This would be a good place to start, but the gentleman also knew 3 other family surnames. Since this program allows a mapping feature for 4 surnames, he entered the additional names. The greatest concentration was in South Wales. When they added a rare given name to map they found that it overlapped where his four surnames were commonly found. This narrowed the patron’s search to 12 to 15 parishes. This man now had a lead.

Surname distribution maps can be a great resource for identifying a location to begin research when an individual cannot find a direct lead. Maps are of greater help if the surname is rare. Patronymic surnames are only relevant after the time period when the name became standardized and passed down to the child intact.

Sites associated with surname distribution maps may provide a list of variant spellings for each surname. Since some websites require exact spelling of a surname for good results, the lists of surname variants becomes invaluable to the earnest family historian.


[1] “Surname mapping.” International Society of Genetic Genealogy. Accessed June 19, 2017.

Recommended Resources:

Archer Software. 2003. “The British 19th century surname atlas.” Dartford, Kent, England: Archer Software.

Redmonds, George. 2002. Surnames and genealogy: a new approach. Bury, Engl: Federation of family history societies.

This is the second in a three-part series about surnames, surname distribution maps, and where to find these maps online. Read part one.

Lynn Broderick

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