For many families, the first foray into genealogy begins with their surname. You wonder about topics such as: what’s the ethnic origin, what’s the meaning, and what other interesting people have shared your last name? However, it’s easy to find out as you dive in that there are many unscrupulous companies that sell generic information that may not relate to your family at all.
Since professional genealogists commonly hear questions such as “where can I learn why more about my surname’s history?” and “where can I find my coat of arms?” it’s important for those new to genealogy to have an understanding of commercial scams that have popped up around genealogy. Here’s a quick overview of some of the most common ones and how to avoid them.
The Trouble with Surnames
Depending on the part of the world your ancestors emigrated from, surnames may have been in use since approximately the 15th century (Europe) or as early as 2000 BC (Asia). The origins are diverse, with some referring to locations and geographic features (e.g. Rivers or North), occupational details (e.g. Cooper or Fisher), titles (e.g. Lord), or patronymics (e.g. Anderson or Jameson – meaning son of Anders or son of James). Some general information can give you the broadest idea on the origin of your surname – for example, it was most likely Spanish or Irish. But the only definitive way to know the specific history of your family name is to begin with current generation and trace your way backwards to the original ancestor who took the name. It can be the genealogical project of a lifetime!
Generic Surname Histories
With that in mind, it’s easy to understand why people want to spend twenty dollars and get a “complete family history.” In fact, you’ve probably received emails or catalogs in the mail offering these products. However, most of the so called generic surname histories are of dubious quality. They often include general information about how to conduct genealogical research, a generic history of the surname in question, and then contact information extracted from public sources such as phone books of “your relatives.” There’s seriously limited value (or no value) in these products in terms of actually helping you learn more about your family history. If you’d simply like to get your bearings and find general information about your surname, a quick search of the internet will yield free data of comparable quality.
Family Coats of Arms
Another common genealogical scam is companies selling “family coats of arms.” These visual images of shields with added details are sold as prints suitable for framing or emblazoned on everything from windbreakers to key chains. However, in most cases, there is no such thing as a family coat of arms attached to a surname. While this varies by country and there are limited exceptions, in general a coat of arms is granted to a single person. Like a title or piece of property, it is something that is inherited by the eldest male heir directly along the paternal line.
In most cases, if you hold a coat of arms, it’s something you’ll already be aware of. General coat of arms sites may show you a coat of arms design that was held by someone with your same last name. But the chances that it’s directly related to you are limited. That doesn’t mean that you can’t explore the topic, however. If you’re interested in learning more about Heraldry and researching coats of arms, two places to start are the American College of Heraldry and the Institute for Heraldic and Genealogical Studies.
It’s natural to be curious about your surname’s origins when you first get involved in genealogy. However, your best strategies are to research your own line or talk to a qualified professional genealogist who can help you get started with your project. Save your money on generic surname histories and coat of arms mugs!