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Updated March 6, 2024

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America is known as the world's melting pot, so compiling a list of American last names was no small feat. First, we had to ask ourselves, what exactly is an American last name? What are the criteria needed to be considered American? 

The first Americans were the indigenous people who lived on the American continent thousands of years before the European, Leif Erikson, ever stepped foot on the land. Then the land was conquered and settled by the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, English, German, and French (to name a few!) Finally, European settlers brought generations of enslaved people, primarily of African descent, to the Americas over a four-hundred-year period.

Long after the United States became a nation, over twelve million people immigrated to America during the operation of Ellis Island, from 1892 to 1952; However, those numbers steadily declined between 1921 and 1954 when the government passed strict anti-immigration legislation.  

Many new citizens traveled from Eastern Europe, Central Europe, and Ireland. But some also came from South America, Africa, and Asia. 

In an effort to present a well-rounded picture of American last names, the article will break down common American surnames by country or culture of origin along with their meaning.

Most Common American Last Names 

According to the latest U.S. Census of frequently occurring surnames, below are the top ten last names in the United States, in descending order.

  1. Smith - English. Denotes an ancestor who was a smith of some type: whether black, silver, lock, blade, etc.
  2. Johnson - English/Scottish. "Son of John."
  3. Williams - English/Welsh. "Son of William."
  4. Brown - English/Scottish/Irish. Referred to the complexion of one’s skin or hair color.
  5. Jones - English. A derivative of the Hebrew name Jonah.
  6. Garcia - Spanish. Garcia is the Spanish version of Gerald. Garcia is believed to be a patronymic name meaning son of Garcia.
  7. Miller - Scottish/English/German. Denotes a descendant whose trade was a miller.
  8. Davis - English/Welsh. Derived from the Hebrew name David, Davis means "the son of David."
  9. Rodriguez - Spanish. "Son of Rodrigo."
  10. Martinez - Spanish. "Son of Martin."

Native American Last Names

Native Americans did not always have last names in the same fashion we use them today. As English-speaking culture overtook North America, some indigenous people adopted tribe names, place names, habitational names, and occupational names. Others were assigned surnames by the federal government. It can be challenging to trace down the origins of some Indigenous names and their origins because tribes and nations shifted and combined as Europeans pushed west.

  1. Acothley - Navajo. "Cowboy."
  2. Begay - Navajo. Derived from the word Biye, which means "his or her son."
  3. Benally - Navajo. "His grandchild" or "paternal grandchild."
  4. Blackhawk - Black Hawk was a Native American chief and leader of the Sauk. 
  5. Chatto - Apache. "Flat nose. "
  6. Enapay - Sioux. "Brave."
  7. Hatahle - Navajo. "Medicine man or healer."
  8. Mato - Sioux. "Bear."
  9. Nez - Navajo. "Tall" or "big."
  10. Yazzie - Navajo. "Little."

African American Last Names

African American names are often a result of an individual's enslaved ancestors. It was common for enslaved individuals to take on the same surname as their owner. Unfortunately, these names do not connect these individuals with their original roots and familial ancestry. Post-emancipation, many freed individuals kept their surname in hopes of connecting with other relatives who had been traded or sold over the years.

  1. Booker - English. Occupational name for someone who bound books, a bookbinder.
  2. Carver - English. Derives from the trade of wood carver, indicative of a skilled craftsman.
  3. Freeman - English. Denotes a person who was not a serf or slave but was born free.
  4. Harris - English/Welsh. "Son of Harry."
  5. Jackson - English. "Son of Jack."
  6. King - English. "Royalty or ruler."
  7. Langston - English. Originally a place name meaning “long stone”, it became a renowned last name.
  8. Lewis - English. Of Norman origin from the personal names Lowis and Lodovicus.
  9. Marshall - Norman French. Derived from the Old French "mareschal", meaning horse servant, it later denoted a high-ranking officer of the state.
  10. Washington - English/American. Originally a place name from England, many people now associate it with the family name of the first U.S. president.

Anglo-Saxon American Last Names

There is no doubt that Anglo-Saxon cultures like England, Scotland, and Ireland heavily influenced American last names. This is because many of the United States' early settlers were English individuals seeking new opportunities in a new land. Then later, during the mass immigration period during Ellis Island, thousands of Irish ventured to America for their chance at a new opportunity. As a result, many common last names came from these early settlers and are based on Gaelic or English words and names.

  1. Baker - English. Baker is a common last name that stems from the occupation of the same name.
  2. Clark - Irish/English. An occupational last name for a scribe or secretary. 
  3. Edwards - English. This English origin name means "rich guard", "wealth", "fortune."
  4. Evans - Welsh. "Son of Evan. "
  5. Moore - English. This last name is based on the Old French word Maur, which means "moor."
  6. Kelly - Irish/Celtic. Kelly is the Anglicisation of the Gaelic O Cadhla or descendent of Cadhla.
  7. Stewart - Scottish/English. An Old English name for a steward or clerk for nobility. 
  8. Taylor - English. This English surname is an occupational name for a tailor.
  9. Thompson - English/Scottish. "Son of Thomas."
  10. Walker - English/Scottish. Walker is an occupational surname for one who worked with wool.

German & Dutch Last Names in America

While we often think of the English when thinking of America’s early history, the German and Dutch were also very early settlers. You may have even heard the rumor that German almost became the official language of the U.S. While the German language story isn’t quite accurate, as it was never voted on as the legend says, there were indeed many German-speaking individuals in the U.S. at the time of the Revolutionary War. 

While the German settlers were most prominent in Pennsylvania, Dutch settlers stayed mainly in New York and what would become known as New England. 

  1. Cooper - Dutch.  An occupational name for a merchant.  
  2. De Jong - Dutch. "The young one."  
  3. Funck - German. This common German origin name means "spark."  
  4. Howard - German. "Strong or brave."  
  5. Jansen - Dutch. "Son of Jan." 
  6. Konig - Dutch. "King."  
  7. Martin - German. Derived from Latin for the Roman god of war, Mars.  
  8. Peterson - German/English. "Son of Peter."
  9. Roberts - German. "Bright and famous."
  10. Zimmerman - German. "Carpenter."

Spanish & Portuguese Names in America

Before the English began settling parts of the Americas, the Spanish had already invaded and overtaken parts of South America, Florida, and the West Indies. Portugal explorers were not far behind and began settling in what is now Brazil in the 16th century. While nations warred and lines and territories changed, the Spanish and Portuguese influences continued and remained. Many Hispanic names include the suffice “ez,” which means “son of.”

  1. Gomes - Portuguese. "Son of Gome or Gomo."
  2. Gonzales - Spanish. "Son of Gonzalo."
  3. Hernandez - Portuguese/Spanish. "Son of Hernando."
  4. Lopez - Spanish. "Son of Lope."
  5. Martinez - Spanish. "Son of Martin."
  6. Perez - Spanish. "Son of Pero or Pedro."
  7. Rodriguez - Spanish. "Son of Rodrigo."
  8. Sanchez - Spanish. "Son of Sancho."
  9. Silva - Portuguese/Spanish. Refers to the "forest" or "jungle."
  10. Torres - Portuguese. Comes from the Latin word Torris for a tower.

European Surnames in America

In addition to the European nations already mentioned, many other individuals from the vast continent emigrated from their lands to America. Therefore no list of common surnames in America would be complete without a handful of names from across Europe.

  1. Adams - Jewish/English. "Earth."
  2. Alexander - Greek. Son of Alex. In addition to being a surname, it is also used as a first name for a baby boy.
  3. Anderson - Swedish/Norwegian. "Son of Anders."
  4. Bailey - French. "Bailiff." 
  5. Bauer - Austrian. A common surname meaning "farmer." 
  6. Bianchi - Italian. "White." 
  7. Nielsen - Danish. "Son of Niel."
  8. Petrov - Russian. "Son of Peter."
  9. Robinson - Jewish/English. "Son of Robert or Robin."
  10. Russo - Italian. "Red."

L. Elizabeth Forry

About L. Elizabeth Forry

L. Elizabeth Forry is an Early Childhood Educator with 15 years of classroom… Read more

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