American Surnames in 1790


In the states for which the schedules of the First Census still exist there were 27,337 surnames in 1790. It is impossible to compute from this figure the number of surnames in the entire United States at the date of the First Census, but the fact that the states for which the schedules are lacking, with the exception of New Jersey, were settled largely by English immigrants, suggests the probability that the names in addition to those appearing upon the existing schedules were comparatively few in number. It is thus probable that the entire number of surnames in the United States at that period did not much exceed 30,000.

A large preponderance of English and Scotch names appears upon the schedules of the First Census. The proportion, indeed, is so large that these two nationalities embrace substantially the entire population, with the exception of that of certain sections, principally in New York, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. Moreover, inspection of the names conveys the impression that they were largely of Anglo-Saxon origin.

Many of the names upon the schedules probably have now passed out of existence, because of an increasing tendency on the part of the public to avoid striking or fantastic names. Most of those names which tended to cause a distinct loss of dignity to the bearer have, in the course of a century, been so modified, with the social advance of the possessors, as to lose unpleasant characteristics. Many Christian names which were of frequent occurrence in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and indeed in the early part of the nineteenth century, have become obsolete. Their use by the present generation would be regarded as an absurdity. Inspection of the city directories for several of the larger municipalities shows that many of the more peculiar and eccentric names reported at the First Census still continue to be borne; but it is a fact, also, that such names are by no means so conspicuous at the present time as at the earlier period. The addition of a great body of names originating in countries other than Great Britain tends to reduce the prominence of English names, as the proportion contributed by such names deceases. It is true that many of the names so added may be formed of the parts of speech of other languages, but this fact is concealed by their occurrence in a foreign tongue.

Those who study the names upon the schedules of the First Census are impressed by the fact that a large portion of the total number are derived from common nouns or other parts of speech related to the daily affairs, occupations, events, and surroundings of the individual and the community. Tests were made of the names returned for three states, to determine the proportion of families bearing names of this class. It was found that of all families reported in these three states about thirty percent derived their names from parts of speech.

Of the 27,337 different surnames for which the 1790 schedules are in existence, 9.4 were derived from parts of speech. Upon making a classification of the names so derived, according to the meaning of the words, they fall into the following general classes:

  • Household and domestic affairs—food and eating, drink, clothing, and sewing materials
  • Nations and places
  • Human characteristics—nationality, kinds of men, condition, appearance or state, bathing, ailments and remedies, parts and actions of the body, relationship
  • Games, religion, music, and literature
  • Property—kind of house and building material and belongings, surroundings, furniture and tableware, merchandise and commodities, and money
  • Nature—color, objects of nature or feature of landscape, trees, plants and flowers, fruits, nuts, weather, beats, birds, insects and creeping creatures
  • The ocean and maritime subjects
  • War
  • Death and violence
  • Time
  • Unusual and ludicrous combinations of common nouns and of Christian names and surnames
Two facts are of especial interest in connection with an analysis of names. The parts of speech which are represented are almost entirely Anglo-Saxon. They are derived from the most common events of life, conditions, places, or things, and it maybe said that they represent almost one-third of the population of the United States in 1790. The prevalence of Biblical given names reflects the religious feeling of the period. The absence of those names which were offensive from the standpoint of politics, on the other hand, reflects the political prejudices prevailing at that date. For example, the name “Charles” is found rather infrequently. Indeed, in the entire state of Massachusetts, one of the most populous states of that period, it occurs less than 250 times on the schedules.

It is important to remember that a comparatively small part of the total number of surnames in the United States in 1790 includes practically the entire white population. Eleven thousand nine hundred and thirty-four names represent but one-half of one percent of the white population, hence the 99.5 percent were represented by 15,403 surnames.

Of the total number of surnames reported in the United States, almost exactly half were returned for Pennsylvania. This was nearly double the number returned for any other state—probably because of the large proportion of Germans composing the population of that state. It is clear that the occurrence of more than one nationality as an element of population tends to increase greatly the number of surnames. In general, the number of surnames was smallest in the New England states, where the proportion of British stock was greatest. In South Carolina, with a population no larger than that of Main, the number of surnames was more than double the number reported upon the Maine schedules. In all the states the number of surnames occurring but once—that is, as represented by one family—was very much greater than the occurrence of surnames represented by even two families. In New England the number of single surnames was almost exactly three times as great in each state as the number represented by two families. In the other states a slightly smaller proportion appeared, except in the case of Virginia and North Carolina. In but four states—Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina—did any surname occur more than 500 times. The names so presented were Brown and Smith in Massachusetts; Smith in Connecticut; Smith and Williams in Pennsylvania; and Smith and Jones in North Carolina. But one surname occurred more than 1,000 times in any other state—the name of Smith in Massachusetts.

While the number of names represented by one family is exceedingly large, the number of names represented one person is very small. In all the states, the proportion of surnames represented by from two to fifty persons includes the greater number; in Pennsylvania, for example, all but 1,870 names out of 13,383 were represented by from two to fifty people. Such an analysis brings out the fact of the very wide distribution of names, and the small number of persons appearing under a surname in any one state.

A conclusion to be drawn from this analysis is that at the beginning of the Constitutional Government approximately 800 surnames—practically all of which were of English or British origin—contributed about one-third of the entire population of the United States, while all the remaining population was distributed among a great variety of surnames, thirty eight percent of which were represented by one family only.

Adapted from "Surnames of the White Population in 1790," A Century of Population Growth: From the First Census of the United States to the Twelfth 1790-1900 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1901), pp. 111-115.



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