Last names, also called surnames, can be traced to the early years of the Middle Ages, when most people in Europe were farmers and lived in small villages. Back then, everyone knew each other, and last names were unnecessary. That changed as the population began to grow.
People who had the same first name needed to be distinguished from one another. Many sources were used as inspiration to a person’s second name, but they generally fell into four basic categories: patronymic (the father’s name), locative (where the person lived), occupational or social status, and nicknames, which were usually adjectives.
So they started referring to people of the same name as long, short, white, black, and red, which later came to be the last name Reed. The surname Palmer, for example, was used to refer to people who came back from a trip to the Holy Land because they often brought a palm as a souvenir.
The most common names in the United States have English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh roots because settlers from these countries were the first Europeans to make North America their home.
Smith, which has an English origin and is derived from one’s job as a metal worker, is by far the most common surname in the country. It is in the top three in nearly all states. The second most common is Johnson, which literally means the son of John. The third most common surname is Williams, which has English and Welsh origins and is patronymic from William.
The 50 most common names in general in the United States all grew in numbers between 2000 and 2010, except one — Hall saw a 16% decrease. The surnames with the largest increase in volume — between 26% and 32% — have a Spanish origin and include Hernandez, Ramirez, and Rodriguez, and one can be traced back to a Vietnamese royal dynasty, Nguyen.
To identify the most popular last names in every state, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed 2010 Census data to find the surnames that occurred at least 100 times nationally. We then ran the top 10 last names against the White Pages in order to identify where they appear most frequently by state.