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Surnames, Genes and Genealogy

Programme 2: Mapping your surname

Can we ever hope to find the exact place where our surname began? For some names the answer is yes. They can be located by mapping their distribution at various times in the past and by tracing a family tree as far back as possible. The surname Hey, for example, is still found chiefly in West Yorkshire and neighbouring parts of East Lancashire. Much further back in time, medieval manor court rolls show that it was restricted to places on the edge of the moors between Huddersfield and Halifax. A 'hey' was a hedged enclosure, and although there were many of these, only one gave rise to the surname. This was only discovered when a map of 1607 was used to identify a hey in the moorland valley of Scammonden. The boundaries of the enclosure which are known to have given rise to the surname can still be followed on the ground today; the ditch and bank which surrounded the original farm are still there and, as the 1607 map suggests, the area is exactly 18 acres.

Although people moved frequently in earlier centuries, most of them did not travel far. Instead they stayed for the most part within their own neighbourhoods - regions that were bounded by the nearest market towns. Maps of surnames that were recorded in the 1881 census suggest that names of all kinds may have a single-family origin, even nicknames such as Round (West Midlands) or Bunyan (Bedfordshire). And where names such as Redhead had more than one origin, DNA evidence can show how limited these are in number. Surprisingly, some of the most common occupational names also have interesting distributions, including Walker, Barker and even Smith, which is more popular in eastern England than in the west. However, many of the most prolific Welsh and Scottish names - Evans and MacDonald for example - pose quite different problems for family historians and geneticists.

Sometimes a surname can migrate far from its place of origin, so where it is now is not where it started out. This particularly affects your search if you have a rare surname because you are then subject to absolute chance as to whether the few holders of that name stayed where they were or moved to another part of the country. However, with a common name with hundreds of holders, a few will have moved but most will have stayed where they were, so present-day distributions do strongly indicate the origins of the name.

Programme 3: Understanding your family roots >>

Origins of surnames | The Black Death | The distribution of surnames | Tracing your family tree | DNA
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