When working in the field of probate genealogy, when some names come up, we all stifle a groan, knowing that particular surnames can make it difficult to find the legal heirs to an estate.

Common surnames, such as Smith, for example. If a person dies intestate and is named Smith, the hunt for successors becomes more difficult because Smith is such a popular surname.

In the United States, for example, more than 2.8 million people have the surname Smith, which is statistically the most common surname. It is also the most prevalent surname in the United Kingdom (with almost 730,000 people answering to the name) and Australia.

Distinguishing surnames

Why is this name so popular? Surnames originated in the Mediaeval period, when populations began to grow and were used to distinguish persons within a town or city. If there were two Johns, for example, one could be John, John’s son, who would eventually become Johnson, while the other may be John the Blacksmith, who would later become Smith.

The surname ‘Smith’ comes from the Old English word ‘smið,’ which means ‘one who works with metal,’ or simply ‘blacksmith.’ It refers to someone who worked as a metalworker, crafting tools, weapons, horseshoes and other items from metal.

The profession was highly respected in Medieval times due to the essential nature of the blacksmith’s work, and many people adopted the surname ‘Smith’ to denote their profession.

Common surname

It became very common in England due to the prevalence of the blacksmith trade and by the 13th and 14th centuries, it was already widespread and one of the most common surnames in the country.

The surname also spread to Scotland and Ireland. In Scotland, the surname ‘Smith’ could be translated from the Gaelic ‘Mac a’ Ghobhainn,’ meaning ‘son of the smith’. In Ireland, the name ‘Smith’ could be an anglicised form of the Gaelic surname ‘Mac Gabhann’.

English, Scottish and Irish immigrants brought the name to the United States. Because it was so common in the British isles, it quickly became one of the most prevalent surnames in America.

Smith variations

Variations include Smyth, Smythe and Smytheman, and it has counterparts in other languages, reflecting similar occupations. Think ‘Schimdt’ in German, ‘Ferraro’ in Italian, and ‘Herrero’ in Spanish, which all translate to blacksmith.

Famous Smiths in history include Adam Smith, the Scottish economist and philosopher, often thought of as the father of modern economic theory, and Jospeh Smith, the founder of the Latter-day Saints, also known as Mormons.

Occupational surnames that date from Medieval times include Thatcher, Baker, Archer, Fisher, Carter, Falconer and Gardiner.

Physical characteristics

Another way of naming people came from their physical characteristics, such as Young or Strong, or Armstrong (the Mediaeval man you didn’t want to arm wrestle with). This also applies to shades like brown, green and grey. Names like Cameron, meaning “crooked nose,” are derived from the Gaelic words cam “crooked” and sròn “nose”.

The ‘son of’ distinction is common in surnames. In Scotland, names beginning Mac or Mc originally meant son of, such as McArthur or McRobert, while in Ireland, the O’ means the same, such as O’Brien, son of Brien. Polish names that end in ‘ski’ indicate the same thing.

The Fitz prefix, which originates from the Latin word, ‘filius,’ meaning ‘son of’, was also used to designate the illegitimate children of royalty, therefore Fitzwilliam and Fitzhenry may all represent Royal heritage.


The most famous ‘Fitz’ was undoubtedly Henry Fitzroy, 1st Duke of Richmond and Somerset, Henry VIII’s illegitimate son with his lover Elizabeth Blount, and the only illegitimate child Henry acknowledged.

American surnames are noteworthy because many of them are corruptions of European surnames. Many families who emigrated to the United States adopted Anglicised-sounding surnames to fit in, such as changing Johansson to Johnson and Müller to Miller.

No doubt about it—surnames are fascinating. From the etymology of the words to the period they came from, their prevalence and their variations around the world.

Surnames in Probate Research

Surnames play a crucial role in probate research in the UK, serving as a fundamental identifier that links individuals to their family histories, legal documents, and inheritance records. The importance of surnames in this context cannot be overstated, as they are often the starting point for tracing lineage and establishing legal claims to an estate. In probate cases, where the determination of rightful heirs is paramount, surnames help researchers navigate through generations of familial connections, ensuring that the estate is distributed according to the decedent’s wishes or, in the absence of a will, the laws of intestacy.

The process of probate research involves the meticulous examination of historical records, including birth, marriage, and death certificates, census data, and wills. Surnames act as the thread that ties these documents together, enabling researchers to construct accurate family trees. This is especially significant in cases where the deceased has distant relatives or when there are disputes over the inheritance. By tracking the surname through various records, probate researchers can authenticate relationships and confirm the legitimacy of heirs, thereby facilitating a fair and just distribution of assets.

Moreover, the diversity and evolution of surnames present both challenges and opportunities in probate research. Variations in spelling, adoption of double-barrelled surnames, and name changes due to marriage or personal choice can complicate the tracing process. However, these variations also provide rich insights into social and cultural shifts over time. Understanding these nuances allows researchers to interpret records more accurately and uncover connections that might otherwise be overlooked.