Coats of Arms, Family Crests, and Surname Origins

We receive many e-mails asking us "What is the origin of my surname?," or "Where can I find out about my Family Crest?," and "Does our family have a Coat of Arms?" Instead of having to continuously repeat these things in a form letter, we thought it would be a nice just to offer up some educational information about these items. We've referred heavily to outside sources in this article, to offer you an introductory glimpse into the wide range of opinions on these topics.

What is the Origin of Your Surname?

The only real way to be certain of the true origin of your surname is to trace your ancestry back to the first ancestor who took the surname. But, this is a monumental task, and many people take their entire lifetimes to do this. If you just want to know if your surname had Irish, English, German, Portuguese, or other roots, then conducting just a little research in original records could yield you some clues about your surname's ethnic origin.

Surnames are actually a relatively new development, historically speaking. Surnames became popular throughout most of Western Christendom by about the 15th century. Some Asian cultures, however, are said to have used surnames as early as 2800 BC. Surnames were often derived from occupations (Smith, Taylor), places of residence (York, Swede), distinguishing features (Schwarz, Brun, LaGrande), titles (Lord, Baron), or patronymics (Anders-"son" or Hans-"dotter"), etc. There are many free places on the Internet to learn more about possible surname origins. Some links are listed below:

A Word of Caution about 'Generic' Surname Histories

If you're ready to go beyond the "free" information found on the Internet, and you're ready to purchase information on your family name, then make sure you know what you're buying! Of course this is a good rule of thumb for any purchase you make, but especially with "generic" surname histories. These generic histories may or may not have anything to do with your ancestral or ethnic background.

Dick Eastman, a popular genealogy columnist, has a prudent word of warning about generic surname histories that some companies might try to sell to you.

The National Genealogical Association also has published some tips for you regarding surname histories. It is entitled "Pssst, Wanna Buy Your Name?"

Coats of Arms

Except for a few cases, there is really no such thing as a catch-all "coat of arms" for a surname. BUT, you will find literally hundreds of web sites on the Internet that will tell you otherwise. In actuality, "coats of arms" are usually granted only to a single person ... and NOT to an entire family or to a particular surname. Coats of arms are inheritable property, and they generally descend to male lineal descendents of the original arms grantee. So, you will know if you inherited a "coat of arms" ... because if you did, you'll already have it! The caveat to this paragraph is that "rules" and traditions regarding Coats of Arms vary from country to country. So, be certain to research the heraldry traditions of your ancestor's home country.

There are many links to articles about Coats of Arms and heraldry, at Kimberly Powell's genealogy site.

A newsgroup devoted to heraldry has posted some very good explanations regarding a coat of arms and family crests. It explains what they can mean, and it even discusses software available for heraldic studies.

Legitimate Arms

If you'd like to read more about true coats of arms then these websites are good places to start:

Arms for Entertainment or Decoration

If, for the sole purpose of fun and entertainment, you still want to see some coats of arms associated (loosely) with your surname, then you can read through the below linked websites. Some of them have free "coats of arms" images. Bear in mind, though, that for most all of us, viewing these coats of arms, or buying mugs, t-shirts or plaques bearing these images is really just for fun or decoration.


Family Crests

The family crest is typically a figure and generally a beast of some kind. It can be found "atop the helmet placed above the shield." Traditionally the crest has been used primarily by men. However, some queens of England or Britain have been treated with crests. In the early history of the family crest, its issuance was usually confined to people of rank, but later the crest was included in nearly every grant of arms.

Excuse Me, But There's No Such Thing As A Family Crest is a light-hearted article to read more about this topic. Another article, entitled Crests, Torces or Wreaths and Badges discusses early crests in more detail.


If you are primarily interested in a decorative wall-hanging with your surname and an interesting picture on it, then there are plenty of companies on the Internet who will sell you these generic "surname histories, coats of arms, or family crests"

But, if you want to know about your true ethnic origin and your ancestral background, then you'll want to start researching your family tree, ancestor by ancestor, generation by generation. If you don't have the time or the skills to research your genealogy, then we will be glad to offer you a free estimate of feasibility and initial costs.



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