How Many Surnames…? It All Depends

A friend asked on Twitter, “How many distinct Surnames [sic] should we have each generation in a perfect pedigree? In 10 generations we have 1024 direct ancestors with how many distinct Surnames [sic]?”

My immediate response was the classic genealogical answer, “It depends.” It still is. Contrary to an idea that circulates within the community, there is no one right way to research. There are standards and best practices. It’s also true that there is no one right answer to this question of numbers. Why?

First, the words used to form questions matter. Words have different meanings to different people dependent on known usage in culture and community. My study of English and other languages provided many opportunities to learn lessons related to miscommunication based on the nuance of words. 

So, what about surnames? First, to answer her question I needed to verify what she meant by “perfect.” A basic dictionary search defined it as 1) having all the required or desired elements, qualities, or characteristics; as good as it is possible to be, or 2) absolute, complete (used for emphasis). 

This alone did not define the meaning of the sentence. The answer would still be “it depends,” since “distinct” would also need to be defined, such as 1) recognizably different in nature from something else of a similar type, or 2) readily distinguishable by senses. 

She followed up with an example saying that [she and I] possess “two distinct, unique surnames.” This is a fact, but many, or most, surnames have variants. “Broderick” has many. I was surprised upon a quick search that her surname has at least four. I had to ask, should these varied spellings be included in the computation?

And then, what about those individuals who don’t have surnames? I’ve met people that do not have surnames even in today’s world. How would they count?

There are other factors to consider. With the advancement of DNA, is the pedigree genetic or social? Autosomal DNA reaches back about 5-6 generations and a person does not inherit DNA from each of those ancestors; yDNA can confirm male lineage or reveal an NPE, commonly known as a non-paternal event or, preferred in genetic genealogy, not the parent expect. There is also mitochondrial DNA which reaches back in time and typically, from an American point of view, the surname changes each generation?

But, what happens when a Johnson marries a Johnson, a Tanner marries a Tanner or a Smolenyak marries a Smolenyak? Megan Smolenyak, former chief family historian at, the author of many books related to genealogy and so much more, married Brian Smolenyak. In a number of surname traditions she would be known as Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak or Megan Smolenyak2

Megan shared on her YouTube channel that her deep dive into DNA helped sort out the four Smolenyak families in the village of Osturňa in Slovakia and it has “saved [her] decades of research.” In this village there were four Smolenyak families that Megan believed shared a common ancestor. She obtained yDNA samples representing each of the four households. The results showed that none of these families were related. In her words, “not even close.” She said, “You could not find four people of European origin more distantly related than the four of us.” 

Later she conducted a village study that revealed that two of the four Smolenyak families aligned with two other distinct surnames—Homza and Vanecsko, one surname of which belongs to her husband’s line. With this information, would the new surname be added to the generational count?

As you can see by Megan’s example, the number of surnames found in a 10-generation family tree is not as straight forward as it appears. It depends on how you want to count surnames, and let’s not be myopic. From patronymics to pedigree collapse, DNA to endogamy and more, there are a number of reasons a definitive answer cannot be given. 

In my friend’s specific case, she could take all known factors into consideration and arrive at a reasonably accurate total, subject to change with further research. But, in the end, my friend received the answer she was anticipating:

Every new wife adds a new surname. Every odd number in an ahnentafel [German for “ancestor table”] is a new surname. I think this means 512 surnames in your example, all the odd numbers between 1 and 1024, which is half of the total. 

As you might have noticed, there was no initial example and many assumptions must be made to create this as a textbook case. I still don’t know if it’s a genetic or social family tree. Or, if variant spellings count. If I were to guess I would say, “probably not”, but, then again, I could be wrong.

The human family is complicated. Genealogy is not a one-size-fits-all pursuit. Surnames are just one example. I still remember the woman I met years ago who shared how difficult it was to live in our American society without a surname. It wasn’t something she anticipated. But, in reality, we must remember that even without a surname, she counts.

If you’re interested in learning more about surnames, I wrote two posts for the RootsTech blog in 2017 that will be of interest: “What’s in a Surname?” and “What is a Surname Distribution Map?” 

And, finally, the U.S. Census Bureau compiled a list of the most prolific surnames in America. The most recent data is from 2010. Are your surnames found in the top 100 on this list? Let me know. 

  1. Smith
  2. Johnson
  3. Williams
  4. Brown
  5. Jones
  6. Garcia
  7. Miller
  8. Davis
  9. Rodriguez
  10. Martinez
  11. Hernandez
  12. Lopez
  13. Gonzalez
  14. Wilson
  15. Anderson
  16. Thomas
  17. Taylor
  18. Moore
  19. Jackson
  20. Martin
  21. Lee
  22. Perez
  23. Thompson
  24. White
  25. Harris
  26. Sanchez
  27. Clark
  28. Ramirez
  29. Lewis
  30. Robinson
  31. Walker
  32. Young
  33. Allen
  34. King
  35. Wright
  36. Scott
  37. Torres
  38. Nguyen
  39. Hill
  40. Flores
  41. Green
  42. Adams
  43. Nelson
  44. Baker
  45. Hall
  46. Rivera
  47. Campbell
  48. Mitchell
  49. Carter
  50. Roberts
  51. Gomez
  52. Phillips
  53. Evans
  54. Turner
  55. Diaz
  56. Parker
  57. Cruz
  58. Edwards
  59. Collins
  60. Reyes
  61. Stewart
  62. Morris
  63. Morales
  64. Murphy
  65. Cook
  66. Rogers
  67. Gutierrez
  68. Ortiz
  69. Morgan
  70. Cooper
  71. Peterson
  72. Bailey
  73. Reed
  74. Kelly
  75. Howard
  76. Ramos
  77. Kim
  78. Cox
  79. Ward
  80. Richardson
  81. Watson
  82. Brooks
  83. Chavez
  84. Wood
  85. James
  86. Bennett
  87. Gray
  88. Mendoza
  89. Ruiz
  90. Hughs
  91. Price
  92. Alvarez
  93. Castillo
  94. Sanders
  95. Patel
  96. Myers
  97. Long
  98. Ross
  99. Foster
  100. Jimenez

© 2021 Lynn Broderick, a.k.a., the Single Leaf. All Rights Reserved.

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