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Posted by on Jan 21, 2011 in Featured Maps, Surnames, Visualisation | 6 comments

What’s in a Surname? (AKA United States of Surnames!)

Map: Mina Liu, Oliver Uberti. Source: James Cheshire, Paul Longley, Pablo Mateos

The typographic map above (click for interactive version) is a collaboration between Oliver Uberti‘s design team at National Geographic Magazine and and my own research with UCL Geography’s Worldnames database. It shows the top 25 surnames in each US State (totaling 181 unique surnames), their frequency and their country of origin. The text associated with the map goes as follows:

What’s in a Surname? A new view of the United States based on the distribution of common last names shows centuries of history and echoes some of America’s great immigration sagas. To compile this data, geographers at University College London used phone directories to find the predominant surnames in each state. Software then identified the probable provenances of the 181 names that emerged.

Many of these names came from Great Britain, reflecting the long head start the British had over many other settlers. The low diversity of names in parts of the British Isles also had an impact. Williams, for example, was a common name among Welsh immigrants—and is still among the top names in many American states.

But that’s not the only factor. Slaves often took their owners’ names, so about one in five Americans now named Smith are African American. In addition, many newcomers’ names were anglicized to ease assimilation. The map’s scale matters too. “If we did a map of New York like this,” says project member James Cheshire, “the diversity would be phenomenal”—a testament to that city’s role as a once-and-present gateway to America. —A. R. Williams”

You can see the printed map in the February Edition of National Geographic.


  1. I really love this map. It is both beautiful and a really great way to cross spatial, quantitative (size) and qualitative (color) data in a very clear way…

    The world family names website is really astonishing too. Do you know if there is a way to have access to some of the datasets behind the results it provides ?

  2. Great map James…though I’m bound to agree as we used a similar approach for our Irish surnames map last year (available at Journal of Maps Can’t have too much of a good thing though and I’m impressed it’s getting exposure in NG. Great work!

    • Your Irish map is cool. Oliver (the designer) based our map on an earlier one that you might like, published in NGM showing Native American Names:

  3. Great work James! The design is superb, and fantastic to get coverage in National Geographic. Would be good to get a big framed version for your office I reckon.

  4. Very interesting work. However, there are discrepancies in national origin on some of the names (including Johnson) depending on the localle. I’ll elaborate more in an e-mail. I also plan on writing a letter to Natrional Geographic (where I first read the article).

    • Dear Bob,

      Thanks for the comment- you are the first but I suspect not the last to raise these concerns. On the subject of phone books they were from digital versions as part of a collaborative research project with some US academics. This was before my time (I have only been working on this a couple of years) so I am afraid I cannot tell you whether they were subject to the discrepancies. If they were I wouldn’t be too concerned, however, because all our research has shown that the proportions of surnames stay the same whatever the size of your sample. The numbers may be a bit off but it would be the same 15 names appearing in each state.

      On the subject of origins, this was something we discussed at great length and I think the Johnsons went from being Scandinavian to English and back again several times! The NG were keen not to over-complicate things but also highlighted our English bias.The issue is where we draw the line. If we started creating multiple classifications for single names we would probably get it wrong for just as many people (who I suspect would email me to say so!). I recall that we, for example, have assigned multiple origins to Li depending on if they are east or west coast. As a country of migrants the US is much more complicated and has many people very well informed of their origins so I think our map is a brave undertaking.


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