Sometimes our research is stuck. We have an ancestor that just disappears, or we have someone who migrated from Germany or Ireland or Pennsylvania, but we just don’t know exactly where they came from.
One tool you can use to narrow down the options from which to search is creating a surname density map. You plot a geographic dispersion of the frequency with which your ancestor’s last name (surname) appears at a particular point in history.
I discussed this idea not too long ago in a post about using birth records cataloged in the John T. Humphrey Birth Records Series and another post about the actual nature and process of creating a surname density map.
Surname Density Maps on Ancestry.com
Today, I’d like to share with you a nifty tool on Ancestry.com that will create surname distribution maps for you based on census data in America and abroad.
When you go to a section entitled “Discover the Meaning and History Behind Your Last Name,” you can type in any surname in the search box, and it will generate a map of where that name is most frequently found in a Census.
Here’s the surname “Foulke” as it appears in the 1880 US Census. You’ll notice on the map that you can toggle the timeline at the top to see what the distribution looks like for 1840 and 1920. You can also see where by switching the tabs, you can find the distribution of the name in other countries. In this case England & Wales and Scotland.
Note that this is not a “fuzzy” logic search. The “Foulk” name is spelled with and without an “e.” So I’ll need to search both spellings separately and see two different distribution maps. Ancestry doesn’t assume both spellings in one search.
Surname Occupation Distribution
Ancestry takes the mapping of surnames to a whole other level by again looking at the
census data and reporting on what percentage of the given surname population is each occupation. How many “Foulkes” are farmers, blacksmiths, etc. Then it contrast this data with the rest of the population. The result is a chart where you can see if your ancestors are more or less represented in any given occupation than the general population. Here’s the chart for the surname “Foulke.”
As you can see it’s a fun tool to play with. Use the information with caution realizing that it is aggregate data reflecting an entire population and not just one family. Nonetheless, you can garner a few clues and fun facts from the tool.