Family History Corner

Researching Common Surnames:

May 2022

My last name is Smith.  I have been told that our ancestors changed our surname before immigrating to the United States from Poland.  I have hesitated to attempt any research because I feel like I truly have a generic name.  Would it even be possible to learn anything about this family?

-A Researcher

Your question really has two parts to it.  How can I find the original Surname of my family? If it is a common surname, how do I research it properly?  Having a generic surname can be very frustrating.  To experience this problem can send a person’s mind into a genealogical tizzy. However, if you want to research your family, you should not let this hold you back from doing so.  It might take a little longer and a little more patience to find the answers, but you should not give up. 

Here are a few tips:

1. Perform some research on the subject before you start and then write out a course of action. Make sure you take very good notes (with sources) so that you can go back to something (like an article with good suggestions) and always find what you are looking for. 

2.  Is there a Polish surname equivalent to Smith? I looked on the internet using “Google” to help answer this question and basically the answer is “yes”.  Smith, in the Polish language, is Kowal.  Of course, it means someone who is a blacksmith, smith, farrier, forger, hammerman, ironsmith.  The second part of the surname ski or ska was, at one time, reserved for people of nobility or upper class.   As time evolved, even the lower classes added on the ski or ska so that the name Kowalski became one of the more common names in Poland.  Here is a good article that might help you:

3. Men and woman also used middle initials to differentiate themselves in their town or county from those who had the same first and last name. 

4. Using a timeline is a great way to tell one Smith from another.  People cannot be two places at one time so when you build a timeline of your ancestor’s life, you can eliminate many of those who have the same surname, but have different birth dates, marriage dates, military service, etc, than the person whom you are looking for.   

5. Depending on the time period and area in which you are researching, working men sometimes had a “trademark” or “mark” that they would use which was exclusive to themselves and often registered with their town.  At times this trademark would have been used in a census, birth record and other types of records such as tax or land to distinguish them from the other Smith’s or Kowalski’s. Signatures can also be very distinctive if you have an example of your ancestor’s writing this might help with differentiating between your ancestor and another with the same surname. 

6.  Study the area in which your ancestor lived, get yourself a good map at or near the time in which your ancestor lived.  How many Smiths live near one another or by your ancestor?  Who were they? How many are there in the county? Make a chart or family tree of the two or three families so that you can keep them all straight.    

7. Get help from other researchers and see what their strategies are.  Use websites with suggestions and pick out the sites that might work best for you and your situation. 

There is no getting away from it, researching common surnames is difficult.  But with some knowledge and perseverance you can really help your situation and keep yourself from getting frustrated with the process. 

Another helpful website on this subject:

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