Saturday, September 24, 2011

Lineage and Surname

Surname is a name used to identify people that belong to the same family. On the other side, lineage shows only the ancestors or descendants of a certain individual. That means that people with the same surname not necessarily belong to the same lineage.  

Different lineages with the same surname

If two individuals share the surname “Ramirez” that is not proof they are family or share a common ancestor. That only may indicate that both individuals have a person called “Ramiro” as the patriarch of their own lineage. These Ramiros are almost certainly not the same person, and they probably adopted this patronymic surname in different regions of Spain at a different time around the century XI or XII.

Adding another example may help to clarify. Those that today have the Blanco surname may be descendants of:
  • the noble knights from the mountains in León (Spain)
  • the serfs of these rich landowners that took their masters’ surname
  • Jewish or Moslem converts that had a “Blanco” as godfather during the XV century forced conversions
  • a gentleman with a fair skin (descriptive surname)
  • American Indians converted under a Blanco master or godfather during XVI century
  • the villagers of the town of Blanco (toponymic surname)
  • the Irish noblemen with the “White” surname that right after Henry VIII’s reformation emigrated to Spain and took the “Blanco” surname

Different surnames in the same lineage

In 1828 the Spanish government put some organization on the topic or surnames (we will discuss the unique Spanish system in a later article). Before that date parents could pick any surname for their children. It is true that most of male children received the father’s surname but we see many exceptions to this rule especially on the females where it was very common to take the mother’s surname.

We see cases that a brother’s surname was García de Talaren, other was Trelles García and the third one Trelles Villaamil. In addition, their sisters were given different surnames honoring the maternal grandfather line.  All these brothers belonged to the noble lineage “Trelles” in Asturias, although they were given different surnames.

If you trace your ancestors to the XVIII century and before you will see more and more of these surname changes and inconsistency.


It should be clear now that sharing the same surname do not demonstrates sharing the same lineage.  In order to belong to a certain lineage you need to have documented proof of the ancestors on each generation.  This is achieved only by completing a genealogic investigation.