Sunday, October 14, 2012

Is Your Surname on the Map?

An interesting point pops up in the conversation regarding the search for Thomas Taliaferro Broyles’ grave: that there might be two men in Tennessee at the same time with the name Thomas Broyles.

Surnames can be the source of some interesting searches—and some interesting detours. I'm not talking about a surname as common as, say, Smith. I mean taking on the challenge of a name you just don't see every day. Broyles is one of those surnames that has just the right amount of differentness to it to make things interesting.

I always knew that. When I first heard my mother tell stories about my maternal grandmother’s family, I guess I was young enough to misunderstand the pronunciation of the surname. With just the slip of one “inconsequential” letter, the name morphs to Boyles—a much more common surname. When I finally got the gist of slipping that “r” back into its rightful place, I realized how often I’d run across people named Boyles…and how rarely I’d bumped into anyone named Broyles.

Take those years I was far away from home at college on the west coast. At first, like any college freshman, I didn’t know a soul. As I found my voice and found a way to meet people, out of the haze of newness I eventually discovered that there were two guys on campus—twins, I think, or close enough to fool me—who were named Broyles.

I just knew we had to be related. Somehow.

Believe it or not, as much as I can “talk” on paper to people I don’t know, I can’t find it in me to talk to strangers. So I never did say anything to those guys. Or maybe I did. I can’t remember, but nothing monumental came of it. I still can’t shake that thought that we might have been, oh, say, tenth cousins or something. It’s just that the Broyles name is not that common.

Taliaferro, the other surname I’m concentrating on right now, is another case in point. I remember being at one work meeting—and this was years after I got over my can’t-talk-to-strangers phobia—I ran into this financial rep, took one look at his name tag, and blurted out, “We must be related!”

Of course, he took a look at my name tag, saw a vastly different spelling printed there for my last name, and gave me a look like perhaps I was crazy—or at least illiterate. I think I redeemed my image by some quick talking, and we agreed that, with a name as rare as that, there was indeed a good chance that, somewhere back in Virginia give or take a couple centuries, we were family.

It turns out there are actually websites online that can provide readouts for the geographic distribution of any given surname. Worldwide distribution. Of course, that would provide a fascinating visual for a surname like Lee—not only a common name, but one which has attained Smith-like status in several different cultures.

But I’m not looking for Lee. I’m looking for oddball and unusual. Like Broyles. And if that weren’t enough, give me something like Taliaferro. That’ll put a website like that through its paces!

Though Wikipedia gives a clickable list of several such surname map generators, I’m afraid not all of those references are currently available. Dynastree, for instance, though one resource I’ve heard about in years past, didn’t seem to work for me when I attempted a search there yesterday.

However, I struck the mother lode with the resource at PublicProfiler.

When I entered the search term, “Broyles,” into the PublicProfiler dialog box, at the top of the results readout was a world map showing countries with any distribution of the surname, sorted into color-coded categories by “frequency per million.” While I expected Germany to have a good showing in the results, that country—as well as France—had a “low” distribution. The country with the highest distribution was the United States.

When I clicked on a specific country, the website provided additional information. I clicked on the United States to see what further details I could find. As I could have predicted from my little bit of Broyles research, the states with the greatest showing were Tennessee (which topped the list) and what is now West Virginia. (At the time the Broyles family settled there, it was undoubtedly considered part of Virginia.)

The charts below the map list further data: top countries for the surname with frequency of distribution, top regions within the country, and top cities. In the case of Broyles, it was no surprise to see Greeneville, Tennessee—final resting place of another Thomas Broyles, whom I’ll discuss in a later post—and among those top five cities is Jonesborough, home of my Thomas Broyles.

Since it was so fun putting this handy online vehicle through its paces, I thought I’d take another lap around my family tree and check out the surname Taliaferro. This one was interesting. England, the supposed source of Taliaferro emigration to the United States, was the lowest of the top five countries listed. Germany and Belgium also were included in the top five. Of course, the United States was ranked number one—followed at a distance by the surprise number two spot, Canada. Quebec and British Columbia claimed their share of Taliaferros to the north of the United States. And in America, the predictable locations of concentration include the area around Virginia and Maryland.

This site is the result of research projects done at University College London regarding the geography of family names. It is free to use. The only downside—and this is where the element of trust comes in—is that, to use the site, you must provide your email address. Other than that, the only restriction is that the use must be for non-commercial purposes.

For those, like me, who need to know more about a topic than is even remotely necessary, the website provides a FAQ section, and another website provides an explanation and sample applications that show how to put the program through its paces.

So go ahead: take this bright shiny thing out for a spin. You should have some fun with it.

In the meantime, it helps me rest my case: while there aren’t too many people with the name Thomas Broyles out there in the world, chances get much higher that in Tennessee, you’ll not only find your man, but two or three others who claim that same exact name.

Above: Watercolor portrait of Chang and Eng Bunker, called by some the original Siamese Twins, by an unidentified French or Dutch artist in Paris, circa 1836; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain. 


  1. I took this baby for a spin and found, for the most part, what I already know: today's Jolletts are in New York, Maryland, and California. I was surprised AND disappointed not to find any in France. I guess they all left. Thanks for the link!

    1. Glad you checked it out, Wendy. Actually, if I understand the fine print on that website correctly, it ought to be showing us what the current situation what you already know should align with their data. At least that's a plus for the confidence level, even if it popped your bubble that there might be more Jolletts in France. So much for staying with family on your next trip to Paris, eh?

  2. My Surname, Harrigill did show up from your source, but only in places I already knew about. Still, a good tip. I will check out other surnames in my family tree. Thanks!

    1. For those of us on top of the game of genealogical pursuits, I guess a program like that wouldn't find any way to surprise us. But it is a fun little device to play around with. Who knows--it may even come up with a surprise bit of data from time to time!

  3. That was a fun link..I have an unusual maiden name..and it was right on for the most part..other than the reference to Sweden that has me wondering?? It even picked up my cousins in Alaska..:)

    1. I have some really rare surnames in my father's line, so I'll have to see if I can stump the thing with names like that, too. Interesting that the Swedish link for your maiden name was unexpected. Any possibility of spelling variations?


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