US State Capital Surnames

We’ve waded through surnames that paired with nations and those that matched U.S. states. Now it’s time for the third and final installment of this investigation, the list of surnames that matched capital cities of U.S. states. A quick summary of the rules — information is pulled from Frequently Occurring Surnames from Census 2000 and provided in a shared Google spreadsheet — and we’re just about ready to go. Matches between surnames and state capital names were the least likely to indicate any kind of correlation beyond a common etymological root. It wasn’t legitimate to conclude that people with the surname Phoenix traced their ancestral homeland to Phoenix, Arizona, as an example.

I did make one accommodation. Many of the capital cities were obviously based upon the surnames of settlers, historical figures or other notables with various suffixes tagged onto them such as -burg, -ville, -ton, -polis or city. I felt it was fair to discard those extraneous characters.

View Larger Map
Jackson Wins

Fortunately I didn’t have to invoke that rule for the most frequent occurrence, an honor bestowed upon Jackson. It’s both the capital city of Mississippi and the 18th most common surname in the United States with 666,125 instances. Jackson was an exact match. I say this with all due respect to my close family in Mississippi (and there are a bunch of them): doesn’t it feel good to come out on top of a list for once, and it’s not for a negative reason?

Jackson, as a surname, can be interpreted literally to mean "Son of Jack" with Jack additionally serving as the diminutive form of John. One would expect lots of Jacksons and Johnsons and indeed that is the case. Andrew Jackson, an important figure in the history of the nascent United States, became a namesake for the Mississippi capital even before he became President. Jackson was just ending his role as the first U.S. military governor of Florida when Mississippi named its capital for him in 1822.

The final major battle of the War of 1812 had propelled Jackson into national visibility and adoration. He led the U.S. victory over British forces at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 and became an instant hero. Jackson carried his military exploits into the First Seminole War, setting a stage for Spain to cede Florida to the United States and positioning him for his election to President in 1829.

Jackson, the city, is also the site of the Jackson Dome which has become one of the more popular articles on 12MC for reasons that completely escape me. A handful of visitors drop by there every day.

View Larger Map
Son of Harry’s Town

We have another son to consider with the surname Harris, the root of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. One has to sound it out a bit to uncover "Harry’s Son." It’s easier to hear it in the less-mangled version, Harrison. People got lazy, slurred the last couple of letters and it morphed into Harris, a version used by more than half a million people (593,542) in the United States. That was enough to make it the 24th most popular surname in 2000.

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania isn’t named for anyone famous, just some guy who settled in the area in the Eighteenth Century. As noted in the Harrisburg City Archives,

John Harris emigrated first to Philadelphia from Yorkshire, England, and later to Lancaster County. As a pioneer, he wished to venture farther west to build a productive life in a new land. Through his Philadelphia contacts, Harris received a land grant of 800 acres, on what is now the site of downtown Harrisburg and part of Shipoke.

His son John Harris Jr. platted a town here in 1785, named it for the family and incorporated the village in 1791. It became Pennsylvania’s capital in 1812.

Washington came next on the list, assuming one considers Washington to be the "capital" of the District of Columbia. The first issue is simple. The District is not a state. The second is more complicated. Washington is coterminous with the District (separate city charters for Washington and Georgetown were combined into a single governing unit by the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1871). It’s hard to claim that the District has a distinct capital for its municipal government since it’s so completely enmeshed within its role as the capital of the United States. Maybe I could argue that the capital of the District is the Wilson Building? I’m going to set this aside. One should feel free to refer to the surname in the context of the State of Washington in the previous article if the topic warrants further elaboration.

View Larger Map
Once a National Capital

Two other capital city surnames round-out the popular top tier with greater than a hundred thousand appearances each.

The surname Austin is an Anglicization of Augustine, with Latin roots implying "greatness." That’s the reason why Roman emperors were often titled Augustus. Austin, Texas was named for Stephen F. Austin, the "Father of Texas." It served as the national capital of the Republic of Texas from 1839-1846 before it became the state capital of Texas with its admission to the United States. There were 113,160 people with the Austin surname in the 2000 Census.

The surname Montgomery is a bit shrouded in history and traces back with Norman roots to the 11th Century at least. Montgomery, Alabama was named in 1819 for Richard Montgomery, a general during the American Revolution. Paradoxically, the surrounding county was also named Montgomery, although for a different Montgomery, Lemuel P. Montgomery who died in the 1814 Creek War. There were 112,144 people with the Austin Montgomery surname in the 2000 Census.

I think that little bit of geo-trivia is a good place to stop my surname-geography comparison.

6 Replies to “US State Capital Surnames”

  1. Michigan’s capital has a pretty interesting etymology and history. First some background, the city started off as kind of a scam. Two brothers came from New York and platted land along the Grand River to found what they would call Biddle Town, then went home to sell plots in New York. The scam was, the area they had platted was a floodplain and when the settlers arrived much of their land was underwater. The settlement however was started nearby, and named Lansing Township after their town of origin in New York. Later part of the area was incorporated into a city, which was later made the state capital, even though it had a population of less than 20 people at the time. When they named it the capital, they also decided to rename the city Lansing. Yes, they renamed it the same name, however they decided it was now Lansing, after the patriot and member of the Constitutional Convention, John Lansing. Today the original Lansing Township still exists in non contiguous pieces surrounding the City of Lansing, so you have two entities with the same base name, which supposedly refer to different things.

    The etymology of the surname Lansing, is either German or English. The German is from the word Lanzo, which means land of, and is probably shortened from something that has been lost to history. The English version is from the word lancing, perhaps a knight in olden days.

  2. Madison’s chief distinction is that it ranks number one among state capital given names. Nothing else really comes close, so long as you ignore the Charleston = Charles and San Juan = Juan constructions.

    1. That’s kind of a [i]really[/i] recent surge though… indeed, if I’m reading WolframAlpha statistics correctly, in 1980, Pierre would’ve been top (and in 1970, Helena).
      IMHO, Helena and Pierre look much more like real given names than Madison (which is mainly a surname), but I guess post-1985 American parents thought differently 🙂

      1. If you ranked state capital first names by the number of people with that name living in the United States, rather than by the number of babies born in America who are given that name, Pierre might still be in first place because it’s a very popular name among Haitian immigrants. Not to mention the fact that the great majority of the Pierres born in 1980 are still around (ditto for the 1970 Helenas). Of course Pierre the first name isn’t pronounced like the South Dakota city.

  3. There’s a typo near the end… it says “there were 112,144 people with the Austin surname”. That should be Montgomery.
    Coincidentally, the admin of the site I’m probably most active on ( has almost the same surname – but with a slightly different spelling (Montgomerie).

Comments are closed.