US State Surnames

On November 20, 2012 · 3 Comments

The second installment on surnames involves instances that match U.S. state names. The rules are much the same as the national surnames discussion. The source remains Frequently Occurring Surnames from Census 2000 and complete matches are better than partial matches. Once again one should feel free to follow along at home using a shared Google spreadsheet I’ve extracted from the U.S. Census file.

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No Surprise, It’s Washington

Of course the most frequent surname and state name match involves Washington. It’s so obvious that I almost mentioned in the earlier article that I planned to drop it from further consideration, and that was even before I extracted the numbers. I guess I was feeling magnanimous because I backtracked on my original plan and decided to include it. Washington is the 138th most common surname in the United States with 163,036 instances. Booker T. Washington, Denzel Washington, and of course George Washington, are all examples of people with the surname.

What may be a little surprising, or let me rephrase that slightly, what surprised me, was that 90% of people carrying the Washington surname described themselves as black (using the category designated by the Census Bureau). That seemed high. I’m not the first to encounter this surname anomaly either. It was featured by the Huffington Post in 2011, Washington: The ‘Blackest Name’ in America: "The story of how Washington became the ‘blackest name’ begins with slavery and takes a sharp turn after the Civil War, when all blacks were allowed the dignity of a surname."

I could split hairs. There are certainly many other surnames with a greater percentage association with African-Americans (Blagmon is highest at 99.55%). There is even another state name surname with a higher percentage (Missouri is slightly higher at 90.1%). However I think the larger point remains valid: it’s a very high percentage of a very popular surname. It’s reasonable to expect that people might have favored surnames based upon inspirational figures such as George Washington or familiar geographic features that were their homes, when offered an opportunity to exercise a choice.

Actually the surname West, as in West Virginia, fared better than Washington. The other cardinal directions, North and South, also scored well as surnames. I felt those were kind-of cheating so I discarded them.

York, as in New York did well as did Penn, for Pennsylvania. Rico for Puerto Rico felt like I was stretching it a bit too far, though.

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Call Me Joe

After Washington, the next exact match was Montana, with 4,217 instances within the United States. It might be a demographic litmus test of age or gender to determine whether one considered the American football player Joe Montana or the Miley Cyrus character Hannah Montana as the more memorable representative. Hey, if "Peter" can mentioned Octomom I can mention Hannah Montana. I have no problem going there.

I’m pretty sure the topic of Joe, MT (the town) has been discussed in the comments before. Here is the story from The Montana Official State Travel Site:

In May of 1993, the town of Ismay was contacted by a radio station in Kansas City, Missouri with a special request for the town to consider changing the name of the town to Joe, Montana for the duration of the football season. The radio station promoter felt that this was a great way to honor the NFL quarterback, Joe Montana who had recently been signed to the Kansas City Chiefs. Ismay, population 22, agreed… In celebration, the town organized a ranch rodeo, a parade, and a night show for July 3. The events drew over 2,000 spectators… The town’s name has since reverted to Ismay.

The town enjoyed a brief tourism bump. Joe’s legendary career ended after the 1994 season so Ismay didn’t have much of an incentive to continue its association. The stunt was never official in the first place.

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The pickings start to get slim as one proceeds farther down the list. Lets consider the surname Rhode. It’s unrealistic to expect any meaningful number of people to have the complete surname "Rhode Island" much less Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Dropping the extra wording and focusing solely on Rhode is fair.

There were 3,482 instances of the surname Rhode recorded in the United States in 2000. Add an "s" to make it Rhodes and the surname frequency rose exponentially to 88,917 instances. Counterintuitively, there does not appear to be a connection between the two surnames in spite of their substantial similarity. According to the Office of the Secretary of State of Rhode Island:

Sailing to Rhode Island in 1524, [Giovanni da] Verrazano “discovered an island in the form of a triangle, distant from the mainland ten leagues, about the bigness of the (Greek) Island of Rhodes,” which he named Luisa after the Queen Mother of France. This was Block Island. Roger Williams and other early settlers thought that Verrazano was referring to Aquidneck Island and changed that island’s native name to Rhode Island. In this way, Verrazano inadvertently gave the state part of its official name.

Relying upon this state government source — and realizing other theories exist — it’s somewhere between plausible and probable that Rhode Island was named for the Greek island of Rhodes. That’s seemingly not the case with the surname Rhodes which was derived "from the Old English ‘rod’, meaning ‘a clearing in the woods,’"

Next on the list are Maine with 3,443 instances and Colorado with 1,674, and the list quickly dropped off in frequency.

The final article in this series will focus on surnames matching state capital names.

On November 20, 2012 · 3 Comments

3 Responses to “US State Surnames”

  1. Peter says:

    I’m surprised Colorado is not more common.

    Other than the Washingtons and Joe Montana, the only well-known person I can think of with a state surname is the economist Richard Florida.

  2. Rhodent says:

    I was wondering if you were going to follow the national surnames article with one on the states, and if so whether my name (Rhodes) was going to get mentioned.

    BTW, if I may make a minor nitpick: You said that there “does not appear to be a connection between the two surnames [Rhodes and Rhode] in spite of their substantial similarity.” It seems more likely to me that the surname Rhode is indeed a variant of Rhodes, and unrelated to the Rhode in Rhode Island.

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