Stories about Surname Origins

How many of us have seen stories about the purported origin of our family surname?  Until now, I never thought about DNA perhaps holding the answer to whether these origin stories might be accurate – but in the case of Campbell, it seems DNA might provide a clue if not an answer.Clan Campbell current coat of arms

Ron, on my blog, posted the following query:

“There was a story about Campbells I read in Reader’s Digest probably 40 years ago. They said a Medieval family named Fairfield fell out of favor with English royalty. Many fled the country and translated their name to the native language. Those who went to France became “Beau Champ” while those who fled to Italy became “Campo Bello”, each meaning “Fair Field.”

Some years later they were allowed back home where they Anglicized their names. Beau Champs became “Beachams” and Campo Bellos became Campbells. Now the Fairfields, the Beau Champs, the Campo Bellos, the Beachams, and the Campbells are all related. Hmmm. I wonder if that story is true?”

I had seen these stories myself, years ago, but I had entirely forgotten about them.  Thanks Ron, for jogging my memory.

From this oral history, it looks like Campbell should also match these or similar surnames:

  • Beacham
  • Fairfield
  • Beauchamp
  • Campo Bellos

The first thing I’ll do is to check my own family lines of Y DNA.  My Campbell lines match that of the Campbell clan from Inverary, so if this is a true story, the Inverary line should match at least some of these surnames.

At 12 markers, where the most matches would be found there are no matches to any of these surnames.  There were also none at higher match levels. While this doesn’t entirely disprove the story, it certainly doesn’t lend any credibility to it either.

Do you have any surname stories in your family that DNA could help to prove or disprove?  Even if you don’t have someone to test, you might discover that your line has already been tested by checking the surname projects at Family Tree DNA or by checking by surname at



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13 thoughts on “Stories about Surname Origins

  1. Even if at least one Campbell family got it’s name in this “just so story” way, there’s another point that has to be considered. It was not the case that everybody woke up one Tuesday morning in some ancient year, in a time when nobody had surnames, and decided to adopt a family name, which has been faithfully passed from father to son ever since. In Scandinavia, and other places, other systems for identifying families were in use (patronymics, etc.), so stable surnames are actually quite recent in those areas.

    But even in the parts of Europe where patronymics were not used, and where suitable records exist (England, France, Switzerland, etc.), we find a period lasting a century or more where surnames were used, but were not stable. A family might be known in the records of the 15th and 16th Centuries, for example, by more than one name, and different branches of the same family might have emerged from this period bearing different names. Or, conversely, families having the same modern name may represent branches of several genetically different families who happened to emerge from this period with the same name. I have one well-documented lineage in French-speaking Switzerland where successive generations were known as de Genève, Billiard, and Favre. I have heard of Irish families being known by more than one surname (and not for any nefarious purpose) as late as the middle of the 18th Century. Yes, there certainly are surnames that have been faithfully transmitted from quite remote times, but that seems to be an exceptional history in some places.

    The fact that surnames have been unstable as late as a few centuries ago must have consequences for genetic genealogy. I have heard of at least one set of families from the same tradition in French-speaking Switzerland where Y chromosome analysis was actually able to confirm the history of multiple surnames from the paper trail. For my own .McCoy family, it is already clear that there must be dozens of genetically distinct families who ended up with the same name.

    Back to the “Campo Bello” theory, there must have been hundreds of local place names all across Europe that were known in medieval times as “in campo bello” (and don’t forget your Latin, the use of “bella” to mean “fair” or “pretty” is a fairly late development, replacing the older “pulcra” or “pulchra”, because “bellum” also meant “war”!). It would not be at all surprising if multiple families who resided in such places were known (in Latin) as “de Campobello”. But the theory that all of the Fairfield and Campbell families have a single, common origin seems to require a great deal more evidence.

    • John,
      Your reply exemplifies a main reason why Roberta’s blog is so interesting. Both her articles and her readers’ replies are often informative and educational. As an administrator of the Vincent DNA Project, our own surname follows just such rules as you illustrate. Our lineage website is a Haplogroup “I” lineage not to be confused with managed by Sheridan Vincent who has Haplogroup “R” lineage.

      Sheridan is a long time genealogist, writer, and photographer who is also a member of the Vincent DNA Project (and soon to be an administrator). His family has been of northern U.S. origin for 100s of years while my “I” Vincents have been of southern U.S. origin since the late 1600s.

      The original spelling of my line was “Vincent.” The spelling was changed “Vinson” about 1720. Legend has it that they were trying to disassociate themselves with British loyalists because the “Vincent” spelling was associated with those of Norman origins (and therefore favored by the royals since the time of William the Conqueror).

      Some members of my “I” group changed the spelling of their surname back to “Vincent” in the early 1800s. Most did not. We now know we’re kin both by traditional research and by yDNA evidence. I suspect such stories as you describe are more common than not.


  2. Jews did not typically have fixed surnames until Napoleon made his way through Europe in the early 19th century (using patronyms, like son of David, etc.), so the assumption has always been that families with the same names in different parts of Europe have no genetic connection to each other.

    We’ve found a big exception in the BACHARACH surname project. The Bacharach family, because they were important rabbis and also because they were in the Frankfurt and Worms areas in the Middle Ages, seem to have retained their surname over many centuries into the present day. We’ve tested men with the Bacharach/Bachrach surname whose ancestors lived in France, Belarus, Hesse, Southern Bavaria, and Poland in the 17th and 18th centuries and find that all but one so far share a common ancestor in the Middle Ages, presumably a rabbi who left or was expelled from the town of Bacharach on the Rhine.

    I published an article in Avotaynu Magazine this spring about the project and the historical implications of the DNA results, which can be found here:

  3. My name is Fymbo. It’s Danish from the island of Fyn. Some of my relatives in Denmark are Sorensens; any Insight? Don Fymbo

    Sent from my iPhone

  4. This was very interesting to me. I am trying to learn about this DNA! Thanks for all the information that you send our way

  5. Whether proven out or not, this story explains to me why Brits named Beauchamp pronounce their name the same as Beacham. That never made any sense to me when I was living there.

    • Names get “bastardized” by the local populace over many years. The name HUGER is pronounced “u-gee” in Charleston, SC.

  6. My great grandmother was Lora Beauchamp. She’s a descendant of Edmund Beauchamp clerk of Somerset Co., MD in the mid 1600s. There was a lot of research done by Stith Thompson on the line a little over 100 yeas ago and he connected Edmund to John Beauchamp of London and back to Cosgrove, Northamptonshire, Eng. His research does have some errors in it and it’s been a challenge to confirm some of the connections he made but he seemed to feel the family was connected in some way, shape or form to the noble Beauchamp family from 500 years ago that seems to have all but disappeared in documented genealogy..

    One of my more distant cousins tested and is in the Beauchamp DNA project and looks like they fall in the R-Z344 which is like 15 SNPs past R1b in the U106 family. So it should be pretty easy to exclude them from this legend.

    • Osiris, Are you still there? My family is related to these Beauchamps/Beachams, as well as Crawford of Buckinghamshire, and Offley of Staffordshire.

      Jim Cooke (R-A5891)

  7. Pingback: Your Family Tree » Blog Archive » Campbell Surname and DNA

  8. After doing some research I found these 19th century references. These authors opinions are clearly based on assumption rather than research:
    from Google eBooks, “Patronymica Britannica, a dictionary of the family names of the United Kingdom” By Mark Antony Lower, 1860, p.22
    BEAUCHAMP. This illustrious name is found in many countries in Europe — e.g. in France as Beauchamp, in Scotland as Campbell, in England as Fairfield, in Germany as SchÖnau, and in Italy as Campobello. It was introduced into England at the Norman Conquest by Hugh de Belchamp, Beauchamp, or de Bello Campo, to whom William gave 43 lordships, chiefly in the county of Bedford… this name .. is … corrupted to Beecham.

    from Google eBooks, “Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, Volume 20”, 1897, p.312
    May we [now] point to … similar names in Scotland which became surnames? Campbell, the 13th century Cambell, 1540 MS. Cambel, is clearly a Scotch equivalent of Cerrbel; it stands for Cambel. The idea that the name Campbell comes from Campo-bello is founded on a historical fallacy; the order of these words was Bello-campo, producing the later Beauchamp or Beecham.

    from Google eBooks, “The Ladies’ Repository, Volume 21; Volume 28:, 1861, p.691
    No two names would appear to be more unlike, at first sight, than Kemble adn Fairfield. Yet we are told that they are really the same. The original form was the Italian Campo Bello, the French converted it to Beauchamp, in Scotland it was Campbell, adn in Wales Kemble. But in England proper, at least one-half who bore the name rendered the French literally, Fair-field; while others, by cockney corruption, wrote it Beacham or Beecham.

  9. That Reader’s Digest junk is the most unutterable nonsense I have ever heard in half a century of studying Scots history. It sounds precisely like the sort of thing amateurs trying to make a name for themselves in the study of history would write – pure speculation based on the absolutely coincidental similarity of “Campo Bello” and Campbell. Cambeul means “wry mouth” in Gaelic, and was the nickname of an early clan Chief. Wikipedia has the goods:

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