Knowing the origin of a surname does not prove anything
about any particular family line. Throughout the ages,
people have changed their surnames for reasons good
and bad and even because of preference or illiteracy.
Non-English-speaking immigrants coming to the United
States may have chosen common American names sounding
similar to their own names but meaning something different;
in more recent times, such changes may have been made
for them by clerks at Ellis Island and other waystations.
In other cases, pronunciations and spellings have changed
over the years.
In addition, surnames were not inherited at first and
usage was more informal. Very rarely can a particular
surname be traced to one and only one person, with all
others with that name descended in an unbroken line.
Certainly, the name Walker was adopted by thousands
of different, unrelated people at different times. In
other words, there was no first Walker
there were many first Walkers and not every Walker
Moreover, because surnames were not inherited until
long after their first use, the first person in Edward
B. Walker's line to use the surname "Walker"
more likely had a father with a different surname, not
a father with no surname. For the most part, the adoption
of inherited surnames occurred in the medieval period
where records were not kept or no longer exist. Most
likely, we will never know the first person in Edward
B. Walker's line to actually use the surname Walker.
How Surnames Came About
For most of human history, surnames were not needed,
but as the population of Europe increased and more people
lived in closer proximity to each other, some way was
needed to distinguish between people with the same first
name. Surname usage in Europe began for the most part
in the 1100s, with some dating the origin in England
to the Domesday Book, a survey taken by the Normans
Surnames were not created by some sort of decree that
required people to choose them. Instead, they tended
to evolve more informally, and they were intended at
first to distinguish between individuals, not families.
John the Baker, or just John Baker, for instance, might
have been called that to distinguish him from John the
Barber. John Baker's children, though, would not necessarily
have been Bakers. John Jr. might have been known as
Little John, John Little, or John Younger, for instance,
while a son Robert might have been known as Robert Johnson,
literally "son of John"; another son with
perhaps a more unusual first name may have had no surname
In England, inherited surnames became more common in
the 1200s and 1300s primarily among the aristocracy,
and most other English families adopted them by the
1400s. In Ireland and much of the world, though, a majority
of families did not adopt inherited surnames until the
1700s and even later; even today, they are not used
in some societies.
In the English language, most surnames fall into one
of five categories: patronymic, descriptive nicknames,
place names including manors and estates, geographical
features, and occupational surnames.
Patronymic names literally signify "son of",
and, in some societies, names might follow maternal
lines as well. In some cultures, including Scandinavia,
patronymic names changed in each generation. For instance,
John Baker's son Robert would be Robert Johnson, while
Robert's son Henry would be Henry Robertson. In English
usage, such names were often shortened, Williamson to
Williams, Robertson to Roberts, and Johnson to Jones,
Descriptive surnames often derived from nicknames or
obvious characteristics of people, again used to distinguish
them from others with the same first name. For instance,
John Little or John Younger might have been smaller
or younger than another John in the area, whether the
two Johns were related or not. Other names in this category
include Short, Brown, White, Long, and Fair. Because
of changes in the language, some descriptive surnames
today are not obviously descriptive; the common surname
Allen, for instance, is thought to have derived from
the Scottish word "aluinn", meaning "fair"
or "handsome", although the exact origin is
Another group of surnames relates to a place, either
a city where someone lived or a manor or a lord that
one served or some similar pattern. For instance, Odell
is an English name which meant that someone was from
the town of Odell in Bedfordshire. Such names are generally
less common; certainly, not everyone in Odell took the
surname Odell as the surname would then have no value
in distinguishing people. More likely, the form was
sometimes used to refer either to someone particularly
well-known in the town of Odell by people who did not
live there or to refer to someone in another town who
had moved from Odell.
Geographical surnames were also common, such as Hill,
Mountain, Woods, and Lake. While occasionally they may
have been nicknames for a person, for instance someone
who was "as big as a mountain", for the most
part they probably derived from where a person lived,
e.g., "John on the Hill" as opposed to "John
on the Lake".
The last common source of surnames came from occupations,
and many common surnames derive from them, such as Smith,
Miller, Taylor, Fuller, and, yes, Walker. In a recent
study, Walker is still the 15th most common name in
England, Wales, and the Isle of Man. The name is slightly
less common in the United States, 25th in the 1990 Census,
because immigration over centuries from around the world
to North America has introduced a number of new surnames.
Walker is an Occupational Name?!
It is, or at least it was, and it was a common one.
Many occupations that became surnames remain familiar
to us even if we have never personally met a miller
or a blacksmith, but mechanization replaced human walkers
long before many other jobs. Historians are quite familiar
with walking and walkers, but even most people named
Walker probably have no idea what the job was.
A number of printed genealogies tell a romantic tale
of the first Walker, usually a tender of royal forests
who daily walked the grounds in service to a king or
some other royal personage. As mentioned at the top
of this page, there was no first Walker, and the tale
of a royal forest walker is pure fiction.
As for what a walker really did, about the same time
that surnames were becoming more common, wool became
a staple industry in England, and the market expanded
greatly in the 1300s. Wool has natural oils which need
to be removed before it becomes the more closely-knit
cloth useful for so many purposes. This preparation
was performed by a walker or a fuller, names which are
The wool would be soaked first in clean water and fuller's
earth. The composition of fuller's earth varied, but
it was usually a clay or clay-like substance high in
magnesium. The wool would then need to be pounded by
foot. Typically, this pounding was accomplished by putting
the wool in a vat with stale urine and stomping on it
much as grapes are stomped. Stale urine was particularly
good for removing the natural wool oil called lanolin.
The process was called "walking", and thus
the surname "Walker" was born.
The occupation itself began to disappear even in medieval
times when a water-driven hammer system was developed,
creating a fulling mill or walk mill that could perform
the process much faster than humans.
We will probably never know for sure whether a direct-line
ancestor of Edward B. Walker actually spent his day
soaked in stale urine or whether we came about the name
some other way. And even if our past is urine-soaked,
there were much worse occupations at the time. The tales
of royal forest walkers may have arisen from writers
who failed to research the name properly or might have
simply been people who did not want to use the expression
"urine-soaked" in their books.