It is possible to determine the origin of a surname by using the free search tool at the Ancestry website. This tool returns a number of details, including the meaning, history and origin of a surname, the average life expectancy and common occupations of people with that surname and the surname's date of arrival and distribution in the United States.
As an example, the common surname Smith is reported to be English in origin and derived from the Middle English name for metal workers. The surname is so common in English-speaking countries because smiths were among the first specialist occupations. The Ancestry search tool also records that the distribution of Smiths in the U.S. is particularly concentrated in the states of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Texas. In their country of origin, meanwhile, Smiths are most common in the English counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire, as well as the city of London.
Another useful search tool for determining the origin of a surname is at the House of Names website, which also provides the etymological origins of a given surname, along with its early history and details pertaining to its arrival in the U.S. The website also lists any notable people of recent times who had that surname.