This article looks at how common Higgins is as a last name in Ireland and the United States from the 19th century to the present day.
You’ll learn the meaning and origins of the Higgins surname while exploring some notable and famous people that held it.
I use census records, emigration lists, and military archives to uncover fascinating patterns. If you’re studying your genealogy, check out my sources at the end of the post so you can do your own research.
How Common Is Higgins As A Surname In Ireland?
The Irish government doesn’t publish detailed surname statistics for recent years. The best that they give us is the ten most common surnames of babies born in the previous year. Higgins
So, I had to look elsewhere for population estimates. Thankfully, an Irish genealogist researched the prevalence of Irish surnames through national phone directories published in the 1990s. Seán Murphy’s estimates aren’t as robust as a census but give a good broad estimate.
Higgins was ranked 97 in the top one hundred names in this decade with a total of 9,300 entries.
This graphic shows how it ranks compared to the 1st, 33rd, 66th, and 100th entries in the survey:
Higgins In The Early 1900s
The only complete Irish censuses that are available to the general public are those from the years 1901 and 1911. They offer two detailed snapshots of the population.
So, let’s concentrate on the early decades of the twentieth century.
I used online archives to calculate the total numbers by surname. I consider these estimates due to some percentage of transcription errors. So, I’ve rounded the numbers to the nearest fifty.
There were 7,700 residents named Higgins on the island in 1911.
Ten years earlier, Higgins had about 7,700 residents in the 1901 census.
Population Estimates In The 1890s
A study of Irish surnames was conducted in 1890 by the head of the Civil Registrations Office. It was published as a “Special Report on Surnames In Ireland.”
The survey estimated that there were about 9,100 people named Higgins in the country.
Emigration To America After The Irish Famine
The Irish have traditionally emigrated to Britain, the U.S., Canada, and Australia in recent centuries. They were driven by various factors like political upheaval, scarcity of work, and food deprivation.
The peak of this migration was driven by what’s known as the Great Irish Famine, a devastating event spanning from 1845 to 1852. Potato blight had a catastrophic effect on Ireland, wiping out the primary food source for a significant portion of the population.
I reviewed the Higgins name in the shipping passenger lists arriving in New York during this period. The departures were from both Ireland and England.
This picture shows how the numbers rose and fell in the years after the famine:
How Common Is Higgins As A Last Name In The U.S.?
Based on the 2010 U.S. census, the name Higgins ranks about 400 among Irish names in America with 79,803 bearers.
Although the 2010 census has exact numbers and rankings, the rank I assign here is my estimate. If you’re curious about how I got there, here’s a brief explanation…
Estimating Rank In The United States
Historically, some Irish families with Gaelic surnames took English-sounding names as translations under the influence of colonization.
As these names also have English origins, they will have been brought to the United States by both British and Irish immigrants. Because the census doesn’t ask about specific European origin (e.g. England vs Ireland), it’s impossible to identify the proportion with Irish heritage.
I reviewed the census to identify which names are predominantly Irish in origin. In order to estimate the relative rankings of “Irish” names, I’ve mostly excluded surnames that have varying origins.
Higgins In Historic Times
It is fascinating to examine how the prevalence of a surname shifts over the course of time in a country as young as the United States. As well as immigration, this reflects other demographic shifts across the nation. Factors include higher child mortality rates and longer life expectancy.
The historic census records have been transcribed and digitized. I used online archives to run counts of surname populations.
But the totals can’t be exactly accurate due to transcription errors. So, I’ve rounded the numbers to the nearest 50 in the graph below.
This picture shows the numbers every twenty years from 1860 to 1940:
These are the numbers in the graph:
- 1860: 14,650
- 1880: 25,200
- 1900: 34,050
- 1920: 40,100
- 1940: 47,950
Higgins In World War II
During World War Two, approximately 8.3 million men and women joined the ranks of the United States Army. Many were of Irish descent. Some had even been born in Ireland and emigrated.
There were registration records for 2,946 soldiers named Higgins who enlisted between 1938 and 1946.
There were 30 who were born in Ireland.
Higgins Surname: Meaning And Origin
Higgins can have English origins, which I won’t discuss here.
In Ireland, Higgins comes from the Gaelic surname Ó hUiginn, which means “descenadant of Uiginn”.
The personal name Uiginn refers to a Viking. We can assume that some early bearers were children of Vikings arriving on Irish shores.
Famous Or Historic People Named Higgins
Here are some notable people with the family name:
- William Higgins (1763 – 1825): an Irish chemist from Sligo, who contributed to the emergence of atomic theory.
- Thomas Higgins (1831 – 1917): a Union soldier who volunteered to be his regiment’s color bearer when Ulysses Grant launched an offensive against Vicksburg in 1863. Despite his regiment being pushed back, Higgins continued his advance and reached the Confederate line. He was arrested and later released in a prisoner exchange. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery.
- William Higgins (1867 – 1951): a doctor in Connecticut who entered politics and served multiple terms in the state’s House of Representatives from 1905 to 1927. He served as a Republican congressman in the 1930s.
The Ireland 1990s estimates are from Seán J. Murphy’s research paper.
The population estimates of 1890 are based on the “Special Report on Surnames in Ireland“, published in 1909.
The population figures for the 2010 U.S. Census come from a file provided by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Some of the population numbers are based on my own research and calculations using online archives. I’ve rounded those numbers to the nearest 50 to account for transcription errors and other technical issues with online databases of this type.
The Irish census estimates for 1901 and 1911 are my calculations based on the Irish National Archives
I plotted the emigration figures from 1845 to 1854 based on calculations from the archives of the New York Passenger Lists (1820-1957).