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Heraldry in the United States


In early days in England the use of arms was associated with the status of knighthood and on the Continent with nobility. Yet civilian use began in the twelfth century with the use of arms by ladies and by the middle of the fourteenth we find arms used in England by bishops, abbeys, cities, and boroughs, while in the fifteenth some thirty incorporated trades of the City of London had received grants, starting with the Drapers in 1439.

In some parts of Europe, such as northern France, the Low Countries, free cities of the Rhineland and Switzerland, arms were frequently used by merchants, artisans and peasants in the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, though there is evidence that the nobility sometimes resented this. At all events the use of heraldry has reflected.the different social patterns of different times and places.

- Sir Anthony Wagner, "Heraldry," Genealogical Research Methods and Sources, Volume 1. Milton Rubincam, ed. (Washington: American Society of Genealogists, 1980), 540.

Hereditary Relationships

[A] common error is the belief that every family of respectable social standing must have a coat of arms if only it could be found. Nothing could be further from the fact. In the course of time families pass through vicissitudes, and in both directions; the prominent families of today may come from people of humble station at the time of the immigration, and thus have no hereditary arms, whereas it may be that today's day laborer may be a descendant of some old [armigerous] family.

Linked with this error is the other which assumes that identity of name presupposes identity of family, so that if there is a coat of arms borne at some time by someone of the same name it is right to assume that anyone of that surname may use the arms in question. Even if the name is is not correct to assume relationship; for the right to a given coat of arms is a species of property and its descent generation by generation must be proved in order to establish a claim.

- Wagner, "Heraldry," 541-42

Legal Standing

Heraldry in the United States has no legal standing unless a device has been registered as a trade mark or copyrighted under United States law.

A citizen of the U.S. may adopt and use any arms, devices, or badges of his or her own choosing, as long as the design does not infringe on insignia covered by another's registration or copyright.

However, if a U.S. citizen adopts arms, devices, or badges acknowledged by the heraldic offices of a foreign nation as belonging to the descendants of any of their nationals, the person using those arms, etc., is appropriating personal property that belongs to someone else under the laws of the country that granted the arms. He or she may be found guilty of violating those laws and be subject to penalties.

Ownership of Arms

Armigerous devices do not belong to a "family name." Arms belong to the individuals who are acknowledged as their owner, or who receive a grant for them (from a foreign government), or create an original design for themselves. Under the laws of most countries other than the United States, the rules for the use of arms are as follows:

Heraldry for United States Citizens

Rules for Use

Descendants in an unbroken male line . . .
from any person who has a legally recognized right to bear heraldic arms may use the progenitor's device, inheriting it the same way they inherit anything else.

If a male-line descendant changes his name-as, for instance, from Smith to Jones-he still may bear his father's arms, even though he now uses a different surname. He does not bear different arms associated in someone's mind with another person of his new surname. This is clear evidence that there is no such thing as "arms of your family name."

Daughters . . .
have the right to use their father's coat armour as long as they remain unmarried; or a daughter may combine (by impaling or escutcheon of pretense) her father's arms with those of her husband. If her spouse has no arms, she may continue for life to use her paternal arms, but this right is not inherited by her children. It expires with her death.

If an armiger (one who has the right to bear heraldic arms) has no sons and only daughters, then British law names the daughters as heraldic heiresses and permits each daughter's children to quarter their mother's arms with those of their father. If their father has none, the right is lost-unless the arms are regranted to them as heirs of their maternal grandfather.

In Summary

  • Anyone whose uninterrupted male-line immigrant ancestor was entitled to use a coat of arms has the right to use this same coat of arms.
  • If the uninterrupted male-line immigrant ancestor had no such right, then neither does the descendant. Anyone who claims the right to arms under European laws must prove the uninterrupted male-line descent as outlined above.
  • As an exception, a United States citizen can obtain a grant or confirmation of other arms - from the College of Arms in England or the appropriate national heraldic authority in other countries - by payment of required fees.


Several organizations in the United States seek to register and codify the use of arms. All of them operate on a voluntary basis. Excellent as their intentions may be, they have no legal standing and are unable to enforce the registration or uniform use of coats of arms. Commercial firms that purport to research and identify coats of arms for surnames or family names - and sell depictions thereof under the guise of a "family crest" - are engaged in fraudulent and deceptive marketing. The consumer's best defense is a proper knowledge of the laws of heraldry.


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