A coat of arms is a symbol used to identify a family and its lineage, a practice that began in the 12th century. Knights wore coats of arms on surcoats over their armor for identification in battles. Later on, the coat of arms was used on everything from flags to tapestries.
It is a common misconception that all people with the same last name have the same coat of arms. A coat of arms belongs only to people in the same bloodline, regardless of surname. If you cannot track down your coat of arms by doing a family history search, you can create your own family coat of arms for free.
The first step in creating your coat of arms is to pick your family's symbol. Traditional coats of arms include the figure of an animal or a shape such as a star or flag. Birds, lions, elk, dogs and unicorns are popular animal choices, and the coat of arms can include one symbol or many. The symbols are placed on a shield-shaped field. Often, the shield is divided into thirds or fourths with the symbol or animal on each section.
Decide on a family motto, if you wish to include one. Not every coat of arms displays a motto. It can be written on a ribbon drawn along the edge of the coat of arms or in the grasp of the animals featured on it.
Choose the colors for your coat of arms. Traditional colors are red, blue, white and silver. These colors can be any tint or shade of red, blue, white or silver as long as they don't become so light or so dark that the colors lose their identity. Or you can buck tradition and use whatever colors you like.
The final step is to have an artist draw your coat of arms -- perhaps an artistic member of your family. Or you can locate a semiprofessional. Sometimes young artists do projects like this for free if you allow them to use you as a reference in their portfolios. Contact a local college's art department for more information.