Abraham Surname Meaning, History & Origin

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The name Abraham, originally Abram,was explained in Genesis 17:5 as being derived from the Hebrew av hamon goyim meaning “father of a multitude of nations.” It was widely used as a personal name by Christians as well as by Jews in medieval times. The 1086 Domesday Book in England, for instance, referred to Abraham as a priest at the established Christian church in London.

Abraham as a surname comes in a variety of spellings in Jewish and non-Jewish circles. These include Abrahim, Abramsky, Abrahamsson, Abramovitz, and even Brahms. The main spellings in the English-speaking world have been Abraham, Abrahams, Abram and Abrams (although Abram in England probably originates more from a Lancashire place name).

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England. Abraham and Abrahams have been the main spellings in England, with Abrahams (reflecting Jewish immigration) being mainly concentrated in London.  Early sightings of the name were John Abraham in Northamptonshire in 1197 and John Abraham in Bedford in 1273.

The place-name of Abram near Wigan in Lancashire gave rise to an Abram family (originally de Abram) which dated back to 1212. These Abrams continued there until 1606 when the last of the male line died.

The Abraham name later appeared in Hampshire and Cornwall:

  • an Abraham family from Botley in Hampshire has been traced back to Henry Abraham of Fordelake in 1684. Thomas Abraham of this family was transported to Tasmania in 1837.
  • while an Abraham family from Crowan in Somerset had descendants who emigrated to America.  Another Abraham family has been traced to the Talland/West Looe area in the late 18th century.

Yechiel Abrahams was an early Jewish arrival in London. His son Henry, born in London around 1795, prospered as a printer and publisher in the City. Morris Abrahams was a diamond merchant in Victorian London. His son Alfred did well from the diamond discoveries in South Africa.

Isaac Klonimus, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania, adopted the name of Abrahams on arrival, settled in Bedford, and had three sons who made names for themselves in sports:

  • Adolphe Abrahams, the oldest who was the founder of British sports medicine.
  • Sidney (Solly) Abrahams, the next oldest who competed in the Olympic Games in 1908 and 1912 as a long jumper.
  • and Harold Abrahams, the youngest who won the 100 yards dash at the 1924 Olympic Games. His triumph was depicted in the film Chariots of Fire. Harold subsequently worked as a radio broadcaster for the BBC in athletics for no less than fifty years.

Zacharya Abramovitch departed Lithuania for London in 1908, changing his surname there to Abrahams. His son Israel became the Chief Rabbi in Cape Town, South Africa.

America. The Abraham name on entry was mostly Abraham or Abrahams. But many of the early entrants shortened their spelling to Abrams.  Abraham has predominated for the Jewish arrivals from Germany and the Russian Empire who came in the 19th century.

Among the early Abraham/Abrams were:

  • Charles Abrams, known as Abrahams, who married Sarah
    Bedell in Hempstead on Long Island in 1683.
  • William Abrahams who came to
    Charlestown, Massachusetts around the year 1700. His
    descendants there became Abrams.
  • and Henry Abraham of Cornish roots who came to Somerset county, Pennsylvania around 1750. He died there in 1828 at the grand old age of 108. Hid descendants too became Abrams.

James Abrams and his wife Mary settled in what is now Newberry county, South Carolina in 1770. Their descendants were to be found across the South. George Carter Abrams’ 1979 book Abrams Family Genealogy traced their history.

A Jewish Abrahams family was in Newport, Rhode Island as early as 1747. However, both Israel and his brother Saul appeared in the town records mainly because of their financial difficulties. Judah Abraham left his native Bavaria in 1837 for New York where he became a small shopkeeper. His son Abraham founded what became the Brooklyn department store of Abraham & Straus in 1865.

Nahim Abraham, born Nahim Malouf, came to New York from Lebanon in 1913 and settled in Canadian in the Texas Panhandle. His son Malouf, known as Oofie, made a fortune from selling oil and gas rights in the region. There are now five generations of Abrahams at Canadian.

Caribbean.  Solomon Abrahams came to Jamaica in 1745 and was recorded as owning 36 slaves in Spanish Town in 1772. He died four years later and was the first on record to be buried at the Jewish cemetery there.

The Abrahams family which came to Jamaica in the early 1800’s and settled at Tavanore in Chapelton had Jewish American origins.
Their main line went through Thomas McWhinnie Abrahams. Another line included the well-known Jamaican artist Carl Abrahams
.

South Africa.  Some Abrahams in South Africa have been Jewish, some mixed race.  Peter Abrahams, the novelist and journalist, was born near Johannesburg in 1919. His father James had been the son of former Ethiopian landowners who had taken him across
Europe before settling in South Africa.

Australia. Esther Abrahams was a Londoner who was transported to Australia as a convict on the First Fleet in 1787. She
later married George Johnston, briefly governor of the New South Wales colony. Her portrait hangs in the Sydney Jewish museum.

 


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The Biblical Abraham.  According to Jewish tradition, Abraham was born under the name Abram in the city of Ur in Babylonia around the year 1800 BC.  He was the son of Terach, an idol merchant.  But from his early childhood, he questioned the faith of his father and sought the truth.  He came to believe that the entire universe was the work of a single Creator and he began to teach this belief to others.

Abram tried to convince his father, Terach, of the folly of idol worship.  One day, when Abram was left alone to mind the store, he took a hammer and smashed all of the idols except the largest one. He placed the hammer in the hand of the largest idol.   When his father returned and asked what happened, Abram said: “The idols got into a fight, and the big one smashed all the other ones.”  His father said: “Don’t be ridiculous.  These idols have no life or power. They can’t do anything.” Abram replied: “Then why do you worship them?”

Eventually the one true Creator that Abram had worshipped called to him, and made him an offer.  If Abram would leave his home and his family, then God would make him a great nation. Abram accepted this offer and the covenant between God and the Jewish people was established.

When Abram was 100 and his wife Sarai 90, God promised Abram a son by Sarai.  God changed Abram’s name to Abraham (father of many) and Sarai’s to Sarah (princess) and Sarah bore Abraham a son named Isaac who was the ancestor of the Jewish people.

Abraham, Abrahams, Abram and Abrams.  The following are the approximate numbers today.

in thousands Abraham Abrahams Abram Abrams Total
UK    6    4    2    1   13
America    7    1    1   10   19
Elsewhere*    7    2    2    3   14
Total   20    7    5   14   46

* In Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Abraham in America by Country of Origin.  The table below shows the ship arrival numbers for Abraham and related names.

Abraham Abrahams Abram Abrams Total
England    278    197     54     53    582
Ireland     69     11     27    107
Germany    946     83     36     35   1,095
Russia     89     77     19     20    205
Elsewhere     10     12     22
Total   1,382    368    145    116   2,013

Abraham predominates among the arrivals.  But many of the earlier Abraham and Abrahams became Abrams later.

Thomas McWhinnie Abrahams.  Thomas McWhinnie Abrahams, who was named after Lt. Colonel Thomas McWhinnie of the Jamaica Militia, was born in Spanish Town in 1842.  He died in New York City in 1925 at the age of 83 years.  His body was brought to Jamaica and interred in the family burial ground on his Tavanore property, with Jewish rites being performed by Kazan M. H. Solomon.

He had been a Senior Justice of the Peace for the parish, having been appointed as far back as 1874.  He had also discharged the duties of the office of Customs.

Esther Abrahams and George Johnston.  Born in London in 1771, Esther Abrahams was Jewish and variously described as a sex worker and a milliner. The latter was what went on her record when she was tried at the Old Bailey for stealing fifty shillings’ worth of lace.  There was only circumstantial evidence and, in spite of character witnesses and a petition for royal mercy, Esther received a sentence of seven years.  She was shipped off to Australia with the First Fleet along with Roseanna, the child she gave birth to while imprisoned in Newgate in 1787.

It was on board that Esther met George Johnston, a First Lieutenant of the Marines.  The couple was to have seven children together. They named their farm Annandale, now the Sydney suburb of the same name, for George’s birthplace in Scotland.  In 1808, George Johnston overthrew the Governor, William Bligh, in the Rum Rebellion.   He became for a time the Lieutenant-Governor of NSW and Esther his de facto First Lady.

Esther administered the land, the cattle and so forth while George Johnston had to absent himself from New South Wales for a four year period following the Rum Rebellion.  Then George Johnston returned and they married at last in 1814, in an Anglican ceremony.  They only had a few more years together as George Johnston died in 1823.  Esther lived another twenty or so years and died in 1846. 

Peter Abrahams, South African Writer.  Peter Abrahams left South Africa in 1939 at the age of 20, settling
first in Britain and then in Jamaica. Nevertheless, most of his novels and short stories were based on his early life in South Africa.

Mine Boy, for example, told of a country youth thrown into the alien and oppressive culture of a large South African industrial city.  Abrahams’s semi-autobiographical Tell freedom, Memories of Africa, written in 1954, dealt with the related theme of his struggles as a youth in the slums of Johannesburg.

 


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Abraham Abraham was the founder of the Brooklyn department store of Abraham & Straus in 1865.  William “Mabon” Abraham began life as a coal miner in south Wales and rose to become an influential trade union leader and an MP from 1885 to 1920.  Harold Abrahams won the 100 meter gold medal in the 1924 Olympics.  Lizzie Abrahams was a trade union activist in South Africa at the time of the Apartheid repression.

Select Abraham Numbers Today

  • 13,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 19,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 14,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

 

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