Adams Surname, Meaning, History & Origin

Adams Surname Meaning

The root of Adams is the Hebrew Adam from the Bible, the first man. The name appeared in the Domesday Book and was popularized by the pageants and plays that were such a feature of medieval life. Many who played the role of Adam may have ended up being called Adam or Adams.

The Adams surname also appears in one form or another in most of the countries of Europe; while the surname Adam is more common in Scotland.  Name variants in Europe have included:

  • Czech – Adamik
  • Hungary – Adam
  • Poland – Adamiak
  • Greece – Adamides
  • Italy – D’Adamo
  • Spain – Adanez

The Adams name has been particularly prevalent in NW Germany and Holland. German Adams have formed a significant part of the Adams immigration to America.

Adams Surname Resources on The Internet

Adams and Adam Surname Ancestry

  • from England and Scotland
  • to America (incl. African Americans), Australia and New Zealand

England. The earliest presence of Adams as a surname was in Staffordshire and in the Welsh border counties. In each case, you can almost see the transition from forename to surname.

Staffordshire.  Among the knights who accompanied William the Conqueror in 1066 was one Adam de Auldyhley (later Audley) who was granted lands in north Staffordshire. William Adam was recorded as an Audley tenant in Tunstall in 1307. Adams then appeared as a name later in the century there and in Burslem.

It was from monks nearby that the Adams apparently learnt their pottery craft. They became so celebrated as potters that the family crest, a boar’s head, was used by the Stoke authorities as the town emblem. The Adams’ pioneered the use of salt glazes; in the 18th century,  William Adams was generally acknowledged as one of the master potters of his time.

There were other Adams families as well in Staffordshire, starting perhaps with William Adams in the 1440’s at Longdon near Lichfield. Another William Adams was a benefactor to the town of Newport in the 1650’s; while Thomas Adams set off for London as a draper and became rich on his trade. He backed the King during the Civil War (loaning him money to help his cause), survived the Commonwealth, and came back into favor with the Restoration.

Meanwhile, the Adams presence in Staffordshire has been and continues to be strong (where it is today the eighth most common surname).

On the Welsh borders, the patronymic “ap” style, as in William ap Adam, can be traced from the 1100’s. Lord John ap Adam commanded these borders in the early 1300’s as Lord of the Marches. He owned extensive estates and his name can still be found on a stained window in Tidenham church.

SW England.  It was thought for a long time that the Henry Adams from Barton St. David in Somerset and an early emigrant to America was a descendant of this line. This connection was later found to have been the result of a 19th century forgery. It might still apply to the Adams family which settled at Bowden near Dartmouth in Devon.

Whatever their lineage, Adams have been and remain numerous in Devon. Prominent among them was George Adams, a British army general in the mid 19th century.

London.  Increasingly, Adamses were to be found in and around London.  One early sighting was in the 1500’s in north Buckinghamshire.  Starting with Theophilis Adams (who died in 1626), the Adams family were lords of the manor of Swanbourne from 1624 to 1775.

Closer to London, an Adams name in Shoreditch marriage records can be traced from the late 1500’s. A folk hero in Clerkenwell at the time of Charles II was Jack Adams, sometimes called a simpleton and otherwise a fortune teller and astrologer. For years after, his home patch of Clerkenwell Green was known as Jack Adams’ parish.

Early registers show a number of Adams’ craftsmen and tradesmen in the capital. The Adams population in London more than doubled over the course of the 19th century.

Scotland. The Adam surname is also old in Scotland. Duncan Adam, son of Alexander Adam, was an important in Scottish politics at the time of Robert Bruce. Their family held sway for many generations.

However, the Scots Adam remained resolutely Adam and they only appeared to pick up an extra “s” on their travels (although one family in Midlothian, the Adam family of Adamsrow, did become Adams in the mid 19th century).

Ireland. The MacAdam name can be found in Mayo and in Armagh from separate MacAdam septs.  But MacAdam rarely contracted to Adams.

Instead, Adams, mainly to be found in county Down, seems to have been an anglicized version of the older Norse names of Aidy and Eadie. These Irish Adams were augmented by Scots Irish Adams who had settled in Ulster such as the Adams family in Cootehill, county Cavan.

America. Adams came to New England and also to Virginia and Maryland.

New England.  There were a number of early Adams arrivals into Massachusetts in the 1630’s, of whom Henry Adams, who settled in Braintree, and Robert Adams, in Newbury, have been the most tracked. Henry Adams’ descendants included:

  • Samuel Adams, the American patriot at the time of the Boston Tea Party,
  • and John Adams and John Quincy Adams, the second and sixth American Presidents.

When President, John Adams erected a granite column with the following words to commemorate his forebear:  “In memory of Henry Adams who took his flight from the dragon of persecution in Devon and alighted with his eight sons at Quincy near Mount Wollostan.”

Also in the Henry Adams line was Jonas Adams, a captain in the Revolutionary War, who in 1794 moved with this family to Andover, Vermont where he farmed and helped build the local school.  His descendants included:

  • Alvin Adams, born there in 1804 but an orphan eight years later, who was the founder of Adams and Company in 1840 – a forerunner to Adams Express, one of the first companies to act as a carrier for express shipments by rail in America. 
  • Austin Adams who migrated west with his wife Mary to Dubuque, Iowa in 1854. Their home in Dubuque became an avant-garde salon for intellectuals of the period.  Austin was a prominent Iowa judge, Mary one of the earliest and most enthusiastic advocates of the women’s suffragette movement. 
  • and Charles Adams, a colonel in the Civil War, who also headed west with his family, in this case to Missouri, in 1867. He started a creamery there and it was said that he made the finest butter in the state.

Overall, there were very many distinguished Adamses from New England during the 18th and 19th centuries, in politics and as lawyers, educators, physicians, clergymen, and businessmen.

Virginia and Maryland.  The Adams presence in Virginia and Maryland became noticeable as the 1700’s proceeded. Joel Adams was a plantation owner who moved to Richland County in South Carolina in the 1780’s.

Perhaps the most interesting family was that of John Adams who was a planter in Fauquier County (his plantation house still stands). One of his descendants, believing that slavery was wrong, set his slaves free and went off to seek his fortune in a state that did not permit slavery.

That state was Ohio and George Adams started a mill there in an area near Dresden. He later built a large mansion for himself, Prospect House, which was used as a transit point for runaway slaves on the underground railway. The house was said to be haunted. The story goes that a bounty hunter looking for slaves was hanged in one of the rooms.

Many of these Adams immigrants were Scots Irish rather than the English that had come to Massachusetts. Being more rugged in character, they were among the early pioneers who pushed forward into Kentucky:

David Adams, a trapper and trader, moved onwards to Texas and his descendants to Arizona.

And Elias Adams, born in Kentucky, arrived by oxen and covered wagon in Salt Lake valley in 1850. After building a log cabin for his family near Layton, he soon realized the importance of water in this arid environment. Two years later, he and his sons had completed a dam to trap the waters from a nearby canyon (now named the Adams Canyon after him). He is commemorated as one of the pioneers of Utah.

African American.  Today more than 15 percent of the Adamses in America are African American.

In the 19th century, some may have been slaves at Adams plantations in the south, in Georgia, Alabama, and Arkansas. Others may have taken their names in respect of the two Adams Presidents who had been anti-slavery in their stance. The slave who escaped from Virginia to Pennsylvania in 1862 had styled himself John Quincy Adams.

An Adams family had been one of the first free families in Maryland during the colonial period. Curiously enough, the first written statement by an African American Adams was that of Robert Adams who was captured by Barbary pirates off the coast of North Africa in 1816.

After emancipation, we find two pioneer black educators, Lewis Adams an ex-slave who helped found Tuskegee University in Alabama and Charles Adams who studied at this school and brought black education to Louisiana.

Clarence Adams grew up in Memphis, Tennessee in the 1930’s when racial prejudice was still strong.  He joined the army and spent twelve years as a prisoner of war in China after the Korean war. His book, An American Dream, recounts his life history.

South Africa. In 1836, an American Baptist church sent three missionaries to what was then Zululand. One of these men was Newton Adams. Adams mission school, now Adams College, was named after him.

Francis Adams arrived from London in 1865 and started a small bookshop in Durban. The business expanded over the years and has remained family-run.

Some later Adams in South Africa were of Indian stock:

  • Albert Adams, an artist in exile during the apartheid years;
  • and Farid Ahmed Adams, a political activist imprisoned and banned at that time.

Erica Adams, the daughter of a mixed race Western Province politician, hit the headlines towards the end of this era with her rumored engagement to the son of South Africa’s white President F. W. de Klerk.

Australia. The earliest Adams arrivals were convicts. Later came settlers such as:

  • William and Sarah Adams from Dorset who arrived on the David Malcolm in 1849. William found work in the gold mining town of Castlemaine.
  • George Adams who tried gold mining for a while but later drifted to Sydney where he first became a publican and then started his hugely successful Tattersall’s lottery.
  • and Herbert Adams who brought his baking skills from Somerset to Melbourne and opened a chain of bakeries (which later went nationwide).

In recent years, Melbourne-born Phillip Adams has been a prolific and sometimes controversial broadcaster and writer.

New Zealand. William and Prudence Adams from Devon were among the first English settlers (on the Amelia Thompson in 1841). Five years later, another William, from Northern Ireland, came with the British troops. He was the first white settler in Masterton near Wellington.

Bill Adams arrived in the 1920’s. Amazingly, although clinically blind, he became one of the best wrestlers in New Zealand history.

Adams Surname Miscellany

Origin of the Adams Name.  The Adams name denotes someone who is the “son of Adam,” a Hebrew personal name meaning “man” from the Hebrew word adama which translates as “red earth.”  The derivation undoubtedly has its roots in the Bibilical account of Adam’s creation by God in Genesis.

The name gained popularity in Europe following the advent of Christianity when parents were encouraged to name their children for saints and Biblical figures.  References to the name in written records may be found as early as the thirteenth century.  In 1281, Alianor Adam was listed in the Assize Rolls for Cheshire and in 1327 William Adames in the Subsidy Rolls for Worcestershire.

William Adams, Master Potter.  William Adams outshone his cousins in artistic ability and was reputed to be Josiah Wedgewood’s favorite pupil.  He established his own pottery in 1789 where he made Queensware, “painted china glaze ware,” transfer, basil, and Jasper until his death in 1805.

Under his control Jasper ware was made in quantity, including table sets, plaques for furniture and mantelpiece mounts, cylinders for candlestick bases and jewellry medallions. He also perfected a special shade for his ware, known as “Adams blue” for the distinctive color which approached violet.

There is a memorial to him and his forebears in St. Margaret’s church in Wollstanton.  It reads as follows:

  • “John Adams of Bermersley, Norton born c. 1540 and wife isabel and nephew Thomas Adams d. 1642 and wife Catherine d. 1647.
  • also Stephen Adams d. 1714 and wife Dorothy d. 1661
  • also Nicholas Adams of Burslem d. 1567 and wife Elizabeth
  • also William Adams, master potter of Tunstall d. 1617 (monument in Lichfield Cathedral)
  • also John Adams of Byrcheshead near Burslem d. 1641, buried in St. John’s, Burslem
  • also William Adams of Bagnall d. 1727 and wife Elizabeth
  • also brother Edward Adams of Bagnall, Milton, Snead, Greenfields, d. 1712
  • also William Adams, eminent potter d. 1805 and wife Mary d. 1805
  • also William Adams of Greenfield near Tunstall and of Liverpool d. 1865 and wife Jane d. 1864
  • also brother Lewis Adams d. 1850
  • also William Adams of Greenfield, Tunstall, and Moreton House, Wollstanton d. 1905 and wife Laura Eliza d. 1914.”

Early Adams in New England.  The names of Alexander, Charles, Christopher, Fernandini, Henry, Jeremy, Nathaniel, Philip and Richard Adams are amongst those mentioned in Farmer’s Register as early settlers in Massachusetts.  A partial listing of these Adamses goes as follows:

  • John came to Plymouth on the Fortune in 1621
  • Jeremy, in Braintree in 1632, in Cambridge in 1635, and in Hartford in 1636
  • Henry, with eight sons, settled at Mount Wollaston (Braintree) in 1634
  • William in Cambridge in 1635, removed to Ipswich before 1642
  • Robert, tailor of Ipswich in 1635, Salem in 1638, and Newbury in 1640
  • Richard in Weymouth in 1635
  • Richard, bricklayer, came to Salem on the Abigail in 1635
  • Fernandini, shoemaker from London in 1637
  • George, a glover, in Watertown before 1645
  • and Christopher, mariner in Braintree in 1645, in Kittery, Maine before 1668.

Henry Adams.  In The Dictionary of First Settlers of New England, Henry Adams is identified as possibly the first clerk of Braintree after its separation from Boston.  He himself died in 1646, leaving by tradition eight sons (although only five – Peter, John, Joseph, Edward, and Samuel – are mentioned in his will).   One of the sons returned to England, four removed to Medford and neighboring towns, two to Chelmsford, and only one, Joseph, remained at Braintree.

Robert Adams.  Robert Adams came to Ipswich in Massachusetts Bay in 1635, bringing with him Eleanor and his first two children.  He resided in Salem in 1638 and removed to Newbury in 1640.  He acquired a large farm there.  He died in 1682.  His sons were John, Isaac, and Jacob.

Jeremy Adams.  In The Original Proprietors by Mary K. Talcott, Jeremy Adams was in Braintree in 1632, removed soon to Cambridge, and came to Hartford in 1636.  He married about 1639 Rebecca, widow of Samuel Greenhill.  He was licensed to retail liquors in 1660 at a tavern on the site of the present Universalist church.  His wife Rebecca died in 1678 and he married a second Rebecca, the widow of Andrew Warner.  He died in 1683.

Samuel Adams and the Boston Tea Party.  In the months prior to the Boston Tea Party, Adams penned a circular warning other colonies about the tea tax and how it would “serve both to destroy the trade of the colonies and increase their revenue.”

He asked for a vote to see if the people were in favor of Philadelphia’s decision to force tea agents to resign. Boston citizens responded with support for the measure.  Adams then went to other towns and asked if they would support Boston’s opposition to the tea tax.  The unanimous answer was yes.

On November 28 1773, a cargo ship named Dartmouth was in Boston harbor, carrying 114 chests of East India tea.  This vessel was soon joined by two more ships, the Eleanor and the Beaver.  Adams called for a meeting to discuss the options for the Boston citizens, whether to destroy the tea illegally or else to submit to England’s colonial rule.

Suddenly a cry of “Boston harbor a teapot tonight” went up.  Some who heard it knew it to be a secret command for a covert operation.  A group of eighty men dressed as Mohawk Indians boarded the three vessels and over the course of three hours dumped all 342 chests of tea into Boston harbor.

Charles Adams and His Creamery.  Charles Adams arrived at the Rich Hill township in Missouri in 1867 and, a year later, purchased land and built and equipped an up-to-date creamery.

“From a small beginning it grew to a wonderful enterprise.  Adams’ butter was as staple as sterling gold in any market.  Adams labored with earnest zeal to make the business go. Friends stood by him; and he stood by his friends. An enemy he never had.  He was perhaps the most widely loved man in Livingston county.”

In 1887 he was awarded the blue ribbon Sweepstakes Premium for butter at the American Dairy Show in Chicago. In 1894 he was awarded First Premium for his butter at the St. Louis Fair.   The Adams creamery grew over time into a retail grocery store in Chillicothe and then into a large wholesale grocery business in 1889 when his sons and son-in-law joined him. 

John Adams and the TV Mini-Series –  A New York Times Review.  When John Adams begins acting like a pompous windbag, his wife Abigail reproaches him with a simple word.

“Ambition,” Abigail warns, when Adams tells her that he will get a lot of attention if he defends British soldiers in the Boston Massacre trial.  “Vanity” is what she says to steer her husband away from what she calls “ostentatious erudition.” “Casting” is what she might have told the producers of this new seven-part HBO mini-series.

Based on David McCollough’s biography of Adams, the second President, John Adams is certainly worthy and beautifully made.  But Paul Giamatti is the wrong choice for the hero.  It’s not his fault.  In this historical drama, Mr. Giamatti is a prisoner of a limited range and rubbery, cuddly looks – in 18th century britches and wigs, he looks like Shrek.

And this leaves the mini-series with a gaping hole at its center.  What should be an exhilarating, absorbing ride across history alongside one of the least understood and most intriguing leaders of the American Revolution is instead a struggle.

Mr. Giamatti tries valiantly to do justice to the quicksilver contradictions of Adams’s character.  This son of a New England farmer was described by David McCollough as “high-spirited and affectionate, vain, cranky, impetuous, and fiercely stubborn.”  One possible reason Abigail is so often tasked with uttering single-word sketches of Adams’s personality is that Mr. Giamatti cannot make those traits stand out distinctly on his own.

John Adams begins in 1770 and comes to an end on July 4 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the date of Adams’s death at ninety.   So the mini-series does not focus solely on the drama and political brinkmanship in Philadelphia at the moment when members of the Continental Congress debated whether to break with the British crown and assert independence.

Abigail Adams, the woman who stayed home in wartime managing the farm and raising four children, is the moral center of the mini-series; hard-working, thoughtful and devoted to her husband and the cause of freedom, women’s as well as men’s.

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency,” she wrote in a March 1776 letter to Adams.  “And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.  Do not pus such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands.”

Some of the dialogue is borrowed from the Adamses’ correspondence during long separations.  With words but also with eloquent gestures and glances, Laura Linney evokes Abigail’s humor, loyalty, and fierce intelligence.

Heirs of an Honored Name: The Decline of the Adams Family.  John and Abigail Adams founded a famous political family, but they would not witness its calamitous fall from grace. When John Quincy Adams died in 1848, so began the slow decline of the family’s political legacy.

In Heirs of an Honored Name, published in 2019, award-winning historian Douglas R. Egerton depicted a family grown famous, wealthy – and aimless. After the Civil War, Republicans looked to the Adamses to steer their party back to its radical 1850’s roots.

Instead, Charles Francis Sr. and his children – Charles Francis Jr., John Quincy II, Henry and Clover Adams, and Louisa Adams Kuhn – largely quit the political arena and found refuge in an imagined past of aristocratic pre-eminence.

An absorbing story of brilliant siblings and family strain, Heirs of an Honored Name shows how the burden of impossible expectations shaped the Adamses and, through them, American history.

The Last Confederate: The Story of Robert Adams.  Robert Adams was a South Carolina cotton planter who had fallen in love with Eveline McCord, a school teacher from Pennsylvania.

Just as they met, the Civil War was upon them.  All he knew was tied into the bloody conflict and the one thing he held onto was his love for this northern woman.  He knew his struggle to protect his lands and the life that he had built would be great; and he saw that he might have to sacrifice all that he had to the conflict.  His quest for survival grew as the war worsened.

As the tables turned, he was ultimately captured and sent to prison.  He lost his best friend, his town was burnt, and the war was all but lost.  Robert’s connection to Eveline weakened as he lost the path he believed he was on.  Her love for him would be the one thing that would carry him through.

The film, The Last Confederate: The Story of Robert Adams, was released in 2007 and had been written, produced, and co-directed by Julian Adams.  Julian also played Robert Adams, his real-life great great grandfather, in the film.

Much of the film was shot at Wavering Place which had belonged to Robert’s brother, James.  The watch carried by Julian Adams was the actual watch that Robert had worn during the War.  Made in England in 1801, it had been handed down from Robert’s grandfather, Joel Adams.

George Adams and Tattersall’s.  George Adams, the son of a farm laborer in Hertfordshire, departed for Australia in 1855.  He started out as a gold miner in Queensland before working on sheep stations in New South Wales and then setting himself up as a stock dealer and butcher.  In 1875 he swapped the trade of meat for the trade of liquor and purchased the licence for the Steam Packet Hotel in Kiama, NSW.

He frequented the Tattersall’s Club in Sydney and was a good mixer and ‘a man with friends.’ Three of his friends purchased the O’Brien Hotel, the home of the Tattersall’s Club, and told Adams to ‘pay us when you can.’

Within ten years Adams was a wealthy man.  Tattersall’s Club members were able to subscribe to sweepstakes run on race meetings throughout Australia.  In 1881 he ran the first public Tattersall’s sweep on the Sydney Cup.

However, religious groups opposed this form of gambling.  In 1892 they convinced the NSW state government to pass laws prohibiting the delivery of letters containing sweeps. So in 1895 he moved his business to Tasmania which prohibited betting shops but allowed lotteries. George Adams made Hobart home for the rest of his life.

Adams Names

  • Will Adams, a pilot from Kent, was the first Englishman to set foot in Japan in 1600 after his ship had capsized. In Japan, he was known as Anjin-sama.
  • William Adams was one of the master English potters of the 18th century.
  • Samuel Adams was an American patriot who played a leading part in the Boston Tea Party (and after whom an American beer was named).
  • John Adams was the second American President.
  • John Quincy Adams was the sixth American President.
  • Grizzly Adams was an early American hunter in the West.
  • Douglas Adams was the sci-fi author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.
  • Gerry Adams is the President of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland.

Adams Numbers Today

  • 116,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 158,000 in America (most numerous in Texas).
  • 77,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada).

Adams and Like Surnames

The surnames found here cover most of the US Presidential surnames since the first President, George Washington.  Click on the surname below if you wish to know more of that particular President and his name.

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Written by Colin Shelley

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