Bass Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Bass Surname Meaning

In England the Bass surname originated from the French word basse, meaning “broad” or “thickset,” brought over by the Normans. It probably began as a nickname for someone of that description.

The Basse spellings have persisted in France and Germany. The Jewish Bass surname – found in Polish and Ukraine Yiddish circles – was an occupational one for a maker or player of bass viols. The 17th century Shabbethai ben Joseph Bass, born at Kalisz in Poland, is considered to be the father of Jewish bibliography.

Bass Surname Resources on The Internet

Bass Surname Ancestry
  • from SE England and from Jewish emigrants
  • to America and Australia

England. The first record of Bass as a surname in England was that of Aelize Bass in the Warwickshire rolls of 1180. Basse was an early spelling, found in 1273 in Oxfordshire and Cambridgeshire.

Later sightings in the 16th century were in the counties to the north of London – in Bedfordshire (Biddenham, Cranfield and Henlow) and in Essex (Saffron Walden mainly). Saffron Walden, like much of the surrounding area, was strongly Puritan at that time and contributed Bass emigrants to the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

By the time of the 1881 census, the Bass name was to be found mainly in London and in these two counties:

  • Bedfordshire totaling 223, including 78 in Luton.
  • and Essex 456, including 36 in Barking, 43 in Debden, and 41 in Thaxted.

But the most famous Bass name came from further north, possibly from Leicestershire. William Bass founded the brewery that bears his name in Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire in 1777. His descendants, the Bass brewing family, had made Bass the largest brewery in the world by the late 19th century.

America. Virginia was the starting point for a notable Basse/Bass line.

Virginia and North Carolina.  Captain Nathaniel Basse was an influential leader of the Jamestown settlement. He had patented land at Jamestown in 1621 at what came to be called Basse’s Choice. There he helped fend off the Indian attacks a year later.

Who he was has been a matter of much dispute. Some have him of English Huguenot roots; while others have disputed this connection, including the Jamestown Society. Meanwhile his reputed son John Basse has left behind a varied descent that included Native Americans (through his marriage to an Indian woman) and also African Americans (through later marriages).

One Bass line spread into Dobbs later Wayne county, North Carolina in the 1730’s. Andrew Bass, physician and planter, was in fact one of the promoters of the establishment of Wayne county in 1779. From there came:

  • William Bass who was the founder of the Black Creek Primitive Baptist church there in the 1820’s.
  • Esau Bass who was a soldier in the Revolutionary War. He moved to Georgia in 1799 and Alabama in 1824. His son Esau settled in Mississippi.
  • and another Bass line which led to Alabama in the 1820’s and then to Marion, Louisiana.

Possibly related was Rice Bass, a notorious Loyalist and rabble-rouser in Duplin county, North Carolina during the Revolutionary War. His descendants moved onto Georgia and Florida.

Some of the other lines from North Carolina led to Texas. Descendants here included E.P. Bass, a Wichita Falls oilman in the 1930’s, and Roy Bass, the mayor of Lubbock in the 1970’s. Roy’s line came via Cedar Bass in Tennessee in the early 1800’s.

Texas.  The Ballad of Sam Bass began:

  • “Sam Bass was born in Indiana, it was his native home, 
  • And at the age of seventeen young Sam began to roam. 
  • Sam first came out to Texas a cowboy for to be 
  • A kinder-hearted fellow you seldom ever see.”

His grandfather appears to have been an English immigrant into Indiana in the early 1800’s. Orphaned at the age of ten, Sam soon learnt the ways of an outlaw. His life was short. He was gunned down in 1878 at the age of 27. Afterwards the legend of Sam Bass grew way out of proportion to his actual deeds.

Harry Bass from Enid, Oklahoma started investing in the oil and gas business in the 1920’s, first in Oklahoma and then in Texas where he moved in 1932. His son Harry junior inherited his father’s holdings. He was also a leader of the Texas Republican party in the 1950’s, an early investor in Colorado ski resorts, and the possessor of one of the world’s greatest coin collections.

Perry R. Bass (the son of E.P.) worked with his uncle Sid Richardson, a rancher and oil wildcatter, in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Upon his uncle’s death in 1959 he inherited his large fortune. Based in Fort Worth, he and his wife Nancy raised four sons – Sid, Lee, Ed, and Robert – who expanded this fortune in different ways.

Elsewhere. Samuel and Anne Bass from Saffron Walden in Essex immigrated to Massachusetts in 1634, eventually settling in Braintree. Samuel served as the deacon at Braintree for the space of fifty years.

They both had long lives, Anne living to 92 and dying in 1693 and Samuel living to 94 and dying in 1694.  “Samuel was the father and grandfather and great grandfather of a hundred and sixty and two children before he died.”

One line from Samuel Bass led to Perkins Bass, born in Vermont, who practiced law in the Chicago area in the 1850’s and was a friend of Abraham Lincoln. His son Robert P. Bass became Governor of New Hampshire in 1910. Another line in Maine led to George Henry Bass who started the G.H. Bass Shoe Company there in 1876.

Yet another line led to Dr. Adonijah Bass, a Loyalist in Boston at the time of the Revolutionary War. His family decamped to Canada. The doctor’s grandson Samuel Bass, born there in 1807, was a central figure in the book and film Twelve Years a Slave.

Jewish.  Bass ship arrival records into America show Bass numbers coming from Germany and Russia. Probably many of them were Jewish. Benny Bass, for instance, came as a young boy with his family from Ukraine to New York in 1913.

“The Bass family traveled on a ship which was wrecked at sea. They were rescued, then transported to Queenstown in Ireland where they stayed temporarily until they could get to America.”  

Benny’s father found work in New York as a shoemaker. Benny boxed. He turned professional in 1921 and won the world featherweight title in Philadelphia in 1927.

Australia. George Bass who hailed from Lincolnshire was an early name in Australian history. In 1796 he and his friend Matthew Flinders explored the coastline south of Sydney in a tiny open boat named Tom Thumb.

Two years later they returned with a larger boat and sailed round Tasmania, proving that it was an island. This was to be their last voyage together. Bass then disappeared mysteriously in the Pacific. The Bass Strait was later named in his honor.

Bass Surname Miscellany

The Bass Brewing Family.  William Bass, the founder of the Bass brewery, was the second of three sons of William Bass senior and his wife Hannah.  His father, a plumber and glazier, died when William was 15, after which he carried on a carrier business with his older brother John in Hinckley, Leicestershire.

William then sold the carrier company to the Pickford family and used the proceeds to establish the Bass Brewery in Burton-on-Trent.

The following lists William Bass and his principal descendants:-

  • William Bass (1717-1787) m. Mary Gibbons, who was the founder of the Bass brewery in 1777.
  • — Michael Thomas Bass (1760-1827) m. Sarah Hoskyns, who took control of the brewery in 1795.
  • — Michael Thomas Bass (1799-1884) m. Eliza Arden.  He took over on his father’s death.  He made the Bass brewery the largest in the world.
  • —- Michael Arthur Bass (1837-1909) m. Harriet Thornewill, the eldest son.  He took over the brewery.  He was also a Liberal politician and philanthropist, created Baron Burton.  He died without male issue.
  • —- Hamar Alfred Bass (1842-1898) m. Louisa Bagot, the second son.  He was a racehorse breeder and Liberal party politician as well as a brewer.
  • —– Hamar’s son Sir William Bass (1879-1952) the second baronet m. Lady Noreen Hastings.  He was a racehorse owner and an early promoter of the British film industry.  He died without issue.

Who Was Nathaniel Basse?  Dr. Albert Bell in his 1961 book Bass Families of the South maintained that the Nathaniel Basse line in America came from Huguenot roots.  Humphrey Basse had left Brittany after the Edit of Nantes in 1585 for the safety of London.  He died in London in 1616.  Nathaniel was his son who came to Virginia.

Nathaniel Basse came in two guises – Captain Nathaniel the seaman and adventurer and Nathaniel the gentleman and girdler. There were good arguments, as offered by Dr. Bell, that they were one and the same person.  There were also good arguments that they were not the same person.

It has been put forward that Nathaniel the gentleman who was born in 1589 in London died in 1654, also in London. He died there without issue and his brother Luke inherited.  Luke died as a bachelor and then his two sisters inherited what remained of his estate.

It appears that this Nathaniel Basse was in London at the time the Indians attacked Captain Nathaniel Basse’s place at Basse’s Choice in Jamestown in 1622.  In that incident Nathaniel and thirty other men and women managed to repulse the Indians.   Nathaniel, Samuel and William Basse were listed among the living of 1,033 early pioneers in 1624.  Nathaniel Basse was a member of the House of Burgesses from 1624 to 1629 and subsequently a Councillor.

Two of the sons of Nathaniel Bass were married to Native American women. The line from Nathaniel’s son John is said to have gone from William and then to John.  DNA results from the second John have come back as that oldest and rarest Haplogroup A. This would mean that either William or his son John’s biological father was not a Bass. 

The Bass Native American Descent and the Albert Bell Problem.  Dr. Albert Bell presented the first large-scale research book on the Bass family in his 1961 book Bass Families of the South.   Though not a Bass descendant himself he visited the Nansemond Indian community in Norfolk, Virginia in the course of the preparation of his book.  There he met the aging and hospitalized Jesse Bass, the Chief since the tribe had been reorganized in the 1920’s.

He became well acquainted with the Bass family there who offered him access to their family documents that they had reverently preserved through the ages. He transcribed the most important of these documents, leading him to link John Basse, whom he believed to be the son of Nathaniel Basse, to the Nansemond Indians.

However, his critics have maintained that he mistranscribed the family prayer book from which critical information on the early family came.  As a result they said that his work may not be trusted.

John Basse did have Native American descent, but it would appear to have been Chowan rather than Nansemond.

Samuel Bass in Twelve Years a Slave.  Samuel Bass, played by Brad Pitt, was an important character in the 2013 film Twelve Years a Slave.

Samuel’s grandfather Dr. Adonijah Bass had been a Loyalist residing at Bunker Hill at the time of the Revolutionary War.  He was dying at the time and never made it to Canada.  But his family did and settled in Augusta, Ontario. Samuel Bass was born in there in 1807.

He turned out to be a bit of a wanderer.  He left his family – his wife and four daughters – sometime in the late 1830’s and moved to the United States, eventually ending up in Louisiana.

In 1852 Bass was doing some carpentry work there for Edwin Epps.  Edwin’s slave Samuel Northup was assisting them.  Working side-by-side, the two men got to know each other.  Northup had overheard conversations suggesting that Bass was against slavery and decided to confide in him.

“Master Bass,” Northup said, “if justice had been done, I never would have been here.”  He then related the whole ugly story of his kidnapping and enslavement.

At his conclusion Bass determined that he would help Northup by writing letters on his behalf to people back in New York.  It was one of those letters that resulted in Northup’s release from servitude early in 1853.

A free man again, Northup rejoined his family and soon authored the book Twelve Years a Slave.   He traveled around giving anti-slavery lectures. He later also provided aid to fugitive slaves, helping them find refuge in Canada.

Samuel Bass had died by this time.  He died in 1853 of pneumonia in the same area of Louisiana where he had met Samuel Northup.

Reader Feedback – Bass in Georgia.  I was curious about my family surname Bass. Therefore I decided to research. I believe I am a member of the Georgia stock since I came from Georgia.  I’m Black, Cherokee, and Scot Jewish. My heritage is an interesting background which has been passed on orally by the older generations.

If I could obtain the original linkage of Bass centered in NE Georgia and interracial marriages to a Cherokee medicine woman and also to a Black woman.  If marriages existed during those times, it would be helpful.

Mary Parks (

Bass in America by Country of Origin.  Ship records recorded the following Bass arrivals.

Origin Number Percent
Germany    184    62
England     57    19
Russia     56    19
Total    297   100

England represented a minority of Bass arrivals.   More Germans and Jews came.

Perry Richardson Bass and the Bass Family Fortune.  The patriarch of the Bass family, Perry R. Bass, recalled that his family’s fortune was started with four $10 bills loaned for a train ticket.  His father Dr. E.P. Bass, a Wichita Falls oilman, was in New Orleans with his wife Annie in 1933 entertaining officials of the Pure Oil Co.

“My daddy gave the four bills to my mother to spend at the horse races.  Instead she squirreled them away.”

E.P. Bass and his brother Sid Richardson had each made fortunes wildcatting oil during World War One.  By the depths of the Depression, however, E.P. was still worth $250,000 but Sid needed money for a train ticket.  Annie gave him the four bills and he set out for West Texas to start over again.  There he would develop the Keystone oilfield which would form the basis of the Richardson and later Bass fortunes.

Bass Names

  • William Bass founded the Bass brewery in Burton on Trent in 1777. 
  • Benny Bass was a Jewish boxer who won the world featherweight title in 1927. 
  • Perry R. Bass built an oil fortune in Texas with his uncle Sid W. Richardson during the 1940’s and 1950’s. 
  • Ralph Bass, born Ralph Basso into a New York Italian family, was a record producer and talent scout and a pioneer in bringing black music into the American mainstream.

Bass Numbers Today

  • 6,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 21,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 4,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Bass and Like Surnames

Nicknames must have been an early feature of medieval life in a family or community as these nicknames later translated into surnames.  People then lived a more natural life than we do today and the surnames have reflected that.

They could be about color (Brown, Gray, Green etc), whether of hair or complexion or other factors; mood (Gay and Moody are two extremes); youth (Cox and Kidd); speed of foot (Swift and Lightfoot); and actions (such as Shakespeare and Wagstaff).  Then there were likenesses to animals (notably Fox and Wolfe but also Peacock) and to birds (Crowe and Wren for example).  And then there were some extraordinary nicknames such as Drinkwater and Wildgoose.

Here are some of these nickname surnames that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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