Clark Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Clark Surname Meaning

The surname Clark comes from the Latin clericus and the French le clerc and would denote someone learned.  Clerks were in fact originally the lower-level orders of the clergy, such as the name Richerius Clericus which appeared in the Domesday Book. They were usually the only ones in the village who could read or write.

In the Middle Ages, the common pronunciation of “clerke” was “clarke” (as in Chaucer’s clerke of Oxford). Clarke became an occupational name for a scribe or secretary.

The  principal spellings today are Clarke and Clark.  In most of England, the surname pronunciation has tended to be “clark.” But in the northeast it has often been “clerk” (as it has been in America) and in Scotland sometimes “clack.”

Clark Surname Resources on The Internet

Clark and Clarke Surname Ancestry

  • from England, Scotland and Ireland
  • to America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

England. The earliest Clarkes seem to have come from Kent and from Kingsdown Hall there. These Clarkes later spread into other counties.

East Anglia. The Clarke name has been particularly strong in East Anglia:

  • Clarkes appeared in the 1400’s in Norfolk and the Clarkes were an important family in 17th century Norwich. Edward Clarke was an alderman in the town and his sons, Samuel and John, distinguished religious thinkers and clergymen.
  • John Clarke was a well-to-do yeoman in Finningham, Suffolk in the early 1500’s. From his family came early Clarke settlers in Rhode Island. One Suffolk family history began with the marriage of John and Elizabeth Clarke in Henstead in the 1760’s.

SW England.  The Clark name appeared in SW England.

A Quaker family of Clarks began in Somerset with John Clark when he was imprisoned for his beliefs in Ilchester jail in 1662. Later Clarks made their home at Street in Somerset.

It was in this town in 1825 that two Clark brothers, Cyrus and James, started a business making sheepskin rugs and slippers. Thus began Clark’s Shoes which has continued to this day and is one of Britain’s largest private companies. The sixth generation descendants from James Clark and his son William remain major shareholders.

Clarks or Clarkes were recorded at Honiton in Devon from the 1640’s. A Clark family was brewing beer there in the mid-1700’s and became well-to-do landowners in the county. William Clark acquired the Buckland manor in 1793.

Scotland. The MacChleirich name (“son of the clerk”) was often anglicized to Clark. The name was once prominent in Caithness. It subsequently spread throughout Scotland. There have been particularly prominent Clark families at Edinburgh and Paisley near Glasgow:

  • John Clark was a Montrose merchant who had prospered in the 17th century and bought the Penicuik lands near Edinburgh.
  • while the Clark family of Paisley, originally farmers at Dykebar, were pioneers in the cotton industry and from them descended the art historian Sir Kenneth Clark and his wayward son the MP Alan Clark.

Ireland. Clarke is the Irish spelling, derived from the Gaelic sept O’Clerigh (meaning “clerk”) in Galway. Cleary appeared as the anglicized name in Derry and Donegal, Clarke in Cavan. Clarke was also brought to Ireland by Scottish and English settlers. An early example was the Clarks of Carrickfergus in county Antrim, many of whom were mayors of the town between 1620 and 1678.

The name is mainly to be found in Dublin and Donegal today.

America.  Many of the early Clarks in New England originated from the English county of Suffolk:

  • first, the brothers John and Joseph Clarke who arrived in Boston in 1637. A year later they moved south to Rhode Island.  John founded a Baptist church there and was a co-founder of the colony.
  • then Thomas Clark who came with his wife Jane around 1640.  He also ended up in Rhode Island, dying in Newport in 1674.
  • and finally Richard and Ann Clark who arrived in the 1650’s and were among the first English settlers on Long Island (at Southold).

Some notable early Clarks were to be found in Virginia and Kentucky.  One Clark family, which was in Virginia by 1630, produced six sons who were officers in the Revolutionary War – including the eldest son George, a Revolutionary War hero who headed the Kentucky militia, and the youngest son William Clark, he of the famed 1805 Lewis and Clark expedition. James Clark, from another Virginia family, was Governor of Kentucky in the 1830’s.

Then there were Scots Irish Clarks. John Clark arrived in Massachusetts from Ulster in 1720. These Clarks settled in Scots Irish communities in Massachusetts and later in New York and Vermont before venturing west to Indiana in 1815.

Another Clark family came to America in the late 1700’s and settled in a Scots Irish community west of the Allegheny mountains in Pennsylvania. John Clark moved his family further west to Iowa in 1856. His son William A. Clark made a fortune in copper mining in Montana. He was said to have been, after Rockefeller, the second richest man of his day. He is commemorated today in Clark county, Nevada which is where Las Vegas sits. His daughter Huguette Clark lived to be 104.

Canada. William Clark came to Flesherton in southern Ontario in the 1860’s and, after working as a woodworker for several years, saved up enough money to buy his own farm. He was the forebear of a notable journalistic family:

  • his son Joseph was editor first of the weekly Saturday Night and then of the daily Toronto Star.
  • Joseph’s sons Gregory and Joseph were both writers at the Toronto Star.
  • while the latter Joseph’s son Tom Clark has been a well-known Canadian broadcaster.

Australia.  Francis and Caroline Clark from Birmingham arrived in South Australia with their family on the Fatima in 1850.  Francis started up as an accountant and merchant in Adelaide, later joined by his son John.

Andrew and Isabella Clark departed the Scottish borders for Australia in 1858. They came to Victoria separately and in the first few months moved to the Victoria goldfields. They then settled on a farm on the outskirts of Tarnagulla township. The next four generations were born in this area.

New Zealand.  George Clarke from Norfolk was an early Christian missionary to New Zealand, arriving with his family at the Bay of Islands in 1824.  After working many years at the Te Waimate mission, he was appointed Chief Protector of the Maoris in 1840.  His son George followed in his father’s minister footsteps, but in Tasmania.

Clark and Clarke Surname Miscellany

Clarks and Clarkes.  The Clark spelling generally outnumbers the Clarke spelling in the English-speaking world today.  The table below shows the current estimates of these numbers.

Numbers (000’s) Clark Clarke Total
UK    146    151    297
Ireland      –     14     14
America    176     22    198
Canada     52     39     91
Elsewhere     46     40     86
Total    420    266    686

Clarke is more common in East Anglia and the Midlands, as well as in Ireland. Clark is the Scottish spelling. And the Clark spelling predominates in America.

Clark and Clarke as a Surname.  Mark Lower had the following to say about the surnames Clark and Clarke in his 1860 book Dictionary of Family Names in the United Kingdom.

“Clark and Clarke come from the Latin clericus and the French le clerc and means a learned person – that is, one who could in old times read and write. These were accomplishments not so rare as we are sometimes inclined to think since this is among the commonest of surnames.

Clark stands 27th and Clarke 39th in the Registrar General’s comparative list. For 33,557 Smiths registered within a given period, there were 12,229 Clarks and Clarkes.  Thus for every three hammermen we have at least one ‘ready writer.’

As a surname, Clarke appears frequently to have aliased some other appellative.  For instance the baronet family Clarke of Salford, originally Woodchurch from the parish of that name in Kent, soon after the Conquest became Clarkes (Le Clerc) in consequence of a marriage with an heiress and the family for some generations wrote themselves “Woodchurch alias Le Clerc,” and vice versa, until at length the territorial appellation succumbed to the professional one.”

The Clarkes of Norwich.  Edward Clarke was a successful cloth manufacturer in Norwich in the late 17th century who was described by his son Samuel as follows:

“My father was a person of an excellent natural capacity and of an untainted reputation for probity and all virtue, one whose most excellent character recommended him so to the citizens of Norwich that they chose him without, nay against, his own inclination to represent them in Parliament.”

This statement may have been something of an exaggeration. In fact Clarke was only elected in 1701 after a stiff contest.   After being defeated in 1702 and at a by-election in 1703, Clarke withdrew from political life.

Edward and his wife Hannah raised two distinguished sons, Samuel and John. Samuel became a very influential theological writer of his time.  John became Dean of Salisbury.

The Clarks of Paisley.  The Clarks were said to have been descended from old Covenanters in Scotland and were “devoutly pious and God-fearing.”  The first record of them was Allan Clark, a farmer at Dykebar in the early 1700’s.  Son William died in 1752 and his wife Agnes, unable to run their farm, moved with her six children to the new town of Paisley.  All four of her sons became involved in the thriving textile trade there.

These Clarks became mill owners and played an important role in developing Paisley’s thread manufacturing industry. James Clark was the first in 1817 to build a factory for the production of cotton thread.  There were various Clark enterprises over the next fifty years until James Clark’s sons consolidated the business as J & R Clark in 1867 under the leadership of John Clark.

John Clark built the Atlantic and Pacific mills in the 1870’s.  These mills employed more than 3,000 people and had a combined capacity of 230,000 spindles.  John’s brother Alexander meanwhile had developed Clark mills in America.

Sailing was John Clark’s relaxation.  In 1889 he became the Commodore of the Royal Clyde Yacht Club and remained in that position until his death.  His yachts, the Vanduara and Mohican, were both used to compete in races.  The steam yacht Mohican carried him to America on business as well as on cruises to the Mediterranean.  He died unmarried in 1894.

John Clarke on the Mayflower John Clarke had an eventful life as a ship’s master mate or pilot before he embarked as the first mate on the Mayflower in 1620.  He had been on prior voyages to the Jamestown colony in Virginia.  He had then been imprisoned by the Spanish who held him for five years before his release under a prisoner exchange.

Clarke decided to settle in America, but – instead of remaining with the Pilgrims – headed south to the Jamestown colony.  Unfortunately he was killed in 1622 in the Indian massacre there when almost half of the colony’s population was wiped out.

Clarks from Ulster to Indiana.  John Clark, Scots Irish from Coleraine in Ulster, crossed the Atlantic to America with his wife Agnes and their children sometime around 1720.

Shortly after their arrival, they came to Worcester, a Presbyterian-founded town and center for the Scots Irish, in Massachusetts. Since they were probably farmers, it is unlikely that they settled in the town itself. In fact there is evidence that they settled northwest of the town of Worcester around the towns of Rutland and Holden as later Clarks of the family were born in Rutland.  They remained part of a close-knit Scots-Irish community whose center was the Presbyterian church.

In 1739 the family set out with other Scots Irish and settled the town of Colerain, named after Coleraine in Ireland (John’s birthplace) and located some fifty miles northwest of Worcester.  John was apparently still alive in 1786 and the family moved again to Washington county, New York.  They moved a third time in 1803 to Windham county, Vermont.  In each case they exchanged one Scots Irish community for another.

The next move occurred in 1815.  The Clarks then set out for Indiana which had just been admitted as a state of the Union. The promise was the rich farmlands which were said to be available there.  They were, however, leaving the cosy familiarity of their Scots Irish neighbors. 

Huguette Clark the Heiress.  Her father W. A. Clark had been born in a log cabin, discovered incredible riches in copper in Montana territory after the Civil War, was thought to be as rich as Rockefeller, founded Las Vegas, and was pushed out of the U.S. Senate for bribery.

Huguette Clark, born in 1906, was the second daughter of Clark by his second wife.   She held a ticket on the Titanic in 1912 and was still alive in New York City long after 9/11.  She grew up in the largest house in New York City, a remarkable dwelling on Fifth Avenue with 121 rooms for a family of four.  She owned paintings by Degas and Renoir, a world-renowned Stradivarius violin, and a vast collection of antique dolls.

But distrustful of outsiders she became reclusive.  The last photograph of her to be published during her lifetime was taken in 1928.  She in fact lived out her last twenty years in a simple hospital room, devoting her wealth to her art and buying gifts for friends. Meanwhile her fantastic homes in Santa Barbara and Connecticut and New York City were unoccupied but still maintained by servants.

Upon her death at 104 in 2011, Huguette Clark left behind a fortune of more than $300 million, most of which was donated to charity after a court fight with her distant relatives.  Bill Dedman’s 2013 book Empty Mansions charted this extraordinary life.

Clark and Clarke Names

  • Samuel Clarke who worked with Isaac Newton was considered the greatest metaphysician of his time.
  • William Tierney Clark was a British pioneer in the design and construction of suspension bridges.
  • William Clark was the Clark of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition which crossed America overland for the first time to the West Coast.
  • William A. Clark was an American copper baron of the late 19th century.
  • Kenneth Clark was the British art historian and devisor of the TV series Civilization.
  • Arthur C. Clarke was the renowned science fiction writer, most known for 2001: A Space Odyssey.
  • Jim Clark was the pioneer internet entrepreneur and founder of Netscape.
  • Helen Clark has been New Zealand’s Prime Minister.

Clark and Clarke Numbers Today

  • 297,000 in the UK (most numerous in West Midlands)
  • 212,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 193,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Clark and Like Surnames   

The various medieval trades and occupations were a source of surnames as John the baker would over time would become known as John Baker.  Some skilled craftsmen – such as chandlers, fletchers and turners – were able to form guilds, protective organizations, and style themselves Worshipful Companies.  These are some of the occupational surnames that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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