Coleman Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Coleman Surname Meaning

The surname Coleman has two distinctly different derivations, one English and the other Irish.

In England, the surnames Coleman, as well as Collier, is occupational, describing either a burner of charcoal or a gatherer of coal (col was Old English for coal or charcoal).  The German surname Kohlmann has the same roots.  A spelling variant Colman crops up in East Anglia.

In Ireland, Coleman is an anglicized name from the Gaelic Clumhain or Colman:

  • the former (or O’Clumhain, descendant of Clumhain), a personal name, derived from the Gaelic clumh, meaning “down” or “feathers.”  The O’Culhains were originally a literary and bardic family in county Sligo.
  • the latter (or O’Colman, descendant of Colman) refers to a 6th century Irish missionary called St. Columban who enjoyed at one time a cult following in Europe.  There is a St. Colman’s Cathedral in Cork Harbor today.

Coleman can also be the Americanized form of the German Kohlmann or Kuhlmann.

Coleman Surname Resources on The Internet

Coleman Surname Ancestry

  • from England (East Coast), Ireland (Connacht) and from Germany
  • to America, Central America, West Africa, and New Zealand

England.  The Coleman name was mainly to be found in SE England and in East Anglia.

SE England  The place name Colemans Hatch in East Sussex is said to have derived its name from a Coleman family of charcoal makers recorded in Hartfield in the late 1200’s.  Coleman appeared in the records of Fletching parish nearby from the mid 1500’s.  A Coleman family was in Brede from the mid 1600’s.  They were prosperous enough to purchase Chitcombe Farm there in 1821 and to become benefactors to the village (building a church and a local school).

The Coleman name mainly sprung up in the southeast of England, in Kent and Essex as well as Sussex, with outposts in Northamptonshire and in East Anglia (where the spelling has been and continues to be Colman).

East Anglia.  There has been a Colman family recorded in Little Waldingfield (near Sudbury in Suffolk) from the early 1400’s.  They prospered as clothiers – as the brass in the local church reveals:  “A reminder of happier times in the parish is the grandest brass of all, that of the clothier John Colman in 1506.  His family may well have paid for the rebuilding of the church at that time.  Beneath him, six sons and seven daughters stand in pious grief.”

Edward Colman of this family later met a grisly end.  A Catholic convert, he had become implicated in the Popish plots, was tried for treason in 1678, and, on conviction, was executed by the barbaric means of being hung, drawn, and quartered.

Colmans in Norfolk have produced the Colmans of Colman’s Mustard.

Ireland.  The O’Clumhain name has cropped up in the Annals of the Four Masters, such as this entry in 1493: “Mac Namee, the son of Conor Roe and son of Eachmarcach, an eminent poet and a good scholar, was slain by a laborer, one of his own people the O’Clumhain.”

Their original homeland was the barony of Tireragh in county Sligo.  Coleman country today is south Sligo, in and around Tobercurry and Gurteen.  This was where Mary Coleman lived and where the famed Irish fiddler Michael Coleman grew up.  Over time these Colemans have spilled over into the neighboring counties of Mayo and Roscommon.

The Coleman numbers (from St. Colman, the 6th century Irish missionary) have been larger further south, in county Cork.  Today Inishannon in Cork is the home of two well-known Coleman jump jockeys.

America.  In terms of recorded arrivals to America, Colemans came:

  • 60 percent from Ireland
  • 38 percent from England
  • and 2 percent from Germany.

New England.  The English arrived first.  Among the New England arrivals was Thomas Coleman who came to Newbury in 1635.  He was the forebear of a long line of Quaker Colemans, in Nantucket (where Elihu Coleman was an early opponent of slavery), New Hampshire, and in and around Philadelphia.  William Coleman was one of Philadelphia’s first civic leaders, Nathaniel Coleman a well-known silversmith in Burlington, New Jersey.

Virginia.  More came via Virginia, including four Robert Colemans – three of whose family trees have been extensively documented:

  • Robert Coleman of the first doomed Virginia settlement.  He apparently died in the water in 1590 while attempting to rescue other members of a landing party.
  • Robert Coleman of Mobjack Bay Virginia, whose presence was first recorded there in 1638.  A descendant was the Texas adventurer, Robert Morris Coleman.  This family history was recorded in Sherry Nicoll’s 1998 book The Coleman Family of Mobjack Bay.
  • Robert Coalman (later Coleman) was in Charles City county, Virginia by 1652.  His line went south to South Carolina, Mississippi, and Texas.  A descendant was the Mississippi Governor, JP Coleman, who in 1965 published The Robert Coleman Family – from Virginia to Texas.
  • and Robert Coleman of Nansemond county Virginia, first recorded there in 1684.  His sons settled in Edgecombe county, North Carolina and later descendants moved onto Alabama.

Irish Colemans.  One of the earliest Irish Colemans was a Robert Coleman from Donegal who had arrived in Philadelphia in 1764.  He started an ironworks, built up a business making cannonballs, and became Pennsylvania’s first millionaire.  However, two of his daughters would meet tragic ends.

The 19th and early 20th century saw a much larger influx of Irish Colemans to America – including in 1914 the famed fiddle player Michael Coleman (who made his home and recorded in New York City).

German and Jewish Colemans.  Colemans of German origin are much larger in proportion than the arrival data above would indicate – as many changed their names to Coleman once in America and after their arrival, such as:

  • Sebastian Kohlmann (later Coleman) who came to Pennsylvania from Baden in Germany n 1738.
  • Nicholas Kuhlmann and his family, Protestants, who brought their German religious books with them to Philadelphia from Strasburg in 1768.  Their descendants, as Colemans, migrated to North Carolina and the Wiregrass area of SE Alabama.
  • while other Kuhlmanns/Colemans arrived in Minnesota in the early 1800’s.

Then there were Jewish Kalmans who became Colemans and even a Kaufman (Cy Coleman the jazz pianist and songwriter).

Central America.  William and Cynthia Coleman were Confederate refugees who fled to Honduras to escape the Reconstruction era in Georgia after the Civil War. William started up various businesses there which did well and his sons William and John carried on.  The family became involved in Honduras politics during the 1920’s.  John was killed in the 1932 revolution, William died in Honduras in 1944.

Africa.  Liberia has been ruled for most of its history by a small group of Americo-Liberian families from Clay-Ashland, including the Colemans.  William Coleman had arrived in Liberia, aged 11, in 1853 and rose to become President of that country in 1896.  He was the father of ten – including David Coleman who in 1955 was shot dead by security forces after a failed attempt to assassinate the then President.

Australia.  Henry Coleman was possibly the first Coleman in Australia, a convict transported there from England on the Barwell in 1798.  His descendants were in Parramatta and nearby Smithfield.  Tom Coleman died there in 1955 at the ripe old age of ninety five.

New Zealand.  A notable early settler was Benjamin Coleman, a farm worker from Sussex.  He arrived in New Zealand in 1840 and was one of the first white settlers in Otago, South Island.  He lived to see the arrival of the Dunedin settlers in 1848 but died by drowning one year later.

Coleman Surname Miscellany

Coleman and Collier Surname Distribution.  The surnames Coleman and Collier describe the same occupations in England, both being either a burner of charcoal or a gatherer of coal.  The table below shows their name distribution on the basis of the 1891 census.

Numbers (000’s) Coleman Collier Total
Lancashire   1.0   2.2   3.2
London   3.0   1.4   4.4
Southeast   2.1   0.5   2,6
Elsewhere   8.8   5.5  14,3
Total  15.5   9.6  25.1

There are more Colemans than Colliers.  And Coleman appears more in the southeast, Collier more in the northwest.

Colmans of Colman’s Mustard.  On April 3, 1814 Jeremiah Colman leased the Stoke Holy Cross mill (on the river Tas near Norwich) as a growing concern and paid Edward Ames £51 for his stock of mustard.  The following notice then appeared in the Norfolk Chronicle:

“Jeremiah Colman, having taken the stock and trade lately carried on by Mr. Edward Ames, respectfully informs his customers and the public in general that he will continue the manufacturing of mustard and he begs leave to assure those who may be pleased to favor him with their orders that they shall be supplied in such a manner as cannot fail to secure their approbation.”

In 1823 Jeremiah took his adopted nephew James into partnership in a firm now called J. & J. Colman.  The partnership prospered and in 1836 a London branch was established.  Following the deaths of Jeremiah in 1851 and father James in 1854, the young son Jeremiah James Colman found himself the head of a successful company that was employing over 200 people.

He developed the distinctive yellow packaging and bull’s head logo for the mustard and was also responsible for the family’s pioneering achievements in socail welfare.  A school was opened for the employees’ children in 1857 and a nurse was recruited to help with sick members of staff.

Colemans in England and America.  The American Genealogical Research Institute in their booklet The Coleman Family speculated as follows about the number of Colemans in America:

“In English history the Coleman family has been primarily noted among such common people as yeomen, tradesmen, and farmers. Only a handful entered the highest class of the gentry.  Noble titles in the family did not occur at any time in English history.

The reason why there were so many Coleman immigrants is that most of them were poor, in search of prospects in America.”

Ann Coleman, A Vagabond Quaker in New Hampshire.  In 1662 three young Quaker women from England came to Dover, New Hampshire.  True to their faith, they preached against professional ministers, restrictions on individual liberty, and the established customs of the church-ruled establishment.

Their punishment was harsh:

“Take these vagabond Quakers – Ann Coleman, Mary Tompkins, and Alice Ambrose – and make them fast to the cart’s tail and, driving the cart through your several towns, to whip their naked backs (not exceeding ten stripes apiece on each of them) in each town; and so to convey them from constable to constable until they are out of this jurisdiction.”

Eventually the Quaker women returned to Dover and established a Meeting House.  In time one third of Dover’s citizens became Quakers.

Two Coleman Daughters Who Took Their Own Lives.  The industrialist Robert Coleman had two daughters, Anne Caroline and Sarah, who would both meet tragic ends.

Anne Caroline began dating future US President James Buchanan in 1818 when he was a lawyer in Lancaster county.  They soon became engaged, much to Robert Coleman’s displeasure.  Coleman was apparently unhappy with Buchanan’s reputation.  Rumors abounded that Buchanan was seeing other women and was only marrying Anne for her money.

After one incident of him visiting a friend’s wife, Anne broke off the engagement and died soon afterwards, probably from an overdose of laudanum.  It turned out that Buchanan was so devastated by the broken engagement and suicide and he vowed never to marry.  He became the only bachelor President in the history of the United States.

Another daughter Sarah also committed suicide.  She loved a William Muhlenberg who was co-rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Lancaster.  Again Robert Coleman disapproved of the match and would not agree to a marriage.  Sarah fled to Philadelphia and killed herself there.

The Colemans in Honduras.  William and Cynthia Coleman were Confederate refugees who fled to Honduras in 1867.  Their son later wrote:

“My father and a group of friends went to Honduras after the Civil War, in which he fought all four years in the First Georgia Cavalry.  I have his sword.  After Sherman’s march through Georgia, when he burned and destroyed everything in our part of the state, things were very bad and this group of young soldiers and their families decided to go to Honduras.

In those days, the trip across the Gulf had to be made by schooner.  A storm wrecked the boat that Father was on, but he and his wife and two little children (your father and Jack) made their way to shore north of Puerto Cortez, saving only Father’s rifle and violin.  Several others in the party were saved, but they did not like the foreign country and went back to Georgia.

After many ups and downs, our family settled in a village which is now San Pedro Sula and, by constant hard work and determination, Father made a fortune.”

The Colemans in fact settled in a Confederate colony called Medina, now part of the city of San Pedro Sula.  Branches of the family were also in surrounding towns such as Olancho.  Most of the Coleman descendants in Spanish Honduras owe their lineage to this family.

Mary Coleman from Coleman Country.  Coleman Country today describes the area of south Sligo, north Roscommon, and NE Mayo where the legendary Irish fiddler Michael Coleman was born and grew up.  It was also the home, a generation earlier, of a relatve of his, Mary Coleman.

Mary Coleman was born just after the famine.   It was her people that owned Lisbaleely in Gurteen for three hundred years. She was was not versed in English.  When she had married her husband John McDermott in 1885 at the time of the land wars, she could only put her mark upon the marriage certificate.  However, with her husband on the run, she had driven her cart all night to Lord DeFreyne’s home to stop her family being evicted.  Eventually she took title to the land in 1911.

When she talked about her family history, she would describe the famine as a terrible struggle.  All her education was received at a hedge school.  Her grandson remembered her great wisdom and her routine as she returned to the old house to light a fire.  She would sit by the fire and smoke a pipe, often reciting the rosary in Irish. When he would fetch her for meals, she would talk of meeting people who were long dead.

She was buried inside the gate of the old graveyard in Gurteen, fifteen feet from the wall in the second row of graves.  She is there in the arms of her son John and with her sister Agnes.

Tom Coleman of Smithfield, NSW.  Thomas Coleman, a convict descendant, died in Smithfield NSW on December 6, 1955 at the ripe old age of ninety five.

“The son of a wheelwright, he for some years followed the calling of his father, but later the call of the country life appealed to him and he spent many years in various parts of Australia assisting in the erection of telephone services, which he often referred to as a healthy life in the rough and rugged outback.  He continued this calling following his marriage in Parramatta seventy three years ago to Miss Mercy Marks, the daughter of a Badgery Creek dairyman.

On returning to Smithfield the deceased, along with his wife, took up residence in Justin Street, and later in Oxford Street, where they cared for their seven children – four girls and three boys.

After the death of his wife 23 years ago he had in turn lived with his daughter at Canberra, his son at Taree, and then, for the past 13 years, with his daughter at Smithfield.  There are 26 surviving grandchildren and 56 great grandchildren.

It was said of Tom Coleman, as he was always known, that his whole life had been worthwhile.  Age did not deter him, he had been an inspiration to others many years his junior and when the news of his death became known, there was a feeling amongst the residents that they were poorer for his passing.”

Coleman Names

  • Robert Morris Coleman organized the first Texas Rangers, helped defeat the Mexicans at the Battle of San Jacinto, but later fell out with Sam Houston and died young in mysterious circumstances.
  • Jeremiah Colman was the man who built up Colman’s of Norwich, the mustard-makers, in the second half of the 19th century.
  • William Coleman became President of Liberia in 1895.
  • Michael Coleman was the legendary fiddler from Sligo most responsible for the revival of Irish traditional music.
  • Ornette Coleman, the jazz saxophonist, was one of the major innovators of the “free jazz” movement of the 1960’s.

Coleman Numbers Today

  • 35,000 in the UK (most numerous in Kent)
  • 70,000 in the UK (most numerous in Texas)
  • 25,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia).

Coleman 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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