Curtis Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Curtis Surname Meaning

The Curtis surname originated from the Old French curteis – meaning polite, refined, or well-bred – and was brought to England by the Normans. The English version was curteys. Chaucer wrote of his squire Curteys being lowly and serviceable. Curteys entered service as a surname from the 13th century onwards. The spelling later became Curtis and sometimes Curtiss.

Some Hungarian immigrants into English-speaking countries adopted the Curtis surname. One reason was that it approximated to the Hungarian surname Kertesz.

Curtis Surname Resources on The Internet

Curtis Surname Ancestry

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

England.  The Curtis name turned up in both SW and SE England.

SW England.  Curtis appeared as Curteys in Cornwall as early as 1305 when Ralph Curteys represented the borough of Lostwithiel in Parliament. The Curteys remained influential in the town as merchants and civic leaders for the next hundred and fifty years. The spelling later became Courtis.

It is thought that the Curtises of Polperro came from this family. Thomas Curteys was a revenue officer there in 1401. His Curtis descendants formed one of the principal families of Polperro in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Curtis name extended into Devon, Somerset, and Gloucestershire.

Curtises lived at Chew Magna in Somerset in the late 1600’s, including Joseph Curtis the clockmaker. Another Somerset family line began with the birth of Robert Curtis at Chewton Mendip in 1711. His grandson Robert was a cheese factor in Bristol. Harry Curtis began farming in the Chew valley outside of Bristol in the early 1900’s and his farm is now with the third generation.

SE England.  There were early Curtises in Kent. A Curteis family was to be found at Appledore from about 1450. They were later to be found at Tenterden where the 17th century mayors included Samuel in 1622, Edward in 1663, and Jeremy in 1696. William Curtis of this family emigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1632. Another Kentish line began with Thomas Curtis, a yeoman farmer at Ash near Sandwich, who died there in 1631. Four of his sons emigrated to Massachusetts in 1638.

Meanwhile John Curtis, another yeoman, was born at Worth nearby in Sussex in 1605. Richard Curtis was born in Heathfield, Sussex in 1640.

James Curtis, who died in London in 1734, was the first in a line of sea biscuit manufacturers at Wapping. His grandson William – popularly known as Billy Biscuit – revolutionized the technology of biscuit baking and became the main supplier of ships’ biscuits to the Royal Navy. He was Lord Mayor of London in 1795. His son Charles was a manufacturer of gunpowder, his grandson Spencer a merchant trading in the West Indies.

Elsewhere. The Curtis name was also to be found in Nottinghamshire. A Curtis family was associated with the village of Hucknall Torkard for centuries, their name first appearing in parish records in 1565. The last of this line was John Curtis who died in 1777. Meanwhile the Curtis bakers of Wapping were thought to have originated from Nottinghamshire.

Ireland. The Curtis name appears to have been an English implant. An early record was Ensign Matthew Curtis in the 1659 Clare census.

However, Patrick Curtis, born in 1746 at Stamullin parish in county Meath, was said to “have descended from an ancient and respectable Irish family.” He studied at the Irish college at Salamanca in Spain, acted as a spy for Wellington during the Peninsular War, and returned to Ireland as the Archbishop of Armagh in 1819.

John Curtis left Mountmellick in Laios for Philadelphia around 1838 and was later joined there by various other family members. His sister Hannah Curtis who had stayed behind endured the horrors of the potato famine.

America. There were a number of early Curtis arrivals in New England.

New England. William Curtis from Kent arrived in the Massachusetts Bay colony with his family on the Lion in 1632. They made their home in Roxbury. His great grandson Daniel became the first in the family to move to Maine, settling in Harpswell in 1745. Daniel’s son Nehemiah was a militia commander during the Revolutionary War.

John Curtis from Nazeing in Essex came with his family in 1635. He died within a few years. His widow Elizabeth Curtiss and eldest son John then made their home in Stratford, Connecticut; while two other sons William and Thomas settled in Hartford and Wethersfield respectively.

Henry Curtis first appeared in Watertown, Massachusetts around 1635, later moving to Sudbury. His son Ephraim was a famous Indian scout. Henry Woods’ 1907 book The Family of Henry Curtis of Sudbury covered his line.

The four sons of Thomas Curtis of Ash in Kent – Thomas, Richard, William and John – came in 1638, settling in Scituate, Massachusetts, Some of William’s descendants migrated north to Maine. Harold E. Curtis’s book The Descendants of Thomas, Richard and William Curtis of Scituate was published in 1986.

And Deodatus Curtis arrived in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1640. His descendants moved to Connecticut in the early 1700’s. Eleazer Curtis fought in the Revolutionary War and afterwards was one of the early settlers in Ohio.

Three lines from the William Curtis of Roxbury extended subsequently in Massachusetts to:

  • Dr. Benjamin Curtis, a surgeon in the Revolutionary War, and his grandson Benjamin Curtis, a US Supreme Court Justice,
  • James F. Curtis who fought as a young man in the War of 1812 and was killed in an early railroad accident in 1839. His eldest son James settled in San Francisco in the 1850’s and then moved to Idaho. A younger son Greely was a Union general in the Civil War who made his home in Manchester, Massachusetts. Growing up at his Sharksmouth house there were two lady golfers, Harriot and Margaret Curtis, who gave their name to the women’s golf Curtis Cup.
  • and Herbert Curtis, born in Roxbury in 1830 who also fought as a Union officer during the Civil War. His son Tom was a winner of the 110 meter hurdles at the first Olympics in Athens in 1896. Tom’s daughter Clarissa married the Russian Prince Michael (who had escaped the Bolshevik revolution) in Roxbury in 1921. But this marriage ended in divorce in 1935.

Maine.  Also descended from William Curtis of Roxbury, this time via Daniel Curtis in Maine, was Captain John Curtis of Brunswick, Maine. He traded cotton from Alabama to England in the years up to the Civil War. He was with his ship in Mobile in 1861 when Alabama became the fourth state to secede from the Union. A Captain John Curtis Memorial Library was dedicated in Brunswick by his son William in 1904.

From Maine, in this case Portland, came Cyrus Hermann Kotzschmar Curtis. He was forced to leave high school after his first year in 1866 when his family lost their home in the Great Fire of Portland. He became a wealthy American magazine publisher whose periodicals included the Ladies’ Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post.

Canada. DNA testing has suggested that Garrett Curtis, who grew up in Boston, was a descendant of William Curtis of Roxbury. Garrett became a master shipbuilder at Salmonier in Newfoundland in the mi-1800’s. A monument has been erected there in his honor. The Curtis family who came to Bonavista Bay in the 1840’s was from Dorset.

Australia. A Curtis family from London was among the early settlers of Western Australia. The first to arrive was Anthony Curtis who had visited the colony whilst with the Royal Navy and decided to settle there with his family in 1830. He became a very successful businessman, first at Freemantle and later at Perth (a plaque on the footpath of St. George’s Terrace acknowledges his achievement).

His widowed mother Mary Curtis arrived at the colony in 1835 at the age of 70. In 1853, at the age of 88, she was left destitute and penniless by the unexpected death of her son. She survived by being the oldest cleaner employed by the Governor of Western Australia. She died in 1861 at the grand old age of 96.

Her death was reported in the Perth Gazette as follows:  “Her death was not caused by disease or decay but from shock occasioned when a portion of her dress caught on fire.”  

New Zealand.  Gersham Curtis had emigrated as a boy with his family from Surrey to Canada’s Prince Edward Island in the 1820’s. After his father died, Gersham decided to leave Canada for New Zealand. He and his family arrived on the Lady Grey in 1855 and settled in Collingwood near Nelson. He later tried his hand, unsuccessfully as it turned out, in the Otago goldfields before his death at Westport in 1901.

Another early arrival in New Zealand was George Curtis who had come from London with his family on the Pekin in 1850. Arriving in Wellington, he took up farming at the new settlement of Omata and prospered. His sons Charles and Herbert also did well. They and their sister Emma were keen hikers on the Mount Taranaki trails.

Curtis Surname Miscellany

Curtis – An Alternative Meaning.  The Curtis surname does have more than one origin. It also comes from Curthose, a nickname given to someone wearing short stockings. The Middle English word curt (meaning short) was coupled with hose, originally a man’s stockings.

Perhaps the earliest reference to this nickname morphing into a last name was to Robert Curthose, the Duke of Normandy.  Eventually the spelling of Curthose evolved into Curtis and the old spelling faded into oblivion.

Curteys in Cornwall.  There was an ancient family of Curteys based at Pill in Lanlivery near Lostwithiel. A monumental brass to Tristram Curteys who died in 1423 can be found on the floor of Lostwithiel church.  His son Robert was mayor of Lostwithiel in 1445 and 1447.

Tristram’s descendant John Courtis of Pill, who died in 1605 in Fleet Prison, was said to have been the last male representative of the family.  However, the name persisted in Cornwall in various spellings, born perhaps by younger or collateral branches.  A pedigree of the Courtis of Helston exists.  And Curtis became an important family name in Polperro.

Sir William Curtis aka Billy Biscuit.  For nigh on fifty years, from 1780 to 1829, Sir William Curtis was a king of London’s commerce.  He is remembered today only by a few of his multitude of descendants (he had 41 grandchildren) and by caricature collectors.  But his story has been told in Nick Brazil’s 2010 book Billy Biscuit.

“The remarkable story of Sir William Curtis who rose from humble beginnings as a baker in Wapping to become a self-made multi-millionaire, banker and shipping magnate. He was at the center of Georgian society for over fifty years.  A friend and confidant of Kings, Czars and Prime Ministers, he was the last great merchant prince of Regency England.”

The 1809 Isaac Cruickshank portrait showed three of the four near invariable characteristics of a Curtis cartoon:

  • first, the sailor suit and hat;
  • second, the stomach – Curtis was famous both for enjoying his food and for the naturally consequential belly, his pictures often including edibles like a turtle or turtle soup, or sausages;
  • and third, the red nose – today, as at least one of his descendants can attest, we know this as herpes simplex.

The fourth characteristic was that he was no master of words. He was not a polished orator and he would have scorned the affectation of being one; plain, simple, and energetic in the delivery of his sentiments, he trusted to the substance of what he had to say.  His mangled catch words and phrases were the delight of satirists.

Listening to a debate on schooling, he was bored by those who talked about the importance of Latin and Greek.  He had none of that.

“What children need,” Curtis said in the House, “is the three Rs, Readin’, Ritin’ and Rithmatic.”  Posterity’s laugh is on those who laughed at the MP for the City.  No one knows if he spoke from wit or from ignorance and confusion – but the Three Rs remains the classic expression of basic education. 

Hannah Curtis’s Letter from Ireland in 1847.  Hannah Curtis wrote in 1847 from Laios in Ireland to her brother John in Philadelphia about the horrors of the potato famine. Here are some extracts from her letter:

“I related to you in my last letter the state of the country.  Therefore I need not go over it anymore.  Only the distress that was amongst the people at that time was nothing to what it is at present.   The people are in a starving state, the poor house is crowded with people, and they are dying as fast as they can – from ten to twenty a day.

Out of it there comes a kind of a strange fever in it.  It is the opinion of the doctor that it will spread over town and country when the weather grows warm. No person can be sure of their lives.  One moment the times are so sudden you would scarcely see as many people with a funeral as would take it to the grave.

In fact I would not describe the awful state of Ireland. At present you all may think the people are not so bad on account of all the provision that is coming in.  But for that the country could be a great deal worse.  There is no trade of any kind doing norany money in the country. Everyone that can go to America is going this year as there is no prospect of anything here but poverty and distress.

The Rev. Father Healy is getting I think above fifty letters and money in all of them. They were sent to his care by people in America to their friends at home to take them out to them.  The post office here is full of letters every day, every one without money.

With regard to the rates of provision they are as follows: bacon is per pound, butter 1-3s per pound, beef 8 pence a pound, mutton 4 pence a pound, best flour 3s-8, oatmeal 3s-10 per stone. I need not mention potatoes by any chance as we have none.  For now you see how hard it is to live here.”

The Curtis Family of Stratford, Connecticut.  In August 1635 John Curtis, his wife Elizabeth, and their sons John. William and Thomas from Nazeing in Essex boarded in London the ship Safety bound for New England. Records in Roxbury show John Curtis senior owning land there in 1638 and his son John having a home in Wetherfield, Connecticut where other Essex men had settled. The elder John apparently died there.

His widow Elizabeth – who added an extra “s” to her Curtis name – then moved the family to Stratford, Connecticut.  She died there in 1658.  Her eldest son John lived onto 1707, dying there at the grand old age of ninety six.

The Curtis family presence in Stratford has remained with the Nathaniel Curtis house, a colonial-style saltbox structure built around 1735. It is one of Stratford’s few surviving 18th century houses.  The family lineage was covered in Harlow D. Curtis’s 1903 book A Genealogy of the Curtiss-Curtis family of Stratford, Connecticut.

Eleazer Curtis in Ohio.  In 1791 Eleazer Curtis and his family set out from Connecticut to Ohio.  They would have known before their departure of the massacre at Big Bottom by Indians and the attacks on immigrants traveling down the Ohio river.  Yet they made the journey nevertheless.

They were able to make the trip for the loss of only one life due to an accident.  And they saw no Indians.

They would live in garrisons as protection against the Indians for four years after their arrival.  However, in 1794 General Wayne defeated the Indians in the area at the Battle of Fallen Timbers.  The following spring Eleazer went down to his property at Newberry Bottom and built there a cabin into which his family moved.  He lived there for five peaceful years until his death in 1801.

Cyrus Hermann Kotzschmar Curtis.  Hermann Kotzschmar was a German musician who had emigrated to America in 1843 with a group of musicians from Dresden.  While in Boston, Kotzschmar met Cyrus Libby Curtis, an amateur musician from Portland, Maine who suggested he move there to find work. Kotzschmar arrived in Portland in and lived with the Curtis family for his first year there. In 1850 Curtis’ first son was born and was named Cyrus Hermann Kotzschmar Curtis in his honor.

From 1850 until his death in 1908 Hermann Kotzschmar solidly established Portland as a center for music excellence.  His legacy includes two students who left an indelible mark on American music and music education:

  • one was John Knowles Paine.  He was America’s first composer of large scale orchestral works and America’s first music professor.
  • and the other was Cyrus Hermann Kotzschmar Curtis.  Having become one of America’s richest men publishing magazines including the Ladies Home Journal and The Saturday Evening Post, he became a music philanthropist who donated several important organs, funded the early Philadelphia Orchestra, and provided, through his daughter’s memorial gifts, the Curtis Institute of Music.

Curtis Names

  • Patrick Curtis was an Irish clergyman, created Archbishop of Armagh in 1819, who became a strong advocate in England of Catholic emancipation. 
  • Cyrus Curtis was an American publisher of magazines and newspapers, including the Ladies’ Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post
  • Tony Curtis, born Bernard Schwartz, was a popular American film actor of the 1950’s and early 1960’s. The actress Jamie Lee Curtis was his daughter. 
  • Richard Curtis has been one of Britain’s most successful comedy screenwriters, for films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones’s Diary. He was born in New Zealand to a Czech refugee father.

Curtis Numbers Today

  • 35,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 36,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 25,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Curtis and Like Surnames

The Norman Conquest brought new rulers to England and they brought their names and language, a form of French, with them.  Over time their names became less French and more English in character.  Thus Hamo became Hammond, Reinold Reynolds and Thierry Terry and so forth.  The names Allen, Brett, Everett, and Harvey were probably Breton in origin as Bretons also arrived, sometimes as mercenaries.

The new Norman lords often adopted new last names, sometimes from the lands they had acquired and sometimes from places back in Normandy.  Over time the name here also became more English.  Thus Saint Maur into Seymour, Saint Clair into Sinclair, Mohun into Moon, and Warenne into Warren.

Here are some of these Norman and Breton originating names that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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