Dean Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Dean Surname Meaning

The Dean surname is locational in origin, describing someone who lived in a dene or “valley.” Dene was recorded in various places in the 1086 Domesday Book. It is generally rendered today as Dean. The surname progression has been from Dene (sometimes atte Dene) to Deane and from Deane to Dean. The Deane spelling has persisted mainly in Ireland.

Dean Surname Resources on The Internet

Dean and Deane Surname Ancestry

  • from England and Scotland
  • to Ireland (West Coast), America, Canada and new Zealand

England.  The earliest Dean seems to have been Robert de Dene, a “pincema” or official in charge of the wine and beverage to King Edward the Confessor. His descendants, known as Denn or Denne, were landowners in Kent and Sussex. Their line seems to have died out by the 1600’s.

West Country.  Several early Deans came from the west country and in particular from Gloucestershire. Sir William de Dene who lived at St. Briavels in the early 14th century was the first of the family of Dene of Dene in the Forest of Dean. Later numbers probably included:

  • Henry Dene, the Lord Chancellor of Ireland and Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry VII.
  • Sir Richard Deane, the Lord Mayor of London in 1628
  • and the regicide and Sea General Richard Deane who died in a fight with the Dutch fleet in 1653.

There were also Deanes in and around Taunton in Somerset. Among their numbers were Moses Deane, the ancestor of the Deanes in Limerick, and John and Walter Deane, early emigrants to Taunton, Massachusetts. Other Deanes were to be found in the Brent Knoll area of Somerset. The Deanes of Oxenwood in Wiltshire came originally from NW Hampshire.

Elsewhere. Some of the early Dean sightings may have been in SE and SW England. But the Dean name spread across England. By the 19th century in fact larger numbers were in the northwest, from Staffordshire through Cheshire to Lancashire:

  • John Deane was born of yeoman stock near Northwich in Cheshire around the year 1495. He spent most of his working life in London, as rector at Smithfield, but returned in 1557 to found Witton Grammar School. It functions today as Sir John Deane’s College.
  • one Dean family in Audley, Staffordshire dates back to 1604. Nathaniel Dean, a surgeon, was born at Eccleshall in Staffordshire in 1762 and died at his Brook House home there in 1823.
  • while the ancient parish of Deane lay within the present boundaries of Salford in Lancashire and that town had the largest number of Deans in England in the 1881 census.

Ireland.  Matthew Deane from Somerset came to Ireland with Cromwell in 1649 and stayed. He was Sheriff of Cork in 1664 and made his home at Dromore. In 1775 his descendant Sir Robert Deane, created Baron Muskerry, secured through marriage Springfield castle in Limerick.

Another Deane family in Cork was notable in Cork for their eminence as architects and for their contribution to the cultural life of the city. The father of this brood was Alexander Deane, a builder. His sons Thomas, Alexander, and Kearns Deane all became architects. Thomas was knighted for his work in 1830, as was his son Thomas and his grandson Thomas.

Other English Deane lines in Ireland were:

  • the Deanes of Galway – one of the twelve tribes of Galway – who supposedly originated from Bristol in England and first appeared in Galway in 1438.
  • and the Deane family of Crumlin in Dublin, started in the 1650’s by Joseph Deane, nephew to the regicide Richard Deane. A later Joseph Deane of this line was Chief Baron of the Exchequer in Ireland in 1714.

Deanes in Donegal and Tipperary were more likely to be of Gaelic origin, those in Ulster of Scots origin. The largest number of Deanes in Ireland, according to Griffith’s Valuation in the mid-19th century, was in fact in Mayo, followed by Cork, Tipperary, and Donegal. The Scottish Deans appeared in Antrim and Derry.  

Scotland. The name Den appeared in Aberdeen and Dean in Ayrshire (where there is a Dean Castle). But a more common surname form came to be Deans, meaning instead “son or servant of the dean.” It seemed to have appeared first on the Scottish Borders and then spread across the Lowlands and to Aberdeen. Some Deans migrated to Ulster.

America.  The spelling in America tended initially to be Deane. Early New England arrivals were:

  • Stephen Deane who came to Plymouth on the Fortune in 1621. He built the first corn mill in the colony. He and his wife Elizabeth had three daughters, but no sons.
  • John and Walter Deane from Somerset who arrived in 1635 and settled in Taunton, Massachusetts. They did leave successors, mainly in Connecticut. Silas Deane, the merchant and diplomat at the time of the Revolutionary War, was a descendant.
  • while Thomas Deane arrived in Massachusetts from Wiltshire in 1664. He was a merchant in Boston but returned to England in 1676.

The 18th century Deans of New London, Connecticut were descendants of Abraham Dains who had arrived there in 1664 via Casco in Maine.

Irish and Scots Irish Deans came to America in the 18th century.

They included Roger Dean who had arrived from Ulster in the 1770’s to fight on the British side. But once in America he changed sides and fought with the Americans. After the War he was granted land in Kentucky and moved there. There was a family reunion in 1785 after his son Daniel, back in Ireland, went in search of him in America and found him. Daniel moved to Ohio in 1804.

Another line began with Benjamin Dean who came to Virginia around 1780 and, like Daniel, moved to Ohio. Other Irish Deans were to be found in Allegheny county in southern Pennsylvania. Matthew Dean lived in the Canoe valley and many of his family were massacred in an attack by Indians in 1780. Matthew’s great grandson was Judge John Dean of Williamsburg.

Canada. Some of the Deans coming to Canada were Loyalists from America. Dean was a common name in the early 1800’s in the border area of Canada between Niagara and Kingston:

  • John Dean from New Jersey came with his family in 1801 and settled in Lincoln county, Ontario. His sons fought on the Canadian side in the War of 1812.
  • another Dean, George Dean from Pennsylvania, was an American deserter during that war who made his home in York county, Ontario.

New Zealand.  William and John Deans, brothers from Ayrshire in Scotland, were one of the first settlers in Canterbury SI, arriving there in 1843. They became sheep farmers. William was drowned at sea in 1851. John married the next year but died at his home at Riccarton Bush in 1854.  His widow Jane Deans remained to bring up their child, later writing the story of her life in Letters to My Grandchildren.

Dean Surname Miscellany

From Deane to Dean.  The main spelling was Deane up to and including the 17th century. Then in the next century the “e” got taken out and the spelling became Dean.  Now Dean predominates.  The table today shows the approximate numbers of Deans and Deanes today.

Numbers (000’s) Dean Deane Total
UK    39     5    44
America    35     2    37
Elsewhere    24     5    29
Total    98    12   110

Sir Alured de Denn.  Sir Alured de Denn of Denn Hill in Kent was said to have been a person of great learning.  He was a Seneschal, an official who governed of the household operations of the Priory Christ Church of Canterbury, and was the Escheater of Kent in 1234.   He was also appointed by Henry III to enforce the law on Romney Marsh, the flat expanse of land by the coast that lay between Folkestone and Dungeness.

Sir Alured had three leopard heads caboshed (i.e., three leopard “faces”) on his seal.

The Deanes of Oxenwood.  John and Thomas Deane were the sons of John Deane who had leased the Oxenwood estate in Wiltshire sometime in the 1630’s.  The family had been a long-standing one in nearby NW Hampshire, but not apparently one of any great significance.

John the elder had been too young to fight in the Civil War, but got drawn into a local insurrection at the time of the Protectorate. He found himself condemned to death and was only able to obtain a reprieve at great expense. He was released on bail in 1656 and, on a certificate of his penitence, allowed to redeem his estate.  He fared better during the Restoration and he became prominent in local affairs and an MP in 1678. He died in 1695.  His heir James sold Oxenwood in 1701.

Thomas, his younger brother, emigrated to America in 1664 and settled in Boston.  There he succeeded so well as a merchant that he converted a younger son’s portion into a large fortune. He returned to London in 1676 a rich man.

The Deane Architects of Cork.  David Deane was a builder and his son Alexander, also a builder, had married Elizabeth Sharpe.  Unusually for the times Elizabeth was active in her husband’s business. On Alexander’s sudden death in 1806 she was thus able to take over the running of the firm.  However, she had her problems.  There was a flaw in her husband’s will which prevented her from acquiring the properties that he owned in Cork city.  In the end, it required a private Act of Parliament for her to gain the leases of the properties.

Her eldest son Thomas was at her side by this time.  He had started working at the firm in 1806 at the age of just fourteen.  In 1811 he designed his first building, the Cork Commercial Buildings on South Mall, and he was on his way.  He soon rose to public eminence.  He was mayor of Cork in 1815, 1830 and 1851, and was knighted in 1830.

Two other sons – Alexander (known as “Sandy Bull”) and Kearns – were also architects. Sadly both died young, from TB.

Deans in NW England in 1881.  The three NW counties of Staffordshire, Cheshire, and Lancashire accounted for almost 40% of the Deans in England in the 1881 census.  The following were the main Dean numbers by town in these counties in that census.

Town County Numbers
Salford Lancashire    218
Manchester Lancashire    213
Stoke Staffordshire    206
Macclesfield Cheshire    149
Burnley Lancashire    131
Stockport Cheshire    129
Audley Staffordshire    120

The Dean Family Reunion.  While the Revolutionary War was raging and Roger Dean was fighting for the American cause, he had lost track of his family back in Ulster and they of him.  As partial payment for his military service, Roger received lands near Mount Sterling in Kentucky.  So he walked over the Blue Ridge and homesteaded there, eventually beginning a household with a comely postmistress named Rebecca.

Roger’s son Daniel, reared fatherless in Ulster, had a growing curiosity about his father’s fate.  So at age 18 and near penniless, he boldly boarded a ship bound for the port of Philadelphia. Once there, he worked for his keep and searched high and low to locate his lost father.  He wandered through Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia seeking clues.  Eventually he learned that his father was alive and living on Kentucky’s frontier. Once at Mount Sterling, Daniel quickly found his errant father and learned that he and Rebecca had begun a second family.

During his travels Daniel had met Jenny Steele of Steele’ Tavern in Virginia.  They eventually married and relocated near Mount Sterling where Daniel built a mill, a house for the couple, and another for his sister and mother whom he had brought from Ireland to Kentucky in 1790.

The Deans, however, were alarmed to see the infusion of slave-owners into Kentucky.  As Covenanter Presbyterians, they abhorred the “peculiar institution” as inhumane and intolerable. Daniel therefore saved their earnings and in 1804 purchased a wilderness tract in the new free state of Ohio.  Daniel Dean and his party departed for Ohio while his father Roger remained behind in Kentucky where he died in 1815.

The Dean Family Farm in Ohio is now a historic site on the National Register of Historic Places.  Daniel died there in 1743.  No fewer than 36 of his 110 offspring served in the Union Army during the Civil War, according to records read out at an 1880 Dean family picnic and reported in The Xenia Gazette.

James Dean’s Ancestry.  James Dean’s ancestry goes back to John W. Dean who was born in Mercer county, Kentucky in 1813 from parents who had probably arrived there from Virginia.  John moved to Indiana around 1840 and died at Fairmount in unfortunate circumstances in 1890.

“John Dean of Fairmount met with a peculiar accident on Saturday afternoon. He was sitting in a chair at home when he accidentally became dizzy and fell forward to the floor.  A cut on his head and a few bruises resulted.  He was unconscious when he was picked up and remained so until Tuesday when he died.  He was a well-known man in the county.”

The line from John went to Calvin, Charles Desco and then to Winton Dean, the father of James Dean. Winton Dean was born in Fairmount like his forebears. He was a farmer who later became a dental technician.  James grew up in Fairmount and at the age of 18 joined his father in Los Angeles where he had settled.

Dean Names

  • Sir James Deane was an Elizabethan merchant adventurer who traded to India, China and the Spice Islands. 
  • Silas Deane was an American merchant, politician, and diplomat at the time of the Revolutionary War. 
  • Dizzy Dean was a baseball pitcher in the 1930’s, best known for leading the 1934 Gashouse Gang St. Louis Cardinals. 
  • James Dean was an American actor who became a cultural icon of the 1950’s after his performance in Rebel Without a Cause and his subsequent death in a car crash. 
  • Christopher Dean was the English ice dancer who won a gold medal with his partner Jayne Torvill at the 1984 Winter Olympics.

Dean Numbers Today

  • 44,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 42,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 29,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Dean and Like Surnames

These names are locational, describing someone who lived in those medieval times by the side of a bank, or by a barn or a lane or a shaw (which means a wood) or a wood and so forth.  Both the oak tree and the ash tree have in fact provided locational surnames – Oakes and Nash (from atten Ash).  Here are some of these locational surnames that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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