Dreyfus Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Dreyfus Surname Meaning

Dreyfus is predominantly a Jewish surname, the origin of the name coming from the German town of Trier on the Moselle river, close by the border with France. Jews driven out from there in the 16th century found refuge in Alsace. 

The spelling variants, Dreyfus and Dreyfuss, have tended to correspond to the country the family was living in at the time the spelling was standardized. Dreyfus was more common among people of French origin; Dreyfuss among those of German descent.

The Dreyfuss name was also found in Bavaria. Here it appears to have derived as a nickname from the German dreifuss, meaning a “tripod” or “cooking pot with three legs.

Dreyfus Surname Resources on The Internet

Dreyfus and Dreyfuss Surname Ancestry

  • from France and Germany (Jewish emigrants)
  • to England and America

Although Alsace is in present-day France, Jews there may have had either a French or a German cultural background. Two famous Dreyfuses have come from Alsace.

Alfred Dreyfus, a young French artillery officer, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1894 for allegedly communicating French military secrets to the Germans. What came to be known as the Dreyfus Affair divided French society sharply. Alfred’s ancestry in Alsace has been traced back to Mathias David of Trier in the 17th century.  

Leopold Dreyfus was born in Sierentz, Alsace in 1833. At the age of eighteen he began trading wheat from neighboring farms and founded a company under his father’s name of Louis as he was too young to use his own. That company is now the global commodity trading company Louis Dreyfus. In the early 1900’s he changed his own surname and those of his descendants to the hyphenated Louis-Dreyfus. His line goes back to the marriage of Marx and Mindel Dreyfus in Sierentz in 1762.

The Dreyfus and Dreyfuss numbers in Alsace are small today. They total less than 700 for the whole of France. There is also a smattering of Jewish Dreyfuses in Switzerland.

England. Charles Dreyfus, said to have been distant relative of Alfred Dreyfus the man caught up in the Dreyfus Affair, arrived in England in 1869. A chemist by training, he became the manager and owner of a chemical plant in Manchester which manufactured DMC wire. Charles employed the Zionist Chaim Weizmann at the plant and remained a friend of his until his death.

Edmund Dreyfus who came to England in 1895 was also from Alsace, although from a branch of his family that had started a bank in Switzerland. His son John Dreyfus became well-known internationally as a typographer and historian of letters.

AmericaAn early arrival was Abraham Dreyfus from Bavaria who came in 1849 and joined the US army in the West. He enlisted in the Utah expedition in 1857 and was based in Arizona and New Mexico during the Civil War. After the war he spent some time in Mexico before settling down in San Bernardino, California.

Samuel Dreyfuss from Baden had come to America in 1860 and made a fortune before the Civil War selling spirits to Native Americans. His son Barney who arrived in 1881 owned the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball franchise from 1900 until his death in 1932. He is often credited with the creation of the baseball World Series.

Otto and Lillie Dreyfus were German immigrants who came to Wisconsin in the 1890’s and ran a tavern on Milwaukee’s South Side. Their son Woods joined Milwaukee’s WISN radio station in 1927 and over a twenty-year period served as singer, announcer, program director, and finally as its General Manager. Woods’ son Lee Dreyfus was Wisconsin’s Governor from 1979 to 1983.

Dreyfus in the South.  Henry Dreyfuss came to Shreveport, Louisiana from Alsace in 1855 and started up as a merchant there. His son Jules owned a sugar cane business in New Iberia.  “His wife was mixed African and American Indian (and thus they could not technically be married). Although he was white and she was black, he sent their daughter to some of the finest private schools.”  It was said that this Jewish family also took on the name of Threefoot (an English translation of their name) when they arrived in America.

Theodore Dreyfus arrived in New Orleans from Mannheim in Germany in the 1880’s. He started up a general store which has now passed through four generations of Dreyfus management. In 1989 the store became Joe’s Dreyfus Store restaurant.

A Dreyfus family from Alsace arrived in Mississippi around the year 1880. By the early 1900’s Jonas Dreyfus and his brothers had established a candy manufacturing business in Montgomery, Alabama. Jonas’s son Jack Dreyfus, born there in 1913, was the founder of the Dreyfus Funds and is widely credited for having invented the commonplace mutual fund through direct marketing to the American public.

Louis-Dreyfus.  The Louis-Dreyfus family was described as one of the “top five biggest fortunes of France.” However, as a Jewish family during the Second World War much of the family assets were confiscated by the Vichy government. Gerard Louis-Dreyfus, a great grandson of the company founder Leopold, came to America with his mother in 1940. He was the father of the actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

Dreyfus Surname Miscellany

Dreyfus Surname Origin.  In the year 1555, when the persecution of the Jews took on new momentum in Germany, the Elector Palatine Johann II and his neighbor the Archbishop Elector Johann of Trier agreed to expel all the Jews from their dominions.

The Jewish fugitives from Trier had to find a new home and sought it in Alsace. Jews of that time had not adopted the use of hereditary surnames.  Thus the municipal and communal authorities throughout Alsace entered the names of one and all the Jewish immigrants as Treviranus, (that is “the man from Trier” from the Latin Treviri.

The “T” of the official scribe was altered in the popular dialect to the hard “D,” and the official abbreviation “Trevus” in the local registers became “Dreyfus.”  And so every Jewish exile from Trier had to accept their new surname of Dreyfus.

Reader Feedback – The Jews from Trier.  I have two questions and both relate to sourcing.

First, I have not seen a reference to an expulsion of the Jews of Trier in 1555. In fact, the Encyclopedia Judaica refers to expulsions in 1418 and 1589, but the only mention of 1555 is that a rabbi was permitted to rejoin the community:

“By 1418, however, the Jews were expelled once more from the entire bishopric of Trier; among the properties of the Jewish community in the city that were disposed of in 1422 was a hospital. Jews did not reappear again in the bishopric until the beginning of the 16th century; in 1555 they were permitted the services of a rabbi to care for the needs of all who were resident in the bishopric. Elector Johann von Schoeneberg expelled them in 1589, only to readmit them in 1593.”

This is supported (and in some ways contradicted) by the website of the city of Trier itself, which states:

“The expulsion of the Jews from the city in 1418 marked the end of the medieval community in Trier. From that point onwards no more Jewish families lived in Trier until 1590.”

Second, you state that the T altered to the D at the time of the expulsion; however, the Museum of the Diaspora presents a more complicated story of linguistic drift over time, in which the T hung on longer:

“Von Treves is documented as a Jewish family name in 1135; Treves in the 13th century; Trevo and Trevoux in 1380; Trabot and Trabotto in the 14th century; De Trevos in 1400; Treviess in 1442; Trvis in 1499; Treve in 1627; Von Trier in 1644; Trier In 1675; Dreifous in 1680; Trifus in 1694; Dreifus in 1697; Dreifuss in 1698; Trefus in 1719; Drayfous and Drayfus in 1755; Trefous, Trefouse, Trefousse and Treff in 1800; and Triefus, Treifous, Treyfous, and Dreyfousse in 1809. The English variant Dryfoos is found in the 20th century.”

Nate Dreyfuss (natedreyfuss@gmail.com).

The Dreyfus Affair.  The Dreyfus Affair was a political scandal that divided French society from 1894 until its resolution in 1906. The affair is often seen as a modern and universal symbol of injustice and it remains one of the most notable examples of a complex miscarriage of justice and anti-Semitism.  The major role played by the press and public opinion proved influential in the lasting social conflict.

The scandal began in December 1894 with the treason conviction of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a young French artillery officer of Jewish descent.  Sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly communicating French military secrets to the Germans, Dreyfus was imprisoned on Devil’s Island in French Guiana where he spent nearly five years.

Evidence came to light in 1896 identifying a French army major named Ferdinand Esterhazy as the real culprit.  After high-ranking military officials suppressed the new evidence, a military court unanimously acquitted Esterhazy after a trial lasting only two days.  The Army then accused Dreyfus with additional charges based on falsified documents.

Word of the military court’s framing of Dreyfus and of an attempted cover-up began to spread.  Many, like the writer Emile Zola, put pressure on the government to reopen the case.  In 1899 Dreyfus was returned to France for another trial.

The intense political and judicial scandal that ensued divided French society between those who supported Dreyfus (called Dreyfusards) and those who condemned him (the anti-Dreyfusards). The new trial resulted in another conviction and a ten-year sentence, but Dreyfus was given a pardon and set free.

Eventually all the accusations against Dreyfus were demonstrated to be baseless.  In 1906 Dreyfus was exonerated and reinstated as a major in the French army.

John Dreyfus in England.  His family had originated in Alsace.  One branch had established a bank in Basle, preferring though to live in France.

Edmond Dreyfus decided to seek his fortune in England.  He arrived in 1895, naturalized in 1900, and became a stockbroker there in 1904.  His wife Marguerite was of German extraction, but her father had moved to England before settling in Paris where she was born.  It was into this thoroughly cosmopolitan family that John Dreyfus was born in 1918.

From a very early age he had been fascinated by the physical form of books and print.  Dreyfus was taken with the new type and layout with which Stanley Morison had transformed The Times in 1932.  Seven years later, Dreyfus joined the Cambridge University Press, where Morison was also typographic adviser, as a graduate trainee.

After serving in World War Two he was welcomed back to the Cambridge University Press.  In 1949 his first book came out, The Survival of Baskerville’s Punches, the story of how the work of the great Birmingham printer was preserved by Beaumarchais, passing eventually to the Parisian type-founders Deberny & Peignot.

In 1954, when Stanley Morison, the press’s typographical adviser, decided to retire, Dreyfus was his natural successor.  Two years later he became consultant to the Limited Editions Club of New York which specialized in fine printing.   These new responsibilities gave him a European reputation that, with his family background, came easily to him.  From 1968 to 1973 Dreyfus was President of the Association Typographique Internationale which had been founded by his friend Charles Peignot.

A graceful and popular lecturer, Dreyfus was much in demand in the United States as well as Europe. His particular subject was the fine printing of the 19th century.  He had a proper pride in his own achievements, and was delighted by the wonderful collection of tributes – drawn, printed, engraved or handwritten – presented to him in 1998 on his 80th birthday by his many admirers. He died in London four years later.

Jack Dreyfus, A Man of Many Talents.  His paternal grandfather was a first cousin of Alfred Dreyfus, the protagonist in the French Dreyfus Affair.

He was the founder of the Dreyfus Funds and is widely credited for having invented the commonplace mutual fund through direct marketing to the American public.  His early television commercials featuring a lion emerging from the Wall Street subway station proved very successful.  According to Barron’s Magazine, he is considered the second most significant money manager of the 20th century.

Jack Dreyfus was also a renowned championship bridge player.

And he established in the early 1960’s the Hobeau Farm in Ocala, Florida where he bred, trained and raced thoroughbred racehorses.  He served as Chairman of the New York Racing Association and was voted the 1976 Eclipse Award of Merit in 1976.  This is thoroughbred racing’s highest honor that can be presented to an individual displaying outstanding lifetime achievement and service to the thoroughbred industry.

Lee Dreyfus and His Red Vest.  Governor Lee Dreyfus proudly wore a red vest while posing for his official gubernatorial portrait painted by the Wisconsin artist George Pollard in 1983.

Dreyfus had begun wearing the vest while at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, probably in the early 1970’s. He wore it at that time because he thought the vest made it easier for UWSP students to recognize him.

There were also stories that the red vest was tied to anti-military student protests.  He had begun wearing it after someone shot an arrow at him one cold night as he arrived home on the campus. The notoriety from the incident reflected his controversial role as a pro-military national advocate for the ROTC.

The red vest quickly became his trademark. Dreyfus wore red vests in public until his death in 2008.  In his last year as governor, he donated one of his at least twenty red vests to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Dreyfus Names

  • Leopold Louis-Dreyfus was the founder of the global commodity trading company Louis Dreyfus. 
  • Henry Dreyfuss was one of the foremost American industrial designers of consumer products in the 1930’s and 1940’s. 
  • Jack Dreyfus was the founder of the Dreyfus Funds. He is widely credited with having invented the commonplace mutual fund through direct marketing to the American public. 
  • Richard Dreyfuss is an American actor who won the Academy award for Best Actor in the 1978 film The Goodbye Girl
  • Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a well-known American actress in both TV and film roles.

Dreyfus Numbers Today

  • 1,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 200 elsewhere (most numerous in UK)

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Written by Colin Shelley

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