Ellis Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Ellis Surname Meaning

Elis (from the Greek Elias and the biblical Elijah) was a popular medieval name, having been adopted by some early saints. It became in Old English Elys or Elis and then Ellis.

In Wales this surname seems to have absorbed forms derived from the Welsh personal name Elisedd, meaning one who is kindly and benevolent.

Ellis developed from an early time as a surname in North Wales and in the West Ridings of Yorkshire.  An early genealogical account of the development of the Ellis name was William S. Ellis’s 1866 book Notices of the Ellises of England, Scotland and Ireland. 

Ellis Surname Resources on The Internet

Ellis Surname Ancestry

  • from Wales and England
  • to Ireland, America, Caribs (Jamaica), and Canada

Wales.  The Welsh patronymic style, such as Ellis ap Griffith, first applied. Ellis as a surname dates from about 1600 at Ystumllyn near Criccieth in Carnarvon.

The name later was to be found more in Merioneth (present day Gwynedd). This rural part of Wales became a hotbed first of nonconformity and then of nascent nationalism. The farmer Rowland Ellis, a convert to Quakerism, left Dolgellau for Pennsylvania with a hundred like-minded enthusiasts in 1686. They settled in Bryn Mawr, named after his farmhouse in Dolgellau and now a famous women’s college. Other Quaker Ellises left for Pennsylvania in 1690 and 1707.

Land evictions were a problem in the 19th century. Tom Ellis, the son of an evicted Bala tenant, was elected MP in 1886 on a nationalist program at the tender age of 27. Sadly he died young before his promise could ever be fulfilled.

England. The Yorkshire Ellises were equally as numerous.

Yorkshire.   Sir John Ellis built Kiddal Hall near Barwick in the late 14th century and it stayed with the family for nearly four hundred years. There were clusters of Ellises in Halifax and elsewhere in the West Ridings.

Ellis was a common name around Ossett. Joshua Ellis from Ossett bought into the Savile woollen mill in Dewsbury in the 1820’s. The mill of Joshua Ellis and Company, one of the oldest in Yorkshire, lasted into the 21st century but was closed down recently.

A Quaker Ellis community established itself in Rotherham and later, further south and in a more substantial way, in Leicester. Starting as farmers, branches of this family in Leicester moved into a variety of merchant and banking businesses. John Ellis began the Leicester and Swimmington railway in the 1840’s and became an MP and mayor of the borough.

Less monetary-minded were a Quaker couple from Bradford, James and Mary Ellis, who moved to the west coast of Ireland at the time of the potato famine and embarked on a Quaker relief program for the people of Letterfrack.

The Ellis or Ellys name also surfaced at Wynham, a small village near Louth in north Lincolnshire.  The first Ellis of distinction was Sir Thomas Ellis, born there in 1474.  Sir William was a judge and politician who sat in the House of Commons at various times between 1640 and 1679; while Sir Richard, a zealous non-conformist, was a Lincolnshire Parliamentarian in the early 1700’s.

Elsewhere.  There was as well an early Quaker Ellis community in Cornwall near St. Just. The Ellis name was to be found from the 1620’s in Penzance and Redruth and in the Scilly Isles. And the Ellis name also cropped in Dartmoor villages such as Modbury, Chagford and Belstone in Devon.

An Ellis family in Cambridgeshire has been traced back to Bourn where they held a manor around the year 1500. They were prominent landowners at Meldreth in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Ireland. Ellis appeared as Elys in Dublin in 1283 and has recurred frequently in Irish records in subsequent centuries in Dublin, Cork, Monaghan, and in various parts of Ulster.

Thomas Ellis from Lincolnshire settled in Monaghan sometime around 1680.  Henry Ellis of this family had an adventurous career at sea as a slave trader before being appointed Governor of the Georgia colony in 1755.  Later Ellises made their home at Magherymore in Wicklow.  Colonel Henry Leslie Ellis fought in World War One and died on the Western Front in 1915.

Patrick Henry Ellis from Dublin was one of the first English settlers in South Africa, arriving there with British troops when they occupied the Cape in 1795.

America. Ellis Island in New York Harbor was the arrival point for immigrants to America in the late 19th century. The name was nothing special. A New York tradesman, Samuel Ellis, had bought the uninhabited island in the 1770’s and gave it his name. But he resold the island thirty years later.

There were Ellis arrivals there or elsewhere on the East Coast from England, Wales, and Ireland:

  • the descendants of John Ellis were to be found in Sandwich, Massachusetts for many generations. A branch ended up in Maine.
  • Edward Ellis arrived in Virginia in 1636. Later Ellises settled in Tennessee and North Carolina. Daniel Ellis of Tennessee spun his Civil War stories into a popular book, The Thrilling Adventures of Daniel Ellis, that was published in 1867.
  • and Archibald Ellis was one of the pioneer farmers of Butler county, Kansas in the 1860’s.

Texas.  Other Ellises moved onto Texas. In fact, by the 20th century, the state of Texas had the largest number of Ellises in the United States:

  • Richard Ellis had left Virginia for Texas in 1834 while it was still part of Mexico. He set up his cotton plantation in Bowie County, attended the Texas convention in 1836, and was the one who signed the Texas Declaration of Independence.
  • William Ellis ran his sugar plantation in what is now Sugar Land before the Civil War on slave labor and after the war on convict labor.
  • while later arrivals included MG Ellis, who started a cattle business in north Fort Worth, and James Ellis, who was a property developer in south Dallas at the turn of the century.

Other Ellises.  Ellis is sometimes in America a Jewish surname, probably originating from Lithuania. Abraham Ellis and his family were recorded as arriving in New York from Lithuania in 1888.

The name could also be Mediterranean. Toufic Kmeid was an immigrant in the 1920’s from Lebanon who changed his name to Ellis (after his grandfather Elias). He started out as a travelling peddler and, after making some money, was able to buy his own store in a small town in upstate New York. In Kisses from a Distance, Raff Ellis chronicled this family history, his parents’ marriage and migration to America and their struggle to raise a family and make ends meet during the Great Depression.

Caribbean. John Ellis was an early settler in Jamaica, having arrived there from Wrexham in 1665. The Ellises became one of the leading planter families in Jamaica.  Charles Ellis inherited the family sugar estates in 1782 after his father was lost at sea and became a leading spokesman for the West Indian planters in the English Parliament.  However, the Ellis Jamaican fortunes began a decline in the 1830’s as their estates became saddled with debts.

Still, the Ellis name has lived on in Jamaica – with Alton Ellis, the godfather of Rocksteady, and Hortense Ellis, who is acclaimed as Jamaica’s First Lady of Songs.

The Ellis name was also to be found in Curacao.  Here the forebear appears to have been Jan Ellis who had come to New York (then New Amsterdam) in the 1640’s.  Three brothers – Jan, Nathaniel and Daniel – moved from New York to Curacao around 1700.

Canada. Ellises from Ireland were early immigrants into Newfoundland, from the 1790’s.  The town of Elliston is named after the Rev. William Ellis, a Methodist missionary from county Down. William Ellis ran a construction business in St. John’s and helped rebuild the town after a devastating fire in 1892. He was appointed mayor of St. John’s in 1910.

Edward and Mary Ellis were early settlers in Puslinch township southwest of Toronto. Edward donated the land for the Ellis Methodist chapel that was built there in 1861.

There were a number of Ellises who headed west as the 19th century proceeded; such as Robert and Eliza Ellis who homesteaded near Fort Walsh in Saskatchewan in 1885; and Thomas and Sarah Ellis who moved to Calgary in 1886 and then onto Nanaimo in British Columbia in 1894.

South Africa. Patrick Henry Ellis arrived in the Western Cape with British troops in 1795 and married a local Afrikaans woman. They have many descendants in South Africa.

Australia. Elias and Rebecca Ellis were early Jewish migrants to Australia. They arrived from England in the 1820’s and made their home on Pitt Street in Sydney. Louis Ellis became sheriff of Victoria and his daughter Constance one of the first woman doctors in Australia.

Ellis Surname Miscellany

Ellis at Kiddal Hall.  The road crosses Potterton Bridge and on top of the rise above Potterton Beck stands Kiddal Hall, mentioned in the Domesday Book as Chidale or cow valley.

In the late 14th century, Sir John Elys held Kiddal, whose family had built the Hall and were to be associated with Kiddal for 400 years.  Later, John Ellis supported the King in the Civil War.  It is thought that he was killed by Parliamentary forces on the doorstep or in a small room in Kiddal Hall.   It has often been said that those who live there can still hear the sound of foot haunting the old hall.

On the south wall of the Ellis chapel in Elmet church in Barwick is a stone tablet to William Ellis of Kiddal Hall who died in 1771.  He had married Mary Bourne and was the last of the Ellis family to have lived in the Hall. He was a surgeon in London who inherited the hall from his brother in the 1740’s and proceeded to pay off the mortgage.

Reader Feedback – Nicholas Ellis of London.  I am a descendant of Nicholas Ellis (1526-1602) who was born in London. I am interested in finding out something about his religious history and wonder if he can be traced from Spain when the Jewish people were expelled.

Daryl P. Spindler (daryl-Splindersr@yahoo.com)

Some Early Ellis Emigrants to America

Birth Ellis Name From –
1593 John Wales (Llanycil)
1607 John, and Elizabeth England
1618 Morris, and Catherine Wales (Llanycil)
1628 John, and Elizabeth England
1647 Cadwalader, and Jane Wales (Llanycil)
1661 John, and Margaret England (Kent)
1683 Cadwalader, and Margaret Wales (Llanycil)
1704 Richard, and Jane Ireland (Dublin)

Cadwalader Ellis was apparently one of William Penn’s colonists in Pennsylvania.  He married Margaret Edwards, also born in Wales, in Goshen township in 1712.  He died in 1730.

Ellis Island.  Ellis Island was no more than a lot of sand in the Hudson river, located just south of Manhattan.  The island was named Kiodhk (Gull Island) by the Michegan Indians that lived on the nearby shores.  Soon after the British took possession of the area from the Dutch in 1664, the name of the island was changed to Gibbet Island because men convicted of piracy were hanged there.

In the 1770’s, the island was sold to Samuel Ellis, a local joiner made a freeman of New York.  He developed it as a picnic spot.  Ellis then offered the island for sale and it was eventually sold to the US War Department in 1808 for $10,000.  It was not until 1892 that the well-known immigration station on the island was opened.

The Ellises of Leicester.  The Quaker Ellises who lived in the county of Leicester were a large and remarkable family, as a recent book, Ellis of Leicester – A Quaker Family Vocation, recounts.

Starting as successful farmers, branches of the family were soon in business, particularly in the extraction industries of lime, slate, coal, and granite.   They were merchants for all these commodities and many more products besides.  They were also involved in banking, building societies and insurance.  From their humble beginnings, many of their businesses have continued as part of larger conglomerates.

Perhaps the best known member was John Ellis of Beaumont Leys and Belgrave Hall, noted most of all for his involvement in the Leicester & Swannington and Midland Railways, but there were many other family members whose achievements are worthy and interesting to record.

From a strong commercial base and a strong adherence to their Quaker beliefs, they were very concerned with social welfare and committed in their work to support hospitals, schools, churches, and the temperance movement.  Among them were writers, borough and local councillors, and three members of Parliament.

William Ellis of Belstone.  William Ellis who died in 1936 lived all his life in the small village of Belstone on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon.   He was described by one writer in 1902 as “the most versatile of living Englishmen.”  The Book of Belstone put it this way:

“Mr. Ellis’s skills included photographer, Dartmoor guide, repairer of watches and clocks, chemical manure and seed merchant, dog breeder (red setters a speciality), dealer in game, Knight of Honor and the Warden of Primose League, postman, organist, churchwarden, bell-ringer, lay reader, boot and shoe maker, bicycle repairer, gardener, wireless operator and portreeve.”

A later Bill Ellis from this village was well-known locally as a singer of old Devon folk songs.

Archibald Ellis – from Ireland to Kansas.  Archibald Ellis grew up in county Mayo in Ireland but set out, at the age of 23, for America.  He met his wife Ann on the voyage over and they settled first in New Jersey and then in Lake county, Illinois where he pursued his trade as a chandler.

He had a zest for adventure.  When the news first came through of the discovery of gold in California, he rushed out there.  He was gone two years before returning to his family in Illinois.  But the gold bug had gotten to him and he soon returned for another stint, this time staying for seven years before coming back via Cape Horn.

It was in 1859 that he set out from Illinois with his family for Walnut valley in Kansas territory.  They embarked on a boat at La Salle on the Illinois river, went down that stream and into the Mississippi, and at St. Louis changed to a smaller boat and turned against the current of the Missouri and finally disembarked at Westport Landing (now Kansas City).

The family had horses and wagons with them and they set off across the country to Emporia, a budding new village on the Kansas prairies.  There Archibald left his family and went in search of suitable farmland.  He found it in what is now Butler county, Kansas.

Archibald and Ann had nine children, of whom the sixth-born, John, became a prominent early Kansas stockman and farmer.   He was old enough to remember when buffalo still roamed the area.

The Ellis House in South Dallas.  Sitting at 2426 Pine Street, across the street from Charles Rice Elementary, is the former home of James M. Ellis, an Englishman who was among the earliest real estate developers involved with the construction of modern-day Dallas.

It is the last vestige of a time when South Dallas was an expanse of cotton fields and dirt roads that were paved over some eight decades ago.  Certainly, it’s the last house in the area built in the Classical Revival style, with wood shingles adorning the gables and its wraparound front porch, steeply pitched roof, and once elegant sunroom jutting from the side.

Researchers debate the house’s age.  Some insist it was built in 1905, others say a few years later.  The name of the architect is not known.

Reader Feedback – Ellis in Curacao.  Jan/John Ellis was not from Holland, although Jan Ellis spoke Dutch in New York in 1680. He was English (the coat of arms is English, around 1570, was three eels naiant in pale).

He was most probably a descendant from John Eells of Dorchester, New England Puritans.  They carried the same coat of arms.  Many things align and of his son John Eells, somehow nothing is known. I guess he went to sea and became rich with illegal trade and perhaps became a pirate. His grandchildren (I assume) – you mention their names – were prominent merchants.

Reader Feedback – Patrick Henry Ellis in South Africa and His Descendants.  I am a 6th generation Ellis after Patrick Henry Ellis who came to South Africa in 1795.  Patrick married an Afrikaans lady, a descendant of Pierre Joubert, Margaretha Magdalena Joubert, in 1803.

  • they had nine children, the second being my great grandfather, Gideon Jacobus Ellis, named after Magdalena’s father Gideon Joubert.
  • G.J.‘s son was named Gideon Jacobus Johannes Christiaan, the 3rd and 4th names coming from Patrick’s father John Christian.
  • G.J.J.C.’s son was Patrick Henry, sometimes known as Patrik, my grandfather.
  • my father was Gideon Jacobus
  • and I am also G.J.  I was born in 1931 in Ladysmith, Western Cape province.

I have a fairly comprehensive list of all family members of my family tree. but I would like to know more about Patrick’s parents and further back.

Deon Ellis (deon.ellis@mweb.co.za)

Ellis Names

  • Sir John Ellis was the forebear of the Yotkshire Ellises in Kiddal Hall. 
  • Rowland Ellis led the Welsh Quaker migration to Pennsylvania in the 1680’s. 
  • Samuel Ellis (or Dutch Sam) is the boxer credited with having developed around 1800 the uppercut punch. 
  • Richard Ellis was the signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence in 1836. 
  • John Ellis was a prominent Quaker businessman in Leicester. 
  • William Webb Ellis was the Victorian clergyman often credited with the invention of the game of rugby football while a schoolboy at Rugby School. 
  • Dowel Ellis was the mayor of Johannesburg after whom Ellis Park, South Africa’s national rugby stadium, is named.
  • Ruth Ellis was in 1955 the last woman hanged in Britain.

Ellis Numbers Today

  • 85,000 in the UK (most numerous in Essex)
  • 70,000 in America (most numerous in Texas).
  • 44,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Ellis and Like Surnames  

Hereditary surnames in Wales were a post-16th century development.   Prior to that time the prototype for the Welsh name was the patronymic, such as “Madog ap Jevan ap Jerwerth” (Madoc, son of Evan, son of Yorwerth).  The system worked well in what was still mainly an oral culture.

However, English rule decreed English-style surnames and the English patronymic “-s” for “son of” began first in the English border counties and then in Wales. Welsh “P” surnames came from the “ap” roots, such as Price from “ap Rhys.”

These are some of the present-day Welsh surnames that you can check out.


Click here for return to front page

Written by Colin Shelley

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *