Emerson Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Emerson Surname Meaning

Emerson is a patronymic name from the northeast of England. The root could be Emery – from the German personal name Emaurri introduced into England by the Normans; or from the Anglo-Saxon Emars sunu, meaning “son of Emar” or “son of Ethelmar;” or from Haimericus, comprised of haim meaning “home” and rik meaning “rule,” which was the basis of the Gascon name Aimeric (in Italian Amerigo).

Early Emerys are found throughout England, early Emersons mainly in Durham.  Emmerson is an alternative spelling of the name.

Emerson Surname Resources on The Internet

Emerson Surname Ancestry

  • from NE England
  • to America and Australia

England. The Emerson name is thought to have originated in Durham and with Aimeric, the archdeacon of Durham in the early 13th century. This may explain the subsequent Emerson association with the bishopric of Durham. The first tracked family began with Ralf Emerson, born around 1500 in Foxton in the bishopric of Durham.

At Hurworth near Darlington in Durham there is a monument to the rather eccentric mathematician William Emerson. He was a native of this village and was buried in its churchyard.

In the 17th century there were a number of Emerson “merchant adventurers” in Newcastle, notably John Emerson of the Eastgate Emersons. There were also Emersons recorded as foresters at Stanhope in Weardale at this time. Their numbers increased sharply in the 18th century with the lead mining at Stanhope.

By the 19th century, the geographic location of the Emerson name was in a line stretching south from Durham to Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.  One Emerson family in Lincolnshire traces back to the village of Searby in the early 1500’s. A genealogical survey was undertaken by the writer and photographer Peter Henry Emerson in his 1898 book The English Emersons.

Ireland. William Emerson from Bedfordshire was an early English settler in Ireland, arriving at Carofin in county Clare in the 1630’s. Two centuries later his descendants, Catholic, made their home at Clifden on the coast in Galway. Tom Emerson was a house builder, as was his son Geoffrey. His family ran the Ivy Hotel there for many years.

America. Robert Emerson came to America from Lincolnshire with his brother Michael and sister Elizabeth in the 1650’s. They settled in Haverhill, Massachusetts. One branch of these Emersons migrated to Nova Scotia in the 1760’s, but didn’t stay. Later Emersons of this family moved to upstate New York and to points further west.

Thomas Emerson from Durham was the first Emerson ancestor in America of the writer Ralph Waldo Emerson.  He arrived in 1636 and settled in Ipswich, Massachusetts. These Emersons were all church ministers dating back to that time. Ralph’s father William was a liberal-minded Unitarian minister, pastor to Boston First Church. Ralph himself became known as a controversial thinker in the late 1830’s as he began to espouse Transcendentalism. Benjamin Emerson’s 1900 book The Ipswich Emersons recorded the family history.

Edwin Emerson, born in New York in 1823, was the patriarch of an Emerson family which spent much of the 19th century living and traveling in Europe and Japan. His five sons all eventually returned to the United States:

  • Edwin was one of Teddy Roosevelt’s 1898 Rough Riders and later a war correspondent
  • Alfred was an archaeology professor at Cornell University
  • while Samuel, Harrington and George involved themselves in banking in Nebraska.

Virginia and the South.  The Emerson spelling varied somewhat in the South. The 1790 Virginia census gave the following names of heads of families – John  Emmerson of Pittsylvania; Richard Emmerson of Fairfax; Arther Emerson of Nansemond; and Henry Emberson of Albemarle.

James Emerson, a Regulator in North Carolina, was captured by the British but escaped hanging in 1771.  A descendant John Hudson Emerson still lives in the area where he was taken.

George Emerson – his name being spelt variously – migrated south from Virginia through Tennessee into Alabama in the 1820’s. Other branches of the family ended up in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.

Australia.  John Henry Emerson from Lancashire was a sergeant at the Woolwich barracks when he absconded with army money in 1821 – for which he was tried and sentenced to 14 years’ transportation.

In Sydney he appeared to live well. But he was discovered in 1827 to have been part of a money forgery ring. This time the sentence was death, although later commuted to life imprisonment. His life ended in Sydney in 1852 in some degree of respectability, leaving behind a wife and four children.

Emerson Surname Miscellany

From Aimeric to Emerson.  Philip of Poitou accompanied King Richard I as his clerk to the Holy Land on the Third Crusade and, through this relationship, was appointed Archdeacon of Canterbury.  He was also successful in obtaining a license to operate a mint in Durham and in installing his nephew Aimeric de Taillebois as Archdeacon of Durham.

This Aimeric left issue, said to be a son (Richard fil Emerie) and two grandsons (Emerie fil Emerie), and is thought to have been the forebear of the Emersons in England.  This descent is believed to explain the long connection of the Emersons with the Bishopric of Durham, especially as parkers, foresters, and gatekeepers of the park belonging to the Bishopric.

Peter Henry Emerson in his 1898 book The English Emersons concluded the following about the Emerson origins:

“In county Durham we find several Emerysons before 1400 and they increase rapidly between 1400 and 1500 and more rapidly still subsequently; whereas – with the singular exception of two Yorkshire Emersons – we find no Emerysons (Emersons) in any other county in England until after 1500.

We may therefore fairly suppose that the Emerysons originated in county Durham; and may also suppose they are all descended from Aimeric, Archdeacon of Durham, the only one of the name of whom we have any early record in Durham.”

Emersons in the 1881 English Census

County Numbers (000’s) Percent
Durham     402    22
Lincolnshire     211    12
London     237    14
Elsewhere     950    52
Total   1,800

The Emerson name appeared in clusters in this census. Stanhope in Durham accounted for almost half of the Durham Emersons; and Louth in Lincolnshire more than a quarter of the Lincolnshire Emersons.

Emersons in Stanhope, Durham.  Emerson was the fourth most common surname in Stanhope in the 1881 census and accounted for almost half of all the Emersons in Durham.

Stanhope in Weardale was an area for lead mining.  Its population increased in the 18th century as new technology enabled deeper mines to be sunk. Miners’ pay was poor and families usually needed to supplement their income by farming small holdings on the hillside.  Fathers and sons would work at the mine while mothers and daughters tended to the animals.

One Emerson family of lead miners in Stanhope dates from the 1740’s.  Thomas Emerson, a miner, died there in 1818 at the age of seventy eight. The 1851 census showed the family of Thomas Emerson, lead miner, and his family at Pudding Thorn in Stanhope.

Thomas Emerson, Forebear to Ralph Waldo.  Thomas Emerson was born at Bishops Stortford in Durham in 1584.  Tradition has it that he came with his wife and children on the Elizabeth Ann in 1635.  In 1638 he was in Ipswich, Massachusetts where he received a deed of 120 acres from Samuel Greenfield, a weaver.  This was the basis of the Turkey Shore farm which was to remain in the family for generations.  Thomas himself died in 1666 and left a very considerable estate to his family.

The line ran from Thomas’s son Joseph, a Puritan minister who settled in Concord, through five generations of clergymen to Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Reader Feedback: i am a direct descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson, his mother Hannah and his father Thomas, as recorded in the 1851 census.

Gary Thomas (gassotasso@googlemail.com)

Reader Feedback – Ralph Waldo Emerson Descendant.  I am a descendent of Ralph Waldo Emerson via my matrilineal line in Arkansas. I’ve never been there and live on the West Coast. However, all of the Emersons to whom I am related and know about live in Arkansas.

What’s interesting is that my grandmother also said we are related to Jesse James.  She wasn’t pleased by this, but I thought it might help this site’s overall cause. I believe he was also an Emerson on one side at least.

Katherine (katherine.amber.wilson@gmail.com).

The Emersons Foray into Canada.  In the early 1760’s Theodotia Emerson and four of his sons left Massachusetts for Nova Scotia to pursue their dream of acquiring land.  At that time there was an attempt to reinforce the colonies of Nova Scotia, probably because of the French and Indian Wars, so land grants were being offered. Some 350 people set off from Massachusetts for Nova Scotia to clear the land in an effort to take advantage of this opportunity.

Following the Revolutionary War, the new settlers of Nova Scotia were asked to pledge allegiance to the King.  The Emersons refused and they were driven out and their homes burned.  Setting sail, hidden by the coves at night to avoid pursuit, they managed to escape Canada.

Samuel Emerson and his family landed in Mount Desert Island across the bay; while Joseph and Benjamin went back to the Bristol county area of Massachusetts and set up their home in Rehoboth.  It is believed that their father Theodotia had died in Sackville, Nova Scotia, probably around 1780, and was buried there.

Roy Emerson’s Family Background.  Roy Emerson was an Australian tennis player of the 1960’s, the holder of twelve Grand Slam singles titles.

His grandfather was originally from Durham in England and had emigrated to Australia in the late 1800’s.  Roy himself grew up on his father’s 800 acre dairy farm at Blackbutt in Queensland.  The farm had one tennis court and 160 cows, which Roy milked almost every day. The family moved to Brisbane in 1951 for no other reason really than to promote Roy’s tennis ambitions.

Emerson Names

  • William Emerson was an 18th century English mathematician.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson was the American lecturer, essayist and poet who led the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century.
  • J.W. Emerson was the American lawyer who founded the Emerson Electric Company in 1890.
  • Peter Henry Emerson, born in Cuba to an American father, was an accomplished late 19th century photographer and writer in England.
  • Roy Emerson was an Australian tennis player of the 1960’s, holder of twelve Grand Slam singles titles.
  • Keith Emerson was the founder of Emerson, Lake & Palmer in the 1980’s, one of the first pop band supergroups.

Emerson Numbers Today

  • 7,000 in the UK (most numerous in Yorkshire)
  • 10,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 5,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Emerson and Like Surnames  

Patronymic surnames can be with either the “-son” or the shorter “s” suffix to the first name.  The “son” suffix is more common in northern England than in the south and in lowland Scotland.  Here are some of these surnames that you can check out.



Click here for return to front page

Written by Colin Shelley

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *