Fisher Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Fisher Surname Meaning

The root fiscere meaning “to catch fish”, which gives us the occupation of fisherman, results in a number of Fisher-type surnames around Europe – Fisher in English, Fischer in German, Fiszer in Czech and Polish, Visser in Dutch, de Vischer in Flemish, Fiser in Danish and Fisker in Norwegian.

Fisher Surname Resources on The Internet

Fisher Surname Ancestry

  • from Germany (Fischer), England and Scotland and from Jewish emigrants
  • to Ireland, America, Canada, South Africa and Australia

By far the largest of the Fisher numbers has been the German Fischer.  It is the fourth most common surname in Germany and there are roughly 270,000 in Germany with that surname (with most bearers of the name, interestingly, living inland). It is also the 15th most common in Austria and is a Jewish surname as well.

By contrast, the UK Fisher numbers of 56,000 rank it there at 138th.

England.  The Fisher surname might suggest a place along the coast. But the early Fishers seem to have come from inland locations (where they were perhaps river fishermen instead).

Leicestershire Robert Fisher was recorded in Leicestershire as early as 1342.  His family established themselves as clergymen in Cossington village.  Geoffrey Fisher of this family became the 99th Archbishop of Canterbury in 1945. Another Fisher family took over Packington priory near Coventry after the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1540’s.

Packington Hall, which still stands, has the following inscription on its lead roof: “This house was built by Sir Clement Fisher Bart. in the year 1693 and was cased with stone and enlarged by his grandson Heneage Earl of Aylesford in the year 1772.”

Elsewhere The Fisher name also occurred at an early date at Rolleston in Staffordshire and Foremark in Derbyshire. St. John Fisher, the Catholic bishop who was executed for treason in 1535, was born in Beverley in the East Ridings of Yorkshire.

By the late 19th century, the largest number of Fishers was being recorded in Yorkshire. A number had migrated there. Linda Ann Carn in her book The History of the Fisher Family recorded one such family who had moved from Shelford in rural Nottinghamshire to Whitby in Yorkshire in the 1860’s.

Cumbria and Lancashire The Fisher name became prominent in Cumbria and the Furness district of Lancashire during the 19th century:

  • first there was Charles Fisher who lived in Distington Hall on the proceeds of his rail line which moved out the red haematite iron ore from the Cumbrian hills.
  • then there was William Fisher the farmer who recorded the growth of his village of Barrow-in-Furness into an industrial port.
  • and finally in 1847 came James Fisher and his steamship company. He shipped out the iron ore from Barrow and was operating by the 1870’s the largest coastal fleet in the UK.

Scotland. The Fisher name also came north to Scotland and was to be found primarily in Glasgow and Ayrshire. Its most famous son was probably Andrew Fisher, born into a coal mining village near Kilmarnock. He emigrated with his brother to Australia in 1885 and rose to become Prime Minister of that country on three separate occasions, starting in 1910.

Ireland. The English brought the Irish name to Ireland, although the name was also sometimes adopted by the O’Bradain sept in Connacht.

Sir Edward Fisher, an English adventurer, received large land grants in the early 1600’s in west Dublin and Wexford (after his death, these estates passed onto the Chichester family). Dublin was also the home of Quaker Fishers from Cheshire, many of whom moved onto a safer refuge in Pennsylvania, and of Jonathan Fisher, the landscape painter.

The Fisher merchant family of Dunlavin in county Wicklow has been traced back to the early 1700’s. Their home was burnt down by insurgents during the 1798 rebellion. William Fisher of this family emigrated to Nova Scotia in the 1850’s. Richard Fisher was recorded as a saddler in the 1881 Dunlavin directory.

America. German Fischers outnumber English Fishers by about five to one in their home country. Consequently, during the wave of immigation to America that occurred over the 18th and 19th centuries, more Fischers came than Fishers. 

The 1850 Federal census reported Fischers/Fishers of German origin outnumbering Fishers of British origin by roughly three to one. However, once in America most Fischers would anglicize their names to Fisher. The 1920 census showed more Fishers than Fischers by almost five to one.

New England.  Early Fishers were Anthony, Cornelius and Joshua Fisher who had come in 1637 with other folk from Suffolk to settle in Dedham, Massachusetts. John Dix Fisher who founded the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston in the early 19th century was a descendant.  Philip Fisher’s 1898 book The Fisher Genealogy covered this family.

There were early Irish Fishers who came too. Deacon Samuel Fisher came to New England aboard a “starved ship” around 1740. He went to New Hampshire. Abel Fisher arrived ten years or so later, settling first in New Jersey and then heading west to the Pennsylvania frontier.

Pennsylvania. The main entry point for Fishers and Fischers turned out to be Pennsylvania. The first were probably English Quakers.  There were many. But Joshua Fisher the merchant was the most prominent of these Quakers.

He wrote in 1762:  “My grandfather John Fisher removed from Clitheroe in Lancashire in the year 1682 with all his children to Philadelphia.”  

According to Ann Wharton Smith’s 1886 book Genealogy of the Fisher Family, John Fisher arrived with his wife Margaret on the same ship, the Welcome, as William Penn. And it would appear that his family originally came from Yorkshire (near Wakefield), not Lancashire.

Joshua’s large mercantile business in Philadelphia was carried on by his son Samuel and his other sons (during the Revolutionary War they were interned in Virginia because of their Quaker beliefs).  Samuel’s daughter Deborah was an early proponent of women’s rights. She married into the Wharton Quaker family and it was their son Joseph who founded the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Sebastian Fisher came to New York with his wife Susanna from the German Palatine in 1709.  Not getting any land tenure rights where they settled in New York, they moved in 1723 with fifteen other German families to Pennsylvania and settled in Tulpehocken valley in Berks county. Some branches of the family later migrated to Virginia and Kentucky; while in 1818 Solomon Fisher moved to Missouri. The family history was recorded in Gertrude Fisher Harding’s 1942 book Fisher Genealogical History.

Meanwhile Christian Fisher came to the new Amish settlement in Berks county in 1749.  His family line was covered in Janice Egeland’s 1972 book Descendants of Christian Fisher and Other Amish-Mennonite Pioneer Families.

Many Fishers later moved south into North Carolina.  Charles Fisher, for instance, was in Rowan county, North Carolina by the 1760’s. Others stayed. The farmhouse which Henry Fisher built in Berks county in 1801 still stands today and proclaims itself as “Pennsylvania Deutsch.”  

A Fisher family of Dutch roots was in Pennsylvania by the 1790’s, moving from there to Ohio and Indiana and later Kansas. James Fisher, the first settler in Chase county, Kansas, was murdered there in 1871. David Fisher left Pennsylvania with his family in 1819 and headed west, to Ohio, Indiana and then Iowa. Descendants have spread over the American West.

Other Fisher lines began in Virginia and led into Kentucky and Tennessee.

Canada. Early Fisher arrivals were Empire Loyalists, although none of those below were of British origin:

  • Lewis Fisher was probably of German origin. He had come to New Brunswick in 1783 from New Jersey, settling in Fredericton.  Son Peter was known as the first historian of New Brunswick and his son Charles was Premier of New Brunswick in the 1850’s.
  • Jacob Fischer, of German origin, had fought for the British in the Seven Years’ War. He moved his family north from Pennsylvania in 1796 to new lands in York county, Ontario. Sharon Smith Troian’s 1991 book The Fischer-Fisher Family History recounts this story.
  • and three Fisher brothers of Dutch speakers – John, Michael and Valentine (Feltie) – left their homes in Pennsylvania for Huron county, Ontario. Feltie Fisher was one of the early settlers in Goderich and kept an inn there in the 1830’s and 1840’s. Some descendants later moved west to Saskatchewan.

But there were also Fishers coming to Ontario from Britain. James Fisher arrived in Montreal from Scotland in the 1770’s and was one of the early settlers of the Loyalist township of Cobourg.  Duncan Fisher from Perthshire came on the Swiftsure in 1821 and settled in Beckwith township (Lanark county).  And John Fisher brought his family over from Beverley in Yorkshire in the 1840’s and settled in Whitby township.  

Australia. Fred Fisher was a murky figure in the early history of the New South Wales colony. A London shopkeeper, he had been convicted in 1816 for the possession of forged banknotes and transported to Australia. Move the clock forward a few years and he was surprisingly in funds, leading a venture in Sydney to build a new papermaking mill. Then in 1826 he was murdered.

“One evening Fred Fisher left his home in Campbelltown and was never seen again. Four months later a local farmer stumbled into a local hotel in a state of shock, claiming that he had seen the ghost of Fred Foster. The ghost had been sitting on the rail of a bridge and had pointed to a paddock down the creek. Fred Fisher’s body was later discovered by the police in this paddock.”

Fisher was also a name in the early history of South Australia. Sir James Fisher had been a driving force behind its development as a colony and served as the first mayor of Adelaide in 1840. A Fisher family from Wales was among its early settlers, arriving on the Dutchess of Northumberland in 1839.

The best-known Fisher in Australia, however, was Andrew Fisher, who served as the country’s fifth Prime Minister. He had arrived as an immigrant from Scotland in 1885.

South Africa.  Samuel Fisher, Jewish from Lithuania, arrived in Johannesburg (after a stopover in America) in 1904.  He started a butcher’s shop there.  His son Morris traveled widely in the film industry and eventually settled in the 1950’s in what was then Rhodesia.

Fisher Surname Miscellany

The Fishers of Cossington in Leicestershire.  This family is of considerable antiquity and was formerly seated at Burton-on-the-Wolds in Leicestershire.  The earliest account – derived from old documents – was that of Robert Fisher, a yeoman farmer who died in 1342.  His descendants continued to live there until 1635 when John Fisher married and settled in Cossington.

Cossington church has the grant of arms for the Fisher family and memorial tablets to many of the Fishers. John Fisher of this family was a baker and alderman in Leicester in the 1760’s.  More recently, the Fishers were clergymen.  Henry Fisher served the parish for forty years in the late 19th century.   The youngest of his ten children, Geoffrey Fisher, became the 99th Archbishop of Canterbury in 1945.

William Fisher of Barrow.  The most important man in Barrow village in the first half of the 19th century was William Fisher.  He was born in Barrow in 1775 and died there in 1861.  He was a Low Furness yeoman farmer, i.e. a wealthy worker of the land.

From 1811 to 1859 he kept a diary of local events: births, marriages and deaths – the “hatchings, matchings and dispatches” column of today’s Evening Mail.  He also recorded seed and harvest times, catastrophes and commonplace events.

The diary is important because it gives us interesting glimpses of how the villagers of this small farming community used to live during a vibrant period of the area’s history.  During the 48 years covered by the diary the village of Barrow grew into the industrial town of Barrow, which was founded on the wealth from the red haematite iron ore of Furness and the slate of Kirkby. 

Fishers and Fischers to America

Numbers Per cent
Fishers from England   1,367    14%
Fishers from Scotland and Ireland      557      6%
Fishers from German lands      645      7%
Fischers from German lands   6,998    70%
Fischers from Russia      298      3%
Total   9,865   100%

More Fischers than Fishers came to America.  But once in America most Fishers anglicized their names to Fisher. The 1920 US census showed Fishers outnumbering Fischers by almost five to one.

An Alternative Origin for the Fischer Name.  Fischer is a Jewish as well as a German surname and generally considered to be of Ashkenazic origin.  Martin Fischer in his website has suggested an alternative Sephardic origin.

“Here is my speculative scenario for Sephardic origins of my Ashkenazic Fischer family.  The Hebrew name Chaim is changed to Vives to adjust to secular life in Catalanian-speaking Spain until the expulsion in 1492.  The family then flees to Italy where Vives is transformed to Feyvush, for which an alternative non-Jewish form is Phoebus.

Northward immigration follows into German or Polish-speaking lands and a patronymic (son of) name form is adopted, such as Faiveshevitz or Fajbiszewicz.  Finally, with increasing secularization or assimilation, possibly including mid 19th century immigration to America, the name is shortened to Fischer or Fisher.

This scenario of a name progressing from the Hebrew Chaim to the German Fischer is of particular interest to me because my great great grandfather was identified as Chaim ha-Kahane on his son’s gravestone.  Chaim’s grandson, Henry Fischer, who was my paternal grandfather, was probably named for Chaim.”

The Fishers at the Pennsylvania Frontier.  Abel Fisher came to America from Ireland with his wife Rachel in the 1750’s and they settled in New Jersey.  While there, he owned a small boat in which he carried oysters to Philadelphia and brought back domestic goods which he exchanged for oysters.

In 1773 he decided to emigrate to the then West.  Procuring a wagon and a team of miserable horses, he started out for the redstone country, near the line between Westmoreland and Fayette counties in Pennsylvania.  After a terrible journey over bad roads and mountains, they reached late in the fall a point one mile west of Fort Ligonier, now Ligonier borough.  Here their team gave out and refused to go any further.

They remained through the winter and finally concluded to make the neighborhood their permanent home. Subsequently Abel Fisher purchased a tract of land containing 300 acres two miles west of Ligonier on the Two Mile Run.  This land remained with the family for more than a hundred years.

Just as they commenced to make an improvement on their land, the Revolutionary War came on.  As they were on the frontier and exposed to Indian raids, the family removed to York, Pennsylvania where the women remained until the end of the war.  Mr. Fisher and the two oldest boys returned to Ligonier and lived amidst constant alarms and dangers, the Indians killing some of the settlers every year. Sometime during the war, Mr. Fisher died in the fort, it was said of pleurisy.

Sebastian Fisher’s Journey from the Palatine to Pennsylvania.  Conditions in the Rhineland had grown harsh by 1709.  Since 1702 the country had been in war and there seemed little hope for the future.  Palatines were heavily taxed and endured religious persecution.  The winter of 1708-1709 had been particularly long and cold.

To go to America became the dream for many, even though it meant a long, dreadful ocean voyage and a future in an unknown land away from their past and family. However, by April 1709, the Palatines were boarding their small boats in masses and heading down the Rhine for Rotterdam.  The river voyage took an average of 4-6 weeks through extremely cold, bitter weather. By October, more than 10,000 Palatines had completed the Rhine river journey.  From there streams of Palatines departed for America, most heading for Pennsylvania.

Sebastian Fisher had embarked for England from Rotterdam a year earlier with his wife Susanna and their two small children.  His condition was somewhat different.  He was a refugee, who – according to family lore – had been forced to leave his home and estate because of trumped-up charges of poaching.

The Fishers did reach New York in June, 1709, although one of their children had died on the crossing.  They found themselves encamped with other German immigrants in small villages along the Hudson river.  However, there was often trouble with the English colonist settlers who lived nearby.

Finally, in the spring of 1723, fifteen families, including Sebastian Fisher, decided to go to Pennsylvania, hoping for better treatment than they had received in New York. They traveled across the Schoharie valley to the Susquehanna river.  There they built boats and rafts and with their families proceeded down the Susquehanna to the mouth of Swatara creek. a distance of about 150 miles. Ascending the Swatara they crossed over the watershed into Tulpehocken valley where they settled.

Solomon Fisher in Missouri.  Solomon Fisher Jr. was but an infant when his father Solomon, mother and ten children migrated from Kentucky to Missouri. He was the only one of his immediate family who was too young to remember the long journey by way of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers on a keel-boat to Louisiana, Missouri.

But he must have remembered the excitement and sometimes the tragedy of the early years of this family in Missouri. For instance, he was still a young boy when his mother Mary was accidentally shot by one of his brothers. Hunting was a part of everyday life then.  Such accidents occurred in many homes, sometimes more than once. Solomon’s father received a gun-shot wound in the leg in his later years. It does not follow that they were either inexpert or careless. They were skilled in the use of firearms from childhood.  Many times their very life depended on their skill.

Solomon built himself a log cabin in the new town of Frankford, Missouri and lived there until his death in 1865.  During that time he operated a mill to ground wheat and corn to make bread for the community.

There were many local notables among the descendants of Solomon and his wife Matilda still living in and around Frankford in the 1930’s.

Feltie Fisher, The Inn-Keeper at Goderich, Ontario.  Feltie Fisher was one of the early settlers of Goderich, Ontario and kept an inn there in the 1830’s and 1840’s.  This is one account of him that has been handed down:

“Feltie was a character.  His English wife was as clean and tidy as the Dutchman was careless. She tried to give her guests all the rude comforts possible and went to the length of providing wash basins and ewers.  Feltie pitched them out of the window as innovations unbecoming hardy times, pioneers and wilderness.

In the breakneck road which was cut down the harbor hill, there was a spring which had worn for itself a basin just below its vent.  By this spring was a trough.

‘You vant to vash?’ asked Feltie to a party of travellers, English gentlemen who had left York on a fishing tour bound up the lakes. ‘You vant to vash?  Vell, I show you goot pure vater, straight from heaven.  The longer it runs the purer it is and the longer you vash the purer you gets.’

He bestowed a towel upon them and left them to wash in public as best they might.”

Fishers from Wales on the Dutchess of Northumberland to Australia.  In May 1839 Thomas Fisher saw an Emigration Officer and signed the papers that would take he and his family to a new life in Australia.

Just what were the motivating factors are not really clear.  Why would a forty two year old man from Swansea decide to uproot his whole family (including his son John and wife Ann and three daughters) and take them to an unknown colony on the other side of the world?  He may not have been aware of the severe hardships that the journey would entail.

To board their ship in London, the Fishers would initially have had to undertake a difficult trip from their home in Swansea, many long uncomfortable days travelling across rough dirt and cobblestone roads.

The family were travelling on assisted passages. and were housed in the steering section of the ship.  Here, in the midships, the conditions were cramped with four passengers often having an area of little more than six feet square to share.  The bunk in which they lived was also the storage place for their personal belongings.   These cramped and unhealthy conditions may have led to John and Ann Fisher’s daughter Anna contracting diarrhea and dying at the tender age of one year.  This sad event was somewhat lessened by the birth of their first son, Thomas, six weeks later.

The Dutchess of Northumberland had left London on August 6, 1839 and arrived in South Australia 135 days later on November 19.  Conditions at the landing area there were still primitive.  The passengers were required to make the six mile journey by themselves to the town of Adelaide.  They could travel by horse and dray.  However, because of a lack of money, it is more likely that they would have had to gather their lighter possessions and walk the distance, with the heavier items being carried on a wagon.

Fisher Names

  • Saint John Fisher was a prominent Catholic Bishop martyred by Henry VIII in 1535 for refusing to accept the King as the head of the Church in England.
  • Joshua Fisher was a prominent Quaker merchant in 18th century Philadelphia.
  • Andrew Fisher was Australia’s fifth Prime Minister, holding office on three occasions from 1910.
  • Bud Fisher was the American cartoonist who created Mutt and Jeff.
  • Bobby Fischer was briefly and famously chess champion of the world in 1972.

Fisher Numbers Today

  • 56,000 in the UK (most numerous in Somerset)
  • 88,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 51,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada).

Fisher and Like Surnames 

The first wave of German immigration into America came in the early 1700’s from the Rhine Palatine and Switzerland.  They were fleeing religious persecution at home.  Most ended up in Pennsylvania, bringing their Mennonite church with them.  Some went to the Mohawk Valley in upstate New York.  Their Germanic names often changed under English rule to English-style names.  Thus Fischer became Fisher, Schneider Snyder, Hubner Hoover and so forth.

The reasons for immigration were different in the 19th century – in search of a better life, sometimes to avoid the draft.  They came from all German states and went not just to Pennsylvania but all over as the middle and west of the country was opening up.  And they brought German skills with them, notably beer-making.

Here are some of the notable German surnames in America that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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