Fox Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Fox Surname Meaning
If your surname is Fox, it could be of English, German, or Irish origin. The English name was at first Foxe and then Fox.  The German word is Fuchs, often anglicized to Fox. The Irish source is either the Gaelic Sionnach or the Anglo-Norman de Bosque. In each case, the root is the animal, the fox.

Fox must have started out as a nickname. Did it refer to someone of red hair, the color of a fox? Or was it someone considered crafty or cunning, characteristics that are attributed to a fox?

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Fox Surname Ancestry

England. Where were the foxes? A 14th century name distribution showed the Fox surname to be mainly concentrated in a broad swathe of Middle England from Nottinghamshire to Cheshire, with a lighter smattering in the southern counties.

Notable Foxes in Tudor and Stuart times came from Lincolnshire and Leicestershire:

  • Lincolnshire supplied Richard Foxe, the prominent churchman who founded Oxford’s Corpus Christi College, and John Foxe, the author of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
  • George Fox, the founder of the Quaker movement, was born in a small village just outside Leicester.

From rural Wiltshire came two families:

  • one prominent in politics, the Foxes who were ennobled as the Barons Holland of Foxley
  • and the other a Quaker family who moved to Falmouth in Cornwall and started there various businesses based on Quaker principles.

The ship agency business which George Croker Fox began in Falmouth in 1762 still survives today. So too do Caroline Fox’s diaries of her meetings and correspondence with prominent Victorians of her day. From this family also came Edward Long Fox, the medical practitioner who in 1800 built an asylum for the well-to-do insane at Brislington House near Bristol.

A Fox family dated from about 1500 at Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire.  Henry Fox of this family was a London merchant who traded with the American colonies in the early 1600’s. This trading was then carried on by his son John and grandson John, the latter who was granted land in Virginia and moved there.

Yorkshire and Lancashire.  By the 19th century for whatever reason, the Fox name had spread steadily northwards, into Yorkshire and Lancashire. Did this represent migration? Or some quirks in nomenclature?

In Yorkshire the cluster of Foxes was mainly in the South Riding, particularly in and around the town of Dewsbury. Thomas Fox was born there in 1591 and there was the redoubtable Squire Fox of the 18th century. A Victorian institution was Fox’s biscuits in nearby Batley. Another Fox family business was the curiously named “shoddy and mango” merchant. And Dewsbury produced in the 20th century Leslie Fox, the noted mathematician, and Sir Marcus Fox, the Conservative politician.

In Lancashire a family historian has traced his own family in Roeburndale near Lancaster back to the early 1700’s. Isaac Fox went out to Jamaica in the early 1800’s.  Interestingly enough, a descendant of this family has seen the DNA’s of a number of Foxes in Yorkshire and Lancashire and found little genetic connection with his family.


Ireland.
If there was no Fox clan in England, there definitely was in Ireland, or rather two of them:

  • the Sionnach Foxes, who claimed an ancient heritage
  • and the de Bosque Foxes who came with the Anglo-Norman influx in the 12th century.

The Sionnach heartland was County Offaly in the middle of Ireland; the de Bosques were mainly in County Limerick, in particular in Doon. When the English began to enforce the anglicization of names, both Sionnachs and de Bosques became Foxes (although some Sionnachs did opt for Shinnick instead). In Gaelic speaking schools, a distinction did remain between the two names.

Tadg O’Catharnaigh, the Offaly clan chief who died in 1086, was the first to adopt the Sionnach (Fox) name.  Their base was an area between what is now Clara and Ballycumber (the Rock of the Fox, an ancient ceremonial place, still exists there).

They were an aggressive warlike clan, engaged in raiding against their neighbors and fighting the Anglo-Norman presence in the region. Their chief Hubert Fox resisted but lost against the forces of Cromwell in the 1650’s. As a result, his estates were confiscated and the family scattered.

One who did well for himself, as a merchant in Dublin, was Patrick Fox. He acquired Foxhall in County Longford and his family became landed gentry there. But Foxhall, like Kilcoursey castle in Offaly, is just a ruin today. The last of this line were two sisters, Amelia and Evelyn Fox.

America. If you are a Fox in America, you could be of English, Irish, or German origin.

English Foxes.  One early arrival was Thomas Fox who settled in Concord, Massachusetts in the 1640’s. In 1819, the Rev. James Angel Fox moved to Mississippi and later generations lived in Louisiana. Charles Fox, a descendant of another early Fox immigrant into Massachusetts, headed West in the 1860’s and was one of the founding fathers of San Diego in California.

Justinian Fox from the Fox family in Falmouth had arrived in Philadelphia in 1686. A descendant, Joseph Fox, was Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly during the Stamp Tax uproar and the family later moved to Foxburg in western Pennsylvania. The family story was recounted in Joe Fox’s 2006 book, The Fox Family of Philadelphia.

Captain John Fox, a London merchant, came to Virginia in 1664 and was the forebear of a well-to-do Virginian family.  Gentleman Henry Fox was his son and he made his home at Huntington along the Mattaponi river in King William county. There followed:

  • the Rev. John Fox who was the rector at Ware in Gloucester county in 1750.
  • William Fox who was supposed to have “put a period to his existence by firing a ball into his head” in 1795 after having been indicted for killing one of his servants for stealing.
  • while William D. McCain’s 1971 Fox book covered the later Henry Fox lines in South Carolina and Mississippi.

Irish Foxes  John Fox had arrived in Virginia from Ireland in 1649. Possibly he was the forebear of the writer John Fox Jr.

His earliest known ancestor was William Fox who was born in Loudoun county, Virginia around 1710. His Scots Irish descendants crossed the Wilderness Road to Kentucky in 1790. There followed three generations of Kentucky schoolmasters and then John Jr. who became famous through his novels about the mountain people of the bluegrass region. John settled in Big Stone Gap, Virginia where there is now a John Fox Jr. museum.

It is unclear whether James Fox was of Irish or English origin.  Born around 1740 and first found in Shenandoah county in Virginia, he had descendants who spread widely.  Some moved after the Revolutionary War to Kentucky; while Allen and Virginia Fox left for Buncombe county in North Carolina.  One line of this family later crossed the border into Canada and settled in Winnipeg.

The Fox influx from Ireland gathered pace as the 19th century proceeded. William Fox, for instance, came to Wisconsin from West Meath in the 1830’s; Richard Fox to Ohio from Dublin in 1841; Francis and Mary Fox to Tennessee from Roscommon in 1848; and Miles and Bridget Fox to Bytown in Ontario from Sligo in the 1870’s.

German Foxes  The Fox/Fuchs immigration from Germany seems to have started in the 1700’s, into New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.  Christoph Fuchs, later Christopher Fox, came to Ohio in the 1850’s.

Two well-known descendants of 19th century immigrants were William Fox, who founded the Fox Film Corporation, and Vicente Fox, a recent President of Mexico.

Canada.  James and Johanna Fox left Ireland for Canada in 1825. They kept the old Gaelic name of Sionnach until the 1830’s. They were listed as “Shinig” in the 1826 Newcastle district census. By the time of the 1839 census, they were referred to as Fox.

Australia. Arthur and Frances Ellen Fox arrived from Cavan in Ireland in the 1840’s.  They bought the Marybank estate in the Adelaide foothills in 1852 and their descendants (now into the fifth generation) have held onto the property ever since.

Another early settler was the English Isaac Fox. He was said to be a man of stern principles and never happy with his lot.  However, he married twice and raised thirteen children in total.
They made their homes in New South Wales and Queensland.

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Fox Surname Miscellany

Origin of the Sionnach Name.  No doubt there are several of us who have read or heard that the origins of the Fox name have something to do with the 11th century Tadhg O’Catharnaigh’s cleverness in battle as well as ability to acquire land.  When you travel to Ireland, you can even buy a plaque and scroll which makes this claim.  Since this was the time period when nicknames were not uncommon and surnames began to be used, this seemed and still seems plausible.

However, recent close reading of The Annals of Ireland by the Four Masters as well as The Annals of Loch Ce and The Annals of Ulster reveal a quite different story, one that is also quite plausible but not as charming or pleasant.

Collectively, these sources report that in the year 1024 Ireland’s chief poet and historian Cuan Ua Lothchain (Cwan O’Logan) was killed in Teathbha by “the men of Teathbha.”  Here the story splits: one version is that the murderer thereafter acquired a strong odor, making him “easily known among the rest of the land.”  He was therefore nicknamed “Fox,” anyone who has ever experienced the scent sprayed by a skunk has a very good idea of what fox smells like too.  The other version of the story is that the men who killed him were killed within an hour of the poet’s death and they were not buried but left as carrion for the birds and beasts, and one can imagine the stench in the air from that.

The problem with this line of explanation is that it is hard to believe descendants of someone nicknamed in such a derogatory way would opt to keep that name through the generations, “Fox” being equivalent to “stinking assassin.”  The second explanation makes even less sense, since no one would want to name themselves after a relative or relatives who were not even worthy of burial after the murder of a great poet and historian.

This brings us back to the original line of explanation – that old Tadg O’Catharnaigh was skilled in battle as well as in acquiring land. Since Tadg died in 1086, he most likely could not have taken part in a murder from 1024 unless he died a very old man and was born well before 1024.  Although none of the reading supports or even suggests he was a skilled warrior/landowner, the reasoning behind it nevertheless makes more sense than the “stinking assassin” story.

Hubert Fox in Ireland.  The Irish love a rebel and Hubert Fox can stake a claim to this affection.  Chief of the Fox clan in the 1600’s, he resisted English rule and fought against Cromwellian forces.  He lost his estates and fled his ancestral home, Lehinch castle, in 1641 with a price of £400 on his head.  The English even promised outlaws a pardon if they delivered Fox into their hands.  A testament to the loyalty of the Irish, no one did and he disappeared from history.

Many lines of the Fox family today claim descent from him.

George Fox – The Founder of Quakerism.  George Fox was born in Leicestershire in 1634.  His father was a weaver, called “righteous Christer” by his neighbors; his mother, Mary Lago, was – as he tells us – “of the stock of the martyrs.”  Even at a young age, George Fox was fascinated by the Bible which he studied continually.

“When I came to eleven years of age,” he said, “I knew pureness and righteousness; for, when I was a child, I was taught how to walk to be kept pure.  The Lord taught me to be faithful in all things and to act faithfully two ways, inwardly to God and outwardly to man.”

The following address by Brinley Morris in Falmouth, where there were many Quaker Foxes, invoked the spirit of the man.

“George Fox was a shoemaker.  He toured the country as he plied his trade, giving sermons to anyone who would listen and arguing that consecrated buildings such as churches and ordained ministers were irrelevant to the individual seeking God.  Three years later Fox had a divine revelation that inspired him to preach a gospel of brotherly love.  And so the Society of Friends was born, later to be called the Quakers.  The word itself, I understand, was first used by Justice Bennet of Derby who heard Fox urging his followers to ‘tremble I urge thee at the word of God.’  And so the Quakers were born.”

A Letter Dated 1662 to Captain John Fox.  Captain John Fox the London merchant who came to Virginia in 1664 apparently had a brother named Stephen who was lost at sea one year earlier.  In 1662 he had sent the following letter to his brother:

“Loving brother,

We set sail from New England on August 5th and encountered two storms.  Have thrown overboard fish and mackerel and pipestaves.  Three horses drowned, one of which was between yourself and my brother Thomas, so that you have lost all as well as my brother Thomas and myself and Peter. I know not whether I have saved anything until I come to some port.  I hope you paid the three guineas I charged to you from Deal.

I have sent 50-70 cwt of tobacco to Captain Thomas Carter at Nancemund on the James river.  I had a servant run away in Virginia and that makes me not know what quantity of tobacco is in Captain Carter’s hands. Let my brother Peter, my sister Mary and my brother William have it.  Captain Jonathan Whitty who uses Virginia knows the man and will bring it home. That will be £70 or £80 apiece.

I am in haste as the ship is under sail.

Your loving brother Stephen Fox”

Isaac Fox of Jamaica.  Isaac Fox of Roeburndale was born in an uphill sheep farm some 12 miles east of Lancaster in Lancashire.  He moved to Kingston in Jamaica around 1790.  Our first record of him there is in 1792 where he is listed as a merchant.  Two years later, he married Christiana Stevenson, a widow, at St. Andrews.

Fox appears to be a man of some substance and vigor.  He was a merchant, soldier, and clergyman.   He owned a coffee plantation, Mount Chrissey.  In the Jamaican Almanac of 1818, Mount Chrissey is listed as his property, with 78 slaves.

When Christiana died, Isaac married for the second time to Mary Eliza Young in 1806.  She was an 18 year old bride who required her father’s permission to marry.  It seems probable that the new bride never travelled to Jamaica as her two children were born in England.

Isaac Fox was lost at sea in January 1811, leaving or returning from Jamaica.  His estate took some time to finalize as it received £16,000 from the British Government to free the slaves.

The Falmouth Foxes Travelling to London.  Travelling by coach or horesback at that time was slow, tedious, and uncomfortable.   The Foxes would have to travel to their religious meetings in London in the very uncomfortable Royal Mail coach via Bodmin, Exeter, and Salisbury – starting from the Falmouth Ship Inn at 3 am, arriving at Exeter at 9 am, and then some passengers joining the different coaches to Portsmouth, Bristol, and Bath.  Russell’s cheaper fly wagon would go to London every Monday and Thursday and would start from Killigrew Street and arrive late the next day.

Sometimes the Foxes would go by sea in a sloop to Plymouth and would visit the Crown and Anchor Tavern in Falmouth and negotiate the fare with the captain who would stay to meet the passengers.  A packet boat from Truro would come and return with the tide each day, weather permitting, with goods and passengers. The passengers would visit with the proprietor Mr. Vann, also at the Crown and Anchor Tavern, for a ticket.

The Fox Family in Ohio.  Christopher Fox (his name changed from Fuchs to Fox) had left Germany and arrived in America in 1852, finally reaching Greenfield in Highland County, Ohio in 1855.  He married Katherine Ohmberger in 1856 and he and his wife resided there for the remainder of their lives.  Most of their married life was spent at 111 Mirabeau Street in a property which they had purchased and where most of their eleven children were born.

Living near the edge of Greenfield, then a village, and having a large lot, they kept a cow, pigs, and always a large garden and abundance of flowers and shrubbery with trees surrounding on the roadside, which made the home very attractive.

They were people of the pioneer type, upright, industrious, sociable, and neighborly, of Protestant faith, attending church regularly, respecting Sunday as a Holy Day, and living a Christian life every day of the year, always morning, night and before all meals offering prayer.

They were more interested in living as they loved life more than the accumulation of wealth.  Their home and the rearing of their large family was their main interest.

Reader Feedback – Clan Fox.  The listing for Clan Fox is factually incorrect.  Hubert Fox was not the last Clan Chief.  The last and current Clan Chief, “The Fox,” is John William Fox of New South Wales, Australia.

This clan, a sept of the Southern O’Neil originated with Catharnaighe, is pronounced “Caharney” or “Carney.” Teige or Tadgh O Catharnaighe was given the nick-name “Sionnach”, which means “Fox.”  The reasons are unclear, but he was the first of that name.  Other family members adopted Sionnach as their family name, some retained Carney.

About 1698 when the Irish Penal Laws were introduced by the English, it became unlawful to use ones Gaelic family name, so Sionnach was anglicized, generally, to Fox.  Some clan members reverted to Carney, some to Shinnick, and, possible due to semi-literate recorders, Kearney.

Eoin MacSeai’n O’Sionnach (catharnaighe@bigpond.co)

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Fox Names
  • Tadg O’Catharnaigh, the Irish clan chief who died in 1086, was the first to adopt the Sionnach (Fox) name. 
  • John Foxe published his Foxe’s Book of Martyrs in 1563, a book that helped inflame anti-Catholic sentiment in England at the time. 
  • George Fox, born in Leicestershire in 1624, was the founder of the Religious Society of Friends, i.e. the Quaker movement. 
  • Charles James Fox was a leading Whig politician of the Regency age, bested, however, by his arch-rival William Pitt. 
  • John Fox Jr wrote books such as Trail of the Lonesome Pine and The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come which were the first million-copy sellers in the United States. 
  • William Fox, born Wilhelm Fuchs, started the Fox Film Corporation in 1915, the forerunner to today’s 20th Century Fox and the Fox Television Network. 
  • Vicente Fox was President of Mexico from 2000 to 2006.  Although born in Mexico, his paternal line traces back to a German immigrant Fuchs family that settled in Cincinnati.
  • Michael J Fox is a Canadian/American actor who was best known for his 1980’s Back to the Future movies.
Fox Numbers Today
  • 92,000 in the UK (most numerous in Gloucestershire)
  • 61,000 in America (most numerous in California).
  • 37,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)
Fox and Like Surnames

Nicknames must have been an early feature of medieval life in a family or community as these nicknames later translated into surnames.  People then lived a more natural life than we do today and the surnames have reflected that.

They could be about color (Brown, Gray, Green etc), whether of hair or complexion or other factors; mood (Gay and Moody are two extremes); youth (Cox and Kidd); speed of foot (Swift and Lightfoot); and actions (such as Shakespeare and Wagstaff).  Then there were likenesses to animals (notably Fox and Wolfe but also Peacock) and to birds (Crowe and Wren for example).  And then there were some extraordinary nicknames such as Drinkwater and Wildgoose.

Here are some of these nickname surnames that you can check out.

BirdFoxKiddShakespeare
BrownGayLightfootSwift
CoxGouldMoodyWagstaff
CroweGrayPeacockWilde
DrinkwaterHardySavageWren

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