Franklin Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Franklin Surname Meaning

The name Franklin derives from feudal times and the Middle English frankelin, meaning a “freeman” or a “landowner of free but noble birth.” He would rank above the main body of minor freeholders, but below a knight or a member of the nobility. He appears in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as the narrator of the Franklin’s Tale.

The root of the word was the Anglo-Norman franc, meaning “free,” and the Germanic suffix -ling. Its first record as a surname was when Luke le Franckeleyn was registered in the Cambridgeshire Feet of Fines in 1234.

Franklin can also be the anglicized form of the Germanic Frankel or Franckel, a name often brought by Jewish immigrants.

Franklin Surname Resources on The Internet

Franklin Surname Ancestry

  • from England (Midlands) and from Jewish emigrants
  • to America (incl. African Americans), Australia and New Zealand

England.  The earliest sightings of the Franklin name were in Bedfordshire and Oxfordshire.

Bedfordshire. William Franklin was recorded in the village of Thurleigh north of Bedford during the 1470’s; George Franklin held the Bolnhurst estate in the late 1500’s (his granddaughter Margaret married a Bacon and is commemorated in a plaque in the church at Burton Latimer); and another George Franklin took title to a farm in Ravensden in 1618 (a Franklin still farms there today).

Oxfordshire.  John Franklin was recorded in the village of Horspath in south Oxfordshire in 1524; and Henry Franklin, “a gentleman of some culture,” owned Adwell manor house in the 1600’s. William Franklin was appointed carpenter in Oxford in 1588. His son Jeremy inherited the position and was elected mayor in 1728.

Elsewhere. Another early Franklin family came from Kent, starting with John Frankelyn of Chart Sutton who died in 1500. These Franklins later resided in Wye. Charles Franklyn, a descendant, published a genealogy of the family in 1932.

Francis Franklin was born in Spilsby, Lincolnshire in 1786.  His descendant Sir John Franklin, the famous Arctic explorer, was born there in 1786.

Most Franklins in the 1851 census were to be found in Gloucestershire. Later the distribution of the name looked more like an arc:

  • starting low in the east with Kent and London,
  • then rising to Oxfordshire and Warwickshire in the middle of England,
  • and falling away in the west to Gloucestershire.

The largest number today are in Kent.

Jewish.  Franklins could be immigrants. Benjamin Wolf Franckel had come to London around 1763 from the Jewish community of Breslau in present-day Poland. On settling there, he anglicized his name to Franklin. Perhaps this was suggested by the fact that, in accordance with local custom back home, his mother as a widow had been called in official documents “die Fraenckelin.”

He was the forebear of a very prominent Anglo-Jewish family of merchant bankers, as described in Arthur Frankin’s 1935 book Records of the Franklin Family.

Jacob and Benjamin Franklin were West Indies merchants in the mid-19th century.  Their numbers later included Sir Leonard Franklin, the Liberal politician, and Hugh Franklin, a supporter of the women’s vote.  But perhaps the best known of these Franklins was Rosalind Franklin who as a research chemist was instrumental in the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1951.

America. Early Franklins came to New England.

New England.  Jonathan Franklin was an early settler in Haverhill, Massachusetts. He was scalped and killed by Indians there in 1692 and his son David, a sea captain, drowned in Boston harbor in 1739:

  • however, the family survived and John Franklin distinguished himself in the Revolutionary War.
  • a descendant was the automobile pioneer Herbert Franklin. He built his Franklin cars in Syracuse, New  York from 1902 to 1934 when the Great Depression bankrupted him.

Elsewhere.  Benjamin Franklin’s father Josiah came from Northamptonshire and had emigrated to Boston with his first wife in 1683.

Benjamin Franklin himself was born in 1705, the youngest son of Josiah’s second marriage, and he made his mark in Philadelphia, then the largest of the American cities. He left no line of direct male descendants. It has only been through his daughter Sarah that there were direct descendants.

James Franklin was born in Baltimore, Maryland of uncertain parentage in 1755.  He fought in the Revolutionary War and afterwards received a land grant in Tennessee.  One of his sons was the notorious slave trader Isaac Franklin of Franklin & Armfield.  Isaac also operated the large Fairvue plantation outside Nashville.

Most Franklins were to be found in the southern states by the mid-19th century. Generally, as the records of Franklin families from the 18th century reveal, Franklins moved inland from Virginia and the Carolinas to Kentucky and Tennessee, and then south into Georgia and Alabama.   By the late 19th century the largest number of Franklins were in Texas.

Franklins in America outnumber Franklins in England by roughly two to one. Its popularity in America owed much to Benjamin Franklin. Franklin county is the name of 24 counties in America, all but one of them being named after Benjamin Franklin.

Genealogical material on the Franklins in America are to be found in The Franklin Fireplace, a quarterly publication compiled by Betty Harvey Williams from 1969 to 1983.

African American.  Notable African American Franklins include the soul singer Aretha Franklin, born in Tennessee, and Shirley Franklin who served as mayor of Atlanta from 2002.

Jewish.  It would appear that many Franklins in America got their name by changing theirs to Franklin on arrival or soon thereafter. The Jewish Frankels, coming either from Germany or from Russia, would be a prime example here.

Australia. Joseph Franklin was a poor farm laborer from Limerick in Ireland who had come to Australia in 1839 with his family in search of a better life. By 1848 Joseph had acquired a small herd of cattle and decided to find land of his own by following the Goodradigbee river upstream to the district now known as Brindabella, NSW.

“The usual hazards of pioneering confronted him. Cattle strayed or were speared and eaten by Aborigines. Tribal fights were common and, during one of Joseph’s absences, their hut was burnt down from a kitchen fire while his wife and children were out looking for a lost cow.”

His granddaughter who grew up in this remote outback settlement was the writer Miles Franklin. Her best-known novel My Brilliant Career, published in 1901, tells the story of an irrepressible teenage feminist growing to womanhood in rural New South Wales. Its heroine is one of the most endearing characters in Australian literature and obviously has much in common with Franklin herself who wrote the novel while still a teenager.

New Zealand.  Early Franklin immigrants to New Zealand were:

  • Robert Franklin from London. He had arrived in New Zealand sometime in the 1840’s, married, and raised a family in Nelson.
  • Lawrence Franklin from Oxfordshire. He had come out with his family on the Halcione in 1874 under the Vogel assistance scheme for farm laborers. They settled in Hawkes Bay.

Franklin Surname Miscellany

Franklin Name Distribution in the 1851 UK Census.  The Franklin name was to be found in counties to the north and west of London.  The largest number in 1851 were in the county of Gloucestershire.

County Percent
Bedfordshire     9
Berkshire    11
Buckinghamshire     9
Gloucestershire    25
Huntingdonshire    10
Elsewhere    36
Total   100

Sir John Franklin’s Disappearance.  Sir John Franklin’s last expedition of Arctic exploration left England in 1845.  A Royal Navy officer and experienced explorer, Franklin had served on three previous Arctic expeditions, the latter two as commanding officer.

This his fourth, undertaken when he was 59, was meant to traverse the last unnavigated section of the Northwest Passage.  After a few early fatalities the two ships became icebound in the Victoria Strait near King William Island in the Canadian Arctic.  The entire expedition complement, including Franklin and 128 men, was lost.

Pressed by Franklin’s wife and others, the Admiralty launched a search for the missing expedition in 1848. Prompted in part by Franklin’s fame and the Admiralty’s offer of a finder’s reward, many subsequent expeditions joined the hunt.

Several of these ships converged off the east coast of Beechey Island where the first relics of the expedition were found, including the graves of three crewmen.  In 1854, explorer John Rae, while surveying near the Canadian Arctic coast southeast of King William Island, acquired relics of and stories about the Franklin party from the Inuit.  A search led by Francis McClintock in 1859 discovered a note left on King William Island with details about the expedition’s fate.

After the loss of the Franklin party, the Victorian media, notwithstanding the expedition’s failure and the reports of cannibalism, portrayed Franklin as a hero.  Songs were written about him and statues of him in his home town, in London, and in Tasmania credit him with discovery of the Northwest Passage.

Benjamin Franklin’s Inventions.  Benjamin Franklin’s inventions include the Franklin stove, the bifocal lens, the lightning rod, the odometer (for measuring distance), and the glass harmonica.

He is also credited with the following firsts:

  • the first political cartoon, which appeared in his Pennsylvania Gazette.
  • the first fire department in any municipality, which he started in Philadelphia in 1736
  • the first electrical battery, made in his home in Philadelphia in 1749
  • the first to propose Daylight Savings Time, which he did during his time in Paris
  • and the first to promote the virtues of Vitamin C.  It was Benjamin Franklin who coined the phrase: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

Franklin, Massachusetts was named after him in 1786.  Benjamin showed his appreciation of the honor by sending the town a library of 116 volumes.  This formed the nucleus of America’s first public library.

Franklin Family Lines in the South.  The table below tracks Franklin family lines in the South, starting with the first Franklin being born in the 1700’s.

Name Date of Birth Particulars
Henry Franklin   1715 born in Amherst county, Virginia
Benjamin Franklin   1750’s resident in Edgefield county,
South Carolina
Owen Franklin   1760 born in Chester district, South
Reuben Franklin   1770 born in Virginia, moved to
Burrell T. Franklin   1770’s married in North Carolina in 1807
Thomas J. Franklin   1770’s born in South Carolina, moved to
Alabama and then to Florida
James Franklin   1774 born in Virginia, moved to
John Franklin   1780’s born in North Carolina and
married there in 1817
Chesterfield Franklin   1780’s born in Virginia and moved to
North Carolina
Job Franklin   1788 later resident in Georgia
Josiah L. Franklin   1794 born in Georgia, moved to Alabama
Mark Franklin   1800 born in Tennessee, moved to

Frankel to Franklin.  The surname Frankel is of German origin.  It may have resemblances to the English “Franklin,”  deriving from the word franc meaning “free.”  The name might also denote someone from Franconia (in German Franken), a region of SW Germany so-called because of its early settlement by the Franks.  Or it might just be a Jewish name from other parts of Central Europe.

It was Jewish immigrants predominantly who brought the name to America where it quite often became Franklin.

One family history records the arrival of Solomon Franklin, a Jewish immigrant in 1860 to Yazoo City in Mississippi from Posen in Prussia.  Other Frankels/Franklins recorded in the 1880’s in New York came from the Ukraine area.

The Franklin Car.  In 1900, Herbert Franklin met a bright, young bicycle racer named John Wilkinson who had already designed two prototype automobiles. Franklin took a ride in Wilkinson’s second prototype, was impressed and the ride persuaded him to invest $1,100 so that Wilkinson could build a third prototype which went on to become Franklin’s first production model.

The Franklin Automobile Company was thus started and the first Franklin Model A was on the market by 1902.  It holds the distinction of being the first four-cylinder automobile produced in the United States.  That year Franklin sold a total of thirteen cars priced at $1,100 each.

From this modest beginning, he went on to run a successful car company.  For 28 years, from 1902 to 1930, the company thrived and during much of that time enjoyed the distinction of being the city of Syracuse’s largest employer.

However, like other makers of high-priced cars, the Franklin Automobile Company was badly hit by the Great Depression.  Car production in 1932 was only 1,898 units and in 1931 a mere 1,100 units, down from a high of 14,000 units in 1929.  The company eventually went bankrupt in 1934.

Aretha Franklin and Amazing Grace.  The Amazing Grace live album was recorded in January 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles with the Rev. James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir accompanying Aretha Franklin in performance.

The album was a critical and commercial success, selling over two million copies in the United States alone and earning a double platinum certification. It stands as the best-selling disc of Aretha Franklin’s entire recording career, as well as the highest-selling live gospel music album of all time.

Amazing as this is a Christian hymn published in England way back in 1779, with words written by a former slave trader John Newton.

Franklin Names

  • Benjamin Franklin was one of the founding fathers of the United States. He was also a noted writer and printer, scientist, inventor, statesman, and diplomat. The Franklin stove was his invention and it is named after him.
  • Isaac Franklin was a notorious slave trader in America during the 1820’s and 1830’s.
  • Sir John Franklin was the 19th century British naval officer and Arctic explorer who mapped almost two thirds of the northern coastline of North America. He died in 1848 in a fruitless venture to discover the Northwest Passage.
  • Rosalind Franklin, born into a prominent Anglo-Jewish family, was a physical chemist who, together with Francis Crick and James Watson, discovered the structure of DNA in 1951.
  • Aretha Franklin was the soul and R&B singer known as “the Queen of Soul.”

Franklin Numbers Today

  • 15,000 in the UK (most numerous in Kent)
  • 40,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 11,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia).

Franklin and Like Surnames

These were status positions within the feudal position of that time – usually positions serving noble families, lords of the manor, or in the church.  Here are some of these status position surnames that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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