Freeman Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Freeman Surname Meaning

In English feudal society many were serfs, essentially beholden to their lord. But some were free. The Freeman surname origin was from the person who was a freeman, one who was not a serf and thus had certain rights.

Freeman can also be an African American or Jewish name. Many blacks adopted the surname of Freeman after emancipation in 1863. It is noteworthy that the Freeman name today is strong in the states of the Old South with their history of slavery. Freemen can also be Jewish, from the Germanic Friedman or Freedman.

Freeman Surname Resources on The Internet

Freeman Surname Ancestry

  • from Southern England and from Jewish emigrants
  • to America (incl. African Americans), Canada, West Africa and Australia

England. Freeman has been a name of southern England, either in the west or in the east.

Western England.  The Freeman surname was evident at an early time in the English counties bordering Wales. It has been conjectured that this was due to the large number of Welsh captives that had been reduced to serfdom or slavery there. A number of them probably did become freemen. 

Freemans at Beckford near Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire date from 1469 when John Freeman was recorded as a householder there. Samuel Freeman kept an inn there in 1637; and the manor house was held by the Freemans from about 1700 to 1926.

In another Gloucestershire village were the Freemans of Batsford, going back to about 1500. Thomas Freeman, well-known for his epigrams in the early 1600’s, was of this family. Freemans were also recorded in the village of Ebrighton. 

Eastern England..  However, larger Freemen numbers were to be found in eastern England, in Northamptonshire and then in London and the southeast. 

Ralph Freeman, born in Northampton, was one of the leading English merchants in Calais and was Mayor of Northampton in 1550. He died in 1558, the year that Calais was lost to the French. 

Several families by the name of Freeman, all ultimately bearing the same arms, migrated from Northamptonshire to London in Elizabethan times. 

Martin Freemen, a member of the London Fishmongers’ Company, and his son Ralph, who received a gentleman’s education and became a protégé of the Duke of Buckingham, were among the most enterprising of these Freemans. Ralph’s home at Betchworth in Kent stayed with his descendants until 1817. Meanwhile another Ralph Freeman, of the Clothworkers’ guild, became Lord Mayor of London in 1633. 

By the mid-19th century the largest numbers of Freemans were to be found in London and Surrey. 

Ireland. The Freemans of Castle Cor in Cork were probably English in origin. John Freeman built the house around 1650 on the ruins of an old castle there. These Freemans became the Deane-Freemans through inheritance in the late 1700’s. 

Freeman can also have Irish roots, being in some cases an anglicized version of the Gaelic Mac an tSaoir sept. 

America. The early Freemans went to New England. 

New England. There were three notable Freeman arrivals here, two of whom came to Cape Cod:

  • Samuel Freeman from London arrived with Winthrop’s party in 1630 and settled in Watertown. Three Samuel Freemans followed him, all resident at Eastham on Cape Cod. They were followed by a Barnabas and then another Samuel living on the family estate there.
  • Edmund Freeman, possibly related, came on the Abigail in 1635, being first at Lynn (where he was said to have brought twenty pieces of plate armor as defense against the Indian arrows) and then at Sandwich on Cape Cod. Dr. Nathaniel Freeman of this family was a Brigadier General during the Revolutionary War.
  • while Ralph Freeman, also from London, first appeared at Dedham, Massachusetts in 1651 and later moved to Attleboro. His grandson Ralph migrated north to New Hampshire in the 1740’s.

Freeman history in New England has been covered in two books:

  • Frederick Freeman’s 1875 book Freeman Genealogy in Three Parts
  • and Robert Freeman’s 2005 book Freeman Families of New England.

Elsewhere. Colonel Bridges Freeman from Oxfordshire came to the Virginia colony in 1625 and had extensive land holdings along the Chickahominy river.  When he died in 1655 he may have left children. But as he left no will this has been questioned.

Freemans in Henrico county, Virginia date from the early 1700’s and possibly earlier. Holman Freemen, born there in 1714, took his family across the Savannah river to Wilkes county, Georgia in 1773. He died there ten years later. His son Colonel Holman Freeman had a distinguished Revolutionary War record; his granddaughter Mary Freeman married the future Governor William Bibb.

Another Freeman line in Wilkes county, Georgia – probably unrelated – began with the marriage of Gabriel and Lucy Freeman there in 1794.

William Greene from North Carolina served as a scout for General Washington during the Revolutionary War. His descendants settled in Greene county, Missouri.

African American.  Freeman is a special surname for African Americans following Emancipation in 1863. It is perhaps surprising that it is not more commonplace than the Washington and Jackson names used by freed slaves. But the preponderance of the Freeman name today in the Old South does testify to the importance of African Americans for the Freeman name in America.

The earliest black Freemans were in the North, with its earlier history of freed slaves.

Pearson Freeman was a former slave from Massachusetts who earned his freedom fighting for the Green Mountain Continental Rangers during the Revolutionary War. He settled in Rutland, Vermont. His grandson was Martin Freeman, college-educated, who departed for Liberia during the Civil War.

Other black Freemans of these times were:

  • Mum Bet who was the first enslaved African American to file and to win in 1781 a freedom suit in Massachusetts. After the victory she took the name of Elizabeth Freeman.
  • Chatham Freeman from Wallingford, Connecticut who secured his freedom after fighting as a substitute during the Revolutionary War.
  • and Quash Freeman from Derby, Connecticut, freed in 1800, who was recorded as the “black Governor of Connecticut” in 1815. Two sisters from Derby – Mary and Eliza Freeman – purchased adjoining properties in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1848. These homes have been preserved.

In the South, Abraham Freeman who received a land grant in Bladen county, North Carolina in 1765 was said to have been mulatto. In fact his family has always proudly claimed a family lineage that also included significant Native American heredity. In the 1840’s Alexander Freeman migrated south to Myrtle Beach in South Carolina where he and his descendants were fishermen. Later Freemans developed Freeman’s Beach as a resort there in the 1920’s.

William and Ellen Freeman were slaves in Craven county, North Carolina. During the Civil War they were able to gain their freedom by escaping to Brushton, North Carolina. It was there that they received help from Union soldiers until they eventually found land whereon they could settle. Thomas Freeman secured his emancipation from slavery in Georgia at this time. He was one of the founders of the black community of Freemantown in Rome, Georgia in the years following the Civil War.

Hubert Freeman was born in North Carolina sometime in the 1870’s. He later moved to Mississippi. He was the grandfather of the actor Morgan Freeman.

Jewish. Freeman in America could also be Jewish.

Louis Freedman was a Russian immigrant who came to Worcester, Massachusetts in the 1880’s. His grandson Carl Freeman, based in Maryland, was a prominent real estate developer in the Washington area. He died in a road traffic accident in 1988.

Isaac and Stella Freeman left Russia in 1904 with their family following a pogrom against the Jews in the Poltava district of Ukraine where he lived. They made their home in Brooklyn. Their son Joe became a notable writer and magazine editor. He is best remembered as the editor of The New Masses, a literary magazine associated with the US Communist Party, and as the founding editor of the Partisan Review.

Canada.  William Freeman had come to Nova Scotia from Yorkshire as a young man in 1759. His son Joshua moved with his family in 1816 to Burlington, Ontario and a village that became known as Freeman. The Freeman home on Brant Street, built in 1885, stayed with the family until 1988.

The farmhouse of John Freeman – a descendant of immigrant Edmund Freeman – was burnt down by American patriots in 1777 following the Battle of Saratoga. John fled to Canada but died after a smallpox epidemic. Family survivors later settled in Yarker, Ontario. The Freeman farmhouse there stayed with the family until 1964.

The Rev. Daniel Freeman, a Loyalist, left New Jersey for the wilds of Norfolk county, Ontario in 1800. His son Daniel was a farmer there. His grandson Daniel returned to America in 1873 – moving to the warm weather of Los Angeles for the sake of his wife’s health. Although she died a year later, he became a major ranch-holder in the area and was instrumental in the founding of the town of Inglewood.

Zoltan Freeman was a Holocaust survivor from Hungary who came to Canada after the war and married and settled down in Hamilton, Ontario.  There he became involved in the confectionary business and was known locally as “the candy man.”

West Africa.  The Freeman name appeared in West Africa after the migration of freed slaves to Liberia in the mid-19th century. George Freeman set sail from New Orleans in 1852 but died on the voyage across. Martin Freeman arrived in 1864 and became the President of Liberia College. Benjamin Green Freeman was a prominent rubber planter in the early 1900’s and later a Liberian politician.

The Freeman name has since spread to nearby countries such as Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria.

South Africa. Tobias Friedman departed Russia for Britain in the 1880’s, settling first in Liverpool and then in Dublin (where his family was briefly mentioned in James Joyce’s Ulysses). His son Isaac-Jacob emigrated to South Africa in 1892 and his grandson Maurice Freeman became Mayor of Johannesburg in 1934.

Australia. James Freeman from Cambridgeshire was convicted of robbery and transported to Sydney in 1817. He eventually settled in the Australian outback, at Wyee Creek in NSW.

“In 1871 James Freeman was injured when a tree fell on him and he received head injuries from which he never recovered. A newspaper cutting recounted how he, having gone walkabout, became lost on the Brokenback range in the Wattagan mountains. He was eventually found by his son a few days later – nearly naked, dehydrated and suffering cuts and abrasions. He died soon afterwards.”  

His son James was married to Soreina Smith at Wyee Creek in 1859. Granny Freeman, as she became known, lived a further seventy years, dying there in 1929.

Morgan Freeman’s  Family Ancestry

The actor Morgan Freeman, born in 1937, grew up in Mississippi with roots on both his father’s and mother’s side going back to the time of slavery.

Just click below if you want to read more about this history:

Freeman Surname Miscellany

Freeman Surname Origins.  In the early days of feudalism two neighbors bearing a common Christian name might be distinguished by epithets denoting their respective conditions, such as John le Freeman and John le Bonde.  These epithets would often become family names. English serfs in the 14th and 15th centuries who had won the right to own a patch of land and sell its produce frequently took the Freeman surname.

The status brought with it certain other privileges, the most important of which was probably the right to pass along the property to heirs.  The status did not confer the right to vote in those ancient days.  But it did confer the social benefit of a certain cachet that separated the holder from those still in peonage or serfdom.

The Freemans at Beckford in Gloucestershire.  The freehold estate in Beckford was held by the Freeman family from the Middle Ages until the First World War.

In 1469 John Freeman held a house and two yardlands, by knight service of the Prior of Beckford.  In the late 17th century William and Edward Freeman were armigerous.  Richard Freeman, the owner in 1698, was succeeded by William and William by his son William who died in 1764.  The heir to the estate, another William, was a minor at that time.

On the death of William Freeman in 1827 the estate passed to his nephew John.   The last of the family to hold the estate, Captain William Freeman, was in possession by 1879.   In 1889 this ancestral house was known as the Manor House. Captain William sold the estate in 1926.

The Freemans at the Battle of Saratoga and After.  During the early years of the Revolutionary War, a crucial battle took place in September 1777 between the British and American forces at Saratoga in upstate New York.

The log house on John Freeman’s farm there was used by British General Burgoyne as his headquarters.  Tory John Freeman fought on the British side.  However, the British suffered heavy casualties and John Freeman’s log house was burned down to the ground.

The Freemans abandoned their farm and migrated north to Canada, receiving a land grant for 200 acres near what became Chaffeys Locks on the Rideau Canal.

Conditions were tough there for pioneers like the Freemans.  It took time to clear the land to produce crops.  Too long for John Freeman and much of his family who died after just one year following a smallpox epidemic.  However, other members of the family survived and later moved onto Yarker, Ontario.

Mary Freeman and William Bibb.  According to the family story, there was once a very pretty little girl of eight years, full of life and spirit, who by some childish mischief had incurred the penalty of the switch – the only means of correction in country schools in the good old days.

The little maid was the favorite of a lad of twelve, who sat looking on while the teacher was discussing the situation with the child.

“Well, Mary, I must punish you.”

At this the boy laid down his book and stepping quickly up to the teacher said, respectfully: “Don’t strike her: whip me. I’ll take it for her.”  As he said this he arrested with his hand the uplifted switch.  Every eye in that little log schoolhouse brightened with approbation, and in a moment after, filled with tears, as the teacher laid down he rod and said: “William you are a noble boy, and for your sake I will excuse Mary.”

This happened in a country school in Georgia in 1793.  Ten years later, Mary was the wife – the happy loving wife – of William.  And William, 20 years later, was a member of Congress, United States Senator from Georgia, and later Governor of Alabama.

He was William Wyatt Bibb.  His wife was Mary Freeman, the belle and beauty of Broad River, and the daughter of Colonel Holman Freeman of Virginia and Georgia.

The Marriage of James Freeman and Soreina Smith.  Soreina Smith was born in O’Connell Street, Sydney in 1840 and was reared by her grandmother, Mrs. Fennell, whose refined upbringing was reflected in the grandchild.

In those days James Freeman was a timber contractor at Wyee and his meeting with Miss Smith occurred on one of his business trips to Sydney.  A betrothal followed and Miss Smith, at the age of 19, traveled on the ship Black Swan to Gosford (there being no railway at that time) and then rode twenty one miles to Wyee. There she was married by special license on November 29th, 1859.

There was only one other white women, her mother-in-law, at Wyee.  The country was inhabited by aboriginals and there were packs of dingoes and many other animals common to the Australian bush.

Martin Freeman, Black at the Time of the Civil War.  Martin Freeman, a free black, was born in 1826 in Rutland, Vermont. After receiving private tutelage from a local pastor, he attended Middlebury College in Vermont, one of the first blacks to do so.

His classmates viewed him as very friendly, yet very serious, very strict, and a bit aloof.  He often arrived first to class and left last, and he was much interested in the library.  He in fact graduated at the top of his class and, thus delivered the salutatory address in Latin.  However, lest the town’s citizens assume mistakenly that Freeman did not speak English well, Freeman gave an additional oration in English.

Upon graduation, Freeman’s white classmates received offers to study law and medicine, or to enter the ministry, or to teach. Freeman received no such offers.  Disheartened, he accepted a teaching position in 1850 at Avery College near Pittsburgh, a new state-chartered college to educate free blacks.  He was named president of the college in 1856.

During the Civil War, Freeman became active in the African emigration movement and moved to Liberia in September 1864. He continued his work as a professor at Liberia College, being named as president of that college shortly before his death in 1889.

Following his death, his wife and two sons returned to Pittsburgh.   Little is known of their lives, except that his sons embodied Freeman’s greatest fear for black men in America.  One worked as a janitor, the other as a porter.

Joe Freeman and a Pogrom in Ukraine.  In his memoirs Joe Freeman recalled a traumatic boyhood incident which had followed shortly after a pogrom of the Jewish population of a neighboring town in Ukraine.

“Less than a week later a bearded peasant came into my mother’s store drunk.  He asked for tobacco in a voice that frightened me, and my mother handed him a package.

‘I’m not going to pay you,’ he said. ‘You filthy Jews get too much money.’‘

‘Then you can’t have the tobacco.’

The peasant took a clasp knife from his pocket. He opened the long blade and brandished it at my mother. ‘I’ll kill you,’ he growled. Then he walked over to me and brandished the knife over my head. ‘We’ll have a nice little pogrom. We’ll kill all the goddam Jews in this goddam town.’

I was terrified and clung to my mother’s skirt.  She held me tightly to her and I saw the tears run down her cheeks.

The door creaked.  I saw it open.  Our clerk came in.  He seized the drunk by the collar and threw him into the street.  The man rolled head down into the sewer-ditch.  A policeman came running, dragged the peasant to his feet and lugged him into a carriage.  I felt sorry for the peasant and felt guilty because I felt sorry.”

Freeman Names

  • Martin Freeman was the first black president of an American college. During the Civil War he became active in the African emigration movement and departed for Liberia in 1864. 
  • Joe Freeman who fled Russia with his Jewish parents for New York in 1904 was an American writer and magazine editor, founder of the Partisan Review. 
  • Bud Freeman was a tenor saxophonist who pioneered the Chicago style of jazz in the 1930’s. 
  • John Freeman was a Labour MP in the 1950’s and a British TV presenter in the 1960’s, best known for his Face to Face interviews. 
  • Morgan Freeman is an acclaimed African American actor and producer. 
  • Cathy Freeman, from Aborigine roots, is the Australian sprinter who won the women’s 400 meters in the 2000 Olympics.

Freeman Numbers Today

  • 36,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 59,000 in America (most numerous in North Carolina)
  • 29,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

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Written by Colin Shelley

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