French Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select French Meaning
Being from France in England potentially gave rise to
the surnames:

  • Francis (starting as Frauncays or “the Frenchman”)
  • and French
    (starting as de Freyne or “from France”).

De Freyne had a Norman origin. However,
the derivation here could have been
from a different root – the Latin word fraxinus meaning “ash

examples of these names were Ebrordis
Bristol around 1240 and Simon le Frensch in Wiltshire in 1273. The De Freyne and French names crossed the
sea to Ireland. And Ireland also
produced the curious ffrench or Ffrench
surname spelling

French Resources on

French Ancestry

England. Neither the French nor Francis name travelled much north. Most by those names were in SE England, with
outposts west in Wiltshire and Devon.

SE England. Essex was an early
location. Examples were Geoffrey
le Franceis in 1205 and Richard Frensh in 1425 in connection with the
farms at
Little Bardfield and Felsted in the northwest part of the county.

French in Essex were to be found there and at Arkesden,
Halstead, and
Birdbrook nearby. William French was a merchant of Lowestoft in
Suffolk in the
late 1400’s. Various Frenches from
Halstead and Coggleshall in Essex and from across the border in Suffolk
for America and the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1600’s.

Further north,
Frenches in Oxfordshire played a role at the time of the English Civil

  • a French family had been
    landowners at South Newington since the early 1600’s.
    Francis French, a constable there in the
    1630’s, refused to pay the King’s new tax levy. This
    resulted in the Sheriff of Oxford attempting to raise
    the money by
    seizing his cattle. The case continued to be fought in the courts. It was said to have been one of the small
    sparks that contributed to the start of the Civil War in 1642.
  • John French of
    Broughton meanwhile was supplying malt to the Royalist army at Oxford
    in 1644;
    while his son John was then the physician to the Parliamentary army of
    Thomas Fairfax. This John
    at a time when the new science of chemistry was developing from
    alchemy and he was an enthusiast in his writings for its
    application to

There were also French numbers further south in London,
Surrey, Kent,
and Sussex.

The Kent numbers included the Anglo-Irish French family from Roscommon
who made their home at Ripple Vale near Deal from the mid-1700’s.
Their line went

  • Commander John French of the Royal Navy who fought in the
    Portuguese Civil
    War of the 1830’s
  • and Sir John French, a senior British army officer at the
    onset of the First World War who, under pressure, had to resign his
    position as
    Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force in late 1915.

Frenches always regarded themselves as Irish even though their branch
of the
family had lived in England since the 18th century.

SW England
French was an early presence in Devon. Robert French, a lawyer by profession, was
the MP for Totnes in the late 1300’s. He
had acquired through marriage the Sharpham manor near Totnes. The French name also appeared in the
Ashburton and Widecombe villages on the edge of Dartmoor.

Ireland. The French family in
Ireland descended from
Sir Humphrey de Freyne who arrived from England around the year 1300
settled at Ballymacoonoge in Wexford.
His descendants were to be an important family in Wexford for
the next
150 years, before branching out to Galway and later to Roscommon.

Galway. Walter French who came from
Wexford to Galway
in the 1430’s was the founder of the French family there, one of the
fourteen Tribes
of Galway
. John
French, known as John of the Salt, accrued great wealth as a
merchant there in the mid-1500’s. Their
power declined, as with other Tribe families, after the attack on the
town by
Cromwell’s men in 1652.

The Frenches,
who then styled themselves ffrenches, survived the Cromwellian
and held onto their Castle ffrench estate near Ballinsaloe. Charles ffrench was made a baronet in 1779
and ffrenches later prospered in banking and business enterprises in
Galway. Castle ffrench was sold by the
family in 1851 but then purchased back in 1919.

Roscommon. A branch of the
family, starting with Patrick French and his son Dominick, moved to
in 1650’s and were large landowners there.
They also prospered in the Dublin wine trade.
Their base was the Frenchpark estate
near Boyle which stayed with the family until 1952.

Patricio French – the son of Oliver French, a Mayor of Galway – was
exiled for
political reasons and settled in Andalusia in the early 1700’s. He married well and prospered there.

His son
Patricio was a merchant who made his home in Argentina later in the
while his son Domingo became an Argentine revolutionary who took a
leading part
in the May Revolution and the Argentine War of Independence of the

America. Many French came
from England (mainly into New England), some from Ireland and Scotland,
none from France.

New England. There were four
notable early French arrivals
into the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Curiously, all four were tailors by trade. Three
came from the area of north Essex/south

  • the first arrival was Thomas French from Suffolk who came
    with his
    sister Alice in 1632, settling in Ipswich three years later. He died there in 1680.
  • while William French came from Essex on the Defence
    in 1635, settling in Billerica. He and
    his wife Elizabeth had thirteen children (although only six were still
    at the time of his death), and his descendants are numerous. William’s brother John came in 1636 and made
    his home in Cambridge.

Beyer’s 1912 book A Genealogy of the French and Allied Families
the history of the William French family.

Edward French from Warwickshire came around 1635 and made his
home in
Salisbury. A branch of his family moved
to New Hampshire in the 1750’s and from them came:

  • Benjamin Brown French, born in 1800, who
    gravitated to Washington DC and government service there (and kept a
    diary of
    his time there).
  • and Henry Flagg French,
    born in 1813, who
    was a prominent figure in agricultural societies in
    Massachusetts. His son
    Chester French was a notable American sculptor, best known for his
    statue of
    Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.

Also found in New Hampshire were:

  • Abraham French who an early settler in the
    1790’s in the town of Pittsfield. His
    grandson Charles French fought on
    the Unionist side in Louisiana during
    the Civil War.
  • and Augustus French, born
    in 1808, who was a fourth-generation descendant of Nathaniel French who
    come to Massachusetts in 1687. Augustus
    French was the Governor of Illinois from 1846 to 1852.

Pennsylvania. Thomas French had been a
Quaker in England, was persecuted and imprisoned, and in 1680 left his
home in
Northamptonshire for Burlington, New Jersey.
His line was covered in Howard French’s 1909 book Genealogy
of the
Descendants of Thomas French.

One of his descendants, Samuel Gibbs French,
became a planter in Mississippi in the 1850’s and was a general in the
Confederate army during the Civil War.

Another line led to Ohio and a third line to Tennessee and Missouri. Peter French, born in Missouri in 1849, moved
with his family a year later to California.
He would become a big rancher, the owner of the P Ranch, in

Another French arriving in Pennsylvania was from Scotland, Alexander
French arriving sometime in the 1750’s.
He was a soldier in the Revolutionary War and a member of George
Washington’s bodyguard. Although some
Frenches stayed in Washington county in Pennsylvania, he moved with his
to new lands in Trumbull county, Ohio in 1800.
His son William later moved onto Allen county in Ohio.

Virginia. There were also early
Frenches in
Virginia. John French came in the 1730’s
to the Northern Neck of Virginia. He
became through government grants a large landowner in what was to be
county, West Virginia.

“According to
tradition, John was said to have named Hampshire county for the county
Hampshire in England where his French estate was located and
neighboring Upshur
county after the family name of Martha Upshur, his wife.”

John died in 1750. His son
Matthew French, in dispute with his mother and her new husband, sold
out his
family interest and in 1775 crossed the Alleghenies with his own family
settle at Wolf Creek in what was then Giles county.
Matthew died there in 1814.

Canada. French’s Cove in
Newfoundland was named after
the Edward French family. This family is
believed to have originated in Devon.
They operated a trading company to the Caribbean out of Bay
Roberts near
Harbour Grace throughout the 18th century.
After Edward died in 1783, his son Edward carried on the company
around 1800.

Two French brothers from Cornwall, James and Thomas, came to
Prince Edward Island in 1829, James having eloped with his bride Jemima
whom he
had married in Liverpool. James left on
a sea voyage in 1850 and was never heard from again.
His wife died in Detroit.

Australia. William French, a farm
laborer, and his wife
Elizabeth from Somerset came to NSW on the Maitland in 1856. The family settled at Tenterfield. The eldest son John, born during the
crossing, became a hairdresser. A
younger son William lost his right arm
in an industrial accident, aged
eighteen, at Tenterfield in 1893.


French Miscellany

Origination of the ffrench or Ffrench Surname.  The two small f’s of the ffrench represented the
appearance of the capital “F” in Old English script.
This had two vertical bars with one
horizontal cross over both of them, looking like two lower-case f’s.

The two
small f’s was the way in which the 16th and 17th century
appeared. When the typewriter was invented, an Irish family chose to
keep the
two lower-case f’s.  And there were also
in the US which kept this tradition. 

Early French in Essex.  The manor of Frenches was so called from a family of note that flourished in the reigns of the first two Edwards, Kings of
England.  The manor house was situated on
the great common at Felsted and was sometimes called Frenches at the

French, chaplain, and John French, clerk, had been licensed in 1369 and
in 1373
to grant lands in the parish to the Priory of Lees.

Subsequently there were:

  • William French who was born
    at Arkesden around the year
  • Thomas French held the manor
    Pitley in Great Bardfield in the 1530’s.
  • Thomas French of Halstead who
    lived at Stansted Hall around the year 1620.
  • and Thomas French of Birdbrook whose son Thomas died in
    1629 held the
    manor of Harsted Hall.

 French Among the Fourteen Tribes of Galway.  Between 1450 and 1650 the town of
Galway was run by fourteen merchant families, known as the Tribes of
Galway.  Among them were the

Walter French was
the founder of the line of the French
Galway family.  He came from Wexford and settled in Galway around
the year 1440
when his name appeared on a writ of Henry VI concerning “divers

The best-known of these
Frenches was John French, born in 1489, who was Mayor of Galway from
1538 to
1539.  He was known as Seán an
 (John of the Salt) because of the immense wealth he
as a merchant.  A large stone building,
known as John French’s Chamber, was erected on arches just outside the

Four of his sons later became
Mayors of Galway – Dominick (1568–69), Peter (1576–77),
Robuck (1582–83), and
Marcus (1604–1605).  After Peter
French died, the sum of £5,000 was spent on a marble tomb for him at
Nicholas church.

However, when
Cromwell’s men arrived in 1652, this tomb was destroyed.
The power of the Tribes of Galway was also destroyed
at this time.

The French Family at Frenchpark in Roscommon.  Patrick French who died in 1667 had six sons.  It was from his second son, Dominick, that the main line of the family was

Dominick was succeeded by his eldest son, John, who in
turn was
succeeded by his eldest son, John (called Tiarna Mor or
the Great Landowner).  His successor was
Arthur, his eldest son, who was elected Knight of the Shire for
Roscommon in

His successor was John (Shane Dhu), the MP
for Roscommon from
1743 until his death in 1775.  In that
year he and his brother Robert were drowned while crossing by boat to
(he had been on his way to London to be called to the House of Peers as
Lord Dungal).  Shane Dhu was
succeeded by another of his brothers Arthur who also became an MP.

Arthur’s successor at Frenchpark was
his son, named Arthur again.  This Arthur
was elected the MP for Roscommon in 1783.
Although popular in Roscommon, he incurred the wrath of the Chief Secretary of
Ireland Robert Peel who called him “an abominable fellow” for
his incessant demands for offices and favors.
He died in 1820.  One report at
the time stated that he had died “from excessive fox hunting.”

Arthur was in turn succeeded by his son also called
Arthur, the third Arthur in a row.  He
was ennobled as Baron De Freyne in 1839.

Charles French’s Civil War.  Charles French
was a farmer and bootmaker in Pittsfield, New Hampshire when he
enlisted in the
Fifteenth New Hampshire Volunteers in October 1862.  He
served in Louisiana.

In May 1863 he was
detailed to the ambulance corps as a driver.
He became the driver for General Neal Dow, the celebrated
apostle of
temperance, who had been wounded.  The
commenced speculating in cotton and French drove him all over that
section of
the country so that he might secure a large quantity of that staple.

One day
they came very near running into a large party of the rebels but
escaped, as
they supposed, unnoticed. After leaving
General Dow at his quarters, a house far to the rear of the lines,
French drove
to the place where the ambulances were encamped.
That night the rebels captured General Dow and took him to
Richmond where
from neglect his wound grew so bad that his leg had to be amputated.

During his
service French lost the Testament that had been presented him by the
people of Pittsfield.  This book was
picked up by a member of a New York regiment who, a quarter of a
century later,
wrote to the address found on the fly-leaf.
In this way a correspondence was opened that led to the book
restored to the former owner.  Of course
Charles French prized the book very highly, owing to its history.

sent 147 men into the army during the war.
Of these, fifty-nine either died or were discharged as
disabled, making over 40 per cent of the whole number. 

John P. French’s Life in Missouri.  John P. French was born at Greeneville, Tennessee in
1836.  He married there in 1854 and the
next year they moved to Missouri; settling in Franklin county.

In 1866 he left
his home there and started on a prospecting tour of Texas.
For nearly two years not a word was heard
from him, and his wife concluded that he must have been killed by
that had at that time been attacking whites traveling throughout the
state.  Having given up hope of seeing
her husband alive again, she moved to Carroll County where she had

1868 he returned to his old home in Franklin county and learned that
his wife
and children were in Carroll county.  He at
once went to be with his family there.
For more than forty years he made his residence at the Sugartree
Cherry Valley townships and then at Norborne in Carroll county.   In later life he was considered to be
one of
Norborne’s best citizens.

However, in
February 1911 John French was stricken with partial paralysis, his
tongue and
vocal cords being so badly affected that he could not talk enough to be
understood.  This seemed to worry him
greatly and he grew morbid; taking but little interest in things around

constant brooding probably unbalanced his mind and in September 1912 he
committed suicide by hanging himself in the barn at his home.

William French Losing His Right Arm.  The following article appeared in The Australian Town and Country Journal in April 1893:

Tenterfield Accident

William French met with a
painful accident on Saturday while feeding a barkmill at Whereat’s
tannery, having
had his right hand mangled in the cogs of the machine. A lad named
Westbury saw
the accident and pulled off the bolt, saving French’s life.

The unfortunate lad
was taken to the hospital, where Dr. Morice deemed it prudent to
amputate the
arm below the elbow. The youth is doing as well as can be

However, William was not defeated by this accident, as shown by
this report in the Maitland Mercury in December of

“A few months ago a young man named William French, a
resident of
Tenterfield, met with an accident which deprived him of his right hand.  However, through the exertions o£ some
friends, sufficient money was raised
to enable
him to start a small business.  Since
then French has mustered the mysteries of
wood-carving, fret work, etc, and some specimens of his talent are said
to be
splendidly executed. He has also with his left hand alone constructed a
carved chiffonier.  The steady pluck and
industry which he has shown all round in overcoming trouble and pain is
of all commendation.”

William, a carpenter, later moved from Tenterfield,
NSW to Thornville, Queensland where he married in 1903.


French Names

  • John French, known as John of the Salt, accrued great wealth as a
    merchant in
    Galway in the mid-16th century. 
  • Domingo French took
    a leading part in the May Revolution and the Argentine War of
    Independence in the early 1800’s. 
  • Sir John French was a senior army officer of the First
    World War who. under pressure, had to resign his position as
    of the British forces in late 1915. 
  • Daniel Chester French was an American
    sculptor of the early 20th century, best known for his statue of Abraham
    Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. 
  • Dawn French is a popular comedian, writer and actress on British TV, best known for her work in the BBC
    comedy show French and Saunders


Select French Numbers Today

  • 27,000 in the UK (most numerous
    in London)
  • 29,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 15,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)


Select French and Like Surnames

These were names originally given to outsiders in the British Isles that became surnames.  Thus Walter the Scot became Walter Scott.  Outsiders could also have been Welsh, Irish, French or Flemish.  These are some of the “outsider” surnames which are covered here.






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