French Surname Meaning, History & Origin

French Surname 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 tree.”

Early examples of these names were Ebrordis Fraunceys in 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 Surname Resources on The Internet

French Surname Ancestry

  • from SE England, Scotland and Ireland
  • to Spain, America, Canada and Australia

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.

Early 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 left 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 War.

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 Sir Thomas Fairfax. This John lived 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 medicine.

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 to:

  • 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.

These 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.

Scotland.  In the late 14th century Robert French became the first laird of Thorndykes (situated at the foot of the Lammermoor hills in the Scottish Borders).  Later Frenches were royal masons who worked on the King’s buildings.  It is thought that John French, emigrant to America in 1640, came from this family.

Another French line from Scotland began with Charles French who married Margaret Aitken in Edinburgh in 1701.  Two of their grandsons, William and Alexander, left for Pennsylvania in the 1750’s.

Ireland. The French family in Ireland descended from Sir Humphrey de Freyne who arrived from England around the year 1300 and 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 confiscations 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 Roscommon 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.

Spain. 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 1700’s; 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 early 1800’s.

America. Many French came from England (mainly into New England), some from Ireland and Scotland, but 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 of them came from the area of north Essex/south Suffolk:

  • 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 living at the time of his death), and his descendants are numerous. William’s brother John came in 1636 and made his home in Cambridge.

Mary Beyer’s 1912 book A Genealogy of the French and Allied Families covered 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 Daniel 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:

  • Thomas French who was an early settler in the 1760’s in Maidstone (now part of Vermont).  Thomas was descended from John French, thought to have been from Scotland, who had come to Braintree, Massachusetts in 1640.
  • Abraham French who arrived 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 had come to Massachusetts in 1687. Augustus French was the Governor of Illinois from 1846 to 1852.

New Jersey/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 Oregon.

Another French arriving in Pennsylvania was from Scotland, Alexander French coming 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 family 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 pioneer settler and large landowner in what was to be Hampshire 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 was then in dispute with his mother and her new husband.  He sold out his family interest and in 1775 went back over the Alleghenies with his own family.  They settled at Wolf Creek in what was then Giles county, Virginia on the West Virginia line.

Matthew died there in 1814. According to a family friend: “Matthew was a small, spare made man, light hair and blue eyes.  His wife was a very large woman, quite fleshy, fair complexion, light hair and blue eyes.”

Matthew’s descendants are numerous and scattered over the South and West.  James M. French was a Confederate officer during the Civil War who moved to a ranch in Arizona in the late 1800’s and died in California. 

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 until 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 Surname 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 calligraphy appeared. When the typewriter was invented, an Irish family chose to keep the two lower-case f’s.  And there were also families 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 Fairy.

John 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 1460.
  • Thomas French held the manor of 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 Frenches.

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 disputes.”

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 tSalainn (John of the Salt) because of the immense wealth he accrued as a merchant.  A large stone building, known as John French’s Chamber, was erected on arches just outside the town walls.

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 St. 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 descended.

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 1721.

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 England (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.

Reader Feedback – French in Scotland and America.  The statement that there were no French families in the North of England is false!

You omitted my maternal line who were the Frenches of Thorndykesg.  Aar in the Scottish Borders and were royal masons appointed by the King.  Aaron French’s book An Account of the Frenches of Thorndykes was published in 1893.

My immigrant ancestor was John French, born in 1612, who became a freeman settling in Braintree, Massachusetts.  His descendants were prominent members of the early settlers of Mendon, Massachusetts and later original proprietors in Maidstone, Vermont.

This family had close associations with and intermarried with the presidential Adams and Taft, as well as with the Wheelock, Aldrich and Thayer families. Aaron French’s 1885 book was John French of Braintree.

David Glaves (

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 General 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 good 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 being restored to the former owner.  Of course Charles French prized the book very highly, owing to its history.

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

Reader Feedback – John French in West Virginia.  I am a descendent of this John French and his son Matthew.

John received a land grant from Lord Fairfax in 1750 in the area of West Virginia that is called French Park. John’s ancestor John had arrived in 1654 from Galway, two years after the capitulation of Galway to the Cromwellian attackers. I have found evidence that Upshur and Hampshire counties in West Virginia were named on a different basis than that described.

Gayland French (

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 Indians, 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 relatives.

In 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 and 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 him.

His 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 expected.”

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

“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 richly carved chiffonier.  The steady pluck and industry which he has shown all round in overcoming trouble and pain is worthy of all commendation.”

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

Reader Feedback – French Family to South Africa.  I am looking for my family history from my mom’s side.  Her grandfather was Harry French and was married to ivy French.  Her mother was Wilfred French (they had given her a man’s name) and they had moved from England to South Africa.

Brenda (

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 Commander-in-Chief 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.

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)

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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Written by Colin Shelley

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