Geary Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Geary Surname Meaning

Geary has an English and an Irish origin:

Early English spellings of the name were Jery, Gery, and Geri.  The root may have been the Old English word geri meaning “spear” or in this case probably a spear carrier; or the Medieval English geary meaning “fickle” and descriptive (as used by Chaucer) of someone who is giddy or changeable.

The Irish root is the anglicized Gaelic O’Ghadra, meaning “hound.” O’Ghadra were the descendants of Ghadra, a nephew of Eadrha who had founded the O’Hara sept. From O’Ghadra came the O’Garas and McGearys. The Geary name was adopted by a branch of the sept which had first migrated to Mayo and then in the 16th century to West Munster.

Geary Surname Resources on The Internet

Geary Surname Ancestry

  • from England (Leicestershire) and from Ireland (Munster)
  • to America and Australia

England.  The name Geary may have originated in Leicestershire as the largest cluster of Gearys in the past were to be found in that county. A Thomas Geary appeared on the lists of Kirby castle in Leicestershire in 1485. John Geary, rector of Swepstone in the 1680’s, was involved in the local politics of the time in Leicester.

The Geary name was prominent in Leicestershire villages such as Atterton, Barwell, Desford, Groby and Ratby, close to or southwest of Leicester. The Gearys of Atterton and Ratby were quite well-to-do. John Geary was recorded as a gentleman of Atterton in 1701.

Another set of Gearys were prosperous farmers at Old Hays, Ratby later in the 18th century. Geary’s the bakers have been the main employers in the village since 1906. George Geary, a cricketing all-rounder who played for Leicestershire and England in the inter-war years, came from Barwell.

Ireland. The Geary surname has been most in evidence in the Munster counties of Limerick, Kerry, and Cork. Some from the original O’Ghadra sept had been prominent in the Catholic church and in the education of the clergy. However, by the 19th century there had begun an exodus from the region to England, America and elsewhere.

But the Geary name is still noticeable in West Munster, particularly in Limerick. One Geary family operated a biscuit business from their Limerick plant at Merchant Quay since the early 1900’s. More recently, another Geary family has run its successful Pallas Foods business there until their decision to sell in early 2009.

America. William Geary was in Salem, Massachusetts by 1639 and later settled nearby at Wenham. The main branch of this family continued the Geary name; but one line became Gerrys (this line led to Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and the man who gave us “gerrymandering.”) Other early Geary arrivals were John and Henry Geary from Hertfordshire who bought land in Pennsylvania in 1682.

By the 19th century, Irish Geary immigrants were outnumbering English Gearys by about two to one. There was also a smattering of anglicized Gearys from Germany. One Geary family in Pennsylvania, for instance, traces itself back to Peter Gary, a Revolutionary war soldier, and German immigrants from the Palatinate in the 1700’s. This Peter had many descendants.

Heading West.  Some Gearys at that time went West. John and Ellen Geary, escaping the potato famine in Ireland, were early arrivals in San Francisco, getting there in 1847 before the Gold Rush. They later settled in Mariposa county. Also coming to San Francisco were:

  • John White Geary from Pennsylvania who was the first mayor of San Francisco in 1850.  He was the grandson of Richard Geary, Scots Irish, who had arrived in Pennsylvania in the 1770’s.
  • and Thomas Geary who came to San Francisco from Boston in 1863 and became its local Congressman. He gave his name to the Geary Act, the act which extended Chinese exclusion from the United States.

Meanwhile, John and Sophia Geary reached Salt Lake valley from England in 1856.

Australia and New Zealand.  Patrick Geary from Ireland was probably the first Geary arrival. He had enlisted in the NSW Corps and arrived in Sydney in 1797. He was later given a land grant and he and his wife settled to farm in Kincumber.

Then came Geary convict arrivals, from both Ireland and England. William Geary had been transported from Nottingham to Tasmania in 1833 for stealing a bushel of wheat. On his release in 1938 he joined a whaling fleet and moved to Taraniki in New Zealand. There he married a Maori girl and later farmed in Otago, South Island. His wife brought with her an ancient carved stick, the tokotoko korero, which has been preserved as a family heirloom.

A later Geary arrival in New Zealand was Bartholomew Geary and his wife Hannah. They came in 1871 from county Cork in Ireland and settled in Riverton on the south coast of South Island.

Geary Surname Miscellany

Geary Origins in Ireland.  The O’Ghadra clan first emerged in county Sligo.  They were descended from Tiachleach, Lord of South Leyney, who was killed in 946.  They were closely associated with the O’Haras from an early time and the chiefs of the two septs alternated as rulers of Luighne.

The Leyney territory in Sligo was the early center of the family and by the 13th century the O’Garas, as they were then called, has possessed themselves of the eastern part of the barony of Costello in Mayo county.  Their castle was Moygara on the shore of the lake still called Lough Gara.  Two archbishops of Tuam in Galway were O’Garas.

A branch of the Mayo sept moved to West Munster and there the name became Geary.

William and Elizabeth Geary – from Ireland to London.  William and Elizabeth Geary had emigrated from Ireland in 1818 as part of a group known as Richard Talbot’s Settlers.  Talbot, a relative of Thomas Talbot who distributed land west of London, had obtained land north of London in Middlesex.  Geary was designated a “gentleman” on this list of settlers.

He chose the north half of Lot 14, Concession 5, and built a home called Wilton Cottage.  Their five children helped develop the area in what was then open country.  Sons John and William built log cabins and constructed roads and bridges for the early settlers of Adelaide township (now the London suburb of Northdale).

Later Gearys prospered in business, in London and elsewhere. John’s son Robert inherited 100 acres after his father’s death in a buggy accident in 1873.  He built there “a handsome two-storey brick pleasantly located in a grove of forest trees.”  This Geary house has subsequently had just two owners, the Rubinoffs and, since 1956, the Pooles. 

John and Sophia Geary – from Leicestershire to Utah.  John Geary was born to a well-to-do family in Atterton, Leicestershire.  He married well and practiced law in London.

However, his and his wife’s lives were to change after an elder from the Mormon church knocked on his door in London one day in 1851.   They subsequently attended many meetings of the church and soon both he and Sophia were baptized.  This caused “such a commotion” that his Geary family turned them out “without a single copper.”  They also “disowned him entirely and wished never to see him again.”  John and Sophia became fugitives, John even having to shave his head in disguise.

They went to Liverpool where church members took them in, and John worked on the docks at night loading and unloading freight to pay for the passage to America.  They then crossed the Atlantic to New Orleans, made their way up the Mississippi River, and then crossed over to Council Bluffs, Iowa (where a son was born and died).  They finally arrived in Salt Lake valley through the snows in late 1856.

Sophia Geary wrote in her diary:

“After a long pull and a strong pull and a pull all together, we have managed to fight our way through rivers, roads, creeks, over hills and dales, and everything else which is good and bad.  I am thankful we are here.”

John White Geary.  John White Geary cut an interesting figure.  Born in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania  in 1819, he stood six foot five and 1/2 half inches tall and weighed at least 200 pounds.  Photographs show Geary with a full and luxuriant beard; which he kept black with a preparation that some say led to his death by poisoning in 1873.  Deeply religious, Geary was a teetotaler and abolitionist who would do anything to serve his country and maintain the Union.  But he also sported a very bad temper, was egotistical to a fault, and was a tireless self-promoter.

After fighting in the Mexican war, Geary moved his family to San Francisco where President James K. Polk appointed him as the city’s postmaster.  In 1850, he became the city’s first mayor and spent two stormy years doing things his own way, then returned home to Pennsylvania because his wife had become deathly ill.  She passed away in 1853.

Three years later, Geary accepted President Pierce’s offer to become governor of the bloody Kansas territory. Although a Democrat, Geary opposed slavery, which made him a target of repeated threats of assassination. Geary resigned in 1857 when James Buchanan became president, and returned to Pennsylvania where he farmed, practiced law, and remarried in 1858.

When the Civil War began, Geary got himself commissioned a colonel and raised the fifteen-company 28th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry regiment. Promoted to brigadier general in early 1862, he was seriously wounded at the Battle of Cedar Mountain.  He returned to duty as commander of the Second Division, Twelfth Corps. and was to lead his division in the fighting at Lookout Mountain, throughout the lengthy campaign for Atlanta, Sherman’s March to the Sea, and into the Carolinas in 1865.

Reader Feedback – Geary/Gearsy from Ireland to America.  I saw a hand-written manifest of the passengers from the ship that brought my Geary ancestors, originally from Ireland, over to the U.S. in 1850. However, their name is written as “Gearsy” with an “s”. Was that just a mistake by the agent recording it?  The ship was the Jamestown and she sailed from Liverpool to New York.

Megan (

A Tale of Two Convicts.  There were two William Gearys transported to Australia of which we have significant records.  It is important not to confuse them because their experiences in Australia were completely different and their outcomes were different.

The first William Geary arrived in Sydney on the Surrey in 1814.  He was a violent man who escaped twice from prison.  The second time he was at large for two years, the leader of a notorious band of bushrangers.  He was eventually captured and executed.

The following is this William Geary’s trail through Australia according to the official documentation:

1814 On list of convicts disembarked
from the Surrey and forwarded
to Windsor for distribution.
1817 Prisoner at Newcastle.
Stabbed two men.  Thought to be insane.
1819 Runaway from Newcastle.
Recaptured (sentenced to 100 lashes).
Planned a murder in Newcastle so
that he could be sent to Sydney.
1821 Leader of bushrangers.
Escaped from Sydney jail.
Recaptured and executed.

The second William Geary, a framework knitter from Nottingham, had an unpromising start, being holed up in a hulk on the Thames for almost two years.  He eventually arrived in Tasmania on the Jupiter in 1833. But he served out his sentence without problem and joined a whaling fleet.  The captain of the whaling fleet then helped him set up in New Zealand.  He married a local Maori girl there and became a successful farmer in South Island.

Francis Geary – Native of Ratby.  Imagine children playing where cars now scream along the M1, where a horse called ‘Captain’ used to give three boys a lift to the field before ploughing – Francis Geary, the ex ‘bowser boy,’ gave his remembered account about climbing around Tigermoth ‘planes until two o’clock in the morning and diving “under the table” when a stray wartime bomb went off nearby … “all the bums sticking out from underneath this table – it was quite a laugh really.”

On his bike as a twelve year old paper boy Francis used to cycle daily from Ratby to Groby, Newtown Linford and Woodhouse Eaves, often delivering telegrams to the WAFF’s and WAC’s at the wartime airbase.  Recalling how Newtown Lane used to be a lonely stretch with no houses, Francis described some of the changes that have happened in the landscape around the Ratby area in the last 60 years.

Do you find yourself quoting the age old refrain: ‘kids wouldn’t have acted like that in my day.’  Well perhaps things haven’t changed that much as Francis ‘confessed’ to getting “chucked out of the Scouts for fighting.”

Geary Names

  • Sir Francis Geary, said to be of Irish origin, was Admiral of the British fleet in 1773 and created a baronet.
  • John W. Geary was a prominent politician of the American West in the 19th century, serving as mayor of San Francisco and governor of Kansas Territory.
  • Benjamin Geary was a WW One hero from Canada who received the Victoria Cross for his bravery in combat.
  • James Geary is the London-based editor of Time magazine and author of The Body Electric.

Geary Numbers Today

  • 5,000 in the UK (most numerous in Edinburgh)
  • 5,000 in America (most numerous in Pennsylvania).
  • 5,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia).

Geary and Like Surnames

Some surnames have originated from the English Midlands – the swathe of countryside which covers such counties as Warwickshire, Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.  These are some of the noteworthy surnames that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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