Graves Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Graves Surname Meaning

The surname Graves is an occupational name – from the Middle English greyve and Low German greve meaning “steward” or “person in charge of property.”   

“The serfs in the English manors usually elected one of their number annually to oversee their work for the lord.  From this official the surnames Reeve or Reaves were derived.  In the north of England he was called a Grave, a name related to the German Graff, but which did not attain the higher status that it did in Germany. Sometimes an “s” was added for phonetic reasons to make it Graves. The name has nothing to do with places of burial.”

Graves is a north of England surname, as is the like-sounding Greaves. Greaves, however, came from a different root, the Old English word graefe meaning “grove.”

Graves Surname Resources on The Internet

Graves Surname Ancestry

  • from England (Lincolnshire and Yorkshire) and from Germany
  • to Ireland, America, Canada and Australia

England.   It is thought that the Graves name had its origin in the southern part of Yorkshire and in the northern parts of Lincolnshire, Derbyshre, and Nottinghamshire.  Lincolnshire and Yorkshire were leading counties for Graves in the 1881 census.

The older Grave spelling was found in Yorkshire in the 15th and 16th century and persisted in Cumbria until the 19th. Henry Grave was a husbandman of Buttercrambe in Yorkshire who died in 1465.  Robert Grave was a baker in Keswick in 1841 and a pencil maker there in 1851.  But the name was John Woodcock Graves, born in Cumbria in 1795, who was the composer of the song D’ye Ken John Peel.

One Graves line began at Cleckheaton in west Yorkshire in the 1470’s (and possibly earlier). John Graves moved to London and died there in 1616 at the age of 103.  

“There is a portrait of him by Cornelis Janson on a panel in Mickleton House, painted when he was in his I02nd year, and an engraving of him also at 102 in Nash’s History of Worcestershire.”  

It was his grandson Richard Graves who made a fortune in his law practice and acquired Mickleton manor in Gloucestershire in 1656.  His cousin Sir Edward later became physician to Charles II.  By this time a branch of the family had established themselves in Ireland.  Later, some of this Anglo-Irish family were to return to England:

  • Thomas Graves, an Admiral in the British navy, who moved to Thanckes in Cornwall in the early 1700’s.  His son Thomas, another Admiral, saw action in the American Revolutionary War, his fleet being defeated by the French off Chesapeake Bay.  He was, however, elevated to the peerage as Baron Graves.
  • and Alfred Perceval Graves, a Dublin-born school inspector and Gaelic scholar, who moved to London in the 1890’s.  His son Robert Graves, the distinguished writer and poet, was born and grew up there.

The Graves name in Hornchurch, Lincolnshire dates back to the 1760’s.   John George Graves was born there in 1866.  At the age of 14 he moved to Sheffield and was apprenticed to a watchmaker.  He started his own practice seven years later and set up one of Britain’s first mail order businesses, selling first watches and then a wide range of goods.  The company employed at its peak 3,000 people in Sheffield.  He became one of Sheffield’s great benefactors.

Ireland.  Graves came to Ireland at the time of Cromwell.  Colonel William Graves of the Mickleton Graves was granted land there in 1647 and later left his two sons Henry and James in charge of properties in Limerick and Ulster.  Neither son had a great time of it.  

“Henry never travelled without his long sword ‘for fear of the hostility of the Irish papists.’  In 1689  John, then paymaster for William II, was robbed of his regiment’s wages and murdered in his bed.”  

But these Graves would become a notable Anglo-Irish family.  John Graves was the Sheriff of Limerick in 1720.  From Dublin in the 19th century came Robert Graves the medical innovator, his cousin John Graves the lawyer and mathematician, and another cousin Charles Graves the Anglican Bishop of Limerick.

America.  The long-time reference book for Graves in America has been the three volume tome by General John Card Graves, Genealogy of the Graves Family in America, published in 1896.  He himself was a descendant of the John Graves who had come to Concord, Massachusetts in 1635. Like all works of that time, it can be prone to error as it lacks the research tools that are available today.

New England.  Early Graves arrivals in New England were:

  • Samuel Graves who came from Lincolnshire in 1630 and settled in Lynn, Massachusetts.  Graves descendants were still in Lynn in the 19th century    
  • John Graves, who was in Concord, Massachusetts by 1635.  Among his descendants were General John Card Graves of Buffalo, New York and Henry Graves, the New York banker who made millions from railroad investments in the early 1900’s.  
  • Richard Graves, the pewterer, who arrived on the Abigail also in 1635 and settled in Salem, Massachusetts.   
  • and Thomas Graves, recorded in Hartford, Connecticut in 1645, who settled in Hatfield, Massachusetts in 1661.  Some of these Graves migrated to Rutland, Vermont in the early 1800’s.  The line was covered in Germont Graves’ 1911 book Graves Genealogy.

Virginia.  Captain Thomas Graves arrived in Jamestown, Virginia as early as 1608.  He survived the privations of the ensuing years and was recognized as one of the “ancient planters” until his death in 1636.  His Graves descendants in Gloucester county are via his two sons John and Thomas.

Francis Graves of Gloucester county was not a descendant, according to DNA analysis. Many more descendants are thought to have come from him, including over the past hundred years Bibb Graves, the Governor of Alabama in 1927, and Bill Graves, the recent Governor of Kansas.

German Graves. There have also been German Graves in America, from Graff or Greve immigrants.   The earliest was probably Johann Sebastian Graff, a refugee from the German Palatinate who arrived in 1730.  He was resident in Pennsylvania for a while before moving with his family to South Carolina and later Tennessee.  “Old John,” as John Sebastian Graves was then called, lived to be 101.

Canada.  William Graves was stationed with the British army in Nova Scotia in 1760 during the French and Indian wars and remained there.  He moved his family to New Brunswick in 1783.

A number of Graves Loyalists crossed the border into Canada after the conclusion of the Revolutionary War.  Their numbers included:

  • Edward Graves who left his home in New Hampshire and was one of the first settlers in West Shefford, Quebec in 1796   
  • and George Graves who had suffered imprisonment in Maryland and deportation to England before his eventual arrival in Canada around 1797.

Australia.  William and Ann Graves from Hull in Yorkshire arrived in Adelaide with their family on the Stag in 1850.  Sadly Ann died on the voyage across.  William settled in Newton, South Australia along a road that later became known as Graves Street.  William, his son James and grandson Thomas were market gardeners there.

Graves Surname Miscellany

Possible Graves Origin.  According to volume one of John Card Graves’ Genealogy of the Graves Family in America, the Graves family were among the most ancient in England.  They were initially de Grava and arrived at the time of the Norman Conquest, settling in Yorkshire.

John de Grevis was in the army of King John.  His great grandson was Thomas de les Greves. Their family seat was at Beeley in northern Derbyshire in the mid-13th century. A more identifiable forebear of the Graves family of Yorkshire and Mickleton was John Graves of Cleckheaton in West Yorkshire in the 1470’s.

Graves in the 1881 Census

County Numbers Percent
Lincolnshire    730    16
London    640    14
Yorkshire    420     9
Lancashire    310     7
Elsewhere   2,400    54
Total   4,500   100

Robert Graves, Medical Innovator.  Robert Graves was a leader of the Dublin school of diagnosis which emphasized clinical observation of patients.  Born in Dublin, he came from the Limerick branch of the Graves family, his great grandfather having served as the High Sheriff of Limerick in 1720.

Later Graves of his line were distinguished clergymen and scholars, from the Rev. James Graves to Robert’s own father Dean Richard Graves, the author of Graves on the Pentateuch and one of the best preachers of Dublin in his timeRobert was his eighth born  child.

In 1821 he was appointed physician to the Meath Hospital in Dublin. The work he undertook at the hospital brought the Meath Hospital international renown.  He introduced at that time what he called “bedsides teaching.”

“Mere walking the hospital must go.  The Edinburgh system, in which the teacher interrogates the patient in a loud voice, the clerk repeats the patients’ answer in a similar voice, the crowd of students round the bed, most of whom cannot see the patient, hears all this and makes notes, is of no use. Students must examine patients for themselves under the guidance of their teachers, they must make suggestions as to diagnosis, morbid anatomy and treatment to their teacher who will discuss the cases with them.”

Graves showed the qualities which would make him a great teacher.  He was tall, somewhat swarthy with a vivacious manner, and, like other avant-garde professors of his time, he gave his lectures in English rather than in Latin.

Among the innovations he introduced in his lectures was the timing of the pulse by watch. But he failed to patent the invention of having the hand denoting seconds fixed onto a watch. Instead a Dublin firm of watchmakers to whom he had casually prescribed this device for his own personal assistance made a fortune out of selling watches with second hands all over the world.

Robert Graves died in 1853.  A statue of him was erected in Dublin in 1878.

Richard Graves’s Troubles in Salem, Massachusetts.  Richard Graves, aged 23, came to Massachusetts on the Abigail, arriving in 1635.  He settled at Salem and was a proprietor there in 1637.  However, he soon got into trouble with the Puritan authorities of the town.  The following were some early escapades of his:

  • in December 1638 he was sentenced to sit in the stocks for beating Peter Busgutt in his own house.
  • in 1641 he was brought into court again. William Allen testified that “he had heard Rich Graves kissed Goody Gent twice.”  Richard confessed that it was true.  For this unseemly conduct was sentenced to be fined and whipped.
  • sometime in the late 1640’s Richard Graves went to Boston and got drunk in Charlestown.  He was mulct by the quarterly court.
  • a month later, there was a complaint against him for playing shuffle-board, described as “a wicked game of chance,” at a tavern in Salem.  But this time he escaped the vengeance of the law as the case against him was not proved.

He was a pewterer by trade, making pewter lamps and candlesticks.  He was still pursuing his trade in 1665. It was said that “sometime between that date and 1669 he passed out of the reach of the courts to that bourne from which no pewterers ever return.”

The Gravestone of John Sebastian Graves.  The gravestone is inscribed as follows:

“John Sebastian Graves, 1703-1804.

Born in Germany and christened as Johann Sebastian Graff, sailing from Rotterdam on the Alexander and Ann, arriving at Philadelphia September 5, 1730, he settled in Berks County, Pennsylvania and moved to Orange (now Almance) county, North Carolina about 1757.

Being a member of the Regulators, he fought at the Battle of Alamance in 1771. He moved to what is now Union county, Tennessee about 1800.  His remains were removed by the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) to this site in 1935.”

The reason the marker was moved by the TVA was that the Norris Dam was built in 1935 and flooded the valley.

George Graves, Loyalist in America.  Peter Coldham in his book American Migrations 1765-1799 mentioned a Captain Adam Graves and his brother Lieutenant George Graves. They were Loyalists from Maryland who were imprisoned and had escaped to New York.  George was supposed to have crossed the border to Canada.  Peter’s account read as follows:

“The Graves brothers, Adam and George, were natives of Germany who had emigrated to America many years ago and were freeholders in Frederick county, Maryland.   Adam was commissioned a captain in 1779 and appointed George as his lieutenant. Together they went about making recruits to the British army on a promise of three guineas bounty, pay and clothing, and 150 acres each on the conclusion of the war.

Being Loyalist officers they were condemned to die for enlisting men to the British cause. After being in jail for seven weeks in irons, they were reprieved on condition of being transported to France aboard a French warship.  But then they were imprisoned in the hold of the Romulus, a former English man-of-war, on York river for three months before they managed to escape to New York. They were awarded a free passage to England and sailed on 10 September 1783.”

George Graves apparently did make it from there to Canada. He was granted land in Pittsburgh township near Kingston in eastern Ontario in 1797 and was recorded as living there in 1803.

Graves Names

  • Robert Graves was an eminent 19th century Irish doctor and professor after whom Graves’ disease took its name.
  • Robert Graves was a celebrated English poet, writer and novelist of the first half of the 20th century.
  • Blind Roosevelt Graves was an American blues guitarist and singer of the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Graves Numbers Today

  • 9,000 in the UK (most numerous in Yorkshire)
  • 29,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 4,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)




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Written by Colin Shelley

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