Harper Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Harper Surname Meaning

Harper is an English, Scottish, and Irish occupational name for a player on the harp, from the Old English hearp. The harper was one of the most important figures of a medieval baronial hall, especially in Scotland and northern England, and the office of harper was sometimes hereditary. However, the harper could also be someone who simply made a living playing at fairs and festivals. 

Some early forms of the name in England had their origins in the Anglo-French word harpour. The Scottish surname was probably an anglicized form of the Gaelic Mac Chruiteir, meaning “son of the harper.” The surname has also been long present in Ireland, initially as Harpur. The German surname equivalent is Harpfer, which could become Harper in America.

Harper Surname Resources on The Internet

Harper Surname Ancestry

  • from England, Scotland and Ireland
  • to America,  Canada, Australia and New Zealand

England. Harper has been mainly a north of England name that initially appeared as Harpour or Harpur.

An early le Harpur family began with Sir Robert le Harpur in Derby around the year 1300. There were many knights and baronets in succeeding generations.

One line may have led to John Harper who appeared as an attorney at the Stafford assizes in 1411. Through a propitious marriage he became a substantial landowner in the Rushall area of Staffordshire. His son Richard was receiver-general for the Duchy of Lancaster and in 1474 obtained permission to endow a chantry at Swinford in Leicestershire in memory of his parents.

Sir Henry Harper of the main line was created a baronet in 1626 and made his home at Calike Abbey in Derbyshire. This line was known as Harper-Crewe from 1808 but became extinct in 1924.

The Harper name was quite common in Staffordshire. John Harper was married in Sedgley in 1584. One family line has been traced from the marriage of William and Priscilla Harper at Sedgley two hundred years later in 1784.

Larger Harper numbers have been in Yorkshire. An early Harper there was John Harper who was appointed the royal forester at Galtres in north Yorkshire in 1438. Richard Harper held Blacktoft manor in east Yorkshire in Elizabethan times. And a Harper line began with the marriage of Ralph Harper and Isabel Walker in Leeds in 1696.

Scotland. Early Harpers in Scotland were recorded as the Norman le Harpur in the 1296 Ragman’s Roll. It initially took the Gaelic form Mac chruiter in Kirkudbright in SW Scotland. Harpers from the district of Lennox near present-day Glasgow were associated with clan Buchanan.

Sir John Harper, a sheriff of Lanarkshire, acquired the Cambusnethan estate in north Lanarkshire in 1661 and rebuilt the house there. He was active at that time in the pursuit of Covenanters. His descendants, however, were secession Presbyterian ministers. James Harper was appointed editor of the United Presbyterian Magazine in 1850.

John Harper started his engineering company in Aberdeen in the 1860’s; and Nana Harper from Lanarkshire was a Titanic survivor in 1912.

Ireland. The names Harpur and Harper have existed in Ireland since the 13th century when the Norman Robert le Harpur arrived from England. A descendant David le Harpur was recorded in a Wexford document of 1278. The male line at Harperstown in Wexford died out in 1336.

However, the Harpur name and spelling continued in Wexford, even though Harpur had generally died out as a spelling in England. Thomas Harpur was mayor of Wexford in the late 1800’s. The Harpur spelling was also to be found at Ballinacorra in county Cork. These Harpurs may have given their name to Harpers Island in Cork Harbor.

The Harper name was later introduced into Ulster by settlers from Scotland and England in the 17th century. John Harper came to Donaghadee in county Down as part of Montgomery’s plantation in 1617. Others made their home in Antrim; while Lowdy Harpor married Mary Middleton at Corraglass in Monaghan in 1762. Many Scots Irish Harpers were emigrating to America around this time.

America. One early Harper line was to be found along the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay in Virginia by 1630’s, but later settled in Somerset county, Maryland. Around the time of the Revolution, Beauchampe Harper had risen to relative prominence in Dorchester county, acquiring slaves and land inland in the Fork District. 

“However, in the early 1800’s, the family dissipated its wealth – through bad investments, madness, alcoholism, lawsuits and internal squabbles over slavery.”  

One branch of the family under a later Beauchampe departed for Ohio in the 1830’s, and then to points further west; another branch via William Harper to Chester county, Pennsylvania where they have mostly remained.

Captain John Harper, born in Philadelphia, made his home in Alexandria, Virginia. He was a prominent ship-owner and trader to South America in the years prior to the Revolutionary War.

“Captain Harper had twenty children by his first wife, Sarah Wells, and nine by his second wife, Mary Cunningham. And to each of his children, he left a house and a lot, according to historical accounts.”  

Berton Lee’s 1990 book Chronology of Captain John Harper covered these lines.

Joseph Harper from Suffolk came to America in the 1760’s and settled in Newtown, Long Island. Four of his grandsons – James, John, Wesley and Fletcher – worked together in New York, first in 1825 as printers and then a decade later as publishers.  

“Their first big publishing success was Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures in 1836. Selling 300,000 copies, the book became the most influential single work of anti-Catholic propaganda in America’s history.”  

In 1844 James Harper was elected mayor of New York, running on a Know-Nothing, Nativist platform of anti-Catholicism and anti-immigration. Meanwhile Harper and Brothers publishing begat what is now Harper’s Bazaar and HarperCollins.

Irish.  Then there were Irish Harper arrivals, the majority of them Scots Irish from Ulster.

John and Abigail Harper came to Massachusetts with their family from county Derry in 1720. In 1768 his sons Alexander, John and Joseph purchased land in Delaware county, New York at a place that became known as Harpersfield. All three brothers were actively involved in the fighting during the Revolutionary War.

Afterwards Alexander migrated to Ohio where he founded another Harpersfield in Ashtabula county. The family homestead there, Shandy Hall, stayed with the Harper family until 1935. The history was recounted in Jane Cowles Ford’s 1905 book Records of the Harper Family.

Robert Harper, a Quaker, fled Belfast for Philadelphia in 1727. There he became an indentured servant to John Buzby, a wealthy Quaker of Oxford township. He died in 1765 in Philadelphia a wealthy man himself.

Then there were Harpers who came in the 1790’s:

  • Alexander Harper came to Ohio from Belfast as a child at that time. Based in Zanesville, he was US Congressman at various times between 1836 and 1853 for Muskingum county.
  • William Harper, also came to Ohio, also from Belfast. He lived in a settlement near present-day Athens called Elizabethtown after his wife. He and his son John operated a local ferry known as Harpers Ferry.
  • while James Harper came from Tyrone and made his money in Philadelphia as a brick manufacturer. He was for a period in the 1830’s a US Congressman there.

German. Harpers in America can have German origin, from Harpfer or Herber names. Philip and Anna Herber, for instance, came to Philadelphia in 1750, first settling as Harper in Berks county, Pennsylvania and later moving to Augusta county, Virginia.

Canada. The main Harper line in Canada began with Christopher Harper, born in the small Yorkshire village of Sledmere, who had come to Nova Scotia in 1774 and moved into a house near Fort Cumberland, only to have his home burned to the ground two years later by rebels.  

“Harper spent years taking revenge in the courts and slowly rising through the political system. He had risen to the post of justice of the peace by the time a judicial inquiry found him guilty of, as one historian put it ‘violent and oppressive measures,’ vindictive to a point beyond all reason.”  

Christopher Harper lived to be ninety, passing away in 1820. The Harpers of Sackville and Bay Verte in Nova Scotia were descendants of his sons John and William. The line from the younger son William extended to:

  • Donald Harper, a prominent Sackville farmer who was a member of the New Brunswick legislature and was appointed Provincial Secretary in 1963.
  • while another line from Harris Harper of Moncton, New Brunswick (who mysteriously disappeared in 1950) and his son Joseph led to Stephen Harper. Stephen migrated west to Alberta, was one of the founders of the Reform Party, and rose to become Canada’s 22nd Prime Minister in 2006.

AustraliaAndrew Harper and his family from county Antrim in Ireland were early arrivals in Melbourne, coming there in 1841 as assisted passengers on the Marquis of Bute. They later moved to Geelong and then to Ballarat. Andrew was a wheelwright by trade and died in Ballarat in 1882. His wife Maria had died much earlier in 1859, tragically when her clothing had accidentally caught on fire.

The Rev. Charles Harper was a pioneer settler in Western Australia. He had arrived from London in what was then the Swan River Colony in 1837. Charles was the first ordained minister in the colony and served the Toodyay district for more than thirty years.

His son Charles first became a farmer. “According to family legend, his mother gave him at sixteen a horse and cart, a gun, a barrel of salt pork and fifty pounds, and sent him to find himself a farm.”  

He did well in farming and in pearling and was able to acquire the Western Australian Times newspaper in 1879. He later entered local politics. The third Charles of this family helped establish the Western Australian farmers’ co-operative in 1913 in which he was involved for the next forty years.

New Zealand.  Henry Harper, born in Hampshire and educated at Eton College, came out to New Zealand in 1856 and was the first Anglican bishop of Christchurch, holding that position from 1856 to 1890:

  • his son Leonard left New Zealand in 1891 after it transpired that his law firm in Christchurch had gone bankrupt through embezzlement
  • but Leonard’s son Arthur (generally known as APH) became well-known in New Zealand as a mountaineer and explorer.

Harper Surname Miscellany

Early Harpers in Scotland.  George Fraser Black had the following description of Harper in his 1946 book The Surnames of Scotland.

“From the office of “harper” in early times the harper was a hereditary official in the households of many great families.  The Brehon laws rank the harp as ‘the one art of music which deserves nobility.’  According to Clan Donald, the last hereditary harper appears to have been Murdoch Macdonald, harper to Maclean of Coll, who died at an advanced age in 1739.

In some districts lands were attached to the office as shown by the place names Croit a’ Chlarsair (the Harper’s Croft) in the parish of Kiltarlity near Dundonald in Ayrshire.  The lands of Harperfield in the parish of Lesmahagow are probably of the same origin.

Several individuals named Harper appear in the Ragman Roll as having rendered homage in 1296:

  • (1) William le Harpur of La Lawe, of the county of Edinburgh
  • (2) Uctins le Harpur of the county of Lanark.
  • (3) Robert le Harper of the county of Ayr
  • (4) Johan le Harpur of the county of Berwick
  • and (5) Rogier le Harpur of Hom, also of the county of Berwick.

As the name is fairly common in the Stewartry, it is probably a translation of Mac chruiter, which in Gaelic has the meaning of ‘son of the harper.’”

Harperstown Castle.  According to family lore, it was to Aghdare in south Wexford that Sir William le Harpur came soon after the settlement of Leinster by Strongbow and here he built his castle. The ancestor of the Harpur family may have been Welsh harper or minstrel to Strongbow.  At any rate he was awarded Aghdare for his services and promptly changed the district’s name to Harperstown.

There is some doubt about the exact date of the building of Harperstown Castle.  One source has it being in the 12th century; while another indicates the date at 1320.  Sir Thomas le Harpur of this family was described in records as “a knight of the distinguished family of le Harper or Harpur of Gloucestershire in England.”

Ruins are all that remain of Harperstown House and Castle.

Who Was Captain John Harper of Alexandria?  A letter by a descendant William Walton Harper opined as follows:

“John Harper, the son of Sir John Harper of Kent, while yet in England bought from William Penn 500 acres of land near Philadelphia and willed it to his son Robert Harper who was in Philadelphia.  But it was only a life interest.

Thus, on his death, the land went to John Harper, grandson of John and son of Robert. This Captain John Harper was born in Philadelphia in 1728 and settled in Alexandria, Virginia, before 1776.  There he became wealthy in the South American trade, owning his own ships. He died and was buried in Alexandria.”

All writers seem to agree that Captain John Harper was born in Philadelphia in 1728.  But they differ as to the identity of his parents.

One view has him descended from John Harper, a Quaker, who came to Oxford county, Philadelphia in 1682 and died there in 1714.  His line supposedly went through son Joseph, grandson Robert, to great grandson Captain John.

Then he could be descended from the Quaker Robert Harper who founded Harpers Ferry at the river point where Maryland and Virginia meet.  However, this Robert Harper married Rachel Griffith and died a widower without descendants.

Scots Irish Harpers.  Scots Irish Harpers came to this country from Ulster in the latter part of the 17th or the beginning of the 18th century.

Of the three brothers said to be emigrants, one went South, according to tradition, and settled in the Carolinas.  It is supposed that Gen. Goodloe Harper of Baltimore and Chancellor Harper of South Carolina were descendants of this branch.

Another brother settled in New York, from whom the Harpers of that state and Pennsylvania were supposed to have descended.

The third brother, as it appeared from an old family record, was a weaver by trade and settled in Newbury, Massachusetts. He was the ancestor of the Harpers of New England.  John A. Harper of Meredith, who was a member of Congress in 1812, was of this branch in the fourth generation. His father William Harper was a magistrate for some thirty years and represented Sanbornton in the legislature for a number of sessions.

Samuel Harper of this line moved the Limerick, Maine in 1787.  The Harper Family house, built there in 1809, is one of Limerick’s few 19th century brick houses and remained with the Harper family until the 1950’s.

Christopher Harper and the Torching of His Farm.  Since moving his family to Nova Scotia in 1774, Christopher Harper had worked industriously to improve his lands. He built and operated a store on the property and his estate was considered a model farm, much to the envy of his New England neighbors. That, along with the officious way that he carried out his duties as a magistrate, made him a target for the rebels and their local sympathizers.

An armed rebel patrol visited the Harpers’ farm during the daytime on November 6, 1776. The boldness of the patriots so close to Fort Cumberland clearly frightened the Harpers. Christopher gathered friends and family and moved them into the fort. He also recruited twelve men from the community to take up arms to help the garrison fend off the rebels.

The rebel forces engaged the Fort’s defenders with near nightly gun battles and three days later the American patriots torched the Harper farm. Christopher and his wife Elizabeth watched from the protective works of the fort as their cherished homestead was reduced to ashes.

Reader Feedback – Robert Harpur in America.  Am disappointed that I don’t see a mention of Robert Harpur of Scotland and Ireland, an early settler in America, who played some key roles in the period 1761- 1865. You can find much about him in Wikipedia.  But do remember his name is spelled with a U not an E.  Regards from New Zealand.

Judith Harper (viaticus@harpernz.net)

The Harpers in Aberdeen.  John Harper left his parents’ farm near Turriffin, Aberdeenshire around the age of nine and found employment as a market gardener before moving down to Edinburgh with his brother Hugh where they became wire-fencers.

In 1856 they returned to Aberdeen to set up their own business as fencers and gate manufacturers.  Before long they had established a foundry.  In 1863, aged 30, John Harper registered a patent “device for straining wire,’ which was crucial in the development of bridge building.

John and Hugh Harper were engineers who founded the business of Harper and Company of Aberdeen. The company they founded originally made wire fencing.  Later John moved into the manufacture of suspension bridges, engines and other machinery.  He died in 1906.

His firm’s early bridges included suspension bridges at Aboyne in Aberdeenshire and at Shocklach in Cheshire, both built in 1871.  Their span ran about 300 feet.  These early bridges had wooden towers, although these were replaced in later bridges by cast iron or steel.

The Harpers on the Titanic.  John Harper was an evangelical Baptist pastor from Renfrewshire in Scotland.  His wife had died in childbirth in 1906, leaving him with a baby daughter Nana who was to be cared for by her mother’s cousin Jessie.

In 1912 the three of them boarded the Titanic at Southampton as second class passengers. They were travelling to New York and then onto the Moody Church in Chicago, Illinois.

Jessie later recalled later the events on the night of the sinking of the Titanic:

“About midnight Mr. Harper came to our stateroom and told us that the vessel had struck an iceberg. While I was dressing he went to learn further particulars and returned to say that the order had been given to put on the life belts.  We did so, and, picking up Nana in his arms, he took her up to the deck.  There the women were ordered to the upper deck. I had to climb a vertical iron ladder and Mr. Harper brought Nana after me up the ladder and the men at the top lifted her up to me again.

There was no opportunity for farewell.  In fact, even then we did not realize the danger, as we were assured again and again that the vessel could not sink, that the Olympic would be alongside at any minute, and that the women and children were to be put into the boats first and the men to follow, and that there were boats sufficient for all.

Our boat was well manned.  It was the eleventh to leave the vessel.  After about half an hour the Titanic went down.  We were about a mile away.”

A well-known photograph of the second class promenade, in which a young girl is seen holding her father’s hand, is believed by many to show young Nana Harper and her father.  Nana’s own recollections were sparse but she later recalled sitting on her cousin Jessie’s knee as she watched the Titanic sink and the noise of those struggling in the water.

Jessie and Nana are believed to have been rescued in Lifeboat 11,but Pastor Harper was lost in the sinking. Following their rescue by the Carpathia, they reached New York, still in the clothes they wore to leave the Titanic.

Jessie elected not to continue to Chicago and decided instead to return to England at the earliest available opportunity.   Nana, now an orphan, returned to England and was apparently raised by an uncle and aunt in London. During her upbringing discussion of Titanic was discouraged by her family.

Four years after the sinking of the Titanic, a young Scotsman by the name of Aguilla Webb stood up in a meeting in Hamilton, Canada and gave the following testimony:

“I am a survivor of the Titanic.  When I was drifting alone on a spar that awful night, the tide brought Mr. John Harper of Glasgow, also on a piece of wreck, near me.

‘Man,’ he said, ‘Are you saved?’‘

‘No,’ I said, ‘I am not.’

He replied, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.’

The waves bore him away; but, strange to say brought him back a little later, and he said, ‘Are you saved now?’

‘No,’ I said, ‘I cannot honestly say that I am.’

He said again, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved,’ and shortly after he went down; and there, alone in the night, and with two miles of water under me, I believed.  I am John Harper’s last convert.”

Apparently God wanted Webb’s amazing testimony to be shared, because only seven people were plucked from the icy water that night to join the survivors in the lifeboats.  Webb was one of them.

Harper Names

  • John Harper founded in the 1860’s one of Aberdeen’s best-known engineering companies which became active in the building of suspension bridges.
  • James Harper was the early/mid 19th century New York publisher who with his brothers created what became the HarperCollins publishing house and Harper’s Bazaar magazine.   
  • Stephen Harper was the Prime Minister of Canada from 2006 to 2015.

Harper Numbers Today

  • 38,000 in the UK (most numerous in Staffordshire)
  • 46,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 17,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)


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Written by Colin Shelley

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