Harper Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Harper Meaning
is an
English, Scottish, and Irish occupational name for a player on the
from the Old English hearp. The
harper was one of the most important
figures of a medieval baronial hall, especially in Scotland and
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
early forms of the name in England had their origins in
the Anglo-French word harpour.
Scottish surname was probably an
anglicized form of the Gaelic Mac
meaning “son of the harper.” The surname has also been
present in Ireland, initially as Harpur.
The German surname equivalent is Harpfer,
which could become Harper in America.

Harper Resources on

Harper Ancestry

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

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
Swinford in Leicestershire in memory of his parents.

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

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
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.

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
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.

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
Middleton at Corraglass in Monaghan in 1762.
Many Scots Irish Harpers were emigrating to America around this

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,
slaves and land inland in the Fork District.

in the early 1800’s, the
family dissipated its wealth – through bad investments, madness,
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
west; another branch via William Harper to Chester county, Pennsylvania
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.

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

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

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
first in 1825 as printers and then a decade later as publishers.

first big publishing
success was Maria Monk’s Awful
in 1836. Selling 300,000
copies, the book became the most influential single work of
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

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
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
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
    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
  • 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
moving to Augusta county, Virginia


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

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.”

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
  • 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
    Reform Party, and rose to become Canada’s 22nd Prime Minister in 2006

Australia and New Zealand.
Harper and his family from county Antrim in Ireland were early arrivals
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
trade and died in Ballarat in 1882. His
wife Maria had died much earlier in 1859, tragically when her clothing
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
for more than thirty years. His
Charles first became a farmer.

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.

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.


Select Harper 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
  • (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
by Strongbow and here he built his castle. The ancestor of the Harpur
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

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:

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,
before 1776.  There he became wealthy in
the South American trade, owning his own ships.
He died and was buried in Alexandria.”

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

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
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
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
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
That, along with the officious way that he carried out his duties as a
made him a target for the rebels and their local sympathizers.

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
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
garrison fend off the rebels.

forces engaged the Fort’s defenders with near nightly gun battles and
days later the American patriots torched the Harper farm.
Christopher and his
wife Elizabeth watched from the protective works of the fort as their
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. In1856 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

and Hugh Harper were
engineers who founded
the business of Harper
and Company of
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.

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
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
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.

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

“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
water that night to join the survivors in the lifeboats.  Webb was
one of


Select 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

Select 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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