Harris Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Harris Surname Meaning

Harry was the regular pronunciation of Henry in the Middle Ages, although Henry always appeared in official documents. From Harry came Harris, mainly found in the south of England, and Harrison, mainly found in the north.

There are local variants of the Harris name, Harries in Wales, Harriss in pockets of the Midlands, and Herries in Scotland. One Harris branch in Essex, dating back to the 1500’s, claimed to derive their surname from the French le herisse.

Harrises and its variants from Britain can be found in America. Some Harrises in America may have German or French ancestry.

Harris Surname Resources on The Internet

Harris Surname Ancestry

  • from Southern England and Scotland
  • to America, Canada, West Africa and Australia

England. Early references to the Harris surname are William Herry in Colchester in 1337, William Harrys in Oxfordshire in 1406, and Lawrence Harryes in Hertfordshire in 1468. Guppy, an early researcher on surnames, had the following comment on the Harrises:

“In the struggle between the Harrises and the Harrisons, the former have been worsted. The Harrises in fact have been entirely on the defensive. Not only have they been unable to make any successful inroads into the northern territory of the Harrisons, they have not prevented their foes from forcing a way through their ranks and reaching the south coast.”

SW England.  The Harrises of Radford manor in Devon date from about 1450. They subsequently became the Harrises of Hayne and there were family outposts in Cornwall and Somerset as well.

The Harris name also appeared in the Channel islands of Alderney and Guernsey, following a family migration from Devon in the 1840’s.

A Harris family from Salisbury in Wiltshire produced James Harris, a noted English diplomat at the time of the French Revolution. His grandson James was briefly Foreign Secretary in the 1850’s.

SE England  A Harris family from Southminster in Essex traces itself back to around 1500. Sir Arthur Harris from this family was a member of the Virginia company in London which helped organize the early settlement there. Another Harris family, originally from Harlow in Essex, have descendants who settled in Prince Edward Island, Canada in the 1850’s.

Wales. The Welsh Harries name was mainly to be found in Pembrokeshire. A Harries family had settled at Tregwynt and at Priskilly in the 1600’s. They built their family home at Heathfield in Letterston in the early 19th century.  Later Harries were to be found in Glamorgan.

Scotland. The Herries name first appeared in Dumfriesshire on the Scottish borders, the origin being the Norman family de Heriz. A Herries family, dating back to Herbert Herries in 1490, were the lords of Terregles near Dumfries.

Some might think that Harris is a Scottish name because of the Harris tweed which takes its name from the isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. This Harris name is derived from the Gaelic na hearadh. 

AmericaWilliam Harris, who arrived on the Lion, was one of the early settlers of Providence, Rhode Island. Elisha Harris from this family was the Governor of the state in 1847. Nathan Harris from Rhode Island became an early convert to the Mormon movement.

Virginia.  John Harris from the Essex Southminster family came to Virginia in the 1620’s. His son Thomas started a tobacco plantation in Isle of Wight county. Descendants later moved onto North Carolina and Georgia.

Other Harrises in Virginia went to Tennessee, Indiana, and Texas. Harris county in Texas was named after Richardson Harris, an early settler in the area in the 1820’s. William Harris from Georgia came to Mississippi in 1837. His three sons, Nathaniel, James, and William, all served in the Confederate Army, Nathaniel in particular distinguishing himself in battle.

Pennsylvania  John Harris from Yorkshire had arrived in Pennsylvania in the early 1700’s and founded Harrisburg (which bears his name today). His family operated a trading and ferry business and were one of principal store keepers for the emerging American frontier at that time.

Canada. The first Harris arrivals were originally of Dutch extraction, but living in New York state at the time of the American Revolution. After the war, Myndert Harris took his family to Port Hope in Ontario. Another who departed at that time was Eli Harris. He left New York for Ingersoll, Ontario in 1805. His line produced pioneer Baptist ministers and the painter Lawren Harris.

John Harris came over in 1821 from Ireland (although of English stock) and settled in Wellington county, Ontario.

Another John Harris, this time from Devon, built Eldon House in London, Ontario in 1834. John died soon after; but his wife Amelia lived on for another twenty five years. Her diary has been preserved and gives an interesting account of 19th century family life. Eldon House itself remained in family hands until 1959 and has now been restored as a museum.

Australia. Two John Harrises from very different backgrounds contributed to the early history of Australia:

  • the first Harris was Jewish, convicted of burglary in London and transported with a life sentence on the First Fleet to Australia. His enterprise soon won him a pardon and he was one of the earliest innkeepers with a liquor license in the new colony.
  • the second, a surgeon with the Royal Navy from Ireland, arrived in 1790. He was very much involved in the early politics and died in 1838 a wealthy man.

Alexander Harris came from England in 1826 and lived a wandering life in the new colony for many years. His autobiography Settlers and Convicts provides a very vivid account of life at that time there.

George Frederick Harris, a portrait painter from Merthyr Tydfil in Wales, made his arrival in Australia much later, in 1920. His talents were passed down. A daughter was Pixie O’Harris, an artist and book illustrator; and a grandson Rolf Harris who made the reverse trip to England bringing his novelty song Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport along with him.

Africa. Desserline Harris, a free black from Virginia, emigrated to Liberia in 1848 and the Harris name has lived on in that country. The most famous of these Harrises was probably William Wade Harris, the Christian prophet. Jeremiah Harris founded the Bank of Liberia in 1920.

During the recent troubles in Liberia there have been some Harrises who have stayed, such as the psychiatrist Benjamin Harris, and others who have left, such as Cleo Harris who joined other Liberian emigrants in Minnesota in the United States.

Kamala Harris’s Family Ancestry

Kamala Harris, who became the first woman and the first African American Vice President of the United States in 2021, is biracial – in that she has both black Jamaican and South Asian Indian ancestry.  Just click below if you want to read more about this story:

Harris Surname Miscellany

Harris DNA.  The majority of Harrises tested so far belong to R1b1 (Western European) or I1 (Scandinavian) haplogroups. Some Harrises were also found to have E3 (African), J (Middle Eastern/Mediterranean), and R1a (Eastern European) haplogroups.

R1b1 originates from all over Britain.  But I1 is mainly to be found in East Anglia and the northeast of Scotland where there were Danish settlements. The Harris surname project was one of the largest DNA surname projects undertaken, with almost 300 participating.

Harrises in Essex.  Some Harrises from Essex claim to derive their surname from the French term le herisse. The original name had been a nickname, Crispin, from the Latin meaning “sticking-up hair.”  The French translation of Crispin is le herisse.  There was a Crispin de Bec so nicknamed and his son, Guy “Le Herisse” de Bailleul was perhaps the first to assume the French translation of the name.

Branches of this family were said to have migrated to Britain and were known as de Heriz and Heris in the 12th century.

The Tombstone of Sir Thomas Harris in Cornwall.  Sir Thomas Harris was buried on May 25, 1610 and his wife Elizabeth on April 18, 1634 in Cornworthy parish church.  Their tombstone was inscribed as follows:

“This worthy gentleman deceased his life The seventeenth day of May in the year of our Lord God 1610. Here lieth the right worshipful Sir Thomas Harris, knight sergeant at law

And the lady Elizabeth his wife With their four children. Their eldest son Edward, Their second son Christopher slain in the wars at Zealand in Flanders, Their eldest daughter Anne married to Sir Thomas Souphwell, Their youngest daughter Honer married to Sir Hugh Harris, knight of Scotland.”

William Harris and Charles II.  This story of Hayne connects the Harrises there with Charles II.  The prince – as he then was – had passed over from Holland to Scotland after the death of his father in 1649 and been crowned King of England at Scone.  He then advanced into England with a small army but was stopped by Oliver Cromwell who defeated him at the battle of Worcester.  Charles then fled to the west.

One night a servant came to inform William Harris at Hayne that three horsemen were in the courtyard who desired to speak to him.  He went out and found the King with two attendants.  The staunch royalist received the fallen monarch readily.  There was a concealed room in the middle of the old house and here Charles was loyally cared for during some days while preparations were made for his escape.  The concealment was successful and Charles escaped to France.

William received a large gold medal struck by Charles in commemoration of his enterprise.  The Harrises were later created baronets by Charles when King.

Harries, Tregwynt and Buried Treasure.  The story started in 1996 at Tregwynt Mansion, not far from Fishguard in Pembrokeshire, where the owners were building a tennis court.

As they levelled the site and removed the topsoil, a few coins were uncovered. As more soil was removed, more coins were found.  After a few days 87 silver and gold coins had been uncovered dating from the 16th and 17th centuries.  Further searching, helped by a hired JCB, brought the grand total to 33 gold and 467 silver coins, fragments of pottery, a sheet of lead, and a gold ring!

The latest coin to be discovered was a single shilling bearing a sceptre, in use in 1647 and 1648.  Thus the hoard was thought to be buried no earlier than 1647.

The occupier of Tregwynt at that time was Llewellin Harries, an important farmer who died in 1663 and who had at least twelve children.  As the hoard was buried in a pot covered by a lead sheet in an outbuilding, it suggests that one of the family was probably involved in its burial.

In the confused times of the Civil War then almost anything may have been possible.  There was some evidence that these Harries were Royalists and this may have been their hoard to be kept away from the rampaging Roundheads.

John Harris, Father and Son, and Harrisburg.  The first John Harris, born in 1673 in Yorkshire of Welsh parents, emigrated to America late in the 17th century.  He came with little money but he began to improve his fortune through contracts to clear land and open streets in the city of Philadelphia.  In so doing, he formed a firm and lifelong friendship with Edward Shippen, its first mayor.

He received a trader’s licence in 1705 to “seat himself on the Susquehanna” and “to erect such buildings as are necessary for his trade and to enclose and improve such quantities of land he shall see fit.”

At first a roving trader, he eventually established a trading post at a spot on the Susquehanna where an existing Indian village existed and where dozens of Indian trails intersected.  He also started a ferry across the Susquehanna and acquired the land adjacent to his ferry.

He became known for his dealings with the Indians:

“On one occasion a band of Indians came into his house and asked for rum.  Seeing that they were already intoxicated, he feared mischief and refused.  They became enraged, seized, him, and tied him to a mulberry bush to burn him.  Luckily he was, after a struggle, released by other Indians in the neighborhood.   In remembrance of this event, he afterward directed that on his death he should be buried under this mulberry tree.”

When he died in 1748, his son John – said to have been the first white child born west of the Conewago hills – took over the management of the trading post and built on higher ground a plantation of three farms and a family home.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, there was agitation among the newer settlers of Pennsylvania for the creation of new counties.  John Harris was instrumental in the establishment of Dauphin County in 1785 and in the location of a new county seat “near Harris’s Ferry.”  The Government accepted his proposal to lay out a new town, which was to be called “Harrisburg.”

Alexander Harris Arrives in Sydney.  It was the latter part of 1826 or perhaps 1827.  Summer had come to the Australian colonies and the hot southern sun was beating down upon the clear blue waters of Sydney Harbour.  A young man had arrived in port from England, having stopped off at Hobart en route to see his brother who was a free settler there.

The young lad was alone, with perhaps £130 in his pocket, a letter of introduction to the Governor requesting a grant of land, and a collection of agricultural implements to set himself up on a small farm.

His departure from England was shrouded in mystery.  Rumor had it that he was a “remittance man,” a deserter from the Army who was unable to stomach the harsh discipline and floggings he received as punishment for his various misdemeanors.  As a result, he had taken on a new name, a new identity, and hoped to start afresh in this distant penal colony so far from England.

William Wade Harris.  William Wade Harris was a Liberian Grebo who had been brought up a Methodist, but later worked for the Protestant Episcopal Church as a teacher.  He fought Americo-Liberian rule and was imprisoned when implicated in a rebellion which would have invited the rather more enlightened British rule into Liberia as a liberation from Americo-Liberian oppression.

When in prison he received a vision from the Archangel Gabriel who proclaimed him a prophet sent to prepare the way of Jesus Christ.  The Archangel, however, commanded him to abandon the European clothes he took pride in and particularly the shoes he had just ordered from Europe.  Rejecting European clothes would be the sign of his conversion and the symbol of the simplicity and humility of the gospel message.

However, Harris’s wife Rose, on hearing this news, assumed that her husband had gone mad.  Overcome by grief, she fell ill and died.  William Wade Harris went on to become the prophet and leader of a West African mass Christian movement.

Richard Harris from Limerick.  Hartstonge House is a tall narrow townhouse with no garden standing alone on Hartstonge Street towards the park.  It had been the home, in the late 1800’s, of a wealthy Harris family who had owned Harris’s bakery on Henry Street.

Fifty years later this family was not so wealthy.  Ivan Harris had once been a well-to-do flour mill owner, but had fallen on hard times.  He and his wife Mildred brought up eight children in near-poverty.

The fifth of these children was Richard, later to be the celebrated actor and hell-raiser.  Regarding his Irish birth, British residency, and well-deserved drinking reputation, he once commented:  “When I’m in trouble, I’m an Irishman.  When I turn in a good performance, I’m an Englishman.”  Following years of drug abuse and decades of heavy boozing, Richard Harris finally gave up drinking in 1982.

He died in 2002.  Five years later, a statue of Richard Harris was erected on Bedford Row in Limerick.  It depicts him in the role of King Arthur.  The statue when erected proved to be controversial, just like its subject!

Reader Feedback – Irish Harrises in South Africa.  Would you have any information on Irish Harrises coming to South Africa in the 1800’s?  My father was Anthonie Cornelius Harris, born in 1929; my grandfather Ettienne Frederick Harris, born in 1878, and I think his father was Anthony Harris from Ireland.

Kind regards  Llewellyn Harris (harri03@vvsa.co.za)

Harris Names

  • Andrew Harris was one of Lincoln’s successful generals who later became Governor of Ohio.
  • Joel Chandler Harris from Georgia was the American journalist who wrote the Uncle Remus stories.
  • Frank Harris, of Welsh origin who settled in America, is best known for his autobiography, My Life and Loves published in 1922, which scandalized society at the time for its description of sexual encounters and liaisons.
  • Lawren Harris was an accomplished Canadian painter of the first half of the 20th century.
  • Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris was head of RAF Bomber Command during War World 2.
  • Richard Harris was an Irish-born international actor.
  • Thomas Harris is an American author of crime novels, notably The Silence of the Lambs.
  • Kamala Harris became the US Vice President in 2021.

Harris Numbers Today

  • 162,000 in the UK (most numerous in Hampshire)
  • 210,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 72,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)


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Written by Colin Shelley

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