Howell Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Howell Surname Meaning

Howell derives from the Welsh personal name Hywel meaning “eminent” or “prominent.” It was borne by Hywel Dda or Howel the Good who became King of Wales in 926. He was known for codifying the Welsh law under which Wales was governed for several centuries. Many later Howells have claimed descent from Howel the Good.

Howell’s early presence was in Monmouthshire. The name, although Welsh in origin, was thus to be found in both the Welsh and English border counties. The main surname spellings today are Howell and Howells, the patronymic Howells  being the more common spelling on the Welsh side.

The Howell name also has separate English origins, from the place-name Howell found in Lincolnshire and derived from the Old English hugol meaning “mound” or “hillock.”

Howell Surname Resources on The Internet

Howell Surname Ancestry

  • from South Wales and England (West and Lincolnshire)
  • to America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand

Wales. The Howell name first established its presence in Monmouthshire. Howel was a son of Oeni who became known as the Prince of Caerleon-upon-Uske in Monmouthshire. By the early 1300’s the name had become firmly established in Monmouth and also across the English-Welsh border where Howel held lands as well. David and Philip Howel were recorded as the Lords and Prince of the manor in Monmouth in 1313.

This line does not seem to have continued in Monmouthshire. But the Howell name was found there later in Thomas Howell, a merchant from the county, who died around 1540 and left a Thomas Howell charity. Thomas and James Howell, Royalists at the time of the Civil War, also claimed a Monmouthshire pedigree.

The Howell and Howells name extended westward across south Wales into Glamorgan, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire.

One Howell family were said to have lived at Nantymoel in Llangyfelach parish, Glamorgan since the 1300’s. However, they adopted the Howell surname late. Howel Roger was the freeholder there in 1764 and his grandson was the Rev. Roger Howell, born in 1774, the local Nonconformist minister.

In Carmarthenshire there were Howell families at:

  • Maesgwynne in Llanbody parish, from the early 1600’s until 1789 when Walter Rice Howell, unmarried, died.
  • and in the village of Gwynfe, starting with Samuel Howell in the late 1700’s.

William Howell was a Quaker from Castle in Pembrokeshire who emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1682.

England. Not all Howells in England have Welsh roots or connections. A few have English origins. It was said that William Marshall, the first earl of England, raised a small army of Howells in Lincolnshire in the 12th century to defeat an insurrection in that county. Later, the Howell name was more likely to crop up in Norfolk than in Lincolnshire.

Most Howells instead were to be found in the border counties, such as Gloucestershire and Shropshire (where Thomas Howell was the mayor of Oswestry in 1785) or later in Lancashire. The Howells of the Westbury manor at Marsh Gibbon in Buckinghamshire had Welsh ancestry. William Howell had purchased the estate in 1536. His grandson Edward sold it in 1638 and emigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

America. John Howell was perhaps the earliest Howell arrival in America, leaving persecution in Pembrokeshire for Virginia in the 1620’s and making his home in Henrico county. Later Howells of his line migrated to North Carolina and Georgia. Joseph Howell, who was born in Edgecombe county, North Carolina in 1735, died in DeKalb county, Georgia at the age of 102. His grandson Evan Howell later recounted his family ancestry.

Another line from Edgecombe county went to Atlanta, Georgia where Clark Howell prospered as a businessman. His son Evan acquired an interest in the Atlanta Constitution newspaper in 1876. Evan’s son Clark Howell was a prominent state politician and for fifty three years was the editorial executive and owner of the Atlanta Constitution.

Edward Howell from Buckinghamshire was one of the early English settlers on Long Island, arriving in 1640 and helping to found the Southampton colony. His descendants were there at the time of the Revolutionary War. They were also in New Jersey where the Howell farm was first established in Cumberland county in the 1740’s and is still operating today after ten generations.

This Howell line is thought to have extended as well to Morristown, New Jersey where Aaron Howell lived in the 1740’s and David Howell was born in 1747. David moved to Rhode Island and was active in civic affairs there until his death in 1824. His son Jeremiah was US Senator for Rhode Island from 1811 to 1817.

The Quaker John Howell, “a native of the ancient walled city of Aberystwyth,” came to Philadelphia in 1697 and died there in 1721. His son Jacob and grandson John were both tanners, the latter migrating south to Savannah, Georgia where he died in 1765. However, the main Howell numbers remained in the Philadelphia area and included:

  • Colonel Jacob Howell, a clerk of the Pennsylvania Board of War in 1778
  • Arthur Howell, a prominent Quaker preacher who died in 1818
  • and Colonel Joshua Howell who died in battle in 1864 in the Civil War.

The family history was captured in Frances Howell’s 1897 The Book of John Howell and His Descendants.

Reynold Howell, also from Wales, acquired land near Newark, Delaware in 1724 and settled there. One of his grandsons Lewis was a surgeon during the Revolutionary War, but died of fever during the conflict. His other grandson Richard Howell survived the war and served as Governor of New Jersey from 1794 to 1801.

Richard was the grandfather of Varina Howell, the second wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. She had been born in Mississippi after her father had moved there in the 1820’s.

“In 1843 Jefferson Davis was a handsome 35 year old widower and a wealthy plantation owner; Varina Howell a 17 year old from an impoverished family whose father had gone bankrupt more than a decade ago. She was not considered attractive, being tall and thin with the olive complexion of her Welsh ancestors. Yet they met at a Christmas party and married two years later.”

South Africa. James Howell. born in London, had apparently been disinherited by his father.  He was a naval victualling clerk when his ship arrived in the Cape colony in 1806. He stayed there and two years later married Maria Eksteen.  They raised a family in Cape Town where he worked as a librarian.

Australia.  Richard Howell had arrived from Gloucestershire with his parents as a young boy in 1840. When he grew up he became a Methodist preacher who was known as “Hellfire Dick.” He made his home at Devon Park in Dunkeld, Victoria. Samuel and others of his sons preached. Samuel’s son Richard served as a missionary in the Belgian Congo for thirty years.

New Zealand. John Howell come to New Zealand on a whaling ship around 1828 when he was just eighteen years old. He ran a whaling station at Waikouaiti on South Island for twenty years until the whaling industry’s decline. He later became a substantial landowner in the area.

Howell Surname Miscellany


Howel Dda and His Descendants.  Hywel Dda or Howel the Good became King of Wales in 926. A number of later Howells have claimed descent from him.  This was made possible because royal pedigrees in Wales were typically handed down by trained bards for generations before they were finally written down.

One such descendant was Sir Howel y Twyall who fought with the Black Prince at Poitiers in 1356. As a result of his exploits, he was knighted as “Sir Howell of the Battle Ax.”  Sir Howell was then made the governor of the fortified castle at Criecdaith near Carnarvon.

Then there was Howel Sele, not apparently related but descended from an earlier Prince of Powys. He was the lord of Naanau in Merionethshire and a cousin of the rebel Owain Glyndwr. He was apparently slain by Glyndwr’s henchman Madog in 1401.

One line from Howel the Good was said to have gone to the Rev. Thomas Howell, a vicar in Brecknockshire, and his two sons Thomas and James.  Thomas was appointed the Bishop of Bristol by Charles I in 1644. But Bristol was taken over by the Roundheads a year later and he subsequently died in prison.  The younger son James survived the Civil War and made his name as a writer and historian.

Another lineage claim has come for John Howell, the immigrant from Pembroke to the American colonies (Virginia) in the 1620’s.

Howell and Howells in Wales in the 1881 Census.  Howells outnumbered Howell by a three-to-one factor in the 1881 census.

Numbers (000’s) Howell Howells
Monmouthshire    0.2    0.8
Glamorgan    1.3    2.6
Carmarthenshire    1.0
Pembrokeshire    0.2    0.7
Elsewhere    0.2    0.7
Total    1.9    5.8

Howell’s English Origins.  Henry Guppy provided some English origins for the name Howell in his 1890 work Homes of Family Names in Great Britain.

“Both Howell and Powell are ancient East Anglian names.  William Howell held land in Wifton, Norfolk in the reign of Edward III.; and in the following reign of Richard II Margary Howel was a prioress of Elixton nunnery in Suffolk. In the time of Henry VI John Howel was the vicar of Newton; and in the reign of Henry VII. John Ap Howel was prebend of Norwich.

Howell is a parish in the neighboring part of Lincolnshire and very probably the East Anglian Howells in many cases thence derived their name.”

Powell tended to be pronounced “Pole” in East Anglia; and perhaps Howell was pronounced the same way.

Reader Feedback – Howells in Norfolk.  My Howell line, to the extent I am able to trace it, originated with Benjamin Howell in 1765, who presumably was a resident of Norfolk.  That was when my three times great grandfather named Robert sired my own father.

Ronald Howell (

Edward Howell on Long Island.  Edward Howell was the grandson of William Howell who had acquired the manor of Westbury at Marsh Gibbon in 1536.  This was a fine stone structure built in the 16th century, two stories high and called a double house.  Edward had inherited this manor upon the death of his father in 1625 and he was part of the local landed gentry in Buckinghamshire.

However in 1639, at the age of 55, he decided to give up his presence there, sell the manor, and embark for the New World.  He had received from Charles I a grant of 500 acres at Lynn in Massachusetts.  He did not stay there long.  In 1640, he moved to Long Island and is considered one of the founders of the town of Southampton.  He owned a large estate there. He also served on the Governor’s council from 1647 to 1653 and helped compile the rules and regulations for the fast growing colony at Southampton.

He also built a mill beside a creek for the grinding of wheat and rye into flour. This mill at Water Mill was so sturdy that it continued operating until 1880 and is still standing after some restoration today.

Edward’s line in America was covered in Emma Howell Ross’s 1968 book Descendants of Edward Howell.  His descendants have formed the Edward Howell Family Association and in 2015 celebrated the 375th anniversary of his arrival in America.

Reader Feedback:  I do not have a website but I have a friend Sue Howell who believes she is a descendant of Edward Howell who settled in Southampton, Long Island.  Her line may have also been in Morristown, New Jersey.  i am an amateur genealogist, board member of Friends of Monmouth battlefield, New Jersey and my oldest son is a Revolutionary War re-enactor.  Marilyn Miller (

Evan Shelby Howell on His Ancestry.  In 1889 Evan Howell wrote to his nephew William H. Howell a letter which contained the following items about his Howell ancestry.

“I got the following statement from my grandfather, Joseph Howell, during his lifetime.  During the persecutions of the Protestants by the Catholics in Wales, the Howells, being Baptists and therefore Protestants, they with many others were forced from their homes and were compelled to hide in caves and secret places for safety from their enemies.  John Howell, the father of my grandfather, Joseph Howell, immigrated to America and settled in Virginia where he finally died.

Of the sons of John Howell, one moved to South Carolina, two to Tennessee, two to Kentucky, one (Henry) remained in Virginia, and Joseph, my grandfather moved to Cabarrus county in North Carolina prior to the Revolutionary War.  He brought his mother with him and she lived to be about a hundred years old.  I saw her buried from the Haines Meeting House in Cabarrus when I was a boy.

My grandfather, Joseph Howell, married Margaret Eleanor Garmon, a German woman.  He was 102 years of age when he died in DeKalb county, Georgia in 1837.  Henry Howell, my father, married Mary Miller of German descent.   He died in Hayward county, North Carolina at the age of 91.  I myself was born on February 19, 1803.”

Reader Feedback – The Howells in South Africa and Their Inheritance.  I am a descendant of the South African Howells. We are descendants of James Howell who arrived in Table Bay Harbour in 1806 and owned a mobile library in Cape Town. We are the 5th and my daughter the 6th generation. I would love to know where and how my great great grandfather fitted into the Welsh/English family hierarchy.

According to family lore, James was Welsh and was of wealthy or even of aristocratic descent.

After James arrived in South Africa in 1806, his father John passed away and John’s wife Mary inherited all his assets. The old man had actually disinherited all three of his sons who had rebelled and left for South Africa.

Before they set sail for Africa, Mary had given each one of the three sons (James, Michael and Henry), a token for them to claim within the next one hundred years –   their family inheritance if they so wished.

These tokens were:

  • a sword with the family coat of arms engraved on it for Michael
  • a silver wine goblet to Henry with the family crest on it
  • and a silver cygnet ring to James also with the family crest on it (and his great great grandson – who still lives in Grahamstown – is still in possession of this ring).

Between 1904 and 1906 the advocate Howell visited all the legal descendants (of which my grandfather Henry was one) to lobby support to present the case on behalf of the Howell families in South Africa to the English Court in London.

Sadly the Court held that the stipulations of the Last Will and Testament clearly stated that all three tokens had to be presented simultaneously to present a legitimate claim in order to take possession of the inheritance. My grandfather Henry predicted that that was going to be the ruling and consequently did not contribute to the efforts of the advocate Howell who returned from England disappointed.

We have no idea today where the Howell estate was located.

Henry Howell (

John Howell, New Zealand Pioneer.  John Howell was born in Sussex to William and Mary Howell.  As a child he had known the punishment handed out to rabbit poachers.  At the age of twelve he escaped and stowed away on a smuggling vessel. Apprehended on the vessel’s return from France, he was released when he was found to have no connection with the smugglers.

He promptly stowed away on a ship bound for Australia, became first mate on a whaling ship, and arrived at Kapiti Island in New Zealand in 1827 or 1828.  Here he engaged in whaling and the export of greenstone to Australia.

He had made the acquaintance of the whaler and trader Johnny Jones in Australia, and after serving at his station at Waikouaiti was sent with three ships to establish a station in the Foveaux Strait.  According to oral tradition Howell set up his station on the Jacobs river in 1834.

With his flagship Eliza and crews of nearly 60 Europeans and some 200 Maori, Howell established friendly relations with the local Ngati Mamoe.  But his refusal to take a Maori wife was regarded as an insult by the Maori. After an altercation he married Kohikohi, the daughter of Horomona Patu of Centre Island.  She brought him a dowry of a large area of land between the Waimatuku stream and the Jacobs river.

Reader Feedback – Howells from Wales to Australia.  I have for years been searching for any information concerning Samuel Howells. He was born around 1852/3 at Blaina in Monmouthshire, but left Carmarthenshire with his parents John and Ann Howells nee Williams in 1864 for mining in Ballarat, Victoria. John and Ann were both born around 1828. I can find their deaths as well as those for Elizabeth and Oliver at quite young ages in Ballarat.

Samuel married Elizabeth Walters and had many children including my grandmother Mary Ann who married Charles Roberts. They left Victoria in 1901 and went to Western Australia, but their luck ran out when WW1 came. They seemed to lead a very harsh life here in Western Australia and must have missed the greenery. I wish that I had more leads.

Diane Penberthy nee Roberts of Perth, WA (

Howell Names

  • Hywel Dda, known as Howel the Good, was the King of Wales from 925 to 950.
  • James Howell was a 17th century Anglo-Welsh historian and writer, perhaps the first to make writing the main means of livelihood.  He held the title of Historiographer Royal
  • Richard Howell was the third Governor of New Jersey from 1794 to 1801. 
  • Clark Howell was a prominent Georgia politician and, from 1883 to 1936, was the editorial executive and owner of the Atlanta Constitution
  • Geraint Howells was a Welsh farmer and politician, active in Liberal party circles in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Howell Numbers Today

  • 39,000 in the UK (most numerous in Glamorgan)
  • 44,000 in America (most numerous in Florida)
  • 17,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Howell and Like Surnames  

Hereditary surnames in Wales were a post-16th century development.   Prior to that time the prototype for the Welsh name was the patronymic, such as “Madog ap Jevan ap Jerwerth” (Madoc, son of Evan, son of Yorwerth).  The system worked well in what was still mainly an oral culture.

However, English rule decreed English-style surnames and the English patronymic “-s” for “son of” began first in the English border counties and then in Wales. Welsh “P” surnames came from the “ap” roots, such as Price from “ap Rhys.”

These are some of the present-day Welsh surnames that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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