Jacobs Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Jacobs Surname Meaning

The Hebrew Yaakov and the Biblical Jacob are the sources for the surname Jacobs and its variants.  The Jewish surnames from Yaakov include Yakov, Jacob, Jacoby and Jacobowitz, as well as Jacobs.

The Biblical Jacob has given the Jacob and Jacobs names in Holland, Flemish-speaking Belgium, and Germany and the Jacobsen name in Scandinavia.  Jacobs has been a somewhat less common surname in England because Jacob frequently transposed to James.

Jacobs Surname Resources on The Internet
Jacobs Surname Ancestry

Today, the Jacobs number about:

  • 20,000 in Holland,
  • 20,000 in Belgium
  • and another 20,000 in Germany.

Of these, the Dutch had been the first to spread their wings – establishing colonies in New York and South Africa by the 17th century.  However, they were slower than the English in adopting surnames.  At this time many families were still operating a patronymic system.  Surnames were not to be formerly required until 1811.  Even so, the Dutch did bring Dutch surnames like Jacobs into what were to become English-speaking areas.

One Flemish Jacobs line began with Jan Jacobs, born in Puurs near Antwerp in 1750 and married there in 1784.  Fernandinus Jacobs emigrated to Peru around the year 1875.

South Africa.   The Jacobs in South Africa are mainly of Dutch origin.  The early Jacobs arrivals in the 1680’s included a French Huguenot refugee and a Dutch orphan girl being sent there in search of a husband.

A young Jacobs boy, Stephanus Erasmus Jacobs, became famous in 1866 when he discovered on his family’s farm – at Hopetown on the fringes of Cape colony – what turned out to be the Eureka diamond.  The find sparked a diamond rush and marked a major turning point in the economic history of South Africa.

Since that time the number of Jacobs has grown and Jacobs is the most common white surname in South Africa.

America.  The Dutch brought the Jacobs name to New York in the 1650’s, but for its bearers – like Tryntje Jacobs – the name would still be varyingly patronymic rather than one to stay constant over the generations.  Even so, under English influence, the Jacobs surname did spread in colonial America.

Another early Jacobs, George Jacobs and probably English, arrived in the Massachusetts Bay colony in the 1650’s and settled in Salem.  In 1692 he was caught up in the Salem witchcraft trials.  Despite the vigorous defense that he mounted, he was found guilty and hanged that year.  Interestingly, the Jacobs family remained in Salem.  When they eventually sold their house in the 1980’s, old George’s bones, buried on the land, had to be moved.

Later, there were some nondescript Jacobs who perhaps unwittingly gave their names to illustrious Jacobs:

  • The first was a Captain Jacobs of German ancestry living in Pennsylvania in the 1750’s.  A mighty Delaware Indian, responsible for multiple raids on English settlers at that time, was given that nickname because, it was said, he resembled the German.   His real name was Tewea.
  • Then there was Henry Jacobs, an illiterate small-time farmer who lived near the Knox plantation in Edenton, North Carolina.  In the early 1800’s his name passed onto a slave family in the plantation. Two children there, Harriet and John, escaped slavery and Harriet later wrote her story, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, one of the most compelling slave accounts written from a woman’s perspective.

Over 60 percent of the Jacobs arrivals in the 19th century were from German-speaking lands.  The following are two examples of Jacobs immigration at that time:

  • Three children from a Jacobs/Jacoby family in Posen, Prussia left their homes in the 1860’s to try to better their lot in America.  They came to Wisconsin and Illinois and prospered there.
  • Later came a Jacob family, this time Jewish from Lithuania, who were more typical perhaps of the “tired, poor, and huddled masses.”  They came through Ellis Island in 1905 to seek their fortunes on the streets of New York.

Not all of the Jacobs immigrants were German or Jewish.  The Joseph Jacobs who founded the Jacobs Engineering Group was the son of a Lebanese immigrant who came to Brooklyn and made his living selling razors.

A number of Jacobs have made their mark in America in more recent times, including:

  • New York’s Jacob brothers and their piano company (from 1877)
  • the Jacobs brothers of Buffalo who started a sports concession business (from 1915)
  • the Jacobs of Cleveland (from 1955)
  • and Bernard Jacobs who took over the Shubert theater group in New York in 1972.

England.  There were early pockets of the Jacobs name in various places in south and east England.

A William Jacob was recorded as holding land in Cambridgeshire as early as 1138.  The Jacob name then become quite widespread in Suffolk, with many references in the Laxfield, Bury St. Edmonds, Buxhall and Glemsford parish records in Elizabethan times.

The Jacob name also showed up in the records of Folkestone in Kent from the 1400’s.  Thomas and William Jacob appeared as barons of the Cinque ports at that time.  There are Jacobs family
histories from Folkestone and Dover and the nearby village of Elham which began in Elizabethan times.

Another Jacobs family has traced their history also back to Elizabethan times and to William Jacob on the Isle of Wight in Hampshire.

London Focus.   The Jacobs distribution in the 1891 census showed that the name was not that prevalent in England outside of London, with the exception of Hampshire.  Some London Jacobs of that time were local-born  such as the humorous short-story writer W.W. Jacobs, the son of a docker.  His roots went back to Burstall in Suffolk in the early 1700’s.  But more Jacobs in London probably came from immigrant German and Jewish families.

German/Jewish Jacobs.  There was a Jacobs butchers’ family in Whitechapel from the late 1700’s.  And David Jacobs had arrived from Litzen in Germany by that time.  He and his family were china and glass merchants.  Old trade directories indicate a significant number of Jacobs as glass cutters and dealers in the Berwick Street area of London from the early 1800’s.

Meanwhile Lazarus Jacobs from Frankfurt had started a glassmaking business in Bristol in the 1760’s and his firm were to become glassmakers to King George III.


Australia.  The Jacobs were among the earliest arrivals in South Australia, firstly Isaac and Elizabeth Jacobs from the Isle of Wight in 1837 and then two Jacob brothers, William and John, who got there a year later. The Jacob brothers farmed in what is now known as Jacob’s Creek.

A number of Jewish Jacobs also came to Australia, including:

  • John and Sarah Jacobs from London in 1837.  Their son Joseph became a well-known children’s writer and Jewish historian.
  • Charles Jacobs, whose marriage with his wife Elizabeth in 1846 was the first to be celebrated in the Jewish faith in South Australia.  Charles became a sugar importer, his son Samuel the manager of a brewery, SA Brewing Company, where he was succeeded by his son Roland in 1948.
  • and Moses Jacobs and his brother Solomon who came to Victoria in 1852.  They established a clothing shop in Geelong which ran through three generations.

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Jacobs Surname Miscellany

Early Jacobs in Cambridgeshire.  The Jacobs appeared on the lands of Robert de Ho in Everdon, according to The Hundred Rolls of Cambridgeshire.

The following were the Jacobs recorded in the land tenures:

  • William Jacob and his wife Basila in 1138
  • his children Henry, John, and Isabella
  • his grandchildren Henry, John, Tona, and Jacobus.

Within the next hundred years or so, the Jacob name had spread to Suffolk and Norfolk. 

Early Jacobs in South Africa.  The following were early Jacobs recorded in South Africa:

1688 Ariaantje Jacobs marriage aged 21, born in the Netherlands
1693 Jan Jacobs birth in Paarl, the Cape
1698 Pierre Jacob death aged 51, born in France (Calais)
1703 Adriana Jacobs birth in Cape Town
1721 Daniel Jacobs birth in Drakenstein (Paarl), the Cape
1738 Anna Jacobs birth in Tulbagh, the Cape

Two Jacobs came to the Dutch South African colony in 1688, but from very different situations.

Pierre Jacob arrived on the De Schelde in June with his wife and three children.  They were French Huguenots escaping persecution in their home country.  His family settled in Drakenstein and soon added an “s” to their name.  A descendant
David Jacobs made the trek with his wife to new farmland at Zeerust in the Transvaal in the 1850’s.

Ariaantje Jacobs was one of eight orphans that arrived on the Berg China later in the year.  Her father had died when she was five months old and her mother when she was eight and she was eighteen years old when she left the orphanage in Rotterdam to go to the Cape.  It had been felt that the male settlers of the Cape needed wives.  Consequently orphan girls were sent there, giving them the opportunity for a better life and resolving the problem of the lack of female population.  Ariaantje was married almost immediately on arriving there.

Jacobs as a Surname in South Africa.  Jacobs is the most common surname for whites in South Africa.  The following shows the top five surnames and their approximate numbers in the 1970 South Africa census.

1. Jacobs  95,000
2. Botha  90,000
3. Smith  85,000
4. Van der Merwe  75,000
5. Van Wyk  70,000

Tryntje Jacobs and Her Four Husbands.  Tryntje was the Dutch diminutive for Catherine and was variously written in the early records.  Her surname is uncertain.  She may have, according to the Dutch custom of the time, retained her father’s name of Jacob.  But it is also possible that she had so identified herself with her first husband that she was referred to as “Tryntje, Jacob’s wife.”

The date and place of Tryntje’s birth is not known.  The date looks like being about 1620 and the place perhaps Winkel in north Holland where her first husband Jacob Walichs was born.

They had come to New Amsterdam in 1650 and raised six children, the last of whom was born in 1656.  A year later, the records were reporting that she was marrying for a second time, to Jacob Stoffelsen.  He died in 1667 and Tryntje then married her third husband, Michael Tades.  When Michael died in 1670, there soon came the fourth, Casper Steymets.

She herself died in 1677 and the Bergen records recorded it as follows: “Buried Tryntje Jacobs, wife of Casper Steymets, at New York.”

Henry Jacobs, A London Butcher.  Henry Jacobs was born in Whitechapel around 1813.  He married Rebecca Isaacs in 1841 (Henry signed his name at the marriage register but Rebecca could not).   He was a member of the Great Synagogue at Dukes Place in Aldgate.  From the synagogue marriage records Henry’s Hebrew name was Tevi ben Yaacov and Rebecca’s Rivka bat Yehudah.

Henry’s father, born in London in 1769, had been a butcher, and so was Henry.  He had a butcher’s shop from 1841 to 1878 at 27 Duke Street, Houndsditch.  He and Rebecca lived upstairs and raised eight children there.

Jacobs Glassmakers in Bristol.  Lazarus Jacobs, a Jewish artisan from Frankfurt in Germany, arrived in Bristol around the year 1760.  He was a glassmaker and his firm soon its place in the front rank of glassmakers, manufacturing much of the blue glass which was becoming fashionable and becoming glassmakers to George III.

The business passed to his son Isaac on Lazarus’s death in 1796 at the age of 87.  Isaac prospered for a while, buying a retreat in Weston-Super-Mare for his family. But the Bristol glass trade was soon in serious difficulties, due to heavy taxation and the resulting competition from untaxed Irish glass.  In 1820 Isaac was forced to declare bankruptcy.

Despite this setback, Lazarus and his son Isaac were said to have “fathered an immense and often distinguished body of descendants.”

Jacobs Name Distribution in England.  The table below shows the distribution of the Jacobs name in England in the 1891 census.

County Numbers (000’s) Percent
London     3.0    39
Hampshire     0.7     9
Suffolk     0.3     4
Kent     0.3     3
Elsewhere in the South and East     0.6     9
Elsewhere in England and Wales     2.8    36
Total     7.7   100

The Jacob Brothers Piano Company.  Charles and Albert Jacob founded the Jacob Brothers Piano Company in New York in 1877.  After 1905 they established their own factory in Leominster, Massachusetts and sold their pianos both retail and wholesale.  They also manufactured pianos for other American piano companies.

This was how they were described sometime around 1910:

“The Jacob Bros. Co. is one of the most progressive and successful concerns in the piano industry. They have several retail stores in the city of New York and in other important cities of the east.  Their wholesale trade is very large and substantial.  Their pianos and player-pianos are durable instruments, their finish being exceptionally fine and their tone quality satisfying.  They received an award at the World Columbian Exposition in 1893 and have been the recipients of many encomiums from the music trade and public.”

The business continued to be family-run until the death of Charles Hall Jacob in 1953.

Reader Feedback – John Jacobs in Tennessee.   I am interested in my third great grandfather, John Jacobs, 1784-1865.

Some family lore says that he was born in Ireland, but I found him listed as born in Germany in about 1784 and as a farmer in Marshall county, Tennessee in 1850 census.  That listing included his wife Margrett and three sons (Robert, Hugh, and Henry) plus a daughter (Jerry A).

In the 1860 US census, he was listed in Lincoln county in the household of his son Henry Jacobs, again listing his birthplace as Germany.  The 1840 Census listed him in Lincoln county also, along with one female under 50 and three males aged 5-10. His son Robert is my second great grandfather who migrated to Texas sometime before 1877.

I would really like to find out how and when John Jacobs came to Tennessee and if it could have been from Amsterdam in Germany as was listed on the gravestone for John Jacob in Petersburg, Lincoln county.

PS. I did learn that for a time, shortly before Napoleon’s time, Prussia invaded what today is the Netherlands and claimed land including Amsterdam. So what was Prussia in John Jacobs’ lifetime could have included Amsterdam. History ignored our modern-day boundaries!

Mona K. Gasaway (dickens2kan@aol.com)

The Jacobs of Geelong.  Morris Jacobs was from London and came to Victoria in Australia with his brother Solomon in 1852.  He returned to England a few years later and there secured the necessary merchandise with which he could start his own clothing business in Geelong.  He did this on Yarra Street.

Success necessitated an increase in space and in 1897 he enlarged his shop by including the property next door so that his premises occupied three adjoining shops devoted respectively to drapery, clothing and oilskins, and boots and shoes.

Morris’s sole surviving son, Solomon, managed his father’s business and Solomon’s son Morris was the manager when Myers bought the store in 1950.  Both Solomon and his son Morris were in their time counsellors and mayors of Geelong.

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Jacobs Names
  • Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published in 1861, is the most important slave narrative to be written by an African American woman.
  • Michael Jacobs was a leading boxing promoter in New York in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
  • Jane Jacobs, a Canadian writer, is best known for her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  She was born Jane Butzner in Pennsylvania.
  • David and Richard Jacobs began their real estate business in Cleveland in the 1950’s and were pioneers in America’s new shopping developments.

Jacobs Numbers Today
  • 15,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 41,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 25,000 elsewhere (most numerous in South Africa).
Jacobs and Like Surnames.

These are Dutch-originated names, Dutch surnames that found their way in the 17th century to New York and to South Africa.  Here are some of the Dutch surnames that you can check out.

BeekmanHendricksKnickerbockerVan Buren
FondaJacobsRooseveltVanderbilt

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