James Surname Meaning, History & Origin

James Surname Meaning
The surname James comes from the personal name which has the same origin as Jacob (the Latin Jacobus). Jacobus and James appeared interchangeable in 13th century records.  However, James developed as a separate name in its own right, largely because in the authorized version of the Bible the form James was used in the New Testament as the name of two of Christ’s apostles (James the brother of John and James the brother of Andrew), whereas in the Old Testament the brother of Esau was called Jacob.

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James Surname Ancestry

Wales. The James surname has cropped up mainly in south Wales.

There were James in Pembrokeshire by the 17th century, including early emigrants to America. William James, born there in 1720, ran away to sea as a young man and made his name with the British navy in India. He returned to England wealthy and a Baronet. John James, a farmer at Trenewydd in the same county, kept a diary of his year in 1846 which has been preserved.

Christopher James was a provision merchant in Swansea in the early 19th century and Mayor of the town in 1849. His son William became a Judge on the High Court. In 1856 Evan James, the son of a woollen manufacturer in Caerphilly, composed Land of My Fathers, what was to become the Welsh national anthem.

The James family of Grosmont in Monmouthshire, near the English border, dates back to the 17th century. They owned the Town Farm there until the retirement of John James in 1845. Another old Monmouthshire family stemmed from Lewis James,
curate of Bedwellty from 1633 to 1667.

England. The name William James was documented in Wiltshire as early as 1300. And James was to be found in English counties in proximity to Wales, such as Cornwall. John and Mary James were married there at St. Hilary in 1679. Another family history began with the marriage of William James and Elizabeth Harvey in Breage in 1762.

The name also existed elsewhere:

  • James at Newport on the Isle of Wight dated back to the late 15th century. Thomas James and his nephew Richard were notable scholars in the early 17th century.
  • Christopher and Ellen James lived at Gnosall in Staffordshire in the late 1500’s.
  • while one family history in the northeast began with the birth
    of Thomas James in 1638 in Hebron, Northumberland. He was the first James of a line of Parish Clerks which continued until 1888.

Ireland.  The James name is in Ireland, mainly because of English or Welsh arrivals there. A James from Worcestershire who fought at the Battle of the Boyne later moved south to Wicklow and Carlow. There was a James line at Carnew in Wicklow by the 1730’s. Some later emigrated to Canada.

America.  Early James in America were mainly Welsh.

The first James to arrive was probably John James, a Welshman from Carnarvon who came to Virginia around 1650. His descendants became Baptists and settled in Kentucky. Later descendants were the outlaws Jesse James and his brother Frank James. They made their money robbing banks. Their uncle Drury W. James had come to California during the Gold Rush and made his fortune as a cattle rancher.

A James family of Welsh Baptists from Pembrokeshire came to Pennsylvania in 1711 and settled in Montgomery county, where they helped to organize a Baptist church.

Scots Irish.  William James arrived in New York in 1789 from a farming family in Baillieborough in county Cavan. He made his fortune in real estate. His son Henry James was a prominent American theologian of his day; and Henry’s offspring included the philosopher William James and the writer Henry James.

Caribbean.  Richard James from Wales was an officer in the expedition to Jamaica in 1655 who stayed. His son Richard, born in 1656, was a colonel in the local militia who lived to be 103. In his latter years he was said to have lived almost entirely on cocoa. These James made their home in Hanover parish. Jonathan James was a plantation owner in St. Elizabeth parish in the mid-1700’s.

Canada. In 1869 newly widowed Agnes James left her home in St. Gorran, Cornwall for Liverpool where she departed with her seven children on the Austrian for Canada. Arriving in Quebec, the family made their way to Mara township in south central Ontario. The James numbers grew in Canada and they held a family reunion in 1937.

William James arrived in Toronto from the English Midlands with his family in 1906. He was a photographer by trade and many of his photographs of Toronto have survived.

“One of the last major events he covered was the 1939 Royal Tour. This netted one of his favorite photographs: a shot of George VI and Queen Elizabeth standing on the steps of Toronto’s City Hall.”

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James Surname Miscellany

James in Newport, Isle of Wight.  The James family of Newport on the Isle of Wight was sturdily Protestant in Elizabethan times and could boast three James of prominence at that time:

  • Dr. John James, who was the Queen’s physician
  • Dr. Thomas James, who was born in 1571 and said to have been the son of Marian exiles.  He was an eminent scholar and in 1602 became the first librarian of the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
  • and his cousin Richard James who represented Newport in Parliament from 1597 to 1604. 

James in Grosmont, Monmouthshire.  The James family of Grosmont in Monmouthshire near the Herefordshire border dates back to the 17th century. Solicitors’ records referred to a Philip James and a William James having lands in Grosmont in 1688 and a Thomas James having tenancy of a house there in 1714.

The house itself was a very old one, some of it having been apparently built in the early part of the 16th century. Over the door was the date 1673 and on the door-frame of the stable 1671.

These James held Town Farm in Grosmont from the early 1700’s until its sale in 1860.

Phillip Morgan’s 2008 book A Grosmont Miscellany recounted one interesting James family titbit.  Elizabeth James of this family had been married to John Croft, but they had no children.
When she died in 1796 she initially left all her estate to her servant Eleanor Jones.  She later wrote a codicil leaving sums of money to relatives and friends. The honest Eleanor discovered and revealed this codicil.

William James the Welsh Ploughboy Made Good.  William James was born in Pembrokeshire in the summer of 1720 to a poor Welsh miller.  He ran away to sea in 1732 and by the age of 18, was commanding a ship in the West Indies under Captain Hawke.  It was during this period that he was captured by the Spanish and when released, drifted at sea until being captured again in Cuba.

In 1747, at the age of 27, he joined the East India Company and was appointed Commander of Marine Forces to protect its trading ships. He sailed his gunship the Protector to fight the Arab pirates on their island fortress off the west coast of India. He was ultimately successful in his attack because he had earlier taken soundings of the rocky coastline and was able to get close to the island using shallow boats.

In 1759, still only 39, he returned to England a rich man. He purchased the Park Farm estate at Eltham in 1774 and was awarded a baronetcy in 1778. Fame and riches he had a-plenty. But on the day of his daughter’s wedding in 1783 he suffered a stroke and died.

Early James in America. 

James Birth Death
John James 1623 Wales (Caernarvon) 1690 Stafford co, Virginia
William James 1639 unknown 1697 Newport, Rhode Island
James James 1650 Wales (Pembroke) 1708 Chester co, Pennsylvania
David James 1669 Wales (Radnor) 1739 Chester co, Pennsylvania
John James 1670 Wales (Pembroke) 1749 Montgomery co, Pennsylvania
Howell James 1684 Wales
(Monmouth)
1717 New Castle co, Delaware

The James Family of Bucks County, Pennsylvania.  The James family of Bucks county was of Welsh origin, being descended from John and Elizabeth James who with their family
left their village in Pembrokeshire for America in 1711. They were Welsh Baptists and the vanguard of a Baptist colony who eight years later would organize themselves into a church known as the Montgomery Baptist church in Montgomery county, Pennsylvania.  The James family were members of this church
for many years.

Their son William, born in Wales about 1692, appears to have been their favorite son.  He moved to New Britain in Bucks county and died there in 1778.  His was the forebear of most of the James family who settled there. Isaiah James of his family was a prominent member of the Bucks county Assembly in the 1830’s. 

William James and His Rebellious Son Henry.  William James, Scots Irish, had come to Albany, New York penniless and in 1795 opened a dry goods store there.  His roving eye soon saw business opportunities elsewhere.  He made a fortune speculating in land along the newly opened Erie Canal and a second fortune by exploiting a new method of extracting salt. He died in 1832 a very rich man, some say the second richest man of his time after John Jacob Astor.

His son Henry James or HJ was the fifth of a generation of eleven children which abstained from business in what he called a “rupture with my grandfather’s tradition and attitude.”  He rebelled against the moralistic prescriptions of his father’s stern Presbyterian faith and was forced to contest a punitive last will and testament in order to obtain his share of the estate.  HJ also suffered in his youth a serious accident which resulted in the amputation of his leg below the knee.

HJ used his inheritance to follow his calling as a peripatetic Swedenborgian philosopher and social controversialist.  A friend of notables such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Carlyle, he was always on the move – between Albany and Manhattan and Albany, between America and Europe, and through a succession of eccentric family homes.  These included homes in Newport, Cambridge, and Manhattan in America and more homes in Paris, London, Geneva, Boulogne, and Bonn in Europe. HJ had five illustrious children by his wife Mary:

  • William James (WJ), the psychologist and philosopher
  • Henry James (HJ) the writer
  • Garth Wilkinson James (known as Wilky)
  • Robertson James (or Bob)
  • and Alice James (AJ) the diarist.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.  Jesse James was killed by Robert Ford in an ambush on April 3, 1882 at St. Joseph in Buchanan county, Missouri.

Jesse, Frank and everyone around them knew that time had run out. As the inevitable drew closer, everyone was left to grapple with their own self.  In the most clear, spare and simple images, Jesse can be seen with his family, with his cousins, and with his assassins. Jesse grew more lonely and alone. His star was burning out like a comet and everyone was going down with him.

Brad Pitt played Jesse James in this movie.  He stripped away the myth.  He stripped away the legend and the lore.  He stripped away the western and all its gratuitous violence.  What he left us with was the man himself, Jesse James.

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James Names
  • Jesse James was a legendary outlaw of the old West.
  • Henry James was an American-born writer in England during Victorian times of novels such as The Portrait of a Lady.  His brother was the philosopher William James.
  • Alex James was a Scottish footballer, one of the Wembley wizards who thrashed England in 1928.
  • Elmore James was a blues guitarist from Mississippi, known as “the king of the slide guitar.”
  • C.L.R James was the Trinidad-born writer and journalist, best known for his cricketing book, Beyond A Boundary.
  • P.D James is a popular English crime writer.
  • LeBron James is considered one of the greatest basketball players ever, having won with three different teams four NBA championships and four MVP awards.
James Numbers Today
  • 152,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 80,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 54,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)


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