Jennings Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Jennings Surname Meaning

Jennings is a patronymic surname, deriving from the early medieval names of Janyn and Jenyn which themselves came from the diminutive “little John” of John.

It was a Captain Jennens who was said to have had the honor of bringing the body of Richard the Lionheart back to England in 1200.  Early spellings of the surname were Walter Jannes and Richard Janyns, both being recorded in the subsidy rolls of Worcestershire in 1327.

Jennings Surname Resources on The Internet

Jennings Surname Ancestry

  • from England and Ireland
  • to America, Bermuda, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand

England.  One theory is that the Jennings came from Yorkshire and that they were originally Saxons before the Conquest; while some have given Jennings a Danish origin. Whether these origins were true or not, the Jennings name had become quite widespread in England by the 16th century.  It could be found in Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Warwickshire, Hertfordshire, Surrey, and Somerset in the west country.

One of Henry VIII”s favorites was a Robert Jennings of Shettle in Derbyshire.  He presented Robert with a sword and belt in 1545 which have been preserved by his descendants.

A Jennings family had inherited the Sandridge estate in Hertfordshire from the Rowlatts in the 1570’s.  John Jennings, knighted in 1603, died a lunatic in 1609.  But his son Sir John Jennings was High Sheriff for Hertfordshire and the MP for St. Albans.  And his granddaughter Sarah married the Duke of Marlborough and, through her close friendship with Queen Anne, was one of the most influential persons of her time.

Then there the British admiral Sir John Jennings, descended from a Shropshire family that had suffered for its adherence to the Royalist cause during the Civil War.  He was at the capture of Gibraltar in 1704 and was knighted for his gallant conduct at that time.

Another John Jennings had been a quartermaster under Cromwell and owned nearly all of the land on which Birmingham now stands.  He established the iron works there which were the basis of the city’s later wealth.  One of his grandsons was William Jennens or Jennings who left a huge unclaimed fortune on his death in 1798.

Ireland.  Jennings is an Irish surname of Anglo-Norman origin, from MacSheoinin or MacJonin meaning “son of little Sean.” They were a subset of the Burke sept which settled in Mayo and Galway.  These Jennings tended to be strongly attached to the Catholic faith.  John Jennings of Ballymurphy forfeited his Irish estates in 1633 rather than change his Catholic religion.  A descendant of his was the Sir Patrick Jennings who became Premier of New South Wales in 1886.

Jennings from Mayo included Dr. Theobald Jennings who left his native Ireland In 1738 at the time of the Penal laws to practice as a physician for SW France:

  • his son Charles Edward Jennings – better known as Kilmaine, his homeland in county Mayo – was one of the greatest Irish soldiers to serve France in the 18th century.  He was committed both to the cause of Irish independence and to that of the French Revolution.
  • Kilmaine’s cousin John Jennings, a doctor back in Ireland, died young from a fever he contracted while attending a patient in his native Galway.  His death occasioned the lament known as Doctúir Jennings.

America.   Many early Jennings came to New England.

New England.  Early settlers included Nicholas Jennings who arrived in 1634 on the Francis from Ipswich.  He settled first in Hartford and later in New Haven and Saybrook where he suffered various misadventures.  Joshua Jennings, believed to have been his brother, was one of the first settlers of Fairfield, Connecticut in the early 1650’s.

In 1677 Stephen Jennings of Hatfield, Massachusetts achieved legendary status for his daring rescue expedition in tracking an Indian raiding party that had kidnapped his wife and daughters and taken them to Canada.  He was able to arrange for their ransom and negotiate their safe return to Massachusetts.  After this escapade he moved his family to Brookfield.  The farm that he established there was to remain with the Jennings family into the 20th century.  

Elsewhere.  John Jennings was an early settler in Southampton, Long Island. When the British ordered his descendant Israel Jennings to swear allegiance to the Crown or to give up his home, he elected to relinquish his property.  He migrated to Kentucky and then to Ohio.  He was the maternal great-grandfather of William Jennings Bryan, the Great Commoner.

Another Jennings of this line had moved to New Jersey by the time of the Revolutionary War.  Dr. Jacob Jennings was a surgeon and officer from Hunterdon county at that time.  According to Jennings lore, he was one of those wounded with Washington at Trenton.  He recovered and later became a pastor in Readington.  His sons migrated west to Ohio and Indiana.  Jonathan Jennings was the first Governor of Indiana in 1816.

William Jennings of uncertain origins was to be found in Virginia – first in Hanover county and then in Nottoway county – in the mid/late 1700’s.  Later Jennings in America were as likely to be of Irish origin as of English origin. There were also some German Janning who became Jennings in America.

Bermuda.  Richard Jennings, born in 1600, first appeared in Bermuda records when he was involved in 1622 in the salvaging of a Spanish shipwreck.  He prospered there.  When he died in 1669 he divided his considerable land holdings and eleven slaves to his sons Richard and John who built upon this wealth, in large part through smuggling.

A Rev. Henry Jennings, following Richard Jennings, came to Bermuda in 1635. He was probably the forebear of Captain Henry Jennings, the Jamaican-based pirate.

Canada.  A Jennings Quaker family from Vermont crossed the border into Canada and settled in Norwich township in SW Ontario in the early 1800’s.  Solomon Jennings, a farmer there, was the father of a remarkable woman – Emily Stowe nee Jennings.  She was the first female public school principal in Ontario, the first Canadian woman to openly practice medicine, and a founding member of the Canadian Women’s Suffrage Association.

South Africa.  A Jennings family was among the 1820 Settlers to the Eastern CapeThe young James, who grew up near Grahamstown, later moved to Transvaal and became a famous hunter.  He would make expeditions with his sons into Matabeleland and even as far away as the Zambezi valley.

New Zealand.  George and Margaret Jennings departed West Cork for New Zealand in 1875.  They made their home in Otara, a small community near Invercargill on South Island.  Their descendants celebrated the centennial of their arrival there in 1977.  Gregg Jennings’ 1985 book The Jennings Family: West Cork to New Worlds covered the family history.

Jennings Surname Miscellany

Jennings of Dutch Origin?  Jennings seem to have settled in England before the Norman Conquest.  They were said to have been of Danish extraction.  Apparently the first to settle was a Danish captain Jennens brought to England by King Canute.  He was baptized into the Christian faith and had manors given to him along the east coast near Harwich.

A descendent of this Jennens, also a sea captain, was said to have brought the body of Richard Cour de Lion from Palestine.  In commendation of this event he was granted three plummets and shells as a coat of arms.

Jennings in Hertfordshire.  Sir John Jennings succeeded his father in 1609 and was the High Sheriff for Hertfordshire and MP for St. Albans.  It was said of him and his family:

“The Jennings family were true friends of the first King James and the first King Charles of England; and they spent their large estate in supporting them.  In later years when these two Kings’ children and grand-children came to the throne and tried to pay back the debt by giving position at court to Sir Richard’s children, some disparagingly said: ‘They are only the daughters of a poor Hertfordshire squire.’

But their beauty, purity and loveliness with true thankfulness for favors, bestowed upon father and grandfather of the reigning families held them firm, and carried those “poor daughters” to the highest place next to the throne of England.”

Sir John and his wife had twenty one children, the eldest of whom, Richard, succeeded him on his death in 1642.  Richard fought on the Royalist side during the Civil War and was captured by the Roundheads.

William Jennens and His Misplaced Spectacles.  One of the grandsons of Oliver Cromwell’s quartermaster was a certain William Jennens (or Jennings), a “crusty old bachelor” and miser who had amassed a fortune that some called the largest of any commoner in Britain. He died in 1798, aged ninety seven, unmarried without any direct heirs and without a valid will.

“Having destroyed all previous wills, he wrote a new one and went to consult his solicitor before signing the document.  He forgot to take his spectacles and, as the solicitor’s pair did not fit him, he put his will in his pocket and returned home.  In a few days he died and his unsigned will was found still in his coat.”

His death touched off a feeding frenzy among lawyers that lasted into the 20th century.  Vast sums have been spent in searching church records, public documents, libraries, and even tombstones, with the object of establishing a line of descent for one claimant or another from the Jennings line.

The Mysterious William Jennings in Virginia.  It was claimed that William Jennings was born in 1676, the son of Humphrey and Mary Jennens of Nether Whitacre in Warwickshire; that he had come to America in the early part of the 18th century to fight in the Indian wars, settled in Hanover county in Virginia, and died in Nottoway county in 1775.

This was then the William Jennings who apparently died at the age of 99 and was buried with his full military uniform and sword at the old Jennings cemetery in Hanover county.  When his grave was opened in 1875 the military buttons and sword were found rusted but intact. Years after his death, he was pointed out as the rightful heir of the great Jennens estate in England.

However, his genealogy came from a great grand-daughter who was one of the fortune seekers of the estate, a 1873 affidavit from William Jennings below supporting her claim:

“I, William Jennings of Nottoway county, do hereby certify that I was born in October 1789 and am now 84 years lacking two months.  I was married in 1815 to Nancy Robertson of Nottoway county. My father was John Jennings.  He was a son of William Jennings Jr. and he a son of William Jennings Sr. who died in 1775.  He was a son of Humphrey Jennings Sr. of 1690 and he was a son of John Jennings of 1651, this latter from family tradition.”

A more likely version was that this William Jennings was born in 1702 in Virginia, the son of Robert and Jane Jennings of New Kent and later Hanover county.

Some of the $40 million Jennens estate money did make its way across the Atlantic – to a young society matron in San Francisco named Mrs. Franklin P. Bull. She was the grand-daughter of Mrs. Mary Hurley, the niece and sole heir of Colonel Berriman Jennings.

Joshua Jennings of Fairfield, Connecticut.  The family tradition was that Joshua Jennings came from Norfolk and sailed to New England with his two brothers sometime in the 1630’s. It is thought that these two brothers were Nicholas who moved onto Saybrook and John who was present at Hartford.

Joshua Jennings’ name appeared at Hartford in 1648.  But he departed Hartford two years later after a run-in with the authorities over some trivial offence.

‘Joshua Jennings, for not watching one night and other ill carriage to the Constable, is to pay to the watchman in his room and is fined 2s 6d.”

Joshua apparently was a stiff-necked Puritan who could not be coerced and would rather leave his home than submit to a fine to which he objected.

He settled at Barlow’s Plain in Fairfield and died there, leaving a good estate.  His son Joshua settled at Green’s Farms.

Early Jennings of the American West.  Edmond Jennings who migrated from Virginia to North Carolina and into Tennessee had become a veteran Indian fighter by the time of the American Revolution.

In 1784 after his father Jonathan was killed by Indians near Nashville, Edmond moved westwards on river waterways, trapping and seeking his fortune and eventually arriving in SW Missouri where he lived with the Osage Indians for fifteen years in modern day Jasper county.  When he finally returned to Tennessee, he operated a ferry service along the Cumberland river at Jennings Creek and regaled his passengers and neighbors with his colorful stories, triggering an unintended land-rush of settlers into Missouri.

Berryman Jennings traveled from his boyhood home in Kentucky in the late 1820’s to SE Iowa and became the first public school master in that territory.  Later, he migrated west to Oregon, set up a steamboat service on the Willamette river, traded dry goods with San Francisco, and became elected to the Oregon legislature.  The town of Jennings Lodge near Portland is named for him.

Jennings of Mayo.  The Jennings were descended from the Norman family of de Burgo or Bourke.  They were the McSeonins, or “sons of John,” later anglicized to Jonine and then to Jennings. The Jennings family held extensive lands in the barony of Kilmaine in county Mayo before the land upheavals of the 17th century when they were deprived of most of their estates.

George Jenings, a lawyer and agent, acquired lands from various proprietors in Kilmaine in the mid-18th century.  His nephew, George Jenings, was the first to reside at Mount Jenings at Hollymount in Kilcommon parish.  The estate stayed with the family until 1886.

Many Jennings emigrated from Mayo during bleak times in the 19th century, including:

  • Martin Jennings, who left in the late 1840’s for Coventry in England
  • John Jennings from Ballintubber who left in the 1850’s for Warwickshire in England
  • Tobias and Margaret Jennings from Westport who departed for Glasgow in the 1860’s
  • Anthony Jennings who married Mary Noone in Claremorris in 1861 and departed for Massachusetts
  • and Hubert Jennings of Knocknadrimna, many of whose children departed for  America.

The Jennings Family Among the 1820 Settlers.  James Jennings from Wiltshire was 28 and his wife Mary 30 when they decided to join the 1820 Settlers to South Africa with their one year old son. They boarded the Weymouth, a sailing vessel of about 400 tons, at Portsmouth on December 21, 1819.

Some days later, when the ship had put out to Spithead, James was taken seriously ill and it was decided to put the family ashore.  He was taken off by longboat and admitted to Haslar hospital. Before Mary and the baby could follow, a gale blew up which made landing impossible.

The Weymouth sailed for the Cape with them still on board. It was only on her arrival in South Africa that Mary learned her husband had died the day after entering the hospital.

Reader Feedback – Jennings and Jordan DNA in America.  I just had my ethnic DNA test results from 23 and me. My haplogroup came back for R-M222.  My surname is Jennings.

But I have been told it may not be Jennings by family tradition. The story goes that Jasper Jennings went to fight in the American Civil War and died.  My 2nd great grandmother Rachael Jennings gave birth two years after Jasper’s death to my great grandfather Jeptha Jennings.  Because of shame, the family moved from Iowa to Kansas.

Years ago my grandmother snooped and ask one of Jeptha’s older brothers who the father might be. He told her that he believed the man’s name might have been Jordan.  Would the haplogroup R-M222 fit into people who have the surname Jordan?

Shane Jennings (

Janning and Jennings.  One Janning family were small farmers some 35 miles outside of Hamburg in Germany during the 19th century.  Peter Janning was born there in 1834.  He married Adelheid Appeln and they were to have four children – Ann, John, Henry and Frederick.  Peter, however, died in 1877 at the young age of 43 and his widow and their three sons decided to emigrate to America.

The youngest son Frederick remembered the voyage vividly, although being only six at the time:

“Being told of the assassination of President Garfield while enroute made a deep and profound impression on my mind.  Both mother and I deplored such a dastardly act to assassinate such a good and great man.  We landed in the port of Baltimore after fourteen days at sea on the good ship Braunsweig.  We boarded an emigrant train to Chicago via the Baltimore and Ohio R.R. arriving safely in Janesville, Wisconsin, our final destination.”

It should be noted that the family name changed from Janning to Jennings.  However, the name Jennings should be considered corrupt. The correct pronunciation in German is as though spelled J-o-h-n-i-n-g. In America Janning was commonly pronounced with a long “A.”  Therefore the letter “E” was substituted for the letter “A,” the suffix letter “S” being also assumed. Hence the name Jennings.  Jennings was the name used by all three of the sons in America.

Frederick Jennings returned to the land of his birth in 1928 and made the following observations as to how the world had changed in the intervening years.

  • “From tallow candle, oil lamp, to electric light.
  • From lumber wagon to carriage and automobile.
  • From walking to riding bicycles.
  • From harvesting grain with sickle and scythe to the machine grain binder.
  • From the sound of the human voice heard within its own limitations to its reproduction on records and heard around the world by radio.
  • From poverty to plenty.
  • From an average standard of living to the highest standard in the world.
  • From riding in automobiles to flying in aeroplanes.
  • From tintypes, photography to television.
  • From farming by man power in Europe to tractor machine power in America.
  • From business depression to an era of prosperity the world has never seen before and may never see again.”

With the Great Depression just around the corner, he was wrong about the last observation.

Reader Feedback – Oriter Jennings in South Carolina.  I want to track my grandfather’s ancestor’s origins. His name was Oriter Jennings. That name alone was not common. He lived in South Carolina and married Frankie Mea Swinton, also of South Carolina. They had twelve children together and lived in Columbia, South Carolina for many years. Oriter attended the Massodonia Baptist Church in the lower district of South Carolina.

Doris Samuels (

Reader Feedback – Jennings in US Virgin Islands?  Looking to see if you have any information on the name Jennings from the origin point of St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands.

Marva Jennings (

Jennings Names

  • Henry Jennings was a successful pirate who operated out of Jamaica against the Spanish in the early 18th century.
  • Sir Patrick Jennings was an Irish-Australian politician who became Premier of New South Wales in 1886.
  • Pat Jennings was a Northern Ireland footballer who played for his country as goalkeeper no fewer than 119 times between 1964 and 1986.
  • Waylon Jennings, born in Texas, was a popular country music singer of the 1970’s and 80’s.
  • Peter Jennings of ABC was one of the “Big Three” news anchors who dominated the American TV network news from the early 1980’s to the early 2000’s.  He was born in Toronto, Canada.

Jennings Numbers Today

  • 26,000 in the UK (most numerous in Edinburgh)
  • 32,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 17,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Jennings and Like Surnames

The English came to Ireland as early as 1170 with Strongbow’s invasion.  The invaders – largely Anglo-Norman – stayed and many became large landowners and public officials.

Over time their Norman French names changed to fit the local landscape – le Gras to Grace, de Burgh to Burke, de Leon to Dillon, and de Lench to Lynch for instance.  They became more Irish, often Catholic.  When the English came again, in the 16th and 17th centuries, some sided with the English and were rewarded.  But others resisted and had lands confiscated.

Here are some of these Anglo-Irish surnames that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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