Lee Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Lee Surname Meaning
The English name comes from the Old English lea, which originally meant a wood or glade. It could derive from the many place names called Lee or describe someone who lived near a meadow. Other spellings were Lea and Leigh, the latter a name largely found in Lancashire.  Some English Lees may have been Norman in origin, initially de la Ley, possibly from the place-name Laye in France.  In recent years, Asian Lees – either Li from China (the most common Chinese surname) or Lee from Korea (there are seven million Lees in Korea today) – have become more prevalent in the English-speaking world.

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Lee Surname Ancestry

England.  There were early Lees in Shropshire, of likely Norman origin:

  • a Lee family (originally de la Lee) lived at Coton Hall in the parish of Alveley from the 1300’s onwards. This family is believed to have produced Richard Lee, the first of the Lee family in America. Coton Hall stayed with the English Lees until 1821.
  • another Lee family, probably related, held Langley Manor in Shropshire. Sir Richard Lee of this family was a Royalist commander during the Civil War. Only a timber-framed gatehouse remains of their house.

A Lee line began in Cheshire further north in the 1300’s and later had branches at Quarendon and Hartwell in Buckinghamshire and at Ditchley in Oxfordshire.  This family had built their wealth from sheep farming and they were prominent Buckinghamshire landowners and MP’s from Elizabethan times.

Meanwhile Symon Lee from Worcester had moved to London in the early 1400’s and was the forebear of an old Lee family that was to be found in Kent.

Later Lee distribution showed a preponderance of Lees in the north of England, in Yorkshire and Lancashire.

Gypsy Lees.  In addition to its traditional English origins, the name has been adopted by Romany gypsies in Britain. Here it is pronounced with a slight aspiration at the end (almost as “leek”) in common with its sound in the Romany language. Gypsy Rose Lee was a well-known gypsy queen and fortune-teller.


Ireland
. Lee is an anglicized version of the Gaelic Laoidhigh, an occupational name meaning “poet.” There was a John O’Ladaigh, otherwise known as John O’Lee, who was Bishop of Killala in 1253. Lees from here were later to be found in Limerick and Cork.  

Other Lees – from the Gaelic mac an leagha (son of the physician) – were in Galway and Antrim. Lees from these four counties plus Dublin accounted for about half of the Lees in Ireland in 1890.

English Lees, Meanwhile some Lees in Ireland were of English origin. A line at Barna in Tipperary began with its purchase by Sir Henry Lee from the Buckinghamshire Lees in 1658.  Charles Lee from this family came to Dublin around 1715.  His son William was a merchant there.

The earlier Leys or Lees in Kilkenny, one of the “Ten Tribes” of Kilkenny, were possibly Anglo-Norman in origin.

America.  The Lees have been a long-established and politically prominent Virginia and Maryland family.

Virginia and Maryland.  The first of this family in America was Richard Lee who came to Virginia in 1639 from Shropshire and grew wealthy from tobacco.

The main Lee line at the Stratford Hall plantation in Virginia, built by Thomas Lee in 1741, included two signers of the Declaration of Independence and Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general during the Civil War (and a postwar icon of the South’s lost cause). Other Lee homes and lines were at Blenheim, Cobb’s Hall, Ditchley, Dividing Creek, Lee Hall, Leesylvania, and Mount Pleasant.

Elsewhere.  There were 44 members of a Lee family from Donegal on-board the Faithful Steward when the vessel departed Londonderry in 1785.  However, the ship ran aground off Delaware and most of them drowned. Only six Lees survived.
These Lees who settled in Pennsylvania and Ohio were, in the view of Robert E. Lee, distantly related to his Lees of Virginia.

There were earlier Lee immigrants into New England:

  • John Lee from Essex who came to Farmington, Connecticut in 1641.  His line was traced in Sarah Lee’s 1878 book John Lee of Farmington.
  • and Peter Lee, unrelated, who settled in Rhode Island around the year 1700.  His grandson Ephraim Lee made his home in Columbia county, New York and fought in the Revolutionary War.  Nelson Lee, born near there in 1807, was the author of the fantastical 1858 account Three Years Among The Comanches.  Meanwhile some Lees crossed the border and settled in Leeds county, Ontario.

Asian Lees.  The Lee Family Association was first established in San Francisco around 1866 by two brothers at the back of their Chinese store.  This Lee name spread in Chinese associations across California and then nationwide.

Charley Lee, born in China, first arrived in San Francisco in the 1880’s.  Charles Goodall Lee, born in San Francisco in 1881, was the first accredited Chinese-American dentist in California.  And the martial artist Bruce Lee was in fact born in San Francisco in 1940 while his parents were on tour there with the Chinese opera.  Because of this Asian influx, California has the highest concentration of Lees in America today.

Canada. In 1812 John Lee from Wexford in Ireland got his discharge from the British army and decided to emigrate to Canada.  He arrived in Montreal with his family a year later.  In 1816, thanks to the Government’s free land allocations, they moved to the Perth settlement area.

Sam Lee was an early Chinese arrival in Canada, around 1905.  His descendants settled in Leaside, a neighborhood of Toronto.  Robert Lee, born of Chinese parents in 1933, prospered in real estate in Vancouver.

Australia.  William and Elizabeth Lee were assisted immigrants from Gloucestershire who sailed on the Genghis Khan for Melbourne in 1853.  They later settled in Williamstown.  In 1855 John and Elizabeth Lee from Cambridgeshire arrived in Sydney on the Blenheim.  They made their home in Southgate, NSW.

Bing Lee left China in 1938 to seek his fortune in Australia.  He opened his first Bing Lee electronic store with his son Ken in 1957.  This has now expanded to a total of 35 stores spread across New South Wales.

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Lee Surname Miscellany

Lees at Coton Hall in Shropshire.  The Lee family of Stanton, Roden and afterwards of Langley and Coton Hall in Shropshire was stated in Burke’s Baronetcies as being one of the oldest in England.

The pedigree, established in 1623 at the time of Sir Humphrey Lee of Langley, began with Hugo de Lega in the 1100’s.  His son Reginald (also Reyner) de la Lee was Sheriff in 1201 and recorded as knight in 1203. The Lees were said to have come from Normandy.

For 500 years, these Lees owned a sizeable chunk of the county in the parish of Alveley, near Bridgnorth in north Shropshire.  The family lived in Coton Hall from the 1300’s onwards.  The tombs of two Lees with effigies are to be found in Acton Burnell church.

The present-day Coton Hall was built soon after 1800 for Harry Lancelot Lee in the Georgian style.  At the time the estate ran to 5,000 acres.   Coton Hall passed out of the Lee family when Harry Lancelot Lee died in 1821 and the house was immediately sold, ending the Lees’ long association with that part of the world.

The Lees of Buckinghamshire.  The Lees were an old Buckinghamshire family who had acquired Hartwell in Tudor times by marriage into the family of John Hampden, a local landowner.

They were Whig landowners in the 18th century, part of a grouping of opposition MPs centered in the 1730’s around Frederick, the Prince of Wales. The Whig connection in Buckinghamshire at that time included Lord Wharton of Winchendon House and Viscount Cobham of Stowe, as well as the Lees of Hartwell.

John O’Laidaigh/O’Lee, Bishop of Killala.  One bishop of Ireland in the 13th century caused quite a stir in his time, according to the information that has come down.

He was made Bishop of Killala in 1253.  Ten years later he was fined for failing to attend the Parliament in Castledermot.  A letter from the Vatican, dated 20 February, 1264, gave him permission to resign, owing to the fact that he was born illegitimate and had no dispensation from the Pope to hold an office. As seems to have been common practice with the clergy of the time, he ignored this unwelcome letter, and this gave rise to scandal.

He died as a bishop, either in 1275 or in 1280.

Thomas Lee, Founder of a Virginia Dynasty.  Thomas Lee
was the founder of the Virginia Lee dynasty which was later to include the Confederate leader Robert E. Lee.  He was born in 1690, at his father Richard’s plantation on the Machadoc river in Westmoreland county, Virginia.  As a younger son his inheritance would have been small.  But a combination of intelligence, determination and influential connections resulted in him becoming one of the most powerful men in early 18th century Virginia.

He made his own way in the world of Virginia business at that time.  A somewhat disgruntled contemporary later described him as:

“A haughty overbearing Virginian, as full of cavil and chicanery as an attorney.  I am persuaded that if there be any room left for dispute he will not fail to lay hold on it, being a man of understanding.”

He married late, at the age of 32, in 1722.  Hannah Ludwell was reputed to be strong-willed, mischievous, and beautiful, with bright gold hair and a fair complexion.  But she brought her husband wealth, position, and a mutual devotion that lasted to the end of their lives.

In 1729 the Lees’ home at Machodoc was destroyed by fire, with Thomas and his family barely escaping the flames.  Prosperous by this time, he soon began construction of a magnificent new mansion for his family. The Stratford Hall plantation, completed in 1741, lay along the Potomac river.  This Georgian Great House remains associated with the family, having been purchased by the Robert E. Lee Memorial Association in 1929.

Thomas Lee’s rise in Virginia circles continued and in 1749 he served as acting Governor of Virginia.  He died a year later.

The Lees on the Faithful Steward.  On July 9, 1785, forty four members of the Lee family were among the total of 249 passengers and crew who sailed from Londonderry, Ireland aboard the ship Faithful Steward.

The Faithful Steward was a new ship, insured for more than its real value.  Somewhere along the Delaware Bay on September 1, the captain ran the ship upon a rock and wrecked her to pieces.   The passengers alarmed, had pleaded with the captain to shun the rock, but he swore he would drive the ship through or “sink her to hell,” and such was the terrible result.  The captain, his officers and sailors, manned their boats and left for shore.

Of the 249 passengers who were left, only 68 survived. Among these survivors were six members of the Lee family – James Lee, the wife of one of his brothers, and four cousins who apparently didn’t carry the Lee name.

James Lee, born about 1707, and his wife Isabella were the eldest of the family on this ill-fated voyage.  They, as well as four sons and two daughters, drowned.  The James Lee who survived, was their grandson. His parents, whose names are unknown, were among those lost.

Mary Lee, who went by the name of Pretty Polly Lee, was among those who drowned.  She was a renowned beauty of her day and many poems had been written in praise of her beauty. And there were songs about Pretty Polly Lee that descendants of the survivors used to sing. 

Nelson Lee’s Three Years Among The Comanches.  Nelson Lee started his 1859 account Three Years Among the Comanches: The Narrative of Nelson Lee as follows:

“I was born at Brownsville, near Watertown in Jefferson county, New York in 1807. Parmer Lee my father was a farmer at that place, having always been engaged in agricultural pursuits, except a short period during the last war when he joined the forces under Brown raised for the defense of the frontier.

Our family was originally from Catskill on the Hudson, the native town of my grandfather Ephraim Lee, one of the soldiers of the Revolution who participated in the battles of Saratoga and was present at the surrender of Burgoyne.

During my minority I was remarkable for nothing I can now recall, save a most hardy constitution and athletic frame, and an intense longing to rove out into the world. In early youth I had resolved, as soon as released from paternal restraint, to pass the horizon that bounded my quiet home, and learn, as far as in my power, of all the lands that lay beyond.

Indulging this propensity, my first adventure from home, on coming to man’s estate, was a trip upon a raft from Sacket’s Harbor on Lake Ontario through the St. Lawrence to Quebec.  In the character of boatman and raftsman I remained on this river more or less for several years, sometimes sailing among the Thousand Islands, at others descending the swift rapids, but nothing occurring in the meantime of sufficient interest to relate.”

After this nomadic start, Lee became a Texan Ranger.  In that capacity he was captured by marauding Indians in the 1850’s and forced to live with them as a slave for three years before making his escape.

His account is full of encounters with alligators, snakes, and panthers, as well as hostile Comanches. Lee saw his fellow captives slaughtered most horribly.  He was spared only because he convinced the Indians that the Great Spirit spoke to him through his pocket watch.  His story is probably the most widely known story of all Indian captivity narratives.

Lee and Li in Asia.  Li is a common transliteration of several Chinese family names and the Korean family name Lee. Alternate Romanizations include:

  • Lai (Cantonese),
  • Lý, Lí and Lê (Vietnam),
  • Lee (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore),
  • and Lie (Indonesia).

Taken collectively, these surnames make Li the most common surname in the world.

Lee is the common English spelling of a common Korean family name. The proper pronunciation in South Korea is like the English letter “E”, although in North Korea the name is still pronounced “Lee.”

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Lee Names
  • Thomas Lee, born in 1690, was the founder of the Lee political dynasty in Virginia.
  • Robert E. Lee was the famous Confederate general of the Civil War.
  • Nelson Lee was the author in 1858 of the fantastical tale Three Years Among the Comanches.
  • Laurie Lee was the English 20th century poet, novelist and screenwriter, most known for Cider With Rosie.
  • Bruce Lee was the Chinese-American martial artist and actor.
  • Ang Lee is the Taiwanese-American film director who produced Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain.

Lee Numbers Today
  • 160,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 214,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 84,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)
Lee and Like Surnames
These names are locational, describing someone who lived in those medieval times by the side of a bank, or by a barn or a lane or a shaw (which means a wood) or a wood and so forth.  Both the oak tree and the ash tree have in fact provided locational surnames – Oakes and Nash (from atten Ash).  Here are some of these locational surnames that you can check out.

BanksFieldMeadShaw
BarnesFordMooreStone
BrooksHillNashWells
CrossLaneRhodesWood
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