Lehman Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Lehman Surname Meaning

The surname Lehmann is of German and Swiss origin.  The northern German Lehmann, first written Lehemann and Lehenmann, initially described a feudal tenant and came to be used for a small farmer. The Swiss and sometime southern German definition is one who lives by a lehn, a gentle slope.

Lehman was also adopted as a Jewish name.  

Lehman Surname Resources on The Internet

Lehman Surname Ancestry

  • from Switzerland, Eastern Germany and from Jewish migrants
  • to America, canada and Australia

The Lehmann numbers today in Germany and Switzerland are approximately:

  • 100,000 in Germany
  • and 20,000 in Switzerland.

The German Lehmanns are mainly concentrated in the eastern part of the country in what is today Brandenburg, from Dresden in the south to Berlin in the north.  There are also Lehmanns in the Black Forest in the Ortenaukreis region in the southwest (the name Johannes Lehenmann appeared in the Wolfach charters as early as 1317).

Included in the German numbers had once been Jewish Lehmanns, such as the court financier Behrend Lehmann of Halberstadt in the 17th century. Other Jewish financiers such as the Rothschilds followed in his footsteps.

Early Swiss Lehmanns came from Emmenthal in the Swiss canton of Bern.

America. Lehmann generally became Lehman, although some later arrivals kept their two “n’s.” The split today is roughly 75% Lehman and 25% Lehmann.  There were other early spelling variants, because of the English clerks, the most common of them being Layman.

Swiss Lehmans may have come first. Forced emigration from the Bern canton started in the 1660’s and their arrival into British North America from the Rhine Palatine began in the early 1700’s.  The German-speaking immigrants, including Lehmans, began to appear in Lancaster county, Pennsylvania at that time.

The Lehman, Layman Genealogy Handbook, produced by Earl Lehman in 2006 and expanded in 2011, provides a fairly comprehensive list of early Lehman and Layman families. These Lehmans included:

  • Hans Lehman who arrived in 1727 and settled near Lititz in Lancaster county. His descendants have been numerous in the area.
  • Three Lehman brothers – Johannes, Christian, and Ludwig – who arrived in Pennsylvania at various times between 1727 and 1732. They were believed to have come originally from the Bern canton area.
  • Hans Jacob Lehman, a weaver by trade, who came with his family in 1751 and settled also in Lancaster county. His son Joachim became known as Joachim Layman and moved to Kentucky in 1798.
  • Peter Lehman from Bern in Switzerland came to Kidron in Wayne county, Ohio with his family in 1819.  He was one of the founders of the Sonnenberg Mennonite community in Amish Country there.  Jay Lehman was a much-loved store-keeper in Kidron who passed away recently.
  • while in 1852 Abraham Lehman, also from Bern in Switzerland, arrived to help form a new Mennonite community in Berne, Indiana.  Abraham donated the land to enable the railroad to pass through Berne; while his son Isaac donated land for the 11 acre Lehman Park.

Some Palatine arrivals ended up in camps in upstate New York.  Clement Lehmann from Kallstadt in the Rhine-Palatine was there in 1715 as Leman, settled in Greene county, and his family later became Layman.

Jewish. Lehman can also be a Jewish name. The most prominent Lehmans in America has been the Jewish Lehman Brothers begun by three brothers from northern Bavaria – Henry who arrived in 1844, Emanuel who came three years later, and Mayer who was there by 1850.  Originally their business was a dry goods store in Alabama, but they soon moved into cotton trading.

The youngest brother Mayer took the lead in establishing their cotton business in New York, being one of the organizers of the New York Cotton Exchange. Under his direction, Lehman Brothers expanded into financial services.  Leadership later passed to Emanuel’s son Henry. While Henry was in charge all the partners at Lehman Brothers were named Lehman. His son Robert led the firm from 1925 to 1969.  When he died that year, Lehman Brothers passed out of family hands and few were around when the company went bankrupt in 2008.

Canada. A number of Mennonite families emigrated from Pennsylvania to Ontario in the early 1800’s. Among them was Abraham Lehman who had married Susanna Raemer and came with her family to Markham county. Some Lehmans stayed there, some moved back to America, and Samuel and Isaac Lehman, two cousins, headed west in 1875 to British Columbia. They formed the small rural community Mount Lehman named after them.  

Australia. In Australia, in contrast to America, the split is approximately 25% Lehman and 75% Lehmann.

Reinhold Lehmann who arrived in South Australia in 1859 did change his name – to John Ronald Lehman. But the descendants of Johann Gottlieb Lehmann who had come to South Australia from Brandenburg ten years earlier remained Lehmanns. Peter Lehmann, the famous Barossa valley winemaker, was a fifth generation descendant of these early settlers.

Lehman Surname Miscellany

Early Lehmans in Switzerland.  Lehman, a Mennonite family name, originated in the Emmenthal canton of Bern in Switzerland near Langnau, the original home of most of the Mennonite Lehman families.  There was a farm there named Lehn from which they got their name.

David L. Habegger’s 2007 book The Lehman Families of Langnau covered these Lehmans.  It detailed seven different Lehman families from the Bern canton, four of whom were connected.

Wilhelm Lehman of Affterleen near Hassli in Emmenthal is the earliest Anabaptist of the family of which they are records. He was imprisoned in October 1566 because he refused to take the oath of allegiance.  Both he and his wife testified to their faith when questioned.  Wilhelm was sentenced to death by the sword.  After eleven days of anxiously waiting for his execution, he did take the oath and was pardoned.

During the difficult times of the first two decades of the 18th century most of the Lehmans left their Emmenthal home. Some went to the Palatinate, others to Alsace or the Bishopric of Basel, and some to Pennsylvania.

Lehman and Other Spellings in America.  The majority arrived in America as Lehmanns.  Many became Lehmans.  And some assumed a more anglicized version of the name – Layman, which was already an established English surname in America, or Leman, Leaman or Leeman.

Often the spelling change came from the English-speaking county clerk and could be variable.  For instance, Rudolph Lemen in York county, Pennsylvania had three sons in the 1740’s – Christian Lemen, David Lamon, and John Laymon – and these different spellings have been handed down to the present.

The table below shows the progression in the usage of some of these names in the 1840 and 1920 US censuses.

Numbers    1840    1920
Lehmann      3    1,092
Lehman     87    4,539
Layman    169    1,543
Leman     67      509
Leaman     49      493
Leeman     35      385

Lehman and Leaman were more found in Pennsylvania, Leman and Lehmann (the latter perhaps reflecting later arrivals) in New York, while Layman was more widely spread.

Joachim Lehman/Layman to Kentucky.  At the conclusion of the Revolutionary War in 1783 Joachim Lehman – by then Joachim Layman – acquired land in Bedford county, Pennsylvania.  Thirteen years later he was able to purchase a larger landholding of 643 acres in what was then Grayson county, Kentucky.  This was frontier country at the time.  His deed was the first ever recorded in Grayson county.

In 1798, two years after the purchase, Joachim and John Storms left Pennsylvania to live on Joachim’s land in Kentucky.  They journeyed by land from Pennsylvania to the junction of the Monogahela and Alleghany rivers, then down the Ohio River by flatboat to Bear Grass Creek where they stopped for a few months before navigating to Cloverport (now Breckenridge county).  Again, by land with a wagon and mule team, they passed the Falls of Rough and reached the head of Laurel Branch, about a half mile west of the Quisenbury schoolhouse, where they settled.

By the time of the 1810 Grayson county tax list, Joachim was dead. But his sons Jacob, Adam, and Michael Layman were recorded there. 

Lehman Brothers – from 1847 to 2008.  The line began with Abraham Low who changed his Yiddish name Low (or Loeb) to the German Lehmann  He was a Jewish cattle drover in Franconia in north Bavaria and had three sons:

  • Henry Lehman born Hayum Lehmann (1822-1855), the first to make it to America in 1844.  He died at a young age from yellow fever.
  • Emanuel Lehman born Mendel Lehmann (1827-1907), who arrived in 1847.
  • and Mayer Lehman (1830-1897), who came in 1850 and became the driving force behind the growth of Lehman Brothers in New York.

The company succession lay with the descendants of second brother Emanuel:

  • Philip Lehman (1861-1947), who was Lehman Brothers managing partner from 1901 to 1925.
  • and his son Robert Lehman (1891-1969) who was Lehman Brothers managing partner from 1925 to 1969.

Mayer Lehman’s sons, however, distinguished themselves in other fields:

  • Sigmund Lehman (1859-1930), one of the founders of Montefiore Hospital
  • Arthur Lehman (1873-1936), co-founder of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies and the Museum of the City of New York
  • Irving Lehman (1876-1945), Chief Justice of the New York Court of Appeals
  • and Herbert Lehman (1878-1963) who served as both Governor and Senator for New York.

This family has been commemorated in a 2007 book entitled Lots of Lehmans: The Family of Mayer Lehman of Lehman Brothers, which gives an anecdotal history from various Lehman family members.  Mayer Lehman’s descendants today number some 600.

These Lehmans were in their prime immortalized in Our Crowd, Stephen Birmingham’s history of New York’s prominent German Jews.  The society Birmingham depicted was solemn, cloistered and perfectly groomed, walled off from both the WASP upper crust that rejected Jews and the Jewish hoi polloi.  Mayer Lehman’s wife Babette, the matriarch of the family, insisted that her children visit her daily at her Upper East Side home.

But the Lehmans are not what they were.  They relinquished their hold on Lehman Brothers in 1969 and the company crashed in 2008.  Wendy Lehman Lash, a great grand-daughter of Mayer Lehman and President of the Lehman foundation said at the time: “It’s very sad to see the company name go down the drain.”

Isidore Lehman of Jackson, Mississippi.  The Lehman brothers began their American enterprise in Montgomery, Alabama.  There were other Jewish enclaves in the South in the 19th century such as Jackson, Mississippi.

Near the turn of the century, Isidore Lehman began his career in Jackson as a shirt washer in a cart for a Memphis laundry company.  His hard work and determination led him to eventually become partner and owner of Jackson Steam Laundry.   Located on 730 State Street, Jackson Steam Laundry was known for the slogan: “When clothes are dirty, 730.” Lehman’s store not only cleaned clothes.  It also served as a bathhouse for people without running water.   His store stayed open until the 1960’s.

Isidore Lehman was also very involved in Jackson’s civic affairs.   He was president of many organizations including the Jackson and Mississippi Chamber of Commerce as well as Beth Israel synagogue, Hinds County Red Cross, and the local school board.

Reader Feedback – Lehmans in Berne, Indiana.  You have omitted a large number of Lehmans from Berne, Indiana who are also direct descendants of the Swiss Mennonite Lehmans. I am a descendent.

Jennifer Ellingwood (jk_wheeler@hotmail.com)

Lehman Names

  • Mayer Lehman developed Lehman Brothers into one of the major financial services companies in New York in the late 19th century.   
  • Herbert Lehman served as Governor and Senator for New York over a long period between 1932 and 1956. 
  • Peter Lehmann who died in 2013 was a legendary Australian winemaker, known as the Baron of Barossa.

Lehman Numbers Today

  • 16,000 in America (most numerous in Pennsylvania)
  • 3,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)


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Written by Colin Shelley

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