Napier Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Napier Meaning
The
Scottish Napier name and
the less-common Napper name, found in England, both probably had their
derivation from the old French word nappe
meaning “table cloth.” A napperer or
naper would describe an official in a royal or noble court who was in
charge of
the linen in the great house.
The Scots had an
alternative version for their
Napier name, that it was bestowed
by the
Scottish king on the field of battle.
But this seems a less likely explanation.

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Napier Resources on
The
Internet

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Napier Ancestry


Scotland. The Earls of Lennox ruled during the 13th
century in the ancient sheriffdom of Dumbarton on the north shores of
the Clyde
river. It was Malcolm the fifth Earl who
granted land to John Naper at Kilmahew in Dumbarton around the year
1290.

Kilmahew. Kilmahew castle became this
family’s fortress
in the 16th century and the Napiers were to remain at Kilmahew for
eighteen
generations, until 1820. The surname
spelling was various in medieval times – sometimes Naper and sometimes
Napare and
sometimes something else – and it was really not until the 17th century
that the
Napier spelling took precedence.

The Napiers of Kilmahew were notable for being
the progenitors of Napiers who made notable contributions in the field
of
engineering in the 19th century – namely Robert Napier “the father of
Clyde shipbuilding” and David, James, and Montague Napier who owned the
engineering company of Napier & Son.

Merchiston. Some
think that the Alexander Napier found in Edinburgh in the 1400’s had
been descended
from these Kilmahew Napiers, although there is no documentary evidence
to prove
the case.

Alexander prospered as a merchant, amassed a fortune, became
the provost
of Edinburgh in 1403, and obtained a charter for the lands of
Merchiston. His son and grandson, both
named Alexander,
were also provosts and were in high royal favor, both serving as Master
of the
Royal Household.

Starting with these two Alexanders, the Napiers were to
remain
as Lairds of Merchiston until 1920:

  • John Napier,
    born in 1550 and
    the eighth Laird of Merchiston, devoted much of his time to scientific
    studies
    and is remembered today for his invention of logarithms.
  • Archibald
    Napier, his
    eldest son, was ennobled as Lord Napier in 1627 and fought on the
    King’s side
    in the Civil War when he was over seventy years of age.
    He died in 1645 and his son Archibald, also a
    Royalist, died abroad before the Restoration.
  • while – much later – Francis Napier, the 13th Laird of
    Merchiston
    , distinguished
    himself in the diplomatic service and was made Baron Napier of Ettrick
    in 1872.

Thirlestane. There
was another Napier
line at Thirlstane
in Selkirk on the Scottish borders.
Francis Napier had taken the name of his maternal grandmother
after the
death of his father Sir William Scott in 1725.

His younger son George,
who
married Lady Sarah Lennox, was a British army officer and the father of
three
sons – Charles, William, and George – who were collectively known as
Wellington’s colonels at the time of the Napoleonic Wars.

The city of Napier in New Zealand was named
after Sir Charles Napier, the town of Napier in the Western Cape of
South
Africa after Sir George Napier.

England. Two Napier lines in
England appear to have
had descent from the Scottish Napiers of Merchiston – the Napiers of
Luton Hoo
in Bedfordshire and the Napiers of Middlemarsh Hall in Dorset.

“Alexander Napier, killed fighting the English
at the Battle of Pinkie in 1547, had a younger son named Alexander. This Alexander came to England a year later
and married an English woman named Ann Birchley in Exeter.
Of this marriage there were two sons –
Robert the Turkey merchant and the Rev. Richard Napier the astrologer.”


Robert
amassed a fortune and was knighted by King James I in 1611. The King subsequently made him a baronet of
Luton Hoo in Bedfordshire.

“Once after King James had bestowed a baronetcy
on a Napier, jealous English courtiers complained: ‘Who after all are
these
Napiers?’ The King replied impatiently: ‘By my soul they are all
gentlemen
these many hundred years.'”


The
Scottish connection is a little less clear-cut with the Napiers from
Puncknoll
in Dorset. The spelling here seems to
have varied between Napier and the more English Napper.

The family had Catholic leanings during Elizabethan
times. Edward Napier who had married the
heiress of Holywell manor in Oxfordshire had a son named George Napper
who was
executed in 1610 for being a Catholic priest.
However, Sir Gerrard Napier or Napper of the main line in Dorset
emerged
through these turbulent times as a baronet in 1641.
His son Nathaniel was a traveller and
dilettante in Restoration England.

Nappers outnumbered Napiers in England in the 1881 census.
The English Napper name had its origin and
presence in Sussex and in Somerset along the south coast:

  • the Napper presence in
    Sussex
    dated from the
    14th century. One
    Napper line from Horsham in the mid-1600’s extended to Dr. Albert
    Napper who founded in Kent in 1859 the Cranleigh Village Hospital,
    England’s first
    “cottage”
    hospital.
  • while Edward Napper was assigned the tenancy of the
    parsonage
    at Tintinhull near Yeovil in Somerset in 1546.
    Within two generations his
    family had acquired the lordship of the manor and the three largest
    houses in
    the village. They were to remain here
    until 1800.

Ireland. Sir Robert Napier or Naper,
a younger son of the Napiers in Dorset, managed to secure a judgeship
in
Ireland during the latter years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. Although he himself was considered a failure,
he turned out to be the forefather of a long-lasting Anglo-Irish
family.

His
grandson William surveyed Ireland on behalf of Oliver Cromwell in the
1650’s
and made a fortune in doing so. His
reward was the Loughcrew estate
in
Meath. William’s descendants, all known
as Naper, have held the estate until today.

America.
Virginia
was the starting
point for many Napiers in America, thanks to Dr. Patrick
Napier.

Virginia.
Dr. Patrick Napier, a descendant of the Dumbarton
Napiers, arrived in Virginia with other defeated Scottish Royalists in
1651. He
settled in Hampton parish in York county as a planter and surgeon. The line of descent – from his son Robert and
Robert’s four sons Booth, Robert, Patrick and Rene – accounts for the
largest
share of Napiers in America.

One line through Richard Napier led to
Tennessee. Richard was a colonel in the
Revolutionary War, having himself raised and equipped a regiment. After the war he departed for Tennessee,
bringing with him “his wife and children, one hundred negroes, carriage
and
wagons.” His house at Barton’s Creek,
built around 1800, is still standing.
His son Richard C. Napier operated the Carroll furnace and
ironworks
there until the Civil War.

Another line via
Patrick and Fanny Napier came to Kentucky in the early 1800’s and
settled in
Perry county. This line produced a
plethora of McCager Napiers,
five by
one researcher’s count, in the mid-1800’s.
All five of them fought in the Civil War, the last of them dying
in
1912.

Elsewhere. Robert Napier from
Stirling in Scotland came
to Vermont around 1789 and moved with his family in the 1820’s to Ohio
where
several of his sons were engaged in Great Lakes ship building and
trading:

  • one son Benjamin
    Napier was a ship builder in Sandusky, Ohio and later
    became a Great Lakes sea captain. Benjamin’s
    sons Nelson and Jack followed in his footsteps;
    and
    Joseph
    was made the Chicago Harbor Master in 1852.
  • while
    another son Joseph Naper, more adventurous, founded in
    1831 the
    oldest settlement in Illinois west of Chicago, now known as Naperville.

Joseph
Napier, a mariner from England, had come via upstate New York to Huron
county,
Ohio in the early 1820’s. But he drowned
in Lake Erie around 1827. His son
William, forsaking that life, settled down to farm at Vermillion
township in Huron
county.

Australia. Thomas Napier, a
builder from
Montrose in Scotland, was an earlier settler in Melbourne, arriving
there from
Tasmania in 1837. Eight years later he
moved to an area now known as Strathmore and built his home Rosebank
there. This was to be the family home
until the
1920’s. His son Theodore donated land in
Strathmore in 1920 for what came to be known as Napier Park.

Nappers
from Seavington in Somerset came out to Sydney
in the 1850’s. The first to arrive was
Charles Napper and his wife Sarah who came of the Bombay
in 1852. They were
followed five years later by his brother Edmund who arrived with his
wife Eliza
on the Herefordshire. Edmund
moved to the Clarence river, settling
in Ulmarra. When he died there in 1915
at the age of eighty, he left thirty grand-children and ten great
grand-children.

William Napper, also from Somerset, arrived in South
Australia
with his wife Ann in 1855, settling in Lake Bonney.
They ran there the Lake Bonney Hotel and
later the Overland Corner Hotel. William
died in 1908.

 

Select
Napier Miscellany

An Alternative Version of the Napier Name.  According to
an old tradition of the Napier family, written by Sir Archibald Napier
in 1625,
the Napier name was earned in battle during the reign of the Scottish
King
William the Lion in the late 12th century.

“One of the ancient Earls of Lennox had three
sons.   The eldest succeeded him in
the
earldom, the second was named Donald, and the third Gilchrist.

The then king of
the Scots being engaged in war and having convocated his subjects to
battle,
the Earl of Lennox was called upon, amongst others, to send such force
as he
could collect to the king’s assistance.
He accordingly did, keeping his eldest son at home with him, but
putting
his men under the command of his two younger sons.

The battle went hard with the
Scots who were not only forced to lost ground but were actually running
away.  At that point Donald snatched his
father’s standard from the bearer and charged the enemy with the Lennox
men.  He changed the fortune of the day
and obtained a victory.

After the battle, as the custom was, everyone reported
his acts and the king said:  ‘You have
all done valiantly.  But there is one
amongst you who had nae peer, that
is, no equal.’  He called Donald to him and commanded him to
change his name from
Lennox to Napier.  He bestowed upon him
the lands of Gosford and lands in Fife as a reward for his service.”

It is doubtful whether there is any truth to
this story.  Similar stories were made up
by other noble Scottish families to invent a more glorified origin of
their
name.  The Victorian genealogist Mark Lower
commented:

“It is proper, however, to remark that the Napiers sprang
from the
house of Lennox and that their early members wrote themselves Lenox
alias
Napier.  And it is no derogation of the
dignity of this illustrious family to suppose that an earl’s son, their
ancestor, should have held the office of Napier in the royal household.”

John Napier, Napier’s Bones, and the Devil.  Adjoining the mill at Gartness are the remains of an old
house in which John Napier of Merchiston, the inventor of logarithms,
resided a
great part of his time when he was making his calculations.

It is
reported that the noise of the cascade, being constant, never gave him
uneasiness.  But the clack of the mill,
which was only occasional, greatly disturbed his thoughts. He was
therefore
when in deep study, sometimes under the necessity of desiring the
miller to
stop the mill that the train of his ideas might not be interrupted.

His discussion of
logarithms was first to be found in the Latin work Mirifici
Logarithmorum Canonis Descriptio
 published in 1614. Two years
later an
English translation appeared.

In 1617 Napier then presented a mechanical means of simplifying
his calculations
in Rabdologiae.  Napier’s
numbering rods were made of ivory so that they looked like bones.  That explained why they are now known as
Napier’s bones. To multiply numbers the bones were placed side by side
and the
appropriate products read off.

It would be surprising if a man of such great an
intellect as Napier did not appear as rather strange to his
contemporaries.  Given the superstitious
age in which he lived, weird stories began to circulate.
Many traditions suggest that Napier
was “in league with the powers of
darkness.”

Mark Napier, his descendant and
biographer, wrote that
John Napier deliberately played upon the primitive
beliefs of his servants by going around with a cock which he had
covered in
soot.  And this was another account:

“John
Napier used frequently to walk
out in his nightgown and cap. This, with some things which to the
vulgar appear
rather odd, fixed on him the character of a warlock. It was formerly
believed
and currently reported that he was in compact with the devil; and that
the time
he spent in study was spent in learning the black art and holding
conversation
with Old Nick.” 

Early Nappers in Sussex.  Napper has
been a name of West Sussex.  Its first
occurrence was in the village of Stedham in 1296.  By
the 1400’s Napper had spread to Racton and
Petworth.  Whether this reflects one
family who had migrated or two or more distinct families is not really
clear.

In
the 16th and 17th centuries the surname could still be found at
Petworth and
had also extended to places further north such as Rudgwick where John
Napper, a
yeoman farmer, had married Mary Gibbons in 1665.

Napper in Sussex might have described someone charged with the care of
the napery or linen.  It could also have
been someone who sold napery.

The Napers at Loughcrew in Meath.  William Naper
secured the Loughcrew estate near Oldcastle in 1655 and served as the
High
Sheriff of Meath in 1671.  Over the
ensuing century William’s descendants inter-married with other
well-established
landed gentry and aristocratic families in the area – such as the Earls of Darnley and Leicester, the Ingoldsbys,
the Duttons and the Tandys (from whom
the enigmatic 1798 rebel Naper
Tandy claimed descent).

After the original 1600’s-built house had been
destroyed by fire, James Naper commissioned
the English neo-classical architect Charles
Cockerell in 1821to build him a new stately
home.  Cockerell set about applying his
knowledge of Greek architecture to his new commission.
Eight years and £22,000 later, the building
was complete.

However, this once indomitable mansion was a victim, some
say, of
an ancient curse.

“Three times
will Loughcrew be consumed by fire. Crows will fly in and out of the
windows.  Grass will grow on its doorstep.

The first of these fires occurred in 1888, the second in
1959, and the last in
1964.  This reduced the house to a state of
roofless dereliction, its only tenant being a Massey Ferguson tractor.

But
Charles and Emily Naper who had inherited Loughcrew were a determined
couple.
The original house was clearly beyond repair.
But that did not deter them from building a new house.  In 1982 they recruited the architect Alfred Cochrane and set about
converting the roofless Orangery into their family home. The rooms that
make up
the house were originally the palm houses, the azalea houses and the
furnace
rooms.   Charles and Emily opened up
the
gardens to the public and ran an annual opera festival.

Today, all that remains of the original
Loughcrew House is its portico entrance, subsequently reassembled to
look like
some sort of mini-Acropolis.

Dr. Patrick Napier, the Scottish Surgeon Who Came to America.  Dr. Patrick Napier’s forebears
were from Kilmahew in Dumbarton.  His
grandfather Mungo Napier, a Burgess of Dumbarton, had migrated to
London around
the time of King James’s accession to the English throne in 1603.

His father
Patrick, based in London, became Barber and Chirurgeon to King Charles
I.  However, King Charles lost out in the
Civil
War and was imprisoned on the Isle of Wight in 1648.
Patrick may have been the Napier that
Parliamentary spies reported had tried to free
the King from this prison.
Soon after, the King was beheaded in London in January 1649.

Three months later in Edinburgh in May 1649,
Patrick Napier apprenticed his namesake son Patrick to the chirurgeon
Alexander
Pennycuik.  Pennycuik was the surgeon to the Scottish troops who
were defeated by Cromwell at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650.
It seems that Patrick Napier emigrated to
Virginia with other Scottish Royalists after that defeat. He settled in
Hampton
parish in York county as a planter and surgeon.

Near
Williamsburgh, Virginia today there is a historical marker which reads
that
Patrick Napier, colonial surgeon, lived in the vicinity. 

The McCager Napiers of Kentucky.  Five McCager Napiers from Perry county enlisted in the Civil War.

McCager Napier No. 1 Enlisted in February 1862 aged 28
Served in the 5th Kentucky
Mounted Infantry.
McCager Napier No. 2 Enlisted in September 1862 aged
28
Served in the 14th Kentucky
Cavalry.
McCager Napier No. 3 Aged 19 in 1862.
Served in the 14th Kentucky
Cavalry but probably deserted.
McCager Napier No. 4 Aged 19 in 1862.
Served in the 10th Kentucky
Cavalry.
McCager Napier No.5 Enlisted in July 1863 aged 17
Served in the 47th Kentucky
Infantry but probably deserted.

They all survived the war.

 

Select
Napier Names

  • John Napier is remembered today for
    his invention of logarithms which he first had published in Scotland in 1614.
  • Sir Charles Napier was the cavalry general under Wellington during the Napoleonic Wars. 
  • Robert Napier, a Scottish shipbuilder in the mid-1800’s, is considered to be the father of Clyde shipbuilding.


Select Napier Numbers Today

  • 8,000 in the UK (most numerous
    in Midlothian)
  • 8,000 in America (most numerous in Kentucky)
  • 6,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

 

Select Napier and Like Surnames 

These are surnames from the Scottish Lowlands.  Some are clan names; some – like Gordon, Graham and Hamilton – have Anglo-Norman antecedents that crossed the border into Scotland; and some – like Douglas and Stewart – were very powerful in early Scottish history.  Stewart in fact became the royal Stuart line.

AbercrombieCrawfordGordonMenzies
AlexanderCunninghamGrahamMurdoch
BaxterDouglasHamiltonPollock
BoydDowHepburnSloan
BurnsEwingLennoxStewart
CochraneFergusonLivingstonWitherspoon

 

 

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