Oliver Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Oliver Surname Meaning

The Oliver surname in England comes from the old French personal name Olivier that came over with the Normans after 1066. The name had been popular throughout Europe in the Middle Ages as having been borne by one of Charlemagne’s paladins, the faithful friend of Roland, about whose exploits there were many popular romances.

Oliver is derived from oliver, meaning “an olive tree.”  The Catalan Oliver surname has the same roots. The spelling has sometimes been Olver in Devon. Olivier is the French form and there are other variations of the name in Italy and Spain.

Oliver Surname Resources on The Internet

Oliver Surname Ancestry

  • from SE England, Scotland and Ireland
  • to America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

England.  The Oliver name cropped up at various locations in England in the 14th century. John Oliver, recorded in 1300, held an estate at Stanway in Essex. John Oliver was rector of Rendlesham church in Suffolk in 1306 and William Oliver rector at Wakefield in Yorkshire in 1318.

London.  John Oliver was recorded as an advowson of St. Mary Overy in Southwark in the 14th century and another John Oliver was a rector of St. Mary Mounthaw in the early 16th. But the most prominent Olivers in London by that time were French Huguenot refugee immigrants.

Peter Oliver, a goldsmith, had fled Normandy in France with his family for London in 1568. His son Isaac and grandson Peter became well-known miniaturist portrait painters in England. Also from France, the Pyrenees this time, came another Huguenot, Peter Olivier. His line in England went through a succession of Anglican church ministers in the 18th and 19th centuries to the actor Sir Laurence Olivier in the 20th century.

SW England.  Cornwall has been a place for Olivers:

  • Richard Oliver married Alice Carr in Menheniot near Liskeard in 1604.
  • Olivers from Madron dated from the 1660’s. James Oliver left Madron with his family in 1846 to try his luck in London, working there as a hatter. A descendant is the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.
  • the Olivers of Trevarnoe and Ludgvan were a prominent Cornwall family of the later 17th century. Their numbers included William Oliver, physician to the Red Squadron of the British Navy, and his cousin William Oliver of Bath, also a physician and the inventor of the Bath Oliver biscuit.
  • then there were the Olivers of Polperro of the late 18th century, smugglers who became Coastguard officers in the next generation.
  • and Olivers of Helston was established in 1860. This traditional Cornish family business started out at Helston as butchers.

Meanwhile from Bristol came Thomas Oliver who emigrated to New England in 1632 and Richard Oliver, a merchant and sugar planter in Antigua in the Caribbean by the 1690’s. Four succeeding Richard Olivers were active in the sugar business in London and Antigua. Robert Oliver of this family moved to America in 1728 and his son Thomas was the last colonial Lieutenant-Governor of Massachusetts.  Thomas returned to England with the defeated British troops and settled back in Bristol.

By the 19th century, the Oliver surname distribution showed three distinct clusters:

  • first, the largest cluster around London and the southeast
  • second, Olivers in the northeast, probably a spillover from the Scottish border Olivers
  • and third, a smaller outpost in Cornwall in the southwest.

Scotland. This old French name was probably brought to Scotland by the Normans.

An Oliver family had settled in the border area of Scotland and England by the middle of the 13th century. Their main territory was Jedforest to the south of the Scottish border town of Jedburgh. Early spellings of the name were Oliphant and Olipher. They were a clan, even though they had no chieftain. Their stronghold of Dykeraw tower was burned by the English in 1513. Subsequently the Olivers of Jedforest were tenants and vassals of the Douglases.

There were other Oliver lines in the Scottish Borders:

  • Ringan Oliver who farmed Smailcleuchfoot was a Covenanter.
  • an Oliver family which had farmed Lastruther for many generations became the lairds of Dinlabyre in Liddesdale.
  • William Oliver, known as “Old Sourhope,” was the Sheriff of Roxburgh in the early 1800’s and was the last of these Olivers to be buried in the old Oliver burial place at Chesters. 
  • while another Oliver family farmed at Falside in the 18th century and became the lairds of Langraw in 1801.

Ireland.  The Olivers in Ireland could be of English, Scots border, or even of Huguenot origin.

The English Olivers came at or around the time of Cromwell, establishing themselves at Drogheda in Louth and Mullinture in Armagh. Captain Robert Oliver, an officer in Cromwell’s army in 1649, got what came to be called Castle Oliver in county Limerick. His family was to have a dominating influence on the eastern part of this county for the next century and a half.

“By the end of the 18th century the power of the independent country gentlemen of Ireland had reached a very high point. In most areas of life in their localities their word was law and their power to impose their way almost limitless. Many of their dealings were both unjust and unacceptable by modern standards.”

There were a number of examples of the unjustness and cruelty of Oliver rule at this time.

Then there were some Huguenot Olivers of French Protestant origin who took refuge in the Netherlands and came to Ireland with William of Orange’s army. The following Olivers were to be found in Dublin in the early 1700’s – Jean Oliver, a stocking maker, and Francois Oliver, a cabinet maker.

America. Early Olivers came to New England.

New EnglandThomas Oliver brought his family from Bristol to New England in 1632. Some generations later came Daniel Oliver, a prosperous Boston merchant.

His son Andrew inherited his father’s business and was a leader of the Hutchinson-Oliver faction which dominated politics in colonial Massachusetts. However, in 1765, he was commissioned to administer the unpopular Stamp Act and earned the wrath of the local population. A Boston mob hung Oliver in effigy from the Liberty Tree. On the figure’s right arm were the initials “AO” and, on the left, this couplet:

  • “What greater joy did ever New England see 
  • Than a stampman hanging on a tree.”

Indiana.  A poverty-stricken Oliver family left the Scottish borders for a new life in America in the 1830’s. Their eldest son John, restless and penniless, had gone there first, tying all of his belongings in a red handkerchief and working his passage as a seaman. He then sent back money so that the family’s debts could be paid. Five years later they followed him.

“All the family’s surplus belongings were sold at auction as some of the children stood by and sobbed. The old stone cottage was locked, the key turned back to the landlord, and they piled their few remaining belongings onto carts. Neighbors accompanied them on the first two miles of their journey.”

The family eventually came to Mishawaka, Indiana. Son James raised enough money to invest in an iron foundry there and in time his company – now based in South Bend – became the largest plow-makers in the Midwest, selling their plows not just in America but all around the world. The business prospered under James’s son J.D, but foundered in the Great Depression of 1929.

Canada. William Oliver arrived in Ontario from Scotland in 1856 and, twelve years later, his eldest son George acquired land on Pigeon Lake in the Kawarthas. This land is now, after a family donation in 1998, the James McLean Oliver Ecological Centre.

Another Oliver family came to Ontario, this time from the Derbyshire Peak District in England, in 1870. Their elder son John was a pioneer settler and farmer in British Columbia. He entered politics and became the 19th Premier of the province in 1918. The town of Oliver in British Columbia, Mount John Oliver, and John Oliver Secondary School in Vancouver were all named after him.

Australia. Among the Olivers who made the journey in the 19th century were:

  • James Oliver from Oxfordshire who had set off from Liverpool for Australia on the Catarqui in 1845. Sadly he never made it. The vessel foundered in the Bass Strait and the ship broke up.
  • and William Oliver with his family from the Scottish borders who sailed on the White Star to Tasmania in 1855. They settled in Dunorlan and he farmed on the Cressy estate.

Oliver Footwear, a fourth generation Australian owned family company, owed its origins to gold mining in the Victorian provincial city of Ballarat. It was there that the company’s founder James Oliver, a bootmaker by trade, came from Cornwall in the 1860’s. Finding no gold, he started a new venture producing boots for miners and farmers in 1887.

New Zealand.  James and Ruth Oliver were among the first settlers in New Zealand. They arrived at New Plymouth from Devon on the Amelia Thompson in 1841.

Oliver Surname Miscellany

Ringan Oliver and His Border Escapades.  Ringan Oliver who farmed Smailcleuchfoot in the Borders was a Covenanter, a good swordsman, and a man of enormous strength.

At Dunkeld he encountered a Highlander as big as himself who challenged him to a fight with broadswords. Ringan accepted the challenge and drew out Andrea Ferrara, his splendid weapon.  After a desperate encounter he killed his adversary and he and his companions made their way back home to Jedforest.  His farm at Smailcleuchfoot was not far from Fernieherst mill, a house built for defense, and when Ringan got within its walls he felt safe.

For many years he lived a quiet life, cultivating his little farm in which he took much pride.

One unlucky day a Border baron hunting with his hounds entered old Ringan’s farm and did much damage to his crops.  To add to this, his servants treated Ringan with great insolence.  This was more than Ringan could endure and, in the heat of the moment, he loaded his gun and shot two of the hounds.

For this action he was reported as disloyal to his King and a warrant was issued for his apprehension.  He refused to surrender and kept his besiegers at bay for some time, his only companion being a servant girl called Mary, who loaded the gun for him. During the siege she was wounded and this infuriated the old man so much that he threw open the door to attack his enemies sword in hand.

However, he was soon overpowered by force of numbers and sent off to Edinburgh jail where he was imprisoned.  When he was released he was placed under the supervision of the authorities and was obliged to remain in Edinburgh.  He died there in 1736 and was buried among the martyrs in the churchyard of Old Greyfriars. 

Thomas Oliver’s Tragedy.  Thomas Oliver brought his family from Bristol to New England in 1632.  A year later John Winthrop recalled the following in his journal:

“Thomas Oliver, a right godly man and elder of the Church of Boston, had three or four of his sons, all very young, cutting down wood upon the Boston Neck.  One of them (Nathaniel), being about 15 years old, had his brains beaten out with the fall of a tree which he had felled.

The good old father, having the news of it in as fearful a manner as might be, called his wife and went to prayer and bore it with much patience and honor.”

Huguenot Olivers in America.  Pierre Olivier, believed to be among the refugees from Niort in Poitou, was recorded as arriving in Charleston, South Carolina from England on the Richmond in early 1680. Peter and John Olivier were naturalized there a year later.

Although John died in 1721 and Peter in 1732, they obviously had issue. The marriage of Peter Oliver and Margaret Duval took place in 1729.  They had five children, three sons and two daughters.  Peter was a butcher.

Olivers in Antigua.  The south transept of St. John’s Cathedral in Antigua contains a panel with the following inscription:

“Sacred to the memory of Richard Oliver Esq. planter, speaker of the House of Assembly 1704, member of HM Council 1708, and colonel of militia 1715, he was baptized at St. Nicholas in Bristol on August 14th 1664 and was here buried on May 29th 1716

Also of Richard Oliver Esq, his grandson, an alderman and MP for the City of London and strenuous supporter of the constitutional rights of the American colonies, he was baptized in this parish on January 7th 1734-5 and died at sea off Nevis on April 16th 1784

This panel is dedicated by Vere Langford Oliver in commemoration of his ancestors and kinfolk who lie buried in the churchyard or in their plantation, 1919.”

Richard Oliver of Polperro.  Richard Oliver, born in 1772, was the owner and master of a smuggling vessel called the Lottery when a Custom House officer was murdered in 1798 while trying to board her off Cawsand near Plymouth.  So incensed were the authorities by this outrage that the hunt for the Lottery and its crew continued for months.

Several Lottery crewmen were captured and stood trial at the Old Bailey. One of them, Tom Potter, was convicted of the murder and executed after another member of the crew testified against him.

But Richard Oliver remained at large.  A notice published by the Customs Commissioners in 1799 described him as having: “a dark complexion, long face, light brown curled short hair, about 6 foot high, rather thin, but very boney and walks very upright.”

Ironically, two of Richard’s sons joined the new Coastguard service formed in 1822 to stop the smuggling trade that had been rampant with their father during the Napoleonic Wars.

Charles Silver Oliver at Castle Oliver.  In 1798 Charles Silver Oliver took control of the Castle Oliver and its 20,000 acre estate.  The same year Charles Silver hung, drew and quartered a popular local united Irish man Patrick ‘Staker’ Wallis and placed his head on a spike on the top of Kilfinane market hall.

He had at least four illegitimate children by his mistress at Castle Oliver.  The youngest of these children was Eliza Oliver, mother of Elizabeth Rosanna Gilbert known as Lola Montez “the Spanish dancer,” who was born in 1818.  Lola was the mistress of King Ludwig 1 of Bavaria.  She subsequently departed for America and died of pneumonia, aged 42, in  Brooklyn.

Reader Feedback – Colonel Robert Oliver, Ohio Pioneer.  One of my ancestors Col. Robert Oliver was a descendant of Robert Oliver who immigrated from Ireland in the 1700’s. Colonel Oliver was a soldier in the American Revolutionary War under George Washington.

After the war he moved to what was then known as the new settlement of the Northwest Territory in the westward expansion of the United States under George Washington. He was a judge in the new territory and built the first grist mill in this new area.  He was very active in the new settlement. I grew up in Marietta, Ohio – the name the new settlement finally took on.

Keral Fell (cricketfell@gmail.com).

James Oliver in South Bend.  James Oliver was a great benefactor to the town South Bend in Indiana and built for them a magnificent hotel, the Oliver Hotel, which opened in December 1899.

At the opening ceremony in early 1900, the inhabitants of South Bend presented him with a gold loving cup on which was inscribed the word Copshawholm. Copshawholm was the name of the small town in Liddesdale where James Oliver was born.  James’s father had been a shepherd there, as still was his younger brother George.

Oliver Names

  • William Oliver may or may not have invented the Bath bun, but he did invent the Bath Oliver, a biscuit.
  • Joe Oliver was a jazz cornet player and bandleader in the 1920’s, a mentor for Louis Armstrong.
  • Sir Laurence Olivier has been acclaimed as possibly the greatest English actor of the 20th century.
  • Jamie Oliver is a popular English celebrity chef.

Oliver Numbers Today

  • 41,000 in the UK (most numerous in Durham or London)
  • 40,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 27,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Oliver and Like Surnames

The Norman Conquest brought new rulers to England and they brought their names and language, a form of French, with them.  Over time their names became less French and more English in character.  Thus Hamo became Hammond, Reinold Reynolds and Thierry Terry and so forth.  The names Allen, Brett, Everett, and Harvey were probably Breton in origin as Bretons also arrived, sometimes as mercenaries.

The new Norman lords often adopted new last names, sometimes from the lands they had acquired and sometimes from places back in Normandy.  Over time the name here also became more English.  Thus Saint Maur into Seymour, Saint Clair into Sinclair, Mohun into Moon, and Warenne into Warren.

Here are some of these Norman and Breton originating names that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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