Owen Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Owen Surname Meaning

Owen was a personal name in Wales. The name was first Owain, Owin, Owens, and then Owen.

The name had always been popular, being the name of princes and leaders such as Owain Gwynedd (in the 12th century) and Owen Glendower (in the 14th), the latter being a symbol for Welsh resistance against the English. Owen began to be used as a surname in Wales in the 16th century.

Both Owen and Owens exist as surnames. Owens started out as an Irish surname and, despite its similarity in spelling to Owen, has different origins.

Owen Surname Resources on The Internet

Owen and Owens Surname Ancestry

  • from Wales, Western England and Ireland
  • to America, Canada and Australia

Wales.  Two notable Owen-surname families emerged during the 15th and 16th centuries in north Wales, in Anglesey and Merionethshire.

Anglesey  The Owen family of Bodeon in Anglesey claimed descent from Hwfa ap Cynddelw, steward to the Welsh prince Owain Gwynedd.

They were prominent in the political life of Anglesey in the 16th and 17th centuries (the Owens of Bodsilin producing the Royalist soldier, Sir John Owen), but thereafter their influence declined.

Pembrokeshire.  The Orielton branch at Castlemartin in Pembrokeshire, begun through an advantageous marriage in 1571, proved more successful. These Owens survived the turmoil of the Civil War and remained a force in Pembrokeshire until 1857 – when the Orielton estate, burdened down by debts, was sold.

Merionethshire. Baron (Judge) Owen of Dolgelley served as deputy chamberlain of North Wales during the reign of Henry VIII and was the forebear of a number of Owen families in Merionethshire. These included the Owens of Tan-y-gadair and Peniarth, Hugh Owen the Puritan “apostle of Merioneth,” and the Quaker Owens who emigrated to America.

Montgomeryshire. There were also Owen families by the English border in Montgomeryshire. Rowland Owen of Llanllo, the first of his family to adopt the Owen surname, was sheriff of Montgomery in 1611.  This family later held Bettws Hall.

Another Owen family claiming an ancient lineage lived at Llangurig and later of Glansevern in Berriew. They came into local prominence in the mid 1700’s when Owen Owen was made county sheriff. Captain William Owen of this family joined the Royal Navy and in 1769 received an island land grant in New Brunswick, Canada. His two sons Edward (legitimate) and William (illegitimate) had distinguished naval careers.  The Owens remained at Glansevern until 1951.

Robert Owen was born in humble circumstances, the son of an ironmonger, in Newtown, Montgomeryshire in 1771. He was to make his mark as a social reformer in the Lancashire cotton industry.

“In industrial England Robert Owen stood up for the principles of industrial equality, the education of the young, and decent and respectable living conditions for the workers in factory towns.”

Then there were also numerous Owens in Llanidloes, Montgomeryshire.

England.  The Owen name spilled across the border into Shropshire.

Shropshire.  The first of these Shropshire Owens was probably Thomas Owen, MP for Shrewsbury in Elizabethan times who built his home at Condover Hall.  This manor stayed with the Owen family for over three hundred years. Other Owen lines from Wales were to be found in Shrewsbury.

The most famous Owen from Shropshre was the World War One poet, Wilfred Owen.

Lancashire. As the 19th century progressed the larger number of Owens were in Lancashire. There was an early outpost in Lancaster where the Owens were West Indian merchants. The family fortunes had declined by the time Richard, later the famous naturalist and anatomist, was born in the early 19th century.

Subsequent Owens from north Wales came to industrial Lancashire. William Owen was one of the Welsh house builders in Liverpool in the 1850’s. Owen Owen started a drapery shop in Liverpool in the 1860’s which expanded into a chain of department stores.

A later arrival to Liverpool – in the 1950’s – was Alun Owen, the actor and screenwriter.

Ireland.  The Owens surname in Ireland originated from the Irish personal name Eoghan (which sounded like Owen in Gaelic).  This name could also have given rise to the McKeown surname.

Owens might trace their ancestry to two clans: one, a Dukassian tribe as the same stock as the O’Neills of Thomond; the other, a Fermanagh family who were noted administrators of ecclesiastical lands around Lough Erne.

They could alternatively have been of Welsh stock.  That was the case with James Owens who was born near Curran in Derry in 1827.  In his 1903 book Recollections of a Runaway Boy he described how he ran away from home at the age of six, joined a circus, worked on a plantation in Jamaica, and ended up in America.

Owens in Ireland have been most numerous in Ulster.  The leading counties for Owens in Griffith’s Valuation of the 1850’s were Fermanagh, Roscommon, Antrim, and Tyrone.

America. The Owen name is outnumbered by the Owens name in America, by about two to one today.

Owen in America. Although Owen had been an early arrival to America on the Susan in 1622 (to the fledgling colony of Jamestown) and William Owen then came to Braintree, Massachusetts, the main early influx of Owen was to be seen later in the 17th century and into Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Griffith Owen, a Quaker from Dolgelly in Merionethshire, had secured from William Penn a tract of 40,000 acres on which the Welsh alone would have the right of purchase and on which the Welsh language should prevail.  He himself arrived in the new colony styled Merion in 1684. Being one of the first doctors there, he found himself very much in demand.

Later Owen arrivals were:

  • Richard Owen (later Owings), from Llanllugan, Montgomery in 1686 (to Baltimore county, MD)
  • Robert Owen, from Fron Goch, Merionethshire in 1690 (to Merion, PA)
  • Thomas ap Evan (Owen), from Wales in 1698 (to Gwynedd, PA)
  • and the Rev. Robert Owen, from Llandrinio, Montgomery in 1699 (to Prince George county, MD).

Owen in North Carolina.  Some Owens were to be found in North Carolina by the 18th century. These included the Owens of Bladen county, plantation owners who played their part in the Revolutionary War.  Guy Owen grew up on a tobacco farm there during the 1930’s and has used his recollections of that time in his fiction and poetry.

Another Owen family arrived in North Carolina from England in 1756. They became potters. the first of these potters being the brothers JJ and Joseph in the 1850’s. Their line has continued to the present and Ben Owen III of Seagrove, North Carolina who was named NC Living Treasure by his state in 2004.

Owen Heading West  Owens also headed westward. The first was probably Colonel Abraham Owen. He came to Kentucky in 1785, but was killed at the battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. Owen counties in Kentucky and Indiana were named after him.

The Rev. James Owen, born in Virginia, came with his parents to Kentucky before crossing the Mississippi at Shawneetown in 1819.  He later settled at Cazenovia in Woodford county, Illinois and was an early friend of Abraham Lincoln.

Samuel Tine Owen migrated first to Alabama and then in 1850 led a wagon train of new settlers to Henderson county, Texas. Jason Owen was the forebear of a family that headed first for Nebraska and then to Missouri. Stella Owen of this family was born in Missouri in 1877 and lived there until 1981 (Lyle Owen has written about her in her 1978 book, Memories of An Ozark Mother: The 100 Years of Stella Owen).

Robert Owen, the English social reformer, established his American community at New Harmony, Indiana in 1825. While he himself did not remain in America, his three sons – Robert, David, and Richard did and all led prominent lives there. At the end of the Civil War Abraham Lincoln appointed Robert Owen as secretary of the Freedman’s Bureau.

Owens in America.  Owen in America usually meant Welsh origin, Owens Irish – but not necessarily.  This was one 19th century version of Owen and Owens in the South: “They always told me that without the “s” it meant Republican and if they spelt it with an “s” the folks were Democrats.”

The most interesting of the early Owens was John Owens the Indian trader.  His story is recounted in Annette Kapple’s 2020 book John Owens, Indian Trader.  He first appeared in Pennsylvania in 1740 and had begun trading with Indians on its western frontier a decade or so later.

He had two wives, one being the daughter of an Indian chief, and lived with his family in what was then called Ten Mile Country.  He died there around 1778.  It is thought that one line through his son David settled in Clark county, Indiana.

Among later Owens arrivals from Ireland were:

  • Henry Owens in South Carolina who fought in the Revolutionary War.  His son Daniel moved in ox-carts to Georgia in 1832 and settled to farm in Troup county.
  • Thomas Owens in North Carolina who also fought in the Revolutionary War and later served in the local militia.  His son Raymond migrated south to Alabama with his family in the early 1840’s and prospered there as a planter; while Raymond’s son Thomas moved onto Arkansas in 1872.
  • and James Owens who left Ireland in 1847 at the time of the Famine and settled in Clinton county, Iowa.  At the same time Martin and Mary Owens arrived in New York City where Martin found work on the Harlem Railroad, as later did his son Edward.

Canada.  The Owen House is a large colonial inn on an island headland overlooking Passamaquoddy Bay in New Brunswick.  Admiral William Fitzwilliam Owen, the son of the Welsh captain who was granted the island of Campobello in 1769, built the Owen House in 1835. The Owen family ran the island as a feudal estate for nearly a century.

Australia. Henry Dixon Owen arrived from Wales in 1822 and was one of the pioneer settlers in Hunter Valley six years later. He subsequently had to sell his farm and he became a squatter.

Robert Owen, who arrived in 1840, came from a prosperous family in the northeast of England. He established himself as a lawyer in Sydney and soon became a large landowner in the Illawara and Murrumbidgee districts.

Some of his descendants settled in Wollongong, NSW and they produced Evelyn Owen, the inventor of the Owen sub-machine gun during World War Two.

Owen and Owens Surname Miscellany

Owen and Owens Surname Incidence.  Both Owen and Owens exist as surnames.  The table below shows the current incidence of these names in the UK and elsewhere.  Owen predominates, except in Ireland and America.

Owen Owens Owen + Owens Owen %
UK   69   21    90   77
Ireland    –    3     3    7
USA   22   51    73   30
Canada   12    7    19   63
Australia    8    4    12   66
New Zealand    2    1     3   66

In America, Owens probably meant Irish origin, Owen Welsh origin.

The Owen Family of Glansevern in Montgomeryshire.  The Owen family was descended from Cadifor ap Dinwal, Lord of Castell Hywel. The earlier generations were known as Owen of Glyngynwydd or as Owen of Cefn yr Hafodau.

Their family fortune was built from the start of the 18th century with shrewd investments in land, mining and by marriage.  Owen Owen, who died in 1719, owned property scattered around Montgomeryshire.

Following his death, the estate was inherited by his son David Owen and later by his grandson Owen Owen.  By his marriage to Anne, daughter and heiress of Charles Davies of Llifor, Owen acquired the estates of Rhyd y carw in Trefeglwys and Glanrhiew and Tyn y coed in the parish of Berriew. In around 1760 he moved to Tyn y coed.

Sir John Owen the Royalist.  One of the warmest supporters of the Royalist cause in Wales was Sir John Owen of Bodsilin (whose grandfather had been secretary to Walsingham).

By 1648, although the cause of his royal master seemed almost hopeless, he raised an army of infantry and cavalry and confronted the Parliamentary army at a place called Dalar Hir.  A fierce engagement took place.  At first fortune seemed to favor Sir John.  But the tide of battle soon turned, his troops fled, and he was dragged from his horse and made prisoner.

Sir John was conveyed to Windsor Castle, where he was put on trial.  In his defense, he stated that:

“He was a plain gentleman of Wales who had been always taught to obey the King; that he had served him honestly during the war; and finding many honest men endeavoring to raise forces whereby he might get him out of prison, he did the like.”

Eventually he was condemned to lose his head, for which, with humorous intrepidity, he bowed to the court and gave his humble thanks.

He was, however, disappointed of this honor.  After a few months’ imprisonment, he was pardoned following the intercession of the Spanish and Dutch ambassadors.  He returned to Wales where he sought unsuccessfully to regain his estates.  He died in 1666.

Hugh Owen Played Both Sides.  Hugh Owen of Orielton, who had represented Pembroke as an MP from 1625 and was created a baronet in 1641, proved himself something of an opportunist when the Civil War came.

At the outset he favored the Parliament and was taken prisoner by Sir Henry Vaughan when he had evacuated Haverfordwest after the Royalist defeat at Pill in 1644.  Later he was said to have resorted to the king at Oxford and to have abandoned Pembrokeshire for Anglesey. In 1648 he was alleged to have countenanced the Royalist resistance of Poyer and Laugharne in Pembroke.

However, he made his peace with the victorious Parliament party and served as sheriff of Pembrokeshire under the Protectorate.

Owen in Llanidloes.  The Owen name cropped up a lot in 19th century Llanidloes, Montgomeryshire.  Among these Owens were:

Abraham Owen

Abraham Owen was one of the leaders of the Chartist agitation in Llanidloes in the 1840’s.  When the law cracked down, many of the leaders fled.  But Abraham Owen – along with Lewis Humphreys, John Ingram, and James Morris – were captured and brought to trial. They were each sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia.

Evan Owen

Evan Owen was another Owen who fell foul of the law.  His crime was the theft of three geese in 1844 and he was also sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia.  He was sixty years old when sentenced and never returned.

James Owen

James Owen, born in 1808, served with the police force in Llanidloes for thirty five years.  He married twice and had either eleven or thirteen children (accounts vary) and numerous grandchildren.   One branch of this family set sail for South Africa in 1902.

John Vaughan Owen

Dr. John Vaughan Owen lived at Glascoed, Llanidloes.  His fifth son Cecil, a writer, continued to live there through much of the 20th century.

Owen Owen in Liverpool.  Owen Owen, the draper and property developer, was born at Machynlleth in Montgomeryshire, the son of a tenant farmer.  He moved to Liverpool in 1868 where he set up his own drapery business, leasing premises on the London Road.  His business expanded so rapidly that, by 1873, he had over one hundred and twenty employees  most of whom were from Wales – and a quarter of an acre floor space.

Owen’s was one of the first major retailers to introduce a weekly half day holiday for staff and by 1900 he had set up the Owen Owen Trust to help retired employees.  Owen’s trademark was to offer a courteous service and good quality merchandise at low prices.  Following his marriage in 1891, he moved to London while continuing to supervise his Liverpool store, which, by the early 20th century, was to become one of the largest of its kind in northern England.

Throughout his life Owen was supportive of Welsh causes, particularly in the field of education and the arts, and was influential in both Liverpool and London Welsh societies.  He died of cancer at his London home in 1910.  His ashes were scattered on the family grave in Machynlleth.

William Owen of Braintree, Massachusetts.  The ship Hopewell, which cleared from the port of London for Barbados in 1634, contained among its 150 passengers a William Owen aged 23, a John Owen aged 20, and an Owen Williams aged 21.  The following April the ship Elizabeth, sailing from London to New England, carried among its 28 passengers, mostly women, Margaret Davies aged 32 and her three children of whom the youngest was the one year old Elizabeth.

It is probable that the William Owen of the Hopewell was the same as that appearing fifteen years later at Braintree (where he took the freeman’s oath in 1651). The infant Elizabeth Davies on the Elizabeth is known to be the same as the one who married William Owen there.  Her mother Margaret became the wife of Charles Grice of Braintree who in his will described William as “his son” and included him as his beneficiary in recognition of “the filial care and love expressed to me in my aged condition.”

Owens in Clark County, Indiana.  John Owens the renowned Indian trader did not probably set foot in Clark county, Indiana.  But his sons did.

George was in command of Fort Jefferson on the Mississippi river just below Cairo and had been fending off Indian attacks.  In 1790 he came up the Ohio river by boat to Clarksville and proceeded on foot to Vincennes.  However, he was captured there by Indians and taken to the great powwow at Ouiatenon near the present site of Lafayette and there burnt at the stake.  One report has him being tortured over a slow fire by Indians and being shot by a friend to save him more agony.

Another son David died in Clark county in 1803.  David’s sons John and David were early settlers in Clarksville and Charlestown, Indiana.  Owen township in Clark county was probably named after John.  John Alexander Owens, an Owens descendant and Clark county historian, contributed a great deal of information to the writing of Lewis Baird’s 1909 History of Clark County.

Owen of Bladen County.  “Across the river to the south stood Owen Hill plantation, high upon a Cape Fear bluff, the home of men of substance, men whose lives were intertwined with the emergence of America.

A colonel Thomas Owen was much more: gentleman with wealth and land; provincial Congree delegate; and Bladen county legislator.

John his son was born at Owen Hill and, like his father, lived a life of service to the Cape Fear region and the state, becoming the governor in 1828.

A planter who owned slaves, John Owen was famed locally not only for his roles in politics, but also for Moreau, a captured Arab prince who chose to stay at Owen Hill when freed; and when he died. Moreau was buried with the family – a tale fantastic and true.”

Thus were described the Owens of Bladen county, North Carolina in Francis T. Butler’s The Cape Fear Saga: A History in Poetry of Bladen County’s River Road.

The Rev. James Owen in Woodford County, Illinois.  When James Owen settled at Cazenovia in 1835, on the bluff overlooking one of the branches of Richland Creek, there were but a few large trees scattered over the plain.  A beautiful young forest would later surround him.

He was a great hunter in his day and probably killed more deer than he had seen years.  He said that in 1848 he killed fifty-two foxes and that “it was not a very good year either for foxes.” He had the first pack of hounds ever introduced into the township and waged a bitter warfare against the whole fox tribe – those arrant foes to young pigs and lambs.

His house was the voting place when there were but three precincts and three voting places in the county.  Many were the lively times and stirring scenes enacted on the old bluff.  All little neighborhood disputes were settled at the annual assembling of the clans.  With whisky at twenty cents a gallon, the crowd never lacked for the exhilarating beverage.  This generally aided them very materially to cancel out their slight differences.

He was intimately acquainted with Abraham Lincoln, and, though a life-long Democrat, quite a strong friendship existed between them.  He, to use his own words, “used to have lots of fun with Honest Old Abe.”

The Owen Colony in New Brunswick.  It had been started by Captain William Owen, a retired naval officer with a colorful history (he had lost an arm in India and an eye in England during an election riot).  Then in 1767 he received the grant of an outer island in Passamaquoddy Bay, New Brunswick.  Three years later he took possession of his island, naming it Campobello, and brought with him 38 indentured servants from Liverpool.

Owen kept a journal during his two year residence on the island which has been preserved.  He left the island in 1771 and was never to return.  When he was killed in India in 1778, his nephew David Owen inherited the island.

The Owen family subsequently ran Campobello as something of a feudal estate for close on a century.  It is now something of a tourist attraction.  Owen House – built in 1835 – still stands, with much of the original furniture, quilts and fireplaces.

Owen and Owens Names

  • Baron (Judge) Owen, deputy chamberlain of North Wales in the early 1500’s, was the forebear of a number of prominent Owen families in Merionethshire.
  • Thomas Owen was the head of a family of gun and cannon makers that operated out of the Houndsditch foundry in London in the mid 16th century.
  • Griffith Owen from Merionethshire was the founder of the Welsh colony in Pennsylvania in the 1680’s.
  • Sir Richard Owen from Lancaster was the foremost English anatomist of the 19th century.
  • Robert Owen was a 19th century social reformer from Wales, considered the father of the cooperative movement.
  • Daniel Owen from Mold in north Wales is considered by many to be Wales’s first great novelist. His Rhys Lewis, written in Welsh, appeared in 1885.
  • Wilfred Owen, the First World War poet, was born in Shropshire on the English/Welsh borders.
  • Jesse Owens, the black son of an Alabama sharecropper, won four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
  • Buck Owens was a country music singer/songwriter star.
  • David Owen, born in Plymouth of Welsh parents, was a leading Labor and subsequent Social Democrat politician in England in the 1980’s.
  • Michael Owen was the wonder boy in the England football team in 1998.

Owen and Owens Numbers Today

  • 69,000 in the UK (most numerous in Gwynedd)
  • 45,000 in America (most numerous in Texas).
  • 22,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada).

Owen and Like Surnames  

Hereditary surnames in Wales were a post-16th century development.   Prior to that time the prototype for the Welsh name was the patronymic, such as “Madog ap Jevan ap Jerwerth” (Madoc, son of Evan, son of Yorwerth).  The system worked well in what was still mainly an oral culture.

However, English rule decreed English-style surnames and the English patronymic “-s” for “son of” began first in the English border counties and then in Wales. Welsh “P” surnames came from the “ap” roots, such as Price from “ap Rhys.”

These are some of the present-day Welsh surnames that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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