Palmer Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Palmer Surname Meaning

In the Middle Ages, when people came back from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, they carried palm fronds to show where they had been. The wearing of a badge with palms denoted the sign for people who had made that journey. These pilgrims became known as “palmers.”

However, not all “palmers” had really been to the Holy Land.  There was a very active trade in false souvenirs and the name also came to be applied to a cleric who sold indulgencies.

Palmer Surname Resources on The Internet

Palmer Surname Ancestry

  • from Southern England
  • to Ireland Ulster), America, Canada, Caribs (Jamaica), Australia and New Zealand

England.  The first records of the Palmer name were Manfred Palmes living in Taunton, Somerset in 1141 and Wiger le Palmer in the 1191 Lincolnshire rolls.  These two areas of England – the southwest and East Anglia – remained the main two areas where Palmers were to be found in subsequent centuries.

SW England.  Palmers were recorded as early as the 12th century in Gloucestershire, in villages such as Tetbury, Tytherington and Upton St. Leonards.  Stephanus de Palmer was born in Gloucestershire in 1140.  The Palmer presence at Bitton St. Mary became evident by the 1500’s.

There were also Palmers in Somerset. A Palmer family built Fairfield Hall near Stogursey. They had been Elizabethan adventurers, sailing with Drake and Hawkins in their ecapades against the Spanish. In 1693, Nathaniel Palmer acquired the Alfred Jewel, which had been discovered near his land, and bequeathed it to Oxford University.

A later Palmer family came from Wood Court, Ashill in Somerset. A Palmer family of farm workers, dating from the 1720’s, has traced their history from Wiltshire to Gloucestershire and then onto Somerset.

East Anglia.  Palmers could also be found in East Anglia, notably in Cambridgeshire and Norfolk:

  • Palmers in Soham in Cambridgeshire date from the 14th century. One family accounts tells of a Palmer who was a soldier in the Peninsular War and brought back a Portuguese bride to his home in Burwell, Cambridgeshire.
  • while William and Mary Palmer’s marriage was recorded in Ranworth, Norfolk in 1606. They were among the early settlers in New England.

Another Palmer family in Norfolk traces itself to Old Buckenham.  Palmer’s department store was started by Garwood Burton Palmer in Great Yarmouth in 1837 and has remained a Norfolk family-run institution until this day.

SE England.  Palmers in the 15th and 16th centuries were from:

  • Sussex – Angmering and Parham
  • and Kent – Snodland near Rochester and Owlets in Bekesborne.

One Palmer family, originally from Angmering, were landed gentry at Wingham and sheriffs of Kent in Elizabethan times. In 1607 they inherited through marriage the manor of Dorney Court near Windsor in Buckinghamshire. At that time these Palmers were royalist supporters and Roger Palmer, who had married one of Charles II’s mistresses, was a Catholic recusant. The family is still in residence at Dorney Court, the property having passed from father to son through thirteen generations.

Elsewhere  There were also Palmers recorded from an early time in Northamptonshire and across the border in Leicestershire. The Palmers of Carlton date from the 1400’s. They extended their landholdings under Geoffrey Palmer, Charles II’s Attorney General.

Another Palmer family, originally from Staffordshire, made their money in London and acquired the Wanlip estate in Leicestershire in 1626. These Palmers owned sugar plantations in the Caribbean but later befriended William Wilberforce and supported his abolitionist cause. They ran Wanlip Hall and the surrounding village on semi-feudal lines until the death of the last Palmer, Lady Augusta Palmer, in 1933. The Hall was demolished and the estate was then taken over by the Palmer-Tomkinson family.

Wales.  The Palmer family of Llangwm in south Pembrokeshire may trace itself back to the marriage of John Palmer and Anne Jones in 1765. Its best known member was Dolly Palmer the fisherwoman.

Ireland.  Palmers came to Ireland as part of the English occupation. Two Palmer brothers were said to have arrived in county Down from England in 1660.

A Palmer family took extensive estates in Mayo through the royal land grants they received in 1684. Later, Roger Palmer of this family married Eleanor Ambrose, one of the leading beauties of Dublin in her day, and was created a baronet in 1777. Their Mayo family home was Castle Lacken and, in more recent times, Keenagh Lodge.

Many Palmers were also to be found in county Antrim and elsewhere in Ulster.

America.  There were early Palmer arrivals in New England.

New England.  Walter Palmer arrived in Salem, Massachusetts from Dorset in England in 1629.  He helped found the settlements of Charlestown and Rehoboth in Massachusetts and New London in Connecticut. The Stonington chronicle described Palmer as “the patriarch of the early Stonington settlers, a vigorous giant – 6 feet 5 inches tall. When he settled at Stonington he was 68 years old, older than most of the other settlers.”

Descendants have included:

  • William Palmer, Governor of Vermont
  • Nathaniel Palmer the whaler and seal hunter
  • Thomas Palmer, a Senator from Michigan
  • and Ulysses S. Grant, the Civil War General and later American President.

William Palmer, a nailer from Stepney in London, arrived in Massachusetts in 1621 and settled in Duxbury where he died in 1637.  His descendant Samuel Palmer migrated to Columbia county, New York in 1777 and fought in the Revolutionary War.  Dorothy Palmer’s 1957 book Palmer Family Genealogy covered this line.

Another William Palmer, from Somerset, came in the 1630’s and settled first in Weatherfield, Connecticut and then in Westchester, New York.  Later Palmers headed West to Illinois. Two grandchildren went onto Kansas, eventually arriving in Oklahoma territory during the great land rush of the 1890’s.

Yet another William Palmer was first sighted in Yarmouth, Cape Cod in 1639 before moving onto New York in 1653 when it was still Dutch.  His descendants, Quakers, settled in Greenwich, Connecticut and then in Dutchess county, New York.

Also from original Connecticut stock, this time via Canada, came Daniel Palmer, the chiropractic pioneer. He started his practice in Davenport, Iowa in the 1880’s.

Palmers in the South. Captain Thomas Palmer from Gloucestershire came with his family on the Tyger to the Jamestown settlement in 1621. His descendants later settled in Richmond and Halifax counties, Virginia.  His father Edward had planned a new colony of Palmer Island (now Garrett Island in Cecil county, Maryland), but he died in England in 1624 and nothing came of it.   

Among other Palmers to be found in the South were:

  • Elias Palmer, born in Virginia in 1725, who was the patriarch of a Palmer family that migrated southward to South Carolina and then, in 1818, to Georgia.  
  • Paul Palmer, first recorded as being married in Virginia in 1717, who is considered the founding father of Baptists in Virginia and North Carolina.  
  • Joshua Palmer who came to South Carolina from England sometime in the 1760’s. He became a farmer there and later an itinerant Baptist minister. He moved to Indiana in 1807 where he continued his ministry. After his death in 1845, his widow and children resettled in Missouri.  
  • and William Palmer who came to Charleston in 1845 and was prominent there as a merchant and ship-owner in the years prior to the Civil War. A slave owner, he fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War but died in the fighting in 1862. Curiously, his father John was an abolitionist whose farm in Ohio served as a station on the underground railway.

Canada.  Early Palmer arrivals were Loyalists from America, leaving Boston in one case for New Brunswick and New Jersey in another for Grimsby, Ontario. The former family headed West to Calgary later in the 19th century, the latter returned to America and Kansas and Florida.

Another Palmer family which straddled both Canada and America were the descendants of William and Barbara Palmer from Prince Edward Island. This family ended up in the early 20th century on the West Coast in Winoma, Washington.

Charles Palmer arrived from England to homestead in the Marriott area of Saskatchewan in 1906. His youngest daughter, Agnes M. Weicker, has recorded her recollections of prairie life in the early 20th century in her recently published book, A Walk Down Memory Lane.

Caribbean.  The Palmers were well-to-do sugar planters in Jamaica who had, however, become overextended by debt by the end of the 18th century. Their plantation house, the Rose Hill Great House, was destroyed during the slave rebellion of 1831, but not before it had become the stuff of legend (as the home of Annie Palmer, the white witch of Jamaica).

Australia.  The Palmer name appeared early in Australia’s history. John Palmer arrived with the First Fleet in 1788 and soon became the commissary of the new colony. He built Woolloomooloo Farm, one of the colony’s first permanent residences where the Palmers entertained lavishly.

Another early settler was Charles Palmer who arrived in Sydney in 1802 and received a generous land grant.

New Zealand.  Charles Palmer ran away from his home in Suffolk in the 1830’s and went to sea. He was one of the earliest settlers in New Zealand, arriving at New Plymouth in 1841. The 1975 book Palmer Family History by Ivan Skipworth recorded this family history.

Palmer Surname Miscellany

Thomas Palmer’s Epitaph at Snodland in Kent.  A number of Palmers had been buried in the church of Snodland, near Rochester in Kent, including Thomas Palmer who had married the daughter of Fitz Simon and died in 1407.   The following epitaph was recorded there:

  • “Palmers all our faders were.
  • A Palmer lived here
  • And travelled still, til wud age
  • I ended this world’s pilgrimage
  • On the blest Ascension day
  • In the cheerful month of May
  • A thousand with four hundred seven
  • I took my journey to heaven.”

From this Thomas were descended the Palmers of Tottington in Aylesford and the Palmers of Owlet in Bekesborne.

The Palmers of Angmering.  Sir Edward Palmer’s main claim to fame was the siring of triplets by his wife Alice in the most unusual circumstances.  It is alleged that Alice was in labor for a fortnight producing John, Henry and Thomas on three Sundays in succession.  The medical profession today are aware of such a phenomenon.  But of course it is extremely rare.

The eldest, John, was probably the Palmer who bought the Angmering manors and lands from Henry VIII.  He may not have been the most popular of landlords.

“People who happened to be passing through Angmering on their way to market one morning, probably early in 1545, were astonished to find this undistinguished village in an uproar.  In the midst of it could be seen John Palmer, the local landlord, backed up by seven or more of his servants, doing their utmost to smash down the doors of about half a dozen cottages.

When asked why he was so asking, he responded: ‘Do ye not know that the King’s grace hath put down all the houses of monks, friars, and nuns?  Therefore now is the time that we gentlemen will pull down the houses of such poor knaves as ye be.'”

Other documents described him as “a man wholly addicted, inclined, and given to cruelty and mischief.” Troubles had been brewing with his tenants for about fifteen years principally over grazing rights. Following John’s actions, a number were evicted from their homes and thrown off the “commons” on which they had been grazing their cattle.

The next son Henry went on to found the Wingham branch of the family in Kent.  The youngest son Thomas was a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber to Henry VIII.  He was beheaded in 1554 for taking part in Lady Jane Grey’s bid for the Crown.

Nathaniel Palmer and The Alfred Jewel.  The Alfred Jewel is one of the most famous objects surviving from Anglo-Saxon England.  Found in 1693 at North Petherton, it immediately attracted the attention of scholars.  Shortly after its discovery the jewel was acquired by Colonel Nathaniel Palmer of Fairfield, Stogursey.  He bequeathed it to the University of Oxford.  It is now in the Ashmolean Museum.  A perfect replica can be seen in the church at North Petherton.

The jewel consists of a gold frame around an enamel design which is covered by rock crystal.  Around the edge of the jewel are the words in Mercian dialect AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWWYRCAN (Alfred ordered me to be made).  It is generally assumed that the individual was King Alfred.  Identifications of the enamelled figure have ranged from Christ, St. Cuthbert and St. Neot, to Alfred himself.

Dolly Palmer the Fisherwoman.  Dolly Palmer was nicknamed “Dolly the Bridge” after her cottage by the Guilford bridge in Llangwm.  She was quite a village beauty in her younger days.  But she was best known in many parts of south Pembrokeshire as the quintessential Llangwm fisherwoman.

These fisherwomen were very distinctive.  They wore flat black-brimmed felt hats with white scarves tied under their chins, heavy dark shirts, and red flannel petticoats.  Other serviceable items of clothing were warm jackets, striped flannel aprons, three cornered shawls, and strong boots.  They were a unique breed of hard-working women.  It was even said that they chose their own husbands.  Because of their quaint costumes and customs, newspaper articles started to appear about them.

Dolly had married a local boy, William Palmer, in 1863 and they were eventually to raise ten children in their Guilford cottage.  Her own fine features started to capture the imagination of artists and photographers.  In 1880 William Powell Frith painted a Llangwm fisherwoman, reputedly Dolly, selling fish to his wife and daughters.  A sepia postcard of Dolly Palmer the Llangwm fisherwoman was in circulation by 1903 and colored versions were available by 1906.

Dolly lived onto 1932.  She died at the age of ninety, survived by five children, 26 grandchildren, and 13 great grandchildren.  She is still remembered in Llangwm. 

William Palmer the Norfolk Poisoner.  On June 14, 1856 William Palmer was executed in public before 30,000 people at Stafford for the murder of John Cook in Rugeley.  He became known as “the Rugeley poisoner” and “the prince of poisoners.”  His effigy stood in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors for 127 years.

Newspapers at the time printed every rumor and accusation that reporters could extract from local gossip.  If the gossips were to be believed, then Palmer was also guilty of poisoning at least a dozen other people.  Among his alleged victims were his outrageous mother-in-law, four of his five children, his lovely wife, and his drunken brother to name but a few.  That he was a rogue, heavily in debt, guilty of attempted bribery, fraud, forgery, and overly fond of the ladies and of gambling on the horses was beyond doubt.

But he was only actually tried for one murder, although a coroner’s jury had found him guilty of the murders by poison of his wife Ann and his brother Walter.  He was convicted from circumstantial evidence in the absence of any concrete facts.

Efforts were made until the very end to get him to confess to the murder of John Cook.  But he refused, maintaining that Cook did not die from strychnine.  In a botched post-mortem no strychnine was found in the body of Cook.  Yet it was claimed that Cook had died of symptoms that could have been caused by strychnine.

Although Palmer was reviled at the time, some think he may have been innocent.

Nathaniel Palmer from Stonington, Connecticut.  As a skilled and fearless seal hunter, Nathaniel Palmer achieved his first command at the early age of 21.  His vessel, a diminutive sloop named the Hero, was only 47 feet in length.  Palmer steered southward in the Hero at the beginning of the Antarctic summer of 1820–1821.  Aggressively searching for new seal rookeries south of Cape Horn, young “Captain Nat” and his men became the first Americans to discover the Antarctic Peninsula.

After concluding a successful sealing career, Palmer, still in the prime of life, switched his attention to the captaining of fast sailing ships for the transportation of express freight.  In this new role, the Connecticut captain traveled many of the world’s principal sailing routes.  Observing the strengths and weaknesses of the ocean-going sailing ships of his time, Palmer suggested and designed improvements to their hulls and rigging. The improvements made Palmer a co-developer of the mid-1800’s clipper ship.

Palmer closed his sailing career and established himself in his hometown of Stonington as a successful owner of clipper ships sailed by others.  He died in 1877, aged 78.  His Stonington home, the Capt. Nathaniel B. Palmer House, was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1996.

Daniel Palmer, Chiropractic Pioneer.  Chiropractic inventor Daniel Palmer was born in 1845 in Toronto, Ontario.  He was one of five siblings, the children of a shoemaker and his wife.  Daniel and his older brother fell victim to wanderlust and left Canada with a tiny cash reserve in 1865.

They immigrated to the United States on foot, walking for thirty days before arriving in Buffalo, New York.  They travelled by boat through the St. Lawrence Seaway to Detroit, Michigan.  There they survived by working odd jobs and sleeping on the dock.  Daniel settled in What Cheer, Iowa, where he supported himself and his first wife as a grocer and fish peddler in the early 1880s.  He later moved to Davenport, Iowa where he raised three daughters and one son.

Palmer was a man of high curiosity.  He investigated a variety of disciplines of medical science during his lifetime, many of which were in their infancy. He was intrigued by phrenology and assorted spiritual cults and for nine years he investigated the relationship between magnetism and disease.  Palmer felt that there was one thing that caused disease.  He was intent upon discovering this one thing, or as he called it, the great secret.

In September 1895, Palmer purported to have cured a deaf man by placing pressure on the man’s displaced vertebra.  Shortly afterward Palmer claimed to cure another patient of heart trouble, again by adjusting a displaced vertebra.  The double coincidence led Palmer to theorize that human disease might be the result of dislocated or luxated bones, as Palmer called them. That same year he established the Palmer School of Chiropractic where he taught a three-month course in the simple fundamentals of medicine and spinal adjustment.

Palmer, who was married six times during his life, died in California in 1913.  He was destitute.  His son Bartlett Joshua Palmer successfully commercialized the practice of chiropractic.

Annie Palmer, the White Witch of Jamaica.  Rose Hill Great House is the most famous house in the parish of St. James and perhaps in all of Jamaica.  It was built on a hill, two miles east of Ironshore, by John Palmer, the Custos of St. James, and named after his wife Rose.

The house attracts over 100,000 visitors each year.  The attraction of the house is the legend of its white witch, Annie Palmer.  The old John Palmer had died and his grand nephew, John Rose Palmer, had come out from England in 1818 to manage the property.  Two years later, he had met and married the beautiful and notorious Annie Palmer.

The stories about Annie are legion.  She is said to have practiced voodoo magic; to have tortured her slaves and to have conducted human sacrifices; and to have gruesomely murdered all three of her husbands.  It was one of her slaves who eventually strangled her.  However, her ghost is still believed to haunt the property.  Visitors to the Great House claim that they have seen Annie riding her horse at night on the plantation grounds looking for runaway slaves.

Rose Hill Great House was destroyed during the slave rebellion of 1831 and left in ruins for over a century. John Rollins, a wealthy American, bought the property in 1966 and restored the house to its former glory. 

Reader Feedback – Palmers in Jamaica.  My maternal grandfather is a Palmer and I am researching my ancestry in Jamaica but only got as far back as his father, Henry Alexander Palmer. That’s as far as I got via internet research.  I am curious as to when they came into Jamaica.  There is a record of a Palmer arriving in Kingston, from Sierra Leone in May 1842.

Hope McQueen (

Palmer Names

  • Barbara Palmer was a royal courtesan and a mistress of Charles II.
  • Nathaniel Palmer was a 19th century whaler, said to be the first American to see Antarctica.
  • Charles Palmer started Palmer’s shipbuilding company in Newcastle in the 1860’s.
  • Daniel Palmer in Iowa was a pioneer of chiropractics in the 1880’s.
  • Vera Jane Palmer was the original name of the actress Jayne Mansfield.
  • Arnold Palmer from Pennsylvania was the great American golfer of the 1950’s and early 1960’s.

Palmer Numbers Today

  • 76,000 in the UK (most numerous in Nottinghamshire)
  • 58,000 in America (most numerous in Florida)
  • 32,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Palmer and Like Surnames

Many surnames originated from SW England, the principal counties there being Devon and Cornwall, Somerset and Gloucestershire.  These are some of the prominent and noteworthy surnames that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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