Peters Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Peters Surname Meaning

Peter and the patronymic Peters derived from the Greek word petros, meaning “a rock,” and became well-established names because of St. Peter, the apostle of the New Testament.  Petrie is a Scottish variant.

The Dutch and north German version was Pieters which often became Peters in America. The Dutch Pieterse is a common Afrikaans name in South Africa. Peters is also widely found as a surname in Nigeria.

Peters Surname Resources on The Internet

Peters Surname Ancestry

  • from Southern England and France and from Northern Germany and Holland (Pieters)
  • to America, Canada, West Africa, South Africa and Australia

Peters from Pieters is a fairly common name in northern Germany and Holland today. The German numbers are estimated at 90,000. The name is mainly to be found in Schleswig-Holstein, further east in Mecklenburg, and further west in Hamburg. The Dutch numbers are about 25,000, mainly in Gelderland and Limburg.

EnglandThere was an early history of the name, as Petre (pronounced Peter) or Peter in Devon in SW England.

Petre and Peter.  The Petres were yeoman farmers at Torbryan in Devon, going back to the late 1300’s. John Petre was “a rich tanner of Torbryan” in the early 1500’s. His son John was a founder member of the Exeter merchant adventurers in the 1560’s.

A younger son Sir William Petre made it to London and the Tudor court, serving as Secretary of State for four monarchs from Henry VIII to Queen Elizabeth. He acquired Ingatestone Hall in Essex at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries. Afterwards the Petres became a high-profile recusant family:

  • William, the fourth Baron Petre, suffered under the Commonwealth as a Catholic and suspected Royalist, spending time in the Tower of London.
  • while Sir Edward Petre, a Jesuit, was a highly unpopular privy counsellor and advisor to James II in the 1680’s.

Ingatestone Hall in Essex was established as a Catholic refuge which it has remained under the Petre family until the present day.

The Petre spelling became Peter with Thomas Peter who had married Elizabeth Mitchell, the heiress of Harlyn in north Cornwall, in 1632. “Thomas Peter was for a long time imprisoned by Oliver Cromwell, but procured his release in 1653 through the assistance of his (so-called) maternal kinsman Hugh Peter.”  His son Gregory and grandson Henry both served as the High Sheriff of Cornwall.     

Another Peter line established itself at Porthcothan on the north coast in Cornwall. And there was also a Peter family from the 17th century onwards at Poole Farm at Sheviock on the south coast near the Devon border.

Meanwhile William Dykeveldt or Dickwood had arrived as a child in Devon during the 1540’s, “driven thither from Antwerp because of religion.” He and his brother Thomas established themselves as merchants and changed their name to Peter, perhaps because of some relationship they had with the prominent Petre family of Devon.

This family was fiercely Protestant. Thomas’s son Hugh Peter, a committed Puritan, spent some time in America in the 1630’s before returning to England at the time of the Civil War. For his role in the king’s regicide, he was executed in the ancient barbaric fashion at the time of the Restoration in 1660.

Peters.  The Peters name was to be found in Cornwall, but later than Peter. One family line began with the marriage of Joseph Peters and Elizabeth Ford at Menhenoit in 1780. Another west country Peters was James Peters who was born at Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire in 1800. His son Ebenezer became a coal miner in south Wales.

Peters as a surname has generally been more widely spread in England than Peter was.

Some early Peters in SE England were:

  • Peter Peters (originally de la Pierre), a Huguenot surgeon who came to England in 1658 and purchased the Blackfriars at Canterbury in Kent. He and his descendants were physicians there.
  • Charles Peters, born in London in 1695, who became physician to George II in 1733.
  • and Robert Peters who was married to Elizabeth Fuller at Hastings in Sussex in 1716.

There were Peters also in Lancashire, notably in Southport during the 19th century. Ralph Peters, father and son, had been Town Clerks of Liverpool in the 1700’s. Later Peters were successful merchants and made their home first at Platt Bridge near Wigan and then at Southport. Another Peters family were lifeboatmen at Southport. Ralph Peters, then aged sixty, and his son Ben died in the Mexico lifeboat disaster of 1886.

AmericaAmong the early Peters of New England was Andrew Peters, a distiller in Boston who in his later years made his home in Andover, Massachusetts. That was not a safe settlement in his time as his two oldest sons – John and Andrew – were both killed during an Indian raid in 1689. 

From John Peters, who was born in 1695 and later moved to Hebron, Connecticut, came Colonel John Peters and his sons Colonel John and General Absalom. These sons fought, one on the British side and the other on the American side, in the Revolutionary War. A different line led to John Samuel Peters who was the Governor of Connecticut in 1831. The Governor never married and left no descendants.  

From another John Peters who departed Andover in 1765 came the Peters of Maine. Fifty years later this John built the John Peters House at Blue Hill which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. John Andrew Peters and his nephew of the same name were both US Congressmen for the area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Pennsylvania. Richard and William Peters, two sons of Ralph Peters the Town Clerk of Liverpool, emigrated to Pennsylvania in the 1730’s. Richard was a contemporary of Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia and worked with him in setting up the University of Pennsylvania. His nephew and William’s son Richard – who held the family’s Belmont estate outside Philadelphia – was a delegate to the Continental Congress and later a prominent Pennsylvania judge.

This Richard’s grandson Richard Peters, an early railroad developer, migrated to the South where in the 1840’s he was instrumental in founding the city of Atlanta, Georgia. And that Richard’s son, Edward C. Peters, bought and then sold off for development the land that is now the southern half of midtown Atlanta.

German. There are more German than English Peters in America on the basis of the origin of the Peters who came to America.  There were two early Jacob Peters who settled in Virginia:

  • the first from Bavaria arrived sometime in the 1730’s and made his home in Rockingham county. His son Christian was the founder of Peterstown.
  • the second was the father of three sons – Henry, John and Jacob – who settled in Scott county in the late 1700’s. James Peters’ 1986 book Peters Family of Scott County covered their lines.

Among those who arrived in the 19th century were:

  • Christian Peters from Hesse who came to Ottawa, Illinois with his family in 1868. After he died, his wife Gertrude settled in Iowa in 1884.
  • and Charles Peters who left his home in Prussia at the age of eighteen after the death of his parents. He came to Ashton, Illinois also in 1868 and married and farmed there. He too moved to Iowa in 1884.

Canada.  Prince Edward Island on the Atlantic coastline has a concentration of the Peters name. There appear to be two reasons for this – one being a French settler family of the 17th century and the other a Loyalist family that had arrived after the Revolutionary War.

The forebears of the French family were Jean and Marie Pitre who had come to French Acadia sometime in the 1660’s. After the British had dispersed the French from Acadia, the Pitres settled in Rustico township in Prince Edward Island. By the 19th century some Pitres began to call themselves Peters.

The second source was the Peters family from Hempstead, Long Island. James Peters, a Loyalist leader, departed in 1783 for Nova Scotia. The Peters would remain influential in the Maritime provinces for several generations. Frederick Peters, a great grandson, served as the sixth Premier of Prince Edward Island in 1891. His son Fritz fought in both World Wars and was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1942.

West Africa.   In 1884 an Anglican minister and Yoruba native speaker by the name of Bishop Ajayi Crowther translated the English Bible into the Yoruba language.  He called the name Peter in the Bible Peteru, a name which was later adopted as Peters by Yorubas in SW Nigeria.

The best known Peters today in Benedict Peters, a billionaire Nigerian businessman and also a born-again Christian.

South Africa.  Pieterse, from the Dutch Pieters, is a common Afrikaans surname in South Africa.  Among those who have born the surname is the playwright and poet Cosmo Pieterse.

Australia. Wilhelm Peters had received theological training in Pomerania in northern Germany before being sent out to Australia as a Lutheran pastor in 1877. His initial assignment was to minister to the Chinese people working at the goldfields in Victoria. He based himself at Murtoa in western Victoria where he founded Concordia College. His son Albrecht became a doctor in Melbourne.

Peters Surname Miscellany

Sir William Petre’s Rise to Power.  William Petre came of a family of Devon yeomen, his father being a farmer and tanner assessed at £40 in goods in the subsidy of 1523.  William was probably the second son of John Petre.  The older son John was a Customer of the ports of Dartmouth and Exeter and became the MP for Dartmouth in 1554.

William was perhaps fortunate to be sent to Oxford where he distinguished himself by his learning.  Educated as a lawyer, he became a public servant in London – probably through the influence of the Boleyn family, one of whom, George Boleyn, he had tutored at Oxford and another of whom was Anne Boleyn, the second wife to Henry VIII.

He rose rapidly in the royal service and was knighted in 1543. He went on to hold the confidential post of Secretary of State through the revolutionary changes of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth.

In 1538 he had taken from the convent of Barking in Essex a lease of the manor of Ging Abbess, which became the nucleus of the Petre large estate there that became Ingatestone.  It is perhaps ironic that the fortunes of the Petre family, who subsequently became staunchly Catholic, were built up on the ruins of Catholic monasteries.

Early Peters of New England.  Edmond Peters began his 1903 book Peters of New England with the following statement:

“A tradition causes our history to begin in Boston in 1634 with one William Peters, a merchant educated in Leyden who was a brother of the Rev. Hugh Peters of Salem and of the Rev. Thomas Peters of Saybrook.  He removed to Andover where he built a church and was buried under the pulpit.”

This tradition, as he goes on to say, is not correct.

Hugh and Thomas Peters were not related to William.  Hugh Peter (not Peters) was descended from Flemish ancestors who had fled Antwerp for Devon because of religious persecution in the 1540’s.  Thomas Peters arrived in America with Winthrop in 1639.  But he was only to stay there three years.

William Peters of the Petre family is thought to have been the father of Andrew Peters, the forebear of the main Peters line in New England. Andrew made his home in later life in Andover, Massachusetts.

Reader Feedback – Peters in Franklin County, Virginia.  I am searching for ancestors prior to Michael Peters who was born in Franklin county, Virginia in 1748.  He is my 4th great grandfather. We don’t know if his lineage was English (as my grandmother contended) or German. We’d love to know.

Linda Williams (

Jacob Peters and the Indians.  Jacob Peters came from one of the pioneering families of Franklin county, Virginia.  He married and built a house on Maggotty Creek around 1795.

The Indians were numerous at that time and a band of them came when he was finishing his house. They acted so strangely that the family became afraid of them. However, they treated the white family kindly.  But no sooner were they gone, the dishes were buried.  The family fled, carrying such things with them as they could.

Richard Peters and Atlanta.  In 1834 young Richard Peters was offered him a job as chief engineer for $1,000 a year to help with construction of the new Georgia Railroad.  Peters paid $100 for a rough paddle-wheeler trip into camp near Charleston, South Carolina in the brutally cold February of 1835.  He worked on the state railroad for the eight years it took to complete it from Augusta to the new town of Marthasville, Georgia.

When the railroad was completed, Peters was hired as superintendent.  In that position he heard many complaints about the name of Marthasville. When someone suggested Atlanta instead, Peters began printing up thousands of circulars to distribute from Augusta to Tennessee advertising the new name.  It was officially changed in December 1845.

He built a home in Atlanta, married there, founded Atlanta’s first steam factory, and also operated a stage coach line between Atlanta and Montgomery, Alabama.

The Civil War brought destruction, with Peters and his family removing themselves to Augusta.  After the war Atlanta boomed and Richard Peters, having returned, left a million-dollar estate.  Of his two sons Edward stayed on the estate and built Ivy Hall; while Ralph moved to New York and became President of the Long Island Railroad.

Peters Arrivals in America.  The following passenger data from ship arrivals track the origin of Peters arrivals in America.

Country Numbers Percent
Germany    3,441    77
England      564    13
Ireland      299     7
Russia      127     3
Total    4,431   100

Most Peters in America have German roots.

Peters from Germany to Iowa.  The Peters family ancestral home had been at Schwarzenborn in Hesse, Germany.  The first traceable ancestral record was that of Johann Henrich Peter who was born there in 1720.

A descendant Christian Peter married in Hesse and come to America with his family in 1868.  They settled in Ottawa, Illinois.  Christian died there six years later.  In 1884 his widow Gertrude moved to Buena Vista county in Iowa with her five children – Conrad, John, Jacob, Margaretha, and Gertrude.

Another Christian Peter descendant was said to have deserted the army in Germany and to have fled to America.  He ended up marrying his second cousin, the above Margaretha Peter. This Christian had added the ‘s’ to his name shortly after arriving in America in the late 1860’s.

Margaretha’s older brother John married late in life. He was in his mid-40’s when he married an 18-year old German girl Anna who had been visiting her aunt in Iowa.  They raised twelve children.  After John passed away, Anna lost their property during the Depression due to her inability to pay the property taxes.

Jim Peters’ Last Marathon.  The English runner Jim Peters from London had broken the world record for the marathon four times in the 1950’s.  At the 1954 Vancouver Commonwealth Games he reached the stadium in first place, 17 minutes ahead of the next runner and 10 minutes ahead of the record.

But he then collapsed repeatedly and failed to finish.  After covering just 200 metres in 11 minutes, he was stretchered away and never raced again.  “I was lucky not to have died that day,” he later said.

His games kit, including his running shoes and the special medal which the Duke of Edinburgh had sent to Jim (inscribed “to a most gallant marathon runner”), were given to the Sports Hall of Fame, Vancouver in 1967 for exhibition.

Peters Names

  • Sir William Petre was an English Secretary of State in Tudor times, from Henry VIII to Queen Elizabeth. 
  • Thomas Peters, ex-slave and a Black Loyalist during the Revolutionary War, was a founding father of the West African country of Sierra Leone in 1792.
  • Richard Peters, an American railroad developer, was the founder of the city of Atlanta in Georgia in the 1840’s. 
  • Jim Peters was an English runner who four times broke the world record marathon time in the 1950’s. 
  • Tom Peters is an American writer on business management practices, best known for his book In Search of Excellence.
  • Benedict Peters founded the Aiteo oil producing company in 1990 and is among the richest men in Nigeria.

Peters Numbers Today

  • 25,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 56,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 33,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Peters and Like Surnames   

Patronymic surnames can be with either the “-son” or the shorter “s” suffix to the first name.  The “s” suffix is more common in southern England and in Wales.  Here are some of these surnames that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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