Potter Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Potter Meaning
of Potter is the Latin pottus and the
Old English pott, meaning a drink or
draught. Potter described the maker of
drinking and storage vessels in clay and earthenware containers. A potter might also describe someone in the
Middle Ages who worked in metals.

Potter Resources on

Potter Ancestry

renderings of the name such as Seuard le Potter in Lincolnshire in 1172
Lambert le Pottur in Essex in 1214 make it difficult to determine
whether these
described the occupation or were in fact surnames.

Maybe the Potter of Nicholas le Potter of
Yarmouth in 1303 was a surname as he was a bailiff not a potter.
In fact
in time
the surname did get separated from the occupation (as had happened in Potterton).
There may have been a connection between the Nicholas le Potter above
and the Potter line at Newport Pagnell in Buckinghamshire. The Nicholas
name did seem to recur in almost every generation.

Three Potters at Oxford University in the
1600’s later became prominent clergymen and also rich in the process:

  • the
    was Barnaby Potter from Westmorland, the son of a mercer in Kendal. He graduated in 1615, was Provost of Queen’s
    College, and subsequently the Bishop of Carlisle. His
    nephew Christopher succeeded him as
    Provost and became Dean of Worcester in 1635.
  • then
    came Francis Potter from the
    west country, the son of a wealthy prebendary at Worcester. He graduated in 1616 and, after his father’s
    death in 1628, succeeded him as the rector at Kilmington in Somerset. Francis narrowly escaped sequestration during
    the Civil War. He left a recipe for curing gout when he died.
  • and
    later came John Potter from Yorkshire,
    the son of a linen draper in Wakefield. He
    graduated in 1693 and was Archbishop of Canterbury from
    1737 to
    1747. The
    Archbishop had two sons
    , John and Thomas. He
    disinherited the elder John in favor of
    the younger Thomas.

and Lancashire
. There had been Potters at
Potterton near Leeds and there were Potters
at Tadcaster
some 12 miles to the north, starting with John
Potter who kept
a draper’s store there in the early 1700’s.
Two of his grandsons, Thomas and Richard, made it as cotton
merchants in
Manchester in the early 1800’s. Thomas
became the first mayor of Manchester in 1838.

James Potter, a flax merchant, had come to Manchester from nearby
earlier in the 1740’s. His grandson John
was a calico printer there; while his great grandson Edmund mechanized
production of calico and became the largest producer of calico in the
world. He – like the Potters from
– was a stern Unitarian in his beliefs.

the line through his son Rupert admitted to a more artistic bent. Rupert took up photography in the 1880’s, his
daughter Beatrix was the famous children’s writer and his son Bertram
an artist
of some repute.

America. Not
one but two
Potter New England genealogy books appeared back in 1888 – the Rev.
Potter’s Genealogy of the Potter Family in
Rhode Island
and Charles Potter’s Genealogies
of the Potter Families

New England.
The early roads, at
least for the Potters from London, led to Rhode Island.
Robert Potter, who had come in 1634 and
settled in Salem, was a follower of Anne Hutchinson and Sam Gorton. He was tried along with them and their
followers for heresy in 1638.

departed for Aquedeek (subsequently Portsmouth) to found the new colony
Rhode Island. Robert’s brothers Nathaniel
and George (who died suddenly in his thirties in 1640) had joined him
and they
lived on adjacent properties. Robert
went on to found a new community at Showomut (now Warwick).

1643 Robert
Potter and others at Showomut were arrested and
taken back to Massachusetts where they were tried on heresy charges.
They were
imprisoned for two years, although released after one year. When Robert returned home in 1644 he
discovered that his wife Isabel had been killed in an Indian raid the

The Potters in Rhode Island increased in numbers. The
1790 census recorded 142 Potter
families. Notable descendants were:

  • from
    Nathaniel came Samuel J. Potter, the US Senator for Rhode Island in
    1803 and
    Elisha R. Potter who ran for Governor in 1818 but lost.
  • from
    George came
    Shadrach Potter who moved to Vermont after the Revolutionary War. His grandson Henry
    was a physician in Bennington, Vermont for more than fifty years.
  • and
    Robert came Alonzo Potter of Schenectady in upstate New York, a
    Episcopal bishop in the 1840’s. He and
    his wife Sarah raised eight sons and one daughter, all of whom were to
    distinguished careers. Their numbers
    included: Robert Potter a
    General during the Civil War; Edward and William both architects;
    Howard a
    banker who subsequently became a director of the Bank of England; while
    two sons
    – Horatio and Henry – were bishops like their father.
    Frank Potter’s 1923 book The Alonzo Potter
    told the story.

early Potters in New
England were: John and William Potter who signed the Plantation
Covenant in New
Haven in 1639; Nicholas Potter who was recorded in the same year in
Lynn, Massachusetts; and Anthony Potter who first appeared in Ipswich,
Massachusetts in 1648.

Irish arrivals. There were Potter
arrivals from Ireland. John Potter was
said to have been a
descendant of a Cromwellian soldier who had settled in Fermanagh. He emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1741 and died
there fifteen years later. His son James
fought in the Revolutionary War, serving under Washington and becoming
General in 1782. He made his home at Potter’s Mills after the
war. His daughter Martha married Andrew
Pennsylvania’s Senator in 1807.

Another John Potter, also descended from a
Cromwellian soldier, came to Charleston from county Down in 1784. On the voyage across the vessel was wrecked
and he lost all of his possessions. By
dint of hard work, however, he prospered as a merchant in Charleston. He moved to Princeton, New Jersey in 1824,
following his daughter there.

Other Potters. Joseph Potter was born
in Rhode Island of
uncertain parentage. He wrote in 1831:“I
was the stepson of Joshua Green who died with the smallpox about forty
five years

He fought in the Revolutionary War and subsequently ran a tavern on the
Hudson river near Albany. In 1791 Joseph
purchased land along the Susquehanna river in Pennsylvania and was the
settler of what became Gibson township.
His descendants celebrated the centennial anniversary of his
there in 1891.

Linus Potter, born in Pennsylvania in the early 1800’s, migrated
west with his young family to Michigan where he founded the township of
Potterville. He died young in 1846 and
his son Theodore, restless, left for California at the time of the Gold
Rush. Finding no gold he travelled around
the West
(and other parts as well) before making his home in Minnesota territory. His recollections of his early time in
Minnesota appeared in the Minnesota
History Bulletin
of November 1916.

Canada. One line from
Nathaniel Potter of Rhode island ended up in Canada. Rhode
Island people were prominent amongst those who migrated north to Nova
Scotia in the late 1750’s. Cornelius Potter received a land grant
in Newport and settled there.

Australia. George
Potter, originally from Oxford, came to
Australia with his family from London on the Statesman
in 1855. George
had been drawn to Victoria by the gold mining boom.
He opened the Gold Miners Arms hotel at
Heathcote. Later he was to run hotels in
the Melbourne

In 1873 George Potter migrated
from the Victorian goldfields to mine at Gympie in Queensland. After a few years he opened a plumbing and
hardware store. Later he became a
successful mining investor. In 1903 his
eldest daughter Clara Potter
Frederick Jefferson and it was one of the social events of the year in
Gympie. Sadly Clara was to die three years


Potter Miscellany

Potters in Potterton.  Potterton in Yorkshire, near present-day Leeds, was recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086
and there is archaeological evidence that it was a village of some size in
medieval times.  Excavation has also
up a medieval pottery kiln which seemed to have been functioning until
the year 1500.

Potterton therefore had had potters.  It
also had the surname Potter in parish
records, starting with Thomas Potter, a husbandman who died in 1574,
and Richard
Potter, a yeoman who died in 1638.  Maybe
their forebears were potters.  But there
were no potters left in the village by their time.

The Archbishop and His Sons.  John Potter
was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1737 to 1747.
His son John followed him to Oxford to study and graduated there
1734.  The Archbishop then helped him
secure church positions which became increasingly remunerative and
included the archdeaconry of Oxford.

he had offended his father
grievously by marrying one of his servants.  This
could not be forgiven. Although the
Archbishop had given his son John many preferments, he decided to
leave his personal fortune (which was estimated at 70,000 pounds, an
enormous sum in
those times) when he died in 1747 to his second son Thomas. Thomas was a lawyer who afterwards became the
MP for Aylesbury and Oakhampton.

The Potters from Tadcaster.  John Potter,
like his father, had a draper’s shop in Tadcaster and all of his nine
were born in this shop.  However, he
to save up enough money to fund his sons’ futures.

For the eldest son the money was
wasted.  He succumbed in early life to
the temptations of London, then fled abroad to avoid his creditors and
died in
Havana of yellow fever.

William, who had been the prop of his brothers and
sisters, whose wise counsel and stern admonitions were always at their
disposal, and who founded the Manchester business which was to make
fortunes, became a hopeless victim of drink.
He left the Potter business in 1806.

It was two of the other Potter brothers –
Thomas and Richard – who remained in business in Manchester.  They prospered on their father’s seed money
as cotton merchants.  In 1825 Thomas
Potter commissioned Sir Charles Barry to build him a mansion at Buile
Hill.  This was completed in 1827.  Thomas was elected the first mayor of
Manchester in 1838 and was re-elected in 1839.  He was knighted
the following

The Potters were Unitarians who attended the Cross
Street Chapel in Manchester.  They had a
social conscience and were concerned about the welfare of the poor.  Starting in 1815, they and like-minded free
traders and reformers would meet up at Thomas and Richard’s “plotting
parlor” at the back of their Cannon Street cotton warehouse.  These meetings went on for more than a
quarter of a century.

James Potter and Potter’s Mills.  James
Potter was a farmer and land developer before he
became a General in Washington’s army.
His first attempt at land development in frontier Pennsylvania
met with
failure, however.  The three forts he
built in Penns valley in 1774 did little to protect settlers from
raids.  Four years later most
of his settlers fled
from an Indian attack, including Potter himself, in an event known as
the Great

settlement in the Nittany valley, developed later, survived as the
Indian tribes had by then practically disappeared from the area.  James Potter constructed the first house,
known as Eulaw House, at Potter’s Bank in 1788.  Potter also
constructed saw and
grist mills in the area and eventually Potter’s Bank became known as

son James expanded upon the house built by his father and erected three
new houses
and a new mill at Potter’s Mills.  The
next generation of Potters replaced Eulaw House with a new construction.  This building still stands and serves
as a family restaurant.

Robert Potter at the Battle of Antietam.  In the
late summer of 1862, Robert E. Lee had led the Army of Northern
Virginia in an
invasion of the North for the first time in the war, threatening
Pennsylvania.  The collision of the
opposing armies was near the Maryland town of Sharpsburg, but is known
as the
Battle of Antietam.

Civil War painter Julian Scott, when depicting Antietam,
made Colonel Robert Brown Potter the centerpiece of his picture.  Potter had just been appointed a colonel of
the 51st New York Volunteer Infantry when he was called upon to push
regiment across a stone bridge over Antietam Creek and attack the
right flank.  Potter and his regiment succeeded in forcing their
way through the
hail of bullets and pushed the Confederates off the hillside – the
scene that
was depicted in the painting.

Potter continued to serve after being
wounded at Antietam and was promoted to Brigadier General in March
Wounded again near Petersburg, Virginia in July 1864, he missed the
campaigns of the war.  At the end of the war he was promoted to
the rank of
Major General. 

Clara Potter in Gympie, Queensland.  In
1903 Clara Potter married Frederick Jefferson in
Gympie, Queensland.

young couple was given a dining room clock, a bedroom set, various
kitchen and dining accessories, a china tea set, vases, linoleum, cane
chairs, and a set of Mrs. Pott’s sad irons.

from Gympie organizations included: the Gympie Model Band – a
breakfast and epergne; the Gympie Town Band – a morocco writing case;
the Gympie
Orchestral Society – a drawing room lamp; and from the Presbyterian
School Teachers – a silver tea service.

three years later, Clara died in a dreadful accident.
She was doing the family washing when the
wind blew a flame from under the copper.
Clara’s apron caught fire.  She
was wearing a dress of thin inflammable material which also caught
fire.  Clara received burns to the whole of
her body
before the flames could be extinguished by her sister.
She died the following day.


Potter Names

  • Beatrix Potter was an English writer of
    children’s books, the most notably being The Tale of
    Peter Rabbit
  • Stephen Potter wrote mocking self-help books such
    as Gamesmanship that came out in 1947. 
  • Dennis Potter was a highly regarded English TV dramatist and screenwriter of the 1970’s and 1980’s.   
  • Harry Potter is the fictional protagonist of J.K. Rowling’s hugely popular novels about wizardry.

Potter Numbers Today

  • 34,000 in the UK (most numerous
    in Yorkshire)
  • 28,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 20,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)


Select Potter and Like Surnames   

The various medieval trades and occupations were a source of surnames as John the baker would over time would become known as John Baker.  Some skilled craftsmen – such as chandlers, fletchers and turners – were able to form guilds, protective organizations, and style themselves Worshipful Companies.  These are some of the occupational surnames that you can check out.



Click here for return to front page

Leave a Reply