Potter Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Potter Surname Meaning

The root 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 Surname Resources on The Internet

Potter Surname Ancestry

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

England.  Early renderings of the name such as Seuard le Potter in Lincolnshire in 1172 or 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 first 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.

Yorkshire 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 Hindley earlier in the 1740’s. His grandson John was a calico printer there; while his great grandson Edmund mechanized the production of calico and became the largest producer of calico in the world. He – like the Potters from Tadcaster – was a stern Unitarian in his beliefs.

However, 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. Jeremiah 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.

They thereupon departed for Aquedeek (subsequently Portsmouth) to found the new colony of 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).

“In 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 previous year.”  

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 from Robert came Alonzo Potter of Schenectady in upstate New York, a prominent Episcopal bishop in the 1840’s. He and his wife Sarah raised eight sons and one daughter, all of whom were to have distinguished careers.

Their numbers included: Robert Potter a Union 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 Family told the story.

Other 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 his General in 1782. He made his home at Potter’s Mills after the war. His daughter Martha married Andrew Gregg, 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 ago.”  

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 first settler of what became Gibson township. His descendants celebrated the centennial anniversary of his arrival 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 suburbs.

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 married Frederick Jefferson and it was one of the social events of the year in Gympie. Sadly Clara was to die three years later.

Potter Surname 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 brought up a medieval pottery kiln which seemed to have been functioning until around 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 in 1734.  The Archbishop then helped him secure church positions which became increasingly remunerative and included the archdeaconry of Oxford.

However, 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 children were born in this shop.  However, he managed 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 their 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 year.

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 Indian raids.  Four years later most of his settlers fled from an Indian attack, including Potter himself, in an event known as the Great Runaway.

The 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 Potter’s Mills.

His 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.

The 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 the regiment across a stone bridge over Antietam Creek and attack the Confederate 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.

Colonel Potter continued to serve after being wounded at Antietam and was promoted to Brigadier General in March 1863. Wounded again near Petersburg, Virginia in July 1864, he missed the closing campaigns of the war.  At the end of the war he was promoted to the rank of Major General.  

Reader Feedback – Potters from Yorkshire to Nova Scotia.  My Potter ancestor came from Guisborough in Yorkshire and settled in Kings county, Nova Scotia about 1843. He married and had four sons, all master mariners, and two daughters.

Richard Potter (meridianmmm@aol.com)

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

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

Presents 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 Sunday School Teachers – a silver tea service.

Sadly, 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)

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.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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