Powell Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Powell Surname Meaning

The Powell name can be either Welsh or English in origin.

Welsh Origin.   The Welsh patronymic form of “Hywel” was rendered as as Howell or Hywel, a male personal name popular since the Middle Ages in honor of Howel Dda (Howel the good), the great 10th century law-giving Welsh king.

In time the two elements contracted to produce the name “Powell.” This was first recorded in its modern form as Roger ap Howell, alias Powell, named in a lawsuit in 1563. He was the grandson of Howell ap John. Powell has become more numerous as a surname than either Howell or Howells.

English OriginPowell also has separate English origins. The most significant non-Welsh derivation was from the personal name Paul.  Paul was spelt “Powel” in Langland’s poem Piers Plowman in 1367.  The pronunciation here could be “Pole.”

The scouter Robert Baden Powell said it this way: “For Baden let it be maiden, for Powell let it be pole.” This “sound of Pole” was picked up by the novelist Anthony Powell and by the diplomat Charles Powell, even though both had Welsh blood in their veins.

Powell Surname Resources on The Internet

Powell Surname Ancestry 

  • from South Wales and from England (East Anglia)
  • to America, Canada, Caribs (Barbados) and Australia

Wales.  Powell first appeared as “ap Howell” or ap “Hywel” and later in the 16th century as Powell. Thus Griffith Powell, the principal of Jesus College in Oxford, was described as “the third son of John ap Hywel ap John.”

South Wales. The Powell name was mostly to be found in south Wales, in Brecon and Glamorgan:

  • the Powells of Castle Madoc in Brecon dated from an early time.  The family built a castle there around 1100 and was said to have been the first in Wales in the 1500’s to have adopted the Powell surname in its English form.  Thomas Powell erected the family house, which still stands, in 1588.
  • meanwhile the Powells in Pencelli can be traced to the 1620’s and a Powell family in Glamorgan could follow its history back to the parish of Llanwit-juxta-Neath in the Neath valley in the early 1700’s.  Mainly farmers, they settled in Baglan and Margam and later in Pyle. A number of them emigrated to Australia in the 1860’s.

The name also cropped up in Carmarthen, a Powell family there being squires of the Maesgwynne estate. Another Powell family of substance established themselves in the 1650’s further north at Nanteos in Cardiganshire. A third Powell line has been traced to Horsley in Denbighshire.

Welsh Borders. The English counties bordering on Wales – Shropshire, Herefordshire, and Gloucestershire – also had many Powells. Thomas Powell from Montgomery resided at Bank House near Shrewsbury in the 1670’s.  Further south, Styles Powell was an early breeder of Hereford cattle. And a Powell family dating back to the 1780’s were stonemasons at Brilley in Herefordshire.

Birmingham and the Black Country attracted Powell immigrants as well.  The English politician Enoch Powell, born in Birmingham, had Welsh heritage. The Powell family which includes the brothers Charles and Jonathan Powell has descent from a Welsh hill farmer.

England. The Powell name first surfaced in England in East Anglia.

East Anglia. The earliest recording was a Radulphus Powel, a landowner at Carleton in Suffolk around 1200. The name had become fairly common in that county by the end of the 15th century. Some were called Powell, others Powle such as the landowners at Great Waldingfield and the Powles of Great Ilford which included Sir Stephen Powle in the early 1600’s.

Clement Powell, born in Mildenhall in 1576, settled in Saffron Walden in Essex. A later Powell family migrated the other way, from Wivenhoe in Essex to Great Yarmouth in the 1820’s. They ran local pubs and hotels there for the next hundred years.

David Powell moved from Hawstead in Suffolk to London in 1712, was apprenticed to a Mr. Baden, and became a successful merchant in the City of London. From this Powell came the noted Baden Powell family, including Robert Baden Powell the founder of the boy scout movement.

Ireland.  There were Irish Powells as well, mainly of Welsh origin. The Powells at Templederry in north Tipperary date from a Robert Powell who was granted land there by Cromwell in 1650. Many of his descendants were called Caleb. Powells were also found at Banlahan in Cork from 1683. They traced back to the Powell Penkelly family in Wales.

Powell in Ireland could also be an anglicization of the Gaelic Mac Giolla Phoil or Guilfoyle sept in Offaly. The name here meant “son of the servant of St. Paul.”

America.   The early Powell arrivals in America, whether they were from England or from Wales, came mainly into Virginia.

Anthony Powell had been the military commander of Sir Walter Raleigh’s colonists who had landed at Roanake island in 1583.

Following him were Nathaniel and William Powell, two brothers who were prominent at Jamestown but were killed during an Indian raid.  Nathaniel had been governor of the colony in 1618. William was described as “a man of character and wealth, a gentleman of great name and fortune.”  is descendants became well-to-do plantation owners who, however, lost out during the Civil War. They now trace through nine generations.

A later arrival arrival into Maryland from Wales was Walter Powell. He too was well connected. His great grandson Leven was a neighbor of George Washington’s, fought in the Revolutionary War, and was an early developer of the Kentucky settlement.

Moving West or South.  A number of Powells moved on from Virginia, to North Carolina or west to Kentucky and Tennessee or south to Georgia and other states:

  • Wiley Powell for instance, who was born in Virginia in 1791, moved first to North Carolina and then to Alabama before settling in Rankin county, Mississippi.
  • Daniel Powell who had fought in the Battle of New Orleans migrated from Kentucky to White county, Illinois in the 1820’s.
  • while a later family account by O.B. Powell narrated the story of the Powell journey from Arkansas to Squaw Creek in Hood county, Texas in the 1850’s.

Heading Further West.  Many Powells headed further West. The Rev. Joab Powell made it to Oregon from Tennessee in 1851; as did the Christian church missionaries John and Alfred Powell from Ohio at about the same time.

William Powell is commemorated at the Great Plains Welsh Heritage Center in Wymore, Nebraska. He pioneered hundreds of immigrants into South Dakota and the other Plains states in the 1860’s. He and his family settled in Milwaukee. Other Welsh Powells, starting in Pennsylvania and spreading across the West, ended up in Comanche county, Kansas.

Another Western pioneer, in this case from the English/Welsh borders, was John Wesley Powell. He is famous for the 1869 Powell geographic expedition, a three month trip down the Green and Colorado rivers which included the first passage through the Grand Canyon. Lake Powell on the Colorado river was named after him.

Canada. The first settlers in Newfoundland were Welsh, led by Captain Daniel Powell in 1622. The Welsh character of the colony was then gradually overwhelmed by the arrival of English settlers. There were reports of Powells, once rock miners in Wales, who arrived a century or so later.

The next Powells were Empire Loyalists who had come from America.  William Dummer Powell was the grandson of John Powell, a Boston merchant. He arrived in 1779 and rose to become Chief Justice of Upper Canada (Ontario) in 1816. The Powells at that time were one of the elite families of the colony. Their country home was called Caer Howell, reflecting the Welsh origins of the family.

Caribbean. The Powell name was first attached to Barbados. John Powell made landfall on this island in 1625 and claimed it for Britain. His brother Henry arrived with eighty colonists two years later.

Powell has also been a Jamaica name and, more recently, an Afro-Caribbean Jamaican name. Luther Powell grew up in Top Hill, Jamaica, before emigrating to New York in the 1920’s. His son Colin Powell rose to become US Secretary of State under President Bush. He has a mix of African, Scottish and Irish ancestry.

Another Jamaican immigrant to the US is the author Patricia Powell. The Jamaican runner Asafa Powell was for a short time the world 100 meter record holder.

Australia. Edward Powell had first come to Australia with the First Fleet as a guard looking after convicts. He returned, in 1792, as one of the first settlers to that country. His descendants were pioneers of the Hawkesbury district in New South Wales.

James Powell was probably the first Powell settler in South Australia. He was in fact a seaman who had jumped ship in 1837 and joined the early settlers of Coromandel valley. Other settlers, such as William and Caroline Powell from London, arrived in the 1850’s.

Powell Surname Miscellany

Powell’s English Origins.  In 1895 an eminent authority on surnames stated that probably half the number of families called Powell had any connection with Wales.  This can be confirmed from the biographical dictionary in which just six of the dozen entries under Powell are clearly shown to be of Welsh extraction.

The most significant non-Welsh derivation is the personal name Paul, from which came Powell as well as Poole, Pole, and Pawle.  The records for London in 1279 name a certain John as both “Paul” and Powel.”  Two places in Essex, Wickham St. Pauls and Belchamp St. Pauls, used the form “Powel” in the 12th century.  And a Surrey landowner whose name was John Paul used a seal in 1295 as “Johanis Powel.”

The name can also have been derived from locations.  Families with Cumberland associations might possibly owe their name to Powhill, a small settlement west of Carlisle.  And the name could also signify a proximity to a pool (which was once spent powl).  There are certainly old records to support this derivation, such as Jordan de Powella (Warwick in 1184), Ralph atte Powel (Huntingdon in 1288), and John de Powel (Oxford in 1339).

Reader Feedback – Who Was the First Welsh Powell? Many people claim that William ap Howel of Bevalt, said to be born in 1550, was the first one in the Castle Madoc family to use the new spelling, spelling his name William Powel, or so the story goes. The trouble with this statement is that he was from Bevalt and not from Brecon.  Then there was William Powell of Bwalt, born in 1530 in Cradley in Hereford, England. He was the son of John Powell born in 1490, also in Cradley.

Was William of Bewalt 1530 and William of Bevalt 1550 the same person or two different people? At any rate one and/or both are English and not Welsh.

There is a book Genealogy of the Powells’ of Castle Madoc, Brecon, South Wales and the Cadet Branches of Philadelphia, PA written in 1893 by Washington Bleddyn Powell.  This is the most complete book on the Powells of the Castle Madoc family and it is heavily documented. It covers the Powells from their earliest ancestors in 262 AD up through when W. B. Powell’s grandfather, William Powell Sr. who immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1729 and is the only Powell from Castle Madoc in Brecon Wales documented to have come to America.

On page 74 in the book it says: “Thomas Powell was the first of his line who bore the patronymic Powell.” His old-style name was “Thomas ap Howell of Argoet ap Gwyllyn”. He would sometimes write his name as Thomas ap Howel Glln.”

An early Welsh Powell, born in 1552, was Dr. David Powell who became the vicar of Ruabon in Denbighshire, north Wales. He took an unpublished manuscript on Welsh history and in 1584 published it as The History of Cambria (Cambria is the old name for Wales).

There are some who claim that David was born at Castle Madoc. The fact is that there was a line of Powells that did come from Denbighshire and the records, while not giving his birth place, do indicate that he was from northern Wales.

Robert D Collins (collins3@bellsouth.net).

The Powells of Nanteos.  Nant Eos means “spring or brook of the nightingale.”   There has been a house on the site in Cardiganshire near Aberystwyth for centuries.  The present one was begun in 1739.  Parts of the house are much older than the Georgian period, the cellars dating back to the 11th century.

The Powells had come to Nanteos by the time of the English Civil War.  In the early days the estate covered some 30,000 acres.  Over the years some of the acreage was sold to pay off debts (the Powells certainly enjoyed life to the full and lived up to their position).

These Powells were descended from Philip ap Howell.  In the late 17th century Sir Thomas Powell had enjoyed a very successful legal career, thereby ensuring the rise to local eminence of the Powell family. They later profited from the operation of the nearby Llywernog silver and lead mine.

Several stories of hauntings surround Nanteos Mansion, with the tales often involving ghosts.  The most famous story of all is the legend of the Holy Grail or Nanteos Cup.  Legend has it that the grail was brought to Britain by Joseph of Arimethea who settled in a Glastonbury monastery.  At the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, the cup was said to have left Glastonbury and been passed into the family who then owned Nanteos.

Through a series of misfortunes, Nanteos Mansion went out of Powell hands in 1957 and, ten years later, was sold to a scrap dealer.  The house was in sad condition at that time.  Mrs. Edwina Powell Colgate heard of the situation and after a hard struggle managed to save the house and the Powell paintings and fixtures.

Early Powells in America

Thomas Powell born circa 1607 in England
died 1687 in Virginia (isle of
Nicholas Powell born circa 1630 in England
died 1670 in Virginia
Powell senior born 1635 in Virginia (Lancaster
died 1701 in Virginia (Essex co)
Thomas Powell born 1640 in Wales
died 1714 in Pennsylvania
Thomas Powell born 1641 in Wales
died 1721 in New York (Nassau)
Thomas Powell died 1658 in Virginia (Lancaster
Thomas Powell died 1701 in Virginia (Essex co)
John Powell born 1720 in Virginia (Old
Rappahannock co)
died 1780 in North Carolina
(Burke co)
Isaac Powell born 1720 in North Carolina
(Chowan co)
died 1762 in North Carolina
(Johnson co)
Charles Powell born 1721 in Virginia or North
died 1772 in North Carolina
(Bladen co)
Charles Powell died 1744 in Virginia (Stafford
Ambrose Powell born 1754 in North Carolina
(Burke co)
died 1827 in Tennessee (Maury co)
Willoughby Powell born circa 1754 in North Carolina
died 1830 in Kentucky (Henderson

John Powell and Anne Dummer.  John Powell was born in Shropshire around 1682, the son of Thomas Powell of Bank House near Shrewsbury. Being the younger son, he sought his fortune in the New World and came out from England as Secretary to Lieutenant-Governor William Dummer of Massachusetts.

There he met Anne Dummer.  His grandson William Dummer Powell wrote the following about their marriage:

“An anecdote was handed down about the town of Boston.  Soon after his arrival in Boston, John Powell heard that this lady was a good match, but a proud Presbyterian who had disdained many offers.  He laid a bet at his club that, if he could effect an introduction to the family, then he would marry her.  He effected his purpose by a compromise arrangement that all of the children after the first son should be brought up in the Independent Church.

My grandfather was an adventurer of the Cavalier stock, a man of gaiety and pleasure.  From pure gaiete de coeur he married my grandmother Anne Dummer.  She was a little woman of very dignified presence and manner and sober conversation.  She survived her husband, whose habits were too dissipated to secure him happiness.”

John Powell died in 1740, Anne in 1763.

Reader Feedback – Powell Valley Region of Tennessee.  My grandfather Rev. Roger Powell said we came down from Virginia and into the Powell Valley region of Tennessee. Would you have more information on this as to names and dates.

Rodney Powell (rockytop71@aol.com)

Daniel Powell in Illinois.  According to Silas Wright Heard, the Powells came from Virginia.  Other sources say the Powells came from South Carolina.  Some sources say Daniel and his family moved from South Carolina to Tennessee when Daniel was twelve.  They did live in Kentucky before moving to Illinois.

Daniel ran for State Senator in Illinois on the Democratic ticket in 1840 and was defeated.  A History of White County recalled the following incident:

“All the candidates of both parties made a canvas through the county and had a joint discussion.  At their meeting at Phillipstown, while Major Powell was speaking, a very zealous Whig thought he would send a prosser between the Major’s eyes.  It was thus: ‘Well, old Powell, you want to step on another butcher knife and cut your foot so you can draw a pension.’

Powell, as quick as powder, replied: ‘You are a dirty liar and I can whip you like a dog,’ and down he stepped from the stand and at it they went.  Each of the men weighed over 200 pounds and each was very fleshy.  Major Powell rode the bald horse in that fight.”

In 1939 his granddaughter Florence Powell Caton wrote the following about Daniel and his home in Duncanton:

“I believe it was one of the Bryant men who told me the foundation of the old Powell home was of hickory. It might have been oak, I wouldn’t want to go on record that it was hickory.  At any rate it stands there imposing, homey and as staunch as the people who built it were.

Two years ago when I visited it last they told me that long ago, there were great granaries, a blacksmith shop, a store, all kinds of stock, mules, stallions, bulls, rams – everything to improve the farm.

Daniel had built a church with doors too narrow for women with hoops to crowd in.  He did not permit his women folk to wear those ‘contraptions,’ cousin Rebecca told me.  He built the school house and mostly paid the preachers who came now and then, also the teachers.  They said he had a voice that would reach from one end of the county to the other when he called his hogs (of which he had hundreds fattening on the native nuts in the forests).

The Bryants told me during my last visit that the house had eleven rooms.  I did not suspect it of being so large, but I’ve no doubt it was always pretty well filled.  I have an old portrait of grandfather hanging up here near my desk and a large photo of his old home.”

Charles and Jonathan Powell.  There was something about the Powell family dynamic that drove all four brothers to overachieve.

Their father, Air Vice Marshal John Powell, was the son of a Welsh hill farmer who once campaigned for Keir Hardie, the first leader of the Labor party.  John went to Cambridge University on a choral scholarship.  There he met and married Geraldine Moylan, a classical scholar from an aristocratic family.  Their four sons – Charles, Chris, Roderick, and Jonathan – all went to private schools.  They have been called “the most powerful political family in Britain.”

The eldest Charles became one of Prime Minister Thatcher’s most trusted foreign policy aides.  He was routinely depicted as an “eminence grise,” gliding by her side as she met foreign dignitaries on overseas visits.

He generally cut an establishment figure.  An odd feature though has been that he has always pronounced his name “Pole,” while his wife, the Italian-born party-loving Carla, and his brother both use “Powell.”

“Carla and I once got announced at a Guildhall banquet as Sir Charles Pole and Lady Powell.  They obviously didn’t think we were married,” he said.

Charles with typical condescension once expressed surprise at his youngest brother’s claim to be a “lifelong supporter” of the Labor party.  But Jonathan was always on the left, declaring himself a Maoist at the age of fourteen.  After a series of short-term jobs, he followed Charles into the Foreign Office.  His great break came in 1991 when at 35 he became political secretary at the British Embassy in Washington.  He progressed to becoming Prime Minister Blair’s Chief of Staff.

Powell in America.  In his autobiography My American Journey, Colin Powell recalled his father, a Jamaican immigrant.

“I was born on April 5, 1937, at a time when my family was living on Morningside Avenue in Harlem.

The dominant figure of my youth was a small man, 5 ft. 2 in. tall.  In my mind’s eye, I am leaning out the window of our apartment, and I spot him coming down the street from the subway station.  He wears a coat and tie, and a small fedora is perched on his head.  He has a newspaper tucked under his arm.  His overcoat is unbuttoned, and it flaps at his sides as he approaches with a brisk, toes-out stride.  He is whistling and stops to greet the druggist, the baker, our building super, almost everybody he passes.  To some kids on the block he is a faintly comical figure.  Not to me.  This jaunty, confident little man is Luther Powell, my father.

He emigrated from Jamaica in his early 20s, 17 years before I was born.  He never discussed his life in Jamaica, but I do know that he was the second of nine children born to poor folk in Top Hill.

He literally came to America on a banana boat, a United Fruit Co. steamer that docked in Philadelphia.  He went to work for Ginsburg’s (later named the Gaines Co.), manufacturers of women’s suits and coats at 500 Seventh Avenue in Manhattan’s garment district.  He started out working in the stock room, moved up to become a shipping clerk, and eventually became foreman of the shipping department.

Luther Powell never let his race or station affect his sense of self.  West Indians like him had come to this country with nothing.  Every morning they got on that subway, worked like dogs all day, got home at 8 at night, supported their families and educated their children.  If they could do that, how dare anyone think they were less than anybody’s equal?  That was Pop’s attitude.”

Reader Feedback – Samuel Powell from Shropshire to India.  My mother’s maiden name was Gladys Powell.  She married Branson Edwards in India.  She was born in India. Her father’s name was Samuel Powell who came to India from Shropshire in the 1800’s and married an Indian woman – hence the Anglo-Indian connection.

He worked as a jailer in India and had five sons and three daughters.  He left the family home when my mother was eight years old and married again.  He died in India.

Would be nice if there is anyone out there who had connections with Samuel Powell who came to India.  My mother was born in 1904 and she was the youngest in the family.  So I guess he came to India around 1870 or thereabouts.  I believe there are many Powells in Shropshire.  It would be nice to see if I have relatives still there who we can trace back.

Thanks, Brian Edwards (brianpated@hotmail.com)

Powell Names

  • Vavasor Powell was a fiery Puritan preacher from Wales who was imprisoned by both Cromwell and by the King’s party.
  • William Dummer Powell was Chief Justice of Upper Canada (Ontario) from 1816 to 1825.
  • Robert Baden Powell was the founder of the worldwide Scout movement.
  • Anthony Powell was a 20th century English novelist best known for his A Dance to the Music of Time series.
  • Adam Clayton Powell was a charismatic African American politician who represented Harlem from 1945 to 1971.
  • Enoch Powell was a controversial British Conservative politician who created a storm in 1968 with his anti-immigration “Rivers of Blood” speech.
  • Bud Powell was a bop jazz pianist of the 1940’s and 1950’s.
  • Colin Powell, born to Jamaican immigrant parents, was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the first Gulf War and later US Secretary of State.
  • Asafa Powell from Jamaica broke the world 100 meter running record in 2005.

Powell Numbers Today

  • 77,000 in the UK (most numerous in West Midlands)
  • 70,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 35,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Powell 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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