Reed/Reid/Read Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Reed Surname Meaning

Reed has more than one spelling – Reed, Reid, Read and Reade – and more than one explanation. 

One is descriptive, from the Old Scots and Old English reid meaning “red” and describing someone with red hair or a ruddy complexion.   The other is locational, from the Old English ried meaning a clearing and describing someone who lived in a woodland clearing.  There are also various place-names called Reed, Read or Rede with different derivations. 

The Reid spelling is mainly Scottish.  Reid numbers are also high in Northern Ireland and in Canada, reflecting probable Scottish immigration there.  Reed is the main spelling in America.

Reed Surname Resources on The Internet

Reed, Reid and Read Surname Ancestry

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

England.  The Reed name, common in various parts of England, is in particular a Northumberland name, probably derived from Redesdale.  Brianus de Rede was recorded as living in Morpeth in 1139 and from him came descendants in Morpeth (Thomas Rede was recorded there in 1384) as well as possibly elsewhere in England.  

The Border Reeds of Troughend in Redesdale were one of the reiver families and date from the 1400’s and possibly earlier.  Parcy Reed, commemorated in song, was the last of these Reeds in the late 1590’s (although the name did continue in the area).  After his murder his ghost was said to haunt Redesdale. 

Later, the following ballad appeared on a Selkirkshire gravestone:  “Here lies Tam Reid, who was chokit to died, wi’ taking a feed, o’ butter and breed, wi’ ovremuckle speed, when he had nae need, but just for greed.”  

Read and Reade.  These names, meanwhile, seem to  have been strongest in south and eastern England.

The Reades in Berkshire were probably related to an earlier John Rede, born in Buckinghamshire in 1331, and the Redes who held the manor of Boarstall there in the next century.

Found in Berkshire from the 1450’s, the Reades acquired Barton Court at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries and held it until the Civil War when the manor was destroyed by Parliamentary forces.  They were later to be found at Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire.  Charles Reade the Victorian writer was a descendant of these Reades and narrated the family history in his memoirs.

Reades, while less numerous than Reads, were concentrated more in the county of Cheshire.  The Reades of Blackwood Hill in Horton parish date from the 17th century.  From the Reades of Baddiley came George Reade, the cotton and silk manufacturer at Congleton in the early 1800’s.

Scotland.  Reid is the main spelling in Scotland.

Reid.  Some of the early Reids came from Aberdeenshire.  “Red” was found as a surname there as early as 1317. Among these Reids have been:

  • a long-established Reid legal family in Aberdeen who bought Barra castle in the early 1700’s.
  • the Rev. Lewis Reid who was the minister at Strachan from 1704 to 1762.  His son Thomas Reid was a well-known Scottish philosopher.
  • a Reid family which started with William Reid, born in Glenbuchat in 1727.
  • Sir James Reid, Queen Victoria’s physician, who was the son of a village doctor in Aberdeenshire.
  • and Joseph Reid, born in Ayrshire in 1843, who emigrated to Pennsylvania at the time of the oil boom and was the inventor of the Reid oil burner.

Scots Reids who migrated to Ulster often became Reeds.

America.  Early Reads in New England were William Read from Kent and Thomas Read from Hertfordshire, both of whom came with Winthrop’s party in 1630.  Many of their descendants ended up in Maine, those of William at Windham and those of Thomas at Freeport.  William Reade of the Reades of Brocket Hall settled in Woburn, Massachusetts in 1635.

Another William Reade sailed on the Assurance de Lo in 1635 and settled in Weymouth, Massachusetts.  His descendant Solomon Reed was a distinguished cleric in the late 1700’s; while his son John Reed became the first chaplain in the American navy.

The Read family of Delaware was a prominent political family in the 18th and 19th century in Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  The first of this line was Colonel John Read from a well-to-do Berkshire family who came to America in the 1720’s and was one of the founders of Charlestown, Maryland.  His son George was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and US Senator for Delaware.

“In the Broadway musical 1776 George Read was depicted as a wealthy and conservative planter who could not get on with Thomas McKean, a gun-toting, cantankerous old Scot.  This was probably close to the truth as Read and McKean belonged to opposing political factions in Delaware.”

Reid.  John Reid meanwhile departed Aberdeen for New Jersey in 1683, prospered as a surveyor, and was an early settler in Freehold, Monmouth county.  His son John was a tavern keeper there and his descendants have lived at the Reid Homestead near Englishtown since the Revolutionary War.  Sarah Tabitha Reid’s diary of daily life in Monmouth county in the years after the Civil War has recently been discovered.  The Reid sod farm can be found in Freehold today.

Reed.  John Reed from Cornwall was a Parliamentary officer during the Civil War who, after the Restoration of the King, decided to leave England for America.  He settled first in Rhode Island and later in Norwalk, Connecticut.  He died on his homestead there in 1730 at the grand old age of 97.  A descendant, Moses Read of Salisbury, was a Loyalist who took his family across the border into Ontario in 1784.

Two early Scots Irish arrivals were:

  • Joseph Reed who came to Hunterdon county, New Jersey in 1671.  A later Joseph Reed was on George Washington’s staff during the Revolutionary War and rode with him into Princeton.
  • and James Reed who came to Philadelphia in 1728, also fought in the Revolutionary War, and afterwards settled in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  His line was traced in Bonnie Cox Sellers’ 1982 book The Reed Family.

Four Reed brothers from Wales were said to have settled in the Shenandoah valley in Virginia in the 1750’s.  Two of these brothers fought at the Battle of King’s Mountain during the Revolutionary War.  George Reed afterwards moved onto Kentucky and Tennessee.  Another Reed line settled in Arkansas.

Then there were three Reed brothers from England who settled in North Carolina at a slightly later time.  The line through one of the brothers, George, ran through Richmond, a circuit rider and preacher, and Samuel Reed who fought in the Civil War and was the first afterwards to settle in Decatur county, Tennessee.  Six generations of his family have followed him there.

A Reed family was to be found at Buncombe county, North Carolina from the 1780’s and they are still to be found there today.  Joseph Reed was a Confederate captain during the Civil War; while Mark Reed was a prominent businessman and aviator in Asheville in the 1930’s.

Reed has been the most common variant of the name in America. The Reed name was adopted by some Pennsylvanian German families in the 1700’s, most notably John Reed (Johannes Ried), a Hessian mercenary and British army deserter whose son Conrad made the first gold discovery in America in 1799.  The Reed Gold Mine is today an historic site in Cabamus county, North Carolina.

Canada.   John Reid, Scots Irish, came to New Brunswick in 1815 and farmed there.  His grandson George, who lived in New Brunswick until his death in 1941, had various occupations – as farmer, logger and coal miner.

James Reid from Lanarkshire came to Lanark county, Ontario in 1833.  His story was recounted in Janet Goslor’s 2016 book Reid Family History.

Robert Reid from Perthshire reached Newfoundland in 1890 by a rather circuitous route.  He had originally set out for the Australian goldfields in 1865, but later departed for Canada.  From 1883 he was based in Montreal, a contractor for the Canadian Pacific Railway.  He started his own construction company in Newfoundland seven years later.  After his death, his company went bankrupt in 1931.  But later Reids remained prominent in Newfoundland business life.

Australia.  George Frederick Read was a merchant who settled in Tasmania in 1818 and took an active role in the development of the young colony.  His son George was sent by his father to Victoria where he became a sheep rancher.  His daughter Sarah married Lieutenant Smith of the Royal Navy in 1844 and they also moved to Victoria.

John and Mary Read were assisted immigrants from Wiltshire who arrived in Sydney on the Coromandel in 1838.  They settled in Yass, NSW.

George Reid came from Scotland with his parents in the 1850’s and settled in Sydney.  He ran for Parliament in 1880 and rose in the ranks to be the Premier of New South Wales in 1894 and briefly Australian Prime Minister in 1904.

Reed, Reid and Read Surname Miscellany

Reed, Reid, and Read.  The incidence of these names has varied in the UK, America and elsewhere (the table below shows the approximate numbers today).

Numbers (000’s) UK America Elsewhere (1)
Reid   68   34   78
Reed   40   84   14
Read (2)   34    7   15

(1)  Ireland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
(2)  Including Reade.

The Reid spelling is mainly Scottish.  Reid numbers are also high in Northern Ireland and in Canada, reflecting probable Scottish immigration there.

The Border Reeds.  Mark Lower in his 1860 Dictionary of the Family Names of the United Kingdom had the following to say about the Border Reeds:

“The Reeds of Cragg in Northumberland probably took their name from Redesdale, in which they have been immemorially located, or rather from the river which gives name to that dale.

On a mural monument in Elsdon church, erected in the year 1758 to the memory of Elrington Reed, the family is stated to have been resident in Redesdale for more than nine hundred years. This Sir Walter Scott calls an “incredible space” of time, and so it is – though the high antiquity of the family is unquestionable.”

The Reades of Barton Court.  The Reades in Berkshire date from the 15th century and they were prominent citizens of Abingdon in the following century.  Thomas Reade inherited Barton Court at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries and he rebuilt the manor house with stone from the tower of the demolished abbey, a Norman building whose ruins had spread over five acres.

The Reades were strong Royalists and Thomas Reade’s grandson, Sir Thomas, entertained Charles I and Henrietta Maria at Barton on several occasions. In 1644 the King and his pregnant Queen had a tearful parting at Barton before she took the road to Exeter and thence to France.  They were never to meet ever again.

During the Civil War, when Abingdon was occupied by Parliamentary troops, Barton still held for the King.  The house was finally burned down, despite the valiant efforts of Sir Thomas’s twenty-year-old grandson Compton Reade, probably in the course of an ambush in 1646.  Sir Thomas Reade died four years later and his wife moved to Brocket Hall.  Compton Reade was made a baronet after the Restoration.

The Thomas Reade name survives in Abingdon with the Thomas Reade Primary School.

Colonel John Read of Maryland and Delaware.  Colonel John Read, born in Dublin in 1687, was related to the Berkshire Reades at Barton Court.  As a young man he had fallen in love and was engaged to marry his cousin.  Unfortunately she died.  In his grief he departed Ireland and set off for America.  He settled in Cecil county, Maryland where he was a planter and slave owner.  He served in the Colonial legislature and was one of the founders of the city of Charleston at the head of Chesapeake Bay.

In later life he moved to New Castle county, Delaware where his son George, later a signer of the Declaration of Independence and US Senator for Delaware, grew up.

Reader Feedback – Early Read in Virginia.  I have an ancestor that settled in Virginia in the early 1700’s. In family notes he claimed to have been Scottish but used the Read spelling. So I wonder if he changed the spelling or if he actually came from England.  Susan Kociak (

The World of Sarah Tabitha Reid.  Sarah Tabitha Reid, who was born in 1818 and died in 1888, lived in Monmouth county, New Jersey and was a wife, mother, farmer and homemaker there.   She is remembered because of a journal she kept from May 1869 to December 1872 which was left with a Midwest family who had befriended one of Sarah’s descendants.

Sarah and her husband William had four daughters and a son.  At the time of the journal the two youngest girls were still living on a farm near Freehold, rather than at the family farm.

Much of the work of running their farm fell to Sarah because her husband commuted to New York City by train to work as a bricklayer to supplement the family income.  William often returned home only one or two weekends a month for most of the year.  It appears he harvested the wheat, but Sarah took care of the potatoes and other vegetables and raised livestock in addition to running the household.  Like many Monmouth county housewives of that era, she also churned butter to sell to neighbors and local stores. Although Sarah could hire help for harvesting and running the house, her journal entries often say only that she was too tired to write that night.

Except for Sundays, her week was filled with work. ”I do not think I ever had such a hard time to get a big day’s work done,” she wrote at the end of a Saturday in June 1869.  ”I baked bread and custard pies and two kinds of cake and dinner to get and churning and the kitchen to clean and strawberry jelly to make besides a great many things too numerous to mention.”

Samuel Reed’s Escapade During the Civil War.  One evening at dusk Samuel Reed had grouped to bivouac with Union soldiers and eat their night’s meal when there was a surprise attack from the Confederate Army.

When the fighting was over, among the wounded and dead was Samuel Reed laying on the ground, hopeful the enemy would assume him dead. Two Confederate soldiers on their horses rode among the bodies, checking to make sure that no one was left alive.

He heard one soldier shout to his buddy: “I’m going to put a bullet through this one’s head.”  The other soldier replied: “No need to waste the ammunition because he is dead.” The soldier said: “I’ll just ride my horse across the body and make sure.”  The horse stepped on Reed’s hip and leg, but he saved his life by continuing to play dead.

After the sounds faded away Reed dragged and crawled from the area to a field and under growth nearby to safety. After a short time the horses and soldiers returned for a final inspection.  They realized one of the presumed dead was missing.  Reed was within hearing distance in hiding and could hear the angry conversation between the Confederate soldiers.  But because of the growing darkness it was too late to try to find the escaped wounded.  Therefore Reed was spared to live to be an old man.

Sir James Reid the Queen’s Physician.  The great turning-point of James Reid’s life occurred in 1881.  Queen Victoria required a resident medical attendant.  It was essential that he should be a Scotsman and preferably a native of her beloved Aberdeenshire.   On 8 June 8 he had an interview with the Queen at Balmoral and few days later, at the age of 31, this Scot of humble origin was catapulted into the position of the Queen’s physician.   James Reid had been born in the village of Ellon in Aberdeenshire, the elder son of the village doctor.

His position was unique in the Queen’s medical household as he was the first physician to remain constantly at the Queen’s beck and call and to travel with her wherever she went at home or abroad. For 20 years until her death he was a permanent member of the household.  His life with Queen Victoria was recorded minutely in his numerous diaries and scrapbooks.

He attended Queen Victoria’s death in 1901 and he also attended her son Edward VII’s death in 1910.  He remained a medical advisor to the Royal Family until his death in 1923.  His Scottishness never left him and to the end of his days he spoke with a distinct accent.

George Frederick Read.  Family legend has it that GF Read was the son of George IV, when Prince of Wales, and Mrs. Maria Fitzherbert.  However, no proof has ever been found and it does appear unlikely.   Before meeting Mrs. Fitzherbert, the Prince did have several mistresses.  It is credible that Sarah Read could have had a dalliance with him and then been left holding the baby.  George Frederick Read was born in Soho, London in 1788 of parents unknown.

He went to sea at the age of eleven and was probably engaged in the East India Company’s maritime service until 1808.  After that time he began to have his own ships and trade himself.  He is thought to have brought the first merchant vessel through Torres Strait and to have been active in the trade between India, China, and Australia.

In 1818 he settled in Tasmania and owned a three-storied stone tea warehouse on Salamanca Place in Hobart and other town properties.   He was the founder and Governor of the Bank of Tasmania (or, as it was then called, Van Diemen’s Land).   He died in 1852 in his two-storey stone house in New Town which still stands.

Reed, Reid and Read Names

  • Parcy Reed, commemorated in song, was the last of the Border Reeds in the late 1500’s.
  • Thomas Reid was an influential philosopher in the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th century.
  • Charles Reade was the Victorian novelist who wrote The Cloister and the Hearth.
  • Joseph Reid, born in Scotland, invented the Reid oil burner in Pennsylvania in 1893.
  • George Reid, also born in Scotland, became the fourth Prime Minister of Australia in 1904.
  • Walter Reade was the founder of the Walter Reade Organization which owned and operated a chain of theaters in New York and Boston.
  • Carol Reed was an English film director.  His best-known work was probably The Third Man, released in 1949.

Reed, Reid and Read Numbers Today

  • 142,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 150,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 107,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

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Written by Colin Shelley

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