Rees/Reese Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Rees Surname Meaning

Rees is commonly considered a Welsh surname, although it has English origins as well. The root is the Old English name Rhys meaning “ardor” or “fiery warrior.” The name appeared as Hris in the Anglo-Saxon chronicles for Cambridgeshire in 1052.

Welsh Origin.  Rhys ap Tewder was the name borne by the last ruler of independent Wales. He died in 1093 after unsuccessfully resisting the Norman advance. A century later, there was Rhys ap Gruffydd, often called Lord Rhys, the Welsh warrior-prince. Rhys in time became a common Welsh name. It sounded like “Rheece” in south Wales and it was probably scribes who changed its spelling to Rees (although there were other lines that went to Rice and Price).

Origin Elsewhere.  The Rees surname can also be found in Germany and Holland. The town of Rees in the Rhineland contributed the German Rees (now mainly to be found in Baden/Wurttemberg); while there were the van Rees in the Netherlands.

Rees changed to Reese and sometimes to Reece on its arrival in America. Today Reese outnumbers Rees in America by more than four to one.

Rees Surname Resources on The Internet

Rees and Reese Surname Ancestry

  • from South Wales
  • to America, Australia and New Zealand

Wales. Rhys and Rees are names that are primarily to be found in south Wales.

Carmarthenshire.  In the days of Welsh patronyms and before the advent of English-type surnames, the Rhys name was associated with the ancient Welsh kingdom of Deheubarth and with the powerful family which made its home in the Tyvi valley at Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire.

Their most prominent member was Sir Rhys ap Thomas. He it was who fought with Henry Tudor in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field and was rewarded with lands and power in south Wales.

“Owing to his enthusiasm for unconventional dalliances, Sir Rhys became father of a considerable number of natural children, most of whom found no difficulty in marrying aristocratic wives and founding families of their own.”

In Pembrokeshire there was one Rhys/Rees line that held the estate of Sandyhaven in Llanisan-yn-Rhos and another at Rickeston in Brawdy.

Gruffydd ap Rhys was beheaded by Henry VIII in 1531 and had his lands confiscated. His descendants in Carmarthenshire – who styled themselves Rice – were restored to some of their estates and were ennobled to the Dynevor peerage in the 18th century. But most of the Rhyses in Carmarthenshire became Rees as English-style surnames came to be adopted.

There were early Rees in:

  • Cilymaenllwyd (near Llanelli). The Reeses of Cilymaenllwyd were prominent local magistrates. A CDROM The History of Cilymaenllwyd, which covers these Reeses, was released by the Llanelli History Society in 2009.
  • Llandovery. The Rev. Owen Rees was a minister for Protestant dissenters here in the 1740’s and his son Josiah a noted scholar and Unitarian minister. William Rees was a cleric and antiquarian. His son William started up the nearby Tonn printing press in 1829.
  • Llandybie.  The early Rees ministers here were Methodists. Bowen Rees, the son of a stonemason, was a missionary to Africa in the 1880’s.
  • and Trelech (near Carmarthen).  Rev. David Rees was an early 19th century nonconformist preacher known as “the agitator.” The Reeses in Trelech lived on Pant-hywel farm.

This part of Wales had become active with religious nonconformity by the early 1700’s. Today the Rees name in Carmarthen is very much associated with Carmarthen ham. Albert Rees’s stall in Carmarthen market is run by the fifth generation of Rees butchers. Their ham has been a particular favorite of Prince Charles.

Glamorgan.  The Rees name spread east into Glamorgan in the 19th century as industry and mining developed there, initially probably into Swansea. There were Rees sea captains who brought copper ores from Cuba and Chile back to Swansea in the early 19th century.

Many Reeses became coal miners in the Rhondda valley. The Rees name has become particularly common in the towns of Merthyr Tydfil and Neath.

America.  Rees nonconformists and Quakers were in Pennsylvania by the early 1700’s:

  • William Rees, a Quaker from Merionethshire, came to Merion township around this time.  His father back in Wales was Richard ap Rhys Price.
  • as did the Rev. Duffyd who settled in Lancaster county.  His family, starting with his son William, adopted the Reese name in their new land.

The descendants of the Quakers Thomas and Margaret Rees and Morris and Sarah Rees were to be found in Frederick county, Virginia and then, as Reeses, inland in Ohio and Indiana and south in Tennessee and the Carolinas.

Solomon Reese married a sister of Daniel Boone in Boonville, North Carolina and David Reese was a signer of the North Carolina Mecklinburg Declaration in 1775.  Some Reeses in Tennessee spelt their name Reece.

By that time, there were also German Reeses in Pennsylvania.  Reinhold and Christina Ries arrived in Philadelphia from Wurttemberg sometime around 1760. Their Reese descendants settled in Ohio.  Born to German immigrants in Allentown, Charles Rees first established a photographic studio in Richmond, Virginia in 1851.  He survived the Civil War (although his studio was burned down in 1865), reopened afterwards and continued to work there until 1880.

The immigration data for the 18th and 19th centuries showed:

  • approximately 60 percent of the Reeses in America had come from England and Wales
  • and 40 percent from German-speaking lands.

The 19th century saw more Reese Welsh immigration. This time many of them were coal miners – as part of the 80,000 or so Welsh miners who migrated to the NE Pennsylvania coal mines between 1860 and 1910:

  • John Rees had arrived in 1866 with his wife Sarah and settled in Scranton.
  • another John Reese came a year later. But he soon developed a new line of work, healing athletes’ injuries. His nickname was “Bonesetter” and he gained national recognition as the doctor for major league baseball.

Australia.  Early Reeses in Tasmania were convicts:

  • William Rees was convicted of theft in Monmouth and transported there on the Coromandel in 1838.  He appeared later in the 1850’s in the Victoria goldfields.
  • while Richard Rees from Montgomeryshire was  transported in 1841 on the Barossa.  He secured his conditional pardon in 1849 and departed for South Australia a year later.

New Zealand.  William Gilbert Rees from Bristol emigrated to Australia in 1852 where he worked as a sheep farmer.  He later moved to New Zealand and was one of the early settlers in Central Otago. He is considered the founding father of Queenstown. The Rees river in central Otago was named after him.

A cousin, William Lee Rees, settled in Auckland where he was an MP. His daughter Lily founded Cook County College, a girl’s school in Gisborne.

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s Family Ancestry

John Rees from Wales married Mary Mogg in Somerset in 1805 and their line became Rees-Mogg, extending six generations later to the British politician Jacob Rees-Mogg.  Just click below if you want to read more about this history:

Rees and Reese Surname Miscellany

Sir Rhys ap Thomas.  Llandeilo’s most famous son is Rhys ap Thomas.  Not many towns can boast someone who has killed a king of England in battle (if “boast” is the appropriate word in this context).  But Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire can. That is exactly what Rhys ap Thomas was said to have done when, according to legend, he killed King Richard III with a poleaxe on Bosworth Field in 1485.

Folklore has it that after Henry Tudor’s return to Britain in early 1485, Rhys had sought out the Bishop of St. David’s to absolve him of his prior oath of fealty to Richard.  The bishop suggested that Rhys fulfill the strict letter of his vow by lying down and letting Henry step over him.  The way this in fact worked was that Rhys lay in hiding under Mullock Bridge while Henry marched over.

Even before they had met, Henry seems to have indicated that Rhys would be his chief lieutenant in Wales if Richard were defeated. Henry’s favor to Rhys immediately after Bosworth and their intimate relationship throughout Henry VII’s reign suggest that their collaboration in 1485 was well prepared.  Rhys served King Henry as a powerful landowner in south Wales and as a skilled soldier there.

Rhys ap Thomas died in 1525 and his tomb can still be seen today in St Peter’s Church, Carmarthen, after being moved from Carmarthen priory where he was originally buried.  His story is told in Ralph Griffiths’ 1993 book Sir Rhys ap Thomas and his Family.

Rees Population Distribution.  Rees is a name of south Wales.  Its main concentration in the 18th century was in Carmarthenshire.  By the time of the 1891 census that had shifted to Glamorgan.

County Numbers (000) Percent
Glamorgan   12.5    47
Carmarthenshire    4.4    17
Monmouthshire    1.7     6
Pembrokeshire    1.6     6
Rest of England and Wales    7.1    24
Total   26.3   100

Today Rees is the second most common name in Neath and Merthyr Tydfil and the fifth most common in Carmarthenshire and the Vale of Glamorgan. 

John Rees and the Murderer Will Manney.  In his capacity as a magistrate in Carmarthenshire, John Rees of Cilymaenllwyd had been responsible for bringing the murderer Will Manney to justice.

Manney, a domestic servant at Court Farm in Pembrey, was considered to be a man of ill repute who was suspected by the locals of being a footpad and a ship wrecker.  Local tradition has it that Manney terrorized the Pembrey Mountain and Kidwelly Road during the 1780’s. An old woman was found barbarously murdered in her lonely cottage. When she was discovered she still held a scrap of cloth in her hand which was believed to have been torn from her attacker’s clothing during the struggle.

Magistrate squire Rees arranged for Will Manney’s garden at Pwll to be dug over and a blood-stained coat was uncovered.  At the trial which took place in May 1788 a tailor, who was the chief witness, identified the coat.  Manney was gibbeted in chains on Pembrey Mountain near the scene of the crime.

“Enroute to the scaffold Manney shouted obscenities at the jeering crowd lining the way.   On arrival there he continued to shout obscenities and was reported to be behaving like a madman.  He then refused the ministration of the chaplain.”

Manney in particular cursed John Rees.  But it was the magistrate’s grandson, John Hughes Rees, who seemed to have borne the brunt of the curse. Three of his daughters died before him, two by drowning and one as a result of a fall.  They left no children.

Two Rees Brothers – One in Wales and One in America.  William Rees, the father, had left his family in Bettws Newydd in mysterious circumstances sometime around 1840.  But two of his sons, William and John, made something of their lives – one in Wales and the other in America.

The story began when the older son William apparently stood bail for someone, with the bail to be repaid on the man’s release (this must have been sometime in the 1850’s).  However, when this man was released, he skipped bail and fled to America.   William and his brother John followed him there; and when they found him they were able to extract the bail money from him.

William then returned home to Wales.  He did well.  He left behind his life as a farm laborer, became a stonemason and then a master mason.  He helped to build that grand gothic building, the Workman’s Hall, in Blaenavon.  He built and owned two rows of workers’ terraced houses and opened a grocery shop.  When he died in 1902, his shop passed onto his son Albert who made a good living – especially at a time when the majority of workers in Blaenavon were poorly paid coalminers.

Brother John returned to America.  After marrying Sarah Steed in Bettws Newydd, they emigrated in steerage on The City of Paris, landing in New York on April 1 1866.  John, like his brother, aspired to better things.  In his obituary in April 1913, the Scranton Tribune-Republican in Pennsylvania described him as: “a respected old resident…the deceased was a man of noble character and high standing among his people.” John’s son, John Steed Rees, went into his own business, opening the Rees Coal Mining Company.

Reader Feedback – Reece in Tennessee.  I have traced my Reece family back to the north west and eastern Tennessee area to the 1760’s or so. However, they have been very distinct that they spelled their name with a “c” and not the “s”.

A family story that has been passed down through the generations is that there were three brothers who arrived in that area. However, one of the brothers took an Indian wife and there was a split. So one began to spell his name with a “c” while the other’s kept the “s.”  I am inclined to think it is a folktale but have never been able prove or disprove it. Have you ever heard of this story?

Tom Hudson (

Reader Feedback – Reese in Georgia.  My lineage as far as I can trace back is to a James Reese who settled in the Columbus, Georgia and Muscogee county area.  I believe him to be my 4th great grandfather on my father’s side. Can you help?

Jay Reese (

Thomas Rees in Iowa.  Thomas Rees and his wife Mary were the first settlers in Palo Alto township in Jasper county, Iowa.  Thomas had moved from Pennsylvania to Ohio in 1840, left Ohio with his wife in the summer of 1848, and arrived in Iowa that November.  Their first log cabin was 18 feet by 20 feet and their second in 1853 not much larger.

Thomas did not live to see his dream of a Presbyterian church in Palo Alto come true.  He died in 1865.  But his son Rowland who farmed there did.  Rowland is believed to be the builder of the Rees log cabin that now stands in Maytag Park.

William Gilbert Rees in New Zealand.  William Gilbert Rees, a cousin of the cricketer W.G. Grace, has long been one of the genuinely romantic figures of New Zealand’s history.  He had arrived at the shores of Lake Wakatipu in Central Otago in 1859, one of the first white men to do so. By the next year he was running sheep on the land near what is now Queenstown.

Rees’s rural peace was shattered in 1862 when two of his shearers, Harry Redfern and Thomas Arthur, found gold on the banks of the Shotover river Rees had discovered. News of this got out and the Otago gold rush was on.

In the early days of the rush Rees performed the vital role of feeding the hungry miners.  The picture most New Zealanders have of him is as a big bearded run holder, holding off hungry miners with a loaded revolver as he carefully rationed out inadequate supplies of precious flour.

Rees and Reese Populations.  The table below shows the current numbers of Rees and Reese in the English-speaking world.

Numbers (000’s) Rees Reese Total
UK   47   1   48
America    5  22   27
Canada    2   1    3
Australia    6    6
New Zealand    1    1
Total   61  24   85

Reese (i.e. Rees with an “e”) is clearly an American development.

Rees and Reese Names

  • Sir Rhys ap Thomas was the chief backer of Henry Tudor in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 and emerged as the most powerful man in south Wales.
  • Abraham Rees was an 18th century Welsh nonconformist minister and the compiler of Rees’s Cyclopaedia.   
  • H.B. Reese was the inventor of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and the founder of the Reese Candy Company.
  • Dai Rees was the Welsh golfer who captained the British side which won back the Ryder Cup in 1957.
  • Eberhard Rees was the German-born rocket engineer who in 1970 succeeded Wernher von Braun as the chief of American rocketry efforts.

Rees and Reese Numbers Today

  • 48,000 in the UK (most numerous in Glamorgan)
  • 32,000 in America (most numerous in Pennsylvania)
  • 10,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia).

Rees 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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