Reeve and Reeves Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Reeve and Reeves Surname Meaning

The surnames Reeve and Reeves derived from the Old English ge refa and would describe the medieval office of the reeve – a sort of bailiff or steward for the locality.  The duties of a reeve were to levy the rents for the lord of the manor, to manage his servants, and to organize the work done for him by those who worked on the land.  

Early forms of the surname were Reve and Ryves.  Reeve and Reeves are most common names today, with Reeves being the dominant spelling – 65% in England and over 90% in America.

Reeve and Reeves Surname Resources on The Internet

Reeve and Reeves Surname Ancestry

  • from England (southeast and East Anglia)
  • to Ireland, America, Australia and New Zealand

England.  In his 1890 book Homes of Family Names, H.B. Guppy wrote about Reeve and Reeves as follows: “Confined to the southern half of England, and not extending north of a line drawn from the Wash to the Mersey. Best represented in Wiltshire, Kent, Sussex, Suffolk, Norfolk, and Northamptonshire; but infrequent in the southwest counties.”

In fact, according to the 1881 census, the more numerous Reeves surname was to be found widely in London and the southeast (with an outpost around Birmingham); while Reeve was mainly confined to East Anglia (Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex).

Dorset.  Ryves was the spelling of an illustrious Dorset family which began with Robert Ryyes, born in 1490, who was a courtier to Henry VIII and grew rich from his position there and as a wool trader.  He acquired Damory Court in Blandford Forum in 1548.

His descendants were prominent legal figures in the 1600’s – Sir William in Ireland and Sir Thomas as an expert in Admiralty law.  Ryves descendants continued in Ireland and also in America where they became Reeves.  Later English Ryves served with the British army in India and emigrated to Australia.  Patrick Reaves’ 1999 book The Ryves-Rives-Reaves Families of Europe and America recounted the family history.

Norfolk.  The Reeve name became prominent in Norfolk in the 1600’s – Edmund Reeve, born in Felthorpe in 1585, who was an English Justice of the Common Pleas and Thomas Reeve, born in Langley in 1594, who was an English Royalist divine.  Later came Simms Reeve, Justice of the Peace, who was recorded as the lord of the manor at Brancaster in the 1780’s.

SE England.  The early spelling on the Kent and Sussex Weald was Reve or Reeve, but later tended to become Reeves.  Thomas Reeve, for instance, was a timber merchant in Sevenoaks in the late 1600’s.  But it was Elizabeth Reeves a landed proprietor who was born in Warbleton, Sussex in 1771 and Thomas Reeves a farmer who was born in Hawkhurst, Kent in 1835.

Ireland.  There were English Ryves and Reeves in Ireland.  Sir William Ryves from Dorset arrived in 1619.  Later Ryves were to be found in Kilkenny (although that line died out in the late 1700’s) and in Kerry.  Major Robert Reve or Reeves from Sussex came in the 1650’s.  These Reeves were first established at Burrane in county Clare and were prominent lawyers in Dublin during the 19th century.

America.  There were two distinct early Reeves lines in America, one of which has been labelled the northern branch and the other the southern branch.

The Northern Branch.  In 1635 Thomas Reeve left Northampton in England for Bermuda before moving onto Virginia and then ending up at Southold on Long Island.

Walter Reeve migrated from Long Island to Burlington, New Jersey around 1672.  Another line led to the Rev. Abner Reeve, a Presbyterian minister who moved to Vermont and to his son Tapping Reeve who started the Litchfield Law School in Connecticut in 1784.  Both father and son here graduated from Princeton.

Meanwhile another Thomas Reeves (this one with the “s”) arrived in Boston in 1638 as an indentured servant.  His son Thomas moved to Southampton, Long Island in 1672.  Wesley Baker’s 1970 book Study of the Reeve Southold Family covered the various lines.

Sometime in the 1740’s Elijah Reeve left Long Island for upstate New York, settling in Orange county in the mid-Hudson region, close by the New Jersey border.  Later in 1792 Elias Reeves departed for the wilderness further upstate near the Pennsylvania border.

The Southern Branch.  William Ryves, a descendant of the Dorset Ryves, fled England for Virginia in 1652. His son Captain George Rives was born in Virginia in 1660, as was Colonel William Rives, born around 1680 who died in North Carolina.

Later Reeves of this line lived in North Carolina, Georgia and elsewhere.  Arthur Rowland’s 1996 book The Reeves Family of Georgia, focusing on Fayette county, dealt with a Georgia leg of this branch.  Another branch was to be found in Tennessee and later in Hawaii and has the actor Keanu Reeves as a descendant.

Timothy Ryves, possibly a brother to William, came to Virginia in the same time frame.   His descendant William Steele Reeves – who had been close to his aunt Charlotte, the wife of James Robertson the founder of Nashville – migrated to Tennessee in the early 1800’s.

William’s son George Robertson Reeves, born there in 1826, moved to Texas where he fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War.  He was elected to the Texas State Legislature in 1866 and rose to become Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Australia.  John and Jane Reeves, assisted immigrants, came to Sydney from Sussex on the Florist in 1839.  They made their home at Hinton, NSW.  Their son Thomas William was born just after their arrival in Australia.  Three further children followed in the next eight years.

Joseph Reeve arrived in Sydney from Gloucestershire in the 1860’s and met and married his Irish wife Ellen there.  Their eldest son Joseph (who later changed his name to George) became friends with the poet Henry Lawson and like him led a wandering life.  After Henry died in 1922, George was a member of his memorial committee.  He later was one of the founders of the Society of Australian Genealogists.

New Zealand.  Richard and Charles Reeves, two brothers born in Ireland but educated in England, came to South Island, New Zealand in the early 1860’s after a period working in Australia.  Richard became active in politics on the South Island West Coast.  Charles and his son Harman were prominent stock brokers in Dunedin and Charles became Mayor of Dunedin in 1877.

Keanu Reeves’ Family Ancestry

The Canadian/American actor Keanu Reeves has a family history going back in America on his father’s side to 1680.  It has English, Irish, Portuguese, Chinese, Hawaiian, and possibly Native Indian elements.  Just click below if you want to read more about this history:

Reeve and Reeves Surname Miscellany

French Origin – Rives to Reeve and Reeves.  The French spelling of the English reeve was rives, with the last “s” being silent and it being pronounced “reev.”  After the French crossed the channel to England, the “ee” sound was expressed, as was common, with the vowel “y.” This changed the spelling of the name to Ryves, still pronounced “reev.”

Ryves was pronounced, as we can easily imagine, “reevz” instead of “reev” by some, and by still others as “raiv” or “raives.” It was at this point that the double-e likely appeared, and the “s” became the divider between Reeves and Reeve.

Those who wished to retain the spelling and the tradition of the “s” final consonant would often opt for “Reeves,” whereas those more concerned with pronunciation would opt for “Reeve.”

Robert Ryves, born in Dorset in 1490, was the progenitor of a modern-day Reeves family in America.  He may have had an earlier ancestry line in England or he may have had an ancestor that was born in the Languedoc region of France.  This has been a subject of contention and debate amongst Ryves scholars.

Reve and Reeve in Sussex.   Richard McKinley’s 1988 book The Surnames of Sussex gave the following explanation:

“Reve, Reeve.  Originally mainly the name of customary tenants who on many manors had the duty of filling the office of reve.  The name was widely distributed in Sussex from the 13th century.  It is now very numerous in Sussex.”

Reeve and Reeves Numbers Today

000’s           Reeve  Reeves   Total

  • UK              13  +  25   =   38
  • America        3  +  42    =   45
  • Elsewhere     6  +  17   =   23
  • Total           22  +  84   =  106

Timothy Rives of Virginia.  J. Rives Childs in his 1957 book Reliques of the Rives had the following to say about Timothy Rives:

“I initially considered that William Rives was the emigrant ancestor.  He was born to Timothy Ryves and his wife of Oxford, but his presence in Surry county, Virginia was made evident only as a tithable in 1684 and 1695.

A Charles City County Order Book for 1687-1695 has since been brought to my attention.  There it was stated: ‘Captain Henry Batte ordered to assign and swear appraisers of the estate of Timothy Rieve (the French pronunciation of the name apparently still persisting).’

I suggest now the likelihood that this Timothy ‘Rieve’ or Rives was the emigrant ancestor and that he was identical with Timothy Ryves, born in 1625 who was the son of Timothy and Mary Ryves of Oxford.”

Thus it is likely that the Timothy and William Rives in Virginia were brothers.

Elias Reeves – from Long Island to Upstate Wilderness.  Around 1788 a band of eleven Long Island associates from Southampton formed their own company to secure lands of their own.

In the spring of 1790 Elias Reeves and his friend Joel Foster traveled west through the wilderness of what is now West Virginia and Ohio to prospect for a new fertile place for their families. However, towards the end of the year, they both returned to Southampton.

Elias subsequently decided against the Turkey Bottoms location that they had found along the Ohio river.  He wanted to consider instead an alternative northern route up the Hudson river.  And so in 1792 he and others from Southampton set out in this northerly direction and began to explore westwards from there along the New York-Pennsylvania border.

At first the signs were not good.  Pennsylvania border explorers had found the country “mountainous and forbidding.” But Elias and his followers in the Reeves, Foster, Hopkins and Sanford expedition – following Iroquois trails – pushed further west and reached the then new settlement of Geneva, New York. Beyond there they found “well-watered valleys” and noted “the depth and richness of the soil.” They came to what was then called Town Number 12, the area that today includes Newark, New York and its surrounding communities.

Declaring this land “luxuriant” compared to Southampton, they resolved to settle and two of them made a pre-emption mark of their names, “Reeves” and “Foster” on the maple and oak trees near Ganargua Creek.

The Death of George Robertson Reeves.  In 1881 George had been elected as Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives.  A year later he was dead.

While visiting home, George Reeves had been bitten by a rabid dog. Family oral history has stated that he saw a young child in danger from the animal and jumped off his horse in order to protect the young one when he was bitten.

In his remaining days, Reeves was placed in a wooden shed padded with mattresses to protect him from the potential self-inflicted violent tendencies associated with the disease. He died of hydrophobia in September 1882, only three years before Louis Pasteur and Emile Roux discovered a vaccine for rabies.

Thomas William Reeves at Dugong (NSW) in Australia.  Thomas William was born onboard ship to immigrants John and Jane Reeves as they arrived in Sydney in 1839.  He married at Dugong in 1867 and farmed at Munni nearby.

He was remembered with affection by those that were close to him.

“Thomas William was a short man with a bushy beard. He had a habit of sitting in the outside toilet, hitting the walls and making loud yelping noises. No one seems to know why.  But with eight daughters, this may have been his way of telling them he was there.”

There were two sons in addition to his eight daughters.  His son William George, born in 1870, died in Clarence Town in 1911 after being crushed by falling timber at a local lumber yard.  Thomas William himself died ten years later at the age of eighty-one.  Thomas William’s other son Jesse lived until 1938.

Reeve and Reeves Names

  • Robert Ryves, courtier to Henry VIII in the 16th century, was the progenitor of Ryves and Reeves in England and America.
  • Gentleman Jim Reeves was a popular country music singing star from Texas in the 1950’s and 1960’s. 
  • Martha Reeves was the lead singer of the Motown band of Martha and the Vandellas.
  • Christopher Reeve was the American actor best known for playing Superman.  He was later paralyzed from the neck downwards after falling off a horse.
  • Keanu Reeves is the Canadian/American actor who rose to prominence in the 1999 film The Matrix.

Reeve and Reeves Numbers Today

  • 38,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 45,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 23,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Reeves and Like Surnames

These were status positions within the feudal position of that time – usually positions serving noble families, lords of the manor, or in the church.  Here are some of these status position surnames that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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