Rice Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Rice Surname Meaning

Rice as a surname has Welsh, Irish, English or German origins, none of them related to the rice that grows. 

In Wales Rice emerged as a spelling variant to Rhys, Rees, or Reece, from Rhys meaning “ardor” or “fiery warrior.” Rice has different origins in Ulster and in SE England. Rice can also be the anglicized form of the Reis and Reiss Germans who came to America.

Rice Surname Resources on The Internet

Rice Surname Ancestry

  • from Wales, Ireland (Kerry), Southern England and Germany
  • to America, Canada and Australia

Wales. The Rice (originally Rhys) family in Wales can trace their ancestry back to Dynevor in Carmarthenshire in the early 14th century. Sir Rhys ap Thomas fought for Henry Tudor at Bosworth Field in 1485 and prospered.

Rice family fortunes fluctuated during Tudor times. Based at Newton House in Llandeilo, they reached their peak of influence during the 18th century. George Rice was the Government spokesman on America at the time of the outbreak of the American War of Independence. Later Rices were created Baron Dynevor.

Ireland.  The Rhys and later Rice name was said to have come from Wales at the time of Strongbow. Peter Rice, a wine merchant, was mayor of Waterford in 1429 and his son James Rice mayor on no less than eleven occasions between 1467 and 1488.

Kerry. A more substantial Rice presence has been in county Kerry in SW Ireland. Edward Rice, possibly from Suffolk, was said to have been granted lands in the Dingle area in the early 1500’s. Captain John Rice was drowned off the Blasquets when a Spanish ship of the Armada was wrecked there in 1588. Stephen Rice, Catholic, was pardoned in 1624.

Sir Stephen Rice, a notable supporter of James II, rose to be Chief Baron of the Exchequer in Ireland. He managed to hold onto his estates after James’s overthrow. These Rices, having conformed to the Protestant faith, then established themselves at Bushmount in Kerry in the 18th and 19th centuries. There was also a separate Spring-Rice line at Monteagle.

The Rice home in Dingle, built in 1750, is still standing. Some Rices from there had emigrated to America. These were traced in Kathleen Fletcher’s 2010 book The Rice Family History. Black Tom Rice, a grand nephew of Sir Stephen, operated a profitable wine trading business out of Dingle with France. His son James Louis Rice, or Comte Rice as he became styled, was an adventurer on the Continent in the late 1700’s.

Elsewhere. The Rice surname has also appeared in the counties of Armagh and Down in SE Ulster. Here the Gaelic name O’Maolchraoibhe was often anglicized as Rice.

James Rice was a tenant farmer at the Maghleralone township of Kilmore parish, county Down in the 1760’s and Rices remained as farmers there throughout the 19th century. Felix Rice of Mullaghbrack parish was recorded among the 1796 flax growers in Armagh and Rices were to be found in Mullaghbrack during the 19th century.

England. The Rice name in the west country may have had similar Rhys name origins. It was conspicuous in the village of Tittinhull in Somerset and in and around Tavistock in Devon (as evidenced by the Rice blacksmith birthplaces in the early 19th century).

The Rice surname also arose independently in SE England among those with non-Celtic ancestry. The early spelling in Suffolk and Essex was probably Ryse:

  • John Ryse who lived in from Bures St Mary on the Suffolk/Essex border in the late 1400’s was believed to have been the forebear of the Rices in Dingle.
  • Robert Ryece was recorded in Preston in Suffolk around the year 1500. A later Robert Ryece was the author of a Suffolk history, The Breviary of Suffolk, written in 1618.
  • while Deacon Edmund Rice from Stanstead in Suffolk was an early emigrant to America.

The place-name Ryse was part of the Hatfield Regis priory in Essex that was dissolved in 1536. 

America.  The Deacon Edmund Rice who settled in Sudbury, Massachusetts in 1638 has been one of the most tracked of early New England arrivals. Descendants of Edmund Rice were first traced in Arthur H. Ward’s 1858 book A Genealogical History of the Rice Family and they now have their own association and website. Another Rice website gives a list of prominent descendants. It includes:

  • 44 descendants with the Rice surname
  • and 68 descendants with other surnames.

Today it is estimated that the number of known Rice descendants into the 14th and 15th generations exceeds 200,000. The Edmund Rice DNA has extended to a Rice line, through a son of Samuel Rice, that took the King surname in 1667 and to Rices in the Mohawk Indian tribe. These latter Rices were thought to have gotten their DNA from Silas Rice who was captured by Mohawk Indians in 1704 and then adopted into their tribe. 

New England.  Another New England line began with the birth of David Rice in Weymouth, Massachusetts in 1729. This line was traced in Frederic Wallace’s 2005 book Ancestors and Descendants of the Rice Brothers in Springfield. Their most conspicuous descendant was William Marsh Rice, the Houston businessman who was sensationally murdered for his money in 1900 by his lawyer and valet. That money was used instead to found Rice University in Houston.

Asa Rice was the first settler in 1797 in what was then wilderness on the shores of Lake Ontario in upstate New York. It became the town of Oswego. He had arrived there with his family from their home in Connecticut by traversing the Oswego river. One of his grandsons was William H. Rice, a missionary to the Hawaiian islands in 1841. He started a sugar plantation there which his son William continued.

Virginia. DNA testing has shown three early Rice immigrants into Virginia with a sizeable number having a similar DNA:

  • the first line comes from Thomas Rice, born in Virginia around 1660, and his wife Marcy. Thomas died at sea around the year 1716 while on a voyage back to England.
  • the second line comes from Henry Rice, born in Virginia around 1717 (although that date could possibly have been later). He was called the pioneer gristmiller, raised twelve children with his wife, and died in Tennessee at the reported age of 101. His story was covered in Melvin Little’s 2007 book The Pioneer Gristmiller.
  • while a third line comes from James Rice, born in Virginia around 1724 (again it could have been later), who moved to Ohio around 1805. Some reports have him aged 120 at his death.

Richard Rice came to Virginia from Dingle in Ireland in the early 1650’s. He settled in Northumberland county. Descendants migrated to Kentucky in the early 1800’s.

Pennsylvania.  Some were of Welsh origin, others Irish. Early Rices in Chester county were probably Welsh and Quaker. Edward Rice came to Bucks county, Pennsylvania from Ulster in 1736.

But the majority of the Rices in the state came from Germany. Bernardt Reiss arrived there in the 1740’s and made his home in Westmoreland county. His brother Frederick was killed during the French and Indian War. But his son Captain Frederick Rice survived the Revolutionary War and was later a miller in Wayne county, Ohio. Frederick’s descendants hold family reunions.

Other German Rices in Philadelphia included:

  • Zachariah Reiss/Rice who had come to Chester county by 1750. His descendants migrated to Ohio and Indiana in the early 1800’s.
  • and Conrad Rees who had arrived in Lancaster county around the same time. His grandson Conrad fought in the Revolutionary War.

Isaac Rice was a much later arrival from Germany, coming to Philadelphia as a young boy with his parents in 1850. He made his mark in electronic development and founded the Electric Boat Company (now owned by General Electric). He was also a well-known chess player and devisor of the Rice Opening Gambit.

Canada. Jacob Rice, a Welshman from Cardiganshire, was an early Christian missionary to Newfoundland, serving there from 1710 to 1727.

In 1800 after the Irish uprising, a Waterford merchant named Edmund Rice smuggled his wife’s brother-in-law John Rice to Newfoundland in a barrel to escape retribution. In 1836 Michael Rice was murdered in New Ross, Wexford. Also fearing retribution, his wife Sarah gathered their children and fled to Newfoundland. On the voyage across they decided to change both their name, from Rice to Vey, and their religion, from Catholic to Protestant.

Three Rice families – those of Ebenezer, Beriah, and John, all descendants of Edmund Rice – left New England on the Charming Molly for the Annapolis valley in Nova Scotia in 1760. Many of their descendants are still in Nova Scotia there.

Australia. Some of the early Rices in Australia were convicts, from Ireland. William Rice was an Irish rebel in Ulster after the 1798 uprising, rounded up and transported to Australia in 1801 as a political prisoner. Edmund Rice from county Down was transported in 1821 for stealing three pigs. His wife and children applied to join him but did not in the end make the trip.

Patrick Rice, born in Bendigo in 1855, was the son of Irish parents drawn to Victoria by gold rush fever. He spent his life in mining circles, migrating to Kalgoorlie in 1895, and living to be 101. Thomas and Jane Rice came to South Australia from Buckinghamshire in 1850 and settled in the Gawler area. Their story was told in Peter Rice’s 1993 book Thomas and Jane Rice Family.  .

Rice Surname Miscellany

Rice Fortunes in Tudor Times.  Rice fortunes fluctuated hugely in Tudor times.  They reached their highest point of wealth influence in the person of Sir Rhys ap Thomas who had been at the side of Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.

His grandson Sir Rhys who had married into the ducal Howard family was, however, executed for treason in 1531.  He was just 23 years of age!  The evidence for his guilt was slight and his real offence was probably his Catholicism and his opposition to Anne Boleyn.  His fall brought his great possessions, said to have been worth £10,000 a year in land and £30,000 in personal property, into the hands of the Crown.

Sir Rhys’s son Griffith Rice, having secured some of the lost possessions, lost them again in 1557 when he was convicted of the murder of Mathew Walshe in Durham.   On the accession of Elizabeth he was pardoned and these lands were restored to him, including the manor of Newton.

But it took another two generations to rebuild the family fortunes and regain much of the balance of their forfeited lands.

James Rice, Mayor of Waterford.  James Rice, the 15th century mayor of Waterford, was the subject of a modern poem written by Knute Skinner in 1985.  It ran as follows:

  • “In the city of Waterford
  • a fifteenth-century mayor,
  • prosperous at the fairs
  • and many times re-elected,
  • began to fear for the people.
  • After I am destroyed
  • no one will think, thought Rice,
  • that I, so often mayor
  • was an ordinary body.
  • And my fellow-citizens,
  • even these, who bestow the office
  • year after year –
  • so complete is their trust in me –
  • must think me superhuman.
  • So greatly Rice feared
  • for the souls of his neighbors
  • when they asked his advice
  • on a cart wheel or a heifer,
  • or sought out his opinion
  • on guarding the Waterford coast
  • (and himself only their mayor)
  • that he wrote a strange will.
  • A fortnight from his decease,
  • according to instructions,
  • the people of Waterford
  • broke open his grave,
  • prominent in the cathedral.

Still standing there today a finely carved tomb commemorates Rice – an old body, naked, already decaying, hungry vermin crawling in and out of the ribs as he was last witnessed by the clergy and laymen whom he had served as mayor.”

Once seen, his tomb is not easily forgotten.  On it is carved a decaying human figure with vermin crawling from the rotten flesh.  The effigy is carved in high relief and is represented lying on its back, having a shroud, tied in a knot, at the head and feet.  Vermin resembling frogs and toads are cut in the stone, as it were creeping out of the body.

James Louis Rice, Adventurer Abroad.  The Rice family of Ballymacdoyle near Dingle were importers of French wine.  But their son James Louis wanted a different life.  He left for the Continent, educated himself in Belgium, and joined the Irish brigade of the Austrian army sometime in the 1750’s.  He rose through the ranks, became a friend of Emperor Joseph II, and was ennobled as Comte Rice.

After the Emperor’s sister Marie Antoinette married the French King in 1770, Rice drifted to Paris. He was known there as a man who spoke little, gambled much (he was in fact a professional gambler), and fought many duels.  His most famous duel was with the Vicomte du Barry in 1778.  An eyewitness to the duel gave the following account:

“They took the field, each armed with two pistols and with a sword.  The ground being marked out by the seconds, Vicomte du Barry fired first and lodged a ball in Comte Rice’s thigh which penetrated as far as the bone.

Comte Rice fired his pistol and wounded the Vicomte in the breast.  He went backwards two or three steps, then came forward again, and both at the same time presented their pistols to each other.

The pistols flashed together in the pan, though one only was discharged.  Then they threw away their pistols and took to their swords.  When Comte Rice had advanced within a few yards of the Vicomte he saw him fall and he heard him cry out, “I demand my life,” to which Comte Rice answered, “I grant it to you.”  But in a few seconds the Vicomte fell back and expired.

Comte Rice was brought back from the field with difficulty.”

It was said that Comte Rice, when asked what was the cause of the duel, couldn’t remember.

Times changed with the onset of the French Revolution in 1789.  Rice and his friends conceived of a plan to rescue Marie Antoinette from her French captors. If she could make it to Nantes, then they could smuggle her out of France on one of Rice’s wine ships and she could recuperate in Dingle.  Marie Antoinette hesitated. She did escape with her retinue in 1791, but was captured within a day at Varennes.  She went to the guillotine two years later.

Lena Rice – Wimbledon Tennis Champion.  The story of Helena Rice, better known as Lena, began at Marhill in Tipperary, Ireland where she was born in 1866.   Lena lost her father Spring Rice at a young age. Her mother Anne was then left with a large family of eight children to raise alone. Lena was the second youngest in the family.

Prior to Spring’s death, the Rice family had lived in comfort. They had a two-storey Georgian home with a large garden. It was in this garden that Lena, along with her older sister Annie, learned to play tennis at a young age. When she was old enough, she joined the Cahir Lawn Tennis Club. There she honed the skills that would elevate her to fame.

She competed regularly in her native Tipperary, eventually branching out to the Irish Championships in Dublin in 1889.  A mere six weeks later, Lena and Annie travelled to England to take part in the now world-famous Wimbledon competition. At the time there were only six entrants in the contest. Lena reached the final with ease, making her the first Irish woman to do so.  But in the final she played and lost to her opponent Blanche Bingley Hillyard.

Lena returned to Wimbledon the following year to try again for the title. This time there were only four entrants.  In the 1890 contest Lena played and defeated Mary Jacks, thereby winning the title, the prize money, and her place in history as the first Irish woman to take home the Wimbledon trophy.  Lena’s winning point was secured through a move called the ‘overhead smash,’ which she has been credited with inventing.

She never returned to Wimbledon.  It is thought that she retired from tennis to care for her mother who was ill.  In 1907, on her 41st birthday, Lena died at home in Tipperary of tuberculosis.

Rice Blacksmiths in Devon

Date of Birth Name Place of Birth
1792 Joseph
1805 William Rice Lamerton
1823 Henry Rice Lamerton
1826 John Rice Bratton Clovelly
1827 James Rice Tavistock
1829 John Rice Coldridge
1832 Richard Rice Coldridge
1840 William Rice Lamerton

Edmund Rice’s Descendants.  Descendants of Edmund Rice began to meet annually at the old Rice homestead in Wayland in 1851. Documentation of these descendants began with the 1858 publication of a genealogy of the Rice family by Andrew H. Ward.  Ward  was able to document over 6,200 Edmund Rice descendants and spouses, mostly in the New England region.

In 1912, shortly after the old family homestead in Wayland had been lost by fire, the Rice descendants in Massachusetts formally organized the Edmund Rice (1638) Association (ERA).  The ERA undertook the task of building upon Ward’s pioneering genealogy by verifying and better documenting Edmund’s descendants.   For the 1938 tercentennial of Edmund’s immigration to America, the ERA published Elsie Smith’s Edmund Rice and his Family.

By 1968, the ERA had compiled and verified 26,000 descendants of Edmund Rice.  In 2013, the ERA electronic database of known Edmund Rice descendants into the 14th and 15th generations exceeded 200,000 individuals.  The ERA has also conducted extensive haplotype DNA testing on males known to or believed to have been descended from the seven sons of Edmund.

Fort Rice in Pennsylvania.  In 1771 John Montgomery was the first settler in the land that later became Fort Rice in Northumberland county.   However, eight years later he had to flee the settlement because of Indian attacks.  The Indians burned all his buildings and grain stacks.

Captain Frederick William Rice selected this site for his fort.  He built it with a company of Pennsylvania German troops in 1779 and early 1780.  All the time the Indians were spying and keeping a sharp watch. They knew that the settlers in the area had retreated to Fort Rice as they had destroyed all the other forts.

On September 21, 1780, about 300 Indians made an assault upon the fort but were baffled and defeated by Captain Rice and his German soldiers.  Remnants of the fort are still visible.  On a stone in the south wall can be seen the carved initials “F. W. R.” 

Reader Feedback – Conrad Rice in the American Civil War.  My cousin and myself are working on a continuing genealogy project together about our great great great grandfather named Conrad Rice who fought in Petersburg, Virginia.

He had lived in the Northampton county area of Pennsylvania.  His son Samuel Rice was a corporal in the Civil War as well.  As far as we know, the Conrad Rice in our family had a father named John Herman (or Herman John) and John Herman’s father was named Herman Rice.

This Conrad Rice was already 48 years old when he fought in the Civil War.  We have only been able to trace Conrad’s ancestors back to Herman Rice who was born in 1760 (he died in 1819).

Alice Steiner (alicemsteiner@hotmail.com).

The Murder of William M. Rice.  By the late 1890’s William Rice was a childless widower, living the life of an elderly recluse in New York City. He was rich, however, and involved in litigation concerning his will. Albert Patrick was engaged by him in 1898 as one of his lawyers.  Patrick soon met Charlie Jones, Rice’s valet, and the two of them began to spend a great deal of time together.  Slowly they hatched a plot.

At first it seemed that Patrick was only interested in the settlement of the contested will and was looking for any way to win. He convinced Jones to start poisoning Rice with mercury pills as a way of avoiding a court battle. By the summer of 1900 Patrick came up with the idea of forging a will that left the majority of Rice’s estate to himself and only small sums to relatives and friends. That forged will was dated June 30, 1900.

In September of that year a hurricane struck the Gulf Coast and one of Rice’s businesses there suffered severe damage.  The business manager telegraphed that they needed money for repairs. The sum was most of what Rice had available in his bank account. Patrick worried at the loss of such a large sum of ready cash and he convinced Jones to use chloroform to kill Rice.

Rice was then murdered by Jones.  Patrick, in his haste to get hold of Rice’s cash, tried to withdraw money from Rice’s bank using a check forged by Jones right after Rice’s death. The bank refused to honor the check since Patrick’s name was spelled incorrectly. When calling to verify the check with Rice, the bank learned that he was dead. Since the circumstances were suspicious, the bank contacted Rice’s Houston lawyer, Captain Baker.

When Baker arrived in New York City, he learned there had been a new will written up by Patrick. Baker was suspicious since Rice had never notified him of any changes to the one Baker had drawn up in 1896. That suspicion led to a long and sensational trial where Patrick’s version of the will was exposed as a forgery and the scheme to kill Rice was discovered.

Patrick was found guilty of murder and forgery in 1902 and was sentenced to die in the electric chair. Jones, who had confessed to his part of the events, ended up being released despite being the one who had actually committed the murder. Patrick’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by the Governor of New York. He eventually won a full pardon in 1912.

Rice Names

  • Edmund Rice who came to New England in 1638 is believed to have in excess of 200,000 descendants in America today. 
  • George Rice was the English politician at the center of the events in London that precipitated the American War of Independence. 
  • Grantland Rice was an early 20th century American sportswriter known for his elegant prose. 
  • Pat Rice was a Northern Ireland footballer who was a fixture in the Arsenal side of the 1970’s and 1980’s. 
  • Tim Rice is a British lyricist best known for his collaboration in musicals with Andrew Lloyd Webber.
  • Condoleezza Rice served as the US Secretary of State under George W. Bush. 
  • Jerry Rice is widely considered as the greatest wide receiver in NFL history.

Rice Numbers Today

  • 21,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 60,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 17,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)


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Written by Colin Shelley

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