Rivers Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Rivers Surname Meaning

The Rivers surname has French origins, from the French riviere meaning “river.”

The village of La Riviere in Normandy gave rise to a de la Riviere family name which was brought to England at or after the time of the Norman Conquest. The French name for river also began to displace Old English river names such as ea or broc.

Rivers Surname Resources on The Internet

  • Thomas Rivers
    Thomas Rivers, nurseryman at Sawbridgeworth.
  • John Rivers
    John Rivers of Charleston, South Carolina.
  • Our Story
    Isaac Rivers, a slave in South Carolina who prospered in Virginia.

Rivers Surname Ancestry

  • from Southern England and from Jewish emigrants
  • to Bermuda and to America (incl. African Americans)

England. An early arrival from Revieres in Normandy, possibly at the time of the Norman Conquest, was Richard de Redvers. After 1100 he became a senior advisor to Henry I and was granted the feudal barony of Plympton in Devon.

His son Baldwin was made the Earl of Devon. The last of this family was Isabel who died in 1293. Afterwards the Earls of Devon continued under the Courtenay name. But the title of Earl Rivers was later taken up by two other lines:

  • the first was with Richard Woodville of Maidstone who was made Earl Rivers in 1448. This title became extinct on the death of the third earl in 1491.
  • the second was with Baron Thomas Darcy of Essex who became Earl Rivers in 1626. This earldom died out in 1737 after the death of the fifth earl. A new Rivers barony was then created in 1776 for the Pitt family that was related by marriage to the fifth earl. This barony, held by the Pitt-Rivers, was in existence until 1880.

There was an early de la River family at Tormarton in Gloucestershire. But these Rivers seem to have ended at around the time of the Black Death in the 14th century. There was also an early Rivers family in Somerset which gave its name to the village of Stoke Rivers near Barnstaple.  

SE England.  Rivers as a surname, as evidenced in the 1891 census, was found mainly in SE England where the Norman influence was strong.

An early version was de Rivers. John de Rivers of Ongar in Essex was present at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298 and was knighted at the siege of Calais in 1299. Another John de Rivers was granted a market at Worminghall in Buckinghamshire in 1304.

John of Ongar is thought to have been related to a subsequent Kentish line which included Sir Bartholomew Rivers, a Yorkist protagonist during the Wars of the Roses, and Sir John Rivers, who prospered as a grocer in London and served as its Lord Mayor in 1573. His descendants were the Rivers of Chafford Park in Kent.

There was a later naval family of Rivers from Kent as well. Two William Rivers, father and son, were onboard the Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

“William Rivers was upwards of forty years a gunner in the Royal Navy, twenty-two years of which he served on the Victory. In the memorable Battle of Trafalgar he witnessed at the same moment the fall of the gallant Admiral Nelson and the loss of his own son’s leg.”  

A subsequent Rivers of this family, also named William, was a neurologist and psychiatrist, best known for his work treating First World War officers who were suffering from shell shock.

John Rivers from Berkshire had established the Rivers family nurseries at Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire in 1725. The business continued until 1987. Thomas Rivers was known in the mid-19th century for his development of new varieties of roses and fruits. Elizabeth Waugh’s 2009 book Rivers Nursery of Sawbridgeworth covered their history.

BermudaThe John Rivers who married Ann Newman in Bermuda in 1636 was from the Chafford Rivers family in Kent. Joseph Rivers’ 2006 book Descendants of John Rivers and Ann Newman of Bermuda covered their subsequent line.  A number of their grandsons migrated to James Island off Charleston in South Carolina – William in 1681 and Robert and George in 1690.   

America. The main Rivers immigrant arrivals have been into Virginia and the Carolinas. The largest number of Rivers today are in fact in South Carolina.

South Carolina.  The line from John Rivers of Bermuda and his grandson George led to a line of cotton plantation owners:

  • firstly Joseph Rivers on James Island
  • and, then in the early 1800’s John Elijah Rivers on James Island and Thomas Rivers on John’s Island in Colleton county.

Another line from George Rivers settled on the mainland at Hampton (then called Pondtown) and then moved to Florida.

Some African American slaves on Rivers plantations took on the Rivers name after emancipation. One such was Isaac Rivers who was able to purchase his freedom and move to Sussex county, Virginia. Isaac bought a mill and fishing pond there which he and then his son Buddy ran until the late 1950’s.

William Rivers meanwhile had arrived from England in 1760 and made his home near Chesterfield. His son Frederick fought in the Revolutionary War and was held prisoner by the British at Charleston at its end. Charles Purvis’s 1999 book Descendants of William Rivers covered the family line.

It is thought that one of his descendants was Mendel Rivers, the powerful US Congressman from South Carolina between 1941 and 1970 who was a segregation advocate and war hawk. A Rivers cousin of his started the first TV station in Charleston in 1953.

Some have tried to connect John David Rivers with the Chafford Rivers in Kent, although there is no evidence of any connection. He was born in England but arrived in Charleston from Prussia in 1805 on a Prussian passport. He lived in some splendor on Queen Street and then lost his everything and finally his life in one calamitous year in 1831.

His son William James Rivers, placed in an orphanage, emerged in the 1850’s as an important writer and educator in Charleston.  “Rivers was an eyewitness to the burning of Columbia by Sherman’s army in the Civil War and this provided the background for his novel Eunice: A Tale of Reconstruction Times in South Carolina.”  His nickname was “the Earl of Rivers.”

Virginia.  Pierre Rivers was a Huguenot who arrived with his wife Jeanne in Virginia in 1698. They made their home at the Huguenot settlement of Manakin along the James river. They were said to have had a large family, including at least three sons – Claud, Thomas, and Robert.

One line established itself in Brunswick county, Virginia. Joel Rivers, born there in 1755, migrated to Alabama in the early 1800’s. Another line appears to have been in Johnston county, North Carolina and led, via another Joel Rivers, to Wilkinson county, Georgia.

Rivers as an Adopted Name.  The Rivers numbers in America have been boosted by many who were not born with the Rivers name but adopted it.

This may have started at an early time. It was said that Pierre Hiuert, a Huguenot who came to America on the Peter and Anthony in 1698, took the name of Pierre Rivers.  The Rivard family from Quebec became Rivers after they crossed the border into Vermont in the 1850’s.

Some examples from the 20th century have been:

  • Karl Joenunu from Finland who was Carl Rivers by the time of his arrival in Alaska in 1920. He was an early Anchorage pioneer.
  • Loiza Grossberg, born to Jewish immigrant parents in New York, who changed his name to Larry Rivers after performing at a jazz club in 1940. Larry was an artist and is considered by many to have been the godfather of the pop art movement.
  • Joan Molinsky, born also to Jewish parents in New York, who changed her name to Joan Rivers in the 1950’s. She has been a comedienne and actress, well known for her outspoken and controversial language.
  • and Johnny Ramistella of Italian parentage, who became Johnny Rivers in the late 1950’s. He had a string of rock and roll hits in the 1960’s.

Rivers Surname Miscellany

Richard de Redvers.  The Norman Richard de Redvers was the first Rivers in England.

His origins are obscure.  In the Domesday Book of 1086 he was recorded as holding one manor, that of Mosterton in Dorset.  This may have been given to him for serving in William the Conqueror’s army of 1066. Mosterton had been held by the Saxon Almer prior to that time.  It had arable land, a mill, 30 acres of meadow, and a large area of woodland.

In 1100, after acting as one of the principal supporters of Henry I in his struggle against his brother Robert for control of the English throne, de Redvers was rewarded with estates that made him amongst the richest magnates in the country.   He was one of the King’s most trusted advisers, witnessing more than twenty of Henry’s charters and royal writs.

He died in 1107 at his home at Plympton in Devon and was buried at the Abbey of Montebourg in Normandy, of which he was deemed the founder. His son Baldwin was made the first Earl of Devon around the year 1140. 

The Rivers of Chafford Park in Kent.  These Rivers could trace themselves back to Richard de Rivers who lived at the time of King John.

By the time of the War of the Roses Sir Bartholomew Rivers had taken the Yorkist side and been rewarded for his service to Edward IV with an ‘augmentation of honour,’ a special addition to his coat of arms, consisting of the white roses and swans of the House of York.  His son William, however, was able to switch sides and align himself with the rival House of Lancaster which eventually won the day in 1485.

Two generations later came Richard Rivers, a Kentish gentleman who was in the service of the Duke of Buckingham at his Penshurst estate.  Richard Rivers would no doubt have witnessed the visit to Penshurst by Henry VIII in 1519 and have attended the lavish feast that was held for him in the hall.

In 1521 his master the Duke was executed on charges of treason. The fortunes of the Rivers family seem not to have been affected, however.

As steward at Penshurst, Richard would have been well placed to eye up nearby Chafford as a potential investment for his family. The estate was said to have come into their hands during King Henry’s reign. The purchaser was probably Richard’s son, John Rivers, who prospered as a grocer in the City of London and in 1573 was to serve as its Lord Mayor (for which he was knighted).

Sir John’s son George lived mainly as a country gentleman at Chafford.  His grandson John was made a baronet in 1621.

Rivers in the 1891 Census in England

Location Numbers (000’s) Percent
SE England
London    0.5    26
Essex and Suffolk    0.3    15
Berkshire    0.15     8
Elsewhere    0.3    15
SubTotal    1.25    64
Elsewhere    0.7    36
Total    1.95 100

One Rivers Line – from Bermuda via South Carolina to Florida.  The oldest known Rivers ancestor Lieutenant John Rivers and his wife Ann Newman Rivers, along with other Rivers family members, were among the first settlers of Bermuda, probably somewhere between 1635 and 1638.

John’s grandson, George Rivers, Sr. and his wife Ruth left Bermuda for James Island, South Carolina, sometime before 1701. George Sr.’s Uncle William had been the first of the Rivers family to settle in South Carolina.

George Sr.’s son, George Rivers, Jr. and his wife, Mary left James Island and moved to the mainland for the area now known as the City of Hampton.  Then it was known as Pondtown.  I believe they were in Pondtown before 1762.

George Jr.’s grandson Abraham Rivers and his wife Celie and their five children at the time sold their land and other items and packed up a wagon to caravan with a few other families down into the newly formed state of Florida. Another generation of Rivers stayed and raised families in Florida. But Dewitt Oscar Rivers of the next generation was a traveling preacher and roamed around.

Joel Rivers – from Virginia to Alabama.  Joel Rivers, who was born in Brunswick county, Virginia in 1755, fought in the Revolutionary War and later became a Methodist minister in North Carolina.

Anson West in his 1893 book History of Methodism in Alabama wrote:

“The Rev. Joel Rivers moved from Fayetteville, North Carolina to Fort Claiborne, Alabama.  He was accompanied by his children, all then grown, and purchased land at his own expense in 1816.  There he erected a house of worship for the Methodist Episcopal Church.

The first society of Claiborne, organized just prior to the erection of the house of worship, consisted of the Rev. Joel Rivers, his wife Rhoda, and a number of their children.”

Other reports have him as a pioneer of the area and a mover and shaker, as well as a religious leader in his community.  He and his son Mason were signers of the petition to make Alabama a state of the Union.  Joel died in 1829 and was buried on a bluff overlooking the Alabama river in Monroe county. 

William James Rivers During the Civil War.  At the time of the Civil War Professor Rivers had gone to work at the South Carolina College in Columbia where he was responsible for saving the college library during the invasion.

The night before the Yankees marched in, Rivers frantically pounded crates together and loaded the college’s books onto a mule-wagon which he had hidden in a nearby swamp.  He then filled the library building with wounded Confederate soldiers, thinking the Yankees would honor a hospital building.

However, when the Northern army began burning the city, they set fire as well to the hospital housed in the college library building, thinking to burn the wounded “rebels” alive.

Rivers marched straight into the Yankee general’s tent and guns were immediately aimed at his head.

“Stop!  Don’t shoot!  That’s Professor Rivers!” shouted the Yankee general.

He rescinded the order to burn the hospital at Rivers’ suggestion.  But the roof of the hospital had already begun to burn.  Rivers made a dash for the library building roof, tearing off his jacket and calling for a line of water-buckets to be formed.

Sadly Rivers was never able to return to Charleston to live, nor was that city ever the seat of learning and culture and freedom it had once been.   He went on to serve as president of Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, dying in Baltimore in 1909.

Reader Feedback – The Rivers Surname.  This is the most comprehensive Rivers genealogy time-line I have seen. It confirms most of my research. It is of interest that John David Rivers, circa 1777, who arrived in the US in 1808 on a Prussian passport still remains a mystery as to his family line. If I can find his origins, I think I’ll find our Rivers.

Julie Rivers (genierpitt@gmail.com).

Rivers Names

  • Sir John Rivers prospered as a grocer in London and served as its Lord Mayor in 1573.  He was the forebear of the Rivers of Chafford Park in Kent. 
  • William James Rivers from Charleston was an influential Southern educator in the years after the Civil War. 
  • Larry Rivers, born Loiza Grossberg, was an American artist considered by many to be the godfather of the pop art movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s. 
  • Joan Rivers, born Joan Molinsky, was an American comedienne known for her acerbic and often controversial characterizations of public personages.

Rivers Numbers Today

  • 4,500 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 14,000 in America (most numerous in South Carolina)
  • 2,500 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Rivers and Like Surnames

The Norman Conquest brought new rulers to England and they brought their names and language, a form of French, with them.  Over time their names became less French and more English in character.  Thus Hamo became Hammond, Reinold Reynolds and Thierry Terry and so forth.  The names Allen, Brett, Everett, and Harvey were probably Breton in origin as Bretons also arrived, sometimes as mercenaries.

The new Norman lords often adopted new last names, sometimes from the lands they had acquired and sometimes from places back in Normandy.  Over time the name here also became more English.  Thus Saint Maur into Seymour, Saint Clair into Sinclair, Mohun into Moon, and Warenne into Warren.

Here are some of these Norman and Breton originating names that you can check out.






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Written by Colin Shelley

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