Rowntree Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Rowntree Surname Meaning

The English surname Rowntree derived from the rowan tree and meant a dweller by such a tree. The name probably has Viking origins. The rowan tree had been a sacred tree for the Vikings and the Rowntree surname emerged in the area of NE England where the Vikings had settled.

The origin of the Rowntree surname does appear to have been in north Yorkshire in the vicinity of the village of Newby.  Spelling variants of Rowntree, mainly to be found outside of England, are Rountree and Roundtree.

Rowntree Surname Resources on The Internet

Rowntree and Rountree Surname Ancestry

  • from England (Yorkshire)
  • to Ireland (Ulster), America and New Zealand

England. The northeast counties of Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland accounted for 85% of all the Rowntrees in the 1881 census, with Yorkshire alone accounting for almost half.

Yorkshire. The earliest record here was Roberto Rountre at Newby in 1301. Then there was John Rountrie at Borrowby, some sixteen miles away from Newby, in 1521. The will of Lawrence Rowntree of Newby was recorded in 1557.

Peter Rowntree of Easby was married in Ingleby Greenhow (not too far from Newby) in 1614, although the church records there spelt his name as Rontre. He was the forebear of the early Rowntree line that became yeoman farmers at Risborough and of the later Rowntree Quaker lines. Brightwen Rowntree told this history in his 1940 book The Rowntrees of Risborough.

We can trace from the early 1800’s three separate later Rowntree lines – two based in the seaside town of Scarborough and the third and the most famous which established itself in the county town of York.

The forebears of the Scarborough lines were both named William Rowntree and were cousins:

  • the first William Rowntree, a corn miller in Gateshead, led to John W. Rowntree, a grocer and mayor of Scarborough and his brother Fred Rowntree, an architect in the Arts and Crafts style in the early 1900’s.
  • while from his cousin William Rowntree came William S. Rowntree, a draper in Scarborough, and later Kenneth Rowntree, a noted artist.

The forebear of the York line was William’s brother Joseph Rowntree, a master grocer. His sons included:

  • Henry Rowntree who founded the famous Rowntree chocolate company in York in 1862. When it was acquired by Nestle in 1988 it was the fourth-largest confectionary manufacturer in the world.
  • and his brother Joseph Rowntree who took over the confectionary business in 1883 after Henry’s death. Joseph gained renown as a Quaker businessman, reformer and philanthropist.
  • while Joseph’s son Seebohm Rowntree also became well-known as a social reformer.

Elsewhere. There have been other Rowntree branches in England, apart from the famous Yorkshire Quaker Rowntrees. Many of them were in Durham where there have been sizeable numbers in Bishopwearmouth and Stockton. Graham Rowntree, the English rugby prop forward of recent times, was born in Stockton.

One line descends from Thomas Rountree who was born in Sunderland in 1719. A number of his descendants were mariners. William Rowntree, a master mariner who died in 1861, had two notable children:

  • Thomas who went to sea in 1838, aged twenty, and ended up in Australia fourteen years later.  He started his own shipyard at Balmain, NSW.
  • and Elizabeth who stayed at home and married Thomas Hunter.  Their son, born in 1846, was that noted Tyneside shipbuilder George Burton Hunter who built the Lusitania and other great ocean-going liners.

Ireland. There appears to have been an early mention of the Rountree name in Ulster in 1376, but with no supporting documentation.

The first real mention of the Rountree name was that of Thomas and widow Rowntry at Mulladry in Armagh in 1664. It is thought that they came from Yorkshire, although there is no written proof. Rountrees were to stay there until around 1900. Meredith Rountree’s farmhouse remained after he and his family emigrated to New Zealand in 1863. John Rountree was still farming until his death in 1889.

There was a line with Charles Rountree that moved from nearby Kilmore in Armagh to Killigriffe in Cavan around the year 1730. His son Thomas came to America in 1752 when he was nineteen.  Joe Rountree was an emigrant to New Zealand in 1863. William Rountree of Cootehill in Cavan produced a large family tree of this family in 1890.

America. The Rountree and Roundtree spellings, established in Ireland, crossed over to America. There were two main arrivals coming from Ireland, although both probably had their roots originally in Yorkshire and they may have even been distantly related.

Francis Roundtree from Londonderry came to Virginia around 1680 and settled in Nansemond county. The line through his son Moses was to be found in Goochland county and through his son William in North Carolina:

  • in the 1760’s Richardson Roundtree moved to the Edgefield district of South Carolina where he established himself as a wealthy planter.  
  • four Rountree brothers headed for Burke county, Georgia in the 1780’s. Some forty years later, James and Francis Rountree were pioneer settlers in Lowndes county, Georgia. James was murdered in 1834, but his descendants have remained in the area.  
  • another line through Thomas Rountree migrated to Kentucky in 1795. His grandson John became a pioneer settler in Wisconsin, establishing the township of Platteville in 1841.

Thomas Rountree from Cavan came to America in 1752 when he was nineteen. He then went back to Ireland to marry Eva Sturgess before returning. He settled in Orange county, North Carolina where he died in 1805. His son John moved to Williamson county, Tennessee.

Georgia and Florida are the states with the most Rountrees and Roundtrees today.

Rowntree.  There was a Rowntree from the Yorkshire Quaker Rowntrees in America. His name was Bernard Rowntree and he had come to Kansas City, Missouri in 1884. It is his wife Lester from another English Quaker family, whom he married in 1908, who is the better remembered today. A self-proclaimed “lady gypsy,” she became a renowned field botanist and was a pioneer in the study, propagation, and conservation of California’s native plants.

New Zealand. The spelling here was mainly Rountree because of Irish immigration. Meredith Rountree came with his family from Armagh to Auckland on the Portland in 1863. The family settled to farm at Mangapai where the local roads were little more than foot tracks at that time.

One son Gilbert Rountree was able to join the staff of the Auckland Savings Bank, eventually becoming its manager. Gilbert’s son Harry moved in 1901 to London where he established a reputation as a cartoonist and illustrator.

Rowntree Surname Miscellany

Origin of the Rowntree Name.  This story is probably not true, but it does make interesting reading.

According to one source, the first child to have this name was a child who was found under a rowan tree, a mountain ash that grows in Yorkshire. The child, a boy, was dressed in fine cloths.  He was found on the grounds of an estate owned by a nobleman.

This nobleman took pity and compassion on the child and raised him as his own son, naming him Rowantree after the tree under which he was found.  Who the child was or where he came from, he never found out.

Rowntree and Spelling Variants.  On the Rowntree spellings, Fred Rowntree wrote in 2004 as follows:

“The main variants of the name, other than Rowntree, which is the predominant version in England, are Rountree and Roundtree.

Both of these are the more usual spellings in the US, while Rountree is the more usual in New Zealand.  Ireland is split in the main between Rountree and Rowntree, as is Australia.  It should be noted, however, that around Dublin in the Republic of Ireland the name Roantree occurs quite often.

In the English church registers in the 16th and 17th centuries, there were at least 26 different spellings of the name.  The variation often appeared to be down to the whim of the local priest or minister.

One good example is that of Francis Rowntree, who in the Guisborough, Yorkshire Society of Friends (Quakers) registers of the 17th century, had the surnames of Rowntree, Rountry, Roantry, Rountree and Roantree over a period of twelve years.”

In England the Rowntree surname did not really take root until the 17th century. Today the spelling breakdown is approximately Rowntree 90%, Rountree 8%, and Roundtree 2%.

In America the breakdown is Rountree 55% and Roundtree 45%, with Rowntree hardly to be seen.  Perhaps the name has been spelt as to how it sounds rather than to any historic relationship to a rowan tree. 

The Early Rowntree Family Tree in Yorkshire

Peter Rowntree (1590-1620) m. Phyllis Wright

  • – William Rowntree in Easby (1617-1681) m. Ann
  • — John Rowntree (1664-1738) m. Jane
  • — William Rowntree (1700-1736) m. Dorothy
  • —- William Rowntree (1727-1798), yeoman farmer in Risborough, m. Hannah Hebron
  • —– John Rowntree (1757-1827), grocer in Scarborough, m. Elizabeth Lotherington
  • —— William Rowntree (1787-1846), corn miller in Gateshead, m. Rachel Watson
  • —— Joseph Rowntree (1801-1859), master grocer in York, m. Sarah Stephenson.

The Later Rowntree Family Trees in Yorkshire

The Line of Joseph Rowntree

Joseph Rowntree (1801-1859), Quaker and a master grocer in York, m. Sarah Stephenson

  • – John S. Rowntree (1834-1907), Quaker writer, m. Elizabeth Hotham
  • — Arnold S. Rowntree (1872-1951), Quaker and York MP, m. Mary Harvey
  • — Michael H. Rowntree (1919-2007), social campaigner, m. Anna Crosfield
  • – Joseph Rowntree (1836-1925), Quaker reformer and philanthropist, m. Emma Seebohm
  • — John W. Rowntree (1868-1905), Quaker and chocolates, m. Constance Naish
  • — Seebohm Rowntree (1871-1954), social reformer, m. Lydia Potter
  • – Henry I. Rowntree (1837-1883), founder of Rowntree chocolates, m. Harriet Osborn

The Line of William Rowntree

William Rowntree (1787-1846), corn miller in Gateshead, m. Rachel Watson

  • – John Rowntree (1821-1894), grocer in Scarborough, m. Ann Webster
  • — John W. Rowntree (1854-1935), grocer and mayor of Scarborough, m. Eliza Gravely
  • — George Rowntree (1855-1940), grocer in Scarborough, m. Priscilla Wallis.
  • — Frederick Rowntree (1860-1927), Arts and Crafts architect, m. Mary Gray.

The Line of William Rowntree

William Rowntree was the son of Joseph Rowntree from Risborough and the cousin of the above-mentioned Joseph and William Rowntree.

William Rowntree (1806-1901) of Scarborough m. Mary Stickney

  • – William S. Rowntree (1848-1939), Quaker and draper in Scarborough, m. Anna Doncaster
  • — Howard D. Rowntree (1879-1974), Quaker and conscientious objector, m. Nora Priestman
  • — Kenneth Rowntree (1915-1997), artist, m. Diana Buckley.

William Rowntree’s Scarborough Reminiscences.  In 1935, when he was an old man, George Rowntree put pen to paper about an earlier Rowntree, William Rowntree, and about his recollections that were then more than a century earlier in time.

“Amongst personal reminiscences, may I include an evening when William Rowntree, the father of William Stickney Rowntree, invited a number of ‘Friends’ to his house in 1886 on his eightieth birthday.  I can see him now, sitting at his dining room table with a large magnifying glass in his right hand and a sheet of foolscap in his left, telling us of his own early experiences.

When around 1812 he was sent by his parents from Pickering to Ackworth School he rode on a horse behind his elder brother, Robert, a special saddle having been made for the small boy’s comfort. On arrival at York, they put up for the night with John Mason and then rode on to Ackworth the next morning where the small boy William was left.  William Rowntree stated that the next three days were the most miserable of his life.

In another story he told us was how a messenger on horseback rode into Scarborough from York, bringing the news of the victory at Waterloo in 1815 and how the soldiers that were in Scarborough then assembled and fired from the castle a volley of shots to celebrate the occasion.  William Rowntree then put his hands down on the table with the words: ‘So much for my youthful days.”

Reader Feedback – Rowntree in London.  There is a William Rowntree memorial tablature in Brockley cemetery in the London borough of Lewisham (formally the Deptford cemetery). William Rountree is memorialized as a master mariner who died on 7th February 1861 aged 74 years.

One wonders about the career of William Rowntree, of what nature of a mariner’s life he plied in peace or war, and of what craft he captained or had charge over. How one finds out isn’t easy to fathom William Rowntree’s saltwater passage.

Bobbie Carnegie (

Reader Feedback – Rountree DNA Project.  Is anyone still interested in the Rountree DNA project that Fred Rountree started?  I am a Roundtree on my maternal line. I recently adopted and am re-activating the Rountree DNA Project in FamilyTree. It would seem like the founder of the project Fred Rountree has died.

Wendy Cosby (

Richard Roundtree Durng the Revolutionary War.  Richardson Roundtree was living in the Edgefield district of South Carolina at the time of the Revolutionary War. He joined the Patriot army, serving there as captain.

He was known to be a man of wealth and believed to be possessed of no small amount of money.  This was a tempting bait to the Tories who, learning of his presence at home, surprised and captured him.

They then attempted to force him to divulge its hiding place. With determined courage he held out against them, although they went to the desperate extreme of tying and leaving him in the swamp.  After the Tories left, a faithful negro released him after he had been in the swamp two days and saved his life.

He lived to raise a large family. This remarkable man had a family of eighteen children. Among his surviving sons James and Daniel remained in South Carolina, Thomas moved to Alabama and William to Tennessee.

Daniel’s son Andrew, writing in the 1890’s, gave the account of his grandfather’s service during the Revolutionary War. 

Rountree Twin Brothers in Georgia.  Joshua and George Rountree were twin brothers from North Carolina who around 1800 walked to Emanuel county in Georgia, seeking a new place to build their fortunes.

It was said that they were so much alike that if they were dressed alike it was difficult for their wives to tell them apart. They loved each other very much.  The first one up in the morning would go out and holler and, if it was calm, the other would hear and answer him.  They were members of the old Canoochee Church, which stood then near the crossroad north of the Bartley Sconyers place.

Joshua married Zilphia Durden and George married Lavina Neal. They reared families of ten children each.  One of their sons built the John Rountree Log House around 1830 which is still standing today.

Gilbert Rountree’s Obituary.  The New Zealand Herald reported on September 10, 1918:

“As an old and well-known resident of Auckland, Mr. S. Gilbert Rountree died at his residence at Bayswater yesterday.

Mr. Rountree, who was 67 years of age, came to Auckland from Ireland as a boy of ten.  He was on the Thames goldflelds in the early days and subsequently joined the staff of the Auckland Savings Bank. In 1877 he was appointed accountant, a position which he held until 1912. Upon the retirement of the late Richard Cameron, Mr. Rountree was appointed manager of the bank. He retired in 1916 after 41 years’ service.

He was a prominent worker in various religious and philanthropic movements.  He held the positions of deacon and elder of the Baptist Tabernacle and was superintendent of the Sunday School.

Mr. Rountree is survived by his wife and by two sons and five daughters.  The sons are Mr. Harry Rountree the well-known artist of London, and Mr. E. G. Rountree, of the N.Z.E.F. London section.”

Rowntree Names 

  • Joseph Rowntree who ran the family chocolate business in York from 1883 until his death in 1925 was a well-known Quaker reformer and philanthropist of his time.
  • His son Seebohm Rowntree was also a social reformer whose studies on poverty helped to create the British welfare state.   
  • Lester Rowntree was a renowned American field botanist, a 20th century pioneer in the study, propagation, and conservation of California’s native plants.
  • Gil Rowntree has been one of Canada’s most successful thoroughbred racehorse owners and trainers.
  • Richard Roundtree who starred in the 1971 film Shaft was one of the first black all-action heroes.  
  • Graham Rowntree was England’s rugby prop forward of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.

Rowntree Numbers Today

  • 2,500 in the UK (most numerous in Yorkshire)
  • 5,000 in America (most numerous in Georgia)
  • 1,500 elsewhere (most numerous in New Zealand)



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Written by Colin Shelley

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