Sanders/Saunders Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Sanders Surname Meaning

Sanders and Saunders are patronymic surnames that are for the most derived from Sander, a medieval and possibly Saxon form of Alexander.

Saunders is the English spelling for the most part, Sanders the American spelling.   Some Sanders in America are of German origin, Sander being a topographical name for someone who lived on sandy soil.

Sanders Surname Resources on The Internet

Sanders and Saunders Surname Ancestry

  • from Southern England, Germany and from Jewish emigrants
  • to America, Canada, Argentina, South Africa and Australia

EnglandThe Saunders name was mainly to be found in SE England. 

SE England.  Some of the early Saunders showed a direct Alexander-to-Saunders link.  John Alisaundre, who was the MP for Arundel in Sussex in 1296, was the forebear of many of the Sussex and Surrey Saunders.  From his younger brother Robert may have come the Saunders in Wiltshire.

An alternative derivation of the name was the Sanderstead place-name in Surrey.  The Sanders of Sander Place in Surrey claimed descent from a Watkin de Sanderstead of pre-Norman times; as did the Saunders at Charlwood via possibly a Leonard de Sanderstead who lived sometime in the late 1100’s.  Nicholas Saunders of this family was a Catholic priest and exile at the time of Queen Elizabeth.

There were early Saunders in Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire.  Those of Harrington were said to have originally spelt their name Saundhurst.  A related line produced Sir Edward Saunders, Chief Baron of the Exchequer to Queen Elizabeth, and his brother Laurence who was martyred for his Protestant faith in 1555. Laurence’s descendant George Sanders emigrated to Virginia in 1632.

SW England.  John Sanders was born in Worcester in 1576 and became a wool clothier there. He was said to have left home to seek his fortune in London, and thereby became acquainted with William Shakespeare.  His descendants believe that the Sanders portrait of Shakespeare that has been handed down in their family for four hundred years is a genuine one.

There were also early Saunders in the west country, in Bristol and Somerset.  The Sanders name cropped up also in Devon.  One Devon family history began with a Sanders family at Ottery St. Mary in the early 1700’s that later migrated in south Wales.  Thomas Saunders, born in Tiverton in 1793, worked in the lace industry there for a while before moving to London.  

Ireland.  The Saunders name in Ireland was generally an English implant that came at or after the time of Cromwell.  Robert Saunders, the Governor of Kinsale at that time, was granted lands in Wexford (Saunders Court) and Wicklow (Saunders Grove).

America.  Saunders and some Sanders came to America during the colonial era.  By the 19th century, most Saunders had changed their spelling to Sanders.

Some of the early Saunders/Sanders were into New England, Virginia and Philadelphia.

New England.  John Sanders from Wiltshire came to Massachusetts in 1628 and settled in Salem.  Tobias Saunders arrived from Amersham in Buckinghamshire in 1643 and was the founder of the town of Westerly, Rhode Island.  From James Sanders of Haverhill came Daniel Saunders who developed the textile industry in Lawrence, Massachusetts in the mid-19th century.  

Virginia.  Captain Nathaniel Saunders, a Bristol merchant, appeared in Virginia records in the late 1600’s and his descendants, sometimes as Sanders, spread there in the next century. 

Edward Saunders was an early settler in Northumberland county, William and Elizabeth Saunders in New Kent county, Virginia.  The Rev. Jonathan Saunders was a rector at Lynnhaven parish church from 1695. Grandson Jonathan later built Pembroke manor in Princess Anne county.  But his son John forfeited the property at a Loyalist and departed for New Brunswick in 1788.

PhiladelphiaJoseph Saunders, a Quaker from Buckinghamshire, came to Philadelphia in 1733 where he was “a reputable merchant and respected member of the Quaker community.”  His grandson David headed west at the time of the Civil War, sailing around Cape Horn to San Francisco with his wife and children.  Other Saunders of the family followed him there.  

Elsewhere.  Captain Ephraim Sanders, sometimes Saunders, was born in Morris county, New Jersey around 1730.  After the Revolutionary War, his line was first found in Pennsylvania and then in Indiana. 

Indiana was where Harland David Sanders, later to find fame as Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), was born in 1890.  Success did not come easily to him and it was not until the late 1930’s that he started his first pan-fried chicken restaurant in Kentucky.    

Saunders did tend to become Sanders, perhaps spelt as it was pronounced, as descendants left their points of entry and moved on, for instance to Kentucky or North Carolina.  This was the case with the four Sanders brothers in North Carolina at the time of the Revolutionary War.

Benjamin Sanders came to Georgia from North Carolina around 1787 to engage in the buying and selling of land there.  He appears to have traveled back and forth between Georgia and North Carolina several times in the succeeding two decades. Many of his descendants remain in Georgia and they hold annual reunions at the small town of Patmos southwest of Albany.

Isaac and Luke Sanders from North Carolina were among the early settlers in 1805 in Rutherford county, Tennessee – in an area that came to be known as the Sanders district.

Sanders outnumber Saunders by almost three to one in America today. 

German and Jewish.  Sanders include some of German and Jewish origin.  Bernie Sanders the US Senator for Vermont, for instance, comes from Polish Jewish roots in New York.  His father Eli Sanders left the small town of Slopnice in southern Poland for New York in 1921.

Canada.  Timothy and Joseph Saunders – descendants of James Saunders of Haverhill – came to Nova Scotia as part of the New England planter migration that began in 1760 after the expulsion of the French Acadiens.  They were the progenitors of the Saunders name in Nova Scotia.

Matthias Sanders, the son of German immigrants, was born in the small village of Thornhill near present-day Toronto in 1773.  His moment of truth came during the War of 1812 when he died following an explosion that he tried to initiate on the waterfront.  His son Joseph, just one at the time, later settled in Tillsonburg, Ontario.

Argentina.  Two Scottish brothers from Fife – Thomas and William Saunders – were pioneer settlers in Patagonia, arriving there in 1883.  Thomas participated in the great Patagonian trek in 1888 which bought 5,000 sheep from Rio Negro to southern Patagonia.  Although both Thomas and William died back in Scotland, many of their descendants remained in Patagonia.

South Africa.  Wulf Sander departed Latvia for America in 1863 to avoid Russian conscription.   As Wulf Sanders he married in America, but later departed with his family, first for Australia and then, in 1882, to South Africa.  He started a store at Oudtshoorn and became a leading member of the Jewish community there.

Australia.  Thomas Alfred Saunders, born in Armagh, arrived in South Australia from Tasmania in 1849.  Three years later he was appointed the first harbormaster at Port Elliott, then a busy harbor.  While there he helped survey the treacherous Murray mouth.  He died in 1856.  His son Alfred Thomas (A.T.), born two years earlier, came to be regarded as South Australia’s unofficial historian.

Sanders and Saunders Surname Miscellany

Leonard de Sanderstead.  In Ralph Sanders book Generations, there is a chapter championing the life and times of Sir Leonard de Sanderstead.

“Who then was Sir Leonard de Sanderstead?  Although our knowledge of him stems from a single record, the record itself is particularly fertile. We find references to Sir Leonard in a 17th-century document called Advente de Carmathenshire [they came to Carmathenshire], indicating that Sir Leonard had once held land in that county of South Wales.

The record further indicates that he had at some point acquired knighthood and bore a Coat of Arms. These records then stated that Sir Leonard had at least one son, Richard, who sold land at Sanderstead in 1234.”

Saunders and Sanders.  Saunders is the English spelling for the most part, Sanders the American spelling.  The table below shows the approximate breakdown of the numbers today.

Numbers (000’s) UK America Elsewhere (1)
Saunders   54   23   20
Sanders   24   62   19

(1)  Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Early Saunders in Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire.  

Name Date Location
Robert 1380-1430 Harrington, Northamptonshire
William 1420-1490 Agmondesham (Amersham),
1430-1450 Hinton, Northamptonshire
William 1469 Mayor of Coventry
Thomas 1480-1530 Sibbertoft, Northamptonshire
Sir William 1490-1540 Welford, Northamptonshire

The various Northamptonshire lines above are probably related.  Lawrence Saunders, the son of Thomas from Sibbertoft, was a Protestant martyr who was burned at the stake in 1555.

The 1488 will of William Saunders of Amersham in Buckinghamshire has survived. Latter Saunders of this line established themselves in the 17th century at the Beechwood estate in Flamstead in nearby Hertfordshire. There is a monument to these Saunders in the local church.

Early Saunders in the West Country.  The Patent Rolls of 1400 showed the existence of a Thomas Saunders as the deputy to John Payn, the King’s chief butler, in the port of Bristol.  In 1404 he appears in the office of gauger of wines at the port and there was later mention of him in 1423.  Wills related to the Saunders family in Bristol have survived from the 1480’s onwards.

A Saunders branch flourished at Keynsham in Somerset from at least the early 16th century down into the 19th century. A Thomas Saunders recorded his will at Chewton Keynsham in 1528.  Richard Saunders was taxed there in 1609.  He bought a 99 year lease on three mills in 1616 and died in 1618. The family consisted of well-to-do yeoman farmers and butchers.

There were other Saunders lines at Chew Stoke near Bristol and Bridgwater in Somerset from the 1540’s.

The Sanders Family and the Shakespeare Portrait.  It is believed by the Sanders family that either John Sanders or his brother William painted a portrait of Shakespeare in 1603 when the family was said to be living close to Shakespeare’s home in London.

An oral tradition holds that for four hundred years the portrait was passed down in the Sanders family while knowledge of its existence remained private.  Its ownership was verified in 1909 when M. H. Spielmann studied the painting.  At this time it was in the hands of T. Hale Sanders who had taken ownership of it from his uncle through his father Thomas Hale.  In 1919 Agnes Hale Sanders traveled from Montreal to London to reclaim the Sanders portrait.  Since then it has been held in Canada.

Is the Sanders portrait real?  Spielmann himself did not believe so.  And its authenticity has not been widely accepted by other scholars.  The main problem is that it does not look much like Shakespeare.  The portrait does not seem to resemble either the Droeshout portrait or the Shakespeare funeral bust, both of which resemble each other and have been accepted by scholars as having been contemporary likenesses of Shakespeare.  Some say outright that this portrait is a fake.

The Saunders of Saunders Grove of Wicklow.  These Saunders claimed a suspiciously long and noble lineage, dating back to the Hapsburg lords of Innsbruck in present day Austria.  Sir Harloven Saundres came to England in 1370 and was supposedly the forebear of Robert Saunders, a soldier in Cromwell’s army who stayed in Ireland and became governor of Kinsale.  His family established themselves at Saunders Grove in Wicklow.

The Saunders Family in Virginia.  Colonel James Saunders, of Alabama was a descendant of Edward Saunders, an early settler in Virginia. In his book Early Settlers, he wrote as follows of his branch of the family:

“The Saunders family, according to its tradition, is of English descent.  Edward Saunders was its progenitor in America, and its first settlement was in the Northern Neck of Virginia in Northumberland county.  Precisely when Edward came to Virginia, tradition does not say.  He had, however, a son named Ebenezer, born in 1661 in Virginia, who left a son named Edward.  This Edward was listed as a vestryman and captain in the same county in 1720.

William, his eldest son and born in 1718, was the lineal ancestor of our family.  A family memoir described William as being about five feet eight inches in height, well made, of light complexion and blue eyes, from 150 to 160 pounds in weight, very active and fleet, possessed of agreeable manners, and a good education for the times.”

Many Saunders of this family left Virginia after the Revolutionary War.  Some were in Maryland.  The Rev. Turner Saunders departed for Tennessee in 1808.  Colonel James’s line ended up in Alabama. 

Joseph Saunders’ Bible Entries.  Joseph Saunders owned a large family Bible wherein are recorded the events of the family with respect to births and deaths. As head of the household, Joseph diligently scribed in his elegant handwriting the births and deaths in his family during his lifetime. The following is a transcript of his writing:

“Joseph Saunders was born at Farnham Royal in the county of Buckinghamshire on the eighth day of January 1712 and his wife Hannah Saunders was born at Whitby in the county of York on the 5th of November 1717 and they were married at Philadelphia on the eighth day of January 1740.  

My daughter Mary, wife of Thomas Morris, died on the (blank) day of July 1774. My son Peter Saunders left Philadelphia on the 22nd December 1780 in the company of John Benezet in order to embark with him on the ship Shelaley bound for Port Lercon in France with the intention to stay there and in Holland for about a year.

They embarked at Chester and proceeded, but were never heard from after leaving Delaware Bay.  There were about eighty passengers and seamen on board and it is supposed they foundered at sea. My wife died on the 8th February 1788 and was buried on the 11th in the afternoon.

My daughter Lydia, wife of Samuel Coates, died on the 24th October 1789 about four o’clock in the morning and was buried on the 26th in the afternoon. My daughter Sarah, wife of William Redwood, died on the 29th October 1789 in the morning and was buried on the 31st in the afternoon.

My son John died in Alexandria on the 18th May 1790 was buried on the 20th. The affectionate and much loved father of this family deceased on the 26th January 1792 at the home of Samuel Coates in Philadelphia.”

The Sanders Brothers from North Carolina.  The forebears of these Sanders brothers were originally Saunders in Virginia.  The Saunders must have migrated south into what are now Randolph and Montgomery counties in North Carolina by the 1770’s.  There were to be found four Sanders brothers – William, Isaac, the Rev. Moses, and Francis.

A descendant T.B. Sanders, recalling those times, wrote from Texas in the 1890’s:

“My grandfather William married in Virginia and was killed in a fight with the Tories. Isaac was the first man that ever built a house on Cross Creek below Fayetteville.  Another brother by the name of Moses was a Baptist preacher.  I have seen Isaac and his wife when they were very old. Two of his sons, Ben and Joe, moved to Alabama and their families are there yet.”

The Rev. Moses Sanders moved to Georgia in 1798 and founded the Grove Level church in Franklin county in 1802. He preached there until shortly before his death in 1817.  In 1902 a great grandson, Christopher Columbus Sanders, funded a cemetery marker for the Rev. Sanders on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Grove Level church.

Reader Feedback – Sanders in Texas.  My Sanders have been in Texas since the Civil War after my great grandfather William Wesley Sanders Fought in the South in the Civil War.

Stephanie Shugrue (

Sanders and Saunders Names

  • Sir Edward Saunders was Chief Baron of the Exchequer to Queen Elizabeth.
  • T.H. Saunders, born in London, was a Victorian paper-maker whose innovative watermarks were first shown in the 1851 Great Exhibition.
  • Colonel Sanders, the pseudonym of Harland David Sanders, franchised the first Kentucky Fried Chicken under his name in 1952.
  • Larry Sanders was the fictional character played by Garry Shandling in the American TV series The Larry Sanders Show.
  • Bernie Sanders is the US Senator from Vermont who competed in 2016 and again in 2020 for the Democratic Presidential nomination.

Sanders and Saunders Numbers Today

  • 78,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 102,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 39,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Sanders and Like Surnames  

Patronymic surnames can be with either the “-son” or the shorter “s” suffix to the first name.  The “s” suffix is more common in southern England and in Wales.  Here are some of these surnames that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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