Sawyer Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Sawyer Surname Meaning

The Old English saghen, meaning “to saw,” was the root of the occupational name Sawyer, one who made his living by sawing wood. Sometimes Sawyer was abbreviated to Sayer.  In America Jewish names like Seger were often anglicized to Sawyer.

Sawyer Surname Resources on The Internet

Sawyer Surname Ancestry

  • from England (Kent and East Anglia)
  • to America, Canada and West Africa

England.  Some early surname forms were Sagher. But Sawyer had started to appear by the 14th century. The name crops up mainly along the East Coast of England, to some extent in Yorkshire but much more so in East Anglia and in Kent.

Norfolk  One Sawyer line traces itself to Cawston in Norfolk in the 1500’s and possibly earlier. Sir Edmund Sawyer was auditor for the city of London. He purchased Heywood near Maidenhead in Berkshire in 1627 and this manor stayed with the family for the next two hundred years. Two Sawyers became Royal Navy admirals in the 18th century. Other branches of this family were to be found in Cambridge and in Kettering in Northamptonshire.

Kent  A Sawyer family in Kent were, appropriately enough, carpenters. Based in Dover, Willard Sawyer was a carpenter who became internationally known as the first professional maker of a man-powered vehicle. He set up his business in 1838, the year after Queen Victoria came to the throne. The four-wheeled velocipede on which he cycled from London to Brighton is now an exhibit in the London Science Museum.

America. The early Sawyers in New England have been traced in Eleanor Sawyer’s 1995 book Sawyer Families of New England, 1636-1900.

New England.  Among the first New England arrivals were:

  • Edward, William, and Thomas Sawyer, three brothers in Ipswich, Mass in 1636 (one line of descendants were to become merchants and ship-owners in Gloucester, Mass).
  • William Sawyer, one of the founders of Newbury, Mass, in 1640 Thomas and Mary Sawyer who settled in Lancaster, Mass. in the 1640’s.

Mary Elizabeth Sawyer was the little girl in Sterling, Mass about whom the children’s poem, Mary Had a Little Lamb, was written in the early 19th century.

Alfred Sawyer from Marlborough, Mass started Sawyer’s Woollen Mills in Dover, New Hampshire in 1824. His grandson Charles became Governor of New Hampshire in 1886. Thomas Sawyer, born of a poor family in Vermont, became a prominent Universalist minister and educator. And Sawyers were also to be found from an early time at Greene, Saco, and Elliotsville in Maine.

Other notable Sawyers were:

  • Moses Sawyer who was an early settler on Shelter Island on Long Island Sound in the 1760’s.
  • a pioneer Sawyer family of upstate New York, who transferred from Dutchess to Schuyler county in the 1780’s.
  • and Philetus Sawyer who moved from upstate New York in Wisconsin in 1847 where he worked in the lumber industry. He ended up serving two terms as the Senator for Wisconsin. The family home on Algoma Boulevard in Oshkosh is now the Oshkosh Public Museum.

Sawyers in the South.  Sawyers were also in Virginia and the Carolinas by the 1700’s, the most prominent of these being the Sawyers along the Pasquotank river in Camden, North Carolina. Enoch Sawyer grew wealthy there by managing the port. Brother Lemuel Sawyer was a local congressman and a writer of some repute, although his 1844 autobiography did not go down well.

This was one reviewer’s comments:  “”This book – a frank disclosure of his gambling, wastefulness, dissipation, chicanery, and tawdry love affairs – must be one of the most self-condemning documents in all American letters.”

He blew his wife’s money and died in poverty. Family accounts showed later migrations of these Sawyers south to Alabama, Arkansas, and Texas.

Hannibal, Missouri is known as Tom Sawyer’s town, being the childhood home of his creator Mark Twain. John Sawyer, born in Virginia, settled with his wife Maria in Schuyler county, Missouri in the 1820’s. His granddaughter Millie Mariah died in Kansas in 1938 at the grand old age of 87. She left 109 living descendants to mourn her passing.

Canada. The first Sawyer in Canada was probably James Sawyer, born in New Carlisle, Quebec in 1764. His descendants were to be found there and in New Brunswick and Maine as well.

Lewis Sawyer was born in Canada in 1786. It was thought that his father had been a Scotsman who had come out to Canada as a young lad, but was then captured by Mohawk Indians. He was raised by the tribe at the St. Regis Indian reservation in upstate New York. Son Lewis, who was born there in 1824, could remember both his mother Mary and his grandmother Ann who lived to be 100.

John Sawyer left his home in Lancaster, Massachusetts in the 1780’s either during or after the turmoil of the Revolutionary War. He settled in Three Rivers, Quebec. There he married a French girl, accepted the Catholic faith, and became Jean. One of his descendants Avila did return to Massachusetts in the 1890’s. Another Sawyer family in Quebec, also in the Three Rivers area, came from the German immigrant Johannes Sauer, a Hessian soldier.

Other Sawyers from America were:

  • Noadiah Sawyer from Vermont, a Loyalist, who settled in Hamilton township, Ontario around 1810
  • and the Rev. Joseph Sawyer, a Methodist missionary from upstate New York who preached across the border on the Niagara circuit.

One of Joseph’s converts was a young Ojibwe Indian who took the name of Joseph Sawyer on his baptism. He and his son David Sawyer were to become chiefs of the Ojibwe Indians and to lead them to their new reservation in Tuscarora township.

Africa. The Sawyers have been a prominent Americo-Liberian family in Liberia. Amos Sawyer from this family served as an interim President in the early 1990’s. Violence in the country has meant that many of these Sawyers now live in the US.

Sawyer Surname Miscellany

Sawyers from Cawston in Norfolk.  The English family name of Sawyer emerged in the county of Norfolk where they were recorded as a family of antiquity seated with the manor of Cawston and estates in that shire.  They later established themselves at Heywood in Berkshire.

John Sawyer was a high sheriff of Berkshire and Sir Edmund Sawyer married into the Whitmores of Apley.  Admiral Sir Herbert Sawyer was a distinguished naval commander, as was his son of the same name.  A member of the family was the chef to Charles II.

Sawyer’s Almshouses in Kettering.  As lords of the manor of Haselfield in Kettering, the Sawyers were a leading town family for 150 years until 1723, when they were brought down by the South Sea Bubble crash.

Edmund Sawyer, who died in 1687, was a prosperous traveller and merchant who settled in Aleppo in present-day Syria.  He remembered Kettering when he made out his will onboard his ship at Santander.  He left £600 to his sister Joyce to be used to benefit the town.  The Almshouses, which still stand, were built with this money.

Early New England Immigrants – Edward, William, and Thomas Sawyer.  Three Sawyer brothers – Edward, William, and Thomas – came over to New England from Lincolnshire in 1636 on a ship commanded by Captain Parker.  Their progeny was prolific, possibly outnumbering any other family in New England.

It was said:  “These Sawyers were well-named – they were in fact sawyers.  If the Sawyers were not born with saws in their hands, the saws came very readily to their hands.  Every town, village, road, and lane throughout New England bears witness of their skill and industry.  They were millwrights, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, coopersmiths, carpenters, coopers, and they were the pioneers in the use of water power.”

Early New England Immigrant – Thomas Sawyer.  Thomas Sawyer, the ancestor of many of the Sawyers in New England, was born in England in 1616.  He came to Rowley, Massachusetts and then to Lancaster in 1647 where he followed his trade of blacksmith. Thomas married Mary Prescott, the daughter of John Prescott, and they had thirteen children.  He died in 1706 at the grand old age of ninety.

The family had their problems at Lancaster with Indian raids. The attack in 1676 during King Philip’s War had resulted in the death of their second son Ephraim, as well as the loss of relatives and friends.  The inhabitants of Lancaster had to be evacuated to Watertown on the coast. They remained there for about three years until it was deemed seemed safe to return.  The Sawyer family came back and rebuilt their damaged farm home.

The eldest son Thomas was a sawyer by trade.  In 1705, aged 56 and working with his son Elias and a friend at his sawmill, the three of them were captured by Indians and taken to French Canada.

As the French had no sawmills, Thomas recognized his opportunity and offered to trade his knowledge of mills and sawing for his freedom. Although the Indians felt that they were being cheated of a good subject for torture (having already tied him to the stake), a priest who desired his release brandished a key.  He threatened to unlock purgatory and thrust all Indians into eternal fire if they did not untie the prisoner.  He was set free, built the first sawmill in Canada, and was allowed to return home.

Mary Had A Little Lamb.  The following were the first twelve lines of Mary Had A Little Lamb, as written by John Roulstone and presented to Mary E. Sawyer:

  • “Mary had a little lamb,
  • Its fleece was white as snow,
  • And everywhere that Mary went
  • The lamb was sure to go.
  • It followed her to school one day;
  • That was against the rule;
  • It made the children laugh and play
  • To see the lamb at school.
  • And so the teacher turned it out;
  • But still it lingered near,
  • And waited patiently about
  • Til Mary did appear.”

This was the little poem that Mary received in the little red schoolhouse in Sterling.  Her home in that town, a classic New England Cape, has been preserved over generations by Sawyers as the Sawyer Homestead.

The Methodist Missionary.  The Rev. Joseph Sawyer was an American Methodist missionary who crossed the border in the early 1800’s to preach in Canada.

He was an itinerant “circuit rider.”  One day, the story goes, he could not make himself heard above the loud praying of his congregation.  So he rode onto his next appointment.  When the same time happened again, he told them plainly that he had come to preach and that he intended to be heard.  They could do their praying when they were alone. They listened to him.

Native Indians often were the closest neighbors of these travelling preachers.  But evangelization here was slow in coming. Joseph Sawyer made the first conversion in 1801, baptizing a young boy of the Ojibwe Indians in Credit river.  Possibly the young boy needed redemption.  He had been sold by his father for a bottle of liquor.  He took the name of his baptizer, Joseph Sawyer. Later he and his son David were to become chiefs of the Ojibwe Indians.

Tom Sawyer’s Town.  Mark Twain remembered it as a “white town drowsing in the sunshine of a summer’s morning.”  But Hannibal, Missouri, tucked away in the heart of the country, attracts more American visitors as Hawaii and as fourth as many as Europe.

Hannibal is Tom Sawyer’s town.  Mark Twain spent his boyhood years there.  Later he wrote that boyhood into two books, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. So closely has Hannibal become linked with its author that the town is seldom thought of as having a history before 1839 when a four year old red-headed boy came to live there and stay until he was seventeen.  The home where Mark Twain spent his childhood has been restored, even to “the room Tom Sawyer slept in,” the bedroom he shared with two of his brothers.

In 1935 Hannibal erected a lighthouse on the site of the home of Mrs. Holliday, the original of the widow Douglas in Tom Sawyer.  When Mark Twain was on the river, she kept a lamp burning in her window each night as a guide for the Mississippi steamboat pilots.

The Sawyer Home at Oshkosh.  Edgar and Mary Sawyer lived in a fine Second Empire style home on Algoma Boulevard.  At that time Algoma Boulevard was called “the Gold Coast” due to the number of prominent well-off families that lived there.  This house was then demolished in 1907 to make way for a newer and grander modern house.

The new house, now part of a museum, was designed by the Oshkosh architect William Waters in a style said to be “Gothic and Old English.” Built of Indiana brown brick and Bedford limestone, it had a slate roof. Included was an elevator that serviced all four floors and both gas and electrical service.  The Sawyers had contracted with the prestigious New York firm of Louis C. Tiffany to design and furnish the interior.  One of the most recognizable Tiffany features of the house was the iridescent stained glass windows on the landing.

The family moved into their new home in 1909.  Sadly Mary passed away from heart failure the following year.  Afterwards Edgar maintained the house with a full staff of servants but seldom lived there.  He donated the house to the city of Oshkosh in 1922.

Sawyer Names

  • Sir Edmund Sawyer was auditor to the Exchequer Court in London in the early 1600’s.
  • Willard Sawyer was the bicycle pioneer from Kent with his development of “velocipedes” in the 1840’s.
  • Tom Sawyer was the lead character in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which first appeared in 1876.
  • Philetus Sawyer was the Senator for Wisconsin from 1881 to 1893.
  • Diane Sawyer from Louisville, Kentucky is a well-known TV newscaster.

Sawyer Numbers Today

  • 19,000 in the UK (most numerous in Kent)
  • 18,000 in America (most numerous in North Carolina)
  • 4,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Sawyer and Like Surnames   

The various medieval trades and occupations were a source of surnames as John the baker would over time would become known as John Baker.  Some skilled craftsmen – such as chandlers, fletchers and turners – were able to form guilds, protective organizations, and style themselves Worshipful Companies.  These are some of the occupational surnames that you can check out.




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Written by Colin Shelley

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