Steele Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Steele Surname Meaning

The Steel and Steele surnames came from Scotland and the north of England.  There were two possible origins for these names:

(a) that they may have started out as nicknames – describing someone who was inflexible and firm, i.e. as hard as steel. 

and/or (b) that they may have derived from the place-name of Steel, found along the Anglo-Scottish border in Ayrshire, Berwickshire and Dumfriesshire and also in Northumberland and Westmorland.

Steele Surname Resources on The Internet

Steele and Steel Surname Ancestry

  • from England (Cheshire), Scotland (Lanarkshire) and Germany
  • to Ireland, America, Canada and Australia

England.   The main early sightings appear to have been in Cheshire.

Cheshire.  The Steeles at Sandbach dated back to Richard Steele who had acquired Giddy Hall in the early 1600’s.  The main line followed his son William to Ireland where he was appointed Lord Chancellor in 1656.  A branch via John Steele returned to England in the early 1700’s and became Steel in Suffolk.  Other Steeles remained at Sandbach.

“The plates and cups in the silver communion service used at the old Sandbach parish church bear the following inscription: ‘The gift of Lawrence Steele, second son of Richard Steele of Sandbach, for the use of the said parish of Sandbach forever. 1656.’”  

Another Steele line in Cheshire was to be found at Barthomley where Richard Steele was born around the year 1550.  Three Steele descendants were massacred at the local church on Christmas Eve 1643 by Royalists.  Richard Steele, not one of these, moved to London and became a nonconformist minister.  Later Steeles in Barthomley held Buddylee farm.  Another Steele farming family there, indebted, emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1795.

Elsewhere.  Steeles in the village of Fairsted near Basildon in Essex appeared around the year 1500.  John Steele emigrated from there to America in 1631.

Steeles in Broughton in Hampshire went back to William Steele, a local carpenter in the early 1600’s.  Four generations later the Steeles were well-to-do timber merchants, with William Steele – following his brother Henry – also active as pastor of his local Baptist church.  His daughter Anne Steele, born in 1717, became a prolific hymn writer.

Samuel Steele, born in 1708, was the first of his line in Coleford, Gloucestershire.  He had two sons – Elmes a surgeon and Samuel an army officer in Canada.  Six of Elmes’s sons followed in these footsteps.

“One son was believed to have been below-board as an assistant surgeon on the Victory at Trafalgar, another was drowned during a naval exercise in the Baltic. Three served as soldiers throughout the Peninsular War, one of whom died from his wounds at Waterloo and another was said to have been the tallest man in the British army during the subsequent occupation in Paris.”   

Another naval officer Elmes Steele retired early and emigrated to Canada in 1832.

In general, it should be said however, the Steele surname was to be found mainly in the northwest of England, in a line stretching north from Staffordshire through Cheshire and Lancashire into Cumberland. 

Scotland.  Early Steels in Scotland were spelt Steill, possibly from the parish in Berwickshire of that name.

The Steels of Lesmahagow in Lanarkshire had joined the army of Covenanters at war with the Stuart kings.  The aged father Robert Steel was slain in 1679, whilst his son Captain John Steel at that time narrowly escaped death.  After years on the run David Steel was murdered outside his front door by Royalist dragoons in 1686.

Descendants of these Steels have been:

  • the Steels who fled to Ireland and subsequently emigrated to Pennsylvania.
  • and David Steel, the UK Liberal party leader from 1976 to 1988.

Joseph Steel, a shipowner from Kirkwood in Lanarkshire who had made his home in Liverpool in the mid-19th century, was the forebear of an English cricketing family.  There were seven Steel sons, of whom four played first-class cricket for Lancashire and one Allan or AG many times for England.

Ireland.  There were English Steeles and Scottish Steels in Ireland.

The English Steeles were based in Dublin following William Steele’s appointment as Lord Chancellor of Ireland in 1656. His grandson Sir Richard Steele, born there, made his name as a politician and playwright. He co-founded in 1709 with his friend Joseph Addison the magazine The Tatler (which continues to this day).  Richard’s grandson, also named Richard, emigrated to Pennsylvania in the late 1700’s.

According to family tradition three Steel brothers, loyal to the Covenanter cause, had been forced to flee Scotland.  It was said that one descendant of the rebel John Steel ended up in Donegal. Many of these Steels later also emigrated to Pennsylvania.

Other Scottish Steels were to be found at Castleblaney in Monaghan.  The lads here formed the “Steelboy insurrection” against English rule in the early 1770’s.  For nearly three years the Steelboys slaughtered cattle and destroyed the property of new tenants. James Steel then departed for Pennsylvania in 1774.

America.  John and George Steele from Essex were early arrivals in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631. They moved inland four years later to be among the first settlers of Hartford, Connecticut.  Daniel Steele Durrie’s 1862 book was entitled Steele Family: A Genealogical History of John and George Steele.

Steele descendants migrated to New York (and the numbers here included the landscape architect Fletcher Steele) and to Ohio and California.  “General Frederick Steele was a West Point graduate and a hero of the Mexican and Civil Wars.  In 1853 he returned to Ohio and told his brothers of the opportunities in California, convincing them to make the journey and settle there with their families.”  

This they did in the next five years, leasing land at Rancho Punta Año Nuevo and setting up five dairy farms. Their story was told in C.B. and W.H. Steele’s 1971 book The Steeles of Punta Año Nuevo.

Meanwhile another Steele line, in this case via New York, produced Elijah Steele who had arrived in California in 1850 and was an Indian agent in northern California.

Pennsylvania.  The Steele arrivals into Pennsylvania were more numerous and included English (or Anglo-Irish) and Scottish (or Scots Irish) Steeles.

The Anglos included:

  • Richard Steele the grandson of Sir Richard Steele, who was granted lands in the vicinity of Mercersburg in the 1730’s.  Three of his sons, including Captain Andrew Steele who fought in the Revolutionary War, later settled in Fayette county, Kentucky.  
  • and George Steele from Cheshire who came to Chester county in 1795.  His line was covered in Frederick Steele’s 1896 book The Descendants of George Steele of Barthomley. 

whilst amongst the more numerous Scots Irish in Pennsylvania were:

  • William Steele who arrived in 1750 and made his home in Steelville, Chester county.  His grandson Franklin headed west in 1838 and was an early settler in Minneapolis.  
  • the Rev. John Steele who came to Carlisle in Cumberland county in 1759 and served as the pastor of the Presbyterian church there for twenty years.  He was known as the fighting parson in the early years of the Revolutionary War.  The name of Ephraim Steele first appeared in Carlisle in 1769. He was an influential merchant and landowner there for forty-five years.  
  • James Steel from Monaghan who was in Cumberland county by 1774, but soon headed west to Westmoreland county where he died in 1823.  
  • and the various Steel Covenanter descendants in Donegal who came to Pennsylvania in stages between 1790 and 1824.  The Rev. David Steele was a Covenanter minister in Huntingdon and later served as a pastor in Adams county, Ohio.   

A later arrival in 1846 was a Steele widow and her four sons from Glasgow in Scotland.  Her eldest son William started work in Philadelphia as a carpenter. By 1886 the four sons were partners in William Steele and Son, Carpenters and Builders.  No longer house builders, they had quickly moved into large-scale construction.  The project for which they became famous was the Shibe Park baseball stadium, completed in 1909.

Meanwhile Pennsylvania also had some German-origin Steeles who had come as Stahls. One such was Johann Jakob Stahl who arrived in Philadelphia from Rheinland-Pfalz in 1738. Their son Johann Georg Stahl became George Steele.

Elsewhere.  John Steele of Rowan county, North Carolina was a nephew of the Ephraim Steele in Pennsylvania.  He served as a Federalist legislator after the Revolutionary War and was appointed comptroller of the US Treasury by George Washington in 1796.

Thomas Steele, a native of Dublin, had served on the schooner General Putnam in defense of New York during the Revolutionary War. He settled with his family in Kentucky in 1798. His grandson Alfonso fought with Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836 during the Texas Revolution.  On his death in 1911 he was the last remaining survivor of that battle.

Canada.  James and Thomas Steele, brothers from Antrim, arrived in Simcoe county sometime in the 1820’s.   Both settled in West Gwillimbury township and both married McAfee girls.

Sam Steele, the son of retired British naval officer Elmes Steele, was born in Medonte township, Simcoe county in 1849. He became an officer of the North-West Mounted Police, most famously as the head of the Yukon detachment during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898.

South of Simcoe county lay the city of Toronto where Thomas and Milcah Steele arrived from Yorkshire in 1834. Thomas and later his son John were proprietors of the Green Bush Inn in its Newtonbrook suburb.  Steele’s Corners and Steele’s Avenue in the area were named after them.

Australia.  The early Steele accounts in Australia related to convicts.

Betty Steele was a deaf young woman who was convicted of burglary in London and transported to Australia on the infamous Lady Juliana in 1789.  She ended up in Norfolk Island where she pioneered a farm with her ex-convict husband James Mackey. Freed in 1794 she, however, died just one year later.  She might have been forgotten had not her gravestone been discovered in 1971 almost two hundred years later.

George Steel from Suffolk came out to Tasmania as a fee settler in 1828.  Six years later he was convicted of cattle stealing and sent also to Norfolk Island. Freed in 1843 he lived out the rest of his life in Liverpool, NSW.

Steele and Steel Surname Miscellany

Steels and Steeles Today

Numbers (000’s) Steel Steele Total
UK    14    24    38
America     2    32    34
Elsewhere     4     12    16
Total    20    68    88

The spelling in England is mainly Steele, in Scotland Steel.

Early Steels in Scotland.  George Fraser Black in his 1946 The Surnames of Scotland had the following to say about Steel:

“There are places so named in the shires of Ayr, Berwick, and Dumfries. In Berwickshire the old parish of Steill is now Ladykirk.  William Stele was a burgess of Edinburgh in 1423 and John Steil or Steyll appeared as a prebendary of Kilmoirin Brechin in 1434 and 1448.  John Steill alias Kempy Steill was hanged for theft in 1524 and George Steyll was the King’s familiar servitor in 1530.  Jock Steill appeared in the town of Bowdenon the Scottish borders in 1567.  William Steill was piper to one of the two companies of Highland bowmen raised in Argyll in 1627 for service in France.”

The Steele Family of Sandbach and Ireland.  The following line for the Steele family of Sandbach in Cheshire derived from the Visitation of Cheshire in 1663.  The Steele family home in Sandbach was the moated Giddy Hall.

  • – Thomas Steele, yeoman farmer of Weston (1540-1607), m. Alice Latham
  • — Richard Steele, gentleman of Sandbach (1580-1645), m. Cicely Shaw (note – his younger brother Thomas, a cheese factor in Nantwich, was shot in 1643 by the Parliamentarians for giving up Beeston castle without a fight). 
  • — William Steele (1610-1690), Lord Chancellor of Ireland, m. (1) Elizabeth Godfrey and (2) Mary Mellish
  • —- Richard Steele (1638-1709), a debt collector in Ireland (brother to William and Benjamin Steele)
  • —– Sir Richard Steele (1671-1729), Irish writer and politician
  • — Lawrence Steele (1616-1697), clerk of the Irish House of Commons.

The Murder of David Steel.  The Rev. Robert Simpson in his 1887 book Traditions of the Covenanters had this to say about the murder of David Steel.

“The Steels of Lesmahagow were men of renown and faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ.  David Steel was shot at Skellyhill in 1686 in the thirty-third year of his age.  He was, after a promise of quarter, murdered before his own door.

Mary Weir, his youthful and truly Christian wife, cherished an uncommon attachment for her husband, having bound up his shattered head with a napkin and closed down his eyelids with her own hand.

She looked upon the manly and honest countenance that was now pale in death and said with a sweet and heavenly composure: ‘The archers have shot at thee my husband, but they cannot reach thy soul.  It has escaped like a dove, far away and is at rest.’

David Steel was shot by an officer under the command of Viscount Dundee, known in history as Bloody Claverhouse, who devastated Scotland as a follower and supporter of the exiled Stuarts.  He was buried at Lesmahagow, in the same God’s Acre in which repose the others of the family name.  At Skellyhill a monument commemorating his martyrdom was erected.”

A play True Steel, based on the story of Steel’s martyrdom, was written by Robert McLeish.  It has been performed a number of times, most recently in 2016 at nearby Strathaven.

The Story of Anne Steele.  Anne Steele was born in the village of Broughton in Hampshire in 1717, the daughter of William Steele, a well-to-do local timber merchant who converted his home at Pigeon House Farm into that fine Georgian house known as Broughton House.

But Anne suffered in her early years from misfortunes. She was only a baby of three years old when her mother died.   She grew up a delicate child and suffering a hip injury in her late teens that made it difficult for her to get around.

Life was to deal a further hard blow.  She had fallen in love with a man called Robert Elscourt. He proposed marriage and she accepted. But her lover decided to swim and bathe in the Test river on the day before their wedding.  He drowned and Anne was grief stricken.

She had always been a young woman who found solace in writing and now she turned to God to guide her through this wretched time. It is believed that her first hymn, a poem of beautiful resignation, was written at this time.  Anne went on to write 144 hymns and 34 versified psalms. She wrote devotional poems under her pseudonym Theodosia.

In 1760 two volumes of her Poems on Subjects Devotional were published and these inspired others to compile a Baptist hymn book including her works.  She was one of the first female hymn writers in Britain and her work has been described as being deeply moving and inspirational. 

Ephraim Steele of Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  Ephraim Steele came to America with his cousin Thomas Stephenson.  It is probable that he was not then of age and that he settled in Carlisle because his brother John was already living there. His name first appears on the town’s tax list in 1769.

In 1777 he purchased for 300 pounds the lot lying in the southwest angle formed by Hanover street and the public square.  Here he had his home and business place for many years.

In 1779 his pastor, the Rev. John Steele, the famous captain preacher, died and Ephraim Steele was one of the executors of his will.  By this time he was one of the foremost citizens and businessmen of the town and a Justice of the Peace.

At the conclusion of the Revolutionary War in 1783 he was elected a county commissioner and, a few years later, a member of the lower branch of the State Legislature. In February 1813 the Governor appointed him an associate judge for Cumberland county.  But this honor he was not permitted to enjoy long as he died in 1814.

Sam Steele, Canadian Mountie in the Yukon.  Part of Sam Steele’s attraction for his contemporaries was that he embodied the values of the day – Victorian ideals, imperial zeal, and selfless patriotism.  Born in Ontario in 1849, he came from a long line of defenders of the Union Jack.  His British-born forebears had fought on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 and at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

Steele was still a teenager in 1866 when he joined a militia formed to fight raids onto Canadian soil by Irish American Fenians. The youngster quickly realized that military life in the rough British colony offered adventures impossible to experience on a pioneer farm.  He was a big, brawny man’s man – barrel chested, good looking, and inclined to hit the bottle too hard when bored.

In 1872 the Canadian Government launched the North-West Mounted Police.   Its distinctive uniform reflected its purpose.  A Mountie wore the red jacket of a traditional British regiment and the breeches and boots of a frontier ranger.   The third man to be sworn into this uniquely Canadian force was the twenty-four year-old Samuel Benfield Steele.  He began his career as a constable and started moving up the ranks.

In 1898 he was appointed superintendent of the Mounties in the Yukon where gold had been discovered.  He assumed command of a third of the entire Mountie force and moved to Dawson City.

There he insisted that all bars, saloons, and gambling parlors be closed from midnight on Saturday until 2 a.m. on Monday.  He cleaned up corruption in the gold commissioner’s office. And he saw that major criminals were summarily shipped out of the country, while minor offenders were put to work cutting firewood for police headquarters in temperatures as extreme as 40 degrees below zero.

From the time of his arrival the burly man in scarlet serge had by sheer force of will imposed law and order on this squalid, frantic frontier town.  When the young Mounties at the police station near the Front Street saloons saw their walrus-mustached boss stomping toward them in the early-morning darkness, they jumped to attention.  When Steele tramped along the frozen Klondike River on crisp, twilit winter afternoons, looking like a dangerous predator in his raccoon coat, cabin dwellers along the riverbank waved politely. On the rare occasions when he stepped into a smoky saloon, a hush spread through the gambling tables as card sharps and hookers melted into the background.

In the spring of 1899, the Toronto Globe declared:

“Colonel Steele should be given a special vote of thanks by Parliament.  No man ever deserved it more. Besides having his men under such a remarkable state of discipline he has done wonders in many other ways.  That is the kind of man required in a country like this.”

However, not everyone shared this opinion and his Yukon command was terminated later on that year.

Steele Names

  • Sir Richard Steele was an 18th century Irish writer, playwright, and politician, remembered as the co-founder of The Tatler. 
  • Sam Steele was a famous Canadian Mountie in the 1890’s at the time of the Klondike gold rush. 
  • Freddie Steele, born Frederick Burgett, was an American middleweight boxing champion of the world in the 1930’s who later became a Hollywood actor.  
  • Tommy Steele, born Thomas Hicks, was regarded in the 1950’s as Britain’s first teen idol and rock and roll star.
  • David Steel from Scotland was the leader of the Liberal Party from 1976 until its merger with the Social Democratic Party in 1988. 
  • Danielle Steel is an American writer, known for her best-selling romance novels.

Steele Numbers Today

  • 38,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 34,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 16,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

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Written by Colin Shelley

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