Stern Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Stern Meaning
Stern surname has mainly Germanic roots, coming
from the German word stern meaning
“star,” and describing someone living at a house distinguished by the
sign of a
star. The name has been widespread
throughout central and eastern Europe, extending as far as Slovenia. Stern is also a common Jewish ornamental
are as well English versions of the surname – Stern, Sterne, Stearn,
Stearns – which have had different origins.
Here the name came from the Old English word styrne
meaning “strict” and would have started perhaps as a nickname for a schoolmaster or perhaps a court official, one whose job it was to maintain discipline.

Stern Resources on

Stern Ancestry

Sterns total some 10,000 in Germany today, mainly in
the south, with further Sterns in Austria and Slovenia.
The Jewish population has declined. There
was once a large number of Sterns in
, beginning at the
time of the
in the 17th century. Stern emigrants also
came from the old
Austria-Hungary and Russian empire in the 19th century.

England. The early surname
was Sterne, which later became outnumbered by Stearn and Stearns. These were mainly East Anglia names. The name Henry Sterne was recorded in the
Cambridgeshire rolls of 1279. An early
sighting was at Skeyton in Norfolk where Robert Sterne and his
descendants held
Whitwell Hall from about 1450 to 1560.

William Sterne migrated from Suffolk to
Nottinghamshire sometime in the 1550’s.
His line extended to:

  • Richard
    Sterne, Archbishop of York
    at the time of the Restoration in
    the 1660’s
  • the
    Archbishop’s three grandsons – Richard who succeeded to the family
    estates in
    Yorkshire; the second son Roger who did not, joined the army, and was
    to die poor
    in Jamaica in 1731; and the third son Jaques who pursued a career in
    the church
    and ended up as Precentor at York minster.
  • and
    Roger’s son Laurence, born in
    Ireland, who was to find literary fame in the 1760’s as the author of Tristram Shandy.

Sterne name, later
becoming Stearns, was also to be found in Nayland parish, Suffolk in
mid-1500’s. Isaac Stearns, an early
immigrant to America, is thought possibly to have come from this line. John Sterne was born near Cambridge in
1794. His line later became Stearn.

and Hermann Stern, Jewish bankers from Frankfurt, moved to London in
1844 and
formed the Stern Brothers banking house there. David’s
son Sydney was created Baron Wandsworth. Meanwhile
their cousin James had come over
some twenty years later and was also a merchant banker.
His son Albert was knighted for his work on
the Landships Committee during World War One in promoting the first

. Passenger records to America
over time
suggest that 65% of the Sterns who came from America were from Germany,
from Austria Hungary, 10% from the Russian empire, and 5% from England. If you were to add Stearn and Stearns to this
list the England percent rises to 7%.

Stearns. However, the Stearns came
first. There was a family tradition that
Stearns brothers – Daniel, Israel and Shubael – came to Massachusetts
England with the Winthrop fleet in 1630.
Daniel and Shubael died soon afterwards.
Shubael’s two sons Charles and Nathaniel were raised by their

on reaching anchorage in America went forward to select a place
for settlement. Emulation arose between
the two boys as which should step on land first. As
they sprang from the boat Charles missed
his footing and fell into the river – which was therefore christened
Charles river.”

They settled in Watertown, Massachusetts. An
early genealogical book was Avis Stearns
Van Wagenen’s 1901 book Genealogy and
Memoirs of Isaac Stearns
. Many of these Stearns
remained in Massachusetts:

  • Captain Josiah Stearns was a soldier in the Revolutionary
    War. His grandson George was a Boston merchant active in the
    abolitionist movement.
  • the Stearns had a long association with Phillips Academy in
    Andover, starting in the early 1800’s. Alfred Stearns was its
    headmaster in 1903.
  • Richard H. Stearns studied at the Academy in the
    1840’s. Soon afterwards he opened his store R.H.
    Stearns & Company
    , which became a fixture in the
    downtown Boston
    shopping scene for over a century.
  • Stearns from Billerica in Massachusetts included Onslow Stearns,
    Governor of New Hampshire in 1869, and Henry Stearns, a mill owner in
    Rhode Island and its Lieutenant Governor in 1891.
  • Henry’s brother George meanwhile had started a cotton wadding
    factory in Ohio in 1846, the firm later producing mattresses under the
    Stearns & Foster and Sealy brands. Edward Stearns’ home
    in Wyoming, Ohio is now a historic residence.

early Stearns line did lead to North Carolina where Shubael
Stearns was in the 1750’s its first Baptist preacher.

could become Stearns. Stern Brothers had been founded in 1867
by Isaac, Louis and Benjamin Stern, three sons of German Jewish
immigrants. In that year they began
selling dry goods in Buffalo, New York. From these humble beginnings
the Stern
Brothers became an important merchandising family in New York City.

Robert, the son of Isaac Stern, was educated in Andover, Massachusetts
and he
came under the spell of its headmaster Alfred Stearns.
As a result he changed his last name from Stern
to Stearns. Robert it was who was the
co-founder of the equity trading house Bear Stearns in
1923. Bear Stearns became a mighty Wall
investment bank before its fall from grace in 2008.

An earlier arrival from
Germany was Adolphus Sterne who landed in New Orleans in 1817 and then
as a merchant in Texas while it was still in Mexican hands. He later served in the Texas House of
Representatives. Jacob Stern started a hides and tallow business
in Philadelphia
in the 1850’s. Charles Stern was in
Georgia by the 1860’s and began a chain of clothing stores there.

Later arrivals
would come from the wider Jewish diaspora.
Harry and Ida Stern came to Pittsburgh from Poland after the
conclusion of
World War
One. Their son Gerald was a noted
American poet and essayist. Meanwhile
Solomon and Clara Stern arrived in San Francisco from Ukraine in 1921. Their son Isaac was the famous violinist.

There were Sterns fleeing
Nazi Germany in the 1930’s who came to America:

  • Herbert
    Stern fled Frankfurt for
    America in 1938 after his father had been taken away to
    Buchenwald. His wife
    Margot managed to escape three years later. They
    made an emotional return to Frankfurt in 2014.
  • Harold Stern, also from
    Frankfurt, arrived in America in 1947
    following his mother who had come six years earlier.
    He had lived in internment camps in England
    and Australia during the war and then enlisted in the Australian army
    his emigration to America.
  • while
    Hilda Stern was transported with her family
    from Frankfurt in 1941 and ended up in the Auschwitz concentration camp. She miraculously survived.
    She left Germany for New York in 1946.

Canada. Harry Stern, a Reform
rabbi, had left
Lithuania with his parents as a young boy in 1906, settling in Ohio. He moved to Montreal’s Temple Emmanuel in
1927 where he remained until his retirement in 1972.
He worked tirelessly there to foster better
Jewish-Christian relations.

Max Stern had escaped Germany for
London in 1937 and later ended up in a Canadian internment camp. He became a famous Canadian art dealer,
following in the steps of his father who had run an art gallery in
Dusseldorf (until
it was closed by the Nazis).

South Africa. Samuel Stern had come to
South Africa around
1886 and farmed in the Transvaal. During
the Boer War he was interned by the British because of his supposed
feelings. His daughter Irma Stern became
a well-known painter. Her home in Cape
Town is now the Irma Stern museum.


Select Stern Miscellany

Sterns in Frankfurt.  The Judengasse in Frankfurt represented the largest Jewish community in Germany during the 17th century.  It was a closed compound, shut off from the
rest of the city by high walls and three heavy gates.
These gates were locked at night and on
Christian holidays.  The Jews were
therefore almost completely isolated from everyone else in Frankfurt.

There were
two important Stern families in the Judengasse,
both named after their family home the Stern.One of these families was a branch
of a Worms family and had their main home in the Storch next door to
Stern.  Their descendants included
wealthy brokers and famous rabbis.

The other Stern family began with Susskind
Stern who had come originally from the Haas family (after Samuel Beer
descendants had named themselves after their homes – Beer, Kann, and
Stern).  When the ban on Jewish wine
merchants could no longer be upheld at the end of the 18th century,
Jacob Samuel
Heyum Stern became the first of the Jewish wine merchants in Frankfurt.  In 1805 he converted the family business into
a bank named Jacob S.H. Stern.  This bank soon became one of the
most prominent in Germany and spread internationally.

August Heinrich Stern, born in 1838, was related to this family. His daughter Alice married Michael Frank in 1885 and a descendant was Anne Frank of Anne Frank’s Diary.   

In the 20th century there were still many Sterns living in and around the Frankfurt area.  However, the Nazis decimated the Jewish population, forcing them either into concentration camps or to flee.

The Turbulent times of Archbishop Sterne.  At Cambridge University in 1633 Richard Sterne had the double honor of becoming master of
Jesus College and being the chaplain to Archbishop Laud of
Canterbury.  It
appears to have been mainly through his instrumentality that many of
Cambridge colleges sent their plate to the King at York, to be
converted into
money for the Royal use.

This roused the
ire of the Parliamentarians.  Sterne,
together with the masters of St. John’s and Queen’s, was sent to the
Tower.  He was permitted, however, to
minister to Laud on the scaffold at the time of William Laud’s
execution in

Rigorous imprisonment over a
period of seven months followed.   He
then placed
on board a coal-ship moored in the Thames and
shut down beneath the hatches.  He
suffered great privation and his enemies were credited with the
intention of
selling him into slavery.  However, he
was released after ten days in this abject state.

He survived.
At the time of the Restoration he was reinstated as head of
College and shortly afterwards was consecrated as the Bishop of
Carlisle.  He found his cathedral and
residence in
ruins, no dean or chapter, and many of the poorer clergy had never been
ordained.  In four years, however, he
evolved order out of chaos.  However, he
rebuilt Rose Castle so badly that on his appointment as Archbishop of
York in
1664 an action for dilapidation was brought against him by his
successor and he
was fined £400.

He died in 1683, aged 87, and was buried in his cathedral at
York Minster.

R.H. Stearns & Company in Boston.  In 1846
Richard Stearns moved to Boston and opened up his own business in a
small shop
which later grew into a large store and company, R. H. Stearns &

R. H. Stearns & Company became a fixture in the downtown Boston shopping scene
for over a century.  The store catered to
the “carriage trade” (well-off customers) and was particularly noted for its
woman’s clothing.  The stereotypical
Stearns customer was a white-gloved older woman of subdued upper-crust
demeanor.  Well-crafted children’s items
were also sold, as well as men’s clothing, silver and crystal – but not

The R.
H. Stearns Building, an
11 story structure, was
built at Tremont Street in Boston in 1909.
building with
high, intricately designed ceilings, and sturdy Roman-style columns was
developed in the beaux art style of architecture which was very common
at that
time.  It
still stands.

store remained in
family hands until the early 1920’s.
When the store
finally folded in 1978,
Boston lost its “grand” store, the last really old-style Boston store

Stern Brothers in New York.  In 1868 the three Stern
brothers – Isaac, Louis and Benjamin Stern – moved to New York and opened a small
one-room store on Sixth Avenue.  Ten
years later their business had greatly expanded and they relocated to
larger premises at what became their flagship store on West 23rd Street.  It still stands today with the company’s
monogram located above the central arch, although the occupants are

It was an elegant store noted for its fashionable clothes. Ladies from all over
the city came to Stern Brothers for their Paris fashions. The
enterprise was
distinguished by its elegant door men in top hats and the generous and
service of the Sterns.  It was not uncommon for customers to be
greeted by the
brothers themselves.

the late 1950’s and early 1960’s sales began to
decline as most white New Yorkers moved to the suburbs. Stern’s in fact
its flagship store in New York in 1969.

Harold Stern’s World War Two Experiences.  Harold Stern was a member of a large Jewish liberal congregation in Frankfurt, the West End
synagogue.  By the late 1930’s the Nazi
anti-semitism was increasingly evident and he attempted to emigrate.  Despite having an early quota number, his
attempts to emigrate to America were thwarted because their affidavits
were not
accepted by the American Consulate in Stuttgart.  Instead,
in early 1939, Harold left for
England through the aid of family friends there.

London he worked as a
factory trainee until June 1940 when he was picked up and interned in
Huyten, a
camp near Liverpool, with other German Jewish refugees.

month later he volunteered for transport on
the Dunera, a ship supposedly bound
for Canada but re-routed to Australia.
In his journals he described in detail the desperate conditions
at sea,
harsh treatment by British soldiers, and the refugee behavior during
the ten week
voyage. From Sidney he was transferred to a barbed-wire enclosed
compound in
the Australian outback.  After twenty
months of internment he joined the Australian army where he served

kept contact with his mother and knew that she had reached America
in late 1941.  Through the help of a
non-Jewish woman, she had obtained a visa in September 1941, left
Germany on a
sealed train to Berlin, journeyed through occupied and Vichy France and
to Lisbon, boarding one of the last steamers from Portugal to America.  Her brother, however, was arrested by the
Gestapo and never seen again.

himself immigrated to the USA in 1947 under
the German quota.


Select Stern Names

  • Laurence Sterne achieved literary fame in
    England when his novel Tristram Shandy was
    published in the 1760’s. 
  • George Stearns started a cotton wadding
    factory in Ohio in 1846, the forerunner of the Stearns & Foster and Sealy mattress brands. 
  • Isaac Stern was a renowned Russian-born violinist and conductor in America. 
  • Irma Stern was a noted South African painter. 
  • Howard Stern is an American radio and television personality, producer and author.

Select Stern Numbers Today

  • 3,000 in the UK (most numerous
    in East Anglia)
  • 19,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 1,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)


Select Stern and Like Surnames 

The first wave of German immigration into America came in the early 1700’s from the Rhine Palatine and Switzerland.  They were fleeing religious persecution at home.  Most ended up in Pennsylvania, bringing their Mennonite church with them.  Some went to the Mohawk Valley in upstate New York.  Their Germanic names often changed under English rule to English-style names.  Thus Fischer became Fisher, Schneider Snyder, Hubner Hoover and so forth.

The reasons for immigration were different in the 19th century – in search of a better life, sometimes to avoid the draft.  They came from all German states and went not just to Pennsylvania but all over as the middle and west of the country was opening up.  And they brought German skills with them, notably beer-making.

Here are some of the notable German surnames in America that you can check out.




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