Stern Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Stern Surname Meaning

The 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 a common Jewish ornamental surname. 

There are as well English versions of the surname – Stern, Sterne, Stearn, and 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 Surname Resources on The Internet

Stern, Sterne and Stearns Surname Ancestry

  • from England (East Anglia), Southern Germany and from Jewish emigrants
  • to America, Canada and South Africa

Sterns total some 10,000 in Germany today, mainly in the south, with further Sterns in Austria and Slovenia. The Jewish population has declined.  The Stern name had been prominent in the Judengasse community of Frankfurt in the 17th century, as were other Jewish names such as Rothschild, Schiff and Strauss.  The Stern banking family originated there with Samuel Hayum Stern in the 1780’s.  Sterns also came from the old Austria-Hungary and the Russian empire in the 19th century.

England.  The early surname in England 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 family 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.

The Sterne name, later becoming Stearns, was also to be found in Nayland parish, Suffolk in the 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.

Jewish.  David 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.

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 British tank.  At this time Frederick Stern of the family was active as a big game hunter in Africa.  Later he became a gardener in Sussex and was knighted for his services to horticulture in 1956.

America. Passenger records to America over time suggest that 65% of the Sterns who came from America were from Germany, 20% 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 three Stearns brothers – Daniel, Israel and Shubael – came to Massachusetts from England with the Winthrop fleet in 1630. Daniel and Shubael died soon afterwards. Shubael’s two sons Charles and Nathaniel were raised by their uncle Isaac.

“Isaac 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 the 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.

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

SternStern 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.

However, 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 Street 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 surfaced 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 before 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 pro-Boer feelings. His daughter Irma Stern became a well-known painter. Her home in Cape Town is now the Irma Stern museum.’

Stern, Sterne and Stearns Surname 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 the 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 Haas’s 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 the 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 1645.

Rigorous imprisonment over a period of seven months followed.   He was 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 Jesus 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 & Company.

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 appliances.

The R. H. Stearns Building, an 11 story structure, was built at Tremont Street in Boston in 1909. The 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.

The 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 left.

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 much 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 different.

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 friendly service of the Sterns.  It was not uncommon for customers to be greeted by the brothers themselves.

During 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 closed 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.

In 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.

A 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 until 1946.

Harold 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 Spain to Lisbon, boarding one of the last steamers from Portugal to America.  Her brother, however, was arrested by the Gestapo and never seen again.

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

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.

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)

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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Written by Colin Shelley

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