Wells Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Wells Meaning
derives from the
Anglo-Saxon word
which described a spring
(rather than a well) and probably a spring associated with a holy
place. The surname Wells might describe either someone who lived
by a spring or someone from a place called Wells.

The two main place names for Wells in England have been:

  • the cathedral
    city of
    Wells in Somerset
  • and the village of Wells-next-the-Sea in north

They both appeared in the Domesday Book, as Weile and Guella respectively.

The surname Welles is thought to have originated from the Lincolnshire village of Well, also to be found in the Domesday Book.  Welles has persisted as a
surname, although it has usually contracted to Wells.

Resources on

Wells Ancestry

Wells place names provided the earliest instances of Wells’s use as a surname:

  • Edward de Wells was a 12th century landowner in the city of
    Wells, Somerset. His sons Hugh and Jocelin both became bishops,
    Hugh of Lincoln and Jocelin of Bath and Wells.
  • Adam de Welles of Lincolnshire was made the 1st Baron de Welles
    in the 13th century. Later Barons fought and died in the Wars of
    the Roses (including Sir Robert Welles who was executed for rebellion
    in 1469). Anne Welles of this family was the great great great
    grandmother of Anne Boleyn.

Wells in Somerset and Welles in Lincolnshire might suggest that there
was both a western and an eastern focus for the Wells surname.
However, the subsequent distribution of the Wells name
shows that Wells has not been that common in the west of England.
It was found from early times in East Anglia, London and Kent.

Kent John Wells
was a naval storekeeper (and a budding mathematician) in
Deptford in the early 17th century; and there are Kent family histories
from the early 18th century out of Margate, Tonbridge, Woodchurch, and
Penshurst (the last-named being the
point for the family of the writer H.G. Wells).

Yorkshire There
was also an early Wells outpost in north Yorkshire, in and around
Ripon. Robert Welles held land at Galphay in the parish of Kirkby
Malzeard in the 1550’s. The family farm, Cow Myers, stayed with
the Wells until the 19th century. William Wells grew up in Thirsk
in the 1750’s.

“A mason, he built the Methodist Chapel
at Thirsk and knew John Wesley, who hand knelt in prayer with William
and his wife Margaret and commended them both to the Divine protection
when they left Yorkshire.”

They travelled to Boston and eventually settled in Halifax, Nova


The Wells name is to be found in Dumfries, but pronounced as
“Walls.” James and Mary Wells of Dumfries who boarded the boat
for Australia in 1852 were in fact listed as Walls.

Ireland. Irish Wells
seemed to be concentrated in Ulster and were
probably of English or Scottish descent. Samuel Wells was on the
Antrim flaxgrowers’ list of 1796. There were Wells in and around
Lurgan in county Armagh during the 19th century.

America. here were
early Wells/Welles arrivals into New England and into Virginia and

New England
Thomas Welles from Stourton in Warwickshire, came to
Hartford, Connecticut in 1636 and
later settled in Wethersfield. He was for a short time the
colonial governor of the Connecticut colony. His descendants were
numerous and

  • Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy during the Civil War
  • Roger Welles, San Diego’s first “navy mayor” during World War One
  • Henry Wells who founded both the American Express Company and the
    Wells Fargo
  • and Daniel Wells the Mormon, an early mayor of Salt Lake

There are also believed to be connections to Gerald Ford,
Nancy Reagan,
and Sarah Palin. The
Descendants of Thomas Welles

by Donna H. Semiatkoski was published in 1990.

Other early Wells arrivals were:

  • Thomas Wells, who had arrived with his parents in 1635 and later
    settled in Hadley, Massachusetts. One branch of this family moved to
    Vermont and included in their number the Civil War General William
    Wells. Another went south to Louisiana in the late 1700’s and
    held sway there until the Civil War.
  • William
    Wells of Northold
    , who came to New England in the
    1630’s. Tradition has him as one of the founders of Northold on
    Long Island in 1640. It was the first English settlement in what
    was then Dutch New Amsterdam. This Wells’ lineage has been the
    subject of two books, William Wells
    of Southold and His Descendants
    by the Rev. Charles
    Wells Hayes in 1878 and William
    Wells of Southold
    by Walter M. Wells a century later in

Virginia and Maryland
Stephen Wells came to Richmond county, Virginia in
1662. His descendants headed south in 1819 to
Louisiana. William Wells and his family were among the first
settlers of the Ponchatoula area of Louisiana.

James Wells, who was brought to Maryland in 1669. He
the progenitor of the Little Wells family of the
early 1700’s in Baltimore (as opposed to the Big Wells family also there
at that time).

From these early immigrants came two Wells political dynasties of the
19th century, one in Louisiana and the other in Utah.

  • Louisiana
    Wells had secured land from the Spanish in the
    1790’s in Rapides parish and started the family’s cotton
    plantations. His sons James Madison and Jefferson Wells were planters
    there and active in the local politics in the years up to the Civil War
    (James was briefly Governor of the state in 1864).
  • Utah
    Wells had emigrated to Salt Lake Valley with the Mormon pioneers
    in 1848. His family became politically prominent in Utah’s early
    years, intermarrying with other prominent local families such as the
    Cannons, the Grants, and the Bennetts.

Canada. One of the first
Wells in Canada was possibly William Wells from Thirsk in Yorkshire who
arrived in New Brunswick in 1773 and settled with his family in Point
de Bute. Another Wells family, this time from Ireland, came to
Guysboro, Nova Scotia around 1802. Later Wells here were sea

There were Wells among the Loyalists who migrated north to Canada after
the Revolutionary War. One such was William Wells from New
Hampshire. He crossed the border as a young lad in 1787 and
settled in the Maitland area along the St. Lawrence river. His
son W.B. Wells became actively involved in the Reform politics of the

Australia. Henry and
Hannah Wells, newly married in Wiltshire, departed for Melbourne on the
Adromache in 1839. They
settled first in Sorrento and later in Frankston, Victoria and raised
thirteen children, twelve of them boys.


Wells Miscellany

Wells and Variants.  The old Anglo-Saxon word waella
meant spring
(rather than a well) and probably a spring associated with a holy
place.  In Kent and East Anglia this word seems to have been
pronounced “wella,” from which has come the surname Wells and, in
Sussex, Atwell (at the well).

However, in the old Mercian kingdom
in the Midlands it sounded more like “walla” and the resulting surname
was Wall.  Then in the west country the West Saxon “wiella”
produced Will and Wooll surnames.

Wells in Early Kent Wills.  The table below shows some early Wells records in Kent
(from the Kent Index of Wills).  Wells sometimes was written
Welles and sometimes Wellys.

1452 John Wells his death at Southfleet
1477 Sir John Wells death of the vicar of Wilmington
1479 John Wells his death at Leybourne
1489 John Wells his death at Tonbridge
1494 John Wells his death at Chislehurst
1499 William Wells his death at Tonbridge
1501 John Wells his marriage at Gravesend
1522 William Wells his marriage at Swanstead

Wells Name Distribution in England.  The table below gives the distribution of the Wells name within England
in the 18th century and at the end of the 19th century.  The first
comes from the distribution of Wells apprentices by county (which total
overall 350, probably a large enough sample to give a representative
and the second from the 1891 census.

County 18th century End 19th century
percent percent
East Coast
  Yorkshire    3    9
   Lincolnshire    7    3
   Norfolk    6    3
   Suffolk    4    2
   Sub-Total   20   17
London   20   20
Home Counties
  North of London *   15    8
  South of London **   12   18
  Sub-Total   27   26
Gloucestershire    7    1
Elsewhere   26   36
Total  100%  100%

*   Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire,
Hertfordshire, and Oxfordshire.
** Kent, Sussex, Surrey, and Hampshire.

These tables show that Wells is very much a name of the
East of England.  The largest Wells numbers were in London (and
coincidentally the same percentage level on each of the two data
series).  The other Wells clusters in the 18th century were
Gloucestershire, Lincolnshire, and Kent.  The Gloucestershire and
Lincolnshire shares dropped in the 19th century and more Wells were to
be found in Kent and the surrounding counties in the southeast.

Sister Janet Wells.  In an age when convention dictated otherwise, Janet Wells from London (or Sister Janet as she became known) embarked
on two perilous ventures.  Remarkably she was only 18 years old
when decorated for her nursing service during the 1878 Balkan
War.  Undeterred by this experience, the following year she became
the only nurse to serve at the front during the Anglo-Zulu  War.

Following a period in
Northern Zululand, she arrived at Rorke’s Drift shortly after the
legendary action. Revered by the soldiers, she worked tirelessly in
appalling conditions with minimal medical supplies. Undaunted she
refused to bow to either these difficulties or the prejudice that her
gender and youthfulness provoked.

On returning to
England, Sister Janet was awarded the Royal Red Cross, the highest
nursing accolade and equivalent to the VC, by Queen Victoria.  She
earned the nickname “Angel of Mercy” and was spoken of at the time in
the same breath as Florence Nightingale.

William Wells of Southold, Long Island.  William Wells died in Southold in 1671, leaving a widow and two
sons William and Joshua.  His tombstone at the Presbyterian
churchyard in Southold read as follows:

‘Here lies the body of William Wells of
South-hold, Gentleman, Justice of the Peace and first Sheriff of New
York shire upon Long Island, who departed this life on November 13,
1671, aged 63.”Yes, here he lies, who speaketh yet though dead,
On wings of faith his soul to Heaven is fled,
His pious deeds and charity was such
That of his praise no pen could write too much.
As was his life so was his blest decease,
He liv’d in love, and sweetly died in peace.”‘

The tombstone inscription was re-cut by some of his descendants in 1857
as it was becoming illegible.

Big Wells and Little Wells.  There were two Wells families of note in the Baltimore area in the early 1700’s, the “Big Wells” and the “Little Wells.”

Charles Wells married Sarah Arnold in 1722 and through them came all
the known descendants of the Big Wells.  Both the men and the
women of this family were said to be very tall and very heavy.
The story goes that when a group of the Big Wells family were seen it
was not uncommon to hear the remark: “Here come the Big Wells.”

James Wells, the progenitor of the Little Wells branch, had been
brought to Maryland on the Nightingale
of York
in 1669.  His descendant Colonel Richard Wells
married Nancy Brown and it was from this family that the Little Wells
came.  The members of the Little Wells family were smaller in
stature, probably more of what might be termed normal.

These two families did intermarry and some of them migrated together to
West Virginia and Ohio.

Jefferson Wells and Lecomte.  Historians agree that the town of Lecompte in Rapides
parish, Louisiana was named after the world-class racehorse Lecomte who was arguably the
fastest colt in the world in 1854.  Lecomte was given his name as a
compliment by local breeder Jefferson Wells, who received the
thoroughbred as a gift from his friend and fellow planter, Ambrose

Lecomte raced and
frequently won at the Fairgrounds racetrack in New Orleans.  His
maiden victory was reportedly in 1853 at the Metairie Race Course,
winning at mile heats, the second heat being the fastest run to that
date.  A rivalry grew between Lecomte
and another thoroughbred, Lexington,
who defeated Lecomte in
1854.  Lecomte
later avenged his loss and handed Lexington
his only career defeat.

Jim Wells and DNA Testing.  Jim Wells, a longtime University of Kentucky
mathematics professor, went to bed one night pondering a maddening and
fruitless decades-long search for the origins of an ancestor.  He
woke up the next day to have his history handed to him in an email.

“It’s astonishing,” said the 70-year-old Mr. Wells of the recent
revelations regarding his fifth great grandfather, John Wells, who
turned out, as Mr. Wells had suspected but could never prove, to be a
Pennsylvania Quaker with British roots.  “It just didn’t seem
possible we would ever learn his origins.”

Mr. Wells of suburban Lexington, Kentucky was part of something called
the Wells Family DNA Project, organized by a determined armchair
genealogist named Orin Wells.  It enlists an intriguing new tool
called surname DNA testing.

The technology, built on advances in the science of DNA over the past
15 years, rests upon research showing that the Y-chromosome element of
DNA passes from father to son basically unchanged over the
generations.  Hence it serves as a highly accurate marker of
paternity.  In Jim Wells’s case, by volunteering a blood sample to
a testing lab, he threw his DNA into a test pool of scores of other
Wellses, many of them from 24 American Wells branches that have kept
meticulous genealogies going back to the 1600’s.

The idea: “Orphans” such as Mr. Wells might make a genetic match with
one of these families and, by comparing what he knows of his genealogy
with the new data, fill in missing pieces.  By doing that, Mr.
Wells not only verified his theories about John Wells but found out his
roots actually go all the way back to one Henry Wells, an English
Quaker who immigrated to Pennsylvania around 1684.

Surname DNA testing used to be the province of universities and
research laboratories but not commercially available.  Now, three
for-profit labs, Relative Genetics Inc. of Salt Lake City, Family Tree
DNA of Houston and Oxford Ancestors of Oxfordshire, England, have
sprung up to serve a growing consumer interest.  The Wells
project, with more than 250 participants, has been the largest to date.


Select Wells Names

  • Adam de Welles distinguished
    himself in warfare and was made Baron de Welles by Edward I in 1299.
  • Henry Wells was the 19th century
    American businessman instrumental in the founding of both the American
    Express Company and Wells Fargo.
  • Ida Wells, born a slave in Mississippi, was an early crusader for civil rights in America.
  • Sister Jane Wells was a Victorian nursing heroine revered almost as much as Florence
    Nightingale in her time.
  • H.G. Wells was the English writer best known for his science fiction works like War of The Worlds.
  • Orson Welles was the American film director, writer and actor, who first scared audiences in 1938 with his radio rendition of H.G. Wells’ War of The Worlds.

Select Wells Numbers Today

  • 50,000 in the UK (most numerous
    in Sussex)
  • 61,000 in America (most numerous
    in New York)
  • 34,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada).


Select Wells and Like Surnames

These names are locational, describing someone who lived in those medieval times by the side of a bank, or by a barn or a lane or a shaw (which means a wood) or a wood and so forth.  Both the oak tree and the ash tree have in fact provided locational surnames – Oakes and Nash (from atten Ash).  Here are some of these locational surnames that you can check out.




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