Wells Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Wells Surname Meaning

Wells derives from the Anglo-Saxon word waella 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 (a) the cathedral city of Wells in Somerset, and (b) the village of Wells-next-the-Sea in north Norfolk.  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.

Wells Surname Resources on The Internet

Wells and Welles Surname Ancestry

  • from England
  • to America, Canada and Australia

England. 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 starting point for the family of the writer H.G. Wells.

Berkshire.  The Wells name also cropped up at Wallingford and Wantage in Berkshire.

Edward Wells, born in 1678. founded the Wallingford brewery in 1720.  Later Edwards were brewers and mayors of the town. with an Edward also being the local MP from 1872 to 1880.  The Wells brewery remained family-owned until its sale in 1928.

Wells at nearby Wantage can be traced further back to 1580.  Wells would remain at home until William Wells and his wife Jane departed for Canada in the early 1800’s and a later William Wells left for New Zealand in 1842 (marrying his wife Sarah on the voyage across).

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 had 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 Scotia.

Scotland.  The Wells name was 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.  There were early Wells/Welles arrivals into New England and into Virginia and Maryland.

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 included:

  • 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 bank Wells Fargo
  • and Daniel Wells the Mormon, an early mayor of Salt Lake City.

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.

Thomas Wells 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 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 1986.

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 was brought to Maryland in 1669. He was 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.  Levi 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.  Daniel 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, Grants, and Bennetts.

Kentucky.  Aaron and Ruth Wells were early pioneers while Kentucky was still Virginia’s frontier. They came from Virginia and were married in Mason county in 1790, two years before Kentucky became a state.  They farmed near Blue Licks where a bloody battle had been fought during the Revolutionary War.  Aaron died young, at the age of forty-two in 1812.  Their descendants have held reunions, most recently in 2017.

Other Wells were among the early settlers in the Big Sandy Valley of Kentucky.  Richard Wells, originally from Philadelphia, came to Floyd county with his family around 1825 (this line was covered in John Wells’ 2013 book The Wells Family of Big Sandy Valley).  One line from his son Simon led to Betty Sue Wells, the mother of the actor Johnny Depp.

Delaware.  Richard Welles from Hull in Yorkshire came in the 1760’s to Dagsboro in Delaware where he prospered as a merchant.  His son William H. Wells did even better, marrying well and inheriting large tracts of Sussex county timberland.  A lawyer, he was the US Senator for Delaware from 1799 to 1804.

A descendant line went via Pennsylvania and Missouri to Wisconsin, which was where Orson Welles, the movie actor and director, was born in 1915.

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 captains.

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 1830’s.

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.

Johnny Depp and His Wells Family Ancestry

The actor Johnny Depp has strong Kentucky roots on both his father’s and mother’s side.  He relates more to his mother, Betty Sue Wells, and her Wells ancestry that goes back to early 19th century Kentucky.  Just click below if you want to read more about this history:

Wells Surname 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 picture); 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.

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.

Orson Welles the Prodigy.  Orson Welles was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin to Richard and Beatrice Welles in 1915.  He had an unorthodox childhood.  His parents separated when he was very young and his mother, a pianist, died of hepatitis in a Chicago hospital when Orson was nine.

The Welles lived well at this time because Orson’s father had made a fortune as the inventor of a popular bicycle lamp.  But Richard became an alcoholic and stopped working.  Orson briefly attended public school before his father left business altogether and took him along on his travels to Jamaica and the Far East.

When they returned, they settled into a hotel in Grand Detour, Illinois that was owned by his father.  When that hotel burned down, they took to the road again.  During the three years that Orson lived with his father, some observers wondered who took care of whom.  Richard died of heart failure in Chicago in 1930 when Orson was fifteen.

Orson by that time was attending the Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois.  He found a mentor there in his teacher Roger Hill.  Following his graduation in 1931, he was awarded a scholarship to Harvard College.  But rather than enrolling, he chose travel instead.  While in Ireland, he found his metier in the theatre.  Back in America, Roger Hill encouraged him to join a repertory theatre company and to start as a radio actor in New York.

In 1938, when he was twenty-three, his radio anthology series The Mercury Theatre on the Air gave Orson Welles a platform to find international fame as the director and narrator of a radio adaptation of H. G. Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds.  What he said in his broadcast actually caused some listeners to believe that an invasion by extra-terrestrial beings was in fact occurring.

His first film in 1941, completed when he was just twenty-six, was Citizen Kane. This is consistently ranked as one of the greatest films ever made.  He co-wrote, produced, directed, and starred as its main character Charles Foster Kane.  Orson Welles was an outsider to the studio system at the time.   RKO had turned down his first two movie proposals, but amazingly agreed on his third offer.

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 directed and starred in Citizen Kane in 1941.

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).

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.


Click here for return to front page

Written by Colin Shelley

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *