West Surname Meaning, History & Origin

West Surname Meaning

The four points of the compass transposed in England into surnames. Of these, West has been the most popular by far.

Wests, curiously, were mainly to be found in the east of the country. The first West surname recorded was in fact Maurice de West in the pipe rolls of Essex in 1152. It was not where you were but where you had come from that determined your name here.

West Surname Resources on The Internet

West Surname Ancestry

  • from England
  • to America, South Africa and Australia

England.  One West family in fact originated in Devon in the west country, from Thomas West of Hampton Cantilupe in the 13th century. These Wests gained their spurs abroad, at Crecy and at Agincourt where Thomas West died in the battle.

“A West, a la Warr and a Pelham took King John of France prisoner at Poitiers in 1356. The West was knighted on the field of battle by the Black Prince and after receiving the honor said to the Prince, “Monseigneur, c’est Ie plus beau jour de ma vie.” The West and la Warr families were shortly afterwards united in marriage and “jour de ma vie” was adopted as the family motto.”

Their home later, as Barons West and de la Warr, was Oakhanger in Hampshire. One line made a name for themselves in Virginia across the Atlantic. The main line eventually became the Sackville-Wests and numbered Vita Sackville-West of the Bloomsbury set.

Another notable West family began traces back to Edmund West, clergyman at St. Pauls in London in the 1550’s. The Rev. Richard West married into the well-connected Temple family and was appointed Archdeacon of Berkshire in the early 1700’s. His children were:

  • Vice Admiral Temple West (from whom came a judge in Bombay and the private secretary to Prime Minster Gladstone)
  • Mary West who married Admiral Hood
  • and the writer and minor poet Gilbert West.

One West family started with Thomas West, born in the village of Sibsey in Lincolnshire around 1470. These Wests were yeomen farmers in the fens. Nicholas West, the Tudor bishop and diplomat, was born in Putney. Another family line included the scrivener John West, born in Twickenham near London in 1641.

America.  The Wests/de la Warrs came to America with Thomas West, Lord Delaware, who arrived in Virginia in 1610 but died eight years later. Later came Colonel John West who held land at West Point along the York river and was also, like Thomas and another brother Francis, governor of colonial Virginia.

Matthew West was a Baptist tailor who came to New England in 1635 and settled with his brothers in Rhode Island. Another West, Francis West, was also in Rhode Island by this time. He had married Susannah Soule, daughter of one of the Mayflower passengers. These Wests became large landowners in North Kingsdown, Rhode Island. William West was a militia general during the Revolutionary War and later served as deputy governor of the state.

Other early Wests in America were:

  • Anthony West of Accomac county, Virginia – thought to be related to the Wests/de la Warrs – who arrived in the colony as early as 1622. His descendants were among the early landed gentry on the Eastern Shore.  
  • and Francis West who came to Duxbury, Massachusetts in the 1630’s and whose son Thomas West, a doctor, had moved to Martha’s Vineyard by the 1670’s. This line was covered in Carlton West’s 1987 book Descendants of Francis West of Duxbury.

Lette Brock Stone’s 1928 book The West Family Register traced the early Wests in America.  Later West arrivals included some Wests from Germany.

John West from Scotland had come via Canada to California in 1849 in search of gold. Finding none, he moved to Oregon where he started a sawmill. The community of Westport grew up around his sawmill. He later started a fish cannery there and invented an automatic can-filling machine. His name lives on in the British company John West Foods.

South Africa. Thomas West from Bristol, having served the Royal Navy, was an early arrival in South Africa, pre-dating even the 1820 Settlers. He was resident in Cape Town by 1796 and married Dorothea van der Schyff there a year later. Many of their children settled in Grahamstown on the Eastern Cape.

Australia. John West came out to Tasmania with the Colonial Missionary Society in 1838. He became pastor of a Congregational chapel there and, after some publishing experiences, became editor of the Sydney Morning Herald.

Thomas West from Sussex came in a different capacity, as a convict sentenced to life for burglary in 1801. Twelve years later he received a conditional pardon in Sydney and, starting with the gift of a cow, developed a herd of cattle and extensive grazing lands. On his death in 1848 his son Obed West expanded the family’s sizeable land holdings in NSW.

West Surname Miscellany

West, East, North and South.  The four points of the compass transposed in England into surnames.  Of these, West has been by far the most popular.  The numbers in England today are:

in England  Numbers (000’s)  Share (%)
West     57   66
North     14   16
East     10   12
South      5    6

West and De La Warr.  Baron West was a title created in 1402 for Sir Thomas West of Oakhanger, Northampton.  He married the heiress Joan de la Warr, through whom his second son eventually became Baron De La Warr.  The two titles descended in tandem until the death of Thomas West, the 6th Lord West and 9th Lord de la Warr, in 1554.  Then, in 1572, the heir male and nephew of the co-heirs general was created Baron de la Warr, but not Baron West.

In America Thomas West, the 12th Baron de la Warr, is usually named in history books as Lord Delaware.  He served as governor of the Jamestown colony.  The Delaware bay, Delaware river, and the state of Delaware were named after him.

John and Francis West of Twickenham.  The Wests had come originally from Guildford in Surrey.  Edward West, described variously as a weaver and a yeoman, had married in Guildford in 1584 and again there in 1605.  He and his family moved to Twickenham a few years later.  At a Court of the Manor of Isleworth held in early 1611 he was admitted to “one cottage with appurtenances, lying and being in Twickenham.”

Remarkably, four generations of this West family supplied churchwardens to the Twickenham parish over the course of the 17th century. A branch of the family moved to Hampton, remaining there until the early 1700’s.

The best-known of these Wests was Edward’s grandson, John West, born in Twickenham in 1641.  He became a scrivener (scribe) and an extremely wealthy one.  He and his wife Francis were public benefactors.  And they are remembered today.  “West Day” is an annual event held by the John and Francis Family Group to celebrate the history of this family and its descendants.

Early Wests in America.  Lette Brock Stone’s 1928 book The West Family Register traced the early Wests in America.  These Wests included:

  • Captain John West, Governor of Virginia, and his descendants, among whom was the noted Antarctic explorer, Richard E. Byrd
  • Anthony West of Accomac, Virginia, who was said to have come to the colonies in the James in 1622, and his descendants
  • Joseph West of Prince Georges county, Maryland and his descendants elsewhere in Maryland and Kentucky
  • Sir Stephen West who settled in Prince Georges County in 1700 and his descendants
  • Ignatius West of Chatham county, North Carolina and his descendants
  • William West, also of Chatham County, who later relocated to Kentucky
  • Francis West of Duxbury, Massachusetts
  • Caleb West of Philadelphia
  • Benjamin West the artist, his English ancestry and American descendants
  • the West families of Stafford, Prince William, and Fairfax counties Virginia
  • William West from Sligo in Ireland and his descendants in Pennsylvania and Maryland
  • Robert West of Sussex county, Delaware
  • Walker West of Garrard county, Kentucky
  • William West and his descendants of Norfolk and Princess Anne counties, Virginia
  • and various other miscellaneous West families.

The Wests on the Eastern Shore.  The Wests were part of the early landed gentry on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.  John West had married Matilda Scarburgh – the daughter of Colonel Edmund Scarburgh, a leading figure in the area.  The Wests lived on Onacock Creek.

Calvin West described a visit to that area in the 1930’s:

“We found the old homestead located on the shore of Deep Creek, an arm of Chesapeake Bay, on land that had been in the family since their arrival on the Eastern Shore.  The old English colonial house, with the ends of brick and the front and back of hewn timbers, still stands but, being unoccupied, shows neglect.

A few feet from the southwest corner of the house is the family burying ground, where several generations lie buried.  The marble headstones were brought from England.”

Thomas West of Martha’s Vineyard.  Thomas West was evidently a man of education and superior ability and, arriving on Martha’s Vineyard in the early 1670’s, was its first known practitioner of medicine and surgery.  He also prosecuted the first trials for murder on the island.

Thomas had the further distinction of being a member with his wife Elizabeth of the Third Sabbatarian (Seventh Day) Baptist Church.  He was elected ‘townsman’ of Tisbury on Martha’s Vineyard in 1678 and was on a committee to make rates the following year.

But he was also indicted and fined in 1678 for ‘unsavory speeches,’ sued for defamation in 1687, and in 1702 excommunicated from his church for disobeying the tenets of the communion (although his wife and other members of his family continued in good standing).

He died in 1706, aged sixty.  His son Thomas was a seaman and pilot at Martha’s Vineyard, his grandson Thomas a clergyman there.

West Names

  • Nicholas West, sometime Bishop of Ely and chaplain to Catherine of Aragon, served as an English diplomatic envoy in the early 16th century.
  • Thomas West, Baron de la Warr, was captain general in Virginia in 1610. The state of Delaware was named after him.
  • Captain John West was a Scottish emigrant to Oregon on the West Coast who started the canning and exports of salmon. His name has continued in the John West Foods brand.
  • Vita Sackville-West was an English author and poet, part of the Bloomsbury set.
  • Rebecca West, born Cicely Fairfield, was an English writer and journalist.
  • Mae West was an American actress and sex symbol of the 1920’s and 30’s.

West Numbers Today

  • 57,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lincolnshire)
  • 71,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 23,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)


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Written by Colin Shelley

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