Wheeler Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Wheeler Surname Meaning

The conventional and usual explanation of the Wheeler name is that it is occupational, describing a master wheel-maker or wheelwright. The root here was the Old English word hweogol or hweol meaning wheel.  

However, there is an alternative explanation: that the word comes from the Anglo-Saxon combination of words wel and hari meaning “lucky/prosperous warrior.”  

Wheeler Surname Resources on The Internet

Wheeler Surname Ancestry

  • from Southern England
  • to Ireland, America, Canada and South Africa

England.  Wheeler is clearly a name of southern England. Early records of the name were John le Whelare in Worcestershire in 1275; Hugh le Welere in Cambridgeshire in 1279; and Gilbert Whyler in Surrey in 1351.

Later concentrations of the name suggest two focuses – one around London and another southwest in a line running north from Hampshire into Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, and Warwickshire.

SW England.  A Wheler family with a coat of arms were said to have been seated in Worcestershire since the early 1300’s. The first recorded was William Wheler who through marriage came into possession of the Martin Hussingtree manor in 1541. John Wheler, a goldsmith in London, sold the estate in 1619.

Later Whelers of his line became baronets:

  • the main branch based themselves at Birdingbury in Warwickshire
  • while other Whelers, Royalists who briefly went into exile, were to be found at Charing near Ashford in Kent. This line included Sir George Wheler who undertook a tour of Europe in the 1670’s which extended as far as Constantinople. He was an early travel writer.

Hampshire has had the largest number of Wheelers in the southwest. The Wheelers of Millcourt manor in Binsted dated from the early 1600’s. The Wheeler name was particularly common on the Isle of Wight. One family line was traced back to 1475 and William Willier at Freshwater. The spelling changed over time from Willier to Whillier to Wheeler.

The 18th century saw the rise of the notorious Wheeler smuggling gang on the Isle of Wight – from their base at Box Cottage on Chale Bay. James Wheeler, not maybe connected to the smuggling, kept track of the shipwrecks there. He recorded sixty shipwrecks at Chale Bay between 1746 and 1808. Robert Wheeler did engage in a little smuggling.

Cornelius Wheeler, born in Worcester in 1781, was a captain in the British army.  His descendants based themselves in Portsea, Hampshire.

Charles Wheeler of this family was BBC’s longest-serving foreign correspondent, from 1947 until his death in 2008.  His second marriage to Dip Singh in India produced Marina Wheeler, a barrister and former wife of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Ireland. The Rev. Jonas Wheeler, born in 1543, served as chaplain to Queen Elizabeth and was appointed Dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin in 1594. He died in Ireland in his 97th year in 1640. Our line from him in county Kildare were mainly medical men, two of whom attained the Presidency of the Irish College of Surgeons. There were also English Wheeler branches in Limerick and Kilkenny.

America. Albert Wheeler’s 1914 book History of the Wheeler Family in America provided extensive coverage of the various early Wheeler lines in New England.

New England.  One focal point for these Wheelers was Concord, Massachusetts. The Wheelers from Cranfield in Bedfordshire were congregating there in the 1630’s and 1640’s. The relationship between George, Obadiah, and Timothy Wheeler is not quite clear, but they were all clearly related. And Obadiah had married his cousin Susannah Wheeler.

George was a selectman in 1660. His house lot was at the present corner of Main and Walden Streets, together with Timothy Wheeler’s. Many of his descendants remained in Concord. Some were to be found at Shrewsbury by the 1730’s, others at Grafton nearby (including the unfortunate Ebenezer Wheeler). There were later lines in New Hampshire and Vermont. Meanwhile Thomas Wheeler had arrived earlier than his brother George and made his home at Lynn where he operated a gristmill.

There was a Captain Thomas Wheeler of uncertain origins at Concord by 1640. He was later trading with the Indians along the Merrimac river. Although he was constantly moving around, he kept his home base in Concord and died there in 1676.

John Wheeler from Wiltshire came to Newbury, Massachusetts with his family around 1634. His son David arrived on the Confidence four years later and married Sarah Wise there in 1650. The 1984 book Wheeler Cousins covered his lineage.

There were also early Wheelers in Connecticut:

  • Moses Wheeler from Kent came around 1638 and first settled at New Haven and then in Stratford. Moses became a sizeable landowner there and died in 1698 at the grand age of 100. A descendant Nathaniel Wheeler was a pioneer in the manufacture of sewing machines in the mid-19th century.
  • while Thomas Wheeler, formerly of Lynn, later settled in Stonington where he died.

“The Wheeler Homestead on Wheeler Road in Stonington was built by Thomas’s son Isaac in 1687 and remained with the Wheeler family from that time. Sadly the homestead burned to the ground in the 1970’s.”  

Edward or Evard Wheeler came to Dutch New York sometime in the 1680’s and to land along the Hudson river south of Fort Orange. He made his home at Kinderhook. Within two generations this family had spread up and down the Hudson on both sides of the river. George Wheeler of this family was a Loyalist who fled to New Brunswick in Canada after the Revolutionary War and remained there.

Wheelers South.  One line from immigrant Moses Wheeler who had settled in Stratford, Connecticut led to Fighting Joe Wheeler, a Civil War General revered in the South.

Although born in Georgia, his roots were in Connecticut and he spent much of his early life there. However, when the Civil War broke out, he joined the Confederate ranks and distinguished himself in battle.

After the war was over he moved to Alabama and represented the town there, now known as Wheeler, no fewer than nine times. Then in 1898 when war with Spain broke out, Fighting Joe volunteered for service, even though he was over sixty, and was appointed the general in Cuba overseeing groups such as Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.

Wheelers West.  The Wheeler name was a prominent one in the history of the early West. Included in their number were:

  • John Ozias Wheeler had left Connecticut for Florida in 1844 and then took off for California in 1849. He and his brother Horace were early merchants in Los Angeles and he also started publishing its first newspaper The Southern Californian. His immigrant forebear was Thomas Wheeler of Stonington, Connecticut.
  • Thomas and Ann Wheeler were English Mormons from Herefordshire who had made the trek to Salt Lake valley in 1852. The Henry J. Wheeler farm in South Cottonwood, built by their son in 1898, is one of the few late 19th century farmsteads extant in the Salt Lake valley.
  • Henry H. Wheeler operated mail and stage lines from the Dalles to Canyon City in Oregon territory in the 1860’s. Wheeler county in Oregon was named after him. He came from Pennsylvania.
  • William Wheeler served as US Marshal for Montana territory from 1869 to 1878. He had come West from upstate New York. His grandfather Moses Wheeler had been a Revolutionary War soldier and afterwards Sheriff of Orange county, New York.
  • while Dr. Henry Wheeler was one of the best physicians and surgeons in the Northwest in the 1880’s, making his home in Grand Rapids, North Dakota. His father was a drover and stock raiser in Northfield, Minnesota and his line went back to immigrant Thomas Wheeler in Concord, Massachusetts.

George M. Wheeler was a pioneering explorer and cartographer of the American West in the 1870’s, although he made his home in the East.

Canada.  Seager Wheeler was the son of a fisherman and lived in the Black Gang area of the Isle of Wight, a place once well-known for smuggling.

In 1885 he emigrated to the Canadian Prairies, following his uncle who was already homesteading there. By 1897 he had established his Maple Grove Farm to grow wheat just outside Rosthern in Saskatchewan. His innovative wheat seedlings and farming methods made him famous and he was soon being called Canada’s Wheat King. He would get some 700 visitors a week to see his farm during the 1920’s. He lived onto 1961.

South Africa. There were two early Wheeler families in South Africa.

James Wheeler and his family from Wiltshire were among the 1820 settlers, one of Wilson’s party that came out on La Belle Alliance. James farmed near Grahamstown but died from war wounds in 1831.

Meanwhile Thomas and Sarah came from Berkshire on the Susan in 1845 and made their home at Middelburg in the Transvaal where they farmed. A branch of the family trekked to new farming land in Rhodesia in 1899.

Wheeler Surname Miscellany

The Alternative Meaning of Wheeler.  Albert Wheeler’s 1914 book The Genealogical and Encyclopedic History of the Wheeler Family in America provides an alternative derivation of the Wheeler surname.

“The striking point is the meaning of the name Wheeler itself.  For this, it is evident, determination must be made from the earliest form on record.  It was said that the name first appeared in history in the 8th century when one of the Saxon chieftains was recorded as bearing the name of Wielher.

How significant is this early appearance has been mentioned, a fact all the more remarkable when it is remembered that surnames did not appear in general use until the 11th and 12th centuries.

This early spelling Wielher is evidently a compound of two Anglo-Saxon words wel or wiel meaning “prosperous” or “fortunate,” from which the derivation of the modern word “weal” and “wealth” may be traced, and the Anglo-Saxon word hari or heri “a warrior,” a root traceable in the modern word hero.

The present spelling of the family name “Wheeler,” therefore, is a spelling of words which in their modern form would be “Weal-Hero” or in the Anglo-Saxon words wel-hari.  The meaning of the family name therefore is clearly “the lucky warrior” or “the prosperous hero.””

Sir George Wheler, An Early Travel Writer.  George Wheler was just a boy when he returned to England from exile with his Royalist parents Charles and Anne Wheler after the Restoration.  As a young man of means he embarked in 1673 on a Grand Tour of Europe with his tutor from Oxford.  This was followed by an extended stay with the French scholar Jacob Spon in Greece and the Levant in 1675 and 1676.

Wheler’s book, A Journey into Greece, was published in 1682.  He gave an account of the antiquities of Athens and brought home marbles and inscriptions. He made considerable use of coins in his book and paid attention to botany. He brought home a number of plants that had not yet been cultivated in Britain.

All this bought him into public prominence.  He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (although he was later expelled) and was knighted in 1682.   By that time, he had returned to the family estate at Charing near Ashford in Kent, taken holy orders and become a clergyman.  He died in Durham in 1723.  His son Granville followed in his footsteps as a clergyman.  Granville was also a Fellow of the Royal Society and an early experimenter in electricity. 

Robert Wheeler of Chale Bay.  Robert Wheeler lived at Chale Bay on the southern tip of the Isle of Wight in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s.  He owned a boat, fatted a pig or two yearly, and did an extensive trade in smuggled gin. To the end he was unable to spell his own name correctly and always wrote it as he pronounced it – Whiller.

However, his name should have been Wheeler.  The Wheelers were a notorious smuggling gang of the time.  And Wheelers have remained a sizeable presence in the area, with a local cricket team being known to field half a dozen of them.

Robert Wheeler’s only claim to fame is his diary which has been preserved.  His first entry was in 1773 and they continued until 1777. Then for some reason there was a break and the diary did not resume until 1790. This time it continued until 1805 when the diary abruptly ended.

The entries mark mainly his daily activities and transactions. Here and there we hear of smuggling adventures.  We find tabulated in 1804 his revenues from smuggling that year – nine tubs of gin, worth almost two pounds each (a sizeable sum in those days).

Reader Feedback – Isle of Wight Wheeler DNA.  I am a 5th generation Australian but descended from the Isle of Wight Wheelers.  My Y haplogroup is I-Z60.  I had my DNA done by National Geographic and I came across an American, also named Wheeler, who also had his DNA done by National Geographic, and he has the same haplogroup as me.  This is quite a rare one.

It would therefore seem that if you wish to classify the various branches of Wheelers you can put those with my haplogroup in the Isle of Wight basket.

Regards, Dave Wheeler (dwhe1952@gmail.com)

Ebenezer Wheeler Left to Die in Vermont.  In 1759 during the French and Indian Wars, Ebenezer Wheeler at the age of 18 enlisted with Captain Rogers to go to Canada.  He never returned.  The History of Grafton, Massachusetts had the following account of his death:

“While travelling through the woods the men were compelled to eat groundnuts and lily roots; and, at last roasted their shoes and powder horns and used them as food.  Ebenezer Wheeler was one of the party and having become so feeble as to be unable to walk, by reason of hunger, he was left by his companions and died upon a lonely mountain in Vermont.” 

Reader Feedback – Descent from George Wheeler of Concord, Mass.  I am the 11th generation direct descendant of George Wheeler who settled in Concord, Massachusetts around 1634.

Interestingly Ebenezer Wheeler was left to die in the aftermath of the Rogers Rangers raid on the Indian settlement in Quebec in 1759.  My five-time great grandfather Emmons Stockwell was a member of that party who survived.  Later he would return to the upper Coos valley and become one of the first settlers of Lancaster, New Hampshire.  His wife Ruth Page was the first white woman to settle there.

John Wheeler (jaadrewws@gmail.com).

Fighting Joe Wheeler.  Joseph Wheeler joined the Confederate side at the outbreak of the Civil War and was appointed cavalry general in early 1862.  Although short in stature he was beloved by his troops and constantly in battle until the war ended.

He was wounded three times.  Thirty-six of his staff officers fell by his side, six killed and thirty wounded, and sixteen horses were shot out from under himHe distinguished himself in battle at such places as Shiloh, the Kentucky campaign, Murfreesboro, Chickamagua, Knoxville, and also opposed Sherman’s notorious March to the Sea.  He is one of only two Confederate Generals buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Fighting Joe Wheeler’s name is still sacred throughout the South.  Besides the town in Alabama named for him, there is also a dam that is part of the Tennessee Valley Authority named for him.  According to a testimonial on the TVA web site:

“No Confederate commander was more fully reconstructed and some claim that Wheeler single-handedly inspired the South to start celebrating the Fourth of July again, after a hiatus lasting decades in many parts of the former Confederacy.”

When every state in the Union was invited to display statues of two of its most prominent citizens in the U. S. Congress, Alabama did not hesitate in making Joseph Wheeler one of their choices.

Henry Wheeler Repelling a Bank Raid in Minnesota.  In 1876 Henry Wheeler was visiting his home in Northfield, Minnesota during a college vacation when he realized that an attempt was being made to rob the town bank by the James and Younger gang.  Henry stepped into the street from in front of his father’s store where he had been sitting and shouted “robbery.”

Then he turned to get his gun, but remembered that he had left it at home. He went to the Dompier hotel where an old army carbine with three cartridges was secured and he was soon at a second-story window.

His first shot was at Jim Younger, but the gun carried high, and Younger looked for the gunner and rode on.  Wheeler then shot at Miller, the bullet passing through the body, severing the great artery and death ensued instantly.  After the last cartridge had fallen to the floor, he was brought replenishment supplies.

Wheeler shot at Younger and the ball struck the robber’s elbow, shattering the bone.  Younger coolly changed his pistol to his left hand and continued shooting.  While Wheeler was re-loading his gun, Younger made his escape and mounted a horse behind his brother Cole. However, the outlaws were subsequently pursued and captured.

Henry Wheeler was presented with a handsome gold watch by the First National Bank of Northfield in remembrance of his services in assisting in repelling the attack on their bank.

Wheeler Names

  • Sir George Wheler who undertook a Grand Tour of Europe in the 1670’s was an early English travel writer.  
  • Joseph Wheeler was a Confederate cavalry general from 1862 to 1865 and a major general in the war against Spain in 1898.   
  • Seager Wheeler was called Canada’s Wheat King during the 1920’s.
  • Sir Mortimer Wheeler is considered the father of modern British archaeology. 
  • Charles Wheeler has been the longest-serving BBC foreign correspondent, from 1947 until his death in 2008.

Wheeler Numbers Today

  • 33,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 49,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 21,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Wheeler and Like Surnames   

The various medieval trades and occupations were a source of surnames as John the baker would over time would become known as John Baker.  Some skilled craftsmen – such as chandlers, fletchers and turners – were able to form guilds, protective organizations, and style themselves Worshipful Companies.  These are some of the occupational surnames that you can check out.





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Written by Colin Shelley

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