Wolfe Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Wolfe Meaning
The wolf was native to the forest of Europe during medieval
times. The animal played a particularly important role in
Germanic mythology, being regarded as one of the sacred beasts of
Woden. And Wolf is a common surname in Germany and elsewhere in
north and central Europe. It also transposed as a Jewish name,
from the Yiddish Volf or
“wolf” associated with the name Benjamin.  The wolf also figured in Spanish culture, resulting in the Lopez
surname, and, across the Atlantic, in native American culture.
There was probably less reverence for the wolf in Britain and it
developed less as a surname. The name seems to have been
introduced by the Normans, Henry Lupus (Wolf) being one of William the
Conqueror’s chief lieutenants who was granted lands in Cheshire.
And it was the Anglo-Normans who brought the name to Ireland.
Wolf also derived from the old Norse byname Ulf meaning “wolf.” However,
Wolf as a surname never developed in Britain to the same extent that it
did in Germany.  Alternative spellings of the name are Wolf, Wolfe, Woolf and, in Ireland, Woulfe.

Wolfe Resources on

Wolfe Ancestry

Today there are some 150,000 Wolfs in Germany, with the highest
concentration in Saxony in the east of the country, and a further 25,000
to be
found in Austria and Switzerland and a smattering in Denmark and

. Early references to the name in England
frequently had the prefix “le,” such as John le Wolf in Bedfordshire in
1279. Over time Wolfe became the more common English

as a surname was first found in London in the late 1700’s, possibly
of a Jewish immigrant. Jewish Woolfs from Poland came to Exeter
in Devon
in the early 1800’s. The name was most
famously born by the writers Leonard and Virginia Woolf of the
Bloomsbury set (Virginia
would refer to Leonard
before their marriage as “that penniless Jew”).

Peter Woulfe, a chemist and minerologist of Irish
origin, first discovered the presence of tin in Cornwall in
1766. Arthur Woolf, born in Cornwall that year, was the inventor
of a high-pressure steam engine that powered the Cornish mine
engine. And it was a Cornish bay near St. Ives that inspired
Woolf’s most famous novel To the

Wolf in London was Edward Wolf from Bohemia who had come to England as
political refugee after the 1848 revolutions.
His son Lucien became a prominent historian and advocate of
rights in England. Later came Edmund
Wolf, an Austrian Jewish playwright who sought sanctuary in England in
the late
1930’s. His son Martin has been a
distinguished journalist and writer for the Financial

. The names Wolfe, Woulfe and earlier Ulf were
brought into
Ireland by Anglo-Norman settlers who had come with Strongbow in the
12th century. They settled in Kildare and
Limerick. They were later to be found at Forenachts in Kildare
and were prominent landowners in Limerick.

Various Woulfes were bailiffs of Limerick City between 1470 and
1647. George Woulfe took part in the defense of Limerick against
Cromwellian forces in 1651 and, after its capture, was reported to have
been hanged together with his brothers Francis and James (other
accounts had George escaping to England). Some have this
George as the great grandfather of General James
, the British victor at Quebec in 1759. The
General may have had Irish blood in him. But not necessarily this

Woulfes in Cork came later. The first of them may have been the
John Wolfe, one of the original settlers to found the walled Protestant
town of Bandon in 1613. The name spread, particularly in west

America. Wolf and Wolfe
are the main recorded names in America. But most arrived as Wolf
and came from Germany
. By comparison there was only a
trickle of
Wolfes of English and Irish origin, even though there are as many
Wolfes as Wolfs in America today.

Many of the early arrivals from Germany entered via Pennsylvania,
such as:

  • Paul Wolff, a weaver from Holstein who was one of the original
    settlers of Germantown, Pennsylvania in the early 1690’s.
  • Jonas Wolf
    who came in 1732 and settled in York county. J.
    Arthur Wolfe, a descendant, published a genealogy of this line, Jonas Wolf of Berwick Township, in
  • Peter Wolf who was born in Lancaster county in 1740. After
    1800 the Wolfe family migrated to western Pennsylvania and Ohio.
    Their story was told in Ralph Kersh’s 1988 book The Wolfe Pack.
  • and Andrew Wolf who came in 1764, married, and settled in western
    Pennsylvania. Later Wolfs moved onto Ohio. This family line
    was covered in Nora Wolfe Atkinson’s 1964 book The
    Family History.

line from Jacob Wolf, born in 1807 in Adams county, led to William
Wolfe, a gravestone carver who moved to North Carolina, and to his son
Thomas Wolfe, an important American novelist of the early 20th
century. The later novelist and writer Tom Wolfe, born in
Virginia, also has German roots. In his case his ancestor was
Hans Bernard Wolf from Baden in Germany who came with his family to
Berks county, Pennsylvania in 1727.

Jewish. Many
Wolfs are Jewish. Simon Wolf, who arrived from Bavaria with
his grandparents as a young boy in 1848, was one of the most
influential Jewish
leaders in America in the late 19th century.
Today there is the TV producer Dick Wolf and the feminist writer
Naomi Wolf.

. Wolfe Island at the junction of Lake Ontario and
the St. Lawrence river was named in honor of James Wolfe, the victor at

Some Irish Wolfes emigrated to Canada in the 19th century. John
and Mary Wolfe left Cork in the 1820’s and settled in Hastings county,
Ontario. Another John Wolfe, having lost four of his sons
in the famine, departed Limerick with his remaining family in the late
1840’s and settled in Grey county, Ontario.

South Africa. Major
Richard Wolfe from Forenachts in Kildare made his home in Cape Town in
1820’s. His sons George and Robert, born there, also served in
the British
army at various locations. Wolfe descendants are still in South

Australia. William Wolf
was a prominent Australian architect of the early 1900’s.
His father was German. But he was born in New York and worked in
London before arriving in Australia in 1877.


Wolfe Miscellany

Ulf Woulfes in Ireland.  The name
Ulf derives from the Anglo-Saxon ulf
or the Scandinavian ulfr, meaning
“wolf.”  Thus the first Limerick Ulf was
probably either of native English or of Danish (Viking) settler descent.  The first reference to the name in Ireland
occurred in Wexford in a charter of 1177, witnessed by one “Elias, son of Ulf.”

The earliest reference to the
surname in Limerick occurred in 1260.
Richard Ulf was recorded there in 1287 and his son Sir Philip
became a
successful merchant in Limerick City in the early 1300’s.
The Ulf name may have transposed to Woulfe
sometime in the 15th century.

General James Wolfe’s Ancestry.  There have
been several versions of the General Wolfe story.  Both
the Limerick and the Kildare Woulfes have
claimed him; while a virulently anti-Irish biography on General Wolfe by Beckles Wilson published in 1909 denied that Wolfe even had Irish roots.

to the Limerick Woulfe family
tradition, Captain George Woulfe was the son of James Woulfe, the
bailiff of
Limerick.  Captain Woulfe escaped from
Cromwell’s general Ireton after the first seige of Limerick in 1651 (it
was his
brother Francis who was executed) and fled to York in the north of
England.  James Wolfe descended from him.  This account first appeared in Ferrar’s History of Limerick in 1765 and was
repeated by Maurice Lenihen in his 1860 book Limerick: Its
Histories and Antiquities.

Leonard Woolf’s Jewishness.  The first
members of the Woolf family to arrive in England – probably in the late 18th century – lived obscure lives in London’s East End. Leonard’s grandfather prospered and moved his
tailoring business to the West End.  His
father, Sidney, was a lawyer who achieved the high rank of Queen’s
Counsel but
died at the age of forty seven – leaving his widow Marie to bring up a
family on a much reduced income.

Woolf had belonged to a Reform synagogue, where he served as warden.  After his death Marie maintained a number of
traditional practices, but over the years the family’s Jewishness
increasingly attenuated.  Leonard was one
of nine siblings, all of whom (apart from an unmarried brother who died
married non-Jews.

own break with
religion came early.  At the age of
fourteen, he told his mother that he had lost his faith and never
wanted to
attend synagogue again.  Cambridge
confirmed him in his unbelief.

Wolf and Name Variants Coming to America

Country Wolf Wolfe Woolf Woulfe Total
Germany  3,650 74    67     3  3,794
Russia    215     4    219
France    186    12    198
England    91    90     5    186
Ireland    96    15    31    132
Total  4,051   283   181    39  4,544

Many of these German Wolfs added an “e” to their name and became Wolfes in America.

Jonas Wolf of York County, Pennsylvania.  Johann
Jonas Wolf was born in York county, Pennsylvania in 1738, the son of
immigrant Jonas Wolf, and married Appolona Dick sometime around 1760.  They raised ten children.

Jonas served as a lieutenant in the Pennsylvania
militia during the Revolutionary War.  It
seems that he – as part of the county militia – spent most of the war
the Revolutionary prison camp near Windsor township.

Jonas did not live long after the war was
over.  He died in 1787 and was buried in
the German Reformed cemetery in Abbottstown, Pennsylvania.
His tombstone bore the following inscription
in German:

lies the body of
Jonas Wolf, born in 1738 and died on September 7, 1787.”

His age in Church records was given as 47 years,
3 months and 24 days.

Wolfs from Wurttemberg to America.  The Wolf
family – two brothers and a sister – left their native Wurttemberg in
for America in 1854.  The sister later
wrote the following on a slip of paper:

“I Amalie Louise Geister, nee Wolf, was born on May 30, 1840 in
Tailfingen, Württemberg.  I came with two of my
siblings to America in June 1854.  I was
married in May 1864 to Mr. Valentin Geister of Pacific, Missouri where
we took
up residence.  In September 1884 my
husband died and left me behind as a widow with our only daughter.”

The two brothers, Gustav and Eberhard, ended
up in St. Louis, then very much a German immigrant city.

Gustav was soon running a hotel and
restaurant on Market Street and a saloon on South 2nd Street.  However, he died young at the age of thirty
in 1860, it is believed of tuberculosis.
And his son Eugene also contracted the disease.
He and his family moved from St. Louis to
Denver in 1893 in the hope that the fresh mountain air of Colorado
would revive
his health.  But it did not and he died
there at the relatively young age of 41 in 1901.

Simon Wolf, Friend to Presidents.  Simon Wolf’s
1918 autobiography, Presidents
I Have Known,
was aptly named.
When President Grant named him Recorder of Deeds for Washington
in 1869,
Wolf became one of the first Jews in the city to hold public office,
years after he had first arrived in Washington and opened his law
office.  In 1881, President James Garfield
him Consul General to Egypt.   He
friendships with Presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Woodrow Wilson over

Wolf proved himself as
well an eloquent orator and advocate on behalf of Jewish issues; and,
as a
columnist for The Jewish Messenger, he would
often comment on Jewish life in the capital city.  He
was suitably honored in his day.  But,
according to the 1987 biography by Esther
Panitz, he seems to have left no real legacy on American or Jewish


Wolfe Names

  • James Wolfe was the British general killed during his daring capture of Quebec from the French in 1759.
  • Virginia Woolf, part of the Bloomsbury set, was a leading English writer of the early 20th century.
  • Thomas Wolfe was a major American novelist of the early 20th century.
  • Howlin’ Wolf, born Chester Burnett, was an American blues singer, guitarist and harmonica player.
  • Henry Wolf was a New York based
    graphic designer and magazine art director in the 1950’s and 60’s.
  • Beverly Wolff was an American opera singer whose career spanned the 1950’s to early 1980’s.
  • Tom Wolfe is an American journalist and writers, one of the founders of the New Journalism
    movement of the 1960’s and 70’s.

Select Wolfe Numbers Today

  • 6,000 in the UK (most numerous
    in Nottinghamshire)
  • 67,000 in America (most numerous in Pennsylvania)
  • 28,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)


Select Wolfe 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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