Wolfe Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Wolfe Surname 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 figured as well 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, Wolff, Woolf and, in Ireland, Woulfe.

Wolfe Surname Resources on The Internet

Wolfe, Wolf, Wolff, Woulfe and Woolf Surname Ancestry

  • from Germany (Saxony), England, Ireland (Kildare and Limerick) and from Jewish emigrants
  • to America, Canada, South Africa and Australia

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 Holland.

England. 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 spelling.

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 Virginia Woolf’s most famous novel To the Lighthouse.

Jewish. Woolf as a surname was first found in London in the late 1700’s, possibly that 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 Woolf before their marriage as “that penniless Jew”).

A Jewish Wolf in London was Edward Wolf from Bohemia who had come to England as a political refugee after the 1848 revolutions. His son Lucien became a prominent historian and advocate of Jewish 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 Times. 

Ireland. 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 Wolfe, the British victor at Quebec in 1759. The General may have had Irish blood in him. But not necessarily this blood.

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 Cork.

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 1987.
  • 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 Wolfe Family History.

The 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.

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

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.

Martin Wolff was a Jewish immigrant from Frankfurt who arrived in Montreal around 1910.  He served as the treasurer of its Spanish and Portuguese synagogue.  In 1941 he sponsored the teenage Alfred Bader who had escaped the Nazi holocaust and was interred in a Quebec refugee.  Alfred went on to become a hugely successful chemical entrepreneur in Canada.

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

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.

Jennifer Lopez (Spanish for Wolf) Family Ancestry

Wolf has figured as a surname in many countries – as Wolf in Germany, Wolfe in England, and as Lopez in Spain.  Jennifer Lopez found fame and fortune in America as a dancer, singer, and actress.  Her roots are in Puerto Rico in the Caribbean which had been a Spanish colony.  Just click below if you want to read more about this history:

Wolfe, Wolf, Wolff, Woulfe and Woolf Surname 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.

According 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 large family on a much reduced income.

Sidney 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 became increasingly attenuated.  Leonard was one of nine siblings, all of whom (apart from an unmarried brother who died young) married non-Jews.

His 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 guarding the Revolutionary prison camp near Windsor township.  He 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:  “Here 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 Germany 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, seven years after he had first arrived in Washington and opened his law office.  In 1881, President James Garfield appointed him Consul General to Egypt.   He counted friendships with Presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Woodrow Wilson over his lifetime.

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 life.

Wolfe, Wolff, and Wolf 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 writer, one of the founders of the New Journalism movement of the 1960’s and 70’s.
  • Michael Wolff is an American journalist who hit paydirt with his 2018 book Fire and Fury on Donald Trump.

Wolfe, Wolff and Wolf 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)

Wolf 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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Written by Colin Shelley

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