Woodruff Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Woodruff Surname Meaning

The root of the surname Woodruff is the Old English word wudurofe meaning woodruff, a plant whose leaves gave off a sweet smell.  Woodruff may either have been topographical, for someone who lived on a patch of land where woodruff grew, or a nickname for someone who used woodruff as a perfume.

A variant spelling is Woodroffe.  One early Woodruff family in Yorkshire was initially Woodrove and this may have derived from the occupational name “wood reeve,” a bailiff in charge of woodlands.

Woodruff Surname Resources on The Internet

Woodruff Surname Ancestry

  • from England (Yorkshire and SE England)
  • to America and Canada

EnglandThe Woodruff name in England was to be found in the 1881 census in two parts of the country mainly:

  • the West Riding of Yorkshire extending into Lancashire (the largest numbers by that time were in Lancashire).
  • and SE England, focused on London and Kent.

Yorkshire and Lancashire.  A Woodrove family originated at Normanton in the West Riding of Yorkshire near Wakefield.  In 1377 John Woodrove acquired Woolley Hall and this house was to remain with the family for the next two hundred years.

The best known of these Woodroves was Sir Richard Woodrove who was the High Sheriff of Yorkshire from 1510 to 1518.  The family later ran into problems due to their association with Thomas Percy, one of the ringleaders of the Rising of the North in 1569 (a later Richard had married his daughter), and Woolley Hall was sold by the Woodroves.

The Woodruff name appeared at Walton le Dale in Lancashire in the 18th century and later at nearby Preston. William Woodruff, the noted historian, was born in the cotton mill town of Blackburn in 1916.

SE England.  The Woodrove name resurfaced in London.  David Woodroffe was apprenticed as a haberdasher in London and became a freeman of the Haberdashers’ Company in 1526.  His son Sir Nicholas was Lord Mayor of London in 1579. The line via another son Robert led to Matthew Woodruff, early emigrant to America.

The Woodruff name had started to appear in the small village of Fordwich, just outside of Canterbury in Kent, in 1521.  Many Woodruffs were buried at its Church of St. Mary the Virgin.  John Woodruffe was a churchwarden there in 1636 and then emigrated to America.  A later John Woodruff was mayor in 1775.  And an enthusiastic clergyman, the Rev. C. Eveleigh Woodruff, wrote a history of the village in 1895. Woodruffs were also appearing by this time along the coast at Ramsgate and Deal.

America.  Early Woodruffs came to Connecticut and (via Long Island) to New Jersey.  

Connecticut.  Matthew Woodruff came to Hartford, Connecticut from London in 1636 and later made his home to Farmington.  His house still stands in Farmington on land that he purchased in 1653.  His lineage in America was covered in Mackenzie and Stewart’s 1925 book Woodruff Genealogy.  Two notable descendant lines led to:

  • Wilford Woodruff, born in Farmington in 1817 who joined the Mormon church in 1833, made the journey to Salt Lake valley, and served as the fourth President of the Church in 1889.  
  • and, from Samuel Woodruff who settled in Southington (South Farmington), came George Waldo Woodruff who migrated south to Columbus, Georgia in the 1850’s.  George’s son Ernest made the crucial investment in the Coca Cola company in 1919.  His grandsons Robert and George were to run the company from 1923 to 1954.

Another line via Nathaniel Woodruff led to Major General Mitchell Woodruff of Litchfield county, Connecticut; his son George, US Representative for Connecticut, and his grandson Timothy, three times Lieutenant Governor of New York state.  A line also led via the Rev. Jeremiah Woodruff to Rollin Woodruff, Governor of Connecticut in 1907.   

New Jersey.  John Woodruff was one of the original settlers of Southampton on Long Island, arriving there with his family from Kent in 1640.  His younger son John remained on Long Island (although his descendants settled in Westfield, New Jersey); while his older son John migrated to Elizabethtown, New Jersey in 1664.  

Four Woodruffs from this New Jersey family – Seth, Timothy, Jacob and Thomas – fought in the Revolutionary War.  Ceylon Woodruff’s 1967 book Woodruff Chronicles covered this family line.

Another Woodruff arrival in New Jersey was Thomas Woodruff who came to Salem, New Jersey in 1679.  A family Bible, known as the Nathan Woodruff Bible, was handed down to John Kelly Woodruff, a Methodist deacon in Butler county, Ohio in the 19th century.

From Long Island came William E. Woodruff, born there in 1795, who headed south to the newly created state of Arkansas in 1819. He printed the first edition of the Arkansas Gazette in 1819.  In acknowledgement of his pioneering efforts in promoting the new state, Woodruff county in Arkansas was named after him.

A number of Woodruffs from New Jersey headed westward to Ohio after the Revolutionary War. Seven Woodruffs served in the Ohio militia during the War of 1812 and the following Woodruffs arrived there later:

  • David Woodruff from Cumberland county in Muskingum county in 1813
  • Cornelius Woodruff from Elizabethtown who was with David Woodruff in Muskingum county and later made his home in Union county.  
  • Nathan Woodruff from Salem county in Butler county in 1817.
  • and Lieutenant Benjamin Woodruff from Bergen county in Jackson county around 1820.

There were forty Woodruff burials in the Woodruff cemetery in Watertown township, Washington county – the earliest adult there being Abner Woodruff in 1835.

Amos Woodruff departed Rahway, New Jersey for Memphis, Tennessee in 1845.  He started a carriage-making enterprise which proved to be very successful and he expanded into other lines of business.  He built what is now known as the Woodruff Fontaine House on “Millionaire’s Row” on the outskirts of the town in 1870.  His daughter Mollie Woodruff now haunts this building.

Elsewhere.  The Woodroof name started to appear in Virginia in the early 1700’s.  George Woodruff was born in Brunswick county, Virginia in 1780.  He married Sally Manning there in 1808 and they departed for Madison county, Alabama around the year 1815.  George was a farmer.  After his wife died he married again and settled in his later years in Franklin county, Missouri.

One line in South Carolina began with Joseph Woodruff, a Revolutionary War veteran, who was an early settler in the Spartanburg district. The town of Woodruff there took its name from him. His son Samuel migrated first to Tennessee and then to Mississippi.

Canada.  From the Litchfield, Connecticut line came Ezekiel Woodruff, a Loyalist during the Revolutionary War who moved his family to the Niagara peninsula in 1795. His sons Richard and William Woodruff built and operated the first steam-powered grist mill in Ontario.  Both of these sons fought in the War of 1812.

Woodruff Surname Miscellany

Sir Richard Woodrove of Woolley in Yorkshire.  In the middle of the 16th century St. Peters church in Woolley contained much painted glass.  In the first light of the east window of the chancel was a figure of Sir Richard Woodrove who died in 1522 kneeling, behind him six sons, and beneath that the following inscription:

“Pray for the soul of Richard Woderove a soldier, son and heir of John de Wolley Woderove, esquire, whose soul be with God.”

Woodruffs in the 1881 UK Census

County Numbers Percent
Yorkshire    136
Lancashire    308
Sub-Total    444    32
London    222
Kent    117
Surrey     64
Sussex     47
Sub-Total    448    32
Elsewhere    508    36
Total   1,400   100

William Woodruff’s Childhood in Lancashire.  William Woodruff was born in Blackburn in 1916. His grandparents had emigrated to Massachusetts and his parents had, rather unusually, returned to England to work as weavers in a Lancashire cotton mill.

William was born during the Great War and into abject poverty. Two weeks before his birth, his mother had received a telegram saying his father had been killed in France. On the day of his birth his mother received a second telegram saying there had been a mistake and that his father was alive. William was delivered two hours later in the cotton carding room of the factory.

The extraordinary story of his Lancashire childhood was told in his best-selling book The Road to Nab End, a book that was on The London Times best-seller list for a year.

With the collapse of the English cotton industry in 1920 the Woodruff family became destitute. The cotton mills closed, half the adults were unemployed; people starved to death. The family had to move to a single room in a slum at Nab End.

Young William was haunted all his life by the journey he took at the age of six with his mother to the seaside resort of Blackpool. During the day his mother would tell him to sit on a bench.  From there he watched men, far better dressed than any he had known, enter the hotel. Some came out with his mother. “You’re a grand lad,” some said, tossing him a coin or two.  Billy Boy, as he was known, wondered why.

At the age of 13 in 1929 he left school to become a grocer’s delivery ‘barrow boy.’  After the wealthy grocer suffered a stroke William was lucky to get a job in a brickyard.  At age 16 he ran away to London. He approached the unknown with resourcefulness and self-reliance honed by hard times.  He always counted himself lucky to have been born in Lancashire and doubly lucky to have been born poor. 

David Woodruff, Pioneer Settler in Muskingum County, Ohio.  David Woodruff, born in New Jersey in 1773, was one of the pioneer settlers of Muskingum county in Ohio, arriving there as early as 1813.  He came by wagon with a group of people that included his wife and three children.

In making their journey from New Jersey to Ohio, and after they had reached Zanesville on the way to Brush Creek, a commotion appeared in the brush. A number of the men, including David Woodruff, loosened their dogs which immediately pounced upon and killed a bear on the spot where the market house now stands.  David Woodruff and his dogs subsequently killed a bear where the Lutheran church of their township now stands.

Initially David Woodruff leased land near Stovertown and he resided there until around 1819.   Then he bought 80 acres of land where he built a cabin and began clearing the land and improving his farm in various ways.  He lived on at his farm until his death in 1844.

Mollie Woodruff and the Haunted Woodruff Fontaine Mansion.  Amos Woodruff grew rich from his carriage-making business in Memphis, Tennessee and invested in a large five story French-Victorian mansion located on what was called “Millionaire’s Row” on the outskirts of the town.  The woodwork was made of machine-carved solid cypress.  The total cost was estimated at $40,000.  Amos, his wife Phoebe, and their four children moved into the mansion in 1870.

Their daughter Mollie married the next year and inhabited the mansion’s Rose Room.  That was the room where she lost a young child shortly after childbirth.  Three months after the death of the child, her husband Egbert died in the Rose Room from a staph infection.  Mollie was devastated but eventually remarried and moved away.

Legend has it that Mollie’s ghost returned to her father’s house and still roams the halls. Reports of haunting activity such as a smoke-formed apparition of Mollie have been reported by staff when they tried to update or move furniture in the mansion.  Mollie apparently becomes upset and makes her dislike of the re-redecorations evident by slamming doors and breaking things.  Mollie has also been reported seen sitting on the bed in the Rose Room.

Richard and William Woodruff and the War of 1812.  William Woodruff served as a private in Crook’s Company at the beginning of the War of 1812 and fought under Captain McClellan at the Battle of Queenston Heights, for which he gave a vivid account.  Both he and his brother Richard were awarded a land grant for their services during the war.

Richard Woodruff was listed as a prisoner at Fort Niagara on June, 1813.  He built a home at St. Davids which was destroyed when the American army burned the village in 1814.  He rebuilt the house in 1815 and his family lived there until the early 1900’s.

Woodruff Names

  • Sir Richard Woodrove of Woolley Hall was the High Sheriff of Yorkshire from 1510 to 1518. 
  • Wilfred Woodruff served as the fourth President of the Mormon church from 1889 until his death in 1898. 
  • Robert W. Woodruff was the President of the Coca-Cola Company from 1923 until 1954.  He was also a major philanthropist in his home city of Atlanta. 
  • William Woodruff grew up in abject poverty in Lancashire to become a Fulbright scholar and a Professor of World History in America.   
  • Maurice Woodruff was a well-known English clairvoyant and astrologer in the 1960’s.

Woodruff Numbers Today

  • 2,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 9,000 in America (most numerous in Ohio)
  • 1,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

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Written by Colin Shelley

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