Select French Surname Genealogy

Being from France in England potentially gave rise to the surnames:
  • Francis (starting as Frauncays or “the Frenchman”)
  • and French (starting as de Freyne or “from France”).
De Freyne had a Norman origin.  However, the derivation here could have been from a different root - the Latin word fraxinus meaning “ash tree.”

Early examples of these names were Ebrordis Fraunceys in Bristol around 1240 and Simon le Frensch in Wiltshire in 1273.  The De Freyne and French names crossed the sea to Ireland.  And Ireland also produced the curious ffrench or Ffrench surname spelling

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Select French Ancestry

EnglandNeither the French nor Francis name travelled much north.  Most by those names were in SE England, with outposts west in Wiltshire and Devon.

SE England
.  Essex was an early location.  Examples were
Geoffrey le Franceis in 1205 and Richard Frensh in 1425 in connection with the farms at Little Bardfield and Felsted in the northwest part of the county. 

Early French in Essex
were to be found there and at Arkesden, Halstead, and Birdbrook nearby.  William French was a merchant of Lowestoft in Suffolk in the late 1400’s.  Various Frenches from Halstead and Coggleshall in Essex and from across the border in Suffolk left for America and the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1600’s.

Further north, Frenches in Oxfordshire played a role at the time of the English Civil War:

  • a French family had been landowners at South Newington since the early 1600’s.  Francis French, a constable there in the 1630’s, refused to pay the King’s new tax levy.  This resulted in the Sheriff of Oxford attempting to raise the money by seizing his cattle. The case continued to be fought in the courts.  It was said to have been one of the small sparks that contributed to the start of the Civil War in 1642. 
  • John French of Broughton meanwhile was supplying malt to the Royalist army at Oxford in 1644; while his son John was then the physician to the Parliamentary army of Sir Thomas Fairfax.  This John lived at a time when the new science of chemistry was developing from alchemy and he was an enthusiast in his writings for its application to medicine.
There were also French numbers further south in London, Surrey, Kent, and Sussex. 

The Kent numbers included the Anglo-Irish French family from Roscommon who made their home at Ripple Vale near Deal from the mid-1700’s.  Their line went to:
  • Commander John French of the Royal Navy who fought in the Portuguese Civil War of the 1830’s
  • and Sir John French, a senior British army officer at the onset of the First World War who, under pressure, had to resign his position as Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force in late 1915.
These Frenches always regarded themselves as Irish even though their branch of the family had lived in England since the 18th century.

SW England
  French was an early presence in Devon.  Robert French, a lawyer by profession, was the MP for Totnes in the late 1300’s.  He had acquired through marriage the Sharpham manor near Totnes.  The French name also appeared in the Ashburton and Widecombe villages on the edge of Dartmoor.

.  The French family in Ireland descended from Sir Humphrey de Freyne who arrived from England around the year 1300 and settled at Ballymacoonoge in Wexford.  His descendants were to be an important family in Wexford for the next 150 years, before branching out to Galway and later to Roscommon. 

.  Walter French who came from Wexford to Galway in the 1430’s was the founder of the French family there, one of the fourteen Tribes of Galway.  John French, known as John of the Salt, accrued great wealth as a merchant there in the mid-1500’s.  Their power declined, as with other Tribe families, after the attack on the town by Cromwell’s men in 1652. 

The Frenches, who then styled themselves ffrenches, survived the Cromwellian confiscations and held onto their Castle ffrench estate near Ballinsaloe.  Charles ffrench was made a baronet in 1779 and ffrenches later prospered in banking and business enterprises in Galway.  Castle ffrench was sold by the family in 1851 but then purchased back in 1919. 

.  A branch of the family, starting with Patrick French and his son Dominick, moved to Roscommon in 1650’s and were large landowners there.  They also prospered in the Dublin wine trade.  Their base was the Frenchpark estate near Boyle which stayed with the family until 1952.

. Patricio French - the son of Oliver French, a Mayor of Galway - was exiled for political reasons and settled in Andalusia in the early 1700’s.  He married well and prospered there.

His son Patricio was a merchant who made his home in Argentina later in the 1700’s; while his son Domingo became an Argentine revolutionary who took a leading part in the May Revolution and the Argentine War of Independence of the early 1800’s.

Many French came from England (mainly into New England), some from Ireland and Scotland, but none from France. 

New England.  There were four notable early French arrivals into the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Curiously, all four were tailors by trade.  Three came from the area of north Essex/south Suffolk:
  • the first arrival was Thomas French from Suffolk who came with his sister Alice in 1632, settling in Ipswich three years later.  He died there in 1680.
  • while William French came from Essex on the Defence in 1635, settling in Billerica.  He and his wife Elizabeth had thirteen children (although only six were still living at the time of his death), and his descendants are numerous.  William’s brother John came in 1636 and made his home in Cambridge.  
Mary Beyer’s 1912 book A Genealogy of the French and Allied Families covered the history of the William French family. 

Edward French from Warwickshire came around 1635 and made his home in Salisbury.  A branch of his family moved to New Hampshire in the 1750’s and from them came: 
  • Benjamin Brown French, born in 1800, who gravitated to Washington DC and government service there (and kept a diary of his time there).  
  • and Henry Flagg French, born in 1813, who was a prominent figure in agricultural societies in Massachusetts.  His son Daniel Chester French was a notable American sculptor, best known for his statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. 
Also found in New Hampshire were: 
  • Abraham French who an early settler in the 1790’s in the town of Pittsfield.  His grandson Charles French fought on the Unionist side in Louisiana during the Civil War.  
  • and Augustus French, born in 1808, who was a fourth-generation descendant of Nathaniel French who had come to Massachusetts in 1687.  Augustus French was the Governor of Illinois from 1846 to 1852.
Pennsylvania.  Thomas French had been a Quaker in England, was persecuted and imprisoned, and in 1680 left his home in Northamptonshire for Burlington, New Jersey.  His line was covered in Howard French’s 1909 book Genealogy of the Descendants of Thomas French.

One of his descendants, Samuel Gibbs French, became a planter in Mississippi in the 1850’s and was a general in the Confederate army during the Civil War.

Another line led to Ohio and a third line to Tennessee and Missouri.  Peter French, born in Missouri in 1849, moved with his family a year later to California.  He would become a big rancher, the owner of the P Ranch, in Oregon.

Another French arriving in Pennsylvania was from Scotland, Alexander French arriving sometime in the 1750’s.   He was a soldier in the Revolutionary War and a member of George Washington’s bodyguard.  Although some Frenches stayed in Washington county in Pennsylvania, he moved with his family to new lands in Trumbull county, Ohio in 1800.  His son William later moved onto Allen county in Ohio.

.  There were also early Frenches in Virginia.  John French came in the 1730’s to the Northern Neck of Virginia.  He became through government grants a large landowner in what was to be Hampshire county, West Virginia. 

“According to tradition, John was said to have named Hampshire county for the county Hampshire in England where his French estate was located and neighboring Upshur county after the family name of Martha Upshur, his wife.”

John died in 1750.  His son Matthew French, in dispute with his mother and her new husband, sold out his family interest and in 1775 crossed the Alleghenies with his own family to settle at Wolf Creek in what was then Giles county.  Matthew died there in 1814.

  French’s Cove in Newfoundland was named after the Edward French family.  This family is believed to have originated in Devon.  They operated a trading company to the Caribbean out of Bay Roberts near Harbour Grace throughout the 18th century.  After Edward died in 1783, his son Edward carried on the company until around 1800.

Two French brothers from Cornwall, James and Thomas, came to Prince Edward Island in 1829, James having eloped with his bride Jemima whom he had married in Liverpool.  James left on a sea voyage in 1850 and was never heard from again.  His wife died in Detroit.

.  William French, a farm laborer, and his wife Elizabeth from Somerset came to NSW on the Maitland in 1856.  The family settled at Tenterfield.  The eldest son John, born during the crossing, became a hairdresser.  A younger son William lost his right arm in an industrial accident, aged eighteen, at Tenterfield in 1893

Select French Miscellany

If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for further stories and accounts:

Select French Names

John French, known as John of the Salt, accrued great wealth as a merchant in Galway in the mid-16th century.
Domingo French
took a leading part in the May Revolution and the Argentine War of Independence in the early 1800’s.
Sir John French
was a senior army officer of the First World War who. under pressure, had to resign his position as Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in late 1915.

Daniel Chester French
was an American sculptor of the early 20th century, best known for his statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.
Dawn French
is a popular comedian, writer and actress on British TV, best known for her work in the BBC comedy show French and Saunders.

Select Frenches Today
  • 27,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 29,000 in America (most numerous in California) 
  • 15,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

PS.  You might want to check out the surnames page on this website.  It covers surname genealogy in this and companion websites for more than 800 surnames.

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