Saturday, February 14, 2015

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks - #6 - So Far Away - the Origins of the SAMUEL Surname

This week's 52 Ancestor Challenge was "So Far Away." I have chosen to research my last name as I believe it has Biblical origins. That's pretty far away! In addition, Moshe Jacob Samuel is the furthest ancestor I know of. His son, Lazarus was born in England in 1795.

Commercial websites such as The Internet Surname Database, House of Names, and Behind the Name provide some information, which may or may not be historically accurate. One can also purchase a family crest or a document detailing your family’s surname. I read the information on these sites regarding the ‘Samuel’ surname and they actually do come close to the information I have found in more the “academic” sources. These companies also sell a variety of products with your “family crest” emblazoned on them. I found two widely differently designs during my search. One is described on the Internet Surname Database: “The Coat of Arms is a red field, on a cross between, in the 1st and 4th quarters, a lion rampant, and in the 2nd and 3rd an eagle displayed silver, a rose of the field”[1] Another had a pair of squirrels facing each other. I am choosing to believe this to be our family crest– we are all a bit “squirrely”!!

There are a few different reasons that surnames came to be. One is that as communities got larger, surnames were used to distinguish between people with the same given name. Another is that last names became necessary when governments began taxing its citizens. I found this explanation, specific to Jewish last names (and the practice of patronymics) very helpful:

When talking about Jewish family names…it is important to keep one fact in mind: until the late 18th or early 19th century, very few Jews had such names at all. Every Jew...had a Jewish “last name,” but it was a personal one that was not passed on to children, since it was the name of one’s father that was used on ritual occasions. If your name was Boruch and your father’s name was Simcha, you were called up to the Torah as Boruch ben-Simcha; if your name was Rokhl and your father’s name was Dovid, you were mentioned in a ketubah or marriage contract as Rokhl bas-Dovid. But your son Aryeh was called to the Torah as Aryeh ben-Boruch, and your daughter Rivka was written in the ketubah as Rivka-bas-Eliahu (if that was the name of Rokhl’s husband). Such “last names” were one-generational.[2]
I've read in numerous sources that Jews generally didn't have surnames until forced to do so by various governments. I’m still not quite clear on that and need to do more research in this area.

The name was first used as a given name by the Semitic (Jewish) peoples and later spread to use by other ethnic groups. There was even a ship named Samuell that brought immigrants to America in the 17th century!

In a 2005 monograph, written by R.L. Samuell[3], I learned the first appearance of the proper (given) name Samuel was in the Old Testament book of the Bible, “The First Book of Samuel.” This Samuel is thought to have lived in the Eleventh century B.C. According to Biblical tradition, Samuel’s mother, Hannah was distraught because she couldn't have children. She prayed that, should she give birth to a healthy child she would dedicate him to God’s service and name him Samuel, which in Hebrew, means “Heard of God.” Her prayers were answered (“heard”) and she indeed named her son. Samuel. This son went on to become one of ancient Israel’s greatest leaders.

Eventually, the name began to be used as a surname as a result of the naming practice of patronymics. This is a naming practice where the child is named after the father, taking the father’s first name as a surname to distinguish him from others with same first name. For example, ‘John Samuel’ meaning ‘John, son of Samuel’. The variant ‘Samuelson’ is also evidence of this practice.

The earliest appearance of ‘Samuel’ as a surname seems to be in Great Britain and dates from the 12th century.  Adolfus Samuel may be the first known recording of the name in 1160, found in the Danelaw Rolls of Lincolnshire, England.[4] [5] It was often spelled ‘Samwel’ as shown in a 13th century census listing a ‘Matilda Samwel.’

“First found in Cornwall where they held a family seat from early times. The family name first appeared on the early census rolls taken by the early Kings of Britain to determine the rate of taxation of their Subjects.” [6]
Over the years many variations of the name appeared. Some may be to due changing pronunciations. For instance, pronouncing the ‘w’ as ‘u’, changing ‘Samwell’ to ‘Samuell.’ Others may be due to the standardization of spelling when the King James Version of the Bible was printed in 1611. Dropping the double letter may have been a way to save on type-setting costs. ‘Samuell’ then becomes ‘Samuel.’ Recorded variations of the surname include: Samwell, Samuel, Samuell, Samway, Samuels, and others. (I've written about the ‘Samuel’ vs. ‘Samuels’ issue in a previous post.)

From, I learned that the name may be found in many cultures including: English, Scottish, Welsh, French, German, Dutch, Hungarian, Jewish and even South Indian[7]. A Greek variation is Samouelidis. I've met a woman with the last name of Samuelian. The Dictionary of American Family Names simply says, “English and Jewish: patronymic from Samuel.”[8]

Many people assume that everyone with the last name of ‘Samuel’ is Jewish. In my experience, I have met more African-Americans with that surname than Jews. This may be due to Anthony Samuell, Sr. (<1658-1731), who is credited as being the founder of the Samuel family in Virginia and southeastern United States. A probable great-grandson of Sir William Samwell of Northamptonshire (Great Britain), Anthony had nine known children. When he died in 1729, Anthony owned two plantations and 400 acres of other land. He was a planter and a slaveholder. It makes sense to me that many of those slaves would have taken on the Samuel last name. (R.L. Samuell)

There is another reason to dispute the association of ‘Samuel’ as being only a Jewish surname, especially for those with English ancestry. On July 18, 1290 the King of England, Edward I, ordered all Jews to leave his kingdom by November 1. The banishment persisted until the middle of the 17th century. During those 400 or so years there are many documented instances of people living their lives in England, with the surname ‘Samuel’. They were certainly not Jewish.

There is another, completely different theory about the origin of the ‘Samuel’ surname. Some believe the surname has a Viking origin. As explained by R.L. Samuell, the name could have been an “…Englishing of the Norse word ‘summeral’…” which means ‘summer Viking.’ Samuell, however, offers no specific proof of that theory other than stating that “…some have speculated…” on the theory.
I did find a blog post by an Edward Samuell[9] who supports the Viking theory.

“I have a difficult time with the surname Samuel coming from the Hebrew. I would transliterate Samuel from Hebrew as SHMUEL. The "sh" in Hebrew is an entirely different letter from the ‘s’… I do not know when in history the transliteration of Shmuel became Samuel, but I believe it occurred after Samuel, Samuell, or Samwell began to appear in English records like the 13th Century. I firmly believe for this reason that the origin of the surname Samuel in England has a viking origin as outlined in the R.L. Samuell article.”
In another forum, I found the surname ‘Samuel’ identified as a Sephardic (Jewish) name. This poster, Harry Stein[10], stated that the surname “…has been identified by the Holy Office of the Catholic Church of Spain as a Sephardic (Jewish) name." A visit to the website provided a listing of 15 different sources that credit ‘Samuel’ as a Sephardic Jewish name.[11] Three of these references have been placed on my “to-do” list for further investigation as they related to the Samuel name in London where my family definitely came from.

So it seems the Samuel surname has a long and storied history.

Born a Samuel, with almost no relationship with my father, I was eager to change my name when I married into the Holman family. Deborah Joan Holman. Sounded okay to me. Somehow, when I filled out all those forms, I forgot. I've been Deborah Samuel Holman for almost 32 years now! As my daughter, Meghan says, “Everything happens for a reason.” Previous to my father’s passing in 2008, we repaired our relationship (for the most part anyway) and, even more important – it will be easier for future genealogists to trace our line!

[1] "Last Name: Samuel." The Internet Surname Database. N.p., 14 Feb. 2015. Web. 14 Feb. 2015. <>
[2] Philologos. "How Did Jews Choose Their Last Names?" The Jewish Daily Forward. N.p., 9 July 2008. Web. 14 Feb. 2015. <>
[3] Samuell, R. L. "Monograph: Surname Samuel." N.p., 21 May 2005. Web. 6 Oct. 2013.
[4] "Samuels Family History | Find Genealogy Records & Family Crest." Samuels Family History | Find Genealogy Records & Family Crest. N.p., 2014. Web. 12 Feb. 2015. <>
[5] "Last Name: Samuel." The Internet Surname Database. N.p., 14 Feb. 2015. Web. 14 Feb. 2015. <>.
[6] "Samuel Surname History." Samuel Surname History. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Feb. 2015. <>.
[7] "Samuel Family History." Samuel Name Meaning & at N.p., 14 Feb. 2015. Web. 14 Feb. 2015. <>.
[8] Hanks, Patrick. Dictionary of American Family Names. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.
[9] Samuell, Edward. "Re: The Origin of the Surname Samuel ?" Re: The Origin of the Surname Samuel ? N.p., 23 Aug. 2004. Web. 26 Oct. 2013.
[10] Stein, Harry. "Samuel as a Sephardic Name." Samuel as a Sephardic Name. N.p., 25 Dec. 2001. Web. 26 Oct. 2013. <>
[11] "Sephardic Names Search Engine." N.p., 14 Feb. 2015. Web. 14 Feb. 2015. <

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