Select Potter Surname Genealogy

The root of Potter is the Latin pottus and the Old English pott, meaning a drink or draught.  Potter described the maker of drinking and storage vessels in clay and earthenware containers.  A potter might also describe someone in the Middle Ages who worked in metals.

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England.  Early renderings of the name such as Seuard le Potter in Lincolnshire in 1172 or Lambert le Pottur in Essex in 1214 make it difficult to determine whether these described the occupation or were in fact surnames. 

Maybe the Potter of Nicholas le Potter of Yarmouth in 1303 was a surname as he was a bailiff not a potter.  In fact in time the surname did get separated from the occupation (as had happened in Potterton).  There may have been a connection between the Nicholas le Potter above and the Potter line at Newport Pagnell in Buckinghamshire. The Nicholas name did seem to recur in almost every generation.

Three Potters at Oxford University in the 1600’s later became prominent clergymen and also rich in the process:
  • the first was Barnaby Potter from Westmorland, the son of a mercer in Kendal.  He graduated in 1615, was Provost of Queen’s College, and subsequently the Bishop of Carlisle.  His nephew Christopher succeeded him as Provost and became Dean of Worcester in 1635.
  • then came Francis Potter from the west country, the son of a wealthy prebendary at Worcester.  He graduated in 1616 and, after his father’s death in 1628, succeeded him as the rector at Kilmington in Somerset.  Francis narrowly escaped sequestration during the Civil War.  He left a recipe for curing gout when he died. 
  • and later came John Potter from Yorkshire, the son of a linen draper in Wakefield.  He graduated in 1693 and was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1737 to 1747.  The Archbishop had two sons, John and Thomas.  He disinherited the elder John in favor of the younger Thomas.
Yorkshire and Lancashire.  There had been Potters at Potterton near Leeds and there were Potters at Tadcaster some 12 miles to the north, starting with John Potter who kept a draper’s store there in the early 1700’s.  Two of his grandsons, Thomas and Richard, made it as cotton merchants in Manchester in the early 1800’s.  Thomas became the first mayor of Manchester in 1838.

James Potter, a flax merchant, had come to Manchester from nearby Hindley earlier in the 1740’s.  His grandson John was a calico printer there; while his great grandson Edmund mechanized the production of calico and became the largest producer of calico in the world.  He - like the Potters from Tadcaster - was a stern Unitarian in his beliefs.

However, the line through his son Rupert admitted to a more artistic bent.  Rupert took up photography in the 1880’s, his daughter Beatrix was the famous children’s writer and his son Bertram an artist of some repute

America.  Not one but two Potter New England genealogy books appeared back in 1888 - the Rev. Jeremiah Potter’s Genealogy of the Potter Family in Rhode Island and Charles Potter’s Genealogies of the Potter Families.

New England
  The early roads, at least for the Potters from London, led to Rhode Island.  Robert Potter, who had come in 1634 and settled in Salem, was a follower of Anne Hutchinson and Sam Gorton.  He was tried along with them and their followers for heresy in 1638. 

They thereupon departed for Aquedeek (subsequently Portsmouth) to found the new colony of Rhode Island. Robert’s brothers Nathaniel and George (who died suddenly in his thirties in 1640) had joined him and they lived on adjacent properties.  Robert went on to found a new community at Showomut (now Warwick).

“In 1643 Robert Potter and others at Showomut were arrested and taken back to Massachusetts where they were tried on heresy charges. They were imprisoned for two years, although released after one year.  When Robert returned home in 1644 he discovered that his wife Isabel had been killed in an Indian raid the previous year.”

The Potters in Rhode Island increased in numbers.  The 1790 census recorded 142 Potter families.  Notable descendants were:

  • from Nathaniel came Samuel J. Potter, the US Senator for Rhode Island in 1803 and Elisha R. Potter who ran for Governor in 1818 but lost. 
  • from George came Shadrach Potter who moved to Vermont after the Revolutionary War.  His grandson Henry was a physician in Bennington, Vermont for more than fifty years. 
  • and from Robert came Alonzo Potter of Schenectady in upstate New York, a prominent Episcopal bishop in the 1840’s.  He and his wife Sarah raised eight sons and one daughter, all of whom were to have distinguished careers.  Their numbers included: Robert Potter a Union General during the Civil War; Edward and William both architects; Howard a banker who subsequently became a director of the Bank of England; while two sons – Horatio and Henry – were bishops like their father.  Frank Potter’s 1923 book The Alonzo Potter Family told the story.
Other early Potters in New England were: John and William Potter who signed the Plantation Covenant in New Haven in 1639; Nicholas Potter who was recorded in the same year in Lynn, Massachusetts; and Anthony Potter who first appeared in Ipswich, Massachusetts in 1648.  

Irish arrivals
.  There were Potter arrivals from Ireland.  John Potter was said to have been a descendant of a Cromwellian soldier who had settled in Fermanagh.  He emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1741 and died there fifteen years later.  His son James fought in the Revolutionary War, serving under Washington and becoming his General in 1782.  He made his home at Potter’s Mills after the war.  His daughter Martha married Andrew Gregg, Pennsylvania’s Senator in 1807.

Another John Potter, also descended from a Cromwellian soldier, came to Charleston from county Down in 1784.  On the voyage across the vessel was wrecked and he lost all of his possessions.  By dint of hard work, however, he prospered as a merchant in Charleston.  He moved to Princeton, New Jersey in 1824, following his daughter there.

Other Potters
.  Joseph Potter was born in Rhode Island of uncertain parentage.  He wrote in 1831:
“I was the stepson of Joshua Green who died with the smallpox about forty five years ago.”

He fought in the Revolutionary War and subsequently ran a tavern on the Hudson river near Albany.  In 1791 Joseph purchased land along the Susquehanna river in Pennsylvania and was the first settler of what became Gibson township.  His descendants celebrated the centennial anniversary of his arrival there in 1891.

Linus Potter, born in Pennsylvania in the early 1800’s, migrated west with his young family to Michigan where he founded the township of Potterville.  He died young in 1846 and his son Theodore, restless, left for California at the time of the Gold Rush.  Finding no gold he travelled around the West (and other parts as well) before making his home in Minnesota territory.  His recollections of his early time in Minnesota appeared in the Minnesota History Bulletin of November 1916.

Canada.  One line from Nathaniel Potter of Rhode island ended up in Canada.   Rhode Island people were prominent amongst those who migrated north to Nova Scotia in the late 1750's.  Cornelius Potter received a land grant in Newport and settled there.

Australia.  George Potter, originally from Oxford, came to Australia with his family from London on the Statesman in 1855.   George had been drawn to Victoria by the gold mining boom.  He opened the Gold Miners Arms hotel at Heathcote.  Later he was to run hotels in the Melbourne suburbs.  

In 1873 George Potter migrated from the Victorian goldfields to mine at Gympie in Queensland.  After a few years he opened a plumbing and hardware store.  Later he became a successful mining investor.  In 1903 his eldest daughter Clara Potter married Frederick Jefferson and it was one of the social events of the year in Gympie.  Sadly Clara was to die three years later

Select Potter Miscellany

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

Select Potter Names

Beatrix Potter was an English writer of children’s books, the most notablye being The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Stephen Potter
wrote mocking self-help books such as Gamesmanship that came out in 1947.

Dennis Potter
was a highly regarded English TV dramatist and screenwriter of the 1970’s and 1980’s. 
Harry Potter
is the fictional protagonist of J.K. Rowling’s hugely popular novels about wizardry.

Select Potters Today
  • 34,000 in the UK (most numerous in Yorkshire)
  • 28,000 in America (most numerous in California) 
  • 20,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

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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