Origin and History of the Wills Surname

Compiled by Ian Wills between 1985 and 2002.


The Wills surname in England

The Wills surname has been traced back more than 900 years to ancient times with the name first found on record in Saltash, Cornwall, England. From the beginning of the 11th century the surname of Wills along with some other influential families were somewhat quite wealthy. Historians have found that the Wills’s owned land and estates around various parts of England during that time.

Today, particularly in Devon there are many huge properties owned by the Wills’s. During the 1700s it was not uncommon for a Wills farmer to marry his cousin so as to keep the wealth in the family. Many wealthy Wills people had very large families that continued on farming down through the generations and buying up property after property for their children.

With Wills’s marrying Wills’s and their cousins, it has caused nothing but a nightmare as many researchers tracing back from the present day have come to a halt. With names like William, Thomas . George, James, Alfred and Edward by the dozens on record it more than adds to the confusion.

The Wills surname in the U.S.A.

Historians and researchers have found that many people left England during the early 1600s in search of a better life elsewhere. Among some of these people were some Wills’s that set sail to America.

Some of the first settlers were Bennet Wills who settled in Maine in 1627, Thomas Wills settled in Maryland in 1673, John Wills settled in St.Christopher in 1634 and two brothers named Thomas and William Wills settled in Virginia in 1654.

Where other Wills’s emigrated to.

With freezing cold winters and many types of diseases around in the 1600s, those that met the particular requirements by authorities left England and apart from going to the U.S.A they also went to Ireland, South Africa, several Scandinavian countries and later on Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Spelling variations over the years.

From it’s ancient tribal origins the name Wills was first found on Land records at Saltash in Cornwall, England and then through all the battles and the times when there were Knights, Noble feuds and Title holders. From that time the spelling of the name has varied somewhat and has been found also to have been spelt as follows:

Willls, Willes, Wylls, Wils, Wiels, Wiells, Wells, Walls, Whills and Will.

These are all variants of the Wills surname.

Prior to the Wills name first being found on record in England, another surname of Wiltz was found on record in both Holland and Portugal much earlier. Some historians have also linked this name to Wills and it’s variants. Today the surname of Wiltz is still found in both of those two countries mentioned plus a few others.

The Wils surname is also found in large numbers in Germany , Austria, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and some other countries to a lesser extent. All other variant names can be found in many countries today.

Editors Note :- Further reading on the spelling of the name Wills plus this page on the fact that spelling variations should not be discounted when searching for the Wills surname and it includes a list of possible spelling variations.

The meaning of a surname

Beginning researchers are often led in the wrong direction when they discover the meaning of their surnames. Remember that the real goal for most researchers is to find out who your most ancient ancestor was.

The meaning of the name may or may not assist you in this. Nonetheless I believe it is an important first step in research.

The Origin of a surname

Another helpful step in research is finding out where a surname was originally used. Most surnames with the exception of patronymic surnames have a geographical origin. In countries like Spain, Portugal, Italy and others the surnames of people have come from towns or small villages, lakes and rivers etc.

The Progenitor of a surname

The word progenitor comes from two Latin words which mean “ to beget before” . The progenitor then is the one whose genes carried forth the surname. However, this could be completely different from the founder, and the meaning on the geographical location of the surname.

The origins of surnames around the world.

Although your last name offers you the most substantial clues to your family history, first and middle names can also be valuable in tracing your family tree. We generally think of names with three parts: first, middle and last. First names are called “given” or “Christian” names, because early Christians changed their pagan first names to Christian names at baptism.

Most first names used in the Western World today originate from five languages: Hebrew, Teutonic ( which included Germanic ) Greek, Latin and Celtic ( which includes Irish, Welsh and Scottish ).

For people with Hispanic surnames

Those of you who are doing research on the history of their Hispanic surname will find it an extremely difficult task.

This is because the surnames are in Spanish, out of print and difficult to locate outside of Spain. However researchers can overcome these obstacles by tracing surnames that are spelt slightly different ( just like the Wills surname variants ) This particular method has helped many a researcher including myself in tracking down generation after generation of families.

Parentage from early times – Patronymic surnames.

The practice of identifying individuals with their parents, especially their fathers was almost universal. In Spain and some other countries a short hand method of showing one’s parentage was developed by adding an es, as, is, or os. In Portugal, ez, az, is and oz were used.

A name like Rodriguez in Spain and Rodrigues in Portugal are now called patronymic surnames and some typical examples are as follows:

Mendez” ( son of Mendo ) “Alvarez” ( Alvaro ) “Gonzalez” ( Gonzalo ) and “Ortiz” ( Ortun ).

Surnames in the middle ages

Surnames were shortened during this period and rules were developed for their proper use. The patronymic method ( coming from the parent ) of naming one’s offspring, made it difficult to trace a lineage beyond one’s grandfather. Thus the patronymic surnames became permanent family names and were passed down directly to their offspring.

An example I found some years ago was that Juan Alvarez called his son Emilio Alvarez and his daughter Maria Alvarez. Virtually from that time tracing the lineage of a person then is the same as it is today.

Surnames, worldwide and through the ages

The first known people to acquire surnames were the Chinese.

Legends suggest that the Emperor Fushi decreed the use of surnames, or family names about 2852 B.C.. The Chinese customarily have three names. The surname is placed first and comes from one of the 438 words in the sacred Chinese poem ( Po-Chia-Hsing ). The family name is followed by a generation name, taken from a poem of 30 characters adopted by each family. The given name is then placed last.

In early times the Romans had only one name. However, they later changed to using three names. The given name stood first and was called a “praenomen”. This was followed by the “nomen” which designates the gens, or clans. The last name designates the family and is known as the “agnomen” to commemorate an illustrious action, or remarkable event. As the Roman Empire began to decline, family names became confused and single names once again became customary.


During the Middle Ages, people were referred to by a single given name but gradually the custom of adding another name as a way to distinguish individuals gained popularity. Certain distinct traits became commonly used as a part of this practice. For example, the place of birth: St.Francis of Assisi; a descriptive characteristic: Lambert Le Tort, an old French poet whose name means “Lambert the Nisted” the person’s occupation: Piers, Plowman; or the use of the father’s name: Leif Ericsson.

By the 12th century, the use of a second name had become so widespread that, in some places it was considered vulgar not to have one. However, even through this custom was the source of all surnames used today, the second names used in the early Middle ages did not apply to families nor were they hereditary.

Historians in general are unsure whether these second names evolved into fixed, hereditary surnames is difficult to pinpoint with any accuracy since the practice advanced slowly over a period of several hundreds of years. Many fixed surnames existed alongside the more temporary bynames and descriptive terms used by the people as second names.

The modern hereditary use of surnames is a practice that originated among the Venetian aristocracy in Italy sometime between the 10th and 11th centuries. Around about 1370 the word “surname’ was found in documents, and had come to acquire some emotive and dynastic significance.

Poland and Russia family names gained in popularity during both the 15th and 16th centuries. The Scandinavian countries, bound by their custom of using the father’s name as a second name, didn’t begin using family surnames until the 19th century, believe it or not Turkey waited until 1933 before the government forced the practice on it’s people.


The origin of surnames of some other countries

Belgian They are either of French or Dutch origin. In most areas they are French except in the north where they are Dutch.

Chinese. There are approximately 1000 different surnames in China. Most are only one syllable and are characteristic of descriptive in origin. The most common names are Wang, Wong, Chan and Chew.

Czech. These are related to Polish surnames.

Danish. Most are patronymic in origin and end in - sen.

Dutch. Their surnames commenced in ancient times. By the 17th century they were spread all around the world.

English. By the end of the 13th century, English personal names were to be found not only all over England but in many parts of Scotland as well.

French. Except for the difference in language, the French system of names closely resembles that of the English because of it’s close contact during the period of development. A few surnames of French origin are : Chevrier ( one who took care of goats ), Legault ( a dweller by the woods ), Pegues ( one who produced wax ), and Rozier ( dweller near a rose bush).

German. Most German surnames are derived from occupations, colours or locations. Some are descriptive forms like Mein ( little ) and Gross ( big ). The surnames of Kreuser, Schluter, Tobler and Shuck are all of German origin.

Greek. Most Greek names are patronymic in origin or derive from geographical place names. The most popular Greek name is Pappas, meaning descended from a priest.

Hebrew. Up until the 19th century most Jewish names were patronymic or locational. However, during the persecutions in Germany, they were forced by law to take permanent surnames. Some surnames of Hebrew origin are Meier, Ury, Joffe and Shiffin.

Italian . All Italian surnames end in a vowel and many of them according to Italian historians have derived from a descriptive nickname. Even after hereditary surnames had become the rule in Italy, descriptive nicknames were often passed from one generation to another and gradually replaced hereditary surnames. The surnames of Cannella, Medici, Pelficanno and Rotolo are all of Italian origin.

Irish. Hereditary surnames were first used in Ireland from as far back as the 10th century, but the custom did not become widespread until the 12th century. Genealogists from all over the world have been very impressed with ancient documents as so much detail was found on records. For example the ownership of land was determined by family relationships, pedigrees were accurately maintained from very early times. Some interesting Irish surnames are McClary, Rogan, Ryan and Tamory.

Japanese. Throughout the history of Japan, only the nobility had surnames. This changed in the 1800s when the Emperor declared that everyone must have a last name. Whole villages then took the same name. For this reason, there are only about 10,000 surnames in use in Japan and most of these are locational. Some examples of Japanese surnames are Arakawa, Yamada, Hata and Shishido.

Lithuanian. The spelling of surnames commenced in the 1385 – 1795 period when Lithuania unified with Poland. Many Lithuanians who wanted to Polonize their surnames added “icius” ( the Lithuanianized Polish “icz” to their last name. An example of this is the surname Zemaitis which became Zemaiticius, or even more Polish than that, Zemaiticz. To add further confusion, if the surname was Russianized it became Zemaitovski. The Zemaitis surname is probably not a good name to use for this example, but you get the idea. And, when the Zemaitis family first went to live in the U.S.A. and elsewhere, they didn’t speak English or write Lithuanian and the Immigration Officials had no idea who they were. The husband’s surname was Zemaitis, the wife’s surname was Zemaitiene, and the unmarried daughter’s surname was Zemaityre. No wonder Lithuanian – American researchers were scratching their heads so to speak, trying to trace their family tree and Lithuanian roots.

Persian. There are three types of surnames in Persia. They are : Single surnames, surnames with affixes and compound surnames. Some single surnames are : Muhammadi, Ahsani, Muzhgan.

Some surnames with affixes are: Bahramzadah, Ayranpur and Kiyanfar. Some compound surnames are: Darya Bandari, Shariat Panahi and Mushfiq Kashani.

In the true sense Persian affixes should not be considered as independent names. Very few are affixed.

The following listing includes some examples of Persian affixes.

Abadi, di, dust, fard, far, ju, kiya, niya, nizhad, par, parast, pur, rad, vand, vard, yar, zadah, zad and zand.

Scottish. During the Middle Ages, the infant mortality rate in Scotland was extremely high. For this reason, many Scottish families would use the same name over and over so that one family might have several children with the same name if more than one child survived. They also changed their surnames which has caused headaches for researchers.

This was because they changed residence. Even through the 18th century, many Scottish women retained their own names when they married. This may be a carry over of an even older custom of the man taking the wife’s name at the time of marriage.

There are two groups of Scottish surnames: Highland and Lowland.

The Highland surnames developed slowly, and it was not until the 18th century that a man ceased to be designated by his father’s name.

The Clan system was largely responsible for preserving the old ways of the Highlanders. A man would join a clan for protection and, to show his allegiance, he would then adopt a clan surname – usually Mac followed by the chiefs name. As chieftainship was hereditary, the names were mainly patronymic. In the Lowlands, the use of surnames developed much the same as English surnames, although at a slower pace.

Spanish. Spanish names actually began as cries between Christian families, warning each other of approaching Moors. As mentioned earlier, most Spanish surnames are patronymic and locational in origin.

Before surnames became hereditary, a father’s name was generally used as a surname. These were distinguished by the endings – es and – ez which mean “son of ” . Some Spanish Lords tended to use their estates as surnames. The custom today is to use the father’s surname in conjunction with the mother’s.

Swedish and Norwegian. Since the early 10th century, Norwegians have traditionally taken a name associated with the family farm. Swedish surnames are of more recent origin and are generally patronymic.

Swiss. Very few surnames originated in Switzerland. Most are of French, German, Italian or Romansch origin.

The surnames of Pallin, Gonda, Rush and Pestalozzi are eclectic and originated in Switzerland.

Welsh. Fixed family names are a recent introduction to Wales. Before they were imposed for legal purposes, patronymic surnames were preferred instead of fixed family names. Surnames such as Evan, Mattock, Parsons and Ryder are of Welsh origin.

Compiled by Ian Wills between 1985 and 2002.

A number of people and institutions must be thanked for providing me with so much information over the years.

They are : Charles Zemaitis who now has the Zemaitis Homepage.

The late Richard ( Dick ) Wills from Ilsington, Devon, England. He was a Devon historian and author of the “Book of Ilsington” and a wonderful provider of Wills information.

Princeton University, New Jersey, U.S.A. ( Persian surnames- history ).

Alfred Sosa – Surname researcher, historian and author of the book “History of surnames”. Many references have come from his book.

Hall Of Names International- Kingston, Ontario, Canada - Origin and meanings of surnames.

Genuki – U.K. Ireland, Scottish and Welsh family history.


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