Presidential Surnames

Investigate the meaning and origin of the country's first citizen surnames!

George Washington

April 30, 1789 - March 4, 1797

In a neat twist of etymological fate, the man who gave his name to a state and a city had a surname derived from a location. A wash is a coastal creek or marsh, and "ton" is an older spelling of town. So, literally, "marsh town", and the surname Washington almost certainly originates in the town of Washington, England.

John Adams

March 4, 1797 - March 4, 1801

Adams, a variant of Adamson, meaning "son of Adam", is an early surname derived from a parental name.

Thomas Jefferson

March 4, 1801 - March 4, 1809

As with the previous office holder, this surname comes from a parental name: "son of Jeffrey".

James Madison

March 4, 1809 - March 4, 1817

A hat-trick of three sons in a row, Madison, but this differs in coming from a mother rather than a father: "son of Maddie".

James Monroe

March 4, 1817 - March 4, 1825

Much disagreement over the origins of this name; some authorities claim the source is "Mount Roe" in Ireland, others assert that it is a variant of the Scottish Munro, while yet others place it in England.

John Quincy Adams

March 4, 1825 - March 4, 1829

The second presidential holder of this surname.

Andrew Jackson

March 4, 1829 - March 4, 1837

Another son, this time of Jack.

Martin Van Buren

March 4, 1837 - March 4, 1841

The first president with a surname originating outside the British Isles. Buren is a city in the Netherlands, and the surname literally means "of Buren".

William Henry Harrison

March 4, 1841 - April 4, 1841

Another son, this time of Harry or Harold. Although the surname originated in England, the first name from which it derives is Norse: Harald.

John Tyler

April 4, 1841 - March 4, 1845

The first president with a name derived from an occupation, Tyler is a variant spelling of "Tiler" - someone who lays tiles.

James K. Polk

March 4, 1845 - March 4, 1849

A little misleading, this one. There is a German surname of "Polk", but in this case we happen to know that President Polk was of Scottish stock and his grandfather spelled the name "Pollock". That's a Scottish slang phrase for a small pool or pit, and also the name of a town near Glasgow. Polk, in this context, is just an abbreviated version. This etymology is completely different from the German origin of Polk.

Zachary Taylor

March 4, 1849 - July 9, 1850

A second occupational surname, this time being the fairly obvious variant spelling of "tailor".

Millard Fillmore

July 9, 1850 - March 4, 1853

At first glance, this name appears to be the wrong way round - Millard is a relatively common surname, while Fillmore was once a common forename. As a surname, Fillmore is derived from its use as a forname.

Franklin Pierce

March 4, 1853 - March 4, 1857

Pierce is the Welsh spelling of the surname based on the forename "Peter", found elsewhere as Peterson, Peters and Piers.

James Buchanan

March 4, 1857 - March 4, 1861

A long-standing Scottish surname, this has its origins in local geography.

Abraham Lincoln

March 4, 1861 - April 15, 1865

From the city of Lincoln, England.

Andrew Johnson

April 15, 1865 - March 4, 1869

The son, as it says, of John.

Ulysses S. Grant

March 4, 1869 - March 4, 1877

Originally a given name, Grant seems to have mutated into a surname in Scotland.

Rutherford B. Hayes

March 4, 1877 - March 4, 1881

A geographical surname, from any one of several towns and villages of this name in Southern England.

James A. Garfield

March 4, 1881 - September 19, 1881

From the Scottish: "irritating orange cat". No, seriously, this is an Anglo-Saxon place name - "field of gar", or "field of garments".

Chester A. Arthur

September 19, 1881 - March 4, 1885

Here a surname, once a given name of the legendary king.

Grover Cleveland

March 4, 1885 - March 4, 1889

Another geographical name, this time from Yorkshire: "cliff lane".

Benjamin Harrison

March 4, 1889 - March 4, 1893

The second presidential son of Harry.

Grover Cleveland

March 4, 1893 - March 4, 1897

A non-consecutive cliff lane, at that.

William McKinley

March 4, 1897 - September 14, 1901

The "Mc" is a clear giveaway that this is a Scottish surname, it's derived from the Gaelic for "son of Kinley".

Theodore Roosevelt

September 14, 1901 - March 4, 1909

The second presidential name to originate in the Netherlands, from the Dutch for "rose field".

William Howard Taft

March 4, 1909 - March 4, 1913

A variant spelling of "Toft", a common village name in eastern England.

Woodrow Wilson

March 4, 1913 - March 4, 1921

Son of Will(iam).

Warren G. Harding

March 4, 1921 - August 2, 1923

From a geographical location.

Calvin Coolidge

August 2, 1923 - March 4, 1929

One of the more obscure presidential surnames, this is probably from "coll edge", "coll" being a word for hill.

Herbert Hoover

March 4, 1929 - March 4, 1933

English variant of German "Huber".

Franklin D. Roosevelt

March 4, 1933 - April 12, 1945

The second president to hold this name.

Harry S. Truman

April 12, 1945 - January 20, 1953

Variant of "true man", possibly either a nickname or a description of a servant.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

January 20, 1953 - January 20, 1961

A German occupational name, meaing "iron worker".

John F. Kennedy

January 20, 1961 - November 22, 1963

A Scottish name meaning "head of the household" or "head of the clan".

Lyndon B. Johnson

November 22, 1963 - January 20, 1969

Another son of John!

Richard Nixon

January 20, 1969 - August 9, 1974

A variation on "Nick's son".

Gerald Ford

August 9, 1974 - January 20, 1977

From the word "ford", meaning a type of river crossing.

Jimmy Carter

January 20, 1977 - January 20, 1981

Another occupational name, someone who drives a cart.

Ronald Reagan

January 20, 1981 - January 20, 1989

A variant spelling of "Riagan", a common Irish given name.

George H. W. Bush

January 20, 1989 - January 20, 1993

As a surname, means someone who lives near a bush.

Bill Clinton

January 20, 1993 - January 20, 2001

From the town of Clinton in England.

George W. Bush

January 20, 2001 - January 20, 2009

Can also mean someone who lives near the sign of a bush - that is, a wineseller.

Barack Obama

January 20, 2009 - Incumbent

The first president with a surname originating outside Europe, and the first with a surname originating in a non-Christian culture.