Signature of Edward B. Walker Genealogy of Edward B. Walker
1756-1838, Duplin County, North Carolina - Sullivan, Claiborne, Hancock Counties, Tennessee


The First Walker/Origin of the Surname

Frequencies: England (ONS)
US Census
Meanings: Glossary
Wikipedia: Family Names

Knowing the origin of a surname does not prove anything about any particular family line. Throughout the ages, people have changed their surnames for reasons good and bad and even because of preference or illiteracy. Non-English-speaking immigrants coming to the United States may have chosen common American names sounding similar to their own names but meaning something different; in more recent times, such changes may have been made for them by clerks at Ellis Island and other waystations. In other cases, pronunciations and spellings have changed over the years.

In addition, surnames were not inherited at first and usage was more informal. Very rarely can a particular surname be traced to one and only one person, with all others with that name descended in an unbroken line. Certainly, the name Walker was adopted by thousands of different, unrelated people at different times. In other words, there was no first Walker – there were many first Walkers – and not every Walker is related.

Moreover, because surnames were not inherited until long after their first use, the first person in Edward B. Walker's line to use the surname "Walker" more likely had a father with a different surname, not a father with no surname. For the most part, the adoption of inherited surnames occurred in the medieval period where records were not kept or no longer exist. Most likely, we will never know the first person in Edward B. Walker's line to actually use the surname Walker.

How Surnames Came About

For most of human history, surnames were not needed, but as the population of Europe increased and more people lived in closer proximity to each other, some way was needed to distinguish between people with the same first name. Surname usage in Europe began for the most part in the 1100s, with some dating the origin in England to the Domesday Book, a survey taken by the Normans in 1086.

Surnames were not created by some sort of decree that required people to choose them. Instead, they tended to evolve more informally, and they were intended at first to distinguish between individuals, not families. John the Baker, or just John Baker, for instance, might have been called that to distinguish him from John the Barber. John Baker's children, though, would not necessarily have been Bakers. John Jr. might have been known as Little John, John Little, or John Younger, for instance, while a son Robert might have been known as Robert Johnson, literally "son of John"; another son with perhaps a more unusual first name may have had no surname at all.

In England, inherited surnames became more common in the 1200s and 1300s primarily among the aristocracy, and most other English families adopted them by the 1400s. In Ireland and much of the world, though, a majority of families did not adopt inherited surnames until the 1700s and even later; even today, they are not used in some societies.

In the English language, most surnames fall into one of five categories: patronymic, descriptive nicknames, place names including manors and estates, geographical features, and occupational surnames.

Patronymic names literally signify "son of", and, in some societies, names might follow maternal lines as well. In some cultures, including Scandinavia, patronymic names changed in each generation. For instance, John Baker's son Robert would be Robert Johnson, while Robert's son Henry would be Henry Robertson. In English usage, such names were often shortened, Williamson to Williams, Robertson to Roberts, and Johnson to Jones, for instance.

Descriptive surnames often derived from nicknames or obvious characteristics of people, again used to distinguish them from others with the same first name. For instance, John Little or John Younger might have been smaller or younger than another John in the area, whether the two Johns were related or not. Other names in this category include Short, Brown, White, Long, and Fair. Because of changes in the language, some descriptive surnames today are not obviously descriptive; the common surname Allen, for instance, is thought to have derived from the Scottish word "aluinn", meaning "fair" or "handsome", although the exact origin is not certain.

Another group of surnames relates to a place, either a city where someone lived or a manor or a lord that one served or some similar pattern. For instance, Odell is an English name which meant that someone was from the town of Odell in Bedfordshire. Such names are generally less common; certainly, not everyone in Odell took the surname Odell as the surname would then have no value in distinguishing people. More likely, the form was sometimes used to refer either to someone particularly well-known in the town of Odell by people who did not live there or to refer to someone in another town who had moved from Odell.

Geographical surnames were also common, such as Hill, Mountain, Woods, and Lake. While occasionally they may have been nicknames for a person, for instance someone who was "as big as a mountain", for the most part they probably derived from where a person lived, e.g., "John on the Hill" as opposed to "John on the Lake".

The last common source of surnames came from occupations, and many common surnames derive from them, such as Smith, Miller, Taylor, Fuller, and, yes, Walker. In a recent study, Walker is still the 15th most common name in England, Wales, and the Isle of Man. The name is slightly less common in the United States, 25th in the 1990 Census, because immigration over centuries from around the world to North America has introduced a number of new surnames.

Walker is an Occupational Name?!

It is, or at least it was, and it was a common one. Many occupations that became surnames remain familiar to us even if we have never personally met a miller or a blacksmith, but mechanization replaced human walkers long before many other jobs. Historians are quite familiar with walking and walkers, but even most people named Walker probably have no idea what the job was.

A number of printed genealogies tell a romantic tale of the first Walker, usually a tender of royal forests who daily walked the grounds in service to a king or some other royal personage. As mentioned at the top of this page, there was no first Walker, and the tale of a royal forest walker is pure fiction.

As for what a walker really did, about the same time that surnames were becoming more common, wool became a staple industry in England, and the market expanded greatly in the 1300s. Wool has natural oils which need to be removed before it becomes the more closely-knit cloth useful for so many purposes. This preparation was performed by a walker or a fuller, names which are virtually synonymous.

The wool would be soaked first in clean water and fuller's earth. The composition of fuller's earth varied, but it was usually a clay or clay-like substance high in magnesium. The wool would then need to be pounded by foot. Typically, this pounding was accomplished by putting the wool in a vat with stale urine and stomping on it much as grapes are stomped. Stale urine was particularly good for removing the natural wool oil called lanolin. The process was called "walking", and thus the surname "Walker" was born.

The occupation itself began to disappear even in medieval times when a water-driven hammer system was developed, creating a fulling mill or walk mill that could perform the process much faster than humans.

We will probably never know for sure whether a direct-line ancestor of Edward B. Walker actually spent his day soaked in stale urine or whether we came about the name some other way. And even if our past is urine-soaked, there were much worse occupations at the time. The tales of royal forest walkers may have arisen from writers who failed to research the name properly or might have simply been people who did not want to use the expression "urine-soaked" in their books.

All original material © 2007-9 by Phillip A. Walker or by cited authors. Submissions are welcome. Reuse allowed under limited conditions. Page last modified Sunday, 09-Sep-2018 13:19:36 MDT .