Franklin


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The name Franklin derives from feudal times and the Middle English frankelin, meaning a "freeman" or a "landowner of free but noble birth."  He would rank above the main body of minor freeholders, but below a knight or a member of the nobility.  He appears in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales as the narrator of the Franklin's Tale.

The root of the word was the Anglo-Norman franc, meaning "free," and the Germanic suffix -ling.  Its first record as a surname was when Luke le Franckeleyn was registered in the Cambridgeshire Feet of Fines in 1234.

Franklin can also be the anglicized form of the Germanic Frankel or Franckel, a name often brought by Jewish immigrants.

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England.  The earliest sightings of the Franklin name were in Bedfordshire and Oxfordshire:
  • Bedfordshire.  William Franklin was recorded in the village of Thurleigh north of Bedford during the 1470's; George Franklin held the Bolnhurst estate in the late 1500's (his granddaughter Margaret married a Bacon and is commemorated in a plaque in the church at Burton Latimer); and another George Franklin took title to a farm in Ravensden in 1618 (a Franklin still farms there today).
  • Oxfordshire.  John Franklin was recorded in the village of Horspath in south Oxfordshire in 1524; and Henry Franklin, "a gentleman of some culture," owned Adwell manor house in the 1600's.  William Franklin was appointed carpenter in Oxford in 1588.  His son Jeremy inherited the position and was elected mayor in 1728.
Another early Franklin family came from Kent, starting with John Frankelyn of Chart Sutton who died in 1500.  These Franklins later resided in Wye.  Charles Franklyn, a descendant, published a genealogy of the family in 1932.  Sir John Franklin, the famous Arctic explorer, was born in Spilsby, Lincolnshire in 1786.

Most Franklins in the 1851 census were in Gloucestershire.  Later the distribution of the name looked more like an arc, starting low in the east with Kent and London, then rising to Oxfordshire and Warwickshire in the middle of England, and falling away in the west to Gloucestershire.  The largest number today are in Kent.

Franklins could be immigrants.  Benjamin Wolf Franckel had come to London around 1763 from the Jewish community of Breslau in present-day Poland.  On settling there, he anglicized his name to Franklin.  Perhaps this was suggested by the fact that, in accordance with local custom back home, his mother as a widow had been called in official documents "die Fraenckelin." 

He was the forebear of a very prominent Anglo-Jewish family of merchant bankers (as described in Arthur Frankin's 1935 book Records of the Franklin Family).   But perhaps the best known of these Franklins was Rosalind Franklin who as a research chemist was instrumental in the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1951.

America.  Jonathan Franklin was an early settler in Haverhill, Massachusetts.  He was scalped and killed by Indians there in 1692 and his son David, a sea captain, drowned in Boston harbor in 1739.  However, the family survived and John Franklin distinguished himself in the Revolutionary War.  A descendant was the automobile pioneer Herbert Franklin.  He built his Franklin cars in Syracuse, New York from 1902 to 1934 when the Great Depression bankrupted him.

Benjamin Franklin's father Josiah came from Northamptonshire and had emigrated to Boston with his first wife in 1683.  Benjamin Franklin himself was born in 1705, the youngest son of Josiah's second marriage, and he made his mark in Philadelphia, then the largest of the American cities.  He left no line of direct male descendants.  It has only been through his daughter Sarah that there were direct descendants.

Franklins in America outnumber Franklins in England by roughly two to one.  Its popularity in America owed much to Benjamin Franklin.  Franklin county is the name of 24 counties in America, all but one of them being named after Benjamin Franklin.  It would appear that many Franklins in America got their name by changing theirs to Franklin on arrival or soon thereafter.  The Jewish Frankels, coming either from Germany or from Russia, would be a prime example here.

Most Franklins were to be found in the southern states by the mid-19th century.  Generally, as the records of Franklin families from the 18th century reveal, Franklins moved inland from Virginia and the Carolinas to Kentucky and Tennessee, and then south into Georgia and Alabama.  A prominent Franklin in the antebellum South was the slave trader Isaac Franklin.  He made his home at his Fairvue plantation in Tennessee.  By the late 19th century the largest number of Franklins were in Texas.  Notable African American Franklins include the soul singer Aretha Franklin, born in Tennessee, and Shirley Franklin who served as mayor of Atlanta from 2002. 

Genealogical material on the Franklins in America are to be found in The Franklin Fireplace, a quarterly publication compiled by Betty Harvey Williams from 1969 to 1983.

Australia and New Zealand.
  Joseph Franklin was a poor farm laborer from Limerick in Ireland who had come to Australia in 1839 with his family in search of a better life.  By 1848 Joseph had acquired a small herd of cattle and decided to find land of his own by following the Goodradigbee river upstream to the district now known as Brindabella, NSW.

"The usual hazards of pioneering confronted him.  Cattle strayed or were speared and eaten by Aborigines.  Tribal fights were common and, during one of Joseph's absences, their hut was burnt down from a kitchen fire while his wife and children were out looking for a lost cow."

His granddaughter who grew up in this remote outback settlement was the writer Miles Franklin.  Her best-known novel My Brilliant Career, published in 1901, tells the story of an irrepressible teenage feminist growing to womanhood in rural New South Wales.  Its heroine is one of the most endearing characters in Australian literature and obviously has much in common with Franklin herself who wrote the novel while still a teenager.

Early Franklin immigrants to New Zealand were:
  • Robert Franklin from London.  He had arrived in New Zealand sometime in the 1840's, married, and raised a family in Nelson.
  • Lawrence Franklin from Oxfordshire.  He had come out with his family on the Halcione in 1874 under the Vogel assistance scheme for farm laborers.  They settled in Hawkes Bay.         
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If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for further stories and accounts:


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Benjamin Franklin  was one of the founding fathers of the United States.  He was also a noted writer and printer, scientist, inventor, statesman, and diplomat.  The Franklin stove was his invention and it is named after him.
Sir John Franklin
was the 19th century British naval officer and Arctic explorer who mapped almost two thirds of the northern coastline of North America.  He died in 1848 in a fruitless venture to discover the Northwest Passage.
Rosalind Franklin, born into a prominent Anglo-Jewish family, was a physical chemist who, together with Francis Crick and James Watson, discovered the structure of DNA in 1951. 
Aretha Franklin is the soul and R&B singer known as "the Queen of Soul."

Select Franklins Today
  • 15,000 in the UK (most numerous in Kent)
  • 40,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 11,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia).



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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