Select Harper Surname Genealogy

Harper is an English, Scottish, and Irish occupational name for a player on the harp, from the Old English hearp.  The harper was one of the most important figures of a medieval baronial hall, especially in Scotland and northern England, and the office of harper was sometimes hereditary.  However, the harper could also be someone who simply made a living playing at fairs and festivals. 

Some early forms of the name in England had their origins in the Anglo-French word harpour.  The Scottish surname was probably an anglicized form of the Gaelic Mac Chruiteir, meaning “son of the harper.” The surname has also been long present in Ireland, initially as Harpur.  The German surname equivalent is Harpfer, which could become Harper in America

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England.  Harper has been mainly a north of England name that initially appeared as Harpour or Harpur.

An early le Harpur family began with Sir Robert le Harpur in Derby around the year 1300.  There were many knights and baronets in succeeding generations. 
One line may have led to John Harper who appeared as an attorney at the Stafford assizes in 1411.  Through a propitious marriage he became a substantial landowner in the Rushall area of Staffordshire.  His son Richard was receiver-general for the Duchy of Lancaster and in 1474 obtained permission to endow a chantry at Swinford in Leicestershire in memory of his parents.

Sir Henry Harper of the main line was created a baronet in 1626 and made his home at Calike Abbey in Derbyshire.  This line was known as Harper-Crewe from 1808 but became extinct in 1924.

The Harper name was quite common in Staffordshire.  John Harper was married in Sedgley in 1584.  One family line has been traced from the marriage of William and Priscilla Harper at Sedgley two hundred years later in 1784.

Larger Harper numbers have been in Yorkshire.  An early Harper there was John Harper who was appointed the royal forester at Galtres in north Yorkshire in 1438.  Richard Harper held Blacktoft manor in east Yorkshire in Elizabethan times.  And a Harper line began with the marriage of Ralph Harper and Isabel Walker in Leeds in 1696.

Scotland.  Early Harpers
in Scotland were recorded as the Norman le Harpur in the 1296 Ragman’s Roll.  It initially took the Gaelic form
Mac chruiter in Kirkudbright in SW Scotland.  Harpers from the district of Lennox near present-day Glasgow were associated with clan Buchanan. 

Sir John Harper, a sheriff of Lanarkshire, acquired the Cambusnethan estate in north Lanarkshire in 1661 and rebuilt the house there.  He was active at that time in the pursuit of Covenanters.  His descendants, however, were secession Presbyterian ministers.  James Harper was appointed editor of the United Presbyterian Magazine in 1850. 

John Harper started his engineering company in Aberdeen in the 1860’s; and Nana Harper from Lanarkshire was a Titanic survivor in 1912. 

  The names Harpur and Harper have existed in Ireland since the 13th century when the Norman Robert le Harpur arrived from England.  A descendant David le Harpur was recorded in a Wexford document of 1278.  The male line at Harperstown in Wexford died out in 1336. 

However, the Harpur name and spelling continued in Wexford, even though Harpur had generally died out as a spelling in England.  Thomas Harpur was mayor of Wexford in the late 1800’s.  The Harpur spelling was also to be found at Ballinacorra in county Cork.  These Harpurs may have given their name to Harpers Island in Cork Harbor.  

The Harper name was later introduced into Ulster by settlers from Scotland and England in the 17th century.  John Harper came to Donaghadee in county Down as part of Montgomery’s plantation in 1617.  Others made their home in Antrim; while Lowdy Harpor married Mary Middleton at Corraglass in Monaghan in 1762.  Many Scots Irish Harpers were emigrating to America around this time.

America.  One early Harper line was to be found along the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay in Virginia by 1630’s, but later settled in Somerset county, Maryland.  Around the time of the Revolution, Beauchampe Harper had risen to relative prominence in Dorchester county, acquiring slaves and land inland in the Fork District.

“However, in the early 1800’s, the family dissipated its wealth – through bad investments, madness, alcoholism, lawsuits and internal squabbles over slavery.”

One branch of the family under a later Beauchampe departed for Ohio in the 1830’s, and then to points further west; another branch via William Harper to Chester county, Pennsylvania where they have mostly remained.

Captain John Harper
, born in Philadelphia, made his home in Alexandria, Virginia.  He was a prominent ship-owner and trader to South America in the years prior to the Revolutionary War.

“Captain Harper had twenty children by his first wife, Sarah Wells, and nine by his second wife, Mary Cunningham.  And to each of his children, he left a house and a lot, according to historical accounts.”

Berton Lee’s 1990 book Chronology of Captain John Harper covered these lines.

Joseph Harper from Suffolk came to America in the 1760’s and settled in Newtown, Long Island.  Four of his grandsons – James, John, Wesley and Fletcher – worked together in New York, first in 1825 as printers and then a decade later as publishers.

“Their first big publishing success was Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures in 1836.  Selling 300,000 copies, the book became the most influential single work of anti-Catholic propaganda in America's history."

In 1844 James Harper was elected mayor of New York, running on a Know-Nothing, Nativist platform of anti-Catholicism and anti-immigration.  Meanwhile Harper and Brothers publishing begat what is now Harper’s Bazaar and HarperCollins. 

. Then there were Irish Harper arrivals, the majority of them Scots Irish from Ulster.

John and Abigail Harper came to Massachusetts with their family from county Derry in 1720.  In 1768 his sons Alexander, John and Joseph purchased land in Delaware county, New York at a place that became known as Harpersfield.  All three brothers were actively involved in the fighting during the Revolutionary War.

Afterwards Alexander migrated to Ohio where he founded another Harpersfield in Ashtabula county.  The family homestead there, Shandy Hall, stayed with the Harper family until 1935.  The history was recounted
in Jane Cowles Ford’s 1905 book Records of the Harper Family.

Robert Harper, a Quaker, fled Belfast for Philadelphia in 1727.  There he became an indentured servant to John Buzby, a wealthy Quaker of Oxford township.  He died in 1765 in Philadelphia a wealthy man himself.

Then there were Harpers who came in the 1790’s: 
  • Alexander Harper came to Ohio from Belfast as a child at that time.  Based in Zanesville, he was US Congressman at various times between 1836 and 1853 for Muskingum county.  
  • William Harper, also came to Ohio, also from Belfast.  He lived in a settlement near present-day Athens called Elizabethtown after his wife.  He and his son John operated a local ferry known as Harpers Ferry.  
  • while James Harper came from Tyrone and made his money in Philadelphia as a brick manufacturer.  He was for a period in the 1830’s a US Congressman there.
German.  Harpers in America can have German origin, from Harpfer or Herber names.  Philip and Anna Herber, for instance, came to Philadelphia in 1750, first settling as Harper in Berks county, Pennsylvania and later moving to Augusta county, Virginia.

  The main Harper line in Canada began with Christopher Harper, born in the small Yorkshire village of Sledmere, who had come to Nova Scotia in 1774 and moved into a house near Fort Cumberland, only to have his home burned to the ground two years later by rebels.

“Harper spent years taking revenge in the courts and slowly rising through the political system.  He had risen to the post of justice of the peace by the time a judicial inquiry found him guilty of, as one historian put it ‘violent and oppressive measures,’  vindictive to a point beyond all reason.”

Christopher Harper lived to be ninety, passing away in 1820.  The Harpers of Sackville and Bay Verte in Nova Scotia were descendants of his sons John and William.  The line from the younger son William extended to:
  • Donald Harper, a prominent Sackville farmer who was a member of the New Brunswick legislature and was appointed Provincial Secretary in 1963.  
  • while another line from Harris Harper of Moncton, New Brunswick (who mysteriously disappeared in 1950) and his son Joseph led to Stephen Harper.  Stephen migrated west to Alberta, was one of the founders of the Reform Party, and rose to become Canada’s 22nd Prime Minister in 2006.
Australia and New ZealandAndrew Harper and his family from county Antrim in Ireland were early arrivals in Melbourne, coming there in 1841 as assisted passengers on the Marquis of Bute.  They later moved to Geelong and then to Ballarat.  Andrew was a wheelwright by trade and died in Ballarat in 1882.  His wife Maria had died much earlier in 1859, tragically when her clothing had accidentally caught on fire. 

The Rev. Charles Harper was a pioneer settler in Western Australia.  He had arrived from London in what was then the Swan River Colony in 1837.  Charles was the first ordained minister in the colony and served the Toodyay district for more than thirty years. 
His son Charles first became a farmer. 

"According to family legend, his mother gave him at sixteen a horse and cart, a gun, a barrel of salt pork and fifty pounds, and sent him to find himself a farm."

He did well in farming and in pearling and was able to acquire the Western Australian Times newspaper in 1879.  He later entered local politics.  The third Charles of this family helped establish the Western Australian farmers' co-operative in 1913 in which he was involved for the next forty years.

Henry Harper, born in Hampshire and educated at Eton College, came out to New Zealand in 1856 and was the first Anglican bishop of Christchurch, holding that position from 1856 to 1890.  His son Leonard left New Zealand in 1891 after it transpired that his law firm in Christchurch had gone bankrupt through embezzlement; but Leonard's son Arthur (generally known as APH) became well-known in New Zealand as a mountaineer and explorer.

Select Harper Miscellany

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

Select Harper Names

John Harper founded in the 1860’s one of Aberdeen’s best-known engineering companies which became active in the building of suspension bridges.  
James Harper
was the early/mid 19th century New York publisher who with his brothers created what became the HarperCollins publishing house and Harper’s Bazaar magazine.  
Stephen Harper
was the Prime Minister of Canada from 2006 to 2015

Select Harpers Today
  • 38,000 in the UK (most numerous in Staffordshire)
  • 46,000 in America (most numerous in Texas) 
  • 17,000 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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