Select Stern Surname Genealogy

The Stern surname has mainly Germanic roots, coming from the German word stern meaning “star,” and describing someone living at a house distinguished by the sign of a star.  The name has been widespread throughout central and eastern Europe, extending as far as Slovenia.  Stern is also a common Jewish ornamental surname.

There are as well English versions of the surname – Stern, Sterne, Stearn, and Stearns – which have had different origins.  Here the name came from the Old English word styrne meaning “strict”
and would have started perhaps as a nickname for a schoolmaster or perhaps a court official, one whose job it was to maintain discipline.

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Select Stern Ancestry

Sterns total some 10,000 in Germany today, mainly in the south, with further Sterns in Austria and Slovenia.  The Jewish population has declined.  There was once a large number of Sterns in Frankfurt, beginning at the time of the Judengasse in the 17th century.  Stern emigrants also came from the old Austria-Hungary and Russian empire in the 19th century.

.  The early surname was Sterne, which later became outnumbered by Stearn and Stearns.  These were mainly East Anglia names.  The name Henry Sterne was recorded in the Cambridgeshire rolls of 1279.  An early family sighting was at Skeyton in Norfolk where Robert Sterne and his descendants held Whitwell Hall from about 1450 to 1560.

William Sterne migrated from Suffolk to Nottinghamshire sometime in the 1550’s.  His line extended to:
  • Richard Sterne, Archbishop of York at the time of the Restoration in the 1660’s
  • the Archbishop’s three grandsons - Richard who succeeded to the family estates in Yorkshire; the second son Roger who did not, joined the army, and was to die poor in Jamaica in 1731; and the third son Jaques who pursued a career in the church and ended up as Precentor at York minster.
  • and Roger’s son Laurence, born in Ireland, who was to find literary fame in the 1760’s as the author of Tristram Shandy.
The Sterne name, later becoming Stearns, was also to be found in Nayland parish, Suffolk in the mid-1500’s.  Isaac Stearns, an early immigrant to America, is thought possibly to have come from this line.  John Sterne was born near Cambridge in 1794.  His line later became Stearn.

David and Hermann Stern, Jewish bankers from Frankfurt, moved to London in 1844 and formed the Stern Brothers banking house there.  David’s son Sydney was created Baron Wandsworth.  Meanwhile their cousin James had come over some twenty years later and was also a merchant banker.  His son Albert was knighted for his work on the Landships Committee during World War One in promoting the first British tank.

.  Passenger records to America over time suggest that 65% of the Sterns who came from America were from Germany, 20% from Austria Hungary, 10% from the Russian empire, and 5% from England.  If you were to add Stearn and Stearns to this list the England percent rises to 7%.

.  However, the Stearns came first.  There was a family tradition that three Stearns brothers – Daniel, Israel and Shubael – came to Massachusetts from England with the Winthrop fleet in 1630.  Daniel and Shubael died soon afterwards.  Shubael’s two sons Charles and Nathaniel were raised by their uncle Isaac.

“Isaac on reaching anchorage in America went forward to select a place for settlement.  Emulation arose between the two boys as which should step on land first.  As they sprang from the boat Charles missed his footing and fell into the river – which was therefore christened the Charles river.”

They settled in Watertown, Massachusetts.  An early genealogical book was Avis Stearns Van Wagenen’s 1901 book Genealogy and Memoirs of Isaac Stearns
.  Many of these Stearns remained in Massachusetts:
  • Captain Josiah Stearns was a soldier in the Revolutionary War.  His grandson George was a Boston merchant active in the abolitionist movement.
  • the Stearns had a long association with Phillips Academy in Andover, starting in the early 1800's.  Alfred Stearns was its headmaster in 1903.
  • Richard H. Stearns studied at the Academy in the 1840's.   Soon afterwards he opened his store R.H. Stearns & Company, which became a fixture in the downtown Boston shopping scene for over a century.
  • Stearns from Billerica in Massachusetts included Onslow Stearns, Governor of New Hampshire in 1869, and Henry Stearns, a mill owner in Rhode Island and its Lieutenant Governor in 1891. 
  • Henry's brother George meanwhile had started a cotton wadding factory in Ohio in 1846, the firm later producing mattresses under the Stearns & Foster and Sealy brands.   Edward Stearns' home in Wyoming, Ohio is now a historic residence.
One early Stearns line did lead to North Carolina  where Shubael Stearns was in the 1750's its first Baptist preacher.

Stern.  Stern could become Stearns.  Stern Brothers had been founded in 1867 by Isaac, Louis and Benjamin Stern, three sons of German Jewish immigrants.  In that year they began selling dry goods in Buffalo, New York. From these humble beginnings the Stern Brothers became an important merchandising family in New York City.

However, Robert, the son of Isaac Stern, was educated in Andover, Massachusetts and he came under the spell of its headmaster Alfred Stearns.  As a result he changed his last name from Stern to Stearns.  Robert it was who was the co-founder of the equity trading house Bear Stearns
 in 1923.  Bear Stearns became a mighty Wall Street investment bank before its fall from grace in 2008.

An earlier arrival from Germany was Adolphus Sterne who landed in New Orleans in 1817 and then surfaced as a merchant in Texas while it was still in Mexican hands.  He later served in the Texas House of Representatives.  Jacob Stern started a hides and tallow business in Philadelphia in the 1850’s.  Charles Stern was in Georgia by the 1860’s and began a chain of clothing stores there.

Later arrivals would come from the wider Jewish diaspora.  Harry and Ida Stern came to Pittsburgh from Poland after the conclusion of World War One.  Their son Gerald was a noted American poet and essayist.  Meanwhile Solomon and Clara Stern arrived in San Francisco from Ukraine in 1921.  Their son Isaac was the famous violinist.

There were Sterns fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930’s who came to America:
  • Herbert Stern fled Frankfurt for America in 1938 after his father had been taken away to Buchenwald.  His wife Margot managed to escape three years later.  They made an emotional return to Frankfurt in 2014.
  • Harold Stern, also from Frankfurt, arrived in America in 1947 following his mother who had come six years earlier.  He had lived in internment camps in England and Australia during the war and then enlisted in the Australian army before his emigration to America.
  • while Hilda Stern was transported with her family from Frankfurt in 1941 and ended up in the Auschwitz concentration camp.  She miraculously survived.  She left Germany for New York in 1946.
Canada.  Harry Stern, a Reform rabbi, had left Lithuania with his parents as a young boy in 1906, settling in Ohio. He moved to Montreal’s Temple Emmanuel in 1927 where he remained until his retirement in 1972.  He worked tirelessly there to foster better Jewish-Christian relations.

Max Stern had escaped Germany for London in 1937 and later ended up in a Canadian internment camp.  He became a famous Canadian art dealer, following in the steps of his father who had run an art gallery in Dusseldorf (until it was closed by the Nazis).

South Africa
.  Samuel Stern had come to South Africa around 1886 and farmed in the Transvaal.  During the Boer War he was interned by the British because of his supposed pro-Boer feelings.  His daughter Irma Stern became a well-known painter.  Her home in Cape Town is now the Irma Stern museum

Select Stern Miscellany

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

Select Stern Names

Laurence Sterne achieved literary fame in England when his novel Tristram Shandy was published in the 1760’s.
George Stearns
started a cotton wadding factory in Ohio in 1846, the forerunner of the Stearns & Foster and Sealy mattress brands.
Isaac Stern
was a renowned Russian-born violinist and conductor in America.
Irma Stern
was a noted South African painter. 

Howard Stern
 is an American radio and television personality, producer and author.

Select Sterns Today
  • 3,000 in the UK (most numerous in East Anglia)
  • 19,000 in America (most numerous in New York) 
  • 1,000 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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