Select Kerr Surname Genealogy

Here are some Kerr stories and accounts over the years:

Kerr Name Origins

Burke's Peerage has maintained the original home of the Kerrs was the Stavanger area of Norway and is supported the presence of 'Kjaer' and 'Kjarr' families in the region. 

Kjarr is Old Norse and there are variations of that name in other Scandinavian languages: 

  • kjarr (Old Norse), meaning “brushwood.”  
  • kjerr (Norwegian), meaning “wet ground, especially where brushwood grows.” 
  • karr (Swedish), meaning “marsh.”  
  • kaer (Danish), meaning “meadow,”  
  • and kerr (Middle English), meaning “bog” or "fen."

Dand Kerr of Ferniehirst

Dand Kerr was one of the great Border characters of his time, with a long and turbulent career.  At one stage he was fined and imprisoned, though the offence is not known.  He acquired the lands and barony of Oxnam and was thus qualified to sit in the Scottish Parliament held a few days before the battle of Flodden. 

Though the battle, taken as a whole, was one of the worst disasters ever suffered by Scotland, the Borderers won their share of it.  But the King was dead and the greater part of his army slaughtered.  Dand, who had been involved in the successful part of the action, seized Kelso Abbey the same evening and installed his brother Thomas there as Abbot.

Ferniehirst Castle

Ferniehirst castle lies two miles south of Jedburgh in the Scottish borders.  The castle had been built originally as a ‘peel tower’ in 1476 by Sir Thomas Kerr to hold the gate for Scotland and to serve as a base for military raids and cattle lifting forays. 

It survived centuries of bloody border warfare, being sacked by the English in 1523, attacked and retaken in 1549 with the help of the French and captured by the English once again in 1570.  In 1593 the castle was almost completely demolished by James VI as punishment for the then laird assisting his enemies.  Rebuilt by Sir Andrew Kerr in 1598, it was occupied for two hundred years before falling into decay.  The castle we see today is essentially Ferniehirst as rebuilt by Sir Andrew, though the chambers and cellars at ground level date back to 1476. 

Ferniehirst was designed for left-handed folk. The stairways of most castles spiral clockwise.  Ferniehurst's spiral counter-clockwise, giving the advantage to left-handed swordsmen if they were forced to fight as they retreated upstairs. 

The castle was used as a Youth Hostel for much of the 20th century.  It was then acquired by Lord Lothian and restored in the 1980’s and is now a showplace of Kerr and Borders history.

Kerrs and Lefthandedness

A 1974 survey by the Journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners found that 29.5 percent of all Kerrs in Britain and North America were left-handed, compared to only 11 percent of the general population. Lefties are still called "ker-handed" in Scotland.

David and Medelina Ker and Montalto in County Down

David Ker was a London financier who decided to invest in some land in county Down. This was seemingly a natural thing for him to do as his ancestors were Scots Presbyterians and he had roots in the area.  He originally bought five townlands around Ballynahinch and, following the rebellion, bought the whole place in 1802. 

As a young man he had gone off to Italy on the grand tour, bringing home a beautiful young mistress called Madelina Guardi, a 15 year old opera singer and daughter of an Italian painter.  They lived in London.  It was said that he often brought her to county Down and his home in Ballynahinch.  When she was 19, they started a family and they had four children in quick succession.  David Ker eventually married her after their fourth child was born.  It was obvious that Madelina was ill and David wished to declare her as his wife and ensure her children would be his legitimate heirs. 

In the 1800’s, this kind of family story would normally have been kept quiet.  But it seems the Ker family chose to celebrate it.  Indeed in every succeeding generation of the Ker family, there was generally one boy called David and one girl called Madelina.  If you visit the Magheradroll parish church in Ballynahinch, where the third generation of the Kers are buried, there you will see the name ‘Madelina’ engraved on the family tombstone.  She was Violet Madelina Ker, who married a Mr. Rose and became Violet Madelina Rose.

The Ker family fortunes declined in the 1870’s.  But the Montalto estate at Ballynahinch was to stay with the family until 1910.

Walter Ker, Presbyterian Minister in America

The following was the account by William C. Armstrong in his 1931 book The Kerr Clan of New Jersey of Ker’s arrival in America. 

“When James II came to the throne of Scotland, intolerance broke out afresh; sever laws were enacted and sternly enforced against nonconformists, such as confinement in loathsome dungeons and clipping off the left ear. 

George Scot, the laird of Pitlochie, a leader among the Presbyterians, suffered great hardships for conscience's sake.  His persecutors, finding that they could not break his spirit, offered to release him from prison if he would go into exile.  He accepted the offer, saying: "I will go to the American plantations provided I may take a colony of my countrymen with me." To this they agreed.  Ninety of his co-religionists volunteered to go with him.  Scot at once chartered the Henry and Francis and the vessel prepared for sea.  Before departing he obtained permission to take with him some 105 nonconformists who were lying there in prison and, on September 5, 1685, they set sail. 

For twelve weeks the ship's company battled against deadly disease within and raging storms without. In December the vessel dropped anchor in the harbor of Perth Amboy, New Jersey.  Seventy of those who had started for the new world with high hopes, had died and been buried at sea.  Among the passengers who disembarked from the death-plagued ship was a young man named Walter Ker." 

Walter Ker went on to start the first Presbyterian church in America near Monmouth, New Jersey; and that church ordained the first Presbyterian minister in America.  Walter Ker signed his initials in the corner foundation of the church.  He died in 1748 at the age of 92 and was buried in the Kerr burying ground about a half mile east of the church.

John Kerr's Letter Home in 1849

John Kerr tried to make a go of it as a farmer in Illinois, but became disillusioned with his lot.  This extract came from a letter home in 1849. 

“I will make a remark though a great many will not believe.  Men’s work in general is as low paid here or lower than it was about Dalry when I left it.  This country is not what it has been represented to be. The representation of some mad dog will hold good if you go back to 1835 and 1836 with regard to wages but not now. 

I know that you have dull times now, but we have it dull here too.  When I left Dalry I thought that by the year’s end you might find me advising my friends and acquaintances to come on to this land that is said to be flowing with milk and honey.  But no, I cannot say to you - come here and you will be better.  Wages are hard to get up, the farmer gets so little for his produce.  I will remark that when I left Dalry the workmen there were far better clad, had more clothes, lived in far better houses, were better educated and could command far more cash and consequently more of the luxuries of life than the farmers around here.” 

John returned to Dalry in north Ayrshire in 1853.

The Rev. Charles Kerr and the Tulsa Race Riot

On the afternoon and evening of May 30, 1921, a large crowd of white people began assembling outside of the Tulsa County Courthouse at 6th Street and Boulder Avenue.  Many of these demanded that the sheriff turn over Dick Rowland to them, clearly indicating that they intended to lynch the young man.  The sheriff was determined to prevent a lynching and refused their demands.  Instead, he and several armed deputies barricaded the building.  In the early evening, the sheriff addressed the crowd and told them to go home. 

Meanwhile, some of the black clergymen called Reverend Kerr on the telephone and asked for his assistance. After discussing the situation with his family, Kerr responded by going to the courthouse and pleading with the would-be lynch mob to go home.  He was one of the very few civic leaders to do so.  The mob ignored his plea and continued threatening to storm the building. 

The next day, after armed whites invaded the Greenwood district, black clergymen again called Kerr for assistance.  On his own, not waiting to meet with the church session (the governing body of any Presbyterian church), Kerr opened the church basement to temporarily house refugees from the violence.

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