Select Penn Surname Genealogy

The Penn surname is most likely to be locational in origin.  The old Celtic word pen meant "hill" and gave rise to Penn place-names in Staffordshire, Berkshire, and Buckinghamshire.

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Select Penn Ancestry

EnglandThe Penns of Buckinghamshire took their name from the village of the same name.  James Penn was recorded as early as 1222 as having taken possession of the Seagrave manor.  It stayed with the Penn family until the death of the last Penn there, Roger Penn, in 1731. 

From John Penn, a mercer in London who died in 1450, came the Penns of Codicote in Hertfordshire.  There were also early Penns in Worcestershire and Shropshire.

But the best-known Penns originated in Wiltshire, at Minety on the road between Swindon and Malmesbury. William Penn lived there in Elizabethan times.  His line produced:
  • Giles Penn, a Bristol merchant and sea captain; 
  • George Penn and his younger brother Sir William Penn, the English admiral;
  • and William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania. 
What has tended to be forgotten is that William Penn returned to England in later life and died there penniless in 1718.  Penn's grandson John, enriched at a later date from his time in America, acquired the Stoke Poges manor in Buckinghamshire and held it from 1775 to 1834. 

Later distribution of the Penn name in England showed it in the West Midlands and stretching down into London and the southeast.  Onr family history started with a shoemaker Phillip Penn, born around 1740 in Canterbury, another with the marriage of John and Elizabeth Penn in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire in 1742.

In 1800 John Penn started a company in Blackheath which under his son John was to become one of the leading builders of marine engines of the Victorian age.  John Penn Street in Greenwich commemorates him.

America.  Because of his father's service to the crown, William Penn the younger received a grant of a vast tract of land in America that formerly had been part of New Netherland. 

Pennsylvania.  William Penn arrived in this new territory in 1682 and he and his family were to retain control of what became Pennsylvania until the time of the American Revolution.

The Penns in fact owned much of this land themselves.  Their agreement with the Native Americans had stated that no man could claim or buy more land from Native Americans than he could walk in a day and a half.

"In 1737 William's son Thomas chose the three fastest runners in the province and had them run for the alloted time over the clearest and best lying land that he could find.  The runners had pacemakers on horseback to ensure that the maximum amount of land was acquired.  One of the runners gave up, another drowned in a river.  The third runner kept going over the thirty six hours - thus ensuring that half a million acres of cornfields and hunting grounds came into the Penn family estate."

Although William married twice and had fourteen children, only two of his sons, William and Thomas, had living descendants.  The Penn direct male line ended in fact with the death of the Rev. Thomas Penn in 1869.

Other Penns.  William Penn was not the first Penn in America.  Christian Penn was recorded in Jamestown as early as 1621.   John Penn, born in Virginia around 1680, died in Caroline county in 1741.  He had four sons - John, George, Joseph and Moses - and many descendants.  Another John Penn from Caroline county, the son of Moses and Catherine Penn, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence for North Carolina in 1776. 

Abram Penn was one of the most prominent citizens of Patrick county, Virginia at the time of the American Revolution.  His descendants became active and successful in tobacco manufacture.  Thomas Jefferson (Jeff) Penn was born into this family.

"My Black Mammy, published in 2010, is a story told in Thomas Jefferson Penn's own words and was his way of honoring a woman that he cared for deeply.  The story took place in the 1880's when Jefferson Penn was a child growing up in North Carolina."

Penn sold the family tobacco business to American Tobacco in the 1910's and built the Chinqua Penn plantation house near Greensboro, North Carolina on the proceeds.

Jewish Penns.  Not all Penns in America are of English origin.  Some Penns were German from Bavaria, arriving at different times in the 19th century. 

One Russian Jewish immigrant family in Massachusetts in the early 1900's changed their name from Pinon to Penn. Their son was Leo Penn, an actor and director blacklisted during the McCarthy era.  He had three sons, the most well-known being the actor Sean Penn.  Also from Russian Jewish parents, but this time in Philadelphia, was the film director Arthur Penn.

South Africa.  The youngest son of an immigrant Jewish cabinet maker, Jack Penn, born in 1908. grew up to be the doyen of plastic surgery of his time, as well as a highly acclaimed sculptor:

"A bust of General Smuts was commissioned for the Jan Smuts airport in Johannesburg.  His bust of Albert Schweitzer was presented to Strasbourg; while those of David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan are in Israel."

His son John followed in his footsteps as a plastic surgeon.

Select Penn Miscellany

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

Select Penn Names

William Penn
, arriving in 1682, founded and gave his name to the state of Pennsylvania.
John Penn of John Penn & Sons was one of the leading marine engine builders of the 19th century.
Jack Penn  was accclaimed in South Africa as being the doyen of plastic surgery, as well as a notable sculptor.
Arthur Penn was the American film director best known for his 1968 classic Bonnie and Clyde.
Sean Penn is a well-known American actor.

Select Penns Today
  • 5,000 in the UK (most numerous in Essex)
  • 6,000 in America (most numerous in California) 
  • 2,000 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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