Select Wolfe Surname Genealogy

The wolf was native to the forest of Europe during medieval times.  The animal played a particularly important role in Germanic mythology, being regarded as one of the sacred beasts of Woden.  And Wolf is a common surname in Germany and elsewhere in north and central Europe.  It also transposed as a Jewish name, from the Yiddish Volf or "wolf" associated with the name Benjamin.

The wolf also figured in Spanish culture, resulting in the Lopez surname, and, across the Atlantic, in native American culture.

There was probably less reverence for the wolf in Britain and it developed less as a surname.  The name seems to have been introduced by the Normans, Henry Lupus (Wolf) being one of William the Conqueror's chief lieutenants who was granted lands in Cheshire.  And it was the Anglo-Normans who brought the name to Ireland.  Wolf allso derived from the old Norse byname Ulf meaning "wolf."  However, Wolf as a surname never developed in Britain to the same extent that it did in Germany.   

Alternative spellings of the name are Wolf, Wolfe, Woolf and, in Ireland, Woulfe.  

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Today there are some 150,000 Wolfs in Germany, with the highest concentation in Saxony in the east of the country, and a further 25,000 to be found in Austria and Switzerland and a smattering in Denmark and Holland.

.  Early references to the name in England frequently had the prefix "le," such as John le Wolf in Bedfordshire in 1279.  Over time Wolfe became the more common English spelling. 

Woolf as a surname was first found in London in the late 1700's, possibly that of a Jewish immigrant.  Jewish Woolfs from Poland came to Exeter in Devon in the early 1800’s.  The name was most famously born by the writers Leonard and Virginia Woolf of the Bloomsbury set (Virginia would refer to Leonard Woolf before their marriage as “that penniless Jew”).

Peter Woulfe, a chemist and minerologist of Irish origin, first discovered the presence of tin in Cornwall in 1766.  Arthur Woolf, born in Cornwall that year, was the inventor of a high-pressure steam engine that powered the Cornish mine engine.  And it was a Cornish bay near St. Ives that inspired Virginia Woolf's most famous novel To the Lighthouse.

A Jewish Wolf in London was Edward Wolf from Bohemia who had come to England as a political refugee after the 1848 revolutions.  His son Lucien became a prominent historian and advocate of Jewish rights in England.  Later came Edmund Wolf, an Austrian Jewish playwright who sought sanctuary in England in the late 1930’s.  His son Martin has been a distinguished journalist and writer for the Financial Times.

.  The names Wolfe, Woulfe and earlier Ulf were brought into Ireland by Anglo-Norman settlers who had come with Strongbow in the 12th century.  They settled in Kildare and Limerick.  They were later to be found at Forenachts in Kildare and were priminent landowners in Limerick.

Various Woulfes were bailiffs of Limerick City between 1470 and 1647.  George Woulfe took part in the defense of Limerick against Cromwellian forces in 1651 and, after its capture, was reported to have been hanged together with his brothers Francis and James (other accounts had George escaping to England).   Some have this George as the great grandfather of General James Wolfe, the British victor at Quebec in 1759.  The General may have had Irish blood in him.  But not necessarily this blood.   

Woulfes in Cork came later.  The first of them may have been the John Wolfe, one of the original settlers to found the walled Protestant town of Bandon in 1613.  The name spread, particularly in west Cork.

America.  Wolf and Wolfe are the main recorded names in America.  But most arrived as Wolf and came from Germany.  By comparison there was only a trickle of Wolfes of English and Irish origin, even though there are as many Wolfes as Wolfs in America today.

Many of the early arrivals from Germany entered via  Pennsylvania, such as:
  • Paul Wolff, a weaver from Holstein who was one of the original settlers of Germantown, Pennsylvania in the early 1690's.
  • Jonas Wolf who came in 1732 and settled in York county.  J. Arthur Wolfe, a descendant, published a genealogy of this line, Jonas Wolf of Berwick Township, in 1987.
  • Peter Wolf who was born in Lancaster county in 1740.  After 1800 the Wolfe family migrated to western Pennsylvania and Ohio.  Their story was told in Ralph Kersh's 1988 book The Wolfe Pack.
  • and Andrew Wolf who came in 1764, married, and settled in western Pennsylvania.  Later Wolfs moved onto Ohio.  This family line was covered in Nora Wolfe Atkinson's 1964 book The Wolfe Family History.
The line from Jacob Wolf, born in 1807 in Adams county, led to William Wolfe, a gravestone carver who moved to North Carolina, and to his son Thomas Wolfe, an important American novelist of the early 20th century.  The later novelist and writer Tom Wolfe, born in Virginia, also has German roots.  In his case his ancestor was Hans Bernard Wolf from Baden in Germany who came with his family to Berks county, Pennsylvania in 1727.

Jewish.  Many Wolfs are Jewish.  Simon Wolf, who arrived from Bavaria with his grandparents as a young boy in 1848, was one of the most influential Jewish leaders in America in the late 19th century.  Today there is the TV producer Dick Wolf and the feminist writer Naomi Wolf.

.  Wolfe Island at the junction of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence river was named in honor of James Wolfe, the victor at Quebec.

Some Irish Wolfes emigrated to Canada in the 19th century.  John and Mary Wolfe left Cork in the 1820's and settled in Hastings county, Ontario.   Another John Wolfe, having lost four of his sons in the famine, departed Limerick with his remaining family in the late 1840's and settled in Grey county, Ontario.

South Africa.  Major Richard Wolfe from Forenachts in Kildare made his home in Cape Town in the 1820's.  His sons George and Robert, born there, also served in the British army at various locations.  Wolfe descendants are still in South Africa.

Australia.  William Wolf was a prominent Australian architect of the early 1900's.   His father was German.  But he was born in New York and worked in London before arriving in Australia in 1877.

Select Wolfe Miscellany

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

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James Wolfe was the British general killed during his daring capture of Quebec from the French in 1759.
Virginia Woolf, part of the Bloomsbury set, was a leading English writer of the early 20th century.
Thomas Wolfe was a major American novelist of the early 20th century.
Howlin' Wolf, born Chester Burnett, was an American blues singer, guitarist and harmonica player.
Henry Wolf was a New York based graphic designer and magazine art director  in the 1950's and 60's.
Beverly Wolff was an American opera singer whose career spanned the 1950's to early 1980's.
Tom Wolfe is an American journalist and writers, one of the founders of the New Journalism movement of the 1960's and 70's.

Select Wolfes Today
  • 6,000 in the UK (most numerous in Nottinghamshire)
  • 67,000 in America (most numerous in Pennsylvania) 
  • 28,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

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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