Select Rivers Surname Genealogy

The Rivers surname has French origins, from the French riviere meaning “river.”  The village of La Riviere in Normandy gave rise to a de la Riviere family name which was brought to England at or after the time of the Norman Conquest.  The French name for river also began to displace Old English river names such as ea or broc.

Select Rivers Resources on The Internet

Select Rivers Ancestry

EnglandAn early arrival from Revieres in Normandy, possibly at the time of the Norman Conquest, was Richard de Redvers.  After 1100 he became a senior advisor to Henry I and was granted the feudal barony of Plympton in Devon.

His son Baldwin was made the Earl of Devon.  The last of this family was Isabel who died in 1293.  Afterwards the Earls of Devon continued under the Courtenay name.  But the title of Earl Rivers was later taken up by two other lines:
  • the first was with Richard Woodville of Maidstone who was made Earl Rivers in 1448.  This title became extinct on the death of the third earl in 1491.
  • the second was with Baron Thomas Darcy of Essex who became Earl Rivers in 1626.  This earldom died out in 1737 after the death of the fifth earl.  A new Rivers barony was then created in 1776 for the Pitt family that was related by marriage to the fifth earl.  This barony, held by the Pitt-Rivers, was in existence until 1880.
There was an early de la River family at Tormarton in Gloucestershire.  But these Rivers seem to have ended at around the time of the Black Death in the 14th century.  There was also an early Rivers family in Somerset which gave its name to the village of Stoke Rivers near Barnstaple. 

SE England
.  Rivers as a surname, as evidenced in the 1891 census, was found mainly in SE England where the Norman influence was strong.

An early version was de Rivers.   John de Rivers of Ongar in Essex was present at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298 and was knighted at the siege of Calais in 1299.  Another John de Rivers was granted a market at Worminghall in Buckinghamshire in 1304.

John of Ongar is thought to have been related to a subsequent Kentish line which included Sir Bartholomew Rivers, a Yorkist protagonist during the Wars of the Roses, and Sir John Rivers, who prospered as a grocer in London and served as its Lord Mayor in 1573.  His descendants were the Rivers of Chafford Park in Kent.

There was a later naval family of Rivers from Kent as well.  Two William Rivers, father and son, were onboard the Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

“William Rivers was upwards of forty years a gunner in the Royal Navy, twenty-two years of which he served on the Victory.  In the memorable Battle of Trafalgar he witnessed at the same moment the fall of the gallant Admiral Nelson and the loss of his own son’s leg.”

A subsequent Rivers of this family, also named William, was a neurologist and psychiatrist,
best known for his work treating First World War officers who were suffering from shell shock.

John Rivers from Berkshire had established the Rivers family nurseries at Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire in 1725.  The business continued until 1987.  Thomas Rivers was known in the mid-19th century for his development of new varieties of roses and fruits.  Elizabeth Waugh’s 2009 book Rivers Nursery of Sawbridgeworth covered their history.

.  The main Rivers immigrant arrivals have been into Virginia and the Carolinas.   The largest number of Rivers today are in fact in South Carolina.

South Carolina.  The John Rivers who married Ann Newman in Bermuda in 1636 was from the Chafford Rivers family in Kent.  Joseph Rivers’ 2006 book Descendants of John Rivers and Ann Newman of Bermuda covered their subsequent line.  A number of their grandsons
migrated to James Island off Charleston in South Carolina – William in 1681 and Robert and George by 1690.

Descended from George were cotton plantation owners Joseph Rivers and, in the early 1800’s, John Elijah Rivers on James Island and Thomas Rivers on John’s Island in Colleton county.  Another line from George settled on the mainland at Hampton (then called Pondtown) and then moved to Florida.

Some African American slaves on Rivers plantations took on the Rivers name after emancipation.  One such was Isaac Rivers who was able to purchase his freedom and move to Sussex county, Virginia.  Isaac bought a mill and fishing pond there which he and then his son Buddy ran until the late 1950’s.

William Rivers meanwhile had arrived from England in 1760 and made his home near Chesterfield.  His son Frederick fought in the Revolutionary War and was held prisoner by the British at Charleston at its end.  Charles Purvis’s 1999 book Descendants of William Rivers covered the family line.

It is thought that one of his descendants was Mendel Rivers, the powerful US Congressman from South Carolina between 1941 and 1970 who was a segregation advocate and war hawk.  A Rivers cousin of his started the first TV station in Charleston in 1953.

Some have tried to connect John David Rivers with the Chafford Rivers, although there is no evidence of any connection.   He was born in England but arrived in Charleston from Prussia in 1805 on a Prussian passport.  He lived in some splendour on Queen Street and then lost his everything and finally his life in one calamitous year in 1831.

His son William James Rivers, placed in an orphanage, emerged in the 1850’s as an important writer and educator in Charleston.

“Rivers was an eyewitness to the burning of Columbia by Sherman's army in the Civil War and this provided the background for his novel Eunice: A Tale of Reconstruction Times in South Carolina."

His nickname was “the Earl of Rivers.”

.  Pierre Rivers was a Huguenot who arrived with his wife Jeanne in Virginia in 1698.  They made their home at the Huguenot settlement of Manakin along the James river.  They were said to have had a large family, including at least three sons – Claud, Thomas, and Robert.

One line established itself in Brunswick county, Virginia.  Joel Rivers, born there in 1755, migrated to Alabama in the early 1800’s.  Another line appears to have been in Johnston county, North Carolina and led, via another Joel Rivers, to Wilkinson county, Georgia.

Rivers as An Adopted Name
.    The Rivers numbers in America have been boosted by many who were not born with the Rivers name but adopted it.

This may have started at an early time.  It was said that Pierre Hiuert, a Huguenot who came to America on the Peter and Anthony in 1698, took the name of Pierre Rivers. 
The Rivard family from Quebec became Rivers after they crossed the border into Vermont in the 1850’s.

Some examples from the 20th century have been:
  • Karl Joenunu from Finland who was Carl Rivers by the time of his arrival in Alaska in 1920.  He was an early Anchorage pioneer.
  • Loiza Grossberg, born to Jewish immigrant parents in New York, who changed his name to Larry Rivers after performing at a jazz club in 1940.  Larry was an artist and is considered by many to have been the godfather of the pop art movement.
  • Joan Molinsky, born also to Jewish parents in New York, who changed her name to Joan Rivers in the 1950’s.  She was a comedienne and actress, well known for her outspoken and controversial language.
  • and Johnny Ramistella of Italian parentage, who became Johnny Rivers in the late 1950’s.  He had a string of rock and roll hits in the 1960’s.
Select Rivers Miscellany

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

Select Rivers Names

Sir John Rivers prospered as a grocer in London and served as its Lord Mayor in 1573.  He was the forebear of the Rivers of Chafford Park in Kent.
William James Rivers
from Charleston was an influential Southern educator in the years after the Civil War.
Larry Rivers, born Loiza Grossberg, was an American artist considered by many to be the godfather of the pop art movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Joan Rivers
, born Joan Molinsky, was an American comedienne known
for her acerbic and often controversial characterizations of public personages.

Select Rivers Today
  • 4,500 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 14,000 in America (most numerous in South Carolina) 
  • 2,500 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.

Click here for reader feedback
Click here for return to front page