Musings on the origins and history of the Foulger Surname
February 28, 2004
Tracing the history and interrelationships of surnames is a tricky business.
The same is true for words in general. Consistency in the spelling of English
words arriving in the 19th century with the publication of widely used dictionaries.
In the 17th century, there wasn't nearly so much consistency, and there have
been occasional conscious changes in spelling along the way. It appears that
some of these changes occurred in multiple lines of the Foulger families, sometimes
at about the same point in time; sometimes not. This much seems clear:
- There were at least two waves of Foulger surname emigration to England.
A first wave can be associated with the 10th century, when it appears that
some families with ties to the Foulger surname crossed the English Channel
with William the Conqueror. A second and more readily documented wave is associated
with the 17th century.
- The oldest direct reference to a name that is associated with Foulger is
in the 1066 Domesday Book, written (published is too strong a term
for any book written before the printing press was invented) in Suffolk of
what we now call England in approximately 1095. It originates from old German
and means "people's army". This reference accords with one of the
earliest things we know about Foulger anscestors: at least some of them crossed
the English Channel in the armed forces of "William the Conqueror",
who conquered England in 1066. There is a Fulcher
surname web site that documents some of this, along with a family crest
(based on the description in the Domesday Book) that suggests that we might
have had something to do with William's naval fleet.
- Whether or not Fulcher is the best or most accurate spelling of the name,
A Dictionary of English Surnames (R. H. Reaney, 1997, Oxford University
Press) indicates that the name and its variants originate from old German
and means "people's army". The dictionary documents Fulger, Fulker,
Fulacher, Fucher, Fudger, Fugere, Futcher, Foulger, Folger, Folker, Foker,
Foulser, Foucar, Volker, Fullager, and Fullagar as known variants. This list
is hardly complete, as we'll see below.
- Issac Jacobson's Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. (Simon & Schuster,
2003) ties the name Folger to the surname Foulgier, which is still found in
wide use in both Northern Europe and Quebec. Benjamin Franklin's mother, Abiah
Folger Franklin, was the daughter of Peter Folger, who emigrated to Boston
with his parents as a young man and ultimately settled in Nantucket, where
his influence was such that a local museum commemorates his life. Issacson
indicates that the Peter Folger line was descended from reformist Flemish
Protestants who fled to England in the sixteenth century and were among the
first to depart for Massachusetts when Charles I cracked down on Puritans.
Foulgier is also tied to the Flemish meaning "People's Army".
- People using the surname Foulgier continue to live in Northern Continental
Europe, including Belgium and France, and that the surname has emigrated to
other parts of the world, including Quebec, Canada.
- Its probably impossible to trace down the crossed origins here. England's
intermittent control and occasional invasion of Northern France during the
intervening period undoubtedly created lots of opportunity for members of
the first wave of emigrants to move back into this region, and one can only
guess at the surname tangles this may have created. One of those invasions
of Northern France is documented, among other places, in Shakespeare's plays,
including his well-known Henry V, which directly traces one such invasion.
- What is clear is that pronuciation of surnames was probably more important
than spelling well after both emigrations had occurred. Brian
Foulger's careful family geneology of 17th and 18th century Foulger's
in the area of Norfolk, England clearly shows the surnames "Foulger",
"Foldier", "Foulgier", and "Folger" used interchangably.
Its not uncommon, during the 17th and 18th century, to see a person to be
baptised with one spelling and buried with another. Several different spellings
are sometimes used in the baptism records of various children. This branch
of the Foulger family lived in roughly the same part of England that mine
is associated with. Indeed, I still have distant cousins in nearby Norwich,
- It is interesting, given the recurring definition "People's Army",
is the "Foldier spelling, which is almost identical to the word "soldier".
It is particularly interesting, in this regard, that representations of the
letters "s" and "f" were very similar and used somewhat
interchangably in the 17th century.
- Foulger's started emigrated to what would become the United States during
the 17 Century, and achieved great success, as evidenced by the Folger
Shakespeare Library in Washington, D. C., the Peter Folger Library on
Nantucket, and the popular Proctor and Gamble brand "Folger's
Coffee" (which is the purchased remains of the Folger Coffee Company,
whose fortune built the Folger Shakespeare Library).
- At least some Foulger's changed their surname to Folger during the war of
1812, when American's dropped the "u" from many "ou" words.
It is during this period, for instance, that "Colour" becomes "Color".
A geneology associated with John Folger/Foulger appears to document (probably
unintentionally) an instance of this change. All of the children of John Folger/Foulger
are born after 1812 and given "Folger" surnames. It is not clear,
from this geneology, how or when John Folger/Foulger used the Foulger surname
or if he changed his usage from Foulger to Folger during the war of 1812.
It is clear that he used both variants of the surname and that he used the
latter in naming his children. There is at least some evidence that the Folger
ancestors of Benjamin Franklin changed their surname from Foulger to Folger
(and retroactively at that) during this period. Sparks (2004) indicates that
John and his son Peter Folger actually spelled his name "Foulger".
It is notable, in this regard, that the "Peter
Foulger" museum in Nantucket shows this spelling (1).
- There was a substantial emigration of Foulger's to Australia in the late
19th or early 20th century. My family lore has it that the direct Foulger
ancestor of my branch of the family was going to emigrate to Australia as
well, but got drunk and missed the boat. My creative/romantic side insists
that love and a certainly amount of mixed feelings was mixed with the alcohol,
but who can say.
- The family has a long history as people who think hard about their religion.
A family penchant for being early adopters of religious faith that are outside
the cultural mainstream has helped to drive family emigration for hundreds
of years. Certainly, religious intolerance is a documented factor in the emigration
of some branches of the Foulger family from northern coastal France to England
and then from England to America. It should not be surprising, in light of
this, either that Peter Folger, an early immigrant to America who was the
grandfather of Benjamin Franklin, changed from Puritan to Baptist after arriving
here (note, with regard to Peter, that there is a Peter Folger museum in Nantucket)
or that there are many contemporary American Foulger's who have embraced the
- I will be interested to discover a trajectory of name changes that leads
Fulcher and/or Foulgier to Foulger and Folger. I suppose there is a start
on that written here.
- The family can document an unusually long history. My mother's geneological
work has connected our family history back to 12 of the 13 signatories of
the Magna Carta and to a number of illegitamate offspring of Charlemane (possibly
the most profoundly randy man in the recent history of Western Europe). It
certainly ties my family to the first emigration of Foulger's from the Rhine
valley of Germany to what we now think of as Belgium and Northern France and
then to England. I look forward to putting some of that here.
There are probably other things worth noting here. If you think of any, please
tell me so I can update this page.
Time to add a list of sources (still very drafty)
- Thanks to Martin Foulger for pointing out the spelling of "Peter Foulger"
over the entrance to the Peter Foulger museum on Nantucket.