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Origin of the Name Harlan

Submitted on 1 June 1999 by John H Harland, e-mail:  Kelowna BC

Is it necessary, or even possible, to try to explain the original meaning of the name Harlan?  The matter can at best be of peripheral interest to those who follow the fortunes of the Harlans in America ...and particularly those who feel that the history of the family properly starts with the arrival of George and Michael Harland in the Colonies in 1687. [Remember that the organization founded at Philadelhpia in 1887 was named very specificallly "The Association of the Descendants of George and Micheal Harlan in the United States."]. However,  I venture to offer the following preliminary comments in the hope they may, sometime in the future, encourage some family-member with an interest in the broader picture, to research things in a more serious and deliberate manner.

The advent of websites like 'Peoplefinder' have unearthed many surnames which can be either English or German. What is a bit unusual about the Harlan/Harland instance is the existence of parallel forms in both cases. A snapshot taken as we approach the year 2000, shows that in the United States, the form 'Harlan' far outnumbers 'Harland', while in the United Kingdom and Canada, the reverse is true. In Germany, the distribution is about equal. From an American perspective, the names are really the same, the terminal 'd' first having been dropped by George and Michael Harland, or their immediate progeny, but as we shall see, the  Harlan/Harland variation in Germany may have arisen in different fashion. In the North of Ireland, as for the most part in England, the 'd' spelling is invariably used. I know that my grandfather, John Harland (1854-1948) was cognizant of the American form of the name, because he carried on a sporadic correspondence with John Marshall Harlan (1833-1911). What a magistrate in Bessbrook, County Armagh and an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court might have had in common remains a puzzle.

Based upon telephone listings (, there are nowadays about 50% more Harlans/Harlands combined in Germany than there are in the United Kingdom, but despite this, I would argue that the vast majority of Americans with either of these names in their patrilineal line will be of English descent, and furthermore that those without a 'd' will overhwelmingly prove to be descendants of George and Michael Harland.

There are some exceptions to this broad assertion. First of all, substantial numbers of Harlans, Harlands and Harlanders are found in Germany, and it seems certain that some of their relatives would have come to the United States. . Christoph M Harlan, who contributes to this forum from time to time, is a prime example. Then, at, we found a list of Foreign-Born Voters of California in 1872, compiled by Jim W. Faulkinbury,  including:

Harlam, Isaac......    26 in 1867......born in Prussia...... Harlan, Michael...... 67 in 1867......born in Ireland...... Harland, Thos......    41 in ----...... born in England...... Harland, William......46 in 1867......born in Ireland...... Harland, William......30 in 1869......born in Prussia......

If the last two have descendants in California, sorting out who is 'Irish' and who is 'Prussian', will demand skillful detective work.. An even more exotic example is found at the related site,....recipients  of the Polish Order of the Military Virtue, include a Jerzy Harland.

Returning to the origin of the name itself, as place- and family-name, we focus on the first element, but it will be instructive to examine names, other than Harland, which begin with the element 'H*r'. The 'land' part is, I think, pretty straightforward.   At the end of the post are appended the titles of some books dealing with surname origins. I did not have access to most of these, but through the kind offices of others, particularly my friends Anthony D Clover and Martin Evans, have some idea of what they have to say. I must underline that the researcher in this area must live with an uncomfortable level of speculation and uncertainty is frustrating to find so many instances of "Element so-and-so might mean X, but then on the other hand, it might mean Y..."

Basil Cottle Penguin Dictionary of Surnames says:
"Harland. 'cairn/rock/tumulus land' Old English; place in North Yorkshire where there are some tumuli, and mostly a North and East Yorkshire surname."

P. Hanks & F. Hodges. A Dictionary of Surnames offer:
"Harland. English: habitation name from any of various minor places (including perhaps some now lost) named from Old English  'har'.= 'grey'; or 'hara' = 'hare', + land, patch of country. "

I am much indebted to Erasmus Harland for the information in the next few paragraphs. The North Yorkshire Moors lie in an area south of the River Tees, defined by Middlesbrough and Whitby to the north, Scarborough to the southeast, and Thirsk at the south-west corner. On the southern edge of the Moors, several valleys in the headwaters of the River Derwent, run south towards the A170, the east-west highway connecting Scarborough and Thirsk. One of these is called Ferndale, and in it are found Gillamoor, Kirbymoorside, Hutton-le-Hole and Harland Moor.

The striking feature of Harland Moor is the rocky nature of its landscape. There are a number of tumuli or stony cairns either burial mounds of the Bronze Age 1400-1600 BC or later Iron Age., and the remains of celtic field plots cleared of stones for cultivation by hand or ard (Celtic wooden plough). A farm near Gillamoor is known to this day as the 'High Harland', and Harland Moor lies to the east of this, somewhat to the north of Hutton-le-Hole. . Erasmus Harland was given several interesting citations by Raymond Harland Hayes, who at one time lived in Hutton-le-Hole: In 1282, an inquest was held at Kirbymoorside on one Baldwin Wake, and it was recorded:

"There are five tenants on the Harlonde holding certain waste (moorland) plots beneath Gillamoor Bank at the will of the lord, paying 27 shillings per year and doing service to the lord; also providing a bushel of nuts at Martinmas and a hen at Christmas".

In 1310, Nicholas de Harland of Farndale was fined because his  cattle had strayed in the forest (North Riding records). In 1327, . Walter de Harland of Farndale paid tax of 3 shillings , while the Lord of the Manor paid 5 shillings. About 1600, there is mention of a Gregory Harland of Farndale.

Erasmus Harland says that although few Harlands live on the Moors today, the old records, notably the Durham Marriage Register, show  well over a hundred marriages of Harlands in Whitby and other North Yorkshire villages, confirming that the name had arisen in that general neighbourhood.

There is at least one other place in the United Kingdom with a similar name. In Henry Barber: British Family Names, Their Origin & Meaning. London, 1903, we find: "Harland: A location name, Caithness." Mr Iain Sutherland of the Wick Centre, and Mr Bruce de Wert of D W Georgeson & Son, Wick were kind enough to confirm that indeed, there is near the town of Wick, in North-eastern Scotland, a mound about a kilometer across, called 'The Harland'. Although only about ten meters high, it dominates the surrounding countryside, which is relatively flat. Mr Sutherland thought that it might be so named either because it was 'high' or because at one time, 'hay' may have been grown on it. [Many of the place names in that part of Scotland are Scandinavian rather than Gaelic, and Norwegian 'h�y' (hay), 'h�g' (high), and 'haug' (mound, hill), would fit very well with this idea.] I asked Mr Sutherland whether a cairn, standing stone, etc. was associated with The Harland, and he assured me this was not the case. The reason for pressing him on this particular point  is the existence of a Scandinavian root meaning 'cairn'; 'stone altar' and perhaps by extension, 'stony ground' ...Old Swedish 'Hargh' . This  turns up in place names, like 'Odinshargh' ...'Odin's Altar'.

The great expert on English place-names was the Swede, Eilert Ekwall, and in his book Oxford Dictionary of Place Names, he depended on charters and other documentary sources. I was disappointed to discover that no 'Harland' is listed in his book. Here is a very slightly edited extract of his comment on the Old English word 'har':

"This adjective, meaning 'hoary, grey', is a fairly common first element in place names, though by no means so frequent as has been sometimes assumed. It often occurs combined with stone, as in Harston, Hoarstone, Horston, and 'hoarstone', literally 'a grey lichen-covered stone', came to be a technical term for such a stone as a boundary mark. It is with certainty only combined with words for objects that are naturally grey, as with cross (Hoar Cross), oak (Harrock), withy (Hoarwithy), hill (Harlow), wood (Harewood, Hampshire).

"It is often stated that the Old English 'har' had developed the meaning 'boundary', 'boundary-defining'. This theory is not well founded. It is unlikely, or at any rate not been proved, that the first element of names beginning in 'Har(e)-', as Harden, Harewood, is generally the adjective 'har'. There is every probability that some names such as Harewood, Hargrave, Harrop contain the word 'hara' meaning 'hare'.

"We must also reckon with an element 'h�r' or the like that has only recently been discovered. It is certainly found in Harome, North Yorkshire, Herne, Bedfordshire and may be suspected to enter into some other names such as Harrold, Harnage, Harnhill, &C. The exact meaning and Old English form are unknown.

"It is related to the Swedish 'har' (neuter) meaning 'stony ground', a Low German and Dutch 'har', 'hare' that is found in many place names as Haar, Haren (in early sources 'Hare', 'Harun' &c.) and which is stated to mean 'height', 'ridge', 'height covered with wood'.

"The Old English form may have been 'h�r' (neuter). The words are related to the Irish and Welsh 'carn' meaning 'cairn' and a derivative is very likely the Old English 'hearg' meaning 'heathen temple' and the Old Norse 'horg' meaning 'heap of stones' or 'altar' (originally specifically a 'stone altar'). The meaning of Old English 'h�r' may have been 'stone' or 'stony ground'."

In a note elsewhere on Old English 'hearg' meaning 'a heathen place of worship', Ekwall says it is identical with the Old High German 'haruc' meaning 'grove' or 'holy place' and Old Norse 'horgr' Hall's Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary offers: Hearg. = 'temple', 'altar', 'sanctuary', with a possible alternative meaning 'grove'. [I have omitted some the accents and subscripts which should be associated typographically with the vowels, from some of these archaic words].

'Haar' is a word still current on the East coast of  Scotland and Northern England in the sense of a mist which rolls in from the sea (presumably so called because of its grey quality), and it seems the name Harland is likewise connected with the color 'grey'; with a 'hare', which etymologically is itself connected with a root meaning 'grey'; with a pagan stone altar; and by extension stony ground; or a grove of trees.

Reaney & Wilson: Dictionary of English Surnames give a  meaning of Harland as 'dweller by the boundary wood' [perhaps this involved a grove of trees, a stone, or stone-heap that marked such a division]. They trace its origins to points further south in England, and to a date somewhat earlier that the 'ultimate' Harlan ancestor cited by Alphaeus Harlan, James Harland b. 1625 'at Bishoprick, nigh Durham' , father of Thomas, George and Michael Harland.

They illustrate the name with the following listings:

Peter de Herland : 1221 Assize Rolls for Warwickshire Adam Herlond :  1332 Subsidy Rolls for Warwickshire Thomas Harland : 1525 Subsidy Rolls for Sussex

and mention Harland Edge (Derby), Harlands Wood (Sussex).

Perhaps the notion of 'boundary wood' arises because such a boundary was marked by a stone; a cairn; or a grove of trees. Other possible roots for h*r can be invoked. For instance, it might be 'here-land'  from Anglo-Saxon 'here' = 'army', 'predatory troop') Eilert Ekwall  points out that Harlow would mean 'the mound of the people' i.e. a meeting place of a 'hundred' and Harlow in Essex was indeed a Hundred. Reaney and Wilson considered that names like Harling and variants, might originally have meant 'earl-friend'; Harbottle = 'dwelling of a hireling'; Harborne = 'dirty stream',

In summary: It is quite possible that the surname Harland arose in different ways, in different parts of the country. However, it is the Yorkshire version that is of significance to the descendancy of George and Michael Harland. Monkswearmouth and Bishoprick, near Durham, from whence their family sprang, lie about fifty miles to the north of Harland Moor, as the crow flies. Reviewing the possible origins of the name, outlined above, it is on the stoniness, or stone cairns characteristic of that specific area that we should focus. The existence of 'The Harland' in Scotland is interesting, but from a geographical point of view, not really relevant .

Now to look at things from a Continental perspective. Harland occurs as a family name in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. Hans Bahlow Dictionary of German Names claims that Harland(t) and Harlander are Upper German (oberdeutsch) field names, derived from a Middle High German word meaning 'the land on which flax is grown'. He compares it with Haberland = 'land for farming oats', and Erbsland = 'land for growing peas'. [The first of these parallels English place-names such as Haverbrack, Havercroft, Haverhill, Haverholme, Haverigg, Havering-atte-Bower, Haveringland, Haversham, Haverthwaite, which are mentioned by Ekwall. These all relate to oats, none to flax. Low German 'harle' = fibre of flax or hemp. The reed, or brittle stem of flax, separated off from the linen filament in the process of scutching, is known as 'Hurds' or 'Hards' in England; but 'Harl' or 'Harle' in Scotland [Warrack's Scots Dialect Dictionary]  'Harden' = 'cloth made from coarse flax, sackcloth'. The same ancient root occurs in the modern Danish word for 'flax' ....'H�r', while the closely related Swedish tongue uses the parallel word 'Lin' [cf. Linen].

There are quite a few Harlands in the Netherlands, and in van Dale's Groot Woordenboek der nederlandsche Taal, we find:

"Haar: Enclosed bit of arable land; higher ground in a peat-bog; high moorland."

I am indebted to Peter Davis, of the Netherlands, who checked out the following sources. First, the Winkler Prins Encyclopedia offers:

"Haar: In geographical names probably means: high-lying agricultural land or ridge (e.g. in a bog)].

The Aula Etymologische Woordenboek gives, in part:

Haar: "In various place names in the Netherlands, such as de Haar, Haren: may mean 'long ridge' or 'stony ground', original form 'harha', together with 'harga' [Compare Old High German 'harug' = 'holy wood'; Old Dutch 'horgr' = 'stone pile', 'place of sacrifice',and also Old Irish (!) carrig 'cliff'..."

Prisma Nederlandse Plaatsnamen; herkomst en betekenis van onze plaatsnamen by G van Berkel and K. Samplonius, lists:

Haar. 'sandy ridge'.

and this is claimed to be the origin of place-names like Haarlem; ter Haar; Haarle; de Haere; Haaren, etc. It also occurs as the first element in Haarlo (wood on a sandy ridge')

Harlingen, on the other hand, is considered to be related to 'the descendants or people of 'Harilo'. Incidentally, Ekwall explains East and West Harling, in Norfolk, in a similar fashion.

Note that the definition given in van Dale, involves a peat-bog ('veen' in Dutch). This was of interest because a corespondent tells me that the tradition in his family was that the name was related to a 'marsh'. I haven't been able to confirm the existence of a Dutch or Low German word, which  would fit in with this, but in Scotland, a similar term ...'Hauch', 'Haugh' or simply Ha' have the meaning 'low lying marshy land beside a stream'. {Mr Sutherland tells me that there is a Ha' near The Harland at Wick] This is an Anglo-Saxon word. The corresponding term in Gaelic would be 'Curragh'.

It is clear American 'Harlan' was originally 'Harland' ....the names being one and the same. However, I infer from what Christoph Harlan says, that the same thing is not necessarily true of the Harlan family name in Germany, and I am indebted to he and his father Pan Harlan for what follows. The family records speak of a Huguenot background. Henri Robert and Jean Jacques Harlan, who flourished in the 17th C, are known to have travelled back and forth to England. After the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, the Huguenots had the option of converting to Catholicism, or fleeing their homes in France and Flanders.  The forefathers of the Harlan clan headed to Germany, where according to Chris, they tended to keep somewhat aloof from mainstream society. It is probably true to say that all contemporary Harlans in Germany are blood relatives in greater or less degree, and even today, significant numbers of the family are distinguished by their adherence to the Christengemeinschaft, a relatively small and fiercely independent Christian denomination founded by the Swiss philosopher, mystic and visionary Rudolf Steiner, whose name you may recognize as the founder of the Waldorf Schools. Steiner had a profound effect on the German educational system and on members of the Harlan family.

If the family name of the German Harlans were originally French, we need not invoke the '-land' element found in the English/American surname, to explain it The French surname 'Herlin' would be pronounced in an almost identical way, so it is possible that in Germany, 'Harlan'  arose in a completely different fashion from the similarly looking and sounding family names 'Harland', and 'Harlander', to whom the family are not related. Whether or not Hans Bahlow's 'Flax-land' explanation of the origin of the German name is the correct one, it is certain that, like the English name, it would have Anglo-Saxon/Germanic roots.

Is there an ancient connection between the Harlans in Germany and the Harlans of the United States? Did any of the emigr�s settle in England? ...or even fare to the American Colonies? If so, would they have found the Society of Friends a more congenial spiritual home than in the Anglican community? While we cannot rule out an influx of Harlans from Flanders into ports like Sunderland in Northeast England prior to 1685, it is clear that the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and the consequent Huguenot diaspora, could have had no immediate impact on George and Michael Harland. Together with their elder brother Thomas (from whom I like to think I am descended), they had by that time left Durham, and were well established members of the Quaker connection in Lurgan.

To 'd' or not to 'd'. I have always assumed that the loss of the terminal 'd' was not planned, but was something that just happened ...and certainly given the flexibility of 17th Century orthography, this is the most likely reason. However, if an explanation were necessary, and here we shift into the realm of pure speculation, George and Michael could have made a conscious choice to drop the 'd', either because there was a family tradition that the name was originally so spelled, or they met Huguenot immigrants to Pennsylvania and Delaware, who were insistent that the name be spelled in French fashion.

Penguin Dictionary of Surnames -Basil Cottle -Penguin -1979.

A Dictionary of Surnames - Patrick Hanks & Flavia Hodges - OUP 1988

A Dictionary of English Surnames - P.H.Reaney & R.M. Wilson - 3rd edition - Routledge 1991

Dictionary of German Names - Hans Bahlow - translated by Edda Gentry - Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison 1993

Oxford Dictionary of Place Names - Eilert Ekwall - 4th edition - Oxford University Press 1960