The Origins of the Burpee Surname

By Thomas R. Burpee, Montreal, August 1, 2002

For those of us who have the Burpee name, there is a natural curiosity, indeed a real wonderment, about how and when the name originated. Did the word have another earlier meaning that has been lost over the years? Surely, there must be a rational explanation!

The first Burpee who came to New England in the 1630s and settled in Rowley, Massachusetts, was called Thomas Burkby. Thomas, like many of his contemporaries, could not write and probably couldn’t read as well. He signed a deed in 1693 with a “mark” and not a signature. It would be interesting to know how he and those around him pronounced his name. Those were the days when people were very loose about they wrote down a name. They weren’t at all concerned that the spelling was inconsistent from one document to another. As a result, between 1639 and 1700, we see many different spellings of the family name in Rowley’s town and church records:
Burkbe Burkbee
Burkbey Burkbie
Burkeby Burkebys
Burkbi Burkbye

Strangely, and for reasons that are not apparent, around 1700, the spelling began to change with the letter “k” dropping out. Thereafter the name was generally spelled:
Burbee Burpey
Burbey Burpe

By 1715, the Rowley records show clearly that the family had adopted the name Burpe or Burpee, with by far the most choosing Burpee. What trends can we note in the above and from the many other examples from that period in the baptismal, wedding and death records and in the land transfer records? They can be summarized as follows:

  • The first three letters “Bur” are common throughout.
  • Up to 1700, the name is Burkby or Burkbee with variations.
  • In 1701, the “k” is dropped on the death of the first Thomas.
  • The name then becomes Burbey or Burbee, there is no “p” as yet.
  • In 1715, the “b” is replaced by a “p” and the name becomes Burpe or Burpee.
  • The name always had one “e” or two “ees” no matter what the spelling. The two “ees” were always by far the most common ie. Burkbee, Burbee or Burpee.

All the evidence points to the fact that Thomas Burkby came from Yorkshire in England. We don’t know how he came to North America or with whom he came. We don’t even know when he was born and whether he had brothers or sisters. But we do know that in the 1600s there were many Burkbys in Yorkshire at the time when he lived there as a young man.