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History of the Pruett Name

The use of surnames as a means of identifying people is a fairly modern practice, having become commonplace within only the last seven or eight hundred years.  To put that into perspective, consider that recorded history now spans more than five thousand years.  Previously, people were commonly known only by one name because population was much lower and more widely distributed at that time, and people rarely traveled more than a few miles from where they were born.  In general, the development of the use of surnames followed commerce: the areas where many people were engaged in trade were the first to use surnames, whereas agricultural areas were among the last places to acquire universal family names because there was a smaller population and there was no greater need for individuals to have exact identification.  The universal lack of uniformity, however, makes family tracking back into those times virtually impossible unless there is a public record involving persons of high rank.
    
        Nearly all surnames derived from one of the following methods (or some combination thereof):  Patronymics, Occupational Names, Nicknames and Place Names.  Patronymics are derived based on the father’s name or that of another paternal ancestor and accounts for about 32% of common American surnames.  Occupational Names obviously derive from the trade in which the person was employed, such as Cooper or Taylor.  Occupational Names account for approximately 15% of common American surnames.  Nicknames derived from either actions or traits of the individual, such as Singer or Short, and accounts for almost 10% of common American surnames.  Place Names are derived from either village names or landscape features associated with where the person is located, such as Fields, Woods or Hill.  Place Names are by far the most common origin for surnames, comprising about 43% of common American surnames.  It should be pointed out, however, that it is not uncommon for any surname to have originated in more than one way, in different regions, and at different times.  Elsdon Smith noted in his book American Surnames that “oftentimes a family name arose in different places with different antecedents all coalescing into the same form to make just one common family name.”  He also pointed out that when these names were brought to America, there was a natural tendency to “Americanize” them to make them more easily spelled and pronounced.  He went on to state that “any simple-looking name with an apparently obvious meaning can thus have become the end result of the cohesion of a half dozen or more completely different names, several of which are from diverse languages.”  As you can see, pinpointing the origins of any surname is a daunting task.

        Surnames are not the only way of tracing genealogy; oftentimes given (first) names can reveal a great deal about our ancestors.  Given names represent a conscious choice by the parents, and usually have some historic family importance.  This was particularly true in the 1700’s and 1800’s.  Angus Baxter described a popular naming pattern during that time frame in “In Search of Your British and Irish Roots” as follows:

The first son was named after the father’s father.

The second son was named after the mother’s father.

The third son was named after the father.

The fourth son was named after the father’s eldest brother.

The first daughter was named for the mother’s mother.

The second daughter was named for the father’s mother.

The third daughter was named for the mother.

The fourth daughter was named for the mother’s eldest sister.

        Tracing the exact origins of the Pruett name is without a doubt an impossible undertaking.  However, it is clear that it is a name that has been in existence in its numerous forms and variations, for many centuries.  Appendix A near the end of this book lists some of the many names that are considered as variations of the Pruett name.  Samuel Johnson published the first Dictionary of the English Language in 1755.  Prior to that there were no spelling rules. Even today there really are no rules for spelling names, which accounts for the variations in spelling of the Pruett surname.  While spelled many different ways, the name is invariably pronounced “prew-itt” in both England and America, where nearly all (about 87% based on the 1990 census) of the Pruett’s worldwide are located. 

        While I was reviewing old census and marriage records, I discovered that my line of ancestors typically spelled the name as “Prewett” or “Prewitt” until their arrival in Indiana, at which time the spelling appears to have changed to “Pruett”.  The cause of this was most likely regional: when the family moved from Kentucky to Indiana in the 1820’s, there was already a John Pruett living in Orange County, Indiana.  Therefore, when my ancestors’ names started getting written in Orange County it is likely that it was assumed the spelling was “Pruett”.  Likewise, many of our ancestors had limited educations, and many could not read nor write; when they saw the name written by someone else, such as a Census taker or lawyer, they probably accepted it as the correct spelling.

        I also found that although the Pruett name has existed in one form or another for over four and a half centuries, there is no clearly documented origin for the name.  Most sources agree that most modern day bearers of the name can trace their roots to the British Isles, especially Ireland, England and Scotland.  Our family name does not appear to be related to a trade such as are many English surnames, such as Butcher, Carpenter, Farmer, etc. The most often quoted origin of the name is that it is probably related to an Anglo Saxon word "prut" or "pryte" denoting "proud", "gallant" or "arrogant", probably imported by the Normans after 1066. The affixes (ett and itt) are diminutives denoting "small" or "son of" as in Williamson, Johnson, etc. 

The first Census of the United States population was conducted in 1790.  This Census lists 323 Pruetts (including common variations) living in America.  Now consider that 200 years later there were 14,925 Pruetts listed in the 1990 Federal Census (Plus another 47,265 Pruitts and 9,950 Prewitts).  Certainly any Pruett will tell you that Pruetts are not at all common, but just how common is our name?  According to the 1990 Federal Census statistics, Pruett is the 2243rd most common surname in America, Pruitt ranks in at number 619 and Prewitt at number 2765.  On a larger scale, Pruett is ranked number 1830 in the United Kingdom and is number 2194 worldwide, with nearly 89% of the Pruetts worldwide living in the United States and the United Kingdom.  Just in case you were curious, the ten most prevalent names in America, based on the 1990 Census, are (in order):  Smith, Johnson, Williams, Jones, Brown, Davis, Miller, Wilson, Moore and Taylor.  Although Smith is the most prevalent surname in America, it still only comprises about 1% of the population.  Of course, this accounts for over 2.5 million people, but it also shows the incredible diversity of the population of our Nation.

        The following theories regarding the origins of the Pruett name have been collected from a wide variety of sources, some (or all) of which are undoubtedly inaccurate.  I have included all of them here for the sake of entertainment, information and reference.  However, it is important to keep in mind that they are just theories.

If anyone out there has additional information on the history of the Pruett name, please send it to me at jpuett@pruettweb.com and I will add it to this page.

The Hall of Names, Ltd. in Great Britain reports the following:

     The name Pruett (or its recognizable variations) has been found in ancient Welsh chronicles pre-dating 1066. Therefore, the name's origins may not be French.  The name was first found in Carmarthenshire in Wales, recorded as a family of great antiquity seated as Lords of the manor and estates in that shire.  They were descended from Cadivor Vawn, Lord of Blaen Cuch in Dyved.  The name was interchangeably Prytherch and Pruett, where the 'y' in Welch being pronounced 'u'.  Versions of the family name appear as early as the thirteenth century in such records as the Domesday Book, Hearth Rolls, the Black Book of Exchequer and the Curia Rolls. 

     In 1202, Matthew Pruet was listed in the "Pipe Rolls" as the Lord of the Manor in the shire of Somerset.  In another document it was recorded that in 1249 William Pruet and his son, Adam, "did damage to the King's property in Winchester", but does not tell us what punishment befell our ancient cousins for this deed.  We also learn from the Charter Rolls of King Henry VIII that in 1273 the Earl of Darby released Reginald Pruet and his issue their lands and holdings from "servetutem" and made them freemen.  Also in 1273, Andrew and William Pruet were mentioned in the "Hundred Rolls of Cambridge".  In 1275, Henry Pruet was pardoned a twelve shilling fine for contempt.  In 1278, Thomas, Walter and Julianna Pruett were all land holders in Somerset.  Also in 1278, Hugh Pruet of Somerset went surety for £ 40 and in 1317, Thomas Pruwet of Devon was mentioned in Dwelly's Name Indices.  Records from 1327 in Somersetshire list Thomas Pruwet, Walter Prowet and Juliana Prouet, most probably the same source as above with the spelling modernized by the Hall of Records.  In those times, it was not uncommon for a person to be born with a surname spelled one way, marry and change the spelling, then have another version inscribed on his or her headstone marking a final place of rest.

        Halbert’s Family Heritage is a group that conducts extensive research into surname histories.  An excerpt from some of their information states “the surname Pruett appears to be characteristic in origin.  Our research indicates that it can be associated with the English, meaning ‘A little, gallant or valiant man; one who carries himself with pride.’  Although this interpretation is the result of onomastic research, you may find other meanings for the Pruett family name.  Many surnames have more than one origin.”  Some of the noted members of the Pruett family highlighted by Halbert’s include: Andrew Pruet, who was listed in the “Hundred Rolls” as having resided in the County of Cambridge around the year 1273; Mary Pruett, who was a nurse and is buried at St. Dionis Backchurch in London, England; Byrd Pruett (1752 – 1833), who was a Virginian soldier and served with George Washington during the Revolutionary War; Lorine Livingston Pruette, who was an American author who joined the Editorial Staff of the widely acclaimed magazine, “Industrial Psychology”, and in 1927 authored his most famous work, “Saint in Ivory”.

        Many years ago there was a Pruitt family reunion held in South Carolina. A member of the Pruitt family, Dr. L.C. Branyon, addressed the reunion regarding the research he had conducted on the family name at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia and at Emory University in Atlanta. He had this to say about the Pruett origins:

    "I have been able to trace the earliest historical beginnings of the family and name back to the 11th century, or more than eight hundred years. By the usual application of the laws of ethnology and genealogy, I find that the first trace of the name appears as Norman blood, with a name strikingly similar to the present name. At this early stage I find the names Guelliaum Pritte, Johan Pritt, Jean Proute enrolled in the army of William the Conqueror. There, after the Saxon tongue became blended with the Norman French, during the next 200 years giving rise to old English, we find the name appearing as Prewett which was maintained for several centuries even into Scotland".

        A researcher of Irish surnames noted the name Prut (also Prute), as well as the Middle English version Prout (and Proute), and commented that it “came into Ireland before the middle of the 13th Century.  The family settled in Kilkenny and Tiperary.”  Another researcher discovered a reference to a Flemish surname of “de Pruet” from 1450.  Others claim that the surname finds its roots with the name Prouette, with origin in Normandy and “immigration” to England in 1066 with William the Conqueror, and which meant “doughty warrior”.  Another theory is that the name is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word pryte, meaning “that of which is justly proud, self respect, etc.” or the Anglo-Saxon word prut, meaning “haughty or arrogant”.  Yet another account suggests that its ancient origin may have been a combination of an archaic French root prue (proud) plus the affixes ett or itt, which are identical. Perhaps our family's originator was known by some appellation such as William the Proud (Guillaume le Prue). Phonetic spellings of names were common until spelling became somewhat codified during the last 100 years or so.

        Perhaps my favorite theory (at least the one that sounds the most credible to me) was formulated by Ken Pruett, a fellow genealogist who seems to have conducted some extensive research into the linguistics of our name.  He posted his theory in a website general forum that was discussing the origins of the Pruett name.  The following is his theory, slightly paraphrased for clarity:

    The “Standard Story” is that it's anglicized French, having relocated from France to England at a fairly early time.  According to “The Story”, it should have been spelled something like "Pruette" or "Prouette", and yeah, it is supposed to have meant something like "Little Proud One" or "A Little Bit Proud".

    Doesn't sound very flattering to me, and besides, I'm starting to grow skeptical about it.  Every explanation I've seen seems to assume that because "-ette" is a French diminutive ending, "Pr{ew,(o)u}{e,i}t(t(e))" (How's that for an all-inclusive schema?) must be the diminutive of something French that is a lot like "Pru".  The word that people usually come up with is "prud".  The word doesn't seem to be in French anymore, but in Old French it was "prud", "prod", or "prou" and meant not 'proud', but 'capable', 'good', or 'valiant'. Well, a little bit good or a little bit competent or brave is a little bit better than a little bit proud, I guess.  (Actually, the "little" could be used affectionately as well, instead of just to indicate smallness. "Dear Brave One"...?)

    Anyway, I suspect that people got stuck on this explanation as soon as they found one that seemed to make sense.  There are other possibilities.  Here's a random one: Since the earliest spelling I'm seeing so far is something like "Prewet(t)" or "Prewit(t)", it might be worthwhile to ignore, for a moment, the solutions that depend on an original "Pru-" or "Prou-" spelling, and to consider the implications of that W...

    W has only been around for five hundred years or so.  Before it was invented, U and V were used to represent the sound of W.  For that matter, U and V have been distinct letters for even less time, say only about 300 years.  (Sometimes UU or VV was used to indicate W, but sometimes just U or V was.)  Given all this, and ignoring the pronunciation for a moment, the name might easily have been written "Preuet" or "Prevet" sometimes.

     Now usually, if you knew the person, you'd know whether to pronounce the V or U in their name like a V, or more like a U or W.  But if you didn't know them, you might start calling them by the wrong pronunciation.  So, if your name was basically "Prewet", with a W-sound, people who didn't know you (say, because you had moved) might mistakenly pronounce it like "Prevet".  They would have no way of knowing, just from the spelling; and maybe you'd get tired of correcting everybody.  (I know people today who give up, and do this sort of thing.)

    In that case, maybe we should be talking to the people named Privett who are also on this forum.  Their name, in spite of its "-ette"-like ending, does not appear to be a French import, but instead goes back all the way to the 8th century, when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that a king named Sebright (Sigebriht) was killed at a place called "Pryfetes Flode" ('Pryfet's Flood' -- apparently a place where the water had a tendency to rise unpredictably).

    (In Old English, which was a much earlier situation than that of the U/V story above, the letter F was the only letter that was ever pronounced like a V, and then only in certain positions. U and V, at this very early time, were only pronounced like a U.)

    The modern name of this place is Privet(t), in Hampshire, near the south coast of England.  This is not very far at all from Wiltshire, where my own paternals are supposed to have originated.

    In this imaginative scenario, we end up with a name that existed in some of the earliest recorded Anglo-Saxon documents, and would seem to have little chance of being French in origin (since Norman-French didn't begin to show serious influence on English until the Norman Invasion in the 11th century).

    I'm not saying we're the same stock as the Privet(t(e))s, but to me this story sounds just as good, and I'm more than a little proud of the idea.

    What we actually want, if possible, is something based less on speculation, and more on solid facts.  If I could see a documented genealogy that makes it clear that my own specific forebears were actually called "Proud Little Man", I'd quickly accept it.  But few people are so lucky as to get that kind of hard evidence.

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