The Origin of the Surname Buckner

The most basic and most often debated question about the origin of the name is whether the name was originally English or originally German. The answer is pretty simple—both. It is indeed found in England back to the very earliest history of surnames in the 13th century, and in my opinion, the vast majority of Buckners in the world derive from this English origin. The German origin is commonly reported in surname dictionaries, such as Smith (1969), but there is virtually no primary evidence to support the idea that assertion is true in general.

However, this is not to say that there are no German-derived Buckners. The main logical problem with the German derivation is that the German name spelled "Buckner" is so rare that it couldn't possibly account for all or even a significant number of the Buckners in England and America. There are two other similar German names though, Buchner and Büchner, which are much more common, about as common in Germany as Field or Archer is in the English speaking world. If you don't speak German, you might be thinking "well, those are all basically the same name." Problem is, they're not. I'm a Buckner who has lived in Germany, and trust me, to any German native speaker they're as different as "math" and "mess" (which sound virtually identical to many Germans) are to us English speakers. At this link, you'll find a sound file where I pronounce "Buchner", "Büchner", and "Buckner" with my best attempt at a typical 18th century German accent (the uvular [r] hadn't really penetrated Germany yet by that time).

What generally happened with German Buckners is that the name got misspelled or even entirely changed when the immigrants settled in English-speaking areas. My sense is that almost every instance was going from Buchner to Buckner; Büchner tended to get mangled to something else, "Beechner" or some such. Even when you see a record that says "Johann Buckner" arrived on a ship from Germany, you really don't know that Johann himself spelled it like that. It's pretty likely that he went on his way to Pennsylvania and called himself Buchner for the rest of his life, regardless of how the master of the ship he arrived on garbled the name. There's even a well known example of a German family of American Loyalists who were probably Buchners originally but alternated between Buckner and Boughner. After the Revolution, many of them fled to Canada where most of them finally settled on Boughner.

As for the English name, establishing where it comes from in England is, with the aid of modern searchable databases, pretty easy. Both historical documents and the statistics for the modern distribution of the name in England converge to the idea that it originated in Oxfordshire close to the traditional border with Berkshire (pre-1974).

1881 Buckner relative frequency in the UK from CASA

Figuring out what it originally meant is harder. The earliest occurrences from the 1200s and 1300s have several typical features: they often have the prefix "de" (e.g. "de Bukenore"), end in "-ore" (not "-er", which seems to have developed in the mid 1500s), and had a middle unstressed syllable which probably disappeared in the 1400s, though there are no examples known yet for that period. The original pronunciation was probably something like "duh BUCKenOR".

Names with this "de" prefix were almost always place names. The original idea with them is that the place was where the person was from. Adam de Leigh was from Leigh, John de Stanton was from Stanton, and so on. At some point in the late 1200s or 1300s, these started to become fixed with the family, so that you would be called Hugh de Watley if your father had been a de Watley, even if you yourself were born, grew up, and lived somewhere totally different. The exact date of this transition is fuzzy and was probably different in different places for different people, but at any rate, we know for sure from this prefix that Bukenore was a place. What we don't know is where this place was exactly. The very first known Bukenores in 1262 and 1316 lived in the village of South Leigh, so the name was probably well on its way to being hereditary already. In fact no de Buckenore has yet been found living in a place called Buckenore - most of them seem to have lived in or around South Leigh and Leigh (Oxfordshire). I still haven't been able to find a place with that name in any record in England, so its identity is still a bit of a mystery. The best clue I have so far is that a small creek off the Thames in that area was called "Bugganbroc" ("Buckenbrook" more or less) in Medieval times (now called Limb Brook - see G.B. Grundy, Saxon Oxfordshire, Oxfordshire Record Society (Series) v. 15, 1993, p.34). The suffix "-ore" was common in early English place names, and it usually indicated a rise or a river bank, so possibly "Buccanore" (to use the Old English rather than the Middle English spelling) was a small settlement or homestead on a bank or rise above this brook, a mere ten miles from the village of Cumnor which is familiar to many Buckner genealogists as the home of most of the known 16th century Buckners.

Spelling

As I have remarked elsewhere, "Buckner" is not a particularly difficult name to spell. The only persistent variations I've seen are "Bucknor", which can be found even today (and perhaps is the older form, see the origin discussion), and "Bucknour", which can sometimes be found in England in older records. "Bucknor" is only about 1/100 as common as "Buckner" in the US, but in Canada it constitutes 15-20% of occurrences of the name. In the UK, "Bucknor" likewise seems to account for around 20% of Buckner/Bucknors, and it is by far the dominant form in the West Indies and West Africa.

The most common spelling variations in my experience though arise from misreadings. Since many people aren't familiar with the name, when they can't make it out clearly in old manuscripts they often guess at things like "Backner" and "Buckney". Of course, "Backner" and "Buckney", are so rare in the United States that they don't occur in either my 1850 surname survey of 200,000 names or the U.S. Census 1990 survey. This puts their frequency in the one-in-a-million range at most, a thousand times or more rarer than "Buckner." (In fact, using US phone book data I was able to confirm this estimate of the frequency of "Buckney"—11 listings in the US—compared to "Buckner" with about 11,000. "Backner" weighs in with 53 listings.) Therefore, oftentimes when you see either of these in American records, consider the possibility it's "Buckner" (or something else) misread. To complicate things, "Buchner" is also a common misreading of "Buckner", but it's also a real and relatively common German surname, so it's often hard to tell whether a name was really "Buchner" or just misread.

References

1.
Elsdon C. Smith, American Surnames, Philadelphia: Chilton (1969).
2.
S. Moore & A.H. Marckwardt, Historical Outlines of English Sounds and Inflections, Ann Arbor: Wahr Publishing (1990).
3.
Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII,Great Britain, Public Record Office ed., Vaduz: Kraus Reprint.
4.
H. Marett Godfray ,Registre de L'Englise Wallonne de Southampton, Lymington: Huguenot Society of London (1890).
5.
Thomasine Elizabeth Sharpe, A Royal Descent, London, (1875).
6.
William A. Crozier,The Buckners of Virginia (1907).

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