Origins in Yorkshire and later Ireland
The earliest occurrence of the name of which I am aware is the appearance of “Robert Rountrie” on the Yorkshire subsidy roll of 1301. Every subsequent citation for Rountree prior to about 1600 occurs in Yorkshire as well. A British genealogy mentions a suit against John Rowntree in 1521, the 1577 will of Lawrence Rowntree, a Henry Rountree of the late 1500s, and several dozen Rountree references in the early 1600s – all in Yorkshire.1 By the mid-1600s, several citations for Rountrees are found in the parish registers of parishes surrounding London as well.2
There are a number of family legends which identify the earliest immigrants as Irish, but this seems doubtful. The earliest reference I could find in Ireland is the appearance of a Thomas Rountrey and a Widow Rowntrey on the 1664 hearth tax lists of Kilmore parish. Though Irish records are scarce for the period, it seems plausible that a few Yorkshire Rountrees migrated into Ireland in the mid or late 1600s, either as part of the Cromwell settlements or in conjunction with the Quaker movement. In support of this, I note that four different Yorkshire Rountrees are cited as recusants between 1605 and 1615, and several are later identified as Quakers, so it is possible that the movement into Ireland coincided with the Cromwell and Quaker movements of the 1650s. Descendants of the Rountrees who had moved to Ireland were evidently among those who immigrated to America 100 or more years later, which may account for the “Irish” legend. The earliest immigrants, though, regardless of their point of origin, seem to have been of English stock.
Does the spelling of the name matter?
Genealogists understand that the spelling on one’s surname was marvelously flexible prior to the late 18th or early 19th century. Even the most educated people were recorded, or even signed their own names, with multiple spellings. My favorite example is Sir Walter Raleigh, whose surname was spelled in dozens of ways from Raulie to Rawleyghe to Ralle. He eventually settled on signing his name as “Ralegh” but never once used the name we know him by today, Raleigh.
In short, I think most genealogists would agree that whether the name is spelled Rountree, Roundtree, or Rowntree in early records is immaterial. One authority, writing in 1901, calls it a “well-known North-English surname” spelled variously as Rowntree, Rowantree, Roantree, and Roun(d)tree.3 l. Essentially all appearances of the name in American colonial records are third-party entries. That is, they represent the decision of a clerk, who chose whatever spelling they felt appropriate. Even recorded deeds and wills are rarely the originals, but rather were copied by clerks and therefore subject both to their own whims and to copying errors. Even signatures spelling the name one way or another have little genealogical value in distinguishing branches of the family.
- The Rowntrees of Riseborough, C. Brightwen Rowntree, with additions by E. Margaret Sessions (Ebor Press., reprint 1989). [↩]
- ills, burials, or probate records can be found for Thomas Rountrees in Canterbury (1656) and Middlesex (1671), John Rountree in Middlesex (1671), and a court record for a Timothy Rountree in Kent (1612). [↩]
- Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames, Charles Warren Bradley (1901), pp18, 655, 657. [↩]