Assertions have been made about the origin of the Acree surname, but, like most other surnames, ours has no definite history and presumably evolved independently in many places, at different times, as scattered people gradually adopted surnames in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. Given the widespread illiteracy that existed in that era, the name was undoubtedly pronounced and spelled in numerous ways from the beginning, as consistency in such matters was not considered important at the time. Assuming from our ethnicity that our ancestral name originated in the British Isles, the pertinent questions are: How did it evolve there and later in colonial America?
Hereditary surnames in the British Isles were adopted initially by the nobility in the aftermath of the Norman conquest of 1066. Until then, most people were known simply by their given ("first") names. It took more than three hundred years for surname usage to become widespread among the common folk, and even longer among the isolated highland Scottish and Welsh populace. Most people adopted names based upon familiar, everyday associations, including occupation (e.g., John Smith), personal description (e.g., John Little), residence (e.g., John London), geographical features (e.g., John Fields), patronyms (e.g., John Johnson), clan (e.g., John MacDonald), or their lords’ estates (e.g., John Dacre). Our surname appears to have had residential, geographical, clan and estate origins.
It has usually been affirmed that, at the most basic level, our surname derives from the English word "acre" - denoting a measure of land that was originally the area tillable in one day by a man with his ox. Thus, a person using the name would simply be calling himself a farmer or landowner, as most people were historically. The word acre itself is a cognate of the Latin word for open field, ager, which has flourished in various forms throughout Western Europe since Roman times - for instance, as Aker in early English, Acker in German, Hakker in Dutch, and Acre in Norman-French. The plural form, Acres, was an understandable modification.
Beyond that derivation, there has been historic use of the name that is not merely legendary. It has been asserted that it was sometimes adopted by pilgrims and soldiers who ventured to the ancient Palestinian town of Acre (now in Israel, with an etymology that has included Akka, Akko and Accho), which experienced a brutal history during the Crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries. Returning from their pilgrimages or battles, travelers took appellations that proudly affirmed their return "from Acre" - using the designations "d'Acre" or "de Acre" because English nobility favored the French language at the time and because the full name of the town was then Saint-Jean d'Acre.
In support of this assertion, the historic Dacre coat of arms, known to heraldry, depicted, on a red background, three silver scallop shells, indicating pilgrimage to the Holy Land:
Early use of the name occurred when a Norman known as William de Warenne accompanied William the Conquerer to England in 1066 to fight in the Battle of Hastings. As one of William's most powerful and trusted knights, he became the king's son-in-law and was awarded several properties in England. One of his early achievements was to build the historic Acre Castle, a double-moated structure with extensive earthworks situated in northwest Norfolk, a few miles east of King's Lynn near The Wash estuary. The reason for the name was that the previous Saxon owner of the property had, for whatever reason, called the area Acre. Warenne's young wife died there in childbirth in 1085, and the castle was included in the Domesday Survey the following year. In its heyday, it received many visits from royalty. Today, its ruins are a tourist attraction. Warenne and his descendents did not take the surname Acre, but commoners living in the vicinity may have later adopted it, in view of the fact that many Acre families (using various spellings) were resident there in the 17th century, when emigration to America began.
The historic Dacre peerage employed the above coat of arms but is reputed to have derived its hereditary surname differently. During the late 12th and early 13th centuries, an ambitious family of obscure origin established itself as a barony in northern England at Gilsland, near Hadrian's Wall on the Scottish frontier, in what is now the county of Cumbria. This "borderer" family took the surname Dacre from the name of a local village and stream, where a monastery once stood, according to the Venerable Bede, who mentioned Dacre in his 731 Eccleastical History, when describing a miracle that had occurred there. On that same site, in 926, Scottish kings surrendered vast lands in the area to the king of Sussex, who brought the whole of England under his rule.
Early members of the family called themselves "de Dacre," as did its first baron, Ranulf de Dacre (1290-1339), which was not redundant but meant "of the Dacre area." The prefix "de" was later dropped. Two castles built in Cumbria in the 14th century by the Dacre barons, called Naworth and the Dacre pele, not only still stand but have been continuously occupied. The barony's role was to support successive English kings by keeping Scottish marauders at bay in the Carlisle "West March" area. Not long before the War of the Roses in the 15th century, the Dacre barony split. An inheriting daughter married into the prominent Fiennes family, who thereupon took the title "Dacres of the south." Both branches - north and south - supported neighboring Lancaster during the war itself, but managed to switch their allegiances advantageously upon York's victory. The northern barony went into abeyance in the 16th century, while the southern barony, once centered at the Fiennes' grand Herstmonceux castle in Sussex, survives to this day.
It is likely that some tenants who resided on the Dacre estates, when obliged to adopt surnames during the 13th and 14th centuries, chose to take theirs from that of the lands on which they lived, as other estate dwellers did, some of them abbreviating Dacre, eventually, to some form of Acre. Numerous 17th-century Acres (using various spellings) lived, coincidentally, in Lancashire, a county that borders Cumbria on the south.
It is known that the Dacre barons acquired lands and positions in Lancashire in the early 14th century, where the Ackers family, in particular, has since flourished. In 1576, Captain George Acres of Liverpool (then in southwest Lancashire) was granted arms that included, in first quarter, the distinctive Dacre arms shown above - confirming a relationship between the Dacre surname and its variously-spelled derivatives.
The foremost obstacle in evaluating the derivation of our surname is that numerous variations have arisen in the past and prevail today. There was presumably ample diversity originally, when people first took the name, but that circumstance was augmented by spelling errors that arose through the years, widespread illiteracy, carelessness, misunderstood pronunciation on the part of record-keeping scribes, and subsequent misinterpretation on the part of transcribers who have variously deciphered people’s illegible handwriting.
In the 17th and early 18th centuries the Acree surname was fairly common in Britain, but it was never spelled that way. It was written in more than two dozen ways, including Acare, Accore, Ackares, Ackre, Akers, Ackers, Hacker and, most commonly, Acres. While there is no certainty that these variations were closely related, those in the same geographic vicinity probably were, as evidenced by the fact that, in some instances, records concerning the same people were rendered differently in their official documents. Until the late 18th century, there was little internal migration within Britain and everyone knew to whose family they belonged, however their names may have been spelled by officials.
Surnames received no disciplined renditions until a couple hundred years ago, when the spelling of words in general was standardized upon the development of dictionaries. No one really cared about inconsistency in earlier days, except for official scribes whose job it was to keep intelligible records and who added their own confusions in the process, producing inconsistencies that have been subsequently compounded by transcribers who have misinterpreted their scribblings and by typists who have punched the wrong keys.
It has only been with a gradual increase in literacy and with modern emphasis on accurate record-keeping that consistent spelling of surnames has become important to society. As late as the 19th century, phonetic renditions were considered entirely sufficient by name-bearers themselves, as well as by those who recorded their legal transactions and everyday activities. As names gradually became more consistently spelled, it was the officially-recorded versions that tended to become accepted standards for particular family branches.
Examining colonial history in America, one might suppose that it would be easier to discern name origins within a smaller timeframe. However, the difficulty here has been compounded not only by name variations similar to those that existed in Britain, but by the influx of Germanic immigrants with similar-sounding surnames who entered the nation's melting pot and quite often Anglicized them. The Germanic name grouping Eaker/Aker, in particular, has greatly complicated differentiation from our British name grouping.
In attempting to determine the extent to which families with the surname Acree and its close approximations are related to one another, it is unknown what form of the name our Acree immigrant progenitor(s) may have used. Does the existence of several name variations signify that there were several immigrants of diverse origin or, alternatively, that there were, in fact, few immigrants whose names were recorded inconsistently? The latter interpretation appears more likely.
While colonial Acrees probably spelled their names in as many different ways as Acrees did in Britain, the specific spelling Acree (with two e’s) appears to have been, for the most part, an American derivation, given the few people who have used that spelling both historically and recently in the British Isles. We know also that our surname has evolved here in specific instances, as people have decided upon either a consistency or a unique designation. In general, Acre appears to have evolved from Acres. Then Acre, in most instances, became Acree. During the 19th century, Acrea, Acrey, Akrie, and other forms then emerged from Acree. John Acree, Sr. of Bertie Co., North Carolina, used the spelling Acre in his early transactions. William Acree of Wilkes Co., Georgia, also used the spelling Acre, but his descendents changed it to Acree and later, in some cases, to Acrey.
It is worthwhile to focus special attention on surname pronunciations, because the diverse spellings have evolved from them. The word acre itself, as a measure of land, has, in recent centuries, been universally pronounced "aker," although the letter r precedes the letter e. This may be compared with the British spelling of the word theatre, which has been modified in American dictionaries to be spelled theater, as it is pronounced.
With regard to our surname (variously spelled), its pronunciation in the British Isles has remained predominantly "aker" and "akers" (the accent being placed on the first syllable, which rhymes with "hay"). The surname Dacre is also usually pronounced as rhyming with the word "baker." In the U.S., the most prevalent spelling of the surname is Acree, employing two e's. Perhaps the two-e ending evolved in the late Colonial period to emphasize preferred pronunciation of the second syllable as "cree," rather than "ker," a preference that apparently evolved on this continent.
Hopefully, further insight will be afforded by more widespread DNA testing of Acrees with diverse surname spellings living in both the U.S. and the British Isles, accompanied by related genealogical research that is being gathered and organized. Discussion of this topic is invited.