Pettit: Family Name Meaning and Origin
PETTIT: Pronounced p-EH-t-ih-t or pet-tit.
“The Pettits are a restless Clan… idealistic, not afraid of new ideas, always found in the forefront of those seeking the truth, willing to sacrifice material possessions when convinced they were right. They accorded no man the right to dictate in matters of personal conscience or liberty.” –William A. Pettit, 1961
These are indeed prevailing characteristics found in many of those who bear the Pettit name. This persistent familial temperament has led to many documented cases of Pettits breaking with fruitless traditions, contradicting false authorities, opposing religious hypocrisy and tyranny, and being revolutionaries and rebels when the situation warranted… and sometimes when it didn’t. Equally important, it has led many to enjoy their hard-earned freedoms to their fullest –establishing honest enterprises, loving testimonies, and solid families. The documented history of this family is entertaining, colorful and powerful.
Many theories and historical assessments of the ancient Pettit origins have been put forth. It has been postulated that the name is a derivative of the French word “petit” meaning small. Some speculate that the first to hold this name were from France and small in stature, though that theory is understandably hard to prove. According to researcher John S. Wurts, the name is first found as early as 650 AD in Normandy. An 11 century recording of the Pettit name is also found in the so-called Doomsday Book. This was a survey of England conducted in 1086 ordered by William I. Some sources say Aluric Petit is found in a list of names for Hampshire. It is suspected the English Pettits were French transplants from the Norman Conquest.
The Origins of the American Pettits
A question asked on The Pettit Survey and one this researcher has asked every American Pettit for the last several years is this:
According to what has been passed down to you, where did the Pettits come from before coming to America?
The question is phrased in such a way to obtain a response that is not based on the respondent’s genealogy knowledge of the family from their own research. Rather, the answer sought is what family legend or lore has been handed down and is unpolluted by modern theories and internet assumptions. The answer to the question, according to the prevailing genealogical theory of Pettit origin, should be “England”. But, as with many things pertaining to genealogy, the answer is not always what one would expect. With very few exceptions, Pettits who answer the question of where the American Pettits came from always give the same resounding reply:
The Pettits came from France.
This answer is found regardless of the branch of Pettits one asks. This answer can be found amongst the descendants of Joshua Pettit (1734) of Spartanburg Co, SC, as well as various Pettit families from colonial New Jersey, New York, and Virginia. It is found in the confirmed descendants of Thomas Pettit and his (presumed) wife Christian Mellows of Boston. It is also found amongst the descendants of John Pettit of Sharon, CT. It is even found in families who do not know their genealogy beyond a few generations back. For whatever reason, it seems our collective Pettit ancestors wanted us to know that we came from France, even if they may have came here by way of England.
The legend passed down to this researcher from his own father is no different. A 1936 letter from William Henry Pettit in Harrison, AR to his cousin Stephen Fletcher Pettit in Ellijay, GA, stated that “Joshua P. was the son of sea [sic] builder who came from France.” This William Henry Pettit was the brother of this researcher’s 2nd great grandfather. In this branch of Pettits, the older generation said that the Pettits came to America seeking religious freedom and that they came from the Alsace-Lorraine region in France. The fact that a specific region in France was handed down is an interesting one. At the time this was spoken, nobody even knew where Alsace-Lorraine was at in France. It is not likely that this detail was spontaneous or baseless but not much research has been done to confirm.
Others researching this branch report similar origins. In the book, The Annals of Upper GA centered in Gilmer Co, a chapter on Gilmer County Pettits states:
Much of the data on this family was supplied by T. H. Tabor, who stated that the grandfather of Henry Pettit I was a French merchant who came to America in 1760. Pettit, a French word, means “little.”
It is commonly assumed that any Pettits fleeing France because of religious persecution by the Roman Catholic church must have been protestant Huguenots. While that is certainly possible, this researcher believes it is also possible the Pettits could have been part of a more ancient religious group known as the Waldensians. This group predated the protestant reformation by many centuries. By the time of their departure for the American colonies, they were fairly indistinguishable but the Waldensians did retain some of their old traditions. (See related article on Josue Petit in Manikantown, VA)
Some genealogists have specifically documented some of the ancient Pettits. Wurt’s Magna Charta, by John S. Wurts states the following on page 2288:
This ancient and honorable Norman family are of record at Meaux, in Normandy as early as AD 650. The family divided in the Nith Century into Petits de Moulines (of the Mills), and Petits des Landes (of the Moors). The Petits des Landes went to Bavari under the Elector, where they prospered. The Petits de Moulines (manufacturers) remained in Normandy.
When William the Conqueror invaded England, he called upon all Normans to join his armies. Several Petits responded…
In his book, Pettit Peregrinations, William Alfred Pettit described the Pettit family origin as such:
When William the Conqueror (1027-1087) invaded England, he called upon the Normans to join his armies. Several Petits responded. Louis Petit was sent as Ambassador to the Court of France to obtain war materials from Louis XIII. He was very successful. Jean Petit became “Ecuyer” (squire) to d’Amerinthe the Conqueror’s nephew. Guillaum (William) Petit called “Le Petito” joined Sir Hugh de Lacie’s Army as one of the Conqueror’s Captains. He defeated the Irish at Meath and became “Land Justice” or Governor of Ireland in 1185. In 1187 fifty Knights led by Le Petito conquered Ireland and were awarded large estates in County Meath and else where. He had many descendants.
William the Conqueror burned his vessels to prevent desertions. The Petits remained in England where the name was anglicized by adding an extra. “T” or two. Over the years “Les Petits” became successively the Petits, Pettit, Pettye, Petty, Pittitt, Pettitt, Pettet, Petyt, Pettis, and possibly Pettee.
The Petits prospered in England where several were knighted. Over the door at the Church of St. Just at Roseland in Cornwall is a Coat of Arms of Sir John Pettit. Lord of Ardover who is thought to have built the church, was a descendant of Sir Otes Petit, a Knight who came to England with William the Conqueror.
In the 1936 book, Genealogy of Pettit Families in America, author Katherine Louis Van Wyke, stated the following in Chapter III:
The data concerning the Petit families in France before 1700 were taken from the French “Dictionaire de la Noblesse” by de la Chenaye—Published by Desbois et Badier, Paris. It is included only as part of an interesting background.
Petit, “ancien Noblesse”, originally came from Normandie and were of the Election of Caen of which family is N__e Petit, ecuyer (esquire) du Vivier whose arms are “de gueule3, au lion passant d’or: au chef cousn d’azur, charge de throe etoiles du second e’mail”.
Le Petit are descended from the House of Moulines and were divided into two branches: one established in Paris under the name of Petit dos Landes, and the other in the Palatinat under the name of Petit de Mau- bisson.
In 1259 Jean Petit, ecuyer (esquire), cadet of Moulines, election of Caen, birthplace Caux, attached himself to the service of Bouchard, Comte of Vendomo and Castres. He had a son Claude, also a “gentleman in waiting” of Vendoma. Claude’s son Louis, attache of the same, was father of Claude II. His son Antoine in 1400, had children, one, Henri succeeded Antoine In the position of “sommelier” (butler) of the Corps do Jean (probably a
military corps). Henri Petit, ecuyer, with Louis, Comte de Vendomo, was made prisoner in the battle of Azincourt in 1415 and carried to England where he died in 1477 and was interred there.
Petit des Landes were all of or near Paris, Seigneurs do Passy, Villeneuve, Pavanne, Etigny and Loudoville. The family was divided into many branches, known and distinguished in Paris “since most of the Century”, more through the different positions which they have occupied than through their alliances.
They trace their origin to Francois Petit, married first Madeline Louvencourt; second, — — de Villeneuve. He was Secretary to the King Louis XIII in 1637- Of the first marriage there were eight lines of descendants. Of the second there were three.
As we continue to work the genealogy back from the American Pettits to Europe, perhaps a connection to one of these classical families will be identified.
Pettit Family Name Facts
The most recent publicly available census data (2010) reveals:
- There are 19,004 Pettits in the United States.
- It is the 1892nd most common name.
- Pettits make up about .008% of the US population.
- 91.15% of Pettits are white.
Social Security Death Index data indicates:
- The average life expectancy of Pettits in the US is around 75 years; close to the national average.
- For reasons unknown, the average life expectancy of Pettits in the 1950s was 30 years; less than half the national average at the time.
Census data seems at odds with the data gathered by Forebears.com for 2014 which indicates:
- There are 34,712 Pettits globally.
- There are 25,547 Pettit individuals in the United States.
- The Pettit name is most prevalent in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia in that order.
- In 2014 there were 25,547 Pettit individuals in the United States.
- The Pettit name is most numerous in Texas, California, Ohio, New York, and Florida.
- The Pettit name is most common (by percentage of the population) in Utah, West Virginia, Iowa, and Arkansas.
- In the US, Pettit individuals of voting age are 65% registered Republicans and 35% registered Democrats.
In the first US census conducted in 1790 there were:
- 113 Pettit males under the age of 16
- 104 Pettit males 16 years of age or older
- 178 Pettit females
- 395 total Pettits enumerated
- No census data survives for Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee or Virginia. There were likely a good number of Pettits living in New Jersey and Virginia.
- The total population of the US in 1790 was 3,929,214, making the Pettit name roughly .01% of the population at the time.
Pettit Family Crest
The Pettit family crest is said to be a single rampant red lion. Some believe this is the ancient tribal symbol passed down from the tribe of Zara-Judah.
There is currently very little info available about the coat of arms but cousin James Pettett from Arizona related this important information in an email on January 1, 2022:
I had previously read the William Alfred Pettit account as it had been forwarded to me by his widow. Not long after that I went to Europe in 1993 and traveled to Cornwall specifically to find the Church of St. Just in Roseland. It took some doing and when I did locate the church, I searched for the Pettit Coat of Arms. There were a number of Coats of Arms in the small church, but there wasn’t one with the Pettit name nor a Coat of Arms that resembled the one in William’s account. I found a groundskeeper who had grown up in the area and I asked him about the Pettit Coat of Arms. He said the church had undergone some renovations quite some time in the past and that if it had been there, it may not have been rehung. He was not familiar with the name.
For more information on the Pettit family, check out The Pettit Project!