The following information is from an article by Ron Collins that appeared on the roots computing web site.
Primitive personal names doubtless originated soon after the invention of spoken language in the unrecorded ages preceding modern history. For thousands of years first, or given, names were the only designations that men and women bore; and at the dawn of recorded historic times, when the world was less crowded than it is today and every man knew his neighbors, one title of address was sufficient. Only gradually, with the passing centuries and the increasing complexity of civilized societies, did a need arise for more specific designations. While the roots of our system of family names may be traced back to early civilized times, hereditary surnames, as we know them today, date from scarcely more than 900 years ago.
As early as biblical times certain distinguishing characteristics were occasionally used in addition to the given name, as, for instance, Swen Forkbeard, Harold Bluetooth, Joshua the son of Nun, Azariah the son of Nathan, Judas of Galilee, and Simon the Zealot.
In ancient Greece a daughter was named after her father, as in Chryseis, daughter of Chryses, and a son’s name was often an enlargement of his father’s, as in Hieronymus, son of Hiero.
The Romans met the need for hereditary designations by inventing a complex system whereby every patrician took several names. None of them, however, exactly corresponded to surnames as we know them for the “clan name,” although hereditary, was also given to slaves and other dependents. Examples are the Claudians, the house of Tiberius and the Julians. This system proved to be but a temporary innovation; the overthrow of the Western Empire by Celtic and Germanic barbarian invaders brought about its end and a reversion to the primitive custom of a single name.
The ancient Scandinavians, and for the most part the Germans and the Celts, had only individual names, and there were no family names, strictly speaking. But as family and tribal groups grew in size, individual names became inadequate and the need for supplementary designations began to be felt. Among the first employed were such terms as the Hardy, the Stern, the Dreadful-in-Battle. Also, nations of northern Europe soon adopted the practice of adding the father’s name to the son’s, as in Oscar son of Carnuth, and Dermid son of Duthno.
True surnames, in the sense of hereditary appellations, date in England from about the year 1000. Largely they were introduced from Normandy, although there are records of Saxon surnames prior to the Norman Conquest. During the reign of Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) there were Saxon tenants in Suffolk bearing such names as Suert Magno, Stigand Soror, Siuward Rufus and Leuric Hobbesune (Hobson). The Domesday Record of 1085-1086, which exhibits some curious combinations of Saxon forenames with Norman family names, shows surnames in still more general use.
By the end of the 12th century hereditary names had become common in England. But even as late as 1465 they were not universal. During the reign of Edward V a law was passed to compel certain Irish to adopt surnames as a method of tracking and controlling them. “They shall take unto them a Surname, either of some Town, or some Color, as Black or Brown, or some Art or Science, as Smyth or Carpenter, or some Office, as Cooke or Butler.” And as late as the beginning of the 19th century a similar decree was adopted in Germany and Austria compelling Jews to add a German surname to the single names they had previously used.
Family names fall into four general classes according to their origins. One of these classes is comprised of surnames derived from the given name of the father. Such names were formed by adding a prefix or suffix denoting either “son of” or a diminutive. English names terminating in “son (or the contraction “s”), “ing,” and “kin” are of this type, as are the innumerable names prefixed with the Gaelic “Mac,” the Norman “Fitz,” the Irish “O,” and the Welsh “ap.” Thus the sons of John became Johnson; the sons of William, Williamson or Wilson; the sons of Richard, Richardson or Richards; the sons of Neill, MacNeill; the sons of Herbert, FitzHerbert; the sons of Reilly, O’Reilly, and the sons of Thomas, ap Thomas (ap has been dropped from many names of which it was formerly a part). There are also German, Netherlands, Scandinavian and other European surnames of similar formation, such as the Scandinavian names ending in “sen.” In Slavic countries “sky” and “ski” play the same role.
Another class of surnames, those arising from some bodily or personal characteristic of their first bearer, apparently grew out of what were in the first instance nicknames. Thus Peter the strong became Peter Strong, Roger of small stature became Roger Little or Roger Small, and black-haired William or blonde Alfred became William Black and Alfred White. A few examples of names of this type are Long, Short, Hardy, Wise, Good, Gladman, Lover and Youngman.
A third class of family names, and perhaps the largest of all, is that comprising local surnames – names derived from and originally designating the place of residence of the bearer. Such names were employed in France at an early date (for example, La Porte, meaning “at the entrance to”) and were introduced into England by the Normans, many of whom were known by the title of their estates. Surnames adopted by the nobility were chiefly of this type and were used with the articles “de” and “de la” or “del” (meaning “of” or “of the”). The Saxon equivalent was the word “atte” (“at the”) found in such names as John atte Brook, Edmund atte Lane, and William Atwood and John Atwater. The surnames of some of the Pilgrims illustrate place designations. Winthrop, for instance, means “of the friendly village;” Endicott “an end cottage,” and Bradford “a broad ford. The suffixes “ford,” “ham,” “ley,” and “ton,” denoting locality, frequently occur in English names, for instance Ashford, Bingham, Burley and Norton.
Beginning about the time of Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) a fourth class of surnames arose, i.e. names derived from occupation. The earliest of these seem to have been official names, such as Bishop, Mayor, Alderman, Reeve, Sheriff, Chamberlain, Chancellor, Chaplain, Deacon, Latimer (interpreter), Marshall, Sumner (summoner) and Parker (parkkeeper). Trade and craft names, although of the same general type, were a slightly later development. Examples of this group are Currier, a dresser of skins; Webster, a weaver; Wainwright, a wagon builder, and Baxter, a baker. Such names as Smith, Taylor, Barber, Shepherd, Carter, Mason and Miller are self-explanatory. Similarly, in France we find La Farr (iron worker), and in Germany Winegar (vine dresser) and Mueller (miller).
Some surnames of today which seem to defy classification or explanation are corruptions of ancient forms that have become changed almost beyond recognition. For instance, Troublefield was originally Tuberville; Wrinch was Renshaw; Diggles was Douglas; Sinnocks and Snooks was Sevenoaks; Barrowcliff and Berrycloth were Barraclough, and Strawbridge was Stourbridge. Such corruptions of family names, resulting from ignorance of spelling, variations in pronunciation, or merely from the preference of the bearer, tend to baffle both the genealogist and the etymologist. Shakespeare’s name is found in some 27 different forms, and the majority of English and Anglo-American surnames have, in their history, appeared in from four to a dozen or more variant spellings.
In the U.S. a greater variety of family names exists than anywhere else in the world. Surnames of every race, nation and religion are represented. While a substantial number are of English, Scotch, Irish, Welsh and western European origin, brought to this country by scions of families that had borne these names for generations prior to emigration, many others have come from central and southern Europe and the Slavic countries where the use of surnames is generally a more recent practice. Some families had no fixed surname until after their arrival in America, and in other cases emigrants from continental Europe or their descendants have translated or otherwise modified their names. These factors contribute to the difficulties encountered by students of etymology and family history.
In my research I have come across several different explanations of the origin of the name Barefoot. Several of those explanations and their sources follow. Most assuredly the name is not Native American, and it seems that the Pennsylvania Barefoot line, at least, has connections to Ireland. Whether it goes back further to Scandinavia is not known.
According to “Wallace-Bruce and Closely Related Families” by James Wallace:
A history of one branch of the Barefoot family says there were two Barefoot men – Englishmen – who fought in the Battle of Boyne on the Protestant side. They were brothers. After the war (William, Prince of Orange, against James II, 1690) they were given by King William what was called Crown land in Ireland. It is supposed the Barefoot men were Episcopalian, as nearly all the British officers belonged to the established church. The one we sprung from married a Scotch woman who was said to be very devout and brought her family up in the old secular fashion, always taking the children with her to church. The Barefoot men were tall, measured six feet or more, and of fair complexion. They were rather long-lived.
There is also a tradition that among the foreigners – gallant Protestants – who rallied to Prince William’s banner from France, Holland, Germany and Scandinavia, there were two Norwegians named Barfod, who were descendants (or claimed to be) of the Norwegian King Magnus III (1093-1103) and that for their valor in the Battle of the Boyne King William bestowed upon them Crown land in Ulster, Ireland.
According to information contained in the Genealogy of James Barefoot, Sr., and Mary Sleek (Slick):
King Magnus III, called Magnus Barefoot, was the son of Olaf III (ruled1066-1093) considered Norway’s patron saint. Magnus was born in 1073 and came to the throne in 1093. He made three expeditions to Scotland and established rule over the Orkneys and the Hebrides, including the Isle of Man. On returning home from his conquest of the Hebrides around 1097 he adopted the dress in use there and went about barelegged, having a short tunic and also an upper garment, and so men called him “Barefoot.” [This is the earliest authentic mention of the kilt.] On August 24, 1103 Magnus and a few of his men were waiting to receive a promised herd of cattle in a swampy region near Ulster, Ireland, when they were ambushed by a large group of Irish. Magnus was killed. He was given a Christian burial and is interred somewhere near Dublin. He was succeeded by his three sons – Olaf IV, Eystein I, Sigurd – who reigned jointly.
According to Barefoot-Withrow Families” by Anne and Vivian Daughterty:
The name Barefoot is an ancient Anglo-Saxon name. The name Robert Barefot was recorded in Northamptonshire, England as early as 1160 according to “The First Century of English Feudalism” by F. M. Stenton. The name Reginald Barfot is in the “Pipe Rolls of Cumberland” in 1203. A John Barfot was in the “Assize Rolls of Kent” in 1317. The name Barefoot has had man spellings over many years. Barefoote, Barfoot, Burfot, Berfot to mention a few. The Danes spell the name Barfoed. The Norwegian spelling is Barfod. Barford is the name of several places in England (other spellings of this name were Barley Ford, Ford of the Bear and Birch Ford). In England the name was also given to one who went barefooted and persons sent to a holy place as a penance were often ordered to go barefoot.
From “New Dictionary of American Family Names” by Eldson C. Smith, published by Harper & Row, 1956:
Barefoot (Eng) one who had the habit of going about barefoot; persons sent to a holy place as a penance were often ordered to go barefoot; one who came from Barford (barley ford, ford of the bear, birch ford), the name of several places in England.