Over the years, a number of theories have been proposed to explain the of the origins of the Rainwater name. Here are a few of the most commonly repeated ones.
I recently saw a post on Genforum asking the Native American pronunciation of Rainwater, which prompts me to point out that rainwater is not a Native American word.
Rain came into English from the French reyn in the early middle ages. Water derives from either the French wæter, or the Old High German wazzar. The compound version, rainwater, has been in use in English since the 12th century.
In searching through some old English records, we’ve noticed that a large number of English names seem to describe where an individual got his drinking water. Atwater, Bywater, Passwater, Drinkwater, Rivers, Waters, Waterman, Waterford, Wells, Bridges and so on are all names with this common theme. It seems possible to us, therefore, that Rainwater not only describes where the family got its water, but is pejorative. That is, it describes a family without access to a water source – so poor that they had to save up rain water. If that’s the case, it could help explain why the Robert Rainwater came to the colonies on an indenture rather than paying his own passage. Many of these old records render the name as Rainworter. I have an 1767 will that describes a property boundry as “...beginning at a marked post near a wortering hole...” I originally thought this was an alternate spelling of water, and it may be, but have since come across other information indicating that worter can also mean bucket. Hence, the name might have originally meant Rain-bucket.
If you try saying Rainworter, you will find it surprisingly difficult to avoid rendering it Rainwater. We consider the migration of worter to water the most likely origin of the name. If the simplest explanation is the most likely, this is it.
Lem H. Rainwater (son of Irl C. Rainwater, Jr.) proposed the theory that the Rainwater was originally Van Regenmorter, originating with a group of Dutch or Flemish Protestants who settled in England. According to this theory, the name became Rainwater through a process of slow evolution. Regan means rain in Dutch, causing the name to be rendered Rainmorter in some of the early English records (see the Rainwater Marriage page). Morter seems to have become Worter, and then Water, probably through mispronunciation or misspelling by court clerks. Numerous English records exist confirming that the name has been spelled Raynemorter, Rainmorter, Rainworter, Rainwater, Reignwater and so on.
While the evolution of the name from Rainmorter or Rainworter to Rainwater is clearly suggested by the marriage records, the research into Van Regenmortor doesn’t show any connection between the two names. What seemed like a promising theory at first, seems less so upon further investigation.
Bing now points to The Dictionary of American Family Names 2nd edition, 2022, which says “possibly an Anglicized form of Flemish Van Regenmorter or Van Regenmortel via the intermediate forms Rainmorter and Rainworter,’ so I suspect this theory will gain in popularity.
This is clearly something someone’s grandpa made up for the kids, but it has been passed off as an explanation in a number of branches of the family. It supposes that in 18th century Virginia, a woman named Rains or Rainey married a fellow named Waters and they combined their names to form Rainwater. This naturally ignores the fact that such name merging was not a common thing to do, then or now, and that moreover, there is no evidence to support the idea.
A letter from sent to the late Mary Kate Bradford, a Rainwater researcher of the previous generation, remarks that the unnamed writer has spoken heard the Rain-Waters story from Bristow Rainwater. Roscoe Rainwater, a cousin of Bristow’s was also fond of this name origin story, suggesting the possibility that the Rainy-Waters fiction originated in the Kentucky branch of the family.
While there may be actual native Americans whose present day surname is Rainwater, the question being asked here is whether the Rainwaters of two centuries ago were of European or Native American origin. There seems to be a great romantic attachment to the Native American theory, that has no basis in fact so far as we can determine. The various rolls recording the Cherokee – the Daws, Guion Miller, Chapman, Siler and so on – include individuals surnamed Rain Crow, Rain Stopper, and so on, but no Rainwater. In fact, I have found only 10 Native Americans surnamed Rainwater – three Cherokee in the 1880 census and seven Lakota Sioux in the 1900 census.
Out of the thousands of individuals listed in Jerry Wright Jordan’s eight volume set, “Cherokee By Blood,” only five are Rainwaters and of them, only one makes the claim that his Cherokee blood is from his Rainwater ancestor. The remainder claim Cherokee descent through the Sizemore family. All of these Rainwater applications were denied for lack of evidence.
Several Rainwater families have Native American ancestry brought into the mix by a female ancestor, which does not, however, have any bearing on the origins of the Rainwater surname.
For a detailed explaination of why we dispute the Cherokee theory, see My Rainwater ancestor was a full-blooded Cherokee indian. For Native American evidence, see the the Native American Rainwater Evidence page.
Another frequently repeated the old story says that the Rainwater brothers, John and William, were immigrants from a German palatinate. This rather complex theory traces them from Mainz to the Netherlands to Derbyshire, England where under the leadership of Baron von Graffenreid they came to Virginia. The original name is supposed to have been Reinwalter, which was anglicized to Rainwater.
The late H. Ivan Rainwater spent a considerable amount of time tracking this story down, and a variation was later repeated in the work of Thelma P. Sargent (see Autobiographical and Biographical Documents). It transpires that Baron de Graffenreid, a Swiss gentleman, did lead a group of 600 individuals from Europe to New Bern, North Carolina. The material available in the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill archives did not contain any colonist or passenger lists, and to my knowledge, none have been located since. However, it is known that the colony was attacked in Sept 1711 by the Tuscarora tribe and wiped out over the course of a three day siege. Thus, if there were any Rainwaters in this colony, they likely perished with the other inhabitants.
On the other hand, there are a scattering of Rainwaters in the census records who identify their European place of birth as a German-speaking country. In 1860, Peter Rainwater and family of Jackson Co., Iowa, all identify their birthblace as Luxemburg, Germany. In the 1900 census, H. Rainwater of Chicago says both parents were born in Germany, and William Rainwater, also of Chicago, says he and both parents were born in Austria. Though I don’t believe the entire Rainwater clan hales from Germany, clearly some Rainwaters do.
Oxford University Press’s The Dictionary of American Family Names, 1st edition, 2007, also claims German origins for Rainwater, with the following explanation: Americanized form of the German family name Reinwasser, possibly a topographic name for someone who lived by a source of fresh water, from Middle High German reine ‘pure’ + wazzer ‘water’.
The late Ray Rainwater told this wonderful story that illustrates perfectly the dangers of jumping to conclusions about a name’s origins.
“In the summer of 1941 I was working as a truck driver on a wheat harvest crew, our thresher man was a gentleman named Gus Lorenz who had migrated from Germany in the early 1930s. One day he asked about the name Rainwater and when informed it was believed to be of German origin, he exclaimed ‘Aha!!! — Regenwasser!!! — Jewish!!!’ ”