LEE - Surname Meaning and Family History

What Is the Meaning of the Last Name Lee?

Forest and field

Mark Gerum/Getty Images

Lee is a surname with many possible meanings and origins:

  1. The surname LEA, including the common alternate spelling LEE, was originally given to a person who lived in or near a laye, from the Middle English meaning "clearing in the woods."
  2. LEE is possibly a modern form of the ancient Irish name "O'Liathain."
  3. LEE means "plum tree" in Chinese. Lee was the royal surname during the Tang dynasty.
  4. LEE may be a "place" surname taken from any of the various towns or villages named Lee or Leigh.

Lee is the 21st most popular surname in America based on analysis of the 2010 census.

Surname Origin: English, Irish, Chinese

Alternate Surname Spellings: LEA, LEH, LEIGH, LAY, LEES, LEESE, LEIGHE, LEAGH, LI

Where Do People With the Lee Surname Live?

According to surname distribution data from Forebears, which also brings in data from Asian countries, the Lee surname is most prevalent in the United States (ranked 15th most common in the nation), but most dense, based on percentage of population, in Hong Kong, where it ranks as the 3rd most common last name. Lee also ranks 3rd in Malaysia and Singapore, 5th in Canada, and 7th in Australia.

Famous People with the Surname LEE:

  • Robert E. Lee: Confederate general in the U.S. Civil War
  • Shelton Jackson "Spike" Lee: American film director, producer, writer, and actor
  • Bruce Lee: Chinese-American martial artist and actor
  • Joseph Lee (1849–1905): African American inventor
  • Jim Lee: comic book artist and publisher

Genealogy Resources for the Surname LEE:

100 Most Common U.S. Surnames and Their Meanings
Smith, Johnson, Williams, Jones, Brown.... Are you one of the millions of Americans sporting one of these top 100 common last names from the 2010 census?

Lee DNA Surname Project
The purpose of this Lee DNA project is to bring together those genealogists who are researching the LEE surname and its variants (LEIGH, LEA, etc.), with an emphasis on the use of DNA testing.

Lee Family Crest: A Common Misconception
Contrary to what many believe, there is no such thing as a Lee family crest or coat of arms for the Lee surname. Coats of arms are granted to individuals, not families, and may rightfully be used only by the uninterrupted male line descendants of the person to whom the coat of arms was originally granted. 

Lee Family Genealogy Forum
Read this archive of the former popular genealogy forum for the Lee surname to see what others who have been researching your ancestors have posted. This forum is no longer active.

FamilySearch: LEE Genealogy
Access over 9 million free historical records and lineage-linked family trees posted for the Lee surname and its variations on this free genealogy website hosted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

LEE Surname and Family Mailing Lists RootsWeb hosts several free mailing lists for researchers of the Lee surname. In addition to joining a list, you can also browse or search the archives to explore over a decade of postings for the Lee surname.

GeneaNet: Lee Records
GeneaNet includes archival records, family trees, and other resources for individuals with the Lee surname, with a concentration on records and families from France and other European countries.


  • Cottle, Basil. "Penguin Dictionary of Surnames." Penguin Books, 1967.
  • Menk, Lars. "A Dictionary of German Jewish Surnames." Avotaynu, 2005.
  • Beider, Alexander. "A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from Galicia." Avotaynu, 2004.
  • Hanks, Patrick and Flavia Hodges. "A Dictionary of Surnames." Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Hanks, Patrick. "Dictionary of American Family Names." Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Hoffman, William F. "Polish Surnames: Origins and Meanings." Polish Genealogical Society, 1993.
  • Rymut, Kazimierz. "Nazwiska Polakow." Zaklad Narodowy im. Ossolinskich - Wydawnictwo, 1991.
  • Smith, Elsdon C. "American Surnames." Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Powell, Kimberly. "LEE - Surname Meaning and Family History." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/lee-name-meaning-and-origin-1422546. Powell, Kimberly. (2020, August 27). LEE - Surname Meaning and Family History. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/lee-name-meaning-and-origin-1422546 Powell, Kimberly. "LEE - Surname Meaning and Family History." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/lee-name-meaning-and-origin-1422546 (accessed March 23, 2023).