Vanderbilt Surname Meaning and Origin

Vanderbilt is thought to derive from a German word meaning "low hill," such as these rolling hills in the German Kaiserstuhl area.
Dennis Fischer Photography / Getty Images

The Vanderbilt surname has two very different accepted origins:

  1. a topographic surname for someone living near a low hill, from the Middle Low German bulte, meaning "mound" or "low hill."
  2. originally Van de Bylt, from Die Byltye, a nickname given to ship-carpenters in Holland. From the Dutch byltye, meaning a little hatchet or bill.

Surname Origin: Dutch, North German

Alternate Surname Spellings: VANDERBILDT, VAN DER BILT, VANDERBUILT

Where in the World is the Vanderbilt Surname Found?

While it originated in the Netherlands, the Vanderbilt surname is now most prevalent in the United States, according to surname distribution data from Forebears. However, it is also somewhat common in Chile and Columbia. The name was more common in the United States during the 1880s than it is now, especially in the states of New York and New Jersey.

The Vanderbilt surname is now most common based on the percentage in the U.S. states of Alaska, Arkansas, New Jersey, Illinois, and Connecticut, according to WorldNames PublicProfiler.

Famous People with the Last Name Vanderbilt

  • Cornelius Vanderbilt: head of the prominent American Vanderbilt family; became the wealthiest man in America in the mid-19th century through his shipping and railroad empires
  • Amy Vanderbilt: American authority on etiquette
  • Gloria Vanderbilt: American artist, author, actress, and heiress, well known for her line of designer blue jeans from the 1970s and 80s.
  • George Washington Vanderbilt, II: member of the prominent Vanderbilt family who commissioned the construction of Biltmore between 1889 and 1895; the estate's name derived from "Bildt," the origin of his Vanderbilt ancestors in Holland.

The Famous Vanderbilt Family

The prominent American Vanderbilt empire began with Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt, born in Staten Island in 1794. His 3rd-great grandfather, Jan Aertszoon (1620–1705), a Dutch farmer from the village of De Bilt in Utrecht, Netherlands, was the immigrant ancestor, arriving in the Dutch Colony of New Netherland as an indentured servant in 1650.

When he was sixteen, Cornelius, the fourth of nine children, convinced his parents to lend him $100 to purchase a sailboat so that he could start his own passenger and freight service between Staten Island and New York City, a service that eventually became known as the famous Staten Island Ferry. Young Cornelius then signed on as an apprentice on a variety of ships in order to master all aspects of the seagoing industry. By the age of 50, his shipping empire had afforded him millionaire status. He then turned to buy up small railroads and turning them into profitable ventures. At the time of his death in 1877, Cornelius Vanderbilt was worth $105 million.

Anderson Cooper, son of Gloria Laura Vanderbilt, is currently the only known prominent, active descendant of the famous Vanderbilt family.

Genealogy Resources for the Surname Vanderbilt

References

  • Cottle, Basil. Penguin Dictionary of Surnames. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1967.
  • Dorward, David. Scottish Surnames. Collins Celtic (Pocket edition), 1998.
  • Fucilla, Joseph. Our Italian Surnames. Genealogical Publishing Company, 2003.
  • Hanks, Patrick and Flavia Hodges. A Dictionary of Surnames. Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Hanks, Patrick. Dictionary of American Family Names. Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Reaney, P.H. A Dictionary of English Surnames. Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Smith, Elsdon C. American Surnames. Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997.