The Meaning of Churbuck

Since this is “”  it’s time explain my theories about the etymological origins of the name and an account of the detective work it took to figure it out.

The name Churbuck was a standing mystery to my father and grandmother, both of whom had some weird-ass theories that ranged from Eastern European roots– “Bohemian” my father would joke — to Swiss (due to the city of Chur in the canton of Graubunden), and other exotic permutations. My grandmother took a desultory swing at some family tree sleuthing before her death in 1991, but never, as far as I can tell, has anyone ever pinned down the origins of what is a fairly unique surname. My theory is that its a relatively young name that first appeared in the middle of the 19th century due to a typographical error in some official document, e.g. a census or birth certificate. I have not located the smoking gun, but I feel I’m close.

There was always awareness of other Churbucks in the pre-Internet days. Standard operating procedure  was to open a phone book in whatever new city or town they happened to be in and scan for the name. Cousin Harold and Robert lived in Bass River, here on the Cape, and there was knowledge of a Churbuck branch in Falmouth and another in Wareham — the town on the other side of the Cape Cod Canal. I received a call twenty years back from a Churbuck in Chicago who had done some research and was on the trail, but who that person was is lost to time and my bad memory. In college, while in a seminar on New Haven’s maritime history, the guest lecturer, a retired Navy officer, asked me if I knew a Churbuck from Wareham whom he had done business with in the 1960s involving oyster seed. I didn’t know who he was talking about. My brother Henry met another Dave Churbuck, who was the former wharfinger in Cuttyhunk and operates a diesel generator  business in Wareham.

Henry also wrestled a Ralph Chubbuck while on the wrestling team at Brockton High School in the 1980s.  That Chubbuck sighting, in Southeastern Massachusetts, where Churbuck’s seemed to be densest, first gave rise to my personal theory of The Typo.

Chubbuck – Churbuck:   look at the first “b” in Chubbuck and imagine some sloppy Chubbuck ancestor scrawling it  and yielding an “r” — drop the ascender, incomplete the loop in the “b” and voila: you have re-named yourself and your descendants forever, probably on a voter registration card or census form (or some official document) which was too daunting and bureaucratic to correct back from Churbuck to Chubbuck.

The typo theory seems to follow Occam’s Razor and does away with the far-fetched theories.  Churaccording to Wikipedia, “… derives perhaps from the Celtic kora or koria, meaning “tribe”, or from the Latin curia.”  Chubunfortunately, isn’t quite so noble, being the 15th century English name for a plump river fish. According to the Dictionary of Surnames: “Middle English chubbe … was also used of a “lazy, spiritless fellow; a rustic, simpleton; dolt, fool” (1558), whilst Bailey has “Chub, a Jolt-head, a great-headed, full-cheeked Fellow,” a description reminiscent of that of the chevin, another name for the chub … Thus the nickname may have meant either “short and thick, dumpy like a chub,” or “of the nature of a chub, dull and clownish.”

Awesome.  Perhaps the typo did me a favor after all. The Chub etymology is fitting given my father, Alton Chatfield Churbuck’s nickname was at time: “All-Ton Fatfield Chubbybuck.”

The Churbuck name is most established in the cranberry country from Brockton south to the Cape, running along the path of Route 24. This is sparse, swampy, boggy land, most notable for lying in the middle of the colonial road — Route 44 — between the Pilgrim’s settlement in Plymouth and the Wampanoag settlements in Middleboro, Lakeville, and Mount Hope, Rhode Island.

There are two Churbuck roads in Wareham, and indeed, Wareham has historically housed and buried more Churbucks than any other town.


If Chubbuck is split into a prefix and suffix, the result is the most common mis-pronounciation of the name, “Starbuck” which people tend to associate with Nantucket, Moby Dick, whalers, and over-roasted coffee. Indeed, a recent document refers to me as “David Starbucks.” I have no idea what the suffix “-buck” means. In reading a biography of the English mountaineer Andrew “Sandy” Irvine, I came across a “Basil Clutterbuck” and would therefore assume “buck” is an Anglo-Saxon suffix.  In researching Starbuck, I came across this definition: “This very rare name is locational and derives from the Village of Starbeck, near Harrogate in Yorkshire, formerly spelt ‘Starbok’. This original spelling which appears in the 1086 Domesday Book, indicates a Norse-Viking pre 9th Century origin ‘Stor-Bokki’, literally ‘Great River’.”

So chubby fish + river would seem a natural pairing. It’s not functional like Baker, Miller or Cooper, but it means something.

The hunt

Thanks to the excellent tool,, I’ve been able to identify the point where Chubbuck gave way to Churbuck. Bear with me.

The line begins around 1631 in Charlestown, a mere 11 years after the Pilgrims first landed in Plymouth. There, one Thomas Chubbucke, an Englishman, fathers Nathaniel who is born in 1636, who in turn fathers Benjamin Sr. , who fathers Timothy, who who fathers Willis Chubbuck Sr. in 1778.

Willis Chubbuck Sr. married Hannah Swift and they had several children, one of whom was Willis Barrows Chubbuck Jr. (Willis Chubbuck Sr. and Hannah Swift’s other children retained the Chubbuck name).

Willis Barrow Chubbuck, or Willis Jr, was born in 1808 in Wareham,  and was, as best I can tell, the first person in the world named Churbuck. At least he is mentioned in a book as a Churbuck. The question is why? Especially since I am not directly descended from him, but his brother, Thomas Swift Chubbuck.

Thomas and Willis. Two brothers. Both born Chubbuck. Willis dies a Churbuck.  Thomas dies a Chubbuck. Thomas Chubbuck has several children, one of whom, Henry Swift Churbuck is my great-great grandfather. Henry’s siblings’  names are evenly divided between Chubbuck’s and Churbuck’s. Henry’s uncle was a Churbuck and his cousins were Churbucks but Henry’s dad was a frigging Chubbuck.

I think this is about the time to strike up the banjos and throw in the towel and realize there wasn’t a whole lot of attention to primary details like one’s last name in 19th century Wareham, Massachusetts. Basically they considered the two names fungible — either they pronounced them the same in the flat Southeastern Massachusetts twang that still is around in some obscure corners, or they were illiterate and could barely write. Not the case with Henry Swift Churbuck who was a sea captain.

That’s my story and I am sticking with it.

Interestingly, in the Wareham town records before 1842 — there are no Churbucks. Just a ton of Chubbucks.


Other variations on Chubbuck include Chubick, Chubbic, Chubic. In The phenomenon of how names morph and change is fascinating to me. There are legal name changes — a person may not like their name (I had a colleague named “Slutsker” who changed his name to “Samuel” after his daughters were born and he decided to spare them any future teasing as the Slut Sisters), or they may be ashamed of the name for reasons of heinous acts or family feuds. But it is the changes that occur because of illiteracy, sloppy record keeping, or indifference that fascinate me.

As always: any Churbuck’s who want a email address, email me and I can have alias to whatever email address you now use. No charge.

I’m happy to share the genealogical work I’ve done to date (much more to do, especially on the ground in Wareham), but eventually, I hope to find the smoking gun that proves the point where Chubbuck became Churbuck.







3 thoughts on “The Meaning of Churbuck”

  1. Carolyn Radford Chubbuck , now Roi, here. I’ve seen that the -uck is a diminutive meaning small (as in hillock or tussock, presumably). Chub being the fish or « a heavy, loutish fellow, » as you note. Thomas Chubbuck landed in Hingham MA in 1634, according to records of my father’s family. I think you must be right about the inadvertent change in spelling.

    1. The spelling change still mystifies me. Apparently it was adopted by two brothers who were born Chubbuck but are remembered as Churbucks.

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