Belknap or Belnap is a surname of Norman origin from England that may come from the Anglo-Norman words "belle," meaning beautiful, and "knap," meaning the crest or summit of a small hill. Although today the "k" in Belknap is silent as in the words "knight" or "knee," it is evident from documents dating from the Middle English period that it was originally pronounced as a hard "k." The surname is believed to be somewhat unique, not only due to its relative infrequency but also because all known Belknaps or Belnaps living today are thought to descend from one man, Abraham Belknap (formerly known as Beltoft), who migrated from Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire, England to Lynn, Massachusetts about 1635. The surname continued in England for several centuries through other branches of the family but eventually died out in its country of origin in the early 20th century. Today, a wide variety of locations and institutions are named Belknap or Belnap, all of which are believed to be connected in some manner to this early Puritan emigrant to America. Places named Belknap or Belnap include over 130 streets, approximately 20 towns, and 1 U.S. county. Natural features named Belknap range from a nunatak near the South Pole in Antarctica, to a Canadian cape near the North Pole, to a seamount beneath the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii, to a tiny rocky island in Indonesia in Southeast Asia.
Although the surname appears on various versions of the Battle Abbey Roll, the earliest known confirmed documentary reference to "Belknap" (or one of its many early alternative forms of spelling) is to John (sometimes referred to with the noble preposition "de"), who first appears in Wiltshire in 1327. He later appears to have moved to London around the time the Black Death arrived in England. John was the father of Sir Robert Belknap, who served as Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas of England from 1377 to 1388. The early Belknaps married into a number of notable English families, including the families of Darset, Phelipp, Stonor, Hampden, Boteler, Beauchamp, Sudeley, Avenel, Kymbell, Knollys, Ferrers, Finche, Cooke, Hende, Wotton, Danett, Shelley, Carryll, Scott, and Bishop. Sir Robert's direct descendants include many notable persons, including William Shakespeare, Lady Jane Grey, Sir Francis Bacon, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (through 2 known lines), Princess Diana (through 3 known lines), and England's current reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II (through 6 known lines).
The surname Belknap, as carried through descendants of Sir Robert, appears to have died out with Sir Robert's great grandson, Sir Edward Belknap (about 1471-1521). However, several other males surnamed Belknap, whose connections to Sir Robert are at present unknown, were contemporaries of Sir Robert's family during the 15th and 16th Centuries. The Belknap surname may have continued through one of these other contemporaneous Belknaps through the Beltoft family of Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire ("Beltoft" may be an Anglo-Saxon etymological derivative of the Anglo-Norman surname "Belknap," as one definition of "toft" is knoll; the Beltofts of Hertfordshire do not seem to have any connection to the 14th Century Beltoft family of Lincolnshire), who resided near several of the early manors of the early Belknaps and suddenly assumed or resumed using the surname Belknap in the late 1500s-early 1600s, not long before Abraham Belknap emigrated to Massachusetts in the 1630s.
Variations of the surname Belknap include Belnap, Bellnap, Belknappe, etc. Most persons who today spell the surname "Belnap" appear to descend from Jesse Belnap (1760-1854), American Revolutionary War soldier. He was the grandfather of Gilbert Belnap.
- Anna Belknap (b. 1972), American actress
- Arias G. Belnap (1893–1974, Utah politician and LDS Church leader
- Charles E. Belknap (1846–1929), United States Army Civil War officer and politician from Michigan
- Daniel Belknap (1771–1815), early American composer
- David F. Belnap (1922–2009), prize-winning American foreign correspondent
- Sir Edward Belknap (ca. 1471-1521), Privy Councillor for the English kings Henry VII and Henry VIII
- George Belknap (1832–1903), United States Navy rear admiral and father of Reginald R. Belknap
- Gilbert Belnap (1821–1899), early LDS Church leader and colonizer
- Hugh R. Belknap (1860–1901), United States Representative from Illinois
- Jayne Belnap, noted biological soil crust scientist and author
- Jeremy Belknap (1744–1798), American clergyman and historian
- Nuel Belnap (Nuel D. Belnap, Jr.) (b. 1930), American logician and philosopher
- Reginald R. Belknap (1871–1959), United States Navy rear admiral and son of George Belknap
- Robert Bealknap (about 1330-1401), also known as Sir Robert Belknap, Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas of England
- Sarah Yancy Belknap, a New York librarian and founder of the Belknap Collection of the Performing Arts
- Tim Belknap (b. 1958), professional bodybuilder and 1981 AAU Mr. America
- William Burke Belknap (1885-1965), Kentucky horse and sheep breeder at his Land O'Goshen Farm, economist, politician, academician
- William G. Belknap (1794–1851), United States Brigadier General
- William W. Belknap (1829–1890), Iowa State Representative and United States Secretary of War
- Zedekiah Belknap (1781–1858), American folk art portraitist
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