Select Alston Surname Genealogy

Alston as a name is Anglo-Saxon in origin and predates the Norman Conquest. Its roots are the Old English name prefix Ael – as in Aelwine (ael friend) or Aelfred (ael counsel) plus tun meaning “settlement.”

This Alston has been found as a place-name in many locations in England. In three of these locations – on the Essex/Suffolk border, near Preston in Lancashire, and in Cumberland – the place-name has resulted in a surname. But Alston in Cumberland near the Scottish border does have different origins, from the Old Scandinavian personal name Halfdan.

It was the Alstons from Essex/Bedfordshire that spread to the Carolinas in America in the late 1600’s.

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Select Alston Ancestry

England. Alstons in England were first found in Lancashire and Suffolk.

Lancashire. An Alston family took its name from the hamlet of Alston near Longridge in the district of Preston. There were early references to the de Alstons as lords of the manor in the 13th century. John Alston was recorded there in 1522 and a later John Alston was born in nearby Ribchester in 1660. Andrew Alston from Ribchester emigrated to America in 1838, followed by his brother Henry. They settled in Illinois.

The name had remained generally confined to this area in the 19th century, with a little spread to nearby mill towns. By the time of the 1881 census the Alston count in Lancashire was 730 and represented 50% of all the Alstons in England.

Suffolk and Essex. Of smaller count but of more renown were the Alstons from Suffolk and Essex. Their history was recounted in Lionel Cresswell’s 1905 book Stemmata Alstonia.

These Alstons started out as small landowners on the Suffolk/Essex border. They were first noted at Sisted in the 13th
century and later found at Newton near Sudbury. Edward Alston, born in 1504, held Sayham Hall at Newton. His two sons were:

  • William the elder son, the forebear of the Alstons of Odell Castle in Bedfordshire
  • and Thomas the younger son, the forebear of the Alstons in London and Bradwell Abbey in Buckinghamshire.

From William’s line came a later William Alston who secured the position of Keeper of the Briefs in the Court of Kings Bench. This was a notoriously profitable post and he was able to buy the Odell Castle estate in Bedfordshire in 1633. He died unmarried and the line continued through his brother Thomas, made a baronet in 1642. Alstons also established themselves at this time at Pavenham nearby.

The Alston line at Odell continued until 1933. There was a hiccup in 1774 when Sir Thomas Alston died and his will (which was contested) passed the succession onto his illegitimate son Thomas. Another line via Captain Thomas Alston led to Sir Beilby Alston, a British diplomat who was an envoy to a number of countries in the early 1900’s.

The line through the younger son Thomas was to be found at Edwardstone in Suffolk and led to two brothers, Edward and Joseph:

  • the elder brother Edward Alston was President of the College of Physicians, grew wealthy, but left no male heir on his death in 1669.
  • it was the younger brother Joseph who married well, became a baronet and established the family home in London and at Bradwell Abbey in Buckinghamshire.

However, the family fortunes seem to have been dissipated by later Alstons in the 18th century.

One line in the 19th century from Edwardstone began with William Alston, an army medic, who was based in Ireland and Australia before his retirement in Kent. His son Arthur became an Anglican minister in Manchester, his grandson Rex a BBC radio sports commentator in the post-war years.

. The Alston name in Scotland may have derived from the place-name Alston in Cumberland (where Odo Alston had been recorded as a freeholder in Maulds Meaburn in the early 13th century). Another account has the Alstons arriving with the Hamiltons.

The name had spread across the border, sometimes as Aldstoun, into Ayrshire and Lanarkshire. The Alstons were in fact an old family of Lanarkshire, said to have been seated at Thinacre Milne in Hamilton parish since the 14th century.

Charles Alston, born there, was appointed Keeper of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh in 1716. Alstons were then to be found in East Lothian:

  • James Alston from Dirleton who was elected Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1725.
  • while a later James Alston from North Berwick came south to Birmingham in 1783 to buy up a bankrupt chemical business. He and his son James and grandson William did well, so much so that William was able to purchase a country estate, Elmdon Hall, outside of Birmingham in the 1840’s.

America. The founders of the Alstons in America were two John Alstons who came separately, one to Chowan county in North Carolina and the other to Charleston in South Carolina. Both families became extremely wealthy, due to their extensive rice plantations in the 19th century. Their histories were recounted in Joseph Groves’ 1901 book The Alstons and Allstons of North and South Carolina.

It was thought that John Alston of North Carolina, first sighted in Chowan county in 1713, might have originated from Pavenham in Bedfordshire. But more recent research has him coming from Essex. John Alston of South Carolinadid come from Pavenham in Bedfordshire in 1682. He arrived in Charleston, having been sent by his father William as an apprentice to a local merchant there.

North Carolina. John Alston, the founder, lived until 1754, seeking all the while to expand his landholdings. This zeal extended most notably to his son Joseph John in Halifax county who died there a wealthy man and to his grandson Joseph John who moved to Chatham county in 1791. Known as Chatham Jack or 40-mile Jack, he was Chatham county’s largest landowner and slaveholder.

Chatham Jack’s cousin Willis Alston of Halifax county had a distinguished political career as a US Congressman between 1800 and 1830. Another cousin in Halifax county, Robert W. Alston, migrated south to Georgia and then to Florida. Robert’s sons in Florida, Augustus and Willis, both died through duelling feuds.

There was another Alston line via John’s son Philip and George W. Alston that established the Cherry Hill plantation in Warren
county, North Carolina in the 1830’s.

Meanwhile a line from John’s son Solomon led to Philip Alston, a notorious counterfeiter of money in the late 1700’s who fled the South for Kentucky. It was said:

He was a gentleman by birth, education, and early association. He comes down to us a handsome figure and grand in manner, wearing broad-cloth, ruffles, and lace. He had an air of chivalry to women and of aloofness, superiority, and mystery to men.

His son Peter followed in his father’s footsteps as a counterfeiter, horse thief, highwayman and river pirate.

The African American Alston numbers in North Carolina are sizeable as many former slaves there adopted the Alston name:

  • Primus Alston, born a slave in Chatham county, was ordinated as an Episcopal minister in 1883. His son Charles, also known as Spinky, was a notable artist of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s.
  • while other Alston slave descendants met up at a family reunion at the Cherry Hill plantation in 1995. Prominent among those assembled there were Fred Alston, a classical musician from Philadelphia, and Macky Alston, a New York film maker.

South Carolina. Two sons of John Alston, John and William (who spelt their name Allston), acquired land on Waccamaw Neck in Georgetown county between 1730 and 1750. This land was to be the basis of the rice plantations for succeeding generations.

“William Alston of Clifton became so fabulously wealthy and influential that all Waccamaw called him ‘King Billy;’ while his
cousin, Captain William Allston of Brookgreen, had to be content with the title ‘Gentleman Billy.'”

Sometime around 1792 William Alston had dropped an ‘I” from his last name to distinguish his branch of the family from his cousins. He had also moved his family to Fairfield after his house in Clifton burned down.

Joseph Alston had inherited The Oaks plantation from his grandfather William in 1800. He was Governor of South Carolina from 1812 to 1814. But, grieving over the loss of his wife Theodosia Burr Alston in 1812, his time as Governor was not happy. He died in 1816 at the young age of thirty-seven.

Some notable later Allstons were:

  • the painter Washington Allston who left South Carolina for Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1818
  • and his nephew Robert Allston who stayed at home and grew
    rich in the 1850’s from his rice plantations. He was Governor of South Carolina between 1856 and 1858. An avid secessionist, he did not live long enough to witness the final defeat of the South. His son Benjamin was an Episcopal minister in South Carolina after the Civil War.

Australia. George Alston from Glasgow was a pioneer settler in South Australia in 1838, camping for the first year with his family in a tent. He worked in Adelaide as an accountant for the Bank of South Australia.

Select Alston Miscellany

If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for
further stories and accounts:

Select Alston Names

William Alston acquired the Odell Castle estate in Bedfordshire in 1633 and was the forebear of the Odell Alstons.
Washington Allston
was a much-admired American painter and poet of the 1830’s and 1840’s from South Carolina.
Charles Alston
was a prominent African American artist in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s.
Rex Alston
was a BBC radio sports broadcaster of the 1940’s and 1950’s

Select Alstons Today

  • 2,500 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 7,500 in America (most numerous in North Carolina)
  • 1,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)



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