Alexander Surname Meaning, History & Origin

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The name Alexander derives from the Greek Alexandros, a compound of alexin, to defend, plus andros, the genitive form of aner, a man; hence, “defender of men.” The name became hereditary among the Macedonian kings, including of course Alexander the Great. The name was also borne by various early Christian saints.

Alexander under various different spellings became a common name in Europe. It was first introduced into Scotland in the 11th century and King Alexander I ruled the country from 1107 to 1124.
Its first appearance as a surname was William Alexander in the Edinburgh records of 1435.

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ScotlandEarly Alexanders were in Stirling by 1330 although they did not adopt Alexander as their surname until around 1500.

The best known of these Alexanders was Sir William Alexander who prospered with James VI of Scotland (and James I of England). He was first tutor to his son, then granted the Lordship of Nova Scotia in a scheme to promote its colonization (which almost bankrupted him), and later as Earl of Stirling was Secretary of State for Scotland from 1626 until his death in 1640.

Many Alexanders were staunch Presbyterians and faced persecution in the late 1600’s. Some left for Ulster in the hope of finding toleration there. A number later departed for America. One Presbyterian minister John Alexander, educated at Glasgow, managed to divide his time between Ulster and England.

Ireland. John Alexander was an early settler in Donegal, renting lands in 1613 near Raphoe from a Scottish landlord on condition that “he did not alienate the premises to no mere Irishman or any other person unless he or they first take the Oath of Supremacy.”

His eldest son John bought the lands of Enagh and Caw on the east bank of the river Foyle, just north of Londonderry, in 1686 and they remained in his family until the 20th century. A younger son the Rev. Andrew Alexander was the ancestor of the Alexanders of Ahilly and Milford. Another younger son William was the forebear of Alexanders in Maryland
.

Captain Andrew Alexander from the Menstrie line of Alexanders went out to Ulster in 1663 and was granted lands near Limavady in county Derry. James Alexander of this family left for India in 1752 and made a huge fortune there as a merchant. On return, he was ennobled as the Earl of Caledon in 1800. Later Earls had distinguished military careers; while other Alexander descendants included:

  • Sir William Alexander, the Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1809
  • Nicholas Alexander, the early 19th century Anglican Bishop of Meath
  • William Alexander, the Anglican Primate for All Ireland in 1896
  • and Earl Alexander of Tunis, Commander in Chief in the Mediterranean during World War Two.

England. Alexander is not just a Scottish surname. The name was also to be found in Hampshire and Wiltshire in southern England.

Richard Alexander who departed for St. Helena in the south Atlantic in 1673 had been a farm laborer in Yateley in Hampshire. William Alexander, a yeoman farmer, held land near Malmesbury in Wiltshire in 1693, as did his grand-daughter Elizabeth a century later.  Alexanders in Ramsbury, Wiltshire seem to have begun with the marriage of John Alexander and Elizabeth Braxton in 1708. Alexanders from there were transported to Tasmania during the rural unrest of the 1830’s and later departed for America and New Zealand.


America
. Alexanders made a name for themselves in Virginia. John Alexander was an early arrival from Scotland in 1636, a tobacco merchant who later acquired land in the Northern Neck of Virginia. He established his own home Caledon (now a national park) and also surveyed nearby Mount Vernon, the land of the Washingtons.

Two descendants of John, Captain Philip and his cousin Captain John, gave land to what in the 1750’s became known after them as the town of Alexandria. Philip’s son William was the forebear of the Effingham Alexanders.

Other early arrivals were Scots or Scots Irish. Many were Presbyterians who sought America as a place of refuge from persecution at home. Included in this number were:

  • the Alexanders from Donegal who came to Somerset county, Maryland around 1672. Their descendants subsequently migrated to North Carolina, and later to Kentucky and Illinois.
  • David Alexander and his family, possibly related to the Donegal Alexanders above, who came with Scots Irish immigrants to Topsham, Maine around 1719.  Other family relatives settled in New Hampshire.
  • Archibald Alexander, from county Down, who came to Pennsylvania around 1736 and settled ten years later in a Scots Irish community in Rockbridge county, Virginia in the Shenandoah valley. His grandson Dr. Archibald Alexander was the eminent Presbyterian theologian at Princeton.
  • and John and Margaret Alexander from Lanarkshire who departed Armagh for Chester county, Pennsylvania also in 1736. This line was covered in the Rev. John Alexander’s 1878 book Descendants of John Alexander.

A review of early Alexanders in America was provided by William M.
Clemens’ 1914 book Alexander Family Records.

Adam Alexander was a Scottish physician from Inverness who had come out as an early settler to Georgia in 1776. His son Adam Leopold Alexander became a successful planter and banker in Wilkes county in antebellum Georgia; while his grandson Edward Porter Alexander was a Confederate General during the Civil War. After the war, the old plantation life was no longer possible and Edward became a respected author about the Civil War.

Canada. The year 1826 was known as “the year of the short crop” in Aberdeen. In this year of water famine, Adam Alexander took his wife and four of their nine children and left Scotland for Canada. By 1836 Adam had been able to save enough money to buy land at the foot of the Niagara escarpment in Ontario. Four generations, all named Adam Alexander, farmed the land from 1836 to 1961. The farm now forms part of the Halton county heritage collection.

New Zealand. William Alexander was an Englishman who had emigrated to New Zealand on the sailing ship Robert Small in 1858 and was a storekeeper and running a small cordial business at Kaiapoa on the west coast of South Island three years later.  Later Alexanders of this family became house-builders in the 1950’s.

 

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Early Alexanders in Scotland.  The Alexanders of Menstrie in Clackmannanshire were descendants of the MacAlisters of Loup in Kintyre and from there claimed their descent from Alasdair Mor, the son of Donald of Islay in the Western Isles and founder in the early 13th century of Clan Donald.  He assumed the name of MacAlister.

Alisdair’s grandson Gilbert migrated to the Lowlands and in 1330 received grants of lands near Stirling.  By the beginning of the 16th century Thomas of this family had adopted the name of Alexander and he held the lands of Tullibody and Menstrie under the Earl of Argyll. Meanwhile the MacAlister clan established themselves in 1480 on the Kintyre peninsula in Argyllshire.

Alexanders as the Earls of Stirling.  William Alexander was made Earl of Stirling in 1633 for services to the Crown.  After his death in 1640, the trail got a little confused:

  • his son and heir William had died two years before, leaving an infant William as the 2nd Earl.
  • however, this infant died in 1640.
  • the Earl’s second son Anthony had already died.
  • so the title then passed to his third son Sir Henry, who became the 3rd Earl.  He was to hold the title for ten years until his death in 1650.
  • next in line was his son Henry, who then became the 4th Earl.
  • and from him the title passed to his son Henry, the 5th Earl of Stirling from 1691 to 1739.  He died without issue.
  • after his death the Earldom was said to have become dormant.

The first Earl of Stirling’s fourth son John may have died in 1641, after having been released from debtor’s prison; or he may have fled to France, as some have claimed, and found a home first in Nova Scotia and later in Virginia where he was said to have died in 1667.

There have been claimants to the title ever since the Earldom had become dormant.  The first in New York was William Alexander, socially prominent and an American General during the Revolutionary War.  He left his name as Lord Stirling to a park in New Jersey (near his home) and to a town in Massachusetts.  Alexander Humphrys-Alexander claimed the Earldom in 1839, but his supporting documents were found to be forgeries.  An American, Timothy Alexander from Indiana, laid claim to the Earldom as recently as 1992.

Burke’s Peerage has said that Archie Stirling of Keir, the former husband of Dame Diana Rigg, is the current head of the Stirling family.

James Alexander in India.  Captain Andrew Alexander may have established the family presence in Ulster in 1663.  But it was his descendant James Alexander, who went out to India in 1752 at the age of twenty three, who was to make it rich and powerful.

How did he make his fortune?  He was a merchant there at a time which offered him money-making opportunities. One flattering letter in 1767 described him as “Coja Alexander” (coja meaning wealthy):

“I make no doubt you have given him every kind of curry that was invented in Madras.  He deserves it.  He deserves a great fortune because he has a great spirit.”

But his fortune derived probably as much from his ability, as part of the Bengal civil service, to work the system to his advantage.  His hand was clearly in the till when he served as the Chief of the Council of Revenue at Patna and Murshidabad.

When he left India in 1772, he reckoned he was worth 150,000 pounds, a huge sum in those days.  Some recent evidence suggests that his fortune may have been even larger.

Early Alexanders in America.  The early Alexanders in America were either Scottish or Scots Irish:

Immigrant Destination Year
From
Scotland
George Alexander Massachusetts c. 1640
Robert and Priscilla Alexander Virginia 1650-1660
John and Catherine Alexander Virginia 1670-1680
From
Ireland (Ulster)
Samuel and Mary Alexander Maryland 1650-1660
Andrew and Agnes Alexander Maryland 1660
Andrew and Ann Alexander Maryland/N. Carolina c. 1670
David Alexander and his family Maine c. 1700
James and Mary Alexander Delaware/Maryland c. 1700

Alexanders in Maryland

There seemed to have been at least two Alexander families to be found in Cecil county, Maryland in the early 1700’s:

The Alexanders from Donegal

Dr. Alvah Stafford in his unpublished work Alexander Notebooks described the Alexander family from Donegal as follows:

“The Alexander pioneers who settled in Somerset county, Maryland were: Andrew, Francis, James, John, Samuel and William.  It is reasonably certain that they all came from Ulster and were of pure Scottish blood.  It must be concluded that several of the Alexanders recorded here were brothers; if not, there was undoubtedly a cousinal relationship between them. Probably some of these Alexanders were of county Donegal, possibly from the parish of Raphoe.  Their lineage has not been firmly established.”

Later in his statement, Dr. Stafford mentioned that there were others of the name who may also be considered as of the first generation. These were among the original grantees of land in New Munster, Cecil county, Maryland in 1714 and 1718. The others named were: Joseph Alexander (tanner), Arthur Alexander (farmer), and David Alexander (weaver).  William Alexander (the son of John) and his wife had the following children, all born in Eredy in county Donegal.

The Alexanders from Waterford

Other Alexanders in Cecil county, Maryland seem to have been the descendants of James Alexander the weaver and his brother Joseph who arrived from Waterford in 1677:

  • the former line (James) went via Moses to Nathaniel Alexander, Governor of North Carolina from 1805 to 1807.
  • the latter line (Joseph) led to Hezekiah Alexander in Mecklenburg county, North Carolina at the time of the Revolutionary War.

In 1775, news of a British attack on Massachusetts colonists had reached the Carolinas. Mecklenburgers angrily announced their freedom in a document called the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.  Hezekiah Alexander was one of the twenty seven signers of the proclamation and one of the five men who formed the local Committee of Safety.

He was one of the wealthiest men in the community.  In 1774 he had a two-story stone house built.  It still stands and is the oldest dwelling in Mecklenburg county.  This Hezekiah Alexander homesite is now part of the Charlotte Museum of History.

The various Alexanders have been described in Charles and Virginia Alexander’s 1965 book Alexander Kin.

David Alexander in Combat with Indians in Maine.  This story was told in an 1878 book The History of Brunswick, Topsham and Harpswell about David Alexander and his son.

“The late David Alexander’s father was remarkable when a youth for his agility and uncommon strength.  In muscular vigor he far exceeded any of the lads in town who were anywhere near his own age.

One day he and another boy by the name of Thorn were on the hill near the river and opposite where the Alexanders now live (that was in 1875). Suddenly a couple of stout Indians pounced upon them, each Indian singling out one of the boys.  Their object was to run the lads off into the woods, where they would be comparatively safe from pursuit.

The stout resistance however made by young Alexander, although a mere boy, made the Indian feel as if he had more than his hands full.  At every step he encountered a resolute resistance and, although a powerful Indian, he was making slow progress.

The boy’s outcries at length attracted the attention of the settlers up and down the river and his father, being first to comprehend the true state of things, outstripped all others in going to the relief of his son – guided partly by the voice of the lad and partly by the zigzag trail of the furrowed earth which was a conspicuous mark and was made by the boy’s stubborn obstinacy and resistance.

The father at length came in full sight of his son and was hastening to his rescue when the Indian, letting go of the lad, fired, killing Mr. Alexander who fell instantly dead.  The son, the moment he saw his father fall, ran and the Indian, fearing pursuit, desisted from attempting his recapture.  The inhabitants of the neighborhood, having provided themselves with guns and guided by the Alexander boy, started off in pursuit.  They found Mr. Alexander dead.  Pursuing farther, they came to the apparently lifeless body of the lad Thorn.  His comparatively feeble resistance had enabled the Indian to carry him off to a greater distance, but hearing the gun and appraised by the Indian who had just shot Mr. Alexander that they were in danger of being captured themselves, they knocked the boy in the head and scalped him.  The boy was found still alive and eventually recovered.”

The dating of this event is unclear.  David Alexander the immigrant was in fact killed by Indians in the early 1720’s.  This may be the event referred to above. 

The Alexanders of St. Helena and South Africa.  Not all Alexanders came from Scotland.  One remarkable Alexander family originated from Hampshire where they were farm laborers.  Richard Alexander’s life changed in 1673 when he sailed on the ketch William & Thomas with Sir Richard Munden’s squadron to retake the South Atlantic island of St Helena from the Dutch.

Richard stayed behind in St. Helena. Although he died ten years later, he left two sons, Richard and John, who began coffee growing on the island. John Alexander acted as Secretary of the island council, living through a time of mutinies, murders and riotous conduct.

The Alexanders were to make their home in St. Helena for the next two hundred years, that was until Albert Alexander, a descendant of John’s, left the island for South Africa in the 1870’s.   His son Fraser was a Boer War officer and made his name in the Rand gold fields.

Their story was covered in Paul Alexander’s 2011 book The Alexanders of St. Helena and South Africa.

 


Select Alexander Names

Sir William Alexander was Secretary of State for Scotland from 1626 until his death in 1640.
James Alexander prospered as a merchant in India and returned to Ireland to become the Earl of Caledon in 1800.
Matthias Alexander, Australian-born, developed in the early 1900’s the physical educational process that became known as the Alexander technique.
Harold Alexander, Earl Alexander of Tunis, was Commander in Chief of the Allied Forces in the Mediterranean during World War Two.
C.H.O’D. (Hugh) Alexander was an Anglo-Irish cryptanalyst who worked at Bletchley during World War Two and was subsequently a British chess champion.

Select Alexander Numbers Today

  • 33,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 68,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 31,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

 

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