Alston Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Alston Surname Meaning

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.

Alston Surname Resources on The Internet

Alston Surname Ancestry

  • from England (Lancashire and Suffolk)
  • to America

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.

Scotland.  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.

North 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 Carolina did 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.

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.

Robert 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.

Alston Surname Miscellany

Alston on the Essex/Suffolk Border.  One branch of Alston may have been taken from the manor of a Saxon lord called Alstanus who held his manor at Stambourne in NE Essex.  It is known that he was still in possession of the manor after the Norman conquest, although as a tenant rather than as an owner at that time.  A family of Alestan seemed to have stayed in the manor until the 13th century.

There was a high density of families with the surname Alston and Alliston from around the Sudbury area, not far from Stambourne. In the 1224 “Feet of Fines,” it was recorded that John, son of Adam de Alliston, sold land at Stansfield in Suffolk. Stansfield is a few miles north of Stambourne.

Alston was a medieval parish in this vicinity in Suffolk.  However, without enough people to ensure its survival, the parish was consolidated with that of Trimley St. Martin as early as 1362. 

Alstons Arriving in Scotland with the Hamiltons.  According to a 17th century tradition the ancestor of the Scottish Alstons fled to Scotland from England during the reign of Edward II in the early 1300’s.

He was a retainer of Lord Hamilton who had killed Lord Spencer in a duel.  Hamilton was pursued and to escape he disguised himself as a sawyer.  Alston rode on with Hamilton’s clothes and horses, acting as a decoy.

This incident, according to the story, was the origin of the Hamilton crest – an oak tree being cut by a frame-saw.

Sir Edward Alston, President of the College of Physicians.  The Alston family achieved considerable renown in the person of Sir Edward Alston, President of the College of Physicians.

Born at Edwardstone in Suffolk in 1595 of wealthy parents, he went through the usual University training of the gentleman of the time, successively taking his degrees of Bachelor and Master of Arts and then obtaining the M.D. degree and a Fellowship of the College of Physicians. He was President of the College from 1655 until 1666.

During the desertion of the city of London at the time of the plague in 1665, thieves broke into the treasury of the College and stole the funds. This was a grievous predicament for the association to be in and the Fellows were at a loss to know what to do.

Sir Edward then came forward with a proposal which eventually found acceptance.  Briefly it was that admission to the Fellowship of the Society should be accorded to the unlicensed practitioners prior to the Restoration on payment of certain fees.

The plan worked well.  Seventy new Fellowships were created, the moneys paid for the diploma fee fattened the lean chests of the treasury, and the new Fellows, jealous of the privileges they had acquired, helped the College in establishing its authority over the faculty.

When in the following year the Great Fire of London inflicted a still more serious loss on the College, Alston promised money for its rebuilding.  But a quarrel arose as to the site and at the annual election he was not again elected as President.

Presumably Sir Edward was very proficient in the practice of his profession as he died in 1669 at his house at Bishopsgate in London a rich man.

His great medical fortune was left to his two daughters.  One of them became an ancestress of the later extinct Earls of Warrington.  The younger, Sarah, was thrice married.  She died without issue and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Sir Thomas Alston and His Will.  Sir Thomas Alston was the 5th and last baronet of Odell in Bedfordshire. After a traditional upbringing he became the MP for Bedfordshire in 1747.

However, he suffered from periods of insanity and was in fact confined to an asylum in 1752, although he himself insisted that “he had been greatly heated of late by drinking and any extravagancies he might have been guilty of were owing to that, and to that only.” But his wife left him at this time, it was thought because she had started a liaison with a John Wasse.

The insanity recurred in 1753.  Lord Egmont thought him “frequently not in any tolerable state of sanity even for Parliament.”  But he was returned unopposed in 1754 and remained an MP until 1761.

He had by this time started a relationship with his housekeeper Margaret Lee. She bore him a son Thomas.  When Sir Thomas died in 1774, his will stated that this Thomas should inherit the Odell estate, something which his family contested.  However, the will was upheld in court, although Thomas, being illegitimate, did lose his claim to be a baronet.

John Alston of Chowan County, North Carolina.  John Alston’s origins were in Essex not Bedfordshire.  His grandfather William who died in 1599 in Sible Hedington was important enough locally to have been mentioned in The Visitation of Essex.

John therefore, born in 1677 in Wethersfield, would have had a good social standing from his immediate ancestors.  But being born a third son, he did not have good inheritance prospects from his father Solomon.  This could have been a motivating factor behind his move to America.

He first appeared in Virginia in 1693, just after his sixteenth birthday. It appears that he had been sent there to the home of his uncle Nicholas Pasfield who had settled there in Surry county in 1676.

John Alston made his first appearance in Chowan county, North Carolina in 1713 by purchasing a tract of land on Bennetts Creek.  It was clear that he had social standing there.  He became a captain of the local militia and was made a Justice of the Peace in 1720. 

The Death of Theodosia Burr Alston.  Theodosia Burr, the daughter of Aaron Burr, the man who shot Alexander Hamilton, had married Colonel Joseph Alston in 1801 and moved to North Carolina.  They had one son Aaron who sadly died in 1811.

Her father, after his trial and acquittal, had returned incognito to New York in 1812 and Theodosia was determined to see him.  She took passage on the Patriot, a small schooner at Charleston, and was bound for New York but, at the age of just twenty-nine, was never seen nor heard of again.

Later reports have the Patriot being robbed at sea and then run ashore under full sail on Currituck beach in North Carolina with no one on board. This accorded with the reported confession of an ex-pirate who related the capture of a vessel and that all the passengers had been made to walk the plank.  Among them was a lady of rare beauty and elegantly attired, who displayed the most unflinching fortitude and heroism, walking into the deep clasping her prayer book in her hands.

A less romantic analysis of the facts has led some scholars to conclude that the Patriot was instead probably wrecked by a storm off Cape Hatteras.

Theodosia’s husband Joseph, overwhelmed with grief at her loss, survived her but a very few years, dying in 1816.

The Alstons and Their Florida Duels.  Robert Alston, a cotton planter originally from North Carolina, had migrated south in the early 1800’s, first to Georgia and then to Florida.

Dueling was still popular on the American frontier at that time.  Robert’s son Augustus entered into a duel in 1837 with George T. Ward just north of Tallahassee. Prince Murat served as Ward’s second and Dr. Randolph of Tallahassee was the attending physician.

Augustus shot Ward first, breaking his leg and forcing Ward to the ground.  He walked toward him, still shooting. Another shot broke George Ward’s arm. When he got directly over Ward, he had no shots left while Ward still had one.

Augustus was said to have folded his arms and declared: “I believe he will kill me after all.”

Ward fired his last shot and missed.  Ward then demanded more guns and insisted that Murat prop him up so that the contest might continue.  But he fainted before his instructions could be carried out.  The two men later agreed to continue the duel.

Before Ward had recovered sufficiently to fight, Augustus Alston – who belonged to the Whig party – was killed in 1839 in a duel with Leigh Read of the rival Democrat party.  His brother Willis, then living in Texas, was notified that Read had killed him. According to legend the Alston sisters had cut out the bullet from Augustus’s body and sent it to Willis.

A year later Willis came to Tallahassee and shot dead Read on the street. Although initially arrested for murder, he managed to make his escape back to Texas.  However, Willis’s end was soon coming.  He was shot dead in Texas by an angry mob in late 1841.

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.

Alston Numbers 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)

Alston and Like Surnames

The Anglo-Saxon word tun meaning “settlement” gave rise to many place-names with the suffix “-ton.”  And the place-name could become a surname describing someone who came from that place.  Sometimes the name was specific to just one location; but often the place-name could be found in various places and the surname would also crop up in a number of locations.  These are some of these place-name surnames that you can check out here.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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