Armstrong Surname Meaning, History & Origin

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Armstrong comes, as its name suggests, from one who is strong in the arm. It was originally a Scottish border name. One story has it that an ancient king of Scotland, aided in battle by his armor-bearer Fairbairn, bestowed on him the name Armstrong. 

It is also said that the family took their name from Siward Digry (“sword strong arm”), a nephew of the Danish King Canute. The early Armstrongs were Norse in characteristic, blue-eyed and fair-haired and often described as “fair.”

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Scotland.  The Armstrongs were lairds of Mangerton in Roxburghshire on the Scottish borders from the late 1200’s to the early 1600’s. A cross, known as the Milnholm Cross, was constructed in Liddesdale in 1320 to mark the second laird who was murdered by a neighbor.  Over time the Armstrong presence gradually spread westward along the borders to Annandale and Eskdale in Dumfriesshire (where the clan seat was Gilnockie).

They were fearless border raiders or “reivers,” who, at the height of their powers, could put 3,000 horsemen to the field.  However, they would eventually pay a price for their lawlessness. Clan leader Johnnie Armstrong, later commemmorated in song, was captured and executed as a “border freebooter” in 1529. Hector Armstrong of Harelaw and Sandy Armstrong of Cleughfoot did carry with their brigandage; and Kinmont Willie Armstrong, although briefly captured by the English in the 1590’s, managed to stay at large.

But the clan by this time was incurring the hostility of both the English and Scottish crowns. In 1603, they lost all their land holdings, further evictions and executions occurred, and many Armstrongs were left homeless and often penniless. Of those who remained in the borders, many gravitated later towards Glasgow.

England.  The Armstrong reivers frequently raided south across the border into England. Archie Armstong was captured and died in Haughton castle in the 1530’s. Kinmont Willie Armstrong led a successful raid on Tynedale some fifty years later.

Many Armstrongs ended up staying in England. They date in Cumbria from the 1550’s and were subsequently to be found at Bewcastle and Kirklinton near Carlisle. Thomas Armstrong built up a civil construction business in the 1860’s from humble beginnings as a joiner and cabinet maker in Cockermouth. This business continued through four generations of Armstrongs until it was sold in 1930.

Thomas Armstrong was a Northumberland customs official on the take in the 1770’s. And a number of Armstrongs gravitated later to this region to become miners. Tommy Armstrong, who wrote songs in the Northumbrian style, was known as the bard of the northern coalfields.

However, perhaps the most notable Armstrong of this area was the Victorian engineer and industrialist William (later Lord) Armstrong from Newcastle who developed the Armstrong naval gun. His descendants still live in Bamburgh Castle, an ancient edifice on the coast which he had acquired in the 1890’s. A more modest Armstrong house today is Sylvia Armstrong’s Household and Farming Museum to be found just outside Alnwick.

Ireland.  There was a larger exodus of Armstrong from the Scottish borders to Ireland. The main destination was Fermanagh, in present day Northern Ireland. Chtistopher Armstrong built his Mangerton castle in Fermanagh and Andrew Armstrong, a descendant of the Laird, was one of the first “Scottish undertakers” to be granted land there. Other Armstrongs were to follow him across the Irish Sea as tenant farmers.

Andrew did back the wrong side in the English Civil War and one of his sons, Thomas, was executed for treason in 1684. But his descendants later prospered, distinguishing themselves as lawyers and clergymen and particularly as soldiers – fighting in a number of the British overseas campaigns. Colonel Andrew Armstrong fought with Marlborough and Sir Frederick Armstrong with Wellington a hundred years later. The noted Arctic explorer Alexander Armstrong was from Fermanagh.

During the 18th century many Armstrongs lost their tenancies and there began an exodus out of Ireland, first to America and later to Canada.

America. The principal destination in America was Pennsylvania:

  • The first arrival appears to have been a Joseph Armstrong in 1731.
  • then came James Armstrong, reputed to be a descendant of the Laird.
  • the same was also said of John Armstrong who arrived in 1748. He helped plan the new community of Carlisle and later distinguished himself in the Revolutionary War (his son John was briefly American Secretary of War).

The Armstrong numbers in Pennsylvania were in fact so many that there was even a Fermanagh township created.

Some Armstrongs stayed in Pennsylvania, others (or their descendants) moved on; Robert Armstrong’s family, for instance, to Tennessee and William Armstrong’s across the Cumberland Gap to Kentucky. The Rev. Richard Armstrong, a missionary, went further afield, to Hawaii. He had two notable sons:

  • Samuel, an enlightened educator
  • and William, a friend of the last King of Hawaii whom he accompanied on a grand world tour.

Kansas and Colorado. Then there was the remarkable Armstrong pioneer family of Kansas and Colorado. The story started in 1783 when Robert Armstrong was captured as a young boy by Wyandot Indians on the Alleghany river near Pittsburgh. He grew up among them and later made his mark as an interpreter. His two sons, John Armstrong and his brother Silas, were instrumental in the founding of the Wyandot nation near present-day Kansas City. John provided the legal brains, Silas the business acumen.

The next generation of Armstrongs were scouts and buffalo hunters and pioneer settlers in Colorado. One branch settled near Colorado Springs where Willis Armstrong founded the Colorado Springs National Bank in 1907. Other Armstrongs were to be found in Fort Collins along the route of the old Colorado trail. The historic Armstrong Hotel in Fort Collins, built in 1923, was named after Andrew Armstrong whose house once stood on the property.

Canada. Many early Armstrong arrivals were Scots Irish, such as:

  • William Armstrong from Monaghan in 1820 to Iberville county, Quebec
  • Robert and John Armstrong from Tipperary in 1823 and 1825 as part of a settler movement to Ottawa.
  • Rainey Armstrong from Antrim in 1852 to Huron county, Ontario.
  • William and Hannah Armstrong in the mid 1850”s to Gloucester, New Brunswick.

Philip Armstrong arrived from Cumbria in the north of England in 1830 and settled with his wife Mary in York, Ontario and then in Toronto. We know about them and their lives because Mary kept a diary in Toronto, one that has been recently edited and published by a descendant as Seven Eggs Today.

South America.  Scots Irish Armstrongs also found their way to South America. The Armstrongs from Garrycastle in county Offaly had set up a merchant trading house in Buenos Aires and Thomas Armstrong,along with his brother John, arrived there in 1817 to run it. Thomas, a banker and railway promoter, married into the local Creole community and soon became influential in Argentine political
circles. A town and railway station in Santa Fe is named after him.



Australia
. The first Armstrongs in Australia were convicts, some fifty or so between 1800 and 1840. Later came settlers. Adam Armstrong  came to Western Australia in 1829.

John Armstrong arrived in Victoria from the Scottish borders in 1839. He became a sheep farmer at a bush station in Geelong. William Armstrong went to Melbourne and became mayor of the town. But perhaps the best-known Victorian Armstrong was Warwick Armstrong, a huge mountain of a man described as “the big ship” who captained the Australian cricket team in the early 1900’s.

 

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Johnnie Armstrong.  The Armstrong relationship with the Scottish kings was turbulent to say the least.  The most notorious event in this uneasy relationship occurred in 1530.  Johnnie Armstrong, known in history as “Gilnockie,” was persuaded to attend a meeting at Carlinrigg with King James V who, unknown to Gilnockie, had the malicious intent of silencing the rebellious borderers.  The ruse succeeeded as Gilnockie and fifty followers were captured.  The royal order to hang them was issued and, despite several pleas for the king to be lenient in exchange for obedience, it was carried out.

Defiant to the last, Gilnockie was said to have uttered these words directly to the king.

“I am but a fool to seek grace at a graceless face.  But had I known you would have taken me this day, I would have lived in the borders despite King Harry and you both.”

His defiance is commemorated and echoed in the soulful popular border ballad, “Johnnie Armstrong.”

“Fairwell! my bonny Gilnock Hall
Where on Esk side thou standest stout!
Gif I had lived but seven years mair
I wad a gilt thee round about John
Murdered was at Carlinrigg
And all his gallant companie;
But Scotland’s heart was ne’er sae wae
To see sae many brave men die.”

The Ghost of Archie Armstrong.  Haughton castle by the north Tyne in Northumberland dates from the 14th century and was reputed to be haunted by Archie, a notorious clan chief of the Armstrong family who was imprisoned there during the reign of Henry VIII.

Thomas Swinburne had captured Armstrong and imprisoned him in the dungeon, but forgot to leave instructions for the provision of food and water.  He returned some days later only to find Armstrong dead on the floor.  It was a horrifying sight.  Armstrong had gnawed at the flesh in his own arm in his desperation.

For many years the ghost of Armstrong had haunted the castle until it  was exorcised by a local vicar, using a black lettered Bible.   The ghost did return for a short time when the Bible was taken to London for binding.  But on its return the ghost was rarely seen again. 

Thomas Armstrong the Customs Officer.  Cullercoats is a hamlet on the northeast coastline of England, near Newcastle, where the residents in the 18th century made their living from the sea.  Some of them took up smuggling.  And Thomas Armstrong was the commander of the Bridlington, the customs vessel that was used to intercept these smugglers.

This Thomas was a slippery cat, as a dig through the public records of the time has revealed.  He first fell foul of the authorities in 1771 when he was charged and convicted of permitting smugglers to escape and then giving a false account of the goods that he had allegedly seized.  Inspection of the books showed at least five previous occasions when he was under investigation or complaint One alluded also to fraud.  This time family influence in the area seems to have saved Thomas’s neck.

The final straw came in 1776 when Thomas and his associates deliberately allowed two notorious smugglers to escape from their care.  The incident was recorded with great clarity in the customs book.  After a recital of the crime, a letter from London concluded that Thomas should be dismissed from the service.

He was evidently wealthy beyond his customs pay, being able to purchase land at Cullercoats and build a house, the Cliff House, overlooking the sea.  His secret life of crime helped to explain some of the unique architectural features of this house – iron cages in the cellar and a secret passage accessed by a trapdoor in his study that led down through the cliff onto a small beach.  Much of his wealth must have come from a protection racket he operated with the smugglers.

After his dismissal, Thomas had accumulated enough money to start trading as a goldsmith.  Yet his love of the sea remained and he bequeathed shares in the ship he was building to his sons.

Alexander Armstrong and the NW Passage.  Alexander Armstrong sailed the Arctic on HMS Investigator in search of the lost explorer Sir John Franklin. Armstrong’s account of the voyage, Personal Narrative of the Discovery of the NW Passage, was published in London in 1857.

A reviewer commented:

“Armstrong’s personal narrative holds first place in interest and value for a journey to the shores of the Polar Sea. The prosaic methodical Irish surgeon has given us a Canadian odyssey almost as grotesque as the original and possessing the dignity and authority of history.  Restrained though his language may be, he is unmatched in depicting travel through turbulent seas, in cold and hunger, on a barren desolate shore.”

The Armstrong Hotel in Fort Collins, Colorado.  Like many of Old Town Fort Collins’ buildings, the Armstrong Hotel has a long and curious history.  Of the dozens of historic hotels that graced downtown, it was the last to open; and the only one still operating today.  In 1923, Charles and Carolyn Mantz opened the original Armstrong Hotel and named it after Carolyn’s deceased father, Andrew Armstrong, whose house had once stood on the property.

When it opened, the hotel was the tallest building in town, boasting two elegant dining halls, 41 guest rooms, and various retail shops.  The hotel was advertised as the ideal location from which to tour the Poudre Canyon and the Rocky Mountain National Park.

Reader Feedback – Adam Armstrong in Western Australia.  Adam Armstrong and his children arrived at Clarence in Western Australia on the Gilmour on December 15, 1829. Adam was born in Dalkeith in Scotland and hence named the area of land allotted to him on the shores of the Swan river as the suburb of Dalkeith in Perth.  Today this area is renowned as one of the richest suburbs of Perth.  I am a descendant of Adam Armstrong.

Joy Harding (joyhar@westnet.com.au)

Warwick Armstrong and the 1921 Australian Cricket Team.  When international cricket resumed after World War 1, Warwick Armstrong, then over forty years of age, was appointed captain of the strong Australian cricket team to tour England in 1921.

Armstrong was a massive man (his tent-like shirt and huge boots can be found in the Melbourne cricket museum).  On the voyage to England, he attempted to lose weight by spending time each day in the stokehold of the ship.  On arrival, he weighed in four pounds heavier!

Throughout the tour, he fought a series of running battles against the Australian Board manager, Syd Smith, on behalf of his men.  Smith, looking to cut overheads, had suggested boarding with wealthy cricket devotees.  Armstrong refused.

The Australians dominated the cricket series against England. They soon led 3-0 in the five match rubber, thanks in large part to the fast bowling by Jack Gregory and Ted McDonald.  The series was thus won. Towards the end of the last match, Armstrong decided to rest his key bowlers and allowed his part-time bowlers to rotate as they pleased.  He went to the outfield, sat down, picked up a newspaper that had been blown across the field, and began to read.  When asked about the matter later, he was said to have replied, “I just wanted to see who we were playing.”

 


Select Armstrong Names

Andrew Armstrong was a descendant of the Laird who moved the Armstrongs to Ireland.
Sir Alexander Armstrong
from Fermanagh was the Victorian arctic explorer.
Thomas Armstrong was a 19th century banker and railway promoter in Argentina who was instrumental in founding the Argentine Stock Exchange.
William (Lord) Armstrong, the industrialist, was the inventor of the Armstrong gun.
Louis Armstrong from New Orleans was one of the world’s greatest jazz musicians.
Neil Armstrong, from Scottish border roots, was the first man (in
1969) to walk on the moon.
Lance Armstrong of Norwegian stock was the American cyclist who won the Tour de France a record seven times.



Select Armstrong Numbers Today

  • 57,000 in the UK (most numerous in Cumbria)
  • 49,000 in America (most numerous in Texas).
  • 34,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

 

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