Brown Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Brown Meaning
The name
Brown is a nickname from the Old English brun – for someone
with brown
hair, or who wore brown clothing, or was called Brun as a personal
Browne is the variant spelling and has been more common in Ireland.
The Brown surname in the English-speaking
world has absorbed similar nicknames from other languages, brunn in Old
Norse, bruin in Dutch, and braun in German.

Brown Resources on

Select Brown Ancestry

name Brun or le Brun
appeared frequently in 12th and 13th century records.
Hugh le Brun was one of the Lords of the Marches of Wales in the 12th
century, from whom came the early Brownes of Ireland.
And there was a Brun or le Brun family in Cumberland
around 1250
and possibly earlier.

However, the early
sightings of the Browne name were along the east coast of England, from
down to Lincolnshire and then to Essex.

Browne name was first seen at Stamford in Lincolnshire
sometime around
1250.   The Brownes here became
wealthy wool
merchants through their membership of the wool staple at Calais.  Brownes also resided at
Betchworth castle in Surrey and were Aldermen and, with Stephen Browne,
Mayor of London.  Sir Thomas Browne was
English Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1450 but then executed for
treason ten
years later.   

Another Browne family with Lord Mayor of
London credentials came from Northumberland.  These Brownes were
mercers.  Sir John was Lord Mayor in 1480
and his son Sir William, who died in office, in 1514.
Sir William left a bequest “to my poor
kinsfolk on my father’s side in Northumberland.”

Then there were early Browne families in

  • the Brownes who held Rookwood
    Hall near Ongar from 1480 to 1583.  These
    Brownes were lawyers.  Sir Anthony Browne
    was appointed Chief Justice of the Common Pleas in 1558.  
  • and the Brownes of Colchester and
    Horsley.  One line of this family was to
    be found at Deptford in Kent and included Sir Richard Browne, the
    ambassador to France in the 1640’s and 1650’s.

Browne spelling began to give way to Brown during the 1600’s.  It was sometimes Thomas Browne and sometimes
Brown who was born in Lavenham in Suffolk in 1605.  His
children were Brown.   Brown
became the preferred spelling.  

Brown’s Hotel on Albemarle Street in London was created in 1837 by
Brown and his wife Sarah, the
butler and maid to Lord Byron
London’s first
hotel or “genteel inn” as it was then described.

Scotland.  The Brouns of Coulston in
East Lothian date from the 13th century.
George Broun of this family married the daughter of Lord Yester
in 1543
and was the recipient of the famous Coulston pear:

“The lady’s dowry included the celebrated ‘Coulston pear’ which her distant ancestor, a famous magician, was supposed to have invested with extraordinary powers.  It would secure unfailing prosperity for the family which possessed it.  The pear was said to have been as fresh as the day it was picked until a pregnant descendant took a bite of it in 1692 and it became as hard as rock.” 

Misfortune did
ensue as her husband George Broun ran up huge gambling debts and his
Robert was drowned with his two sons in a flash flood.

The Browns of
came originally from
Elgin in Morayshire.  They became major
landowners in eastern Scotland from their base in Fifeshire.  David Brown of this family (the 16th of the
line) went to Russia in the late 1700’s and grew rich as a merchant in St. Petersburg.

The Brown name also appeared
in the Highlands.  Browns were considered
a sub-sept of the MacMillan and Lamont clans.  And
the Brown name
was often taken by Highland clansmen when
they wanted to get rid of their Gaelic names.  John Brown, Queen
Victoria’s famous gillie, may have been in this category.  

Ireland.  Brownes began in Ireland as
an Anglo-Norman
, starting with Philip le Brun who came with Strongbow
and was
appointed the Governor of Wexford in 1172.
As the Brownes of Mulrankan they continued
Wexford as Catholic gentry until Cromwell confiscated their property in
the 17th century.

Another line through Walter Browne went to
Galway.  The
Brownes of Galway
were later described as one of “the twelve
tribes of
Galway.”  Domenick Browne, a wealthy
merchant, was
mayor of Galway in 1575.

Other notable
Browne lines in Ireland were:

  • the Brownes
    of Mayo, starting with John Browne of the Neale who was High Sheriff of
    Mayo in
    1583.  Later Brownes became Lord Kilmaine
    and Marquis of Sligo.  
  • the Brownes of
    Camus in Limerick, however, were less fortunate.  They
    were on the losing side at the Battle of
    the Boyne and exiled.  George Browne
    found service with the Czar of Russia, Maximilian Ulysses Browne with the
    Austrian army.
  • while the Brownes of
    Killarney took descent from an Englishman from Lincolnshire, Sir Valentine
    Browne, who had been appointed Auditor General in Ireland in Elizabethan
    times.  They later became the Earls of
    Kenmare.  Although Catholic landowners,
    they survived the change from Jacobite to Hanoverian rule.  

The Browne name was to be found at Raphoe in Donegal
in 1659 as a result of English settlement.
Later Browns began to appear as a result of
anglicization of the Gaelic clan name Mac ABrehon.

America.  Chad Brown, a Baptist minister from
Buckinghamshire, had followed Roger Williams to Rhode Island in 1638 and was
the progenitor of the Brown merchant family of Providence.
It was his grandson James who began trading to
the West Indies on his own vessel.  Sugar
and molasses would be shipped to Rhode Island to make rum which in turn
was exchanged for a variety of goods, including slaves from Africa.

He had two very different sons:

  • John was the adventurer.  During
    his lifetime, he made, lost, and made
    again a fortune.  “His life abounded in
    superlatives.  It was no mere accident
    that he sent the first New England ship to China or that he built the
    house in Providence.”
  • but it was his
    younger brother Moses who left the greater legacy.
    He became a Quaker in the 1770’s and was an
    early advocate of abolitionism.  He
    co-founded Brown University and donated land for the Quaker Moses Brown
    preparatory school in Providence.  He
    also helped pioneer the first water-powered cotton mill in the United

There were some notable early Scots and Scots
Irish Browns in America.

The Rev. John
Brown, a Presbyterian minister from Ireland, was in the 1750’s one of
the early
settlers in the Scots Irish tract in Augusta county, Virginia:

  • his son John served in Congress and was
    heavily involved with the creation of the state of Kentucky (and later
    as its Senator)
  • while John’s grandson Benjamin was Governor of
    Missouri and a
    later Brown the children’s author Margaret Wise Brown.  
  • meanwhile John’s brother James was a wealthy plantation
    owner in Virginia who in 1804 moved to New Orleans to be the US
    District Attorney

Angus Brown came to North
Carolina in 1750 and also brought his Presbyterian faith with him.  His grandson Duncan migrated to Tennessee in
1809 and t
of Duncan’s sons served as Governors of Tennessee, Neil in 1847 and
John in
1871.  William Brown and his wife Margret were first to be found
in Vermont, but by the 1760’s had made their way to Rowan county, North Carolina.  

Alexander Brown came to
Baltimore from county Antrim in Ireland in 1800.  His
business there expanded from a small
linen importing company to one of the biggest business and banking
companies in
America at the time.  Son
James moved to New York and started what was to
become the investment house of Brown Brothers Harriman.
Another son George took a leading role in the
founding of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1827.

Alexander, however, outraged
Baltimore society because of his choice of wife:

“In his old age Brown had fallen in love with
the daughter of his father’s lodge-keeper.
She disappeared and then returned to run a local bawdy house.  He persuaded her to marry him and the result
was the greatest society scandal in Baltimore history.”  

Alexander Brown & Sons was the oldest banking house in the United States until its acquisition by Deutsche Bank in 1999.

Finally, Edmund J. Brown
had come out to San Francisco from Ireland in the late 1800’s.  His Brown’s Opera House, built in 1908, served
as a vaudeville theater.  From this
unlikely origin came a California political dynasty, Pat Brown the
Governor of
California in the 1960’s and his son Jerry Brown, twice the Governor.

Brown numbers in America have been boosted by
the many Brauns from Germany who adopted the Brown name, particularly
in Pennsylvania.  Michael Braun, for
instance, who had arrived in Philadelphia in 1737 was Michael Brown by the time
of his marriage in Lancaster county in 1746.
Another Braun/Brown family in Berks county became Brown in the 1760’s.

South America
.  William
Brown from county Mayo in Ireland brought the Brown name to Argentina.  Joining the Argentine navy in the early
1800’s, he became a celebrated Commander and later Admiral of their
fleet. There are statues and memorials to
William Brown
both in Buenos Aires and in his hometown in Ireland, Foxford.

Another Brown family in Argentina descended
from Scottish immigrant James Brown, a farm laborer who arrived with
his family
in 1825.  This family produced a number
of high-profile footballers in the early era of Argentine football.


Select Brown Miscellany

Brownes in Stamford.  In the 13th century
Stamford in Lincolnshire had been one of the ten largest towns in England.  However, the removal of the main
wool trade
to East Anglia in the 15th century forced the town into decline.  The trade that remained was concentrated in
the hands of rich merchants like the Brownes.

John Browne the Elder was a Stamford wool merchant
whose wealth had been accumulated at this time as a member of the influential
company of the Staple of Calais.  He and
his wife Margaret have an impressive mural brass at the end of the north aisle
of All Saints, Stamford’s central church.

Around 1475 their two sons, John and William, also rich wool merchants,
contributed generously towards the enlargement and embellishment of the church
where their parents had been laid to rest.  The
upper walls, windows, and the roof were
their work.  John the Younger
commissioned the tower with its beautiful spire. William
founded Browne’s Hospital (the almshouses
on Broad Street), an institution that is still operating today.  Both brothers have a sepulchral brass in the

The Anglo-Norman Bruns/Brownes.  The
early ancestry of these Bruns/Brownes was recounted
as follows:

  • Sir
    Hugh le Brun was one of
    the Lords of the Marches of Wales.
  • his
    son was Sir Stephen and he married Eva, sister of Griffith the Prince
    of Wales,
    and had three sons named Hugh, Philip and William.
    Sir Stephen and his sons supported King Stephen against the
    Maud in their conflict.
  • Hugh,
    the eldest son, rendered
    important services to Henry II on his invasion of Wales and was
    permitted by
    the King to inherit his father’s large estates.
  • Philip
    of Mulrankan came to Ireland with
    Strongbow and was appointed the Governor of Wexford in 1172.
  • while William, the youngest son, was also
    obliged to join in the invasion of Ireland at the time his brother was
    appointed the Governor of Wexford.  William
    went to Dublin, then in possession of the Danes, and settled near
    Clondalkin.  One of his descendants,
    Fromond le Brun, was
    Chancellor of Ireland in the mid-13th century.

The Brownes of Galway.  While the name Browne does not appear in the records of Galway city until the year 1539 when Andrew Browne of Athenry was admitted
as a freeman, the family was soon to reach an eminent position among the
merchants. Andrew became a bailiff of the city in 1552 and in 1574 was elected Mayor.

Thereafter a number of members
of the family were to attain that office, perhaps the most notable
being Domenick
Browne in 1634 who was later knighted.
His eldest son Geoffrey was a member of the Supreme Council of
the Confederation of Kilkenny.  In 1651 he
was sent by the Marquis of Clanricarde to negotiate at Brussels a
treaty with
the Duc de Lorraine in order to raise money for the Royalist army. The city of
Galway was to be the security.

By the mid-17th century the Browne family owned a number of very substantial houses in Galway city.

George Browne in Russia.  George Browne was one of a
number of Brownes who, to their misfortune, favored the ill-fated Stuart King,
James II.  Following his defeat at the
Boyne, the Brownes of Camus in Limerick saw no opportunity for their young son
to follow the gentlemanly occupation of arms and they sent him abroad.

George joined the Russian imperial army and
began a life of high adventure. He was imprisoned three times after various
battles. He was then sold as a slave to the Turks, but was eventually released.
Having shown exceptional skill and
bravery, he was appointed Field Marshal to Czar Peter of Russia.  As Count George Browne, he became Governor of
Livonia. He became a great favorite with the powerful Empress Catherine and she
would not consider letting him go.  So he
remained in Russia, dying there at the age of 94.

The Browns of Fordell.  The first record of this family occurred in 1261 with Richard Brown who was an Elgin magistrate in Morayshire at that time.  Their connections with the Fordell lands in
Fifeshire occurred shortly afterwards.
Adam Brown held lands there in 1298, the year he was killed at
the Battle of Falkirk.  The family, however,
remained extensive landowners along the east coast of Scotland for four centuries.

They had mixed fortunes in
the 14th century.  Support for the French
monarchy resulted in one of these Browns being hanged for treason.  Another Brown was Sheriff of Aberdeen but lost
half of his lands to the Earl of Douglas.
George Brown in the next century was appointed Bishop of Dunkeld and in
1494 was head of the Scottish Commissioners which concluded a peace
treaty with
the English.

There were financial
problems for these Browns by the 18th century.
But one line, the Browns of Golfhall in Edinburgh, prospered as
merchants.  David Brown went
to Russia in the late 1700’s and grew rich as a merchant in St.

The Browns of Rowan County, North Carolina.  Tradition traces the Brown genealogy back to a Scotsman by
the name of William Brown who
was allied in marriage with a
woman who was a native of
Portugal.  Brown had in fact come to New
England from Edinburgh in Scotland in the early 1700’s and settled in
Vermont.  Mrs. Brown turned
out to be an Algonquian Abenaki Native American, said
to be of Portuguese ancestry.

Their son William Brown and his wife Margret
later migrated down through Pennsylvania and
into Rowan County,
North Carolina sometime in the 1760’s.  William signed his will there with his
mark, an “X,” in 1772, naming his wife Margret as
executrix and also his nine children.

The most comprehensive treatment of the William and Margret
Brown family is to
be found in Erold C. Wiscombe’s 700 page book The Brown
Family: Descendants of Daniel Brown (1804-1875),
came out in 1986 and then was updated twenty years later.


Select Brown Names 

  • Philip le Brun arrived in Ireland in 1172 and was the first of the Irish Brownes.
  • Capability Brown was an 18th
    century English landscape architect.
  • Alexander Brown was the
    forebear of the Baltimore banking company of Alexander Brown & Sons.
  • John Brown was the Scottish servant to Queen Victoria.
  • Maggie Brown was the American
    socialite who became famous after surviving the sinking of the Titanic.
  • Helen Gurley Brown was the
    founder of Cosmopolitan magazine.
  • James Brown was the acclaimed
    American funk and soul singer.
  • Gordon Brown was a recent British Prime Minister.

Select Brown Numbers Today
  • 380,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 502,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 159,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Brown is the #2 ranked surname in Scotland. #4 in America, and #5 in the UK.


Select Brown and Like Surnames

Nicknames must have been an early feature of medieval life in a family or community as these nicknames later translated into surnames.  People then lived a more natural life than we do today and the surnames have reflected that.

They could be about color (Brown, Gray, Green etc), whether of hair or complexion or other factors; mood (Gay and Moody are two extremes); youth (Cox and Kidd); speed of foot (Swift and Lightfoot); and actions (such as Shakespeare and Wagstaff).  Then there were likenesses to animals (notably Fox and Wolfe but also Peacock) and to birds (Crowe and Wren for example).  And then there were some extraordinary nicknames such as Drinkwater and Wildgoose.

Here are some of these nickname surnames that you can check out.





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