Brown Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Brown Surname 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 name.  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.

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Brown and Browne Surname Ancestry

England.  The name Brun or le Brun appeared frequently in 12th and 13th century records.  Sir 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.

Browne.  The early sightings of the Browne spelling were along the east coast of England – from Northumberland down to Lincolnshire and then to Essex and London.

The 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, Lord 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 Essex:

  • 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 English ambassador to France in the 1640’s and 1650’s.

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

Brown’s Hotel on Albemarle Street in London was created in 1837 by James Brown and his wife Sarah, the butler and maid to Lord Byron, as 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 brother Robert was drowned with his two sons in a flash flood.  Some time
 later, Lord William Broun, supporting the Jacobite cause, was killed at Culloden in 1746.  Two of his sons fled to France, one to Denmark.  The Danish Brouns settled in Elsinore where they became prominent merchants.  Their name survives there today.

Elgin in Morayshire was where the Browns of Fordell originated.  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.

John Brown was born at Carpow in Perthshire around the year 1695.  Known as “the honest weaver,” he was the forebear of some notable descending John Browns.

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 family, 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 in 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.  The early Browns in New England tended to be from England.

English Browns.  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 finest 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 States.  

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

Some Browns from Tandragee in county Armagh came to Pennsylvania:

  • John Brown arrived in 1720 and settled in Dauphin county.  He is believed to have descended from the Covenanter John Brown of Priesthill in Ayrshire who was executed for his beliefs in 1685.
  • while Alexander Brown made his way to Reading, Berks county around 1740.  Later Browns of this line migrated to Luzerne and Wyoming counties.

Samuel Brown was in 1728 an early settler in what is now Northampton county, Pennsylvania.  His son Robert distinguished himself in the Revolutionary War.

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

  • his son John served in Congress and was heavily involved with the creation of the state of Kentucky (and later serving 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 there.  

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 two 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. 
  • grandson 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.” 
  • meanwhile Alexander Brown & Sons remained 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.

German Browns.  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.

Canada.  Peter Brown, a staunch Presbyterian from Scotland, came to Toronto in 1843 and started a political newspaper there, the Toronto Globe, which his son George edited.  Eight years later George entered politics.  He was one of the architects of Canadian Confederation in 1865.  He died in 1880.

“On March 25, 1880 a disgruntled former employee of the Globe shot Brown in the leg.  What seemed to be a minor injury turned gangrenous and Brown died from the wound seven weeks later.”

George Brown’s home in Toronto was named a National Historic Site of Canada in 1974.

Another Scottish Brown in Canada was William Brown from Stirlingshire who arrived in 1867.  He married and settled down in Massie, Ontario.  His son Thomas moved to Saskatchewan in the early 1900’s.

Caribbean.  Hamilton Brown, Scots Irish from county Antrim,  came to Jamaica in the early 1800’s and prospered as a sugar planter and slave owner.  Hamilton Brown may have been an ancestor of the US Vice President Kamala Harris, according to her father Donald Harris.

Argentina.  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 had arrived with his family in 1825.  This family produced a number of high-profile footballers in the early era of Argentine football.  Jorge Gibson Brown in fact captained the national side from 1908 to 1913; while Jose Luis Brown scored one of the goals as Argentina won the World Cup in 1986.

Australia.  John Brown, from the Danish wing of the Colstoun family, arrived with his family in Sydney in 1838.  He and his wife Charlotte raised thirteen children in Hunter Valley, NSW.  One son Edward became mayor of Tumut and a member of the NSW Legislative Assembly.  Another son William was killed in China.

Another of the family who came to Australia was David Limond Broun, a son of the Scottish baronet.  He arrived in the 1870’s, married and lived on the Mid North Coast of NSW until 1934 (when he was killed in an automobile accident).

New Zealand.  Alfred Brown from Essex was a very early missionary to New Zealand, arriving at the Bay of Islands in 1829.  His wife Charlotte who had accompanied him died in 1855.  But Alfred kept going at Tauranga until his death in 1884.

William Brown from Scotland came via Australia to the Bay of Islands in 1840.  He was in the next fifteen years a successful merchant, writer, newspaper proprietor and politician, perhaps the wealthiest man in Auckland.  He then left for London, but squandered it all and died in 1894 an impoverished man.

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Brown Surname 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 church.

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 Empress 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. Petersburg.

John Brown of Carpow in Perthshire and His Descendants.  John Brown of Carpow (c.1695-1733) was known as the honest weaver.

  • John Brown of Haddington (1722-1787), author of the self-interpreting Bible.
  • John Brown of Whitburn ( 1754-1832)
  • Samuel Brown (1779-1839), founder of Village Itinerary Libraries.
  • John Croumbie Brown (1808-1895), missionary with the London Mission Society.
  • and John Brown (1842-1929), district surgeon at Fraserburg, Edinburgh and Burnley.

John Brown of Haddington’s first wife was Janet Thomson, and, after her death, his second wife was Violet Croumbie. Janet bore him eight children, of whom John Brown of Whitburn was the eldest son. He first married Isabella Cranston, and afterwards Agnes Fletcher. Their daughter Erskine married John Croumbie, eldest son of Samuel Brown.

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), which came out in 1986 and then was updated twenty years later.

Reader Feedback – Browns in Northampton County, Pennsylvania.  Samuel Brown, Scots Irish, was in 1728 one of the first of five families to settle what is now Northampton county. His son Robert Brown was a general in the Revolutionary War.  He served under Washington and was a POW at the Battle of Fort Washington. Later he became a US Congressman.

Timothy Young (tim.young13@yahoo.com)

The Hamilton Brown to Kamala Harris Connection in Jamaica.  In Reflections of a Jamaican Father, Donald Harris, the father of US Vice President Kamala Harris, recounted both his childhood in Jamaica and the visits he made to the country with his own children. Recalling his family history, he also said that he is the descendant of a slave owner — Hamilton Brown, a man born in Ireland who enslaved people in Jamaica and managed plantations there.

“My roots go back, within my lifetime, to my paternal grandmother Miss Chrishy.  She was born Christiana Brown and was a descendant of Hamilton Brown who is on record as a plantation and slave owner.  Miss Chrishy died in 1951 at the age of seventy.

The Harris name comes from my paternal grandfather Joseph Alexander Harris, land-owner and agricultural ‘produce’ exporter (mostly pimento or all-spice), who died in 1939, one year after I was born, and was buried in the churchyard of the magnificent Anglican church which Hamilton Brown built in Brown’s Town.”

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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.

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.

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.

BirdFoxKiddShakespeare
BrownGayLightfootSwift
CoxGouldMoodyWagstaff
CroweGrayPeacockWilde
DrinkwaterHardySavageWren

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