Chisholm Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Chisholm Surname Meaning

The Chisholm name is said to have been derived from a Norman French word “chese” meaning “to choose” and the Saxon word “holm” meaning “meadow.”   

Chisholm Surname Resources on the Internet
Chisholm Surname Ancestry

Scotland.  The Chisholms initially became established at Roxburgh near Kelso, once an important wool town in the Scottish borders.  Through marriage, a Robert Chisholm inherited Erchless Castle near Inverness in the early 15th century. This was to be the Chisholm clan seat for the next five hundred years.

Meanwhile, another Chisholm branch had settled in Perthshire.   They were, in the 16th century, Bishops of Dunblane and close to the kings of Scotland at that time.  However in 1592, Sir James Chisholm was denounced for his Catholic leanings as “a treason against the true religion” and had to flee for France. 

Highland.  The lands in their possession in the Highlands in the 15th century were Strathglass and Ard.  They later came into the estate of Comar, making them proprietors of a large part of Ross-shire. There was frequent clan fighting with neighboring clans such as the Macraes.

In the 17th century a number of Highland chiefs became Protestant.  The Chisholms, however, remained staunch Catholics and actively supported Jesuit missions in their estates.  There were 609 Catholics recorded in Strathglass in the 1709 census.  Thus it was no surprise that Roderick Chisholm led his clan in support of the Catholic “Old Pretender” in 1715 and Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745.

After the defeat, Bonnie Prince Charlie entrusted his life to eight of his followers, three of whom were Chisholms, during his subsequent escape.  “Young Charles Stuart, it was your cause that destroyed me, you took away from me all that I had,” was the bitter lament penned by the wife of William Chisholm who had died at Culloden.  Although the Chisholms did continue as a landed family in their heartland until the end of the 19th century, it was the beginning of the end of the clan as a social force in Scotland. 

Waves of emigration followed, starting with this defeat and continuing with the Strathglass clearances in which the clan chiefs participated.  In 1801 William Chisholm, the twenty-fourth chief of the clan, burned his family’s supporters out of their homes in order to clear the way for Cheviot sheep.  Nearly 50 percent of the clan tenants were evicted. 

The emigrant ship Sarah, which sailed from Fort William to Pictou in Nova Scotia, was crammed with 700 of them in its hold (of whom some fifty died of smallpox on the voyage).  The Dove and Nova, which sailed to Nova Scotia in the same year, contained more tenant emigrants.

Lowland. The Chisholms were not only to be found in the Highlands.  A Lowland name continued from the early family roots in Roxburgh – often as Chisholme rather than Chisholm – in the Scottish border country.  However, border life could be hard and, by the 18th century, many of these Chisholms had migrated north to Edinburgh and its environs.

Ireland. Some Lowland Chisholms settled in Ireland. Their name here became Chism. Most of these Chisms were to be found in county Antrim.  They were mainly Protestant, as the following incident would suggest:

“As Chism was returning from the market, he was overtaken by nine men who asked him his name.  When he told them, they replied that it was a bad name.  Then they knocked him down, saying that he was an Orangeman and that they would make him more civil to his mother’s side (she being a Roman Catholic).”

In 1912 William Chism was an organizer for the Ulster Protestant covenant.

Canada.  Most of the Chisholms evicted from their Highland tenancies ended up in Antigonish county in Nova Scotia.

Nova Scotia.  The first vessel with emigrants was the Nova which arrived at Pictou in 1801. Donald Og Chisholm came in 1803 and lived there until 1869.  He compiled a record of all the Chisholms who had emigrated to Nova Scotia during his time. 

There were hardships in the early years; as log cabins were built, land cleared, and the cattle and sheep raised were prey to attacks from wild animals.  What goods they required in Antigonish had to be laboriously brought from Pictou as there was no road but a track on the route and no bridges across the rivers.

It was a strange but true fact that, some thirty years later, many of the evicted Chisholms still swore allegiance to the “Chisholm” back in Scotland.  These Highlanders held onto their customs and their music.  They stayed Catholics; and the Catholic priesthood flourished.  They started the Antigonish Highland Games to fund the construction of St. Ninian’s Cathedral.  And this tradition has been handed down through the generations.

Father Daniel Chisholm played a key role in the formation of St. Francis Xavier University in the 1890’s.  But perhaps the most prominent Chisholm from this community was Joseph Andrew Chisholm, born in Marydale, who became the Chief Justice of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court in 1931.  Today, John Chisholm from Antigonish owns Nova Construction, a company which plans a controversial strip-mining operation on Cape Breton Island.   

Ontario.  The Chisholm migration to Canada in fact predated the clearances. George Chisholm had left Croy for America in 1773 and settled in Burlington Bay on the SW corner of Lake Ontario. He died there in 1840, a Chisholm loyalist to the last, at the ripe old age of ninety. His son was William Chisholm, the founder of the town of Oakville, and his great great grandson, Brock Chisholm, the first director of the World Health Organization.

Some sons of the later Chisholm immigrants became prominent industrialists across the border. 

  • Hugh Chisholm, born in Chippewa (where he was a childhood friend of Thomas Edison), helped found the paper giant now known as International Paper.  It started in the 1890’s with his company, Oxford Paper, and a mill town in Rumford, Maine.
  • and Archibald Mark Chisholm, the son of immigrants into Alexandria, later became known as the “iron man” after he had helped found the iron ore mining town of Chisholm in Minnesota.

America.  The first Chisholm in America may well have been Duncan Chisholm who had been involved in the English Civil War and had been shipped to America as a prisoner in 1650.

Generally, the Chisholm immigration into America had a very different pattern from that into Nova Scotia.  First, it started earlier.  The Chisholms who came were not evicted tenants still clinging to their clan roots after the clearances.  They were more economic migrants seeking a new chance and a new life. 

A Merchant/Planter Class.  Alexander Chisolm had emigrated as a boy with his widowed mother from Inverness to South Carolina in 1746.  Three of his sons became plantation owners and one a physician.  They were the forebears of a short-lived family dynasty that lasted until the Civil War:

  • Alexander Robert, the owner of the Coolsaw plantation and buried in Prince William parish
  • William, an MD buried in Charleston
  • George, buried at his Retreat plantation on the Cooper river
  • and Robert Trail, the owner of Middleton’s plantation and buried on Edisto island

The eldest, Alexander Robert, passed his estates onto his son Alexander Robert who was killed during the Civil War.  George lived in a townhouse in Charleston.  He started Chisolm’s rice mill there in the 1820’s.  Robert Trail Chisolm was a plantation owner and also a physician.  His son, John Chisolm, became an expert oculist and surgeon, publishing in the 1860’s the authoritative guide to military surgery.

By the 1840’s, another descendant Robert Chisolm owned rice plantations in both Beaufort and Colleton counties. The Beaufort plantation was on Chisolm’s Island and covered 1,500 acres. One hundred slaves worked on this estate and another ninety on the plantation in Colleton County.

But the leisured life of a plantation owner, with his overseers and slave labor, came to an abrupt end with the onset of the Civil War and the arrival of Federal troops at these sea islands.

African Americans.  When the 1870 census came to be held, there were 176 African Americans with given names of Chisolm or Chisholm in South Carolina.  Most were freed slaves.

Caesar Chisolm who had worked at the Chisolm plantation in Colleton County, lived until 1897.  Courting the friendship of the white leaders of the time, he represented Colleton County in the South Carolina House of Representatives at Columbia for a number of years.

The “Chisolm Kid” was a popular Western comic strip hero in the black press during the 1930’s and 40’s.  Latter-day Chisholms have included:

  • Shirley Chisholm the politician (whose roots, however, were Jamaican)
  • Charlie Chisholm the jazz trumpeter
  • and Sam Chisholm, who runs his own advertising agency.

Other Chisholms.  Some Chisholms took to the backwoods, most notably John Chisholm and his enterprising offspring.  John had arrived from Scotland in the 1750’s and, while living in Knoxville, had acted as the Indian agent.  His son John D. was involved in various speculative land deals in Florida, then still owned by Spain.  He had been adopted into the Cherokee tribe and represented them in the 1830’s in their negotiations with the US Government.

John D’s nephew Jesse Chisholm, born of a Cherokee mother, became an accomplished trader who would routinely go into hostile Comanche and Kiowa country to trade goods for captives.  But his fame rests on a later development:

“During the Civil War, Jesse Chisholm had moved his family to Wichita in Kansas, although he continued to trade with the Indians in Texas.  In 1865, he loaded wagon trains at Fort Leavenworth and established a trading post at Council Grove near the present Oklahoma City.  Many of his Wichita friends followed and the route later became known as the Chisholm Trail.  It was later used by the cowboys to drive their longhorn cattle from the ranches in Texas to the railroad at Abilene in Kansas.”

Unfortunately, Jesse’s life was cut short.  He died of food poisoning in 1868 after eating some rancid bear meat.

Australia. James Chisholm had come to the colony in 1790 as a member of the NSW Corps to keep the peace. He decided to stay and ended up, by the 1830’s, with vast sheep-rearing lands in the Goulburn district some 200 kilometers south of Sydney. The home that he and his son James had built there, Gledswood, stayed with the family over the next hundred years.

Perhaps the best-known Chisholm of this period was one who didn’t stay, Caroline Chisholm.  She had married Captain Archibald Chisholm in 1838 and moved to Australia where she observed single girls being dumped on the Sydney wharves.  So she set up a Female Immigrants Home with the help of the clergy.  However, her attempts to encourage Catholic immigration to Australia were met with resistance from the mainly Protestant colonists there and she died in poverty and obscurity in England.

New Zealand.  It was not until the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 that systematic British settlement of New Zealand began.  In that year, two single Chisholm men, John from Fort William and Adam from the Edinburgh area, arrived in New Zealand within a month of each other.

Adam moved to Auckland, setting up a slaughterhouse and butcher’s shop in O’Connell Street.  He sought cattle land around Auckland.   But it took him fifteen years to secure the legal rights to these lands.   The struggle clearly affected him.  When he died in 1873, the New Zealand Herald observed with regret “how during his life Adam descended the social ladder until he reached the last rung, and how at the end those who knew him in his more prosperous days had come to shun him.”

It was from what is thought to be his younger brother Robert, who had arrived later in 1858, that most Chisholms from these roots are descended.

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Chisholm Family History in Sussex

My own Chisholm family line is in Sussex on the south coast of England.  It started with a Chisholm from the Scottish borders coming south during the Napoleonic Wars to help prevent a French invasion.  While stationed at Eastbourne in Sussex he married a local girl, but after that we know nothing more about him.

His son William, when he grew up, moved to Brighton and was a shoemaker by trade, but catering to “the better classes.”  In later life he came under the spell of the Rev. Arthur Wagner, a strong-willed Victorian clergyman in Brighton.  He was a man of High Church Anglican principles combined with a commitment to the poor.  He built churches for them and he built houses for them.  William’s son Arthur acted as his secretary for many years.

Just click below if you want to read more about this:

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Chisholm Surname Miscellany

Chisholm Origins.  The name is formed from the Norman “chese” which meant “to choose,” and “holm” which is a Saxon word that meant “meadow.”

According to one account, the kingdom of Gododdin was taken by the Northumbrian English in the 7th century and was then taken in turn by the Normans three hundred years later.  The early Chisholms came across the North Sea and the lands they claimed in Roxburghshire became a feudal barony.

The name of Alexander de Cheschelme appears on a charter from 1249, and the Ragman Roll of 1296, listing the supporters of England’s Edward I mentions Richard de Cheschelme and John de Cheshome.  The seal used by the family shows a boar’s head which represented the traditional story of two Chisholm brothers who saved a king from a wild boar.

The Chisholms and the Macraes.  The Macraes had for a considerable period a stranglehold on the Chisholm lands.  Maurice Macrae was said to have loaned substantial sums of money to the Chisholm and received in return grazing land in Glen Affric.

Maurice was said to have met his death through his own generosity.  Having met up with some Chisholms on the way home from a business trip to Inverness, Maurice took a drink with them at The Struy Inn.  He never returned to Kintail and was later found drowned in the River Glass.

The Chisholms were strongly suspected of the disposal of Maurice, but nothing could be proved.  Soon afterwards, a party of Macraes arrived in Strathglass to take back Maurice’s body.  While passing Clachan Comer with his body, they noticed the burial taking place of one of the prominent Chisholms.  The Macraes stepped into the sacred burial ground amidst the Chisholm funeral party and seized the gravestone that was about to be laid.  It was said that they did this in order to try to provoke a fight so that they might then have the opportunity to avenge Maurice’s murder.

Legend has it that the challenge was not accepted.  The Macraes carried the stone block away all the way back to Kintail and placed it on Maurice’s grave.

The Strathglass Clearances.  In 1801, William, the 24th Chisholm, began the clearances in Strathglass.  In the period of one year, half of the clan were evicted. Many left for Canada and Nova Scotia.

After William’s death, his son was still a minor; but his wife Elizabeth continued with the evictions for one sole purpose – to pay for her son’s (the future 25th Chisholm) education at Cambridge.

Bishop Chisholm had pleaded with her to end the evictions:

“Oh! Madam, you would really feel if you only heard the pangs and saw the oozing tears by which I am surrounded in this once happy but now devastated valley of Strathglass, looking out all anxiously for a home without forsaking their dear valley; but it will not do, they must emigrate!”

She promised the tenants, who had gone to her for help, to come up with a solution.  But she never did.  Two sheep farmers, Thomas Gillespie and William MacKenzie, had convinced her that she should continue with the “improvements” to her land.

The evictions continued with the Cambridge educated son, Alexander.  He followed in his parents’ footsteps and totally depopulated Strathglass.  It was said that only one Chisholm remained.  Bard and poet in the old Gael tradition, Donald Chisholm, wrote these words:

“Our chief is losing his kin! He prefers sheep in the glens, and his young men away in the camp of the army!”

A man of the time described Alexander as wanting nothing so much as to replace all his people, “his family from the beginning of time,” with sheep. And, unfortunately, it was true.

The Adventures of Edward Chism, Donegal Merchant.  Edward Chism was a Donegal merchant at the time of the famine.  There was much jubilation in 1846, as the local Ballyshannon Herald reported, when one of his cargoes was captured.

“On Christmas Eve, a ship chartered by Edward Chism and bound for Liverpool lay at anchor in Ballyshannon while awaiting a favorable tide.  A group of salt-workers came alongside and suddenly produced their pistols.  After overpowering the crew, they stole a large quantity of its cargo of bacon and lard.  The men made off with as much as they could and no doubt an unexpectedly happy Christmas was enjoyed by many.”

Chisholms on the Nova.  One of the first vessels with Chisholm emigrants from the Highland clearances was the Nova, which arrived at Pictou in Nova Scotia in 1801.  One of the 500 passengers on board that vessel, Margaret Chisholm, lived for another seventy years.  She recalled in later life the horrors of the voyage:

“At starting nothing could be heard but for the laughing and the frolic of the children. One by one their bodies were consigned to the angry deep. The laughter and frolic and crying were hushed and the hearts of the mothers were filled with anguish.”

Smallpox had broken out on the ship and sixty five children died
during the crossing.

Early Chisholms in Nova Scotia.  The following is a list of some of the early Chisholm migrants to Nova Scotia and where they settled:

  • Roderick and Margaret at Marydale
  • Chisholm family on the Sarah at North River
  • John and Donald at Malignant Cove
  • Duncan at Little Harbor (Pictou)
  • Colin, Alexander and Archibald at Lismore
  • Donald, Finlay and Alexander at Gow
  • Archie and Donald (Mor) at South Side Harbor
  • Alexander and Mary at Salt Springs
  • John and Margaret at Brierly Brook
  • John at Gaspereaux Lake
  • and Duncan at Buidhe.

Reader Feedback – Chisholms in Nova Scotia.  My great-grandmother was a Mary (no middle name that I can find) Chisholm who was born in November 1860, reportedly at Black River, NS.  She died in Guysborough, NS in 1944.

The only info I have on her parents is that her mother was also named “Mary.”  Well, that’s no help.  My great-grandmother Mary married James John Atwater and gave issue (among others) to my grandmother Caroline Atwater, who eventually moved to Massachusetts in 1907 and married Henry Fuller from Sharon, MA.  If anyone has any leads on where to go next to figure this out, I’d appreciate it.

Cyndee Fuller, Rhode Island (cyndeefuller48@gmail.com)

Reader Feedback – Chisholms in Nova Scotia.  My Chisholm line began with John R Chisholm, born in Nova Scotia but lived and died on Prince Edward Island. Our generation is scattered across the continent, the founders being farmers with serious carpenter skills. Some of the family continues in this trade despite having different surnames through marriage.

James FitzGerald (aquilacorvina@gmail.com)

Reader Feedback – Chisholm from Glengarry, Ontario.  I am looking for ancestors of Finley A. Chisholm, who was my great-grandfather. He was born in Glengarry, Ontario, then moved to Missouri, and then finally settled in North Dakota.

James Edmonds (james.p.edmonds2@gmail.com)

Reader Feedback – Duncan Chisholm, the First Chisholm in America.  I believe the first Chisholm in America was Duncan Chisholm, a Scottish Prisoner of War from the Battle of Dunbar in 1650.  The Scottish POW Society (SPOWS.org) has some information on him.

I believe I am a descendant of his as my Y dna test says there is a 98% chance my surname around this time (350- 400 years ago) was Chisholm and country of origin was Scotland.  I can trace my paternal line back to exactly this time and then it stops.

I am looking for more information on him to prove this and any information you could provide would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks, Paul Kates (paulkates64@comcast.net)

Reader Feedback – The Chisholm Trail.  On your website there is a statement declaring the “Chisholm Trail” was a cattle trail going from south Texas to Abilene, Kansas. The trail system to which you refer existed from 1867 until 1889.

In looking at maps which were created and published during this time period (i.e. material which can be categorized as primary documentation), I do not find anything saying “Chisholm Cattle Trail.” What I do find are maps saying “Eastern Trail” or “Eastern Cattle Trail” within Texas; and “Abilene Trail” or “Abilene Cattle Trail” within Indian Territory (today’s Oklahoma).

To find maps which say “Chisholm Cattle Trail,” I have needed to look at maps from the 1920’s or 1930’s or even newer. Because of the lapse of time between the publication of these maps compared to the timing for when the cattle trail actually existed, these “modern” maps cannot be considered primary documents or source documents.

Ronald Dietzel from Newton, Kansas (rldietzel5@gmail.com)


Robert Chisolm at Home in the Sea Islands.  
Robert Chisolm’s town house was in Beaufort in South Carolina, looking out on the Beaufort river.  There are still to be found some ancient camellia plants which Robert had brought there in the years before the Civil War.  Most of the streets are covered with fine sand, deadening noise.   Mockingbirds can be seen in the middle of the streets, dusting themselves, swishing their tails and flying off only if the driver of the car or cart insists on passing.

The most striking characteristic of the town is the great number of large white houses with deep verandas. Many have enormous pillars, fine fanlights, and decorative detail in the localities where money and labor were available.  They are made of wood with tabby understructures that were once used as service quarters.

Robert cultivated on Chisolm’s Island.  This island, at the head of St. Helena Sound, is bounded on one side by the Coosawriver and lies near the outfall of another river, the Combabee.  In 1830 he set out an olive orchard on 1.3 acres.  The trees survived the freeze of 1835 (although the orange trees were killed to the roots).  Robert Chisolm made a success of the venture and shipped out olives up to the time of the Civil War.  The trees were then cut down by Federal soldiers for fuel.

Gledswood.  The Scots can be nostalgic.  The name Gledswood is said to have come from a Scottish property on the Tweed river, just below Sir Walter Scott’s favorite view of the river, to which James Chisholm was also partial.

James Chisholm, an early settler in Australia, had accumulated vast sheep-rearing lands in the Goulburn district, 200 kilometers south of Sydney.  He acquired the Gledswood property in 1816.  Convict labor was used to build the Coach House, which was completed in 1829.

Gledswood has historical significance for its association with the early development of Australia’s wine industry. James Chisholm junior had planted a vineyard in 1830 and in 1847 vinedressers from Germany were imported to work it.  The convict-built cellar under the homestead was capable of holding 20,000 bottles of wine.

The house still stands as a prime example of early colonial architecture.  It is said to be haunted by the ghost of Polly Chisholm who was found dead in a dam on the property in the 1890’s.  She is still “seen” in the dining room of Caves House.

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Chisholm Names
  • Alexander de Cheschelme was the earliest recorded Chisholm (from 1249).   
  • Roderick Chisholm was the Chisholm clan chief who led his men in the doomed rebellions of 1715 and 1745,  but survived with his life and his estates. 
  • Caroline Chisholm, who had married Capt. Archibald Chisholm in 1838 and moved to Australia, sought housing and jobs for the young immigrant women who arrived there. 
  • Jesse Chisholm, who was born in Tennessee and built trading posts in western Oklahoma in the 1850’s, gave his name to the Chisholm Trail, a cattle trail which stretched from
    southern Texas to Abilene in Kansas. 
  • Brock Chisholm, from Oakville in Ontario, was the first Director of the World Health Organization in 1948.   
  • Shirley Chisholm from Brooklyn (of Jamaican origin) was the first black woman to sit in the US House of Representatives.


Chisholm Numbers Today
  • 6,500 in the UK (most numerous in Durham)
  • 3,500 in America (most numerous in Florida).
  • 10,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)
Chisholm and Like Surnames

The Scottish Highlands were Gaelic-speaking and their clan names appeared first in Gaelic and only later in an English version.  Each clan controlled its own local territory and frequently fought with neighbors.  Many, however, took the clan name in order to receive clan protection.

The clan downfall came following the 1715 and 1745 uprisings with the Battle of Culloden when the clan culture was broken up and clan tartans banned (although they came back into fashion with Queen Victoria a hundred years later).  The Highland clearances, supplanting people for sheep, was a further blow and many Highlanders were forced into emigration, still speaking their native Gaelic, to Canada and then to Australia and New Zealand.

Here are some of the clan surnames that you can check out.

BuchananDuncanMackayMcKenzie
CameronFraserMcDonaldMcMillan
CampbellGrantMcGregorRoss

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