Davidson Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Davidson Surname Meaning

The surname Davidson is Anglo-Scottish, a patronym of the Hebrew name David meaning “beloved of Jehovah.” The name became popular among Christians throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. The two spellings of Davidson and Davison were both to be found in northern England, mainly in the counties bordering onto Scotland.  

Davidson in America may also have Scandinavian (from Davidsson or Davidsen) or Jewish origins.

Davidson Surname Resources on The Internet

Davidson and Davison Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland and Northern England
  • to Ireland (Ulster), America, Canada and Australia

Scotland. The Davidson name is to be found in the Scottish Highlands, but also in the Lowlands and Border areas.

Highland.  There have been different accounts as to the Davidson origins. As clan Dhai they were associated with the Chattan confederation and the proscribed Comyns around Badenoch. David Dubh of Invernhaven was the first known bearer of the name.

The Davidsons fought with clan Chattan against the Camerons in the Battle of North Inch at Perth in 1396.  Most accounts concur that only eleven members of the Chattan confederation and one of the Camerons survived the battle.

One early Davidson sighting elsewhere was Sir Robert Davidson, a collector and distributor of royal dues in Aberdeen. He led a contingent to fight at the Battle of Harlow in 1411 where he was killed. The Davidsons were also associated from the early 16th century with the estate of Davidston on the Black Isle in Cromarty. Popular tradition has had the Davidsons of Davidston linked with the later Davidsons of Tulloch castle.

The Davidsons were in place at Tulloch in Ross-shire from 1762 until 1917. It was Duncan Davidson who established the family fortunes as a West India merchant in London. His son Henry was in possession of eight sugar plantations in the Caribbean by the time of his death in 1826.

“By his will of 1826, Henry Davidson left to his sons four Jamaican plantations, the plantation of Mount Gay in Grenada, that of Highbury in Berbice, and that of L’Esperance in Surinam. To his grandson he left in trust the plantation of Mount Craven in Grenada.”  

The largest number of Davidsons today are in Aberdeenshire. The Davidson family at Tarland on Deeside was long-standing and extended in the 18th and 19th centuries to homes at Tillychetly, Dess and Inchmarlo. The Davidson connection with Aberdeen went back to the early 1600’s when Alexander Davidson began shipbuilding there. The Davidson name appeared frequently there later as merchants, seamen, and fishermen.

Elsewhere.  There was evidence of a Davidson clan grouping on the Scottish borders in the 16th century. They were to be found at Oxnam in Roxburghshire, just across the border from Northumberland. And the Davidson name was also at that time in Midlothian and Ayrshire. These Davidsons were probably not related to the Highland Davidsons.

England. The Davidson name extended across the border into northern England where the name was either Davidson or, in Northumberland and Durham, more likely to be Davison.

An early Davison was William Davison, secretary to Queen Elizabeth, who was blamed for the 1587 execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. It was said that “his grandfather was out of the North.”

Among the later Davisons/Davidsons of the north were:

  • Monkhouse Davison from Carlisle in Cumberland who came to London in the 1730’s and became one of the city’s leading grocers. It was his tea that was dumped in the sea during the Boston Tea Party.
  • Alexander Davison from Lanton in Northumberland who was a contemporary and close friend of Admiral Horatio Nelson. His business rise and fall was spectacular.
  • John Davidson who was High Sheriff of Northumberland in 1839 and resided at Ridley Hall on Bardon Hill.
  • while Thomas Davidson was a Victorian poet of the Scottish borders, born to parents from Northumberland.

Ireland.  The Davison spelling has predominated in Ireland. Most were of Scottish origin and had settled in Ulster. A number of them emigrated to America in the 18th century. 

One line of Davisons dates from the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 after which they were granted lands at Tandragee in county Antrim. Four generations of this family were prominent in the linen industry at Tandragee during the 18th and 19th centuries.             

Some Irish from the Donegal sept of Mac Duibheid adopted the name of Davison in Donegal and in neighboring counties.

America. The Davidsons in America are mainly Scots or Scots Irish. Most emigrated there, a few were forcibly taken there.

Scots and Scots Irish.  Included in the latter involuntary category was David Davisson, a Scottish soldier captured in 1651 and sent to the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a prisoner of war in 1651. He made his home in Wenham, Essex county. His descendants later moved to New Jersey and Virginia and then to various points west and south.

Robert Davidson came to Pennsylvania from Scotland on the Deliverance of Glasgow in 1729. He died eight years later. His widow and children uprooted themselves and resettled in Rowan county, North Carolina. These Davidsons established their Rural Hill Farm in nearby Mecklenburg county in 1788 and became a prominent family of the plantation community there.

Scots Irish in America included two brothers, John and George Davidson, who arrived around 1740 and later settled in Iredell county, North Carolina:

  • John was the father of Major William Davidson, Revolutionary soldier who subsequently made his home in Buncombe county.
  • while George was the father of General William Lee Davidson who died in the war in 1781. The General is commemorated in North Carolina by Davidson College, the town of Davidson, and Davidson county.

Samuel Davidson came to Virginia from Ulster in the 1730’s. His son George fought in the Revolutionary War and later moved with his family from Virginia to Kentucky and settled in Lincoln county. And Robert and Jennet Davison from county Antrim crossed the Atlantic around 1750 and made their home in Roxburg, New Jersey.

A much later emigration involved Alexander Davidson who departed with his family from Angus in Scotland in 1857, settling in Milwaukee. His grandsons Arthur, Walter and William were three of the four founders of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle company in 1903.

Other Davidsons. Some Davidsons in America came from Scandinavia, others were Jewish:

  • James Ole Davidson, for instance, arrived in America from Norway in 1872. He succeeded Robert La Follette as Wisconsin’s Governor in 1906.
  • while Gustav Davidson fled with his parents from the Jewish pogrom in Poland and arrived in New York in 1907. He made his mark there as a poet, writer, and publisher.

Canada.  Many of the early Davidson settlers in Ontario were Scots Irish.

Samuel Davidson came with his family from county Down in 1825 and was one of the first settlers in Mariposa township in the Kawartha Lakes region. He subsequently served on the town council. George and Rachel Davison arrived from county Antrim in 1826. They settled in Augusta township where George built himself a log cabin on the family lot and farmed. Their descendants have been numerous.

The 1840’s arrivals included Samuel Davidson who made his home at Listowel in Perth county. James and Sarah Davidson from county Antrim came to Westmeath township in 1845. This family suffered from a number of misfortunes:

  • their son Robert, born on the crossing to Canada, was born blind and was known as “Blind Bob.”
  • James himself died in 1861 at the age of 36 after a team of horses ran out of control. He subsequently died of blood poisoning.
  • while his other son James lost his left arm in a horse-powered threshing machine and had to be fitted with a hook. James Davidson, however, would continue to take his threshing machine around at harvest time and was a popular member of the community.

Australia. The early Davidsons in Australia were more Scottish than Scots Irish or English.

Walter Davidson from Inchmarlo in Aberdeenshire arrived in Sydney in 1805. Well-connected, he was granted large land holdings in the NSW colony. Although he departed Australia four years later, he retained his interest in his property which developed into a large sheep farm.

Alexander Davidson was a carpenter from Aberdeen who came to Sydney with his employer Ben Boyd, a Scottish entrepreneur, in 1842. Boyd launched numerous enterprises, all of which failed, and left the region. Davidson stayed on and built Kish House on Kish Inlet, using salvaged timber from the shipwrecked Lawrence Frost. In the 1860’s he started a whaling operation on Twofold Bay. This continued with his grandson “Fearless” George Davidson until 1930.

William Davidson, a blacksmith from St. Andrews in Fife, came with his family to Sydney in 1854. They were among the early settlers of the New England or North Tablelands area of NSW.

Two descendants of the Davidsons of Tulloch in Ross-shire also made their way south:

  • John Ewen Davidson came to Australia in 1865 and was a sugar planter in Queensland;
  • while Hector Davidson, son of the fourth Davidson of Tulloch, departed for New Zealand in 1885 to breed sheep.

Davidson Surname Miscellany

Davidson and Davison in the UK.  The  following were the number of Davidsons and Davisons in England and Scotland in the 1881 UK census.

‘000’s Davidson Davison
Aberdeen    3.4
Angus    1.6
Midlothian    1.5
Lanarkshire    2.6    0.1
Borders    1.6
Elsewhere    2.0    0.1
Total   12.7    0.2
Northumberland    1.7    2.0
Cumberland    1.0
Durham    1.2    3.5
Yorkshire    0.6    1.6
Lancashire    1.1    0.5
Elsewhere    3.0    3.0
Total    8.7   10.6

Davidson is more a Scottish name, Davison a name of northeast England.

Davidson Origins in Scotland.  There are three different accounts of the Davidson origins in Scotland.

According to William Skene in his Celtic Scotland, Clan Davidson co-founded the Chattan Confederation with Clan MacPherson and were together referred to as the Old Clan Chattan.  Skene used sources that showed the Davidsons to be descended from one of the sons of Gilliecattan Mhor, the chief of Clan Chattan in the 11th to 12th century.

According to Sir Aeneas MacPherson, John Burk and William Anderson, the Davidsons were descended from the younger son of Muriac.  Muriach (or Murdoch) was parson of Kingussie and became Captain of Clan Chatten on his brother’s death.

He obtained a dispensation from the Pope in 1173 and married a daughter of the Thane of Cawdor.  From this union five sons were born, one of the youngest being David Dow (the black). Burk said he was the fifth son, Anderson the fourth.  From here the Davidsons of Invernahavon were said to be descended.

According to the Kinrara manuscript, the Davidsons were descended from David Dubh of Clan Cumming.  The first chief of Clan Davidson was David, son in law of Slane Mackintosh who was wed to a daughter of the sixth chief of Clan Mackintosh who was also chief of the Chattan Confederation.  David’s father was Donald, the third son of Robert Comyn who in turn was a grandson of John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch and Chief of Clan Comyn.

David and his followers became known as the Clan Dhai because the Comyn name had been prescribed in 1320, although Thomas Comyn or Cumming, son of Donald’s elder brother was exempted from the prescription and gave rise to the Cummings of Altyre.

The Davisons at Tandragee in County Antrim.  The area around Tandragee in the parish of Ballymore in county Antrim was known for production of fine linens.

Four generations of Davisons, starting with John Davison in the early 1700’s, were involved in linen production.  A Davison introduced the manufacture of Damask, a fine woven blend of silk and linen, in 1805.  And a James Davison represented the area at local trade fairs and Linen Associations in the early-to-mid 1800’s.

It is likely that linen spinning and processing was carried out from the family home building at 49-53 Market Street, which was also a base for George Davison’s cab trade. There were extensive flax mills, as well as flour, oat and corn meal mills on the Cusher river.  A weekly market was the largest in the county, “with such busy crowds as to be astonishing to strangers”.  The linens and flax were considered the best in the kingdom.

A search of the original church records at Tandragee (which began in 1783) unearthed over 200 Davison names there.

The Rise and Fall of Alexander Davison.  Alexander Davison from Lanton in Northumberland began his business career as a merchant in the British colony of Quebec.

There, during the American War of Independence, he engaged as a Government contractor in the trade to Canada and amassed a large fortune.  At the peak of his career he owned interests from textile factories to ships.  He also worked as a supply agent for the Government procuring coal and other supplies for the military.

It was in Quebec in 1782 that he first made the acquaintance of Horatio Nelson and became his staunch friend as he rose through the naval ranks. That friendship brought him business as a prize agent after the victorious Battle of the Nile in 1798.  In gratitude he spent more than 2,000 pounds of his own money on medals for every naval officer and rating who had taken part in the battle.

Alexander Davison had bought the Swarland estate in Northumberland in 1795 and later laid out the grounds with trees to show the formation of Nelson’s fleet in the battle.

However, in 1804 Davison was accused and convicted of fraud as a result of his attempt to bribe the voters of the rotten borough of Ilchester.  He spent a year in Marshalsea prison.  Then in 1809 he was again tried and found guilty on charges of fraud.  This time the accusations related to his activity as a Government supply agent. He was convicted again and ordered to repay the sum of 18,000 pounds and was sentenced in addition to a further 21 months in prison.

These scandals ruined his reputation and he was forced to sell his London home and many of his possessions.

The Davidson Journey from Virginia to Kentucky.  Around 1783, after the Revolutionary War was over, George and Mary Davidson moved their family from Virginia to newer lands in Lincoln county, Kentucky.

At that time there were no roads across the mountains. They had to travel with packhorses. As the country was invested with unfriendly Indians, every white man led a packhorse with one hand and carried a gun in the other to defend the caravan against the Indians.

Samuel, their eldest son, was then seventeen years old and led a horse and carried a gun the same as any of the men. Virginia was still a slave state and George Davidson owned several negroes.  Of course they thought they could get along without their slaves, but must take them to Kentucky with them.

The twin sons James and Michael were about six years of age and George owned at the time twin negro children of the same age.  He placed his two sons in a basket on one side of a horse and the negro children on the other in a similar manner.  He have the horse into the hands of one of his most trusted men – as it carried the most valued pack – the twin sons on the one side and $500-1,000 worth of human freight on the other.

After some time the Davidsons arrived in Lincoln county.  There the family grew up and married, all remaining nearby except Samuel who married and went to Illinois to live.

The farm on which the Davidsons settled in Lincoln county is still known as Old Davidson Farm and is located about two and a half miles southwest of Stanford. George and Mary lived there until the end of their lives, both being buried in the family burying ground on the old homestead. 

Reader Feedback – Davidsons in Oklahoma.  I’ve been researching my great grandfather William Bell Davidson’s family in Scotland for years. He was a druggist in Indian Territory, subsequently Oklahoma, back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. We believe he was born in Glasgow and immigrated to North America around 1870.

He went west to Indian Territory where he married Mary Catherine Freed in 1889 in Fort Smith, IT (now Arkansas). They lived nearby in Ratcliff where their son Ben Freed Davidson was born in Jan 1891. They relocated to Tamaha, IT (now Oklahoma) around 1894 where William was the local Postmaster for a couple of years and was a contributing member of the local Masonic Lodge, an elected town supervisor and a notary public. He was the local druggist and owned the drugstore and his home.

According to Masonic records, he died suddenly on July 30, 1906 in Tamaha. He, his wife and son are all buried in Tamaha cemetery. Their son Ben had five children.

Barbara Norkus (bdnorkus@gmail.com).

The First Harley-Davidson Motor Cycle Factory.  Arthur Davidson had joined up with William Harley to form the Harley-Davidson Motor Company in Milwaukee in 1903.  They were later joined by Arthur’s brothers Walter and William A Davidson.

When the Harley-Davidson entrepreneurs needed a ‘factory,’ Arthur’s father William C. Davidson, an accomplished cabinetmaker, built them the now famous ten-by-fifteen foot shed in the backyard of the Davidson’s Milwaukee family home.  Their aunt Marjory painted the iconic ‘Harley Davidson Motor Co.’ on the shed door.

A testament to William C. Davidson’s woodworking skills, the shed still stood well into the 1970s.  It had been transported from the family home to the factory at Juneau Avenue where it was later bulldozed, having been mistaken for scrap wood!

James Davidson of Westmeath Township, Ontario.  James and Nellie Davidson lived on the Zion Line of Westmeath township in Ontario and were, with their large family of twelve, very well-liked in the community.  James knew everyone and took his threshing machine around to the other farms at harvest time and Nellie was known for her kind and affectionate nature.

When James died in 1927, the following obituary appeared in the local paper:

“One of our most respected citizens in the person of Mr. James Davidson passed away at his home at his home on Thursday after an illness extending over two years.  The deceased who had reached his 76th year was born in Westmeath township, a son of the late James Davidson and his wife Sarah Grindle, both natives of Northern Ireland.  He married Elenor Hill of Cobden and for the greater part of their life they lived in their farmhouse on the Zion Line.

The funeral took place on Saturday afternoon in Beachburg Cemetery.  Though the roads were almost at their worst, there was a very large attendance from Zion Lane where practically every house was represented.”

Davidson Names

  • Monkhouse Davison was the senior partner of Davison, Newman and Co, one of the leading grocers in 18th century London. 
  • Arthur Davidson co-founded with William Harley the Harley-Davidson Motor Cycle Company in Milwaukee in 1903. 
  • Randall Davidson was an Anglican bishop of Scottish origin who served as Archbishop of Canterbury from 1903 to 1928
  • Alan Davidson was an Australian cricket all-rounder of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Davidson Numbers Today

  • 67,000 in the UK (most numerous in Durham)
  • 42,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 44,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Davidson and Like Surnames 

These surnames originated from the northern part of Scotland, either the northeast of the country, the Scottish Highlands, or in one case (the surname Linklater) the Orkney isles north of Scotland.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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