Dunn Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Dunn Surname Meaning

The surname Dunn has English, Irish and Scottish origins. Both the English and Irish have the meaning of “brown-haired” or “dark-colored,” whether it be from the Old English dunn or the Gaelic donn (which gave rise to the O’Duinn sept). In Scotland Dunn might also have derived from the place-name Dun in Angus. 

Dunn and Dunne are the two main spellings, Dunne in Ireland and Dunn elsewhere.

Dunn Surname Resources on The Internet

Dunn and Dunne Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland (Leinster), Scotland (East Coast) and Northern England
  • to America, Canada and Australia

Ireland. The early O’Duinn sept was separated into two branches:

  • first the Tara O’Duinns in county Meath
  • and then the Tinnahinch O’Duinns in county Laios.

Early Dunnes.  The Tara O’Duinns were dispersed at the time of the Anglo-Norman invasion. The Tinnahinch O’Duinns held firm. As lords of Iregan they became one of the principal families of Leinster and managed to resist the English incursions in the 16th century.

But their Chief Rents were abolished in 1613; and then their stronghold of Tinnahinch castle, built by Tadhg MacLaighnigh Ui Duinn in 1475, was destroyed by Cromwell. Later, six Dunnes fought in King James’ army. Lieutenant Colonel Dunne and Captain Terence Dunne both fell at the Battle of Aughrim in 1691. Many Dunnes then fled as “wild geese.”

Later Dunnes.  The Dunne chief built for himself a more modest new home at Brittas near Clonaslee. In 1771 the Dunnes of Brittas conformed to the Protestant church. Francis Dunne, known as the Squire, was said to have been so angry at losing his silver mounted rapier that he registered himself as a Protestant. However, he continued to have his children baptized and brought up as Catholics. A later Francis Dunne built a neo-Gothic mansion at Brittas in 1869, but this building burned down in 1942. 

The Dunns of Ards descended from a younger brother of the Dunne chief of the late 16th century. Other Dunns in Ulster were more likely to have been of Scottish rather than of Irish origin.  

Wales. Donne came from the Welsh dwnn and the Donnes were a distinguished family at Kidwelly in Carmarthenshire.

Sir John Donne was a Yorkist figure at the time of the War of the Roses. He may have been related to the Jacobean poet John Donne, although not as a direct ancestor as Sir John had no male Donne grandchildren. However, the poet did use the same coat of arms as Sir John.

Scotland. The early spelling was Dun. The Dunn spelling was relatively rare until 1800. But fifty years later the Dunns exceeded the Duns by almost six to one and now it is Dun that is rare.

The Dun name, possibly originating in Angus, was to be found along the East Coast, from Aberdeen to the Borders. Early examples were:

  • Adam de Dun who was elected to the deanery of Moray in 1255
  • and Thomas Dun who was hanged at Elgin in 1296 for stealing books and vestments from the church.

The Border Duns appeared later but were sizeable in number by the 17th century. George Dun, a Covenanter in Selkirk, narrowly escaped with his life in 1679.

England.  Dunn has been very much a northern name, with close to 50% of Dunns in the 1881 census to be found in the five northern counties.

North.  Sizeable numbers were in Northumberland. The Dunns were a Border reiver family, albeit a minor one, on the Eastern Marches.

The Dunn name surfaced in Whickham and the surrounding villages of Blaydon and Stella in the 17th century. Mrs Dunn of Burnt Houses in Whickham Fell had lived to be 107 on her death there in 1804. The Dunns of Stella Hall were Catholic. Matthias Dunn was an inspector of mines in the early 1800’s, his son Archibald a prominent local architect.

In Yorkshire the Dunn name appeared in the East Riding – in the 17th century at Brandesburton and Hornsea and in the 18th century in places such as Beeford, Howden and South Cave.  In Lancashire the Dunn numbers were augmented by Irish immigrants such as Michael Dunn, the well-known Irish fiddler.  

Elsewhere. Dunns were to be found in the Hertfordshire village of Ware from the 17th century. Robert Dunn went from there to South Africa in 1824 where he set himself up as a merchant trading in ivory. He died in 1847.  

“There are many stories as to how exactly Robert Newton Dunn died. One was that his son John saw him trampled to death by an elephant. Another said that he died after a fall from his horse when surprised by elephants. A third was that he died in Congella drunk on the side of the trail, supposedly from an apoplectic fit.” 

Another branch of the family had clergymen overseas, including the Rev. Andrew Hunter Dunn who served as the Bishop of Quebec in the early 1900’s. From his line came the Joan Hunter Dunn made famous by John Betjeman’s poem.

John Dunn was born in Cornwall around the year 1670 and there were numerous Dunns at Megavissey in Cornwall a century or so later. The best-known was James Dunn, a smuggler during the Napoleonic Wars. His son Samuel became a Methodist minister. In Devon, there were Dunn yeoman farmers in Crediton and Bondleigh at that time.  

America.  The first Dunn who came to America was probably Thomas Dunn who arrived in Virginia in 1620 at the age of 14 on the Temperance as a servant to Governor George Yeardley. He was later granted land in Essex county and lived to be 93:

  • one line of his family migrated to North Carolina and were plantation owners in Wake county in the early 1800’s. David Dunn enlisted on the Confederate side in the Civil War but died of gunshot wounds in 1864.
  • another line headed north to Massachusetts and then to Vermont. Aaron Dunn married a Canadian in the 1820’s and moved to Nova Scotia before settling in Wisconsin.

Irish.  The first Irish Dunn in America was probably Hugh Dunn from Tipperary who had come to Piscataway, New Jersey in 1666 and was one of the early landowners there.

But he was of English rather than of Irish stock and Protestant not Catholic. In fact he took a leading role in organizing the Baptist church in Piscataway. These Dunns then became Quakers. Later:

  • Captain Hugh Dunn fought in the Revolutionary War and migrated afterwards with his family to Ohio.
  • while Captain Josiah Dunn was plundering on the Georgia frontier and did not survive the war.

John Dunn, born in Dublin, might have been a truer Irishman. He had come to Bullitt county, Kentucky sometime in the 1790’s, drawn there by reports of salt deposits. His brick house, built in 1805, still stands.

His son Charles served as the Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court and Dunn county there was named after him.

Canada.  Charles and Rebecca Dunn were Loyalists of Scots origin from Vermont who had crossed the border into Canada as early as 1778. They settled on a farm near Trois-Rivieres in Quebec.

Their grandson T.H. Dunn pioneered the development of the timber trade in the province in the mid/late 1800’s. Another descendant Oscar Dunn became a prominent Montreal journalist.

New Brunswick.  The Loyalist John Dunn departed New York for New Brunswick in 1784 and built his home (which is still standing) in St. Andrews, New Brunswick. Dunns from Ireland came to the province in the early/mid 1800’s:

  • John Dunn arrived from Derry in 1824 and established himself as a cabinet maker in St. John. His son John was a prominent St. John architect.
  • while sometime later another Scots Irish Dunn family came to Bathurst and developed a very profitable business building wooden boats. However, that business was in decline by the 1870’s and James Dunn, born into this family in 1874, also lost his father Robert when he was still an infant.

“The widow raised her son in the best Presbyterian tradition. The mother and boy’s survival depended on her selling the family furniture and working as a live-in housekeeper, which she did.”  

James’s rise from there was a rags-to-riches story. He owed much of his success as a financier in England to his relationship with fellow Canadian Max Aitken who became Lord Beaverbrook.

His daughter Mona, described at the time as the most beautiful girl in England, died tragically young; another daughter Anne became a painter; while grand-daughter Nell Dunn made her name in the 1960’s as an author and playwright.

Australia.  John Dunn was a miller in Devon who found himself eking out a meager living in the 1830’s. Poverty was so close that he was only dissuaded from migrating to Canada in 1833 by a rise in wages. He rented out his own mill until 1840 when he was persuaded by four of his six brothers to join them in South Australia.

There, with the emergence of Mount Barker as a wheat-producing center, his fortunes changed dramatically. He and his sons prospered greatly and he was running eleven modern mills by the time of his death in 1894.

Dunn Surname Miscellany

The Dunne Chief Rents.  The Dunne chief and Prince of Iregon in 1593 was Teige O’Doyne of Castlebrack in Laios county.  He was entitled to the “Chief Rents” from his tenants as follows:

  • the Castlebrack tenants paid one penny heriot per acre, on the death of each head of the family, heriot meaning “a fine paid to the lord of the manor at the death of a landholder.”
  • the tenants of Kernymore paid yearly – two beeves, twenty-four crannochs of oats, forty cakes of bread, thirteen dishes of butter, seventeen cans of malt; eight pence, heriot, in money, on the death of each head of the family; one reaping hook (service) on one of every twenty acres; custom ploughs one day in winter and one in summer.
  • the inhabitants of the Ballykeneine quarter: meat and drink for twenty-four horse boys, or four shillings for their diet.
  • the inhabitants of Cappabrogan: like duties.
  • the inhabitants of Garrough: like duties.

These Chief Rents were abolished in 1613 by the Dublin government. 

George Dun the Covenanter.  Prior to 1679 there lived a merchant in Selkirk named George Dun, ruled by the fear of God both in his house and his dealings with his fellow-men, fond of his Bible and of the society of lively Christians. Careful watch had been kept over him, as was done over Covenanters generally.

He was noticed one day walking out the road in the company of Archibald Riddell, the Covenanting preacher. It was a suspicious circumstance in the eyes of the authorities to be seen in the company of Riddell.

George Dun was at once seized and lodged in prison.  Probably for the purpose of inflicting severe sufferings on him, he was transferred from prison to prison and ultimately lodged in Edinburgh tolbooth “where he endured a tedious and painful imprisonment.”

At length he was brought upon trial for his life.  The charge preferred against him was his being at Bothwell Bridge.  One informer had been got to assert positively that he had seen him there, but when put upon oath in the witness-box he relented and said: “He now believed that might not be the man.”

Thus George Dun escaped with his life.  But “all he had was taken from him to the value of upwards of 3,000 marks.”  He endured the suffering rather than prove untrue to his principle.  By following this course he ultimately prospered.  He became a tenant of Tinnis on the Yarrow where it was said: “he became possessed of double of what he lost for the safety and peace of his conscience.”

George Dun was fortunate to escape the fate of his namesake Quentin Dunn, another Covenanter, who also ended up in Edinburgh tolbooth.   Quentin Dunn was shipped out to Jamaica in 1685.  His fate there is unknown.

James Dunn the Smuggler.  Captain James Dunn was a man of contradictions.  He was a follower of John Wesley, yet he was also a notorious smuggler.  In Truro Cathedral in Cornwall there is a window depicting John Wesley and dedicated to James Dunn and his son Samuel.

Born in 1755 in Mevagissey, Dunn was the owner of several Mevagissey vessels including the Clausina which was well known to be involved in smuggling.

Smuggling before 1805 was an open practice. Ships would go to Guernsey where spirits could be legally purchased in large barrels and during the return passage the barrels were emptied into smaller ones. These were landed and distributed for sale in England.

In 1799 income tax was introduced to support war with France. This was a threat to a cash-rich man such as Dunn and he went into business as a shipbuilder with Thomas Henna.  They were in partnership from 1799 to 1806 and built many fine cutters for the smuggling business. These were either owned by Dunn or sold to Guernsey, Rye and elsewhere.

When the partnership broke up, Dunn continued as shipbuilder until his death in 1842.

Christopher Dunn – from Yorkshire to New Zealand.  Christopher Dunn came from a prominent Dunn family in Howden in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

Born in 1798, he tried life as a midshipman in the Royal Navy before training and practicing as a clergyman.  It was said that he served for a time as chaplain to Queen Victoria.  In addition to his duties as a clergyman, he was the author of several books and poems and also wrote music for the organ.

At the ripe age of 60, he decided to uproot his family and take them off for the remote Northland area in New Zealand.   They became farmers at Pena.  In 1866 the Rev. Dunn started to teach several pupils privately at his home and he later began the Peria School.   He continued his work until the age of 78 and he then lived on another four years.

On the voyage from England the family’s cottage grand piano was somehow dropped into the tide at Taipa. It was dispatched to Sydney for repairs.  Years later it was put into storage on its side, but has since been restored and is now proudly on display at Kaitaia’s Far North Regional Museum.

Reader Feedback – Thomas Dunn of Virginia Descendent.  I believe I am descended from Thomas Dunn, the early arrival to Virginia in 1620. John Johnson Dunn left for the California Gold Rush in 1849, but remained in Utah as a convert to Mormonism where he practiced polygamy.

I am surprised that Texas has the most Dunns. My grandfather was not a Mormon and moved to California during the Depression.

Patricia Littlefield (norcal532001@yahoo.com).

Captain Josiah Dunn During the Revolutionary War.  As the war broke out, Josiah Dunn was leading a band of rebel guerillas on the Georgia border, killing and plundering anyone they found who was supporting the King’s cause. These included those who had not been militarily behind the American cause and, in some instances, those who simply had property worth stealing, Eleven settlers were murdered in their own beds.

At one stage it appeared that Josiah’s brother Nehemiah had turned against him. But Nehemiah was later chastised by the Quakers in Wrightsborough, Georgia for not condemning him and for aiding him instead.

Josiah was killed fighting at Kettle Creek in the last days of the war.

Reader Feedback – A Dunn Family from Muskingum, Ohio.  All I seem to know is our crest has a lizard under a fig tree and the color I believe is blue. I do know my relations served under many great rulers, believe Caesar was one. Our family had a book of genealogy and it was lost in a disaster so I can recall some things in it but not all.  It’s a great loss.

It’s great to read about the Dunns.  My brother is planning to go to Ireland and try to gather more information for me.  My father was Donnie Thomas Dunn.  His father was James Lorenzo Dunn.  His dad was Francis Marion Dunn, then David William Dunn, then James W. Dunn (1833-1919).

That’s where the trouble starts.  I came from John Wimer Dunn but I’m not sure where to go to get to John Wimer Dunn.  There are so many of them.  I’m just truly at a loss without that family book that is gone now.  What do I tell my children when they ask where we are from?  I do recall what John W Dunn looks like because his picture was on the front of the family tree book. This was a thick book full of details and so much information.  I’m empty without the information.

Melissa Dunn (missliss123@yahoo.com)

Reader Feedback – Dunns in Tennessee.  I’ve been told that my ancestors go back to Hugh Dunn. My paternal great grandfather was said to be James Dunn of Polk county, Tennessee.  His son, my grandfather, is said to be Daniel Newton Dunn.

Alvin Dunn (dunnalvin_22@yahoo.com)

Dunns and Dunnes Today.  Dunne predominates in Ireland; while Dunn is the main spelling elsewhere.  The table following shows the approximate number of Dunns and Dunnes today.

Numbers (000’s) Dunn Dunne
Ireland    24
UK    42     9
America    40     3
Elsewhere    30     7
Total   112    43

Irish Song: The Dunnes.  The author of this song is not known; neither are the Dunnes of the song.  But the picture that is painted is an affectionate one.

  • “I once was well acquainted, with a man called Mr. Dunne,
  • A very jolly man was he, and full of harmless fun.
  • He courted young and married was, when he was 21,
  • And soon a big long family, had Mr. and Mrs. Dunne.


  • For there was a high Dunne, low Dunne, underdone and overdone,
  • And the other younger Dunnes, in and out did run.
  • There was old Dunne and young Dunne, and Dunne’s youngest son,
  • And young Dunne will be the Dunne, when the old Dunne’s done.
  • In course of time the youngest Dunne, he took himself a wife,
  • And when he did he found he had the hardest fight for life.
  • To keep six little bellies full, and a wife who weighed twelve stone,
  • Why any man who could do that! You ought to say well done.
  • When Mrs. Dunne presented Dunne with their first bouncing son,
  • She named it Joseph Henry Dunne, but called it cherry bun.
  • But when as thick as hops they run, ere many years were done,
  • Says Mrs. Dunne to Mr. Dunne, “More bread or we’ll be done”.
  • Well here’s good luck to the oldest Dunne, likewise to the youngest Dunne,
  • Let’s hope the youngest Dunne’ll do as the oldest Dunne has done.
  • For every Dunne to be a Dunne, and not a vacant one,
  •  “What’s done” says Dunne, “should be well done”, so well done, good old Dunne!” 

English Poem: Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.  John Betjeman’s poem, however, described a real person.  He saw Miss Joan Hunter Dunn for the first time in 1940 while working at the Ministry of Information in the Senate House of the University of London.  She was working there in the canteen.

Although married, he was struck by her beauty, fell in love, and composed a poem fantasizing about them being engaged and playing tennis together in Aldershot.

The poem, entitled A Subaltern’s Love-song, was published in early 1941.  They did meet shortly afterwards when he apologetically presented her with a copy of the magazine which had published the poem.  She was flattered.

The start and end of the poem went as follows:

  • “Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,
  • Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun,
  • What strenuous singles we played after tea,
  • We in the tournament – you against me!
  • Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy,
  • The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy,
  • With carefullest carelessness, gaily you won,
  • I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn.
  • We sat in the car park till twenty to one
  • And now I’m engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.”

Dunn Names

  • Gilliananaemih O’Duinn was a poet and a historian in 1102 of the early Dunnes.
  • John Donne was the English metaphysical poet of the early 17th century.
  • Sir James Dunn, Canadian-born, was a prominent financier and steel magnate in London during the first half of the 20th century.
  • Clive Dunn was the popular TV actor in the BBC sitcom Dad’s Army.

Dunn Numbers Today

  • 51,000 in the UK (most numerous in Yorkshire)
  • 52,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 61,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)

Dunn 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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Written by Colin Shelley

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