Eaton Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Eaton Surname Meaning

Eaton is a topographical surname which described someone who lived by a river or on an island. The root of the name is the Old English ea meaning “river” or eg meaning “island” or “low-lying land” plus tun meaning “settlement” or “enclosure.” This became Etone or Eitone by the time of the Domesday Book in 1086.  

Eaton as a surname was first found in the western counties of Shropshire, Cheshire, and Derbyshire. One early spelling was Eyton.

Eaton Surname Resources on The Internet

Eaton Surname Ancestry

  • from England (Cheshire)
  • to Ireeland (Ulster), America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

England. The Eyton spelling was found in Shropshire where Robert de Eyton held the manor of Eyton-on-the-Wildmoors in 1154. These Eytons remained in Shropshire for many generations. Sir John Eyton fought at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485; and Thomas Eyton was High Sheriff of Shropshire in 1779.

Cheshire.  The Eaton place-name in Cheshire near the village of Eccleston gave rise to an Eaton family which in the 15th century married into the more famous Grosvenor line. Eaton Hall became their ancestral home. Earlier, around 1310, Sir Nicholas de Eaton had married an heiress in Stockport and moved the Eaton family name into Lancashire.

Some accounts have Richard Eaton, the vicar of Great Budworth in Cheshire in the early 1600’s, as descended from the Eytons of Shropshire. But this is by no means clear. Richard had three illustrious sons – Samuel, Theophilus and Nathaniel Eaton. All three were Protestant dissidents who emigrated to America. Only Theophilus stayed there.

Derbyshire.  Long Eaton in the Erewash district of Derbyshire was referred to as Aitone in the Domesday Book. A settlement had grown up close to the lowest bridging point of the Erewash river.

The Eaton name has been mainly to be found in Derby. An Eaton family was engaged for several generations in the wool-combing and dyeing trade during the course of the 17th and 18th centuries. They lived at the Bridge-gate. Thomas Eaton served as its mayor in 1771 and William and Richard Eaton, father and son, were keepers of the county jail in the early 1800’s.

Elsewhere.  There were sizeable Eaton numbers in Cheshire and Derbyshire by the time of the 1881 census. Larger numbers were to be found further north in Lancashire.

Eatons dated from the mid-16th century in Dover, Kent. Nicholas Eaton was mayor of the town in 1618. His son John emigrated to America in 1635.

There were two notable Eaton lines in London in the 19th century:

  • the first began with William Eaton, first recorded as a buckle-maker on Addle Street in 1784. His son William practiced as a silversmith, one of the most prolific silversmiths in the country, from 1813 until his death in 1845. But he almost fell into deep trouble with the law in a court case at the Guildhall in 1822.  
  • the second, born in 1816, was Henry William Eaton. He became wealthy as the head of Henry William Eaton & Sons, silk brokers with China. He was the MP for Coventry and made Baron Cheylesmore. His son Herbert was a sportsman, Army officer, and Chairman of London County Council.

Ireland. The main Eaton line here had descent from Theophilus Eaton, the grandson of Richard Eaton from Great Budworth in Cheshire. He had returned from America after his father’s death and moved to Dublin at the time of Cromwell’s conquests in the 1650’s. He secured Powers Court at Goresbridge in Kilkenny.  

“The story goes that his grandson John then lost Powers Court on a game of cards to the Loftus family. But he somehow remained in possession for a period of time while accompanied on all occasions by two thugs with pike and blunderbuss.”  

Timothy Eaton’s family had been in Ulster since 1626. He was born in 1834 in Ballymena in county Antrim, the son of Scottish Presbyterian tenant farmers. His father died when he was only two months old, his mother died when he was fourteen. In 1854, at the age of twenty, he followed several of his siblings and emigrated to Canada. He was the progenitor of the Eaton dynasty in Toronto.

America.  According to the Eaton Family Association, there were five main early Eaton lines into New England.

New England.  The first to arrive was Francis Eaton from Bristol with his family on the Mayflower in 1620. A carpenter by trade, he died in 1633 as a result of an epidemic that had struck the colony.

The report on him by Governor William Bradford in 1649 ran as follows: “His first wife died in the general sickness and he married again and his second wife died. He married a third time and had by her three children. One of them married and has a child. The others are living, but one of them is an idiot. Francis died about sixteen years ago. His son Samuel, who came over as a sucking child, also married and has a child.”  

Theophilus Eaton came with his family and two brothers on the Hector in 1637. Two years later he helped found the colony of New Haven in Connecticut and was to serve as its first governor until his death in 1657.  His epitaph read: 

  • “Eaton so famed, so wise, so just,
  • The Phoenix of our world, here lies his dust,
  • This name forget, New England never must.”

By then his eldest son Theophilus had returned to England and settled in Ireland.

John Eaton from Kent arrived on the Elizabeth and Ann with his family in 1635 and settled in Dedham, Massachusetts six years later. The line of descent, which numbers many thousands today, was through his son John. This was covered in John Eaton Alden’s 1900 book Eaton Family of Dedham. A family reunion by descendants was held at Dedham in 2017.

Jonathan Eaton, who was born in Dedham in 1681, moved to Windham county, Connecticut in 1701. He was the first permanent settler of Putnam village where he built a mill. From Windham came:

  • Abel Eaton who moved to Columbia county in upstate New York in the 1770’s. His son Amos who co-founded the Rensselaer School in 1824 was an inspired educator and botanist who emphasized the scientific approach to study. Daniel Eaton, like his grandfather Amos, was also a botany professor.  
  • and Benjamin Eaton who departed for California in 1850 at the time of the Gold Rush. He moved south to Los Angeles and was the first settler and founder of the town of Pasadena. His son Fred became a major force in Los Angeles, serving as city engineer and mayor. A younger Eaton owned a ranch in the Owens Valley and introduced William Mulholland to the area. This led to the controversial bringing of Owens River water to Los Angeles in 1913.

Another John Eaton, possibly from Warwickshire, was first recorded in Salisbury, Massachusetts in 1639. His homestead there, later known as Brookside Farm, remained in family hands until the early 1900’s. Other Eatons migrated to New Hampshire and Maine. Tristram Eaton of Buxton, Maine died in 1875 at the grand age of ninety-four.

The brothers Jonas and William Eaton were likely cousins of John Eaton of Dedham. They arrived from Kent on the Hercules in 1637 and made their home in Reading, Massachusetts. A family home, now known as the Eaton-Prescott House, was built in Reading in the 1750’s. Lilley Eaton, born in 1802, was a Justice of the Peace for thirty-eight years and a noted local historian.

Elsewhere.  John Eaton was a Baptist from Radnorshire in north Wales who came with his wife Joan and brothers George and Joseph to Philadelphia in 1686. John and Joan moved to the Welsh tract in New Castle county, Delaware by 1712. Later Eatons settled in Rowan county, North Carolina.

William Eaton who died in York county, Virginia in 1714 appears to have been the progenitor of the Eatons of North Carolina and Tennessee. His grandson Major Pinketham Eaton of Halifax county, North Carolina was killed in battle in 1781 during the Revolutionary War. He left land in Williamson county, Tennessee to his brother John.

John’s son John Henry Eaton moved to Tennessee in the early 1800’s and became part of a network there that supported the political campaigns of Andrew Jackson He was just twenty-eight years old in 1818 when he entered the US Senate, making him the youngest Senator in US history. He later was Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of War until he became embroiled in the “Petticoat affair.

“The Petticoat affair, led by the wife of Vice President John Calhoun, socially ostracized John Eaton, the Secretary of War, and his wife Peggy over disapproval of the circumstances surrounding their marriage and what they considered her failure to meet the moral standards of a cabinet wife.”  

Canada.  There were notable Eaton lines in Nova Scotia and Toronto.

Nova Scotia.  David Eaton from Haverhill in Massachusetts was an early arrival in Nova Scotia in 1760, settling in Cornwallis, Kings county after the French had departed five years previously. His line was covered in the Rev. Arthur Eaton’s 1929 book The Eaton Family of Nova Scotia.

The line through Stephen Eaton, a shipbuilder and farmer in Pugwash, produced Charles and Cyrus Eaton. Charles was a clergyman, journalist, U.S. Congressman and a signatory to the original United Nations charter. Charles’s nephew Cyrus prospered as well in America, emerging in the 1920’s as one of the most powerful financiers of the American Midwest. Cyrus funded and helped organize the first Pugwash conferences on World Peace in 1955.

Toronto. Timothy Eaton was the Irish immigrant who founded Eaton’s department store in Toronto in 1869, one of the most important retail businesses in Canada’s history. He spawned a colossal retail empire that his offspring would expand from coast to coast, reaching a high point in World War Two when they employed more than 70,000 people.

The Eaton family of Toronto was considered like royalty in Canada. Four generations of the family were involved in the running of the business. However, retail decline set in in the 1990’s and the company went bankrupt in 1999.

Australia. William Eaton was convicted of the theft of a cheddar cheese in London and transported to Australia on the Admiral Barrington in 1791. Both he and his son John prospered as farmers – William in Hawkesbury, NSW and John in Maryborough, Queensland. And both lived to a good old age. William Eaton died in 1858 at the age of eighty-nine, John Eaton in 1904 at the age of ninety-three.

New Zealand.  Edward Eaton, a carpenter, and his wife Emily came to New Zealand from Kent on the Stag in 1852. They were early settlers in Masterton near Wellington where the built their home, the Ivy Cottage, in 1855. They moved to Dunedin around 1870.

Levi Eaton arrived in New Zealand in 1860 on the George Henderson from Pugwash, Nova Scotia. He had been involved in the building of wooden ships there, but that business was in decline. Levi became an auctioneer in Auckland.

Eaton Surname Miscellany

Eaton Places in Cheshire and London.  The hamlet of Eaton was situated near the village of Eccleston in the western part of Cheshire.  In the 1440’s Ralph Grosvenor of Hulme married Joan, the heiress of Eaton, and he established his home there.

The first substantial house, Eaton Hall, was built in the 17th century.  It was replaced by two much larger buildings, the first one in the early 19th century and then the second one later in the century. This has been the country home of the Grosvenors, now the Dukes of Westminster.

The Grosvenors were great landowners and developers in central London.  The area known as Belgravia was developed by them in the first half of the 19th century. Belgravia included Eaton Square named after their Cheshire home of Eaton Hall.  In 2016 Eaton Square was named as the “most expensive place to buy property in Britain,” with a home there costing on average 17 million pounds.

Samuel, Theophilus and Nathaniel Eaton in New England.  Samuel Eaton, the son of Richard Eaton the vicar of Great Budworth, was a prolific pamphleteer and a contentious activist in litigation and the first nonconformist minister in Cheshire.   He first went as minister to West Kirby on the Wirral, but was suspended by Bishop Bridgeman in 1631, taken prisoner by Bishop Laud, and imprisoned at Newgate.  He fled to Holland after his release.

Meanwhile his brother Theophilus, a wealthy merchant in London, was part of a London company that in 1630 had received a charter from the Crown for land in New England.

By 1637 John Davenport had assembled a party and a vessel, the Hector, to take him and like-minded dissidents to New England. Their numbers included Theophilus Eaton; old Mrs. Eaton, his mother; Samuel and Nathaniel Eaton, his brothers; Mary Eaton, the daughter of his first wife; and Samuel, Theophilus and Hannah, the children of his second wife.   Of the three Eaton brothers, only Theophilus stayed.  Nathaniel and Samuel later returned to England.

After his arrival in Massachusetts, Theophilus with a few friends carefully explored the Connecticut coast and finally selected a place called Quinnipiac to establish their colony.  In 1639 he was one of the “seven pillars” selected to form a government for what became the New Haven colony.  He was chosen as its first governor and continued in that office until his death in 1657.  Apparently he was “a handsome and commanding figure, and although strict and severe in religious matters, was affable and courteous.”

Nathaniel was appointed as the first professor of the school which later became Harvard University. He was, however, the black sheep of the family and was said to have deceived the people who appointed him.  He was notorious for his greed and cruelty.  In September 1639, after beating his usher with a cudgel, he was removed from his post.  He fled to Virginia leaving debts amounting to £1,000.  He returned to England in 1645, eventually dying in a debtor’s prison.

Samuel meanwhile was educated at Harvard and came to live at New Haven next to his brother Theophilus.  He returned to England in 1640 just in time for the Civil War.

Reader Feedback – Nathaniel and Theophilus Eaton.  I would like permission to add your website to my research and family tree.  I am a descendant of the Rev. Joseph Eaton born in Radnorshire.  His DNA is proven to that of the direct line of Rev. George. brother of Joseph, and that of Nathaniel Eaton, brother of Gov. Theophilus.  I am working to bridge the gap in family lines.  Thank you, Sandra Kay Eaton.

William Eaton and His 1822 Court Case at the Guildhall.  It was the usual practice to collect together the sweepings at goldsmith and silversmith workshops and melt the metallic contents into what was called a skillet.  The skillets were then sold to refiners.  In 1822, at the Guildhall, William Eaton was charged by the refiner Brown and Brind for an attempted fraud in the sale of one of these skillets.

On September 28, 1822 William Eaton came in his skillet from Brown and Brind to make what is called a parting assay of it to determine its value. This was generally done by taking off a small piece from one of the corners and from this assay the whole mass was valued. It happened, however, in this instance that the assay was cut out from one of the sides and contained so trifling a portion of valuable material as not to be worth more than 20d an ounce.

When William Eaton called to know the result, he was much surprised at this small value and said that he understood at least 25s per ounce. This led to a more minute inspection of the skillet, which was then found to have been made up for the express purpose of deception.  The interior of the mass was of little or no value.  It was generally coated with metal somewhat more valuable.  From the corners where the part to be assayed was usually taken, pieces containing particles of gold were neatly soldiered on.

William Eaton, however, was a lucky man.  He was initially discharged with a recommendation that he should be taken directly before a magistrate of the county.  This was at first proposed to do.  But as other evidence needed in the case could not be conveniently procured for several weeks, he was ultimately permitted to go at large.

The Eaton Family Association of New England.  The fifth reunion and sixth meeting of the Eaton family was held at Tremont Temple in Boston on October 31, 1888.  The members of the association continued to collect in the hall for an entire hour.  During this time badges were distributed to the various branches represented:

  • white ribbon for the Plymouth Eatons
  • red for the Dedham branch
  • yellow for the members of the Haverhill family
  • blue for the descendants of Jonas of Reading
  • and pink for those who belonged to William of Reading.

There were many presentations.

Frederic Eaton of Toledo, a brother of President Eaton of Marietta, said that he had never made a speech in his life, but said that he could not refrain from expressing his delight at meeting so many good-looking men and handsome women by the name of Eaton.  Dr. Benjamin Reid said that he belonged to the Nova Scotian Eatons and spoke of his ancestor David’s emigration to that region.  Stephen Eaton was introduced as coming from the state prison of New Hampshire of which he is a steward.  He said he was happy to meet with the Eatons and go back to New Hampshire “and be a good boy and stay in prison a
little longer.”

Reader Feedback – Eatons in Massachusetts.  I was told the Eaton family went back to William the Conqueror. I am a descendant of either Jonas or William Eaton of Reading, Massachusetts. I am not sure which one.  There were a lot of Abijah Eatons listed in 1776 and twins run in the family.

Renae Eaton Lewison (

Amos Eaton, Tennessee Pioneer.  Amos Eaton (or Heaton) was born in Augusta county, Virginia in 1740.  He was among the early pioneers who crossed into what is now middle Tennessee.

In 1774 he and others built a fort as a refuge from Indians on the north side of the Cumberland river, just below present-day Nashville.  Known as Eaton’s Fort, it has a marker there today.  Amos lived there for several years before moving onto Sumner county.  He died in Davidson county in 1795.  His eldest son, the Rev. Robert Heaton, died there in 1843.

Reader Feedback: My Eaton ancestor is Amos Eaton, also Heaton. He was in Tennessee where he had a fort, Eaton’s Fort. Judy Weaver (

The Eatons of Toronto.  The Eatons of Toronto fascinated Canadians for over a century.  They were well-known for their lavish lifestyle and for their generous philanthropy.

While Timothy Eaton had first launched Eaton’s department store in Toronto in 1869, it was his son John Craig Eaton, taking over the reins in 1907, who brought the family name into the upper echelons of Canadian society. In 1915 John was knighted for his contributions to the First World War effort.  It was a fitting tribute since most Canadians already viewed the Eaton family as their own royalty.  Canadians adored John’s wife, Lady Flora Eaton, for her glamor and for her outspoken support of numerous causes.

In 1919 two life-sized statues of Timothy Eaton were donated by the Eaton employees to the Toronto and Winnipeg stores in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the company.  For years it was the tradition for customers to rub the toe of the statue for good luck.

When John Craig Eaton died at an early age in 1922, his cousin Robert Young Eaton ran the company until John Craig’s heirs were old enough to take over the family business. In 1942 John David Eaton, the second eldest son, became president.  A relative described John David as “the best of a bad lot,” but he was quite inactive in the running of the business.

When John David retired in 1969, there was a brief inter-regnum before four Eaton brothers, collectively known as “the boys,” ascended to the Eaton throne. John Craig, George, Thor and Fred were the fourth generation of Eatons to run the family empire.

However, retail decline set in in the 1990’s.  George Eaton, the last of the family to be involved in management, resigned as chief executive in 1997.  The company went bankrupt two years later. 

The Death of John Eaton in Queensland.  The Maryborough Chronicle of March 25, 1904 reported:

“Mr. John Eaton, now considerably past his nineties, has been in rather feeble health lately, although still able to move about.  Mr. Eaton has over 300 direct descendants which perhaps is an Australian record.  It is not every man who can say his grand-daughter is a grandmother.  We trust he will live to be a centenarian.”

That did not happen.  In fact he may even have been dead when this notice came out.

Eaton Names

  • Theophilus Eaton was a Puritan colonial leader in New England, the co-founder and first governor of the New Haven colony in Connecticut in the 1640’s. 
  • Timothy Eaton, an Irish immigrant, founded Eaton’s department store in Toronto in 1869. It was to thrive as Canada’s leading department store for over a hundred years. 
  • Henry Eaton became wealthy in London in the mid/late 19th century as the head of Henry William Eaton & Sons, silk brokers with China. 
  • Cyrus Eaton, born in Canada, was one of the most powerful financiers of the American Midwest from the 1920’s to the 1950’s.

Eaton Numbers Today

  • 14,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 19,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 11,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Eaton and Like Surnames

The Anglo-Saxon word tun meaning “settlement” gave rise to many place-names with the suffix “-ton.”  And the place-name could become a surname describing someone who came from that place.  Sometimes the name was specific to just one location; but often the place-name could be found in various places and the surname would also crop up in a number of locations.  These are some of these place-name surnames that you can check out here.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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