Forsyth Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Forsyth Surname Meaning

Forsyth origins are uncertain. Some early forms, such as William de Fersith, suggest a place-name origin. Forsyth may alternatively have derived from the Gaelic name Fearsithe, meaning “man (or place) of peace.” Forsyth in Scotland has the stress on the second syllable.

There is also a story that the name started long ago with a Norseman called Forsach who, as the Viscomte de Fronsac from his lands in France, came to England and then to Scotland in the 13th century and brought the Forsyth name with him. The Forsyth/Fronsac connection would recur later.

Forsyth comes in two varieties, Forsyth and Forsythe. Forsyth just about predominates.

Forsyth Surname Resources on The Internet

Forsyth and Forsythe Surname Ancestry

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

Scotland.  A William de Fersith signed the Ragman’s roll in Berwick in 1296 with other Scottish nobles and leaders. Forsyths were recorded in Stirling in the 14th and the 15th century, having been granted lands there after Bannockburn.  An early account was Frederick Fronsac’s 1888 book Forsyth of Nydie: A Genealogical Record. 

In the 16th century James Forsyth of Nydie married the daughter and heiress of Douglas, Lord of Dykes and there were later the Forsyths of Failzerton in Stirling and Ayrshire.

There were also Forsyths in Lanarkshire, Edinburgh, Fife and Aberdeenshire by this time. There was even for a short time a Forsyth clan chief. However, many of the clan records were destroyed by Oliver Cromwell during the Civil War.

Their main presence was in Fife and Aberdeenshire. In Fife they have been the Lairds of Falkland since the 16th century. Alexander Forsyth was the 18th century Presbyterian clergyman from Aberdeen who invented the percussion lock for muskets. Napoleon Bonaparte offered Forsyth a reward of £20,000 if he took his invention to France, but he declined.

Many Forsyths were opposed to the growing English presence in Scotland.  One Forsyth even proposed that Scotland adopt the French language instead. Some Forsyths left for Ulster and others for new colonies in the Americas.

Ireland. The Forsyths who settled in Cork – descendants of Robert Forsyth of Failzerton – called themselves Forsayths. Thomas Forsayth of Mordyke was a merchant in Cork in the early 18th century. His brother Matthew left Ireland for America in 1742 and settled in Chester, New Hampshire.

The Forsythe spelling for the Scots in Ireland was most evident in Ulster and particularly in county Antrim.  Andrew Forsythe, born in 1798, appears to have been the forefather of the Forsythes at Ballynure in Antrim.  John Forsythe left there for America in the 1840’s and made his mark as a lawyer in Chicago.  But there are Forsythes still farming at Ballynure.

England. William Forsyth, born in Aberdeenshire, came south to London in the 1770’s and trained as a gardener at the Chelsea Garden Physic. He co-founded the Royal Horticultural Society in 1804 and the flowering plant forsythia was named after him. His great grandson was the gardener and landscape architect Joseph Forsyth Johnson and the line then extended to the popular TV personality Bruce Forsyth.

John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, written between 1906 and 1921, depicted the lives of a fictional upper class English family over time. It was made into a popular TV series in 1967.

America. Forsyths came to New Hampshire in 1719 as part of a colony of Scots Irish who had been refused entry to New England because they were Scots not English.

The colony proved successful and Matthew Forsyth, connected to both the Forsyths of Dykes and the Fronsac family in France, arrived there from Ireland in 1742 and settled in Chester, New Hampshire. It was said that he brought with him considerable property and silver plate engraved with his family crest. He also brought a curved Moorish sword, a family heirloom. He died in Chester in 1790 in his ninety second year.

His family were divided by the Revolutionary War. Some fought on the American side, others relocated to Canada. His eldest son Dr. Matthew Forsyth died in France.

Robert Forsyth came to Virginia from Scotland in the early 1770’s and served as a captain during the Revolutionary War. After the war he moved to Georgia where he was appointed US Marshal. But in 1794, at the age of forty, he was shot dead in the line of duty. His son John became Governor of Georgia in 1827 and his grandson John was a prominent newspaper editor. Forsyth county in Georgia was named after the elder John Forsyth.

There were also Forsythes in America.  William Forsythe from Derry in northern Ireland came to Chester county, Pennsylvania in the 1750’s.  His son Robert migrated to Pendleton county, Kentucky around the year 1800.   Later Forsythes were to be found as well in nearby Harrison county.

Canada. Gilbert Forsyth from Aberdeen, by trade a shoemaker, had been one of the earliest settlers of Hartford, Connecticut in America, arriving there around 1670. His grandson James, a Loyalist, crossed the border into Canada in 1778 and was the forebear of the Niagara Forsyths.

“In 1802 James Forsyth purchased 400 acres in Barton township that later became part of the Gore of Ancaster. He later sold them to his son Caleb for two hundred pounds and ‘love and affection.'”

William Forsyth was another Forsyth who made the transition from America to Canada at this time. But he is remembered less affectionately.

Other Forsyths moved onto Nova Scotia. Jennie Forsythe Jeffries’ 1920 book A History of the Forsyth Family covered these Forsyths in New England and Canada.

James Forsyth had come to Canada from Scotland in 1784 and his family established themselves as one of the leading commercial families in Canada, based in Montreal and operating initially in the fur trade. His son James moved to Quebec and built up a much larger commercial enterprise, expanding into steamships and railroads.

Australia.  James Forsyth, born in London but of Scottish descent, arrived in Sydney via California in 1848.  When gold was discovered in Victoria, he joined the rush there and made money, mainly supplying goods to the miners.  He later settled with his family in North Willoughby, NSW and became its mayor in 1875.  Three of his sons – James, Thomas, and Robert – started a tannery business there.

Forsyth Surname Miscellany

Reader Feedback – A German/Scandinavian Version of Forsyth.  An early medieval Frisian god was Forsite or Fosite, which was worshipped at Fositesland (possibly the island of Heligoland). As a toponym Forsite made its way into Norway too and the President of Iceland is called Forsite, the one who chairs.

Hans Faber (

The Forsyths of Nydie.  Frederick Fronsac in his 1888 book The Forsyths of Nydie: A Genealogical Record wrote the following about the origin of the Forsyths.

“The Forsyth is by origin a Gascon family. The name is taken from the little town of Forsyth on the Dordogne river, twenty miles above Bordeaux. Since the Earl of Derby destroyed it in his invasion of France in the 14th century, it was rebuilt under the name of Fronsac.  By family tradition it is asserted that the first to bear the name of Forsyth was a member of the princely family of Navarre.

In the time of Robert Bruce, Osbert – the son of Robert de Forsyth – took military service of that monarch and received from him for fealty a land grant in the sheriffdom of Stirling.  He was the ancestor of all those who have a legitimate right to the Forsyth name.

Of the Forsyth family of Nydie was James Forsyth, a monk who was lord of the monastery of Dumblane in 1560.  Another James Forsyth of the family of Nydie married the daughter and heiress of Douglas, Lord of Dykes.”

The Forsyth connection to France continued after this time.  Robert Forsyth of Failzerton (a descendant of the Nydie line), who was in the French army in the 1620’s, made claim to the French title of Forsyth de Fronsac.

Forsyths in Stirling.  Osbert, the son of Robert de Forsyth, fought against the English at Bannockburn and he received from Robert the Bruce a grant of part of the lands of Sauchie in the sheriffdom of Stirling.  Osbert’s son Robert was appointed the King’s macer in 1364 and constable of Stirling castle in 1368.  He died in 1370.

In 1364 the accounts of the “customers” of Stirling were rendered by Fersith the Clerk, who was probably Robert’s brother. He was granted £100 per annum from the lands of the Polmaise Marischal by Robert II. 

In 1418 Robert Forsyth rendered the accounts of the burgh of Stirling and in 1432 his son Robert became burgess of the city and a bailie in 1470. 

Robert Forsyth’s Curved Moorish Sword.  A curved Moorish sword belonging to Robert Forsyth of Failzerton, an officer of King James, who in 1618 obtained land in Ireland where some of his family afterwards settled. 

It had an inscription on one side of the blade which read that he who possessed it should be fortunate in love and war; on the other side, the inscription read that he who lost it should experience calamities and the power of his posterity should be shaken. 

Ensign William Forsyth 

The sword was worn first in America by Ensign William Forsyth of the Royal Provincials in the Indian wars in the vicinity of Chester, New Hampshire in 1765.  His father, a native of Ireland, was a descendant of Col. Robert, the original possessor. 

Ensign William was captured by the Indians about 1765 and carried to Canada.  He was ransomed by M. de Montmarte, a French officer, whose secretary he became. He was with de Montmarte for two or three years.  When the latter returned to France, he gave William his liberty and money with which to reach his friends. The sword, which had been lost in his struggle with the Indians, was discovered after his capture and sent to his eldest brother, Dr. Matthew Forsyth, then a physician in the Royal Navy. 

Major Robert Forsyth 

A son of this Dr. Matthew, named Robert, came to Fredericksburg, Virginia about 1772.  Among his effects was this sword which he wore as captain and afterwards as major in Lee’s Light Horse during the Revolution.   

Governor John Forsyth 

The sword passed from him to his son John, together with his badge of the Society of the Cincinnati. John Forsyth was Governor and Senator of Georgia and Secretary of the United States from 1834 to 1841. 

And thus the fortune of the possessors of the sword increased until the burning of Columbus, Georgia by the Federal troops during the Civil War – when the sword was destroyed with other effects of the late Governor Forsyth. 

Forsyth and Forsythe.  The table below shows the approximate numbers of Forsyths and Forsythes today.

Numbers (000’s) Forsyth Forsythe
UK    8     4
America    3     4
Elsewhere    9     3

Forsyth outnumbered Forsythe among those arriving in America. Some were Scots Irish Forsyths who had added the “e” in Ireland. And many Forsyths, once in America, seem also to have added an “e.”   

Matthew Forsyth’s Escape.  Matthew Forsyth’s privateer La Mouette, which he had inherited from his father, sailed under the flag of France.  At the outbreak of the French Revolution his life as a Royalist was in danger.  He put his effects into gold, packed the baggage onboard La Mouette and started to escape from the frenzied peasants who sought his life in France. 

His ship was intercepted as he was leaving the harbor. But he replied to demands to stop by defiantly raising the royal flag.  With his ship covered with the spray from the cannon shot of the harbor batteries past which he sailed, he turned to the sea and disappeared. 

Doctor Matthew Forsyth went down against his foe in 1798.  He left his title of Vimcomte de Fronsac and one million francs in gold and his shipping to his nephew Thomas whom he had adopted. 

Reader Feedback – Forsythes in Harrison County, Kentucky.  I want to learn my mother’s side of her family of Forsythe.  I am the daughter by B Martin Garrett Forsythe who had a sister named Stella Louise.  They were born in Cynthiana, Kentucky. 

Martha Whitis ( 

William Forsyth the Innkeeper and Smuggler.  William’s father had been a Loyalist farmer who in 1783 had moved his wife and five children to the western side of the Niagara river.  The family made its home in Stamford township, which was where William was living in 1796 when he first petitioned for land. 

He was described as “a small wiry man, weighing barely 150 pounds.”  Rumor and innuendo hung over him like the ever-present mist over the falls.  The local historian Gordon Donaldson has suggested that Forsyth used his knowledge of the river to smuggle goods to and from the United States. 

Some time after the War of 1812 Forsyth built an inn on his property.  The Niagara Falls were Upper Canada’s greatest scenic attraction and Forsyth’s inn was the place to stay.  The comments about him therefore became complimentary.  Dalhousie found “the tavern and accommodation were very good indeed, and the man himself, though a Yankee and reputed to be uncivil, was quite the reverse to us, obliging and attentive in every way;” Adam Fergusson pronounced Forsyth a “personage sufficiently shrewd and well informed;” and Samuel de Veaux found him “a man of enterprising character.” 

But the other side of him later came to the fore. He was described as a “bane to the authorities, continually outwitting them and their deputies by his cunning and sheer daring.”  By the time of his death from exposure in 1849 Forsyth had established himself as the district’s king of smugglers, a reputation challenged only by Smugglin’ Sam Johnston. 

Rover Forsyth the Saskatchewan Road Runner.  In 1905 distance running was a premier sport in Saskatchewan and none excelled at this sport as much as a young man from Caron did. 

That youth was Rover Forsyth.  He had come to Caron from Ontario with his parents when he was nine years old.  When he was a youngster he would roam for miles around the countryside, looking for arrowheads and other Indian relics.  That was how he acquired the nickname of Rover.  Much of the time he preferred to run instead of walking and eventually he began to time himself.  Soon he was making his mark as a track star in Saskatchewan. 

Forsyth’s name was synonymous in Saskatchewan with winning road races.  He won the Regina standard 10 mile race in 1910, 1911, and 1912; the Moose Jaw News race three times; and the Winnipeg Telegram road race in 1910 and 1911.  As a result of the latter win Rover was selected to travel to Stockholm in Sweden to represent Canada in the 1912 Olympics.  He finished 15th in the marathon. 

During the war Forsyth competed in numerous allied service meets. And when the war was over he competed in track and field events in both the Canadian and Saskatchewan championships.  In addition to his running he won championships in the discus and pole vault.


Forsyth Names

  • Alexander Forsyth was the inventor of the percussion lock which did much for musketry in the 18th century.
  • William Forsyth was an 18th century horticulturist after whom the flowering plant forsythia was named.
  • Frederick Forsyth is the British author of thrillers like The Day of the Jackal. 
  • Bruce Forsyth, born Bruce Forsyth Johnson, has been an English TV personality of great longevity, from Saturday Night at the London Palladium in the 1950’s to Strictly Come Dancing in 2010.

Forsyth Numbers Today

  • 12,000 in the UK (most numerous in Dumfries)
  • 7,000 in America (most numerous in Tennessee)
  • 12,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Forsyth and Like Surnames 

These are surnames from the Scottish Lowlands.  Some are clan names; some – like Gordon, Graham and Hamilton – have Anglo-Norman antecedents that crossed the border into Scotland; and some – like Douglas and Stewart – were very powerful in early Scottish history.  Stewart in fact became the royal Stuart line.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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