Gordon Surname Meaning, History & Origin
Berwickshire on the Scottish borders, this name deriving from the Old
Gaelic gor meaning “large” or
“spacious” and dun meaning
“fort.” It became adopted by an Anglo-Norman family there in the
Its most likely source is a place-name of Grodno in Belarus near the
Polish/Lithuanian border. The Gordon name featured among the late
19th century Jews of Bialystok.
Gordon Resources on
- House of Gordon. Gordon clan website.
- The Gordons of Kenmure. The Gordons of Kenmure
and the story of young Lochinvar.
- Doug Gordon Family History. Gordons of New Jersey.
- Old Gordon Gravestones. Descendants of Alexander Gordon, prisoner to Massachusetts.
- Gordon Family History. Ann Gordon of the
Parammata Female Facory in Australia.
- Gordon DNA Project. Gordon DNA.
The Gordons are believed to have been originally of Norman
descent. The name started to appear in the Borders in the 12th
century. It was Sir Adam de Gordon, a friend of William Wallace,
who was appointed to the lordship of Strathbogie and Badenoch by Robert
the Bruce in 1319. He brought the name and the family to
northeast of the country.
Within these Gordons three early branches emerged:
- the Jock
and Tam Gordons, from Jock Gordon of Scurdargue and Tam
Gordon of Ruthven dating back to the 1360’s. They were said to
have had twenty two sons between them.
- the Sir William Gordon branch, from Sir William, the son of Sir
Adam, who remained in the Borders.
- and the Seton-Gordon branch, stemming from Elizabeth de Gordon –
cousin to Jock and Tam – who married Alexander Seton, with Seton taking
the Gordon name. The main Gordon line continued here.
These Gordons were at first major landowners there, rather than the
tribal clan. Huntly castle, originally Strathbogie castle, was
Gordon seat from the 14th to the late 17th century. In
the 15th century, Alexander Seton was created Lord Gordon and his
son became the first Earl of Huntly. By that time the Gordons
were becoming known as the “bowl o’ meal Gordons.” The Earl was
anyone who adopted the name of Gordon with a gift of oatmeal.
the most powerful clans in Scotland, so strong in the Highlands that
their chief was known as ‘Cock o’ the North.’”
Clan feuds and battles were frequent in the 16th and 17th
centuries. The Gordons came up against Mary Queen of
Scots in the 1550’s and were also caught up in the English
Civil War. George Gordon, the seventh earl, lost his head in 1647
for supporting the Royalist cause. However, the Gordons were
returned to their
titles and estates with the Restoration.
They had split
allegiances over the Jacobite uprisings in the 18th century, with clan
members fighting on both sides. In 1794 the Duke of Gordon raised
and recruited the 92nd Highlanders which became
renowned for their famous charge at Waterloo. They became
known as the Gordon Highlanders and, colloquially, as the Gay Gordons.
Gordon history was told in Edward Gordon’s 1949 books History of the House of Gordon.
Other Gordons from Aberdeen were:
- Alexander Gordon, the 16th century
bishop of Galloway
- John Gordon, an Aberdeen merchant and MP of the
- and Robert Gordon, another Aberdeen merchant at that time
who prospered in the Baltic trade and funded the building now known as
the Robert Gordon University.
Ireland. The Scots
brought the Gordon name to Ireland
during the plantation era of the 17th century. Thus the surname
has been most common in Ulster. One Gordon family dates from
about 1680 in Ballynahinch in county Down; while Robert Gordon had
acquired the Florida manor estate in the same county through marriage
in 1755. Gordons in Mayo date from around 1800. They were
Many of these Scots Irish Gordons later
emigrated, first to America. Nathaniel Gordon, for instance,
left his home in county Tyrone for Massachusetts in 1749. Others
left in the
19th century for Australia.
There were Irish Gordons as well. The Gaelic names Mag
Mhuirneacháin and Mórbhoirneach became Gordon in some instances,
in particular in Connacht.
Wales. Charles Gordon, a
son of the Duke of Gordon, had fought at Culloden in 1746 and then fled
the scene of
battle after the defeat. He ended up in Carnarvon in north Wales
where he was captured and executed. However, he left a family
there, the Gordon Hopes, who in 1836 made claim to the vacant dukedom
There was also a Gordon family from the Gower in south Wales which had
changed their name from Gorton to Gordon in the 18th century.
Gordon, a Scot, had opened a gin distillery in the Southwark area of
London in 1769, later moving it to Clerkenwell. The Special
London Dry Gin he developed proved successful and its recipe has
remained unchanged to this day. The business boomed in 1850 under
grandson Charles after Parliament removed the export tax on gin and
Gordon’s could profitably be shipped around the empire.
There were army Gordons in London as well, notably the family of the
artillery officer Henry Gordon. His son Charles Gordon is
remembered for his campaigns in China and north Africa and in
particular for his vainglorious death at the fall of Khartoum in
1884. Gordon was supposedly Queen Victoria’s favorite general and
his memory has been preserved.
America. The first Gordon
in America was probably Alexander Gordon, born in Aberdeen, who was
captured by Cromwell’s soldiers in 1651 and deported to Boston as an
indentured servant. Ten years later he was able to secure his
release and find employment at a sawmill in Exeter, New
Hampshire. His descendants moved onto Salem, New Hampshire.
George Gordon, born there, developed the design of the most common
the Gordon Letterpress. Marian Otis’s 1999 book Alexander Gordon and His Descendants
followed these Gordons.
Charles Gordon from Aberdeen arrived at the East Jersey
colony of Perth Amboy in the early 1680’s. Later Gordons moved to
Gordons in the South.
William Gordon was mayor of Savannah and the founder of
Georgia’s first railroad. Gordon county in Georgia was named
after him. A later Gordon of this line was Daisy Gordon, founder
of the Girl Scouts of America in 1912.
Another southern line began with John Gordon who had come to North
from Scotland sometime in the 1720’s. Grandson Zachariah
established himself in Upson county Georgia, a preacher and a planter
and in his later life an owner of a mineral spring resort; while his
son, John Brown, was one of Robert E. Lee’s
most trusted Confederate generals during the Civil War. After the
war, John Brown Gordon became a strong opponent of Reconstruction and
was thought by some to have been the titular leader of the Klu Klux
Klan in Georgia during the late 1860’s. His long political
career, as a Senator and Governor of Georgia, extended from 1873 to
Gordon in America could be a Jewish name. Harold Gordon was a
Nazi concentration camp survivor from Grodno who settled in Salinas,
California after the war. Michael Gordon, the film director
blacklisted during the McCarthy era,
was brought up in a Jewish household in Baltimore.
Gordon had came to Jamaica from Scotland as an attorney for a number of
absentee landlords. He purchased a number of their estates,
including Cherry Garden where the second of his seven children of a
union with a mulatto slave woman was born.
This son George William, who was later to acquire the estate, was
arrested and then hanged for his alleged role in the Morant Bay
rebellion of 1865. His name has lived on as a martyr and
“National Hero of Jamaica.” The Parliament of Jamaica meets in the
Gordon House, built in 1960 and named in his memory.
Australia. Robert and Ann Gordon arrived in Sydney in 1817
from Limerick in Ireland on board the military transport Matilda.
was to become the matron of the second Parramatta Female
Factory, an asylum for female convicts, from 1827 to 1836. Other
Gordons from Ireland were:
- John Gordon and his family from county Down who came to Sydney on
the Mandarin in 1837.
His father David had earlier been transported to Australia as a convict.
- William and Jane Gordon from Belfast who arrived on the Wilson five years later. They
later settled to farm in Jamberoo, NSW.
- and Thomas Gordon from county Tyrone who married Margaret
McKenzie in Wollongong, NSW in 1871 and who later moved to Waitekauri,
The Jock and Tam and Sir William Gordon Branches. The Jock and Tam Gordon branch is the oldest documented and largest
branch of the Gordons, dating back to the Laird of Gordon who died in
the Battle of Standard in 1138. John (Jock) Gordon of Scurdargue
was born in 1360 and Thomas (Tam) Gordon of Ruthven in 1362.
The line from the Laird of Gordon also went via Sir Adam de Gordon, who
had ventured north to the Highlands in the 1320’s, to his son Sir
William who stayed behind in the Borders. Sir William maintained
the original Gordon seat there and was the progenitor of the Gordon
houses of Kenmore and Lochinvar.
The Gordons and Mary, Queen of Scots. In 1550 Queen Mary, marching eastward through Huntly’s country,
encountered him with her army on the slopes of Corrichie on Deeside.
The battle ended disastrously for the Gordons. The
Earl, a stout and full-blooded man, having been taken prisoner, was set
upon a horse before his captor when he was suddenly seized with
apoplexy and fell to the ground dead. His body, produced in
Parliament in a mean sackcloth dress, was condemned to forfeiture of
his titles and estates.
His son, Sir John Gordon, was butchered by a bungling
executioner at the Cross of Aberdeen, while Mary was compelled by her
brother to look on at the horrid end of the man whom, it was said, she
had once dearly loved.
At the same time George, the eldest surviving son, was
sentenced in the barbarous fashion of the time to be hanged, drawn, and
quartered and only escaped by the special clemency of the Queen.
She later appointed him Chancellor in 1565 and reversed the sentence of
forfeiture against his house.
The Gay Gordons. The Gay Gordons is a nickname of the Gordon Highlanders, a British army regiment which distinguished itself at the Battle of
Waterloo. “Gay” here has the Scots meaning of “extraordinary,”
rather than its usual English meaning.
The Gay Gordons became in the 19th century a popular Scottish
dance in which every couple dances the same steps, usually in a circle
around the room.
There are two versions of this dance, both having the same
formation. Couples face anticlockwise round the room, with the
lady on the gentleman’s right. Couples then join hands with each
other, the lady puts both hands in the air at about head height and the
man holds her left hand with his left hand in front of his chest and he
holds her right hand with his right hand just to the right of her head,
taking hold of her hand from behind. This is known as the Gay
The East Jersey Gordons. The East Jersey colony of America was an organized venture of the
Lowland Scottish families. The first settlement was in the area
of the city of Perth Amboy. It was a carefully planned
settlement, with each of the various proprietors and fractioners being
given plots of land according to their individual shares.
The settlement included two Gordons. Looking at a map, the
Gordon lands near Aberdeen would be in the northern region of Scotland,
generally considered as the Highlands. However, Aberdeen is
actually on the coastal plain of the country and was possibly more
closely tied to the Lowland society and economy than to the Highlands.
Robert Gordon had three sons who traveled together to the
East Jersey colony in 1681 – John, Thomas, and Charles. Not much
is known about John’s fate. But Thomas and Charles both secured
land in Perth Amboy. Charles wrote enthusiastically to his cousin back
in Scotland in 1685 as follows:
“Several thousand people are here
already, and no want of good company, as in any place in the
world. I intend to follow planting myself, and if I had the small
stock here I have in Scotland, with some more servants, I would not go
home to Aberdeen for a Regency as was proffered me; neither do I intend
Thomas was the more prominent of the two brothers and started a line
that has many descendants down to today. Charles, on the other
hand, died intestate in 1698, leaving behind only a few possessions.
Nathaniel Gordon and Family of Ireland and Massachusetts. Nathaniel Gordon left his home in county Tyrone with his
wife and three children for Massachusetts in 1749. They arrived
first in Boston and later settled in Peterborough, Massachusetts.
John, his eldest son, was a brewer by trade and went into
business in Boston in the 1750’s with the great Samuel Adams.
The other son Samuel was a farmer who settled in
Peterborough (his place there was known as Gordon’s farm). He had
met his wife Eleanor, also Scots Irish, in Boston where she had sought
sanctuary after her father had been killed in Nova Scotia in the French
wars and much of her family had been wiped out by smallpox. Both
Samuel and Eleanor were staunch Presbyterians. Samuel lived onto
86, dying in Peterborough in 1818.
Ann Gordon and the Parramatta Female Factory. Gordonville on the upper Bellinger river in New
South Wales likely had its origin in the history of one of the former
colony of New South Wales’s most important early institutions – the
second Parramatta Female Factory. The Female Factory was
the destination upon arrival of all convicted women transported to the
colony not immediately assigned as servants upon arrival in Sydney.
Ann Gordon was its longest serving matron. During the nine years
she was in charge her name became synonymous with the Female Factory
and in public sentiment reached almost mythic proportions.
GordonVille was one of over 30 descriptions that included her name –
such as Mrs Gordon’s villa, Mrs Gordon’s country seat, Gordon’s
seminary, academy, Gordon’s nunnery, Gordonized, Gordon’s school for
On the day prior to Ann Gordon taking up her appointment in 1827 the
inmates rioted and the following day broke out of the factory and went
on a rampage through Parramatta. Another riot occurred in
February 1831. On this occasion it was reported Ann Gordon was
seized by some inmates and had her hair cut. The women again
broke out and headed towards Parramatta, but were stopped by the police
and soldiers before reaching the township.
Ann Gordon had her critics. Some wanted the matron to adopt a
harsher regime and there were accusations against her husband Robert of
misconduct with female inmates. She was relieved of her position
- Sir Adam de Gordon first brought the Gordon name and Gordon family to Aberdeenshire in the early 14th century.
- Alexander Gordon started up Gordon’s Gin in London in 1769.
- Lord George Gordon, born into
the Scottish nobility, was a colorful politician in England, best known
for lending his name to the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780 and for converting to Judaism.
- General Charles Gordon was the British 19th century army officer known posthumously as Gordon of Khartoum. He famously died after his
forces had been besieged by Mahdi forces in Khartoum in 1884.
- Dexter Gordon was a jazz tenor
saxophonist of the post-bebop era.
Select Gordon Numbers Today
- 55,000 in the UK (most numerous
- 60,000 in America (most numerous in California)
- 31,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)
Select Gordon 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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