Gordon Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Gordon Surname Meaning

The Scottish surname Gordon originated from the place-name Gordon in 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 12th century.

Gordon is also a Jewish name, possibly dating back to the 17th century. 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 Surname Resources on The Internet

Gordon Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Aberdeenshire) and from Jewish emigrants
  • to Ireland (Ulster), Wales, England, America, Caribs (Jamaica) and South Africa

Scotland. 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 Aberdeenshire in the 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 traditional tribal clan. Huntly castle, originally Strathbogie castle, was the Gordon seat from the 14th to the late 17th century. In the 15th century, Alexander Seton was created Lord Gordon and his son Alexander became the first Earl of Huntly. The family built Abergeldie castle around this time.

By then the Gordons were becoming known as the “bowl o’ meal Gordons.” The Earl was said to have rewarded anyone who adopted the name of Gordon with a gift of oatmeal.  “The Gordons subsequently became one of 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 early 1700’s;
  • 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.

Hugh Gordon, born in the area in 1766, had somewhat obscure origins.  But he got a job with the East India Company and made his fortune in India.  Returning in 1804, he established the Manar family estate outside of Aberdeen, which his elder son James inherited.  His younger son Hugh emigrated to Australia in 1836 and made his home at Manar, NSW.

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 flax growers.

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 of Gordon.

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.

England. Alexander 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.

Another Gordon family – apparently well-to-do – were shipowners and shipbuilders along the Thames at Deptford.  The father David Gordon succeeded his brother as the Laird of Abergeldie in 1819 and his sons Charles, Michael and Adam ran the Deptford yard until the 1840’s.

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 printing press, the Gordon Letterpress. Marian Otis’s 1999 book Alexander Gordon and His Descendants followed these Gordons.

Thomas and Charles Gordon from Aberdeen arrived at the East Jersey colony of Perth Amboy in the early 1680’s. Later Gordons moved to Georgia and Kentucky.

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 Carolina 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 1897.

Jewish Gordons.  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.

Caribbean. Joseph 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.

South Africa.  There were early Gordons in South Africa, but coming from Holland.

Robert Jacob Gordon, Scots in ancestry but was born in Holland, was in Cape Town for the Dutch between 1775 and 1795 when he committed suicide after control of the Cape colony was wrested from the Dutch by the British.  His four sons, all born in Cape Town, returned to Europe with their mother after his death.

A generation later came David Benjamin Gordon, possibly related, from the Dutch Frisian coastline.  His four sons by two wives arrived in Cape Town, it is thought, sometime in the 1830’s or 1840’s.  His eldest son Robyn married into the well-established Faure family of Huguenot origin which had come to South Africa back in 1714.

Australia. Robert and Ann Gordon arrived in Sydney in 1817 from Limerick in Ireland on board the military transport Matilda. Ann Gordon 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 later moved to Waitekauri, New Zealand.

George William Gordon came to Wollongong from London in the early 1900’s.  He fought in World War One, but died in Wollongong soon after.

Gordon Surname Miscellany

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 Gordons hold.

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 it.”

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.

Reader Feedback – Gordons in South Africa.  Do you have any information on the siblings Robyn, Benjamin and July Gordon, believed to have been originally from Scotland?

Their father, David Benjamin Gordon, was married twice.  From his first wife came his eldest son Robyn, born in 1814 who married Rachel Faure; then  Benjamin. born in 1818 who married Sahra van Boom; and then July, born in 1820 who married Dorothea Zeegers.  After his first wife died, David Benjamin married Dorothea (who was born in Bali) in 1824.

The questions I have are:

  • who were David Benjamin’s parents and grandparents?
  • who was the mother to his three sons?
  • when did they immigrate to South Africa?
  • and where were they originally from?

Any information you may have will assist me greatly in tracking my ancestry.  Thank you.

Duane Gordon (Duane.Gordon@rheinmetall-denelmunition.com).

Reader Feedback – Gordons in Ceylon/Sri Lanka.  I would like to know how the Gordon surname came to Ceylon.  Shyamen Gordon (s.sasimal1984@gmail.com).

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 girls etc.

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 in 1836.

Gordons in Wollongong, NSW.  George William Gordon, born in Greenwich outside of London in 1877, departed for Australia in the early 1900’s, settling in Wollongong, NSW.  He fought in World War One with the 1st Light Horse Regiment but died soon after – possibly of war wounds.  His memorial read as follows:

“In loving memory of my dear husband and our father George William Gordon, who died suddenly on April 5th, 1921.

  • ‘So short and sudden was the call,
  • His sudden death surprised us all;
  • Only those who have lost are able to tell
  • The pain in our hearts at not saying farewell.’

Inserted by his loving wife and family, Wollongong.”

Gordon Names

  • 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.
  • Robert Jacob Gordon was the Dutch Governor of the Cape colony who killed himself in 1795 when the British took control of Cape Town.
  • 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.
  • Sir Donald Gordon, born to Jewish immigrant parents, rose to prominence in South Africa in the 1980’s in insurance and in retail marketing.
  • Dexter Gordon was an American jazz tenor saxophonist of the post-bebop era.

Gordon Numbers Today

  • 55,000 in the UK (most numerous in Surrey)
  • 60,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 31,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

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.



Click here for return to front page

Written by Colin Shelley

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *