Hamilton Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Hamilton Surname Meaning

The Hamiltons were Scots who rose to be a leading family in Scotland in the 16th century. Their forebear was Walter de Hameldone who owned property near Paisley in Renfrewshire in 1294 and featured in the Ragman Roll of 1296.  He was Anglo-Norman by origin.

They had taken their name from the now deserted village of Hamilton in Leicestershire through which they had passed on their way to Scotland. The name Hamilton comes from the Old English hamel meaning “crooked” and dun “hill.”

Hamilton Surname Resources on The Internet

Hamilton Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Lanarkshire)
  • to Ireland (Ulster), America, Caribs (Grenada), Canada, Australia and New Zealand

Scotland.  One Hamilton family became one of the most important of the Scottish Lowland families.  

The Hamilton Family. Walter fitz Gilbert or Walter de Hameldone was the progenitor of this family.  He was in the early 1300’s involved in conflicts with the English, as were many of his descendants. James Hamilton in fact was held hostage in 1424 by the English in the ransom of the Scottish king.

James’s son James became Lord Hamilton in 1445 and their home of Cadzow in Lanarkshire was renamed Hamilton. The next two Lord Hamiltons were close to the Scottish throne and each acted as Regent during the turbulent times of the 16th century. The Hamiltons had even been tempted by the throne itself as there was a linkage through marriage between these Hamiltons and the royal Stewarts.

However, they later suffered for their support of the Royalist cause during the English Civil War. James, Duke of Hamilton, was executed in 1649.

Subsequent Dukes of Hamilton had mixed fortunes, in love and in money matters.  Their family seat was Hamilton Palace in SE Glasgow, from 1695 until its forced sale and demolition in 1921.  Still, their chief is considered the premier Duke of Scotland.  And there have been several branches of the family, some descending from illegitimate sons.  One line of Hamiltons were the lairds of Grange in Ayrshire dating back to the 1500’s.

Other Hamiltons.  Some Hamiltons in Scotland may have derived their name from the town rather than from the family. The surname is the 29th most common in Scotland today.  Many Hamiltons from Scotland and from Ireland achieved distinction in the British army and navy during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Many Hamiltons were to be found in Glasgow:

  • John Hamilton of Northpark was a Glasgow merchant in the late 1700’s and three times the town’s Lord Provost.  His son George was a Jamaican plantation owner who retired back to Scotland in the 1850’s.
  • while Pollokshields in south Glasgow was the suburban home in 1851 of  grain merchant Thomas Hamilton.  The Hamilton fountain in Maxwell Park graces the community today.

Robert Hamilton from Ayr moved to Jamaica in the 1730’s where he became rich from sugar plantations and trade.  He then returned to Ayrshire and bought Rozelle House as his home in 1754.  The house remained in family hands until the 1960’s.  Meanwhile Hamiltons at Closeburn in Dumfriesshire date from the early 1700’s.  A family line started here with the marriage of James Hamilton and Isabella Strachan in 1775.

Ireland.  The Hamilton name arrived in Ireland at the time of the Ulster Plantation.

Ulster.  One James Hamilton from the Hamilton line, a strong supporter of King James I of England and Scotland, was created the Earl of Abercorn in 1603 and rewarded with large estates at Strabane in county Tyrone.  Francis Hamilton from his line moved to Dover in England in the 1730’s.  Meanwhile Hugh Hamilton from Blantyre was an early Strabane settler.

James Hamilton from Ayrshire secured land tracts in county Down as early as 1606, which were sublet to Scottish tenants.  Alexander Hamilton of Killyleagh was born in Down in 1615.  Killyleagh castle has remained in Hamilton hands since that time.

Other Hamiltons received land grants elsewhere in Ulster – in Antrim, Fermanagh, and Cavan – during the plantation period.  George Hamilton’s 1933 book A History of the House of Hamilton covered the many Hamilton branches that came to Ulster at this time.

The Earl of Abercorn and his descendants were Catholic and much of their land was confiscated in 1650 and again in 1690 after the Battle of the Boyne (while another Hamilton who fought on the Protestant side was given the title of Viscount Boyne and received lands at Stackallan in Meath).

However, these Hamiltons were able to resume their position during the 18th and 19th centuries. They became the Dukes of Abercorn and assumed aristocratic airs:  “The first Duke always went out shooting in his Blue Ribbon Noble Order of the Garter and required the housemaids to wear white kid gloves when they made his bed.”  

They were active Unionists at the time of Home Rule. James Hamilton, the 3rd Duke of Abercorn, was made the first Governor of Northern Ireland, a post he held between 1922 and 1945.

John and Esther Hamilton had farmed at Ballykelly in county Derry in the 1830’s.  Their son Samuel emigrated to New York at the time of the Great Famine.  He soon made his way to California where he purchased land for a farm in the Salinas Valley.  The American writer John Steinbeck was a descendant of his through his daughter Olive.

Irish.  Hamilton in Ireland may in some cases have displaced Hamill and been used as an anglicization of the Cork name O’hUrmholtaigh.

America. Three notable early Hamiltons in America were:

  • Alexander Hamilton, the first US Secretary of the Treasury
  • Paul Hamilton, Governor of South Carolina in 1804.
  • and James Hamilton, Governor of South Carolina in 1830.

Alexander Hamilton had arrived in America in 1772.  He had in fact been born out of wedlock on Nevis in the British West Indies. His father, who soon disappeared, was the younger son of a Scottish laird of Grange in Ayrshire.

He was George Washington’s military aide during the Revolutionary War and was later the first US Secretary of the Treasury.  He famously died in a duel with Aaron Burr in 1804.  His son William moved to Illinois and was an early developer of lead mining in Wisconsin; his grandson Alexander was a Unionist general in the Civil War.

A Paul Hamilton had come to South Carolina to seek his fortune sometime in the 1720’s.  Having inherited some money from his father, he built himself a brick house home at his plantation on Edisto island. A later Paul Hamilton fought in the Revolutionary War and became Governor of South Carolina in 1804 and then US Secretary of the Navy.

James Hamilton meanwhile had been born in Pennsylvania of Scots Irish parents in 1750.  He distinguished himself in the Revolutionary War, in fact receiving the British flag of surrender at Yorkville. His son rose to prominence in South Carolina and became its Governor in 1830. He was an early promoter of the state of Texas.

Other Hamiltons, many of them Scots Irish, also came to Pennsylvania:

  • Andrew Hamilton who had arrived in Philadelphia around 1700 and was a well-known lawyer there, as was his son James.
  • Captain Hance Hamilton, who led a Scots Irish group to America in 1729 and to what became Hamiltonban township in York county.
  • and John Hamilton and his family who left Scotland for Pennsylvania in 1769 and eventually settled in Washington county. Hamiltons are still there.

And Scots Irish Hamiltons came as well to the Carolinas:

  • Thomas and Jane Hamilton came to North Carolina around 1750.  Their sons Thomas and James fought in the Revolutionary War.  After the war the Hamiltons moved to Tennessee.  Robert Hamilton was an early settler in Texas in the 1830’s and was a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence.
  • while James Hamilton was born in North Carolina in 1785.  He was the forebear of Andrew Hamilton, a man who moved to Texas in 1846 and later served as its Governor.

Caribbean.  Robert Hamilton from Ayr acquired two plantations in Jamaica – Pemberton Valley and La Rochelle – through marriage in 1734.  He returned rich to Scotland after just ten years, although members of his family remained to run the plantations.

In the late 1700’s the Hamiltons also owned the Samaritan estate in Grenada,  which was the largest sugar plantation on the island.

A possible linkage has been made between slaves at the estate and ancestors of the F1 motor racing champion Lewis Hamilton.  Lewis’s grandfather Davidson Hamilton left Grenada in 1955 to work as a bus driver in London.  His family later settled in Stevenage.

Canada.  Robert Hamilton, like other Scotsmen of his time, was drawn to Canada by the fur trade. He arrived in 1780, soon established himself as a merchant in the Niagara area, and expanded his fortunes through successful land speculation. His son George was the developer of Hamilton, Ontario.

The brothers William and George Hamilton came to Canada from county Meath in Ireland around 1805.  After a while they became owners of a sawmill in Hawkesbury, Ontario, which they expanded to be one of the largest lumber operations in Canada.

Australia.  Richard Hamilton from Dover in Kent was the first wine-maker in the new colony of South Australia.  A tailor by profession, his knowledge of wine was thought to have come from a little French wine smuggling he did on the side.

Having arrived in South Australia with his family on the Katherine Stewart Forbes in 1837, he started wine production three years later on land six miles south of Adelaide.  The wine-making is still going strong at McLaren Vale under Hugh Hamilton, the fifth generation descendant.

New Zealand.  David Hamilton and Margaret Lister from Glasgow married in 1859 and later came to New Zealand, apparently on different ships (although their daughter was born during the voyage).  David drowned in 1877 but Margaret, who raised their four children, lived on at Fairlie on South Island until 1929.

After his wife left him in 1863, John Hamilton sold his farm in county Monaghan in Ireland and departed for New Zealand.  He ran a coaching service in Wellington, acquired hotels and gold mines, and became a wealthy man.  When he died in 1911 he called himself a settler.

Lewis Hamilton’s Family Ancestry

The F1 motor-racing champion Lewis Hamilton has an ancestry that goes back to the small island of Grenada in the Caribbean.  Just click below if you want to read more about this history:

Hamilton Surname Miscellany

The Hamiltons and the Alstons.   According to a 17th century tradition the ancestor of the Scottish Alstons fled to Scotland from England during the reign of Edward II in the early 1300’s.

He was a retainer of Lord Hamilton who had killed Lord Spencer in a duel.  Hamilton was pursued and to escape he disguised himself as a sawyer.  Alston rode on with Hamilton’s clothes and horses, acting as a decoy.

This incident, according to the story, was the origin of the Hamilton crest – an oak tree being cut by a frame-saw.

The Early Hamiltons.  Walter de Hameldone owned property near Paisley in Renfrewshire in 1294.  In the Scottish War of Independence in 1290-1305, he was the governor of Bothwell castle and initially loyal to the English King.

But he came across to the side of Robert the Bruce.  He was rewarded by Bruce with portions of confiscated Comyn lands in Lothian and Lanarkshire, including the lands at Cadzow which would in time be the town of Hamilton.

The family’s power grew from their continued loyalty to the Scottish crown.  In 1346, whilst fighting for David II at the Battle of Neville’s Cross, Walter’s son Sir David was captured with his King and the two were not released until  after the payment of an enormous ransom. 

The Hamilton Temptation.  James Hamilton, the 2nd Earl of Arran, was chosen as Regent of Scotland following the death of James V and in 1542 was declared Heir Presumptive of the Crown.  As Regent he promoted the marriage of Mary Queen of Scots to the Dauphin of France.

However, he later resigned the Regency and, after opposing the marriage of the widowed Queen Mary to Lord Darnley in 1565, he went abroad for a period of four years.

He returned in 1569 to oppose the Regencies of the Earl of Moray and the Earl of Lennox.  The former was assassinated by James Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh and the latter killed by other Hamiltons.  The Regency then passed to the Earl of Morton, the husband of his wife’s sister Elizabeth, who lost it in 1578 and was executed in 1581.

James Hamilton’s claim to the Crown had come about because his grandfather, the 1st Lord Hamilton, had married Mary, the daughter of King James II.  Much of his life was influenced by his closeness in blood to the Queen.  He was tempted by the Crown itself on a number of occasions, but never in the end succumbed.

His eldest son James Hamilton had been proposed as a husband for Queen Elizabeth of England and later as a husband for Mary, Queen of Scots.  In 1562, however, he was judged insane, although he was probably only scatterbrained, and he gave up his titles.

The Hamilton’s Mixed Fortunes in Love Matters.  James, the sixth Duke of Hamilton. was known for his womanizing.

He met society beauty Elizabeth Gunning on Valentine’s Day 1752 and demanded to marry her that same night!  When the local parson refused, James and Elizabeth were secretly married at Mayfair House. Elizabeth’s wedding band was a curtain ring stripped from a bed.  However, James died after catching a cold when out hunting only six years later.

Then there was Douglas, the eighth Duke, who was a handsome, incurable romantic.  He risked the wrath of his family by marrying Elizabeth Anne Burrell, the fourth daughter of a barrister, in 1776.

Theirs was a love match which sadly descended into misery. Douglas was a paramour, with many mistresses and two illegitimate children. Elizabeth, on the other hand, never bore an heir. They divorced by Act of Parliament in 1794.  It has been suggested that the Scottish reel Hamilton House was named after this duke and his duchess.  The changes of partner reflected their real-life infidelities.

The Hamiltons in Ireland.  The main Hamilton presence in Ireland was those Hamiltons, ennobled as the Earls of Abercorn, who held estates at Strabane in county Tyrone.

Other Hamilton holdings at the time of the Ulster plantations were reported at:

  • Ballymoney in county Antrim
  • Mullaghbrack and Fewes in county Armagh
  • Magheriboy in county Fermanagh
  • and Tuyllyhunco in county Cavan.

These properties could be readily bought and sold.  Sir James Carew, for instance, had the following to say about the Hamilton’s business dealings in 1611:

“Sir Alexander Hamilton, entitled to 2,000 acres in the county of Cavan, has not appeared.  His son Claud took possession and brought three servants and six artificers.  Besides there arrived upon that portion twelve tenants and artificers who intend to reside there.”

Before the end of the year Sir Claud sold his lands to John Hamilton, his agent.  He in turn sold them to William Lawderin Scotland in 1614.  When William Lawder died in 1618, his son sold the lands to Sir Alexander Hamilton, Sir Claud’s father. In this way the lands made their way back to the Hamilton family.

Hugh Hamilton, Early Strabane Settler.  Hugh Hamilton came from Priestland at Blantyre near Glasgow.  In the early stages of the Plantation, he and his brother William moved to the Strabane area where he worked as a merchant.

In 1615 he was granted the townland of Lisdivin by the Earl of Abercorn.  His rent was to be either £6 in cash or a cask of French wine, one pound of good pepper, four pounds of loaf sugar and a box of marmalade.

The Alexander Hamilton Museum in Nevis.  The island of Nevis in the Caribbean was the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton, the first US Secretary of the Treasury.

He was born there around the year 1757.  His parents were James Hamilton, the fourth son of a Scottish laird in Ayrshire, and Rachel Fawcett Lavien, the daughter of a Nevisian doctor descended from French Huguenots.  They never married, although their liaison lasted about fifteen years.

Alexander was their second son.  He migrated to the North American colonies for educational purposes, got caught up in the American Revolution, and became George Washington’s chief military aide.

His name lives on in Nevis.  The Alexander Hamilton Museum in Charlestown interprets the life of Alexander Hamilton, as well as offering a view on the history and culture of Nevis.

Colonel Hance Hamilton in Pennsylvania.  In 1729 the Governor of Pennsylvania set out a request to bring in fighting men in order to stop any further encroachment on their territory by Maryland.

In response some one hundred and forty families were brought over from Ulster.  Their leader was Captain Hance Hamilton. These families landed at New Castle, Delaware and almost immediately went to what is now Adams county, Pennsylvania where they took up land and began to build their homes.

Hamilton remained the leader of this group of families.  He made his home in Menallen township next to the Hamiltonban township in which he probably had some naming rights.   It is possible that this Hamiltonban name came about from the bawn (a fortified courtyard with stone or earthen walls) built by Hamilton as a defense against the Indians who were marauding the area.  He had earned a reputation as an Indian fighter by this time.

Colonel Hance Hamilton died in 1772.  Later the Hamiltons made their home just north of the present site of Gettysburg where a large stone house was built.  It was used by General Lee in the Civil War as his headquarters during the Battle of Gettysburg. 

John Hamilton in Pennsylvania.  The journey began in 1769 in Scotland when John Hamilton and his wife Nancy took their two young children, Thomas and Janet, and set sail to the New World from Campbelltown. The trip probably took about three months and had to be so hard on everyone, but more so on Nancy who was pregnant with her third child John who was born while still at sea, 30 miles off the New York coastline.

The family first settled in Northumberland, Pennsylvania from the years 1770 to 1775.  John Hamilton then moved his family to Washington county, Pennsylvania and to the Hamilton plantation where for many generations to follow, this would be the Hamilton home.  It still is.

According to the Pennsylvania state archives, the father John Hamilton served as a private in the Pennsylvania Regiment Continental Line in Westmoreland county in the years 1776 and 1777.  His son John served in the reconstruction period of the American Revolution and was a Major in the War of 1812.

Reader Feedback – Hamiltons in Rhode Island.  I have traced my paternal Hamilton link to East Greenwich, Rhode Island. Unfortunately I have not been able to trace it back any farther. The last ancestor I can trace is William Hamilton/Hambleton who was born in 1724. He married Josiah Tarbox. Any help tracing this line would be greatly appreciated.

Kimberly Kyser (kim4k70@yahoo.com).

Hamiltons in California.  The writer John Steinbeck was a descendant of the Irish immigrant Samuel Hamilton who had fled Ireland at the time of the potato famine.  He ended up with a ranch in the Salinas Valley in California.

Steinbeck described this ranch in his novel East of Eden.

“When Samuel and Liza came to the Salinas Valley all the level land was taken, the rich bottoms, the little fertile creases in the hills, the forests, but there was still marginal land to be homesteaded, and in the barren hills, to the east of what is now King City, Samuel Hamilton homesteaded.

If the land had been any good the Hamiltons would have been rich people…From their barren hills the Hamiltons could look down to the west and see the richness of the bottom land and the greenness around the Salinas River.”

Samuel saw himself as a frontiersman and pioneer.

Hamilton Names

  • James Hamilton became Lord Hamilton in 1445 and was the first to adopt Hamilton as a surname.
  • James, Duke of Hamilton, was Charles I’s supporter in Scotland during the Civil War. Like his King he was tried and executed in 1649.
  • Alexander Hamilton was an early 18th century Scottish privateer who wrote an account of his experiences in the East Indies in 1727.
  • Alexander Hamilton was the first US Secretary of the Treasury in 1789.  He was killed in a duel in 1804.
  • Emma Hamilton was the mistress of Admiral Horatio Nelson.
  • George Hamilton founded the city of Hamilton in Ontario.
  • Willie Hamilton was the Scots anti-monarchy MP for Fife in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
  • Lewis Hamilton is the British challenger for the most wins in the F1 motor racing championship.  He has won the F1 title six times.

Hamilton Numbers Today

  • 38,000 in the UK (most numerous in Belfast)
  • 73,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 43,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Hamilton 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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