Houston Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Houston Surname Meaning

Houston is a Scottish clan name that originated with Hugh de Padvinan, a Norman knight templar, sometime around 1160. His lands in Renfrewshire came to be called Houston. This either means Hugh’s town or, more likely, is a derivation from the Gaelic Uisdean.

Spelling.  Houston’s spelling varies. The Scottish clan can be Houston, Huston, Hourston or Houstoun. In Ireland there has been Hughston and Huseton as well as Houston and Huston. Today, the numbers are approximately 75 percent Houston and 25 percent Huston. There is also the rare Houfton name.

Pronunciation.  The pronunciation also varies. This is most evident in Houston  place-names. New Yorkers say “How” ston, Texans say “Hue”-ston.

“How”ston Street in New York was named after the aristocratic Scotsman William Houstoun; the city of “Hue”ston in Texas after the Scots-Irish Sam Houston who defeated Mexico to deliver Texas to the United States. The American physicist William “How”ston must have been confusing to his friends as  he lived in “Hue”ston for most of his life.

Houston Surname Resources on The Internet

Houston and Huston Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Lowland and Orkneys)
  • to Ireland (Ulster), America and Canada

Scotland. The first recorded Houston was Sir Finlay de Hustone who appeared on the Ragman Roll in 1296 of those swearing fealty to the English king. His family held Houston castle and the surrounding village in Renfrewshire until 1740, after which time they based themselves in Whitburn, West Lothian.

However, a Houston branch which had set themselves up nearby, the Houstons of Johnstone, prospered through the coal mines and cotton mills on their estate. Another branch in Wigtownshire, the Houstons of Cotreoch, can be traced back to the early 1500’s.

The main line of Houstons were prominent in court affairs in the 16th and 17th century, made baronets by Charles II in 1668, and subsequently prospered in the 18th century from their American holdings (to such as extent that, after the Revolutionary War, they renounced their Scottish title in favor of their American position). Meanwhile, many other Houstons had taken up the opportunities that had become available in Ireland.

Some Houstons did remain. The name spreads across Lanarkshire and into Ayrshire. Sir Robert Houston of the Renfrew side of the family grew wealthy from his shipping venture in Liverpool in the late 1800’s. In the end, however, he was very much upstaged by his louder-than-life wife, Lady Lucy Houston.

Orkneys.  Hourston is the spelling in the Orkney islands off Scotland, after the Hourston place-name in North Sandwick near Stromness.

Hew and Magnus Hourston were appointed baillies for Sandwick and Evie in 1640; and Adam Hourston was born at Stromness around the year 1719.  Thomas Hourston, born at Birsay in 1854, emigrated to Canada as a young man and was a pioneer settler in Edmonton in the Canadian West.

More recent Hourstons have been:

  • William Hourston from Evie who moved to Stromness in the 1930’s and was noted for his photography.
  • and another William Hourston who had started a jewelry shop in Kirkwall in the 1920’s which is still running today.

Ireland.  Houstons came to Ireland in the 17th century as a result of the Scottish plantations (of Protestant settlers), soldiers under Cromwell who stayed, and, later, persecuted Covenanters. They settled mainly in the Ulster counties of Antrim, Derry, Armagh, and Down.

An early arrival was Alexander Houston who operated a flax mill in Broughshane, county Antrim. David Houston was a Covenant minister who sought refuge in Ulster. He was present at the siege of Londonderry in 1689 and lived out his last years in county Antrim. John Holmes Houston was one of the founders of the Belfast Bank that was established in 1808.

Not all Houstons were well-to-do. During the early 1700’s many Houstons lost their tenancies and there began an exodus out of Ireland to America.  

America. The Scots Houstouns (“How”-stouns), as they called themselves, were one of the wealthiest families in America at the onset of the Revolutionary War.

Sir Patrick Houstoun was an early settler in Georgia, the owner of the Rosdue and Retreat plantations. A Loyalist, he lost out after the War. But son William took the American side and was elected a delegate to the Continental Congress in New York. Another son John became the Governor of Georgia in 1784. Their story is recounted in Edith Johnston’s 1950 book The Houstouns of Georgia.

There was a Huston family in Wells, Maine dating back to the early 1700’s (as described in Philip Harris’s 1952 book Hustons of New England). David Houston came to Londonderry, New Hampshire from Ulster around 1720. His son Samuel was a member of George Washington’s elite Life Guard until about 1780.

Scots Irish Arrivals.  However, the main Houston/Huston influx was of Scots Irish and they headed further south, into Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina from the 1720’s to the 1740’s:

  • John Houston arrived in Lancaster county, Pennsylvania in the 1720’s and settled in the Pequea valley. The limestone house which he built in Leacock township still stands.
  • another John Houston arrived in the same county in 1734. A descendant David Houston was one of the first settlers in Kansas.
  • Samuel Huston was an early settler in Cumberland valley, Pennsylvania in the 1730’s
  • and David Houston was one of the first land-holders in the western part of North Carolina at this time.

Then there was the John Houston who arrived in Virginia in the 1740’s and whose family later migrated to Tennessee. The grandson was a certain Sam Houston.

“Sam Houston was a wild boy. Born in the Shenandoah valley, he had run away in 1809 from the farm in Tennessee that his family had moved to after his father’s death – to live with the Cherokee Indians. He received little formal education, less than six months he himself said later.”

This Sam Houston rose to become Governor of Tennessee, but departed in acrimonious circumstances. He moved to Texas and improbably led and won the war for Texas independence. The Rev. Samuel R. Houston, the son of a first cousin to the Texas hero, published his book Biographical Sketches of the Houston Family in 1882.

Canada.  John Huston captained a schooner which supplied provisions to the British army at Fort Lawrence, Nova Scotia in the 1750’s. He subsequently settled there and was an important figure in the early history of the area (as farmer, merchant, and politician).

Another John Huston had come to Ontario from Ireland (via New York) sometime around 1818. He was a surveyor in the Peterborough area and an active correspondent with relatives back in Ireland. Much of this correspondence has been preserved. .

Charles Huston arrived in Quebec in the 1840’s. His descendants later headed west to Manitoba. At the same time came Alexander Huston, the forebear of some much more famous Hustons from Ireland. This family was to include the actor Walter Huston and his son, the film-maker John Huston.

Houston Surname Miscellany

Hugh de Padvinan.  Hugo (or Hugh) de Padvinan was a Norman knight templar who followed Walter Fitz-Allan and made his way to Scotland.

According to the historian Amelia Williams – as quoted in Cleburne Huston’s 1968 book Bold Legacy: The Story of the Houston-Huston Ancestors – Hugh led fifty of his men to the rescue of King Malcolm of Scotland and bore him to safety.  For this act he was bestowed the rank of Scottish knight and an estate in Renfrewshire.

Public records showed that land was transferred from Baldwin of Biggar, viscount of Lanarkshire, to Hugh and that this came to be called the parish of Houston. The earliest recorded documentation of Hugh was circa 1160 – when he was a witness to the signature of Walter Fitz-Allan, then holder of the lands of Strathgryffe in the valley of Clyde.

There is also literature that suggests that Hugh of Paduinan was the son of Baldwin, the viscount of Lanarkshire.  In his Sherifdoms of Lanark and Renfrew (compiled circa 1710, printed in 1831), William Hamilton wrote of the Houstons as follows: “This family is come from Baldwin de Bigeris.”  Baldwin’s landholdings included the parish of Kilpeter, which was later deeded to Hugh.

The Houstons of Johnstone.  The lands of Little Mains of Johnstone were purchased in the 1640’s by Sir Ludovick Houston of Houston, who gave them to his second son George.

The latter’s namesake became the 4th Laird of Johnstone in 1757 at the age of 14 years.  During his 58 years as Laird, he extended Johnstone Castle, developed the extensive coal mines at Quarrelton, and opened lime works at Floor Craig.  In the late 18th century Quarrelton Colliery yielded 20,000 tons of coal per year and employed 30-40 miners and 12 pit ponies.  There were also cotton mills on the Houston Estate.

In 1781 George began to sell land for housing near the Bridge of Johnstone and to plan the layout of the new town of Johnstone. He became a wealthy industrialist and was a partner in establishing the Paisley Union Bank in 1788.

Reader Feedback – The Rare Houfton Surname.  My surname is Houfton.  This is extremely rare!  In fact I am, as far as I can find out, the last remaining male Houfton of my own family. My earliest certain ancestor was John Houfton, born in 1785 in Ibstock.  My forbears mostly stem from Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.

I have a theory that when the old script letter “s” was written as an “f” then my name could possibly have originally been Houston.  Looking up Houftons almost always results in find Houstons in Scotland and Ireland, but no more Houftons in the UK except my ancestors.

Best wishes,  Benjamin Houfton (benlin@go-plus.net)

James Houston – The Marksman at the Siege of Londonderry.  W.T. Latimer’s 1902 book A History of the Irish Presbyterians narrates the following:

“James Houston was the celebrated marksman who killed the standard-bearer of King James as his Majesty approached the walls of Londonderry during the siege of 1689.  His son Christopher, a boy of nine years old, was with him during the siege.  That boy afterwards became the father of three sons, one of these being the grandfather of the Rev. James Houston of Ballindrait.”

Reader Feedback – Houstons in County Antrim.  My great grandfather was Private Leslie Houston of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. He died of wounds on the Western Front in 1914.   His father was John Houston from Ahoghill, outside of Ballymena in county Antrim. As far as I’m aware, they were related to Houstons in Scotland.  Philip Hughes (philiphughes822@gmail.com).

Houston Place Names in America.  The following places were named after famous Houstons:

Date Place Named After
1788 Houston Street, New York William Houstoun, delegate to
the Continental Congress
1821 Houston county, Georgia Governor John Houstoun of Georgia
1836 City of Houston, Texas Sam Houston, first Governor of
1837 Houston county, Texas Sam Houston, first Governor of
1903 Houston county, Alabama Governor George Smith Houston of

Then there is Hustonville, Kentucky.  In the late 1700’s, there was a settlement in Kentucky at the junction of trials linking the Kentucky River and Green Rivers and Stanford and the Falls of Ohio (now Louisville). Because of this large intersection of highly travelled trails, the settlement was known as “the Cross Roads.”

In 1826 Sam Huston opened a mercantile store and settled in the village.  During his time living there, he was able to convince state officials to route the new state road through the village. This became a landmark decision for the future of Hustonville. Shortly thereafter, the residents of the village voted to change the community’s name to Hustonville in honor of Sam Huston.

Sam Houston and Balleybolly in County Antrim.  Born in 1793 at Timber Ridge Virginia, Sam Houston was the fifth child of Samuel Houston and Elizabeth Paxton.  His family had settled in an area of the Shenandoah valley that was filling up with Ulster-Scot farms from the 1730s.   The Houstons moved to Tennessee in 1807 and it was there that Sam Houston would come into contact with the Cherokee Indians.

His association with the state of Texas remains the most remembered part of his life.  It was after the defeat of Texan forces at the Alamo that General Sam Houston would play a leading role.  His forces defeated the Mexican Santa Anna at San Jacinto on April 21, 1836 and thereby secured the independence of Texas.  Sam Houston was to become the first President of Texas and a folk hero.

Samuel Houston’s family are believed to have come from the Ballyboley/Ballybracken area of county Antrim. It appears that a Captain John Houston was granted land there during Cromwell’s time.  Today there is a General Sam Houston plaque by the Ballyboley forest entrance.  The plaque is dedicated to “one whose roots lay in these hills whose ancestor John Houston emigrated from this area.”

David Houston, A Kansas Pioneer.  David Houston’s ancestry traced back to John Houston, the founder of this branch of the Houston family in America, who had emigrated to Lancaster county, Pennsylvania in 1734.  His son William, a Revolutionary patriot, had fought at the battle of Brandywine (where he was severely wounded, taken prisoner and thrust on board a British prison ship in Philadelphia).  His son John, born in 1782, had married Grace McCall and moved to Ohio in 1800.  Son David was born there in 1827.

David, having studied law, arrived in Garnett, Kansas in 1858 to practice as a lawyer.  He had an active Civil War before, as Colonel Houston, returning to become involved in local politics.  In 1873 he purchased the Daily Commercial of Leavenworth which he edited two years before disposing of it.  He was also one of the pioneers in railroad building and for many years was a director of the Leavenworth, Lawrence & Galveston railroad.

The following tribute to him and his wife Mary appeared in 1912 in Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History:

“Colonel Houston has now reached the advanced age of eighty-four years and can look back upon a career full of years and honor, a career which for its activity and usefulness has set an unusually high standard for the future citizens of this state.  He and his wife, in a beautiful and serene old age, are still residing in Garnett in the old home, which is endeared to them by nearly a half century of associations and there they command the respect and esteem of all who know them.”

The Huston Family.  Their story began in Ireland in 1840.  It was then that Alexander Hughston and his wife Margaret decided to leave their home in Tobermore, Derry and emigrate to Canada.  They settled on a small parcel of land near Orangeville in Ontario, where they changed the spelling of their family name to Huston.  Eight years later son Robert was born on the family farm.  They remained on the farm and had three more children, Anne in 1873, Alexander in 1875, and Margaret in 1877.

It must have been rough going trying to feed four children and to eke out a living on land that seems to grow stones as readily as any other crop.  Whatever the reason, Robert gave up farming and moved his family to Toronto where he was able to get work as a building contractor.  The last of his four children, Walter, was born there in 1884.

Walter Huston began his Broadway acting career in the 1920’s and made many Hollywood movies during the 1930’s.  He is the father of the film director John Huston and the grandfather of the actress Anjelica Huston and the actor Danny Huston.

Lady Lucy Houston.  She was born Lucy Radmall, the daughter of a box-maker.  She started out at the age of fifteen as a chorus girl.  A year later, in 1873, she eloped to Paris with an older man who, on his death nine years later, set her up for life.

After a very active life and two marriages, she married in 1924 for the third time at the age of sixty seven to the Scottish shipping magnate Sir Robert Houston – a man described by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as “a hard, ruthless, unpleasant bachelor.”  They lived as tax exiles in Jersey.

When Sir Robert showed her his will, she reportedly tore it up. She said that one million pounds (a huge sum in those days) was insufficient.  Sir Robert then suffered a series of mental disorders.  He believed that his food was being poisoned and he would employ a food-taster on his yacht the Liberty.  He did die in 1926, leaving his widow £5.5 million.

Lucy returned to England with money to burn.  Today she is best known for her gifts in support of British aviation.  At the time she was known for her fascist leanings and for her admiration of Mussolini.  She is said to have paid for nine by-election meetings of the National Government to be disrupted.

Her letters were usually written on colored paper with violet ink.  She was so upset by the Abdication Crisis of 1936 that she stopped eating and soon died of a heart attack.

Houston Names

  • Sam Houston who defeated the Mexican army in 1836 was the first Governor of the state of Texas. The city of Houston was named after him.
  • Charles W. Houston was the civil rights lawyer who did much to dismantle the Jim Crow laws and paved the way for the historic 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision.
  • John Huston, of Scots-Irish and Canadian roots, was the maker of many classic American films of the 1940’s and 1950’s – such as The Maltese Falcon and The African Queen.
  • Whitney Houston was a hugely popular American singer in the 1990’s. Her cousin was Dionne Warwick and her godmother Aretha Franklin.

Houston Numbers Today

  • 9,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lanarkshire)
  • 24,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 9,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada).


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Written by Colin Shelley

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