Johnson Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Johnson Surname Meaning

Johnson is a patronymic name meaning “son of John.” John became popular as a first name in England, rivalling William, in the 13th century. It was first recorded as a surname (Jonessone) in 1287.  Some Johnsons in England may have come from Jansen and be Flemish in origin.  

Johnston and Johnstone are found in Scotland and Ireland.  These names frequently became Johnson in America, as did like names from Scandinavia.

Johnson and Johnston Surname Resources on The Internet

Johnson and Johnston Surname Ancestry

  • from Northern England, Scotland, Holland and Sweden
  • to Ireland, America, Canada and Australia

England.  Early Johnsons – who claimed descent from the Norman fitzJohns – were to be seen in Lincolnshire. 

Lincolnshire.  Archdeacon Robert Johnson was a Puritan divine from Stamford in the 16th century. Later Johnsons were found in the village of Witham and acquired Ayscoughfee Hall near Spalding, one of the landmarks of the Lincolnshire fens, in the 17th century.

Maurice Johnson of this family was known as the “antiquary” because of his founding of the Spalding Gentleman’s Club which included such notables as Alexander Pope, Isaac Newton, and Lord Tennyson. Maurice and his wife Elizabeth raised 26 children.

Flemish?  Some early Johnsons may have started out as Jansen and be Flemish in origin.

This was probably the case with a Johnson merchant family in London.  In the mid-1500’s John Johnson and his brothers were trading with Calais and Antwerp.  They had formed a company exporting wool and fells and importing other commodities such as wine and herring.

This may also have been the case with the Johnson merchant family of Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, traceable back to around 1500. They had become wealthy merchants in the town by the early 1600’s.  James Johnson was knighted for his hospitality towards Charles II, a series of lavish expenditures which ultimately cost him his fortune.  His son Thomas fled England for America in 1688.

Elsewhere.  There were also some early Johnsons in Kent in SE England.  Gerard Johnson, born around 1465, was the first of the Johnsons in Canterbury.  Captain Edward and William Johnson left there for New England in the 1630’s.  Johnsons appeared as well in the town of Sandwich.

Samuel Johnson, the composer of the first English dictionary, was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire in 1709, the son of a local bookseller who was described by Boswell as “a native of Derbyshire of obscure extraction.”

Like the other “-son” surnames, the Johnson name distribution was more north than south. In the 19th century, one third of all Johnsons in England were to be found in Yorkshire and Lancashire.  Andrew Johnson, a 19th century fish merchant in Hull, was of Danish extraction. His descendant Amy Johnson was a pioneering English aviator.  She made the first solo flight from England to Australia in 1930.

Scotland.  Johnston or Johnstone, from “John’s town” or John’s settlement in Dumfries, have been the more common names in Scotland.  Sir John Johnston of Dumfries was a Scottish landowner who signed the Ragman’s Roll in 1296.  

The Johnstons from Annandale were, until dispersed in the early 17th century, one of the larger Border reiver clans. Their war cry was: “Light Thieves All,” a demand to the enemy to dismount and surrender. Because of their ferocity, they were known ironically as “the gentle Johnstons.” To keep their chief onside after the Border pacification, he was ennobled as the Earl of Annandale.

Johnstones have come from the town of Perth which was once called St. John’s Toun (the local football team is still called St. Johnstone). Other lines were to be found at Caskieben near Aberdeen and Strathspey in the Scottish Highlands. The Strathspey family supported the Jacobite cause in 1715 and 1745 and then scattered.

Ireland. Johnsons or Johnstons in Ireland could be:

  • anglicized names from the Gaelic Mac Sean (MacShane) or Mac Eoin (McKeown)
  • or transplanted Scotsmen (mainly in Fermanagh)

One MacShane line may have produced the Johnsons of Smithstown, Meath and William Johnson of colonial New York repute.

However, it was the Scots Irish who generally predominated.  Walter (Watty Roe) Johnston was in Fermanagh by the early 1600’s and his descendants, starting with the Rev. Hugh Johnston, settled at Magheramena. The Johnston name would appear frequently among the High Sheriffs of Fermanagh during the 18th century.

George Johnston from Antrim was a leading figure during the siege of Londonderry in 1689.  His son William engineered and built the waterworks of Belfast and was known as “Pipewater Johnston.” Many of the Scots Irish Johnstons emigrated to America.

America.  Early arrivals were into Virginia.

Virginia and Maryland.  The first Johnson in America was John Johnson from Scotland who came to Virginia around 1615, survived the Indian massacre of 1622, and thereby earned the title of the ancient planter.” Meanwhile Antonio, a Negro, had been brought to Jamestown as a slave in 1621.  He subsequently became free, married a white woman, and adopted the name of Anthony Johnson.  He and his family prospered and moved to Maryland in 1665.

Thomas Johnson from Norfolk had to flee England for Maryland in 1688.  He died almost destitute in 1714.  But his grandson Thomas became the first Governor of Maryland in 1777.  Meanwhile John Johnson, also from Norfolk, had settled in Northampton county, Virginia by the 1650’s.

Three Scottish Johnstons – brothers William and John and their uncle Edward – came to New Kent county, Virginia around 1698.  Their descendants spread to Tennessee and Kentucky and other points west.  The lineage was traced in Lorand Johnson’s 1972 book The Ancestry of William and John Johnson.

Dutch Arrivals.  Some Johnsons in America have Dutch origins.  Jan Willemszen Van der Loosdrecht came with his family in 1661 and settled in Bergen, New Jersey. The surname became Johnson when his son Willem adopted that name in Staten Island, New York in 1677. Later Johnsons of this line married with the Vanderbilt family. Nathaniel Johnson, a Loyalist, left Staten Island for New Brunswick in the 1780’s.

Other Johnsons.  William Johnson’s arrival in America in 1737 owed everything to the patronage of his maternal uncle Admiral Sir Peter Warren. He was born into an Anglo-Irish tenant farming family in Smithstown, Meath.  But once in America he started up a trading post with the Indians in the Mohawk valley of New York and soon prospered there. He died in 1774, knighted and a wealthy landowner. His son Sir John, a Loyalist, departed for Canada in 1783 and made his home in Montreal.

Two American Johnsons became President:

  • Andrew Johnson, President in 1865 after Lincoln’s assassination.  He grew up in North Carolina from ancestors who were probably Scots Irish Presbyterians and who had come to America around 1760.
  • and Lyndon Baines Johnson, President in 1963 after Kennedy’s assassination. His lineage has been traced back to John Johnson, a Revolutionary War veteran from Georgia. His son Jesse was a cattle rancher who had moved to Texas in 1848.

Johnsons in America outnumber UK Johnsons by more than two to one. This is because the US has absorbed Johnsons from other countries.

And Scandinavian Johnsons.  This has been particularly the case with Scandinavia, the Jonssons and Johanssons in Sweden, the Johansens and Johnsens in Norway, and even the Jorgensens in Denmark. Johan Johansson, for instance, who came to America from Sweden in the 1890’s settled in Minnesota as John Johnson.

Among other Johnson arrivals were:

  • John Johnson from Sweden who arrived in the early 1850’s and was one of the early settlers of Minnesota.  He farmed in Carver county before retiring to Bird Island.
  • Engle and Martha Johnson from Norway who came to Wisconsin in 1860 (Engle serving as a drummer boy during the Civil War).  After the war they moved on – to Minnesota, Iowa, and eventually to a homestead in Washington state.
  • and Haken Johnson from Sweden who arrived in 1868 and farmed in Jackson county, Minnesota.

States like Minnesota with Scandinavian immigrants have a high proportion of Johnsons. Foremost among the Swedish-American Johnsons have been the Minnesota Governor John A. Johnson and the Hollywood actor Van Johnson.

As a result of the Scandinavian influx, Johnson is the second most common surname in the United States.

Canada.  Many of the early Johnsons in Canada came from the United States. They could have been of Dutch origin (Nathaniel Johnson in New Brunswick) or of American Indian or African American origin.

Overland from America.  Jacob Johnson, a Mohawk chieftain in New York, had gained his surname from Sir William Johnson, the Superintendent of Indian affairs, who had acted as his godfather in a Christian baptism. His Mohawks later migrated to Canada and the line there extended to his son Smoke Johnson and to his grandson George Johnson who married an English woman. George’s daughter Pauline became well-known for her writings in which celebrated her Mohawk heritage.

The Johnson name in Canada could also have been African American. The Johnsons of Dresden in SW Ontario can be traced back to Jacob and Margaret Johnson, born in slavery in New Jersey before the American Revolution.  A later Jacob and his three sons escaped from slavery in Maryland and reached the black community of Dresden sometime in the 1850’s. Jennie Johnson, born there in 1868, became the first ordained woman Baptist minister in Canada and lived to be almost a hundred.

By Sea.  William Johnson and his family came to Canada from the East Riding of Yorkshire in 1832.  They made their home in the Binbrook township near Hamilton, Ontario.  Some 230 descendants were present there for a reunion of the family in 1932.

Australia.  Richard Johnson from Yorkshire was the chaplain on the First Fleet of convicts that sailed to Australia in 1788.  He remained in Sydney until 1801 when he returned to London.

George Johnson from an old Lincolnshire family was one who stayed.  He had come to South Australia in 1839 and operated a timber yard in Adelaide.  In 1852, drawn by gold fever, George had moved his family to Victoria.  He settled in Keyneton where he prospered and was the town’s first MP in 1856.

Boris Johnson’s Ancestry

Boris Johnson’s paternal ancestry began with a Turkish journalist and political activist who married an Englishwoman in London in 1903.  She died after childbirth; he returned to Turkey and was assassinated.  And his grandmother in England gave their son Osman Kemal a new name of Wilfred Johnson.

Just click below if you want to read more about this story:

Johnson and Johnston Surname Miscellany

FitzJohns and Johnsons.  The FitzJohns were an Anglo-Norman family which had established themselves in England by the 12th century.  The first of the FitzJohn line at Rippingale in Lincolnshire was said to have been Hugh FitzAlan. Later came his great grandson Sir Adam FitzJohn, living there in 1324.

The Johnson family of Ayscoughfee Hall in Lincolnshire claimed descent from these FitzJohns (although records of this family only go back to the early 17th century).

Johnston and Johnstone.  The Scottish spelling may be either Johnston or JohnstonePresently the clan chief spells his name Johnstone and the head of the house of Caskieben spells his name Johnston. Either spelling may be used by Annandale or Caskieben clansmen, although the “e” is more common among those of Annandale. The Scottish pronunciation of either name tends to be”Jawnson.”

Elsewhere in the U.K. the pronunciation tends to be “Johnston.”  But Americans usually pronounce Johnstone as “Johnstoan” and Johnston as “Johnston,” suggesting two different names.

Johnston, Johnstone and Johnson in Scotland 

Scottish 1911 Census Johnstone Johnston Johnson
Numbers (000’s)    13    17     2
Percent    40%    53%     7%

John Johnson, Ancient Planter.  John Johnson earned the title of ‘Yeoman and Ancient Planter’ by arriving in Virginia from Scotland before 1616, remaining for at least three years, receiving patents of land from the Virginia Company under their rules issued in 1618, and surviving the massacre of 22 March 1622.

He lived on 15 acres on Back River in the northeast portion of Jamestown island and raised crops, probably including tobacco, on 85 acres on Archer’s Hope Creek in the area called Jockey’s Neck.

His wife Ann may have been one of the “maids” imported in 1619.  They apparently voyaged back to England in the mid-1630’s, since his heirs were granted 450 acres in Surry county in 1638 for re-importing his family of four and bringing five servants.  John died soon after their return.  Ann died around 1653.

Their children John and Ann inherited the estate of this “ancient planter.”  Ann Johnson left her name to Ann Johnson Lane on Governor’s Land at Two Rivers.

Thomas Johnson Fleeing Norfolk for Maryland in 1688.  Thomas Johnson, aged thirty-two and the second son of a well-to-do English family in Great Yarmouth, fell in love with Mary Baker, a chancery maid who was eleven years his junior.  They married “illegally” in London on March 31, 1687.

Without the consent of the Lord High Chancellor, the marriage was considered both abduction and a “high misprision,” punishable by heavy fine and imprisonment. With the help of Mary’s father, a sea captain, they fled England for the Maryland colony, arriving at St. Leonard’s Creek there in 1688.

This location was selected as Thomas had had a “near kinsman” there.  He was Captain Peter Johnson, born about 1610, who had emigrated from England and resided on the creek since 1651 on what was first Johnson’s Fresh and later renamed the Brewhouse.

Thomas prospered in Maryland.  In 1702, armed with “fine furs and a quantity of gold,” he set out to return to England, expecting favorable treatment and likely a pardon.

However, his vessel was captured by the Spanish and Thomas relieved of his furs and gold and imprisoned.  Some years later, he managed to escape and ultimately made his way to Canada aboard another vessel.  From there, as the accounts relate, he made his way on foot back to Maryland, arriving in 1714, destitute and weakened by exhaustion and exposure.  He died that year.

Johnsons in America by Country of Origin

Johnsons in America by Country of
England   25%
Scotland     4%
Ireland     9%
Sweden   44%
Norway    11%
Elsewhere     9%

 John A. Johnson of Minnesota.  John A. Johnson, born in a frontier cabin in St. Peter, Minnesota in 1861, was the eldest child of an impoverished Swedish family that had been abandoned by its alcoholic father.  He left school at 13 to support his mother and siblings. Local Democrats, impressed with this enterprising young store clerk, asked him to join their party and edit the strongly Democratic St. Peter Herald. His journalistic success attracted statewide attention and fostered political aspirations.

He ended up being elected Governor of the state three times and was also touted as a possible Presidential candidate.  He died in office in 1909 during his third term.

Johnson Names

  • Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare, was a dramatist and poet, best known for his satirical plays.
  • Samuel Johnson was the famous compiler of A Dictionary of the English Language.
  • Howard Johnson was the founder of Howard Johnson restaurants.
  • Robert Wood Johnson and his two brothers James and Edward were the founders in 1885 of the company that became Johnson & Johnson.
  • Jack Johnson was the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world in 1908.
  • Lyndon B. Johnson was the 36th President of the United States.
  • Philip Johnson was a very influential late 20th century architect.
  • Michael Johnson has held the fastest times in the world for the 200 and 400 meters.
  • Boris Johnson was the British Prime Minister from 2019 to 2022.

Johnson Numbers Today

  • 215,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 602,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 127,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Johnson is the #2 ranked surname in America and the #11 ranked in the UK.

Johnson and Like Surnames  

Patronymic surnames can be with either the “-son” or the shorter “s” suffix to the first name.  The “son” suffix is more common in northern England than in the south and in lowland Scotland.  Here are some of these surnames that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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