Knox Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Knox Surname Meaning

The Old English cnocc and the Gaelic cnoc, both meaning a “rounded topped hill” or hillock, gave rise to the surname Knox, either directly or through the place-name Knock (in particular the Knock in Renfrewshire). The surname is common in Lowland Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Knox Surname Resources on The Internet

Knox Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Lowland) and Northern England
  • to Ireland (Ulster), America, Australia and New Zealand

Scotland.  The forebear of the Knox family was said to have been Adamus, of Saxon origin, who received the barony of Cnoc or Knox in Renfrewshire as part of a dowry. The first recorded spelling of the name was that of John de Cnoc, his son, in 1260 in the charter lists for Renfrewshire. For many generations this family held the castle of Ranfurly (between present day Glasgow and Greenock).

The great Scottish reformer John Knox is thought to have come from these Ranfurly Knoxes. He was born into a farming family in Haddington near Edinburgh around 1510. After a nomadic time in England and the Continent, Knox’s moment came in 1560 when the Scottish Parliament voted for the overthrow of the old Catholic church and its replacement by a Reformed Kirk. It was he who shaped the new Presbyterian Church. John Knox himself had no sons but his brother William had three.

During the 17th century, many Knoxes left the Scottish borders for Glasgow or for Ulster (where there are larger numbers today).

England.  Knox is a Scottish border name and the main spillover into England has been into the English border counties of Northumberland and Durham. Many Knoxes became Durham coal miners. David Knox was a blacksmith at the Bamburgh castle estate in Northumberland in the 1870’s. His blacksmith shop was passed to his son John and then to John’s daughter Elizabeth.

Ireland.  The Knox name came to Ireland when Thomas Knox, a Glasgow merchant, moved to Belfast in the 1660’s and subsequently established himself at Northland House in county Tyrone as the successor of the Ranfurly Knoxes. Indeed the grandson Thomas Knox assumed the title of Earl of Ranfurly; and a descendant even resurrected the ancient name of Uchter (he, the fifth Earl, became Governor of New Zealand in the early 1900’s).

There were many Scots Irish Knox families in Tyrone and Fermanagh as a result of the Scottish plantations, and also in Belfast, Derry, and Donegal:

  • Andrew Knox, a relative of the great reformer, was bishop of Raphoe and had secured land in Rathmullan, Donegal as early as 1612. This family also held land in Derry and they built Prehen House on the outskirts of town around 1740.
  • and three brothers from Renfrewshire settled as tenant farmers near Coleraine in Derry sometime around 1620.

America.  The Knox name appeared at an early time, in 1652, in Dover, New Hampshire. The progenitor of this family was Thomas Nock of English origin, probably from Shropshire. Later generations of the family changed the spelling to Knox. One branch settled in Saco, Maine. Chaplain George Knox of this branch was killed during the Revolutionary War when he fell from his horse during an engagement with the enemy.

Scots Irish. Henry Knox was a hero of the Revolutionary War. He had come from a poor background in Boston, the son of a Scots Irish sea captain from Donegal who had fallen on hard times. He rose to prominence as a military commander during the Revolutionary War, a protege of George Washington, and subsequently served as US Secretary of War. One line of this family – from Arthur Knox – headed west and became pioneer settlers in Oregon territory.

John Knox was also Scots Irish, from Derry, and had come to America around 1740, ultimately landing in Rowan County, North Carolina where he and his family were among the earliest settlers. His descendants were prominent in the Revolutionary War (William Knox was with Washington at Valley Forge) and included the 11th President of the United States, James K (for Knox) Polk. The lineage is traced in Hattie Goodman’s 1905 book, The Knox Family.

Another Scots Irish Knox, William, came to Massachusetts in 1737.  His descendants were also active in the Revolutionary War.  However, these Knoxes only came to prominence much later. Seymour Knox, a co-founder of the F.W. Woolworth chain, made a fortune from five-and-dime stores and his family has been a force in Buffalo, New York ever since.

Other early Scots Irish arrivals were:

  • Matthew Knox to Mecklenburg county, North Carolina in the early 1760’s
  • Robert Knox to Lincoln county, North Carolina in the 1770’s
  • and James Knox and his family from Donegal to Charleston, South Carolina n 1767

Australia.  Some of the Knox immigrants were Scots, such as William and Mary Knox from Renfrewshire who arrived in the 1860’s; and others were Scots Irish such as:

  • Thomas and Jane Knox in 1854 from Tyrone on the Hilton (their infant son Andrew died en route)
  • Hugh and Margaret Knox in 1855 from Tyrone of the Simonds.
  • Joseph Knox in 1863 from Tyrone (his family story is recounted in The Knox Chronicles)
  • and James and Elizabeth Knox in the 1860’s from Fermanagh (he became a JP in Victoria).

New Zealand.  An earlier arrival to New Zealand had been Dr. Frederick Knox, the younger brother of the Edinburgh anatomist Robert Knox. He and his family arrived in Wellington on the Martha Ridgeway in 1840 and were old Port Nicholson settlers. The writer Elizabeth Knox is one of Wellington’s current residents.

Knox Surname Miscellany

Knox Family Origins.  The following is an account of the origin of the Knox family from John Frederick Knox, writing from county Mayo in Ireland in 1825.

“Their forebears had come to England from Saxony where their ancestors had reigned for centuries.  Of this royal family three brothers were the reigning princes at the time of their coming to England around 450 A.D, Hengist, Horsa, and Uchter.  Soon after this period Uchter laid the foundations of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumberland.

Later we find the Saxon name of Uchter had softened to Utred.  His son Adamus married the lady Isabella, the daughter of Walter the High Steward of Scotland and obtained in her dowry four baronies in Renfrew.  The names of these four baronies were Knox, Ranfurly, Craigends, and Griffcastle.

Adamus then left Dunbar and established his residence in Knox.  He came to be described as Adamus de Knox and his descendants took the surname of Knox.  For many generations they were based at the castle of Ranfurly between present day Glasgow and Greenock.”

One story has it that Adamus and Cybilla his wife were given their surname by her father who was the high sheriff of Scotland.  He gave her as a wedding gift a plot of ground which contained a large rock or stone (in Gaelic cnoc).

John Knox in His Later Years.  An interesting description of Knox’s appearance in his later years was furnished in the diary of James Melville, who at the time he was writing (1571) was a student in St. Andrews where Knox had taken refuge.

“Mr. Knox would sometimes come in, and repose himself in our college-yard, and call us scholars unto him, and bless us, and exhort us to know God and his work in our country, and stand by the good cause; to use our time well, and learn the good instructions, and follow the good example, of our masters.

He was very weak. I saw him every day of his doctrine go hulie and fear [slowly and warily], with a furring of martriks about his neck, a staff in the one hand, and good godly Richard Ballantyne, his servant, holding up the other arm, from the abbey to the parish church; and by the said Richard and another servant lifted up to the pulpit, where be found it necessary to lean at his as soon as he entered; but before he had finished with his sermon, he was so active and vigorous that he was like to ding that pulpit inl blads and flee out of it.”

A Latin epistle sent by Sir Peter Young to Beza in 1579, seven years after the death of John Knox, contained a description of the Reformer’s personal appearance in his later years.

His stature was “a little under middle height;” his “limbs were graceful;” his head “of moderate size;” his face “longish;” his nose “beyond the average length;” his fore-head “rather narrow;” his brows “standing out like a ridge;” his cheeks “somewhat full” as well as “ruddy;” his mouth “large;” his “complexion darkish;” his eyes dark blue (or bluish grey) and his glance “keen;” his beard “black, with white hairs intermingled” and a “span and a half long.”  In his countenance, which was “grave and severe,” “a certain graciousness was united with natural dignity and majesty.” 

Robert Knox and the Edinburgh Murders.  In 1827, an old army pensioner without friends or relatives died in a lodging house in the West Port of Edinburgh belonging to an Irishman William Hare.

He died owing Hare rent and Hare decided to obtain reimbursement and avoid funeral expenses by selling the corpse.  He enlisted the aid of his friend William Burke and, quite by chance, they fell in with a medical student, a member of Knox’s extramural anatomy class, who told them that they would obtain the best price for their cadaver at Dr Knox’s school.  Indeed they were paid £7.10/- for the body.

This gratifyingly easy money encouraged Burke and Hare to start murdering old vagrants and other homeless people whose deaths would be likely to pass unnoticed and whose bodies could then be sold to Dr Knox’s anatomy school.  Their crimes were eventually discovered and this provoked a furious popular outcry.

Dr Knox himself was publicly vilified and only narrowly escaped mob violence.  The general public’s feelings were well expressed in a rhyme which circulated widely at the time:

  • “Doon the close and up the stair
  • Butt and ben wi Burke and Hare
  • Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief
  • And Knox the boy that buys the beef!”

Knox took the precaution of carrying with him a loaded pistol and a Highland dirk wherever he went.  Although Knox was not himself implicated in the crimes, the censure of him was great and it drove him from the public stage.

Northland House in County Tyrone.  Thomas Knox, a Glasgow merchant, had moved to Belfast in the 1660’s.  He prospered there and served as mayor of the town in 1686.  Six years later he purchased the manor of Dungannon in county Tyrone and at the same time served as the MP for Newtownards in county Down.

According to John Marshall’s History of Dungannon, the original house of Thomas Knox was on the western side of Market Square and stood in the demesne on the outskirts of the town.  The third residence, known variously as Northland House, Northland Park and Dungannon Park, was built by Thomas Knox, 1st Viscount Northland for his son and heir, Thomas Knox, 2nd Viscount and 1st Earl of Ranfurly, on his marriage.

In 1707 Thomas Knox had registered his arms in Dublin Castle as the male representative of the Knox family of Ranfurly in Renfrewshire.

The Story of Ann Knox and John McNaughton.  Thriving with ghosts, Prehen House has strong links with the McNaughton story – he having lived there, and she, Miss Ann Knox, being the daughter of its original owner, Andrew Knox.

The scandal mainly involved Ann and McNaughton, who was a member of the same social class as Knox.  John fell in love with Ann and tried to be near her at all times.  Andrew Knox opposed marriage between his daughter and McNaughton but the pair made strenuous efforts to stay in contact.  McNaughton claimed that he and Ann had secretly married.

Desperate to protect his daughter, Knox set out in 1760 to transport Ann to Dublin in a coach, protected by armed outriders.  John McNaughton and several associates concealed themselves in a little road adjoining Burndennett Bridge, stopped the coach and a short argument ensued.  This was followed by gunfire and as a result McNaughton is said to have fired at the coach occupied by Andrew Knox and his daughter and Ann died from the bullet.

McNaughton fled but was eventually convicted and sentenced to be publicly hanged in an open field at Strabane for Ann’s murder.  He spoke to the crowd, saying he loved his wife and had been kept from her. The rope broke and the crowd shouted for him to flee, but McNaughton declared that he was not going to be known as ‘half-hanged McNaughton’ and ordered the hangman to get on with his work.  The rope did not break again and, while McNaughton lost his life, his name lives on in the legend.

Henry Knox, Gentleman Farmer.  After ten years serving his country as Secretary of War, Henry Knox began to long for the life of a gentleman farmer.  Fortunately for him, his wife Lucy had inherited a vast tract of land in the District of Maine through her mother and in 1795, newly retired, Knox bade farewell to Philadelphia and moved his family to his newly-built nineteen-room mansion Montpelier in Thomaston, Maine.

During his time there, he dabbled in many of the emerging businesses in midcoast Maine; he shipped timber, quarried lime, made bricks, experimented with agriculture, built canals on the Georges River and got involved with land speculation.  Most in Thomaston welcomed him, despite what was perceived as his wife’s haughtiness and fondness for gambling.

All too soon – in 1806 – though, and before any of his ventures were truly successful, this military hero finally fell – according to traditional accounts, the victim of swallowing a chicken bone.

Knoxes from Donegal to America.  The Ulster Heritage DNA Project has matched the Knox families of the Finn Valley in Donegal to a large group of Knox families in the southern United States (where they have located ten families in this Knox kinship group).

Current research has focused on a group of Knox families that arrived on the Earl of Donegal out of Belfast. The ship left Ireland in October, 1767 and arrived in Charleston, South Carolina in December.  The crew and passengers presented their papers to the local authorities on December 22 and entered the colony.  There were 294 passengers, all Irish Protestants – with one Knox family aboard (that of James Knox) and two Knox men aboard without families.

Reader Feedback – Knox from Tennessee.   My grandfather Walter Evan Knox was reportedly from Tennessee, maybe Knoxville. He was born in 1911. His father’s name was William Knox. I would love to provide more info to trace my paternity back as far as possible. I want to know where and when my people came from. I have pictures and ancestry as far back as the 1940’s in California.

Joshua Knox (

Reader Feedback – Hugh and Margaret Knox from Armagh to Australia.  The Knox family I am part of were from Benburb in Armagh.  Hugh Knox had married Margaret Watt from Tyrone. They were married at St. Patricks, Clonfeacle.  They migrated to NSW, Australia in 1855 on the ship Simonds, arriving on 12th April, 1855.  Wondering if anyone knows of this branch of the Knox family.

Maureen Knox (

Knox Names

  • Adamus de Knox is said to be the forebear of the Knox family of Renfrewshire.
  • John Knox was leader of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland and founder of the Presbyterian church.
  • Thomas Knox, a Glasgow merchant, established the Knox lineage in Ireland.
  • Henry Knox was the military hero of the Revolutionary War from Boston who later became the nation’s first Secretary for War. Fort Knox in Kentucky, where the US gold reserves are deposited, is named after him.
  • Seymour Knox was a 19th century businessman from Buffalo, New York who made his fortune in five-and-dime stores.
  • Frank Knox was a US newspaper publisher, politician, and Secretary of the Navy during World War Two.

Knox Numbers Today

  • 12,000 in the UK (most numerous in Belfast)
  • 16,000 in America (most numerous in Texas).
  • 13,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada).

Knox 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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