Lightfoot Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Lightfoot Surname Meaning

Lightfoot obviously started out as a nickname and became a surname. The roots are the Old English leoht, meaning “nimble” or “quick,” and fot or “foot.” The name originally denoted someone with a light springy step, a speedy runner or messenger.

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Lightfoot Surname Ancestry

England.  Early spellings were Lyghtfoot and Lyghtfot. The name first appeared as a surname in the English border counties. John Lightfoot was the King’s clerk in Hereford in 1300 and another John Lightfoot was recorded as a weaver in Shrewsbury in 1463.

Later the name had moved northwards. By the time of the 1881
census, Lightfoots ran from Staffordshire in the south to Cumberland in the north, with some crossing of the Pennines into Yorkshire.  The largest numbers were to be found in Merseyside and north Cheshire.

These Lightfoots included:

  • Thomas Lightfoot, the vicar of Uttoxeter in Staffordshire for thirty six years until his death in 1658. He had five sons, the most prominent being the churchman and Hebraic scholar John Lightfoot.  
  • Bernard Lightfoot, a one-time brewer in Liverpool in the 1750’s. A son William disappeared at sea in the early 1800’s. But a later Lightfoot, Joseph Barber Lightfoot who was born in Liverpool in 1828, became the Bishop of Durham and served as chaplain to Queen Victoria.  
  • Lightfoots in the Cheshire villages of Frodsham and Kingsley who date from the early 1700’s.  The dancer Paul Lightfoot hails from Kingsley today.  
  • Lightfoots who came to Accrington in Lancashire from Frodsham around 1820.  Thomas Lightfoot of Bank House died in 1866. James Emmanuel Lightfoot, a printing inventor, was Accrington’s first mayor in 1882.  
  • and Lightfoots who were further north at Wigton in Cumberland from the 1650’s; and Lightfoots have been farming at Bowness near Windermere since the 1850’s.

There were Quaker Lightfoots in Cambridgeshire, the place where Thomas Lightfoot was born in 1619. Persecuted for his faith he departed for Northern Ireland in the 1650’s. Later Lightfoots crossed the Atlantic to Pennsylvania. Matthew Lightfoot was a Quaker shoemaker in London, known to posterity because in the 1750’s his daughter Hannah Lightfoot, the Fair Quaker, was said to have been the mistress of the Prince of Wales.

Cornwall.  There were Lightfoots as well in Cornwall, at St. Breock:

  • William Lightfoot was recorded as a cooper there in 1691
  • Thomas Lightfoot married Mary Hamly there in 1707 (their descendant John Lightfoot emigrated to Australia in 1855)
  • and Rendel Lightfoot was born there in 1723.

Lightfoots were later to be found at Polperro and Wadebridge.

Two Lightfoot brothers – William and James – were hanged at Bodmin for the murder of Neville Norway in 1840. Lightfoots of the next generation emigrated to Australia – John and William in 1854 and Henry with the family in 1879.


America
. Early Lightfoots came to Virginia.

Virginia. The Rev. Richard Lightfoot of St. Mary’s at Stoke Bruerne in Northamptonshire is the forebear of most Lightfoots in America. Two of his grandsons, John and Philip, arrived in Virginia in 1670.

Their descendants were prominent in Virginian colonial life. A later Philip Lightfoot owned a plantation at Sandy Point and built an imposing mansion home for himself at Yorktown.  These Lightfoots frequently intermarried with the Lees of Virginia. Francis Lightfoot Lee from Virginia was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

One line through Henry Lightfoot migrated to Kentucky and then to Arkansas in the early 1800’s.  His son William died in Texas at the Battle of the Alamo in 1836.

Joel Lightfoot, born in Virginia in 1815, was appointed an Indian Commissioner by President Jackson in 1835. In this capacity he brought many Cherokee Indians from the east through Arkansas to Oklahoma along the “Trail of Tears.”  Afterwards he was granted land in Phillips county, Arkansas where he settled with his family.

The Lightfoot history in England and America has been compiled in Mary E. Morton’s 2005 book Calling All Lightfoots.

Native Indian?  Lightfoot might seem as if it were or could have been a native Indian name. There was a HoGa Lightfoot in the 18th century of the Cherokee nation. But his name probably derived from Captain John Lightfoot, an Indian agent in Virginia who had married a Cherokee woman.

Elsewhere. Thomas Lightfoot brought his Quaker family to Chester county, Pennsylvania in 1716.  Many Lightfoots of this line were Quaker ministers. A later Thomas Lightfoot was an Indian agent in Nebraska in the 1860’s.

Thomas Lightfoot arrived in Alabama in the early 1800’s and established a plantation at Myrtle Grove on fertile land along the Tuscumba river. Later Lightfoots sold out at the time of the Civil War and migrated to Texas. Henry Lightfoot who fought in that conflict was a prominent Texas lawyer and politician after the war. His home in Paris, Texas became a Texas historic landmark in 1965.

African American.  Lightfoot was an African American name in Arkansas.  Preacher Lightfoot was active in Jackson county in the 1890’s organizing a back-to-Africa movement.  However, he was murdered in church in 1892 by African Americans who believed that he took their money for a non-existent passage to Liberia.

Some Lightfoots in Arkansas moved north in the 20th century.  Claude Lightfoot came to Chicago in 1918, witnessed the race riots there a year later, and became a life-long Communist.  Elijah Lightfoot, the son of a sharecropper, left his small rural community for Ohio in the 1950’s.  His daughter Lori Lightfoot was elected the mayor of Chicago in 2019.

Caribbean.  Henry Lightfoot, a Tory merchant, left his home in Virginia in 1776 for the British island of Antigua.  He died back in Virginia in 1805.  But Lightfoot has remained an Antiguan name.

Canada.  Henry Lightfoot came out with his family to Canada from Yorkshire sometime in the 1850’s. They settled in Middlesex county, Ontario where he farmed. His line led to Gordon Lightfoot, the folk singer/songwriter who became internationally famous in the 1960′s.

Australia.  John and Grace Lightfoot departed Cornwall on the Cressy in 1855 and made their home in Maitland, NSW.  They raised nine children there.

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Lightfoot Surname Miscellany

The Rev. Richard Lightfoot’s Memorial in Northamptonshire.  The Rev. Richard Lightfoot is considered the forebear of the Lightfoots in America.  He was rector of the church of St. Mary the Virgin at Stoke Bruerne in Northamptonshire from 1601 to 1625.  The following memorial can be found in the church (transcribed from the Latin):

“This  tomb was placed here to the memory of Richard Lightfoot, minister of the gospel and rector of this church for twenty-four years, by John Lightfoot, his son and heir.  Death quietly and unexpectedly overtook him while feeding his flock by word and deed.  His life was short, for it was a long meditation on death.  Thus he taught others to live and himself to die.  He died in the year of our Lord 1625, aged 63 years.”

Hannah Lightfoot and the Prince of Wales.  King George III admired the simple goodness of the Quakers and there is an old story, first published in 1770 but much embroidered in the 19th century, that, in amusement, linked his name as an extremely shy teenager of fifteen with that of Hannah Lightfoot, eight years his senior, who had run away from her husband in 1754 and disappeared.  The King, then Prince of Wales, was said to have organized her abduction and, according to later stories, to have secretly married her and had children by her.

All of this was conjecture, which gained strength as the years passed.  Her mother had died in 1760 and noted in her will: “I am not certain whether my daughter be living or dead I not having seen or heard from her for about two years last past.”  Her husband had remarried in Wiltshire, describing himself as a widower in 1759.

Hannah never did reappear.  She was advertised for in 1793, apparently without success.  A portrait, attributed to Sir Joshua Reynolds, has been linked to her, but without proof.

William and James Lightfoot and the Murder of Neville Norway.  Detective Charles Jackson could have been a role model for Sherlock Holmes.  His bosses in the London Constabulary told him: “Go down to Bodmin in Cornwall and solve this murder mystery.”  That was in the winter of 1840 and in those days many Londoners would have thought of Bodmin as the end of the world.

It was a tough case. A businessman, Neville Norway, had been riding his horse home to Wadebridge from Bodmin fair on February 8th when he was attacked.  His body was found hours later in a stream.  His skull was bashed in and his face viciously battered.

Detective Jackson went first to the place where the body was found.  He followed a trail of dried blood spots, a track made by the dragging of the body, and footprints which he deduced were made by two men.  His inquiries led him to a blacksmith who lived in a cottage next to James Lightfoot, one of two brothers seen together on the night of the murder.

Lightfoot, said the blacksmith, came home very late on the night of the murder.  The blacksmith went on:

“The bedroom wall partitions are very thin and there are holes in them. I heard James Lightfoot’s wife and child crying. James Lightfoot said, ‘Lie still! The folks will hear thee, damn thee!’ The wife said, ‘I won’t lie still – they shall hear me and I don’t care if they do!’”

Next day Detective Jackson searched Lightfoot’s cottage and found a pistol hidden in a hole in a ceiling beam.  He arrested Lightfoot who immediately made a statement implicating his brother William.

Their original plan was to waylay the Rev. William Molesworth from St. Breock.  But when William Lightfoot saw Mr. Norway counting gold and silver coins from his purse to finalize a transaction at Bodmin market they decided to waylay him instead.

Dragging Mr. Norway from his horse, William Lightfoot fired the pistol twice, but it did not go off.  The brothers then beat him to death, dragged his body across the road and rolled it down a bank into the stream.

The Lightfoots were tried at Cornwall Assizes where the jury took only a few minutes to find them guilty. The following month, on Monday, April 13th, 1840, a crowd of 25,000 gathered outside Bodmin jail to watch the double hanging.

The local newspaper reported that the prisoners ate their breakfasts with an appetite and relish which surprised even their attendants.  Their long association with criminals had never before made them acquainted with two mortals so indifferent to their approaching death.  Maybe that was because they were the sons of a sexton.

Lightfoots in the 1881 Census

County Numbers Percent
Cheshire    750    18
Yorkshire    660    16
Lancashire    510    12
Cumberland    320     8
Staffordshire    300     7
Elsewhere   1,610    39
Total   4,150   100

The Lightfoot Mansion at Yorktown.  The Lightfoot mansion overlooking the harbor at Yorktown must have presented an imposing sight to any ship sailing up the York river from Chesapeake Bay.  It was a status symbol of the branch of the Lightfoot family that lived in Yorktown through most of the 18th century.  A British traveler described it in 1736 as one “equal in magnificence to any of our superb ones at St. James.”

Philip Lightfoot was known as “the merchant prince.”  He had moved to Yorktown in 1707 and his widow Mary lived there until her death in 1775.  When she died Mary had in fact outlived her husband and all her children.

Reader Feedback – Lightfoots in Antigua.  I went to Antiqua in the West Indies and have knowledge of the line of John Lightfoot who died there. I am the 3rd great granddaughter of William Lightfoot, son of Henry Lightfoot, who died at the Alamo. My great grandmother was Delilah Ann Lightfoot, daughter of John A. Lightfoot. My grandmother was the daughter of Delilah Ann Lightfoot and James William Hollingshead (1840-1901).

Jorita Hagins (jorita758@gmail.com)

John Emmanuel Lightfoot.  John Emmanuel Lightfoot was born in Accrington, Lancashire and made his mark in the printing trade.  In the 1860’s, working with his brother Thomas and his son John, he developed a process whereby a black was printed on cotton by applying aniline to the rollers of printing machines.  His patented aniline black process soon caught on at other printers.  His notes and diaries have been preserved, together with various business papers.

John prospered as a printer and became Accrington’s first mayor in 1882.  He died in 1892.

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Lightfoot Names
  • Joseph Barber Lightfoot served as chaplain to Queen Victoria and Bishop of Durham.
  • Gordon Lightfoot is a highly popular Canadian folk singer and songwriter.
  • Lori Lightfoot was elected mayor of Chicago in 2019.
Lightfoot Numbers Today
  • 7,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 2,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 3,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)
Lightfoot and Like Surnames

Nicknames must have been an early feature of medieval life in a family or community as these nicknames later translated into surnames.  People then lived a more natural life than we do today and the surnames have reflected that.

They could be about color (Brown, Gray, Green etc), whether of hair or complexion or other factors; mood (Gay and Moody are two extremes); youth (Cox and Kidd); speed of foot (Swift and Lightfoot); and actions (such as Shakespeare and Wagstaff).  Then there were likenesses to animals (notably Fox and Wolfe but also Peacock) and to birds (Crowe and Wren for example).  And then there were some extraordinary nicknames such as Drinkwater and Wildgoose.

Here are some of these nickname surnames that you can check out.

BirdFoxKiddShakespeare
BrownGayLightfootSwift
CoxGouldMoodyWagstaff
CroweGrayPeacockWilde
DrinkwaterHardySavageWren

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