Little Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Little Surname Meaning

The common explanation of the Little surname was that it originally was a nickname describing a little man. Alternatively, it might signify the younger of two men bearing the same name. Little has its surname counterparts as Klein in Germany and Petit in France.

However, many with the name of Little originated from the Scottish border clan of Little. The early spelling seems to have been Lidil or Litil. The meaning here is unclear.

Little Surname Resources on The Internet

Little Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Borders), Northern England and Germany
  • to Ireland Ulster), America, Caribs (Jamaica) and Australia

Scotland.  Little surname origins in Scotland may have been English. The name then appeared at the time of William Wallace in the late 1200’s. Soon afterwards the Littles were to be found in Dumfriesshire on the Scottish borders. In 1426 Simon Little became the first Laird of Meikledale.

Border Reivers. For three centuries the Littles shared with the Armstrongs and Beatties the steep-sided dales immediately to the north and west of the present town of Langholm at the extreme east end of Dumfriesshire. These clans thrived during the lawless times of the 1500’s on the Scottish borders. One source of income was sheep. Another source was stealing horses, from the English or wherever they could find them.  

“In 1568 over a hundred Littles rode with the Armstrongs and other Border families in John Maxwell’s raid on Stirling. Family tradition has it that the Littles returned with many more horses than they set out with.”  

In 1603 King James of Scotland and England was determined to put down this lawlessness. His wish was carried through with sword, noose and torch. Chiefs were hanged and those who survived were forced to quit their lands.

David Little was to be the last Laird of Meikledale. He was given work as a groom at Windsor castle and his line died out a century later.

Elsewhere.  The Littles of Liberton in Edinburgh, burgess merchants, were a branch of the border clan that dated from around 1500. Clement Little was a founder of the University of Edinburgh Library in 1580. His son William Little was twice Provost of Edinburgh. These Littles later became Little Gilmour.

The Border Littles had begun to scatter in the early 17th century, fleeing from persecution, poverty and overcrowding. They crossed the English border into Cumberland and to the Ulster plantations. Littles in both Cumberland and Ulster now outnumber those in Dumfriesshire.

England. The English county of Cumberland was a natural settling point for Border Littles, the town of Carlisle being only twenty miles south of the Scottish western Marches. Littles found work there as cloth dryers.

William Little, born in 1676 and a tenant farmer in Stapleton parish, seems to have been the ancestor of many Littles, both in England and in America (a descendant Thomas Little departed for South Carolina in 1806).

There were Littles, probably unrelated, in SW England. William Little and his son George were merchants in Dorchester, Dorset in the 1630’s. Thomas Little departed Devon for Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1631. John Little of Corsham in Wiltshire was transported to Barbados in 1657. Other Littles in Wiltshire included John Little who married Margaret Wait in Corsham in 1761 and Joseph Little who married Mary Jones in Trowbridge in 1790.

Ireland. Little is a name found in Ulster. Interestingly the largest numbers in Griffith’s Valuation of the mid-19th century were in the inland counties of Fermanagh and Tyrone. Fermanagh was where many Armstrongs had migrated and Littles had followed them there.

Robert and Jane Little had four children born in Enniskillen between 1676 and 1682. They had descendants at Aghalurcher and elsewhere in Fermanagh. Meanwhile a Little family had been leasing land at Pubble township near Enniskillen from 1744. Archibald Little of this family married Isabella Potters around 1788 and they later emigrated to America. Francis Little was born near Clones in Fermanagh in the late 1700’s.

The Gaelic surname O’Beagain was derived from beag meaning “small” or “little.” This sometime got anglicized as Little in Munster.

America. The first Littles in America were English.

English. Thomas Little who sailed from Devon was first recorded in Massachusetts in 1633. He later made his home in Littletown, Marshfield. George and Nathaniel Little, both born in Marshfield, fought in the Revolutionary War:

  • George was a Navy officer who was captured by the British, imprisoned, but later escaped. His capture of a French vessel in 1800 caused controversy.
  • while Nathaniel served on land as a captain during the Revolutionary War. He later made his home in Ohio.

Another English arrival, from London, was George Little who came to Newbury, Massachusetts in 1640. His descendants included Colonel Moses Little and Colonel Joshua Little, remarkable men of vigor at the time of the Revolutionary War, and Charles Coffin Little, born in Maine, who co-founded the publishing company of Little Brown & Co in 1837. George Little’s 1877 book Descendants of George Little covered this line.

Scottish.   According to family legend (although unproven), John Little was born about 1675 in Scotland and came to what was then East Jersey sometime in the early 1700’s. He was the forebear of a notable New Jersey family based in Monmouth county. He and his son John were both sitting Judges on the Court of Common Pleas in the county. Interestingly, these Littles of Scottish extraction all married Dutch women between the years 1735 and 1820.

The Littles were Patriots during the Revolutionary War and suffered brutality from the British as a result. After the war one son Thomas became a member of the New Jersey legislature. Another son Theophilus purchased several thousand acres of land in Pennsylvania in an area that was to become Sullivan county. His family moved there in stages between 1803 and 1813. His son Thomas, known as Squire Little, moved to Ohio in 1815 and there were later Little descendants in Illinois.

Captain George Little from Dumfries arrived in South Carolina and fought in the Revolutionary War. He was severely wounded during the fighting, leaving him a cripple. He died in Kentucky. His son John migrated to Tennessee and then to Texas. William Little, also from Dumfries and also in South Carolina, was killed in 1781 during the Revolutionary War. His son William Joseph Little settled in Georgia, fought in the Creek Indian War, and was a Justice of the Peace in Carroll county.

German.  There were also Kleins who became Littles in America. Johann Peter Klein, also known as Peter Little, was the founder of Littlestown in Adams county, Pennsylvania in 1760. Colonel Peter Little was a US Congressman for Maryland in the early 1800’s; while Henry Little settled in Frederick county, Maryland.

Another Klein/Little line began with Johann Daniel Klein who became Daniel Little in Rowan county, North Carolina. Pauline Shook’s 1994 book was entitled Captain Daniel Little and His Contemporaries. Daniel’s descendants started a family organization at their reunion in Hickory, North Carolina in 1978.

Caribbean. George and Matthew Little left Dumfriesshire for Jamaica in the early 1800’s. Both died young there in their twenties within a year of each other. But they left descendants.

Australia.  Francis Little from Dumfriesshire came out to Australia on a convict ship in 1823. His brother Archibald followed him two years later. They were early settlers in Hunter Valley, NSW. Archibald later returned to Britain. Francis stayed. On his death in 1860 his Invermian estate reverted to his eldest son William who held it for another seventeen years.

Thomas and Eliza Little were early arrivals in Western Australia in 1837.  They had in fact departed their home in Galway back in 1823 for India where Thomas had enlisted in the army.  Later he accumulated enough savings so that he could start up a wine-making business near Perth.  He was an instigator of horse racing there and became a Justice of the Peace.  His descendant Stephen Lally recounted the family history in his 2022 book Irish Pioneers in India and Western Australia.

New Zealand.  James Little was a shepherd in Midlothian who came to New Zealand in the 1860’s. He worked initially as a shepherd at the Corriedale station in Otago, SI before leasing land in North Canterbury. There he became a successful sheep breeder.

Little Surname Miscellany

Little Origins in Scotland.  The Littles in Scotland may have had English origins. In the 12th century the Scottish King David I appointed Walter fitzAlan, an Anglo-Norman from Shropshire, as his High Steward.  In his capacity as Steward, Walter then granted lands at Cairntable in north Ayrshire to Alan Little, a former neighbor of his on the Shropshire-Cheshire border.

Edward Little was recorded in the late 1200’s by Blind Harry the Minstrel in his poem The Wallace in commemoration of the Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace.  “And Edward Littil his sisters sone so der Full wel graithit in till thar armour cler.”  This Edward Little was said to have had Anglo-Norman lineage.

By 1300 the Littles had settled in Dumfriesshire where Nicol Little was recorded as a Conservator of the Peace for Lochmabenston (near Lockerbie) along the Western Marches.

In 1426 Simon Lytil was granted tenure of Meikledale, Sorbie and Kirktoun in Ewesdale, Dumfriesshire.   This Simon Little, the first Laird of Meikledale, is considered to be the first chief of that name.

Clan Little and Their Sheep.  Clan Little lived in the valley of Ewes, so beautiful that it earned this line of praise by the visiting poet Killarney while looking into the valley:

  • “Angels often pausing there
  • Doubt if Eden were more fair.” 

To the clan the valley of Ewes outside of Langholm was their Eden. Langholm was a market town to receive wool from the surrounding endless moors where sheep were raised.  Meikledale in the valley of Ewes was a glen within a great expanse of endless moors that could graze thousands of sheep across its hills.

The moors and flocks were of such size that shepherding was achieved on horseback. The men were cavaliers, meaning that they both shepherded and fought on horseback. The men of the Little clan became expert horsemen, herding the sheep with the cooperative help of all the other horsemen and their intelligent sheepdogs.   This daily shepherding teamwork on horseback carried over to agile teamwork in mounted defence, battle and retrieving stolen animals from raiders.

A poem of the times ran as follows:

  • “They ran their steads on the Langholm holm,
  • They ran their steeds with might and main:
  • The ladies looked from their high windows,
  • God bring our men well back again!”

When animals were stolen a retrieval party was launched on horseback. One rider held aloft a spear-pierced cut of heather sod, lit on fire, so that the fiery torch could be seen across the moor. This was the visual signal to call for the help of the other men. All of the men were expected to join the reiver ride of retrieval once they saw the torch. This process of retrieval was called “reiving” and the men “reivers.” 

Littles from Clones in Fermanagh.  David Little, the son of Francis Little, was born in Fermanagh in 1814.  His birthplace and that of his brother, William, was at Cortessna.  Other brothers and sisters were born at the family home near Clones. Their father, Francis Little, taught school at Ah Drumsee and had charge of the church for thirty nine years.  The old stone schoolhouse, several hundred years old, is said to be still standing with its original stone benches.

F.T. Little, a descendant living in Kansas, wrote the following in 1934:

“When our son Will went to Ireland two years ago, I directed a letter to the Methodist preacher at Clones.  He met Will and went with him to the old home which is four miles south of town. It is just across the road from the Ah Drumsee church.  The people in the old home were very kind and allowed Will to go through the house where grandfather Francis Little lived and where all of his children were born, except father who was born at Cortessna and Uncle David.

Grandfather Francis located there about 115 years ago.  Grandfather and grandmother are buried in the same grave not more than four rods north from the church door which is in the back of the church facing north. The stone is laid down on the grave.  I remember seeing a stone-cutter putting grandfather’s name on it.”

John Little and the Revolutionary War in New Jersey.  In Monmouth county, New Jersey the Presbyterians formed the hard cord of rebellion against the British. The British officials in America constantly complained that the uprising against the English was a Presbyterian plot.

John Little and his fellow rebels were the special object of British hatred and reprisal as they raided, plundered and laid waste to plantations and sometimes to whole sections of the county with as many as seven or eight hundred men. Thereafter the lives and property of John Little and his children were in constant peril and remained as such for six long years.

Because of his activities as a rebel committeeman, John Little was a marked man.  His slaves, livestock and wagons were requisitioned by the British and his plantation laid to waste in 1779.

Meanwhile his son John Little had been killed by Hessians in 1777, leaving an only son John Leeds Little (later known as Chestnut Plains John). Another son Lieutenant Thomas Little was captured in 1777, confined in irons on a war vessel and later moved to the prison ship Jersey. He was a prisoner of war on parole until 1781 when he was freed as part of a prisoner exchange.  Thomas later served in the NJ State Legislature and became the acting Lieutenant Governor of New Jersey.

After the War was over in 1783, John Little dedicated the remaining two years of his life to reclaiming his plantation and restoring the first Presbyterian Church in Shrewsbury that his father had built and saw chartered before he died in 1751.

Colonel Moses Little in the Revolutionary War.  Colonel Moses Little was more than fifty years of age when the war broke out.

However, at the first tidings of the encounter at Lexington, he raised a company and marched to the American headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  At the Battle of Bunker Hill he was in command of a regiment, led his men across Charlestown Neck under terrible fire from the British batteries, and arrived at the scene of action just before the third and final charge of the enemy. Though unwounded, he had several narrow escapes, men on each side of him being killed, and his clothes were bespattered with blood.

Called home in August to attend to the funeral of two of his children, he rejoined his command after an absence of just two days.  He was present at the disastrous engagement on Long Island and later fought at Trenton and Princeton.  By this time he had become acquainted with Washington who held him in high regard and often relied on his judgment.

Early in 1777 he was obliged on account of ill health to return home. Four years later he lost his speech as paralysis set in.

The Mysterious Lynching of Frank Little.  Frank Little had been involved in the American West in organizing lumberjacks, metal miners, migrant farm workers, and oil field workers into industrial unions, often as part of free speech campaigns. This made him a lot of enemies.

On August 1, 1917 his murderers parked in front of 316 North Wyoming Street in Butte, Montana shortly after 3 am.  One stayed by the car while the others – six of them, all masked – entered the boarding house. They roused the owner, a woman named Nora Byrne.  “We want Frank Little,” they said.  Terrified, she directed them to room 32. They kicked in the door.

Their quarry, a slender, dark-haired man, had been sleeping. They hauled him out in his underwear, giving him no time to dress or grab his crutches, and bundled him in the car. They drove a short distance, stopped, tied him to the rear bumper and dragged him over the street’s granite blocks.

Out on the Milwaukee bridge, just outside town, they beat him.  Then they attached a rope to a railway trestle and strung him up. “Cause of death: strangulation by hanging,” said the coroner’s report.

So ended the short, eventful life of Frank Little, labor leader, strike organizer and anti-war protester.  A crippled, one-eyed, itinerant activist, he had taken on a giant corporation and the US Government and lost.  He was buried in Butte’s Mountain View Cemetery.  His grave marker reads: “Slain by capitalist interests for organizing and inspiring his fellow men.”

Thomas and Eliza Little in Western Australia.  Thomas and Eliza Little were Irish settlers who had arrived in Western Australia in 1837 when it was still a tiny colony.  Like other early settlers, they grasped every opportunity to carve out a living. Thomas branched out into fruit, vegetables, figs and other crops.  But it was wine making that was to be his greatest achievement.

Many settlers had brought their British prejudices with them, particularly against Catholics and the Irish. When the Littles arrived there was no Catholic church nor even a priest in Western Australia. This did not stop Thomas and Eliza from standing up for the poor, most of whom there were Irish. They encouraged the coming of the Sisters of Mercy from Dublin and supported them in their struggles to help the Irish poor.

They were very active in the development of the Catholic Church in Western Australia, being the principal contributors to the building of the first such church and school outside an urban centre. The first priest lived with them as there was no church house for him.

When ship-loads of Irish girls from workhouses – such as those from Mountbellew in Galway – arrived, they were greeted with horror by the leaders of society who thought that they would pollute the young men with their Papist doctrines. But Thomas and Eliza actively supported the girls and one of their sons married one.  During the famine years they offered 100 acres of land to Irish immigrants to get them started.

The sudden death of Eliza in 1866 may have been caused by the stress of their financial difficulties brought on by two years of drought, sandstorms and crop diseases. Later, Thomas was forced to apply for poor relief, along with most of the community of Irish he had built up in his area.

Little Names

  • Simon Little, the Laird of of Meikledale in 1426, is considered the first chief of the Scottish border Little clan.   
  • Frank Little was an American labor union leader of the early 1900’s who was murdered by his opponents in 1917.
  • Arthur D. Little founded the chemical engineering consulting company of Arthur D. Little in Boston in 1909.  His nephew Royal Little, the founder of Textron, is generally considered as the father of conglomerates. 
  • Malcolm Little, better known as Malcolm X, was an African American Muslim minister and human rights activist who was assassinated in 1965. 
  • Tasmin Little is a highly acclaimed English classical violinist.

Little Numbers Today

  • 24,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 37,000 in America (most numerous in North Carolina)
  • 23,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Little and Like Surnames

The border between Scotland and England was a lawless area for well over three hundred years and the subject of many stories and hearsays.  Families on both sides of the border took part in the raids, attacking villages and stealing cattle on the way.  Eventually, following the unification of the Scottish and English crowns in 1603, the area was pacified.  There were mass executions and banishments, many to the new Protestant colony in Ulster.  These were some of the prominent Border family surnames at that time that you can check out.



Written by Colin Shelley

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