Maxwell Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Maxwell Surname Meaning

Maxwell is a Scottish surname originating from a place-name in Roxburghshire on the Scottish Borders. 

The original Maccuswell came from Max or Maccus, a former owner of Maxwell lands south of the river Tweed, plus well meaning “well.”  The place-name Maccuswell was first recorded in 1144, the surname shortly afterwards. 

Maxwell Surname Resources on The Internet

Maxwell Surname Ancestry

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

Scotland.  It is thought that a Norman called Herbert came into possession of the Maccuswell lands in Roxburghshire in the late 12th century.

Sir John de Maccusweil followed Herbert and was, from 1200, the Great Chamberlain of Scotland.  His services to the kingdom brought him the barony of Cærlaverock in Dumfries. He died without issue around the year 1240.

The Main Lines.  Sir John was succeeded by his younger brother, Aymer de Maxwell, the first to adopt the modern spelling of the surname. From Aymer’s sons sprang many of the branches of the family that were to be found in SW Scotland:

From his eldest son Sir Herbert came the main Cærlaverock line in Dumfries.  Cærlaverock castle served as the family stronghold from the 13th century.  They were ennobled as Lord Maxwell in 1440.  These Maxwells were staunch Catholics during the religious turmoil of the 17th century.  Their last hurrah came with the 1715 Jacobite Uprising where the Maxwells narrowly escaped death.  

And from a younger son Sir John came the Pollock line in Renfrewshire.  The Pollock lands there were divided into Upper and Lower Pollock, with the Maxwells settling in Lower Pollock.  Through marriage Robert Maxwell became the laird of Calderwood in Lanarkshire in 1394.

Other Dumfries Lines.  The Maxwells at Kirkconnell in Dumfries date from about 1430. Their laird James Maxwell was Bonnie Prince Charlie’s aide-de-camp at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, after which he hurriedly left for France.  He returned in 1750 with a band of French bricklayers to construct a brick house alongside the ancient 13th century fortified tower. This house stayed with his descendants, but was recently put up for sale.

Another Maxwell line from Dumfries received a charter for the barony of Monreith in Wigtonshire in 1482.  Sir William Maxwell of Monreith was made a baronet in 1681.  Monreith House, built in 1791, has remained in family hands.  Gavin Maxwell kept a pet otter on the estate which was immortalized in his 1960 book Ring of Bright Water.

Ireland.  The Rev. Robert Maxwell, from the Calderwood Maxwells, had come to Ireland around 1600 and been made the Dean of Armagh. From this Robert came the Maxwells of Farnham in Cavan (who were later created barons) and the Maxwells of Finnebrogue and of Ballyrolly in county Down.

A Rev. James Maxwell was a Presbyterian minister in Omagh, county Tyrone for sixty years, from 1690 to 1750.  Some records have connected him with the Thomas Maxwell of Strabane who grew up in the Presbyterian settlement there and served as the High Sheriff of Tyrone in 1681.  Another Thomas Maxwell in Tyrone, this time from the Kirkconnell Maxwells in Scotland, emigrated with his family to America in 1747.

England.  Maxwells from the Borders also crossed south into England.  The largest numbers, according to the 1881 census, were to be found in Lancashire.

Prominent here were four sons of an old Maxwell family in Dumfries who came to Liverpool in the early 1800’s and made their fortunes as merchants with some shrewd early investments in railways.  Not so rich was Thomas Maxwell, an Irish immigrant and laborer to Liverpool in the early 1830’s.  John Maxwell from a Scottish family in Liverpool perished on the Titanic in 1912.

Jewish.  Robert Maxwell was the adopted name of Jan Hoch, a Jewish entrepreneur who escaped the Nazis during World War Two.  He came to Britain and in the postwar world developed a publishing and newspaper empire.   He fell overboard from his yacht in 1991 as his businesses began to fail.

After his death his daughter Ghislaine Maxwell moved to New York and became involved with the financier Jeffrey Epstein.  The two were later accused in America of trafficking underage girls.  Jeffrey Epstein died in prison and Ghislaine Maxwell later went to prison.

AmericaMaxwells in America have been Scots or Scots Irish. Genealogical books that have covered these early Maxwell arrivals in America plus some prior Maxwell history have been:

  • Halbert’s 1900 book The World Book of Maxwells.
  • Florence Houston’s 1916 book Maxwell History and Genealogy.
  • and Annie Norman’s 1966 book Thomas Maxwell of Virginia and Georgia.

Virginia Arrivals.  The earliest Maxwell presence might have been Joel Maxwell who was said to have come to Virginia around the year 1707.  However, his presence in Virginia has been questioned.  

The Rev. Thomas Maxwell was born in Virginia in 1742.  He became a Baptist preacher and was imprisoned a number of times for preaching a non-Anglican faith.  In 1792, seeking religious freedom, he moved to Elbert county, Georgia to preach and to set up Baptist churches.  He died there in 1837 at the grand old age of ninety seven.  He and his wife Mary had raised eleven children, many of whom migrated to Mississippi.

Thomas Maxwell from the Kirkconnell Maxwells in Scotland had fought for King James in Ireland.  In his later years he left Ireland for America in 1747 and settled in Augusta county, Virginia.  His grandson John, a small boy at that time, came to Kentucky in 1774 and was one of the founders of the town of Lexington.  Maxwell Springs and the Maxwell Graveyard were his legacies that did not, however, survive.

John Maxwell, said to have been from the Calderwood Maxwells, came to Albemarle county, Virginia in 1751.  Later Maxwells of this family moved to North Carolina, Kentucky and onto Overton county, Tennessee.  Meanwhile Captain James Maxwell, coming to Virginia from Ulster, fought in the Revolutionary War. 

Pennsylvania.  Jesse Maxwell. born in Lancaster county in 1747, was descended from the Maxwells of Monreith.  He was an early settler in Nashville, Tennessee where he started a hostelry in 1797 (his name was also attached to the later Maxwell House Hotel there).  His grandson through his daughter Louisiana was General Frank Maxwell Andrews, after whom the Andrews Air Force base outside of Washington DC was named.  

William Maxwell, who had grown up in Pennsylvania, resided for a time in Lexington, Kentucky before moving west to Ohio in 1793 and publishing the first newspaper for what was then the Northwest Territory. 

New York.  Alexander and Jane Maxwell left their home in Scotland in 1770 and, after a brief sojourn in Ireland, came to America and settled in New York state. Their grandson William, based in Elmira, was active in the early railroad developments in the area in the 1840’s.

Hugh Maxwell, the son of an Englishman in Dublin, came to New York in 1815 and departed a year or so later for Kaskaskia, Illinois on the western frontier. His son Lucien, born there in 1818, headed further west in the 1840’s as far as New Mexico.  Here, through a marriage and subsequent land acquisitions, he became the owner of huge landholdings (in excess of 1.7 million acres) which came to be known as the Maxwell Land Grant.

Canada.  Many of the early Maxwell arrivals in Canada were Irish or more probably Scots Irish. William and Agnes Maxwell came to Owen Sound in Ontario sometime around 1830.  Their sons William and Hamilton later moved west to Saskatchewan. William Maxwell meanwhile, also from Ireland, settled in Bloomfield, New Brunswick as a young man in 1850.

Henry and Susannah Maxwell were free blacks in Pennsylvania who faced harassment and left for Canada in 1858. They settled in Richmond Hill near Toronto.   Susannah died in 1923 at the remarkable age of 117.

New Zealand.  Thomas Maxwell, probably from Aberdeen, was a very early settler in New Zealand, arriving at the Bay of Islands on the whaling ship Harriet in 1820 or thereabouts.  Known locally as Tame Kohe, he married the daughter of a local Maori chief and seemed to have adapted himself to Maori ways.  He apparently drowned while on a sea voyage up the east coast of North Island in 1841.

James Maxwell came with his wife Mary to Wellington in 1840. The family later settled in Auckland. James died in 1857 at the age of thirty seven when he fell off his horse.

Maxwell Surname Miscellany

The Lands of Max or Maccus in Roxburghshire.  In the early 12th century there lived a man called Max (or Maccus as the scribe wrote him down in Latin). A surviving charter of Melrose Abbey shows that this Max was a son of Unwin or Alwyn. Whether he was Scottish, Norse, English or Norman is not known.  But he was a significant landowner and, importantly, held land close to the royal residence of Roxburgh castle.

Max died around 1152, but his name lived on in two places.   One was a small town on the banks of the river Tweed called Maxtown and the other was at a fishing pool at the place where the rivers Teviot and Tweed met and this was called Max’s well. Both these places survive today, the first as Maxton and the other in the village of Maxwellheugh on the high river bank above the ancient fishing pool.

The progenitor of the Maxwell line is believed to have been Herbert, probably Norman in origin, who came to hold the lands of Max’s well and adopted the suffix ‘de Maccwel’ or ‘de Maccusweil.’ It would appear that Herbert took his landed designation thereby as his identity and surname.

Maxwells and the 1715 Jacobite Uprising.  Edward Maxwell of Stroquhan was a distant cousin of the Maxwell chief the Earl of Nithsdale who had joined the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion. Edward was captured with his chief after the battle of Preston.   While the Earl was being led away to the Tower of London, a court martial was arranged in a barn near Preston for the other prisoners.

The story goes that as Edward was being marched to the barn he saw several horses tethered together a few yards from the entrance with three soldiers beside them.  He suddenly seized the two soldiers on either side of him by their necks and knocked their heads together.  At the same time, kicking out behind him, he struck the following soldier in the stomach. He so floored all three of the guards.  Whipping out a small knife he cut the tether of the best horse, leaped on its back, and was off before the alarm was raised.

He took to the open country between Preston and Fleetwood, but was soon pursued by English troopers.  He came to a bend in a deep ravine that was broader than usual.  The troopers were pressing hard behind and on either side of him and there was no other way of escape.  Encouraging the horse, he then put it to the jump and cleared the chasm.

None of the troopers would attempt the jump and it was a mile to any other crossing point, so the young rebel got clear away and soon found hiding places among the Catholic gentry of north Lancashire. Edward ultimately got back to Scotland and joined up with the outlawed Rob Roy MacGregor.  Sir Walter Scott had a dagger and purse which had been given to Maxwell of Stroquhan by Rob Roy.  They are still in the collection at Abbotsford.

Meanwhile his cousin the Earl of Nithsdale also managed to escape.  He was imprisoned in the Tower of London and sentenced to death. However, with the assistance of his wife, he disguised himself as a serving woman and the couple fled to Rome where the Earl died in 1744.

The Maxwells of Finnebrogue.  Finnebrogue is by repute the oldest inhabited house in Northern Ireland.  The estate, bordered by the Quoile river and Strangford Lough, also includes the ruins of a 12th century abbey.  It was let in perpetuity to Henry Maxwell by Thomas Cromwell, 1stt Earl of Ardglass, in 1628.  Henry was the second son of the Rev. Robert Maxwell who had been appointed the Dean of Armagh. However, the Maxwells do not seem to have taken up residence there until sometime in the 1680’s.

Edward Maxwell of this line died without children in 1792 and ownership passed to a sister Dorothea.  She had married her cousin John Waring who adopted the name of Maxwell. But he died at a young age in 1802. Dorothea it was who undertook the refurbishing of the Finnebrogue in the years that followed.  Her son John Waring Maxwell who inherited the estate married an heiress and spent lavishly on the estate during his lifetime.

The estate eventually passed through marriage to Robert Perceval who adopted the name of Perceval-Maxwell. He proved to be an astute estate manager and when he died in 1905 he was described as one of the wealthiest commoners in Ireland.  His eldest son John was a cattle breeder and an active figure in the cultural and political life in Northern Ireland.  Finnebrogue was sold after his death in 1963.

Nanny Maxwell and the Great Famine in Ireland.  Nanny Maxwell had been born Anne Feely at Usna in county Roscommon in 1864.  She married Mick Maxwell in 1892.

In the 1901 census, she and Mick, a shepherd, were living atop Usna Hill in a tiny third-class house with just a single window in the front. Her mother Brigid Sharkett lived there too, aged eighty. She was the only survivor left after the Great Famine of all the families that had once lived there.

Nanny who died in 1953 gave an account of what happened that appeared in David Thomson’s 1974 memoir Woodbrook. 

In 1845, prior to the Famine, there were eighteen families living as tenant farmers on Usna Hill.  She knew all the names.  There was Flanagan’s rock, Clancy’s rock, Meehan’s garden, Martin’s garden, McLannies, Higgins’, Cresswell’s, Conlon’s, Cregan’s, Luffy’s, and five or six places with Feely. Nanny’s maiden name.  Nanny’s father Michael Feely worked as a herd for their tenant landlords, the Kirkwoods, at their Woodbrook estate.

However, by 1848 nearly half of the houses were empty, the people having died or the lucky ones having gone to America.  Some would be admitted to the poorhouse, but only if they could show that they were destitute and had given up their homes.

Nanny’s father initially refused.  But when the day for evictions came, hunger and illness got the better of him.

“With the children and my mother sick, and another baby promised, what could he do?” said Nanny. “He stood up on the houses and threw down the roofs of his own uncles and cousins even, and he tumbled the walls down after.

In the teeming sleet and snow, the people were cast out to die on the road. Some few had strength enough to win through to America and more reached the poorhouse in Carrick.  But the poorhouse was already filled and many died outside it lying against the walls.”

After the tenants left, the Kirkwoods turned much of the land over to cattle and later got into horse-breeding.  Colonel Kirkwood in fact won the Grand National with his horse Woodbrook in 1880.

The Rev. Thomas Maxwell and Patrick Henry.  The Rev. Thomas Maxwell was arrested by Culpepper authorities in colonial Virginia while in the very act of preaching in his church.  It was said that he was preaching without a license.  In fact he was a Baptist minister and no one at that time could preach there unless they were of the official Anglican religion.

While in prison he would preach through the grates of his jail cell.  In his anxiety to see his congregation, he bruised his nose again and again on the iron bars until his nose bled.

Patrick Henry defended Maxwell against the authorities’ charges and finally won his release using the principle of the separation of Church and state.  Patrick Henry later became famous in the celebrated “Parson’s Cause” of 1763 when he defended colonial rights against the edicts of the British Government in London.

Reader Feedback – the Rev. Thomas Maxwell.  I’m from the Rev. Thomas Maxwell line.  The rumor of our earliest ancestor being Joel Maxwell coming here in 1707 is totally incorrect.  After 21 years searching our line there has never been a Joel entering the US at any time.  We would like to correct this misinformation.

Our line descends from Herbert 1st Lord Maxwell 1390-1478 and down through his son George Maxwell 1440-1517 married to Margaret Blackadder. This has been proven by the Family Tree DNA for the Maxwell DNA study. George Maxwell founded the Maxwells of Carnsalloch in Scotland.

Larry Maxwell (

Reader Feedback – Captain James Maxwell.  The Maxwell I am referring to is: Captain James Maxwell.  He was born about 1750 in Ulster and died in 1821 in Virginia.   These are the “Virginia Maxwell” families who eventually moved throughout the new nation.   His wife was Jane Roberts (little  seems to be known of her), but the surname did exist in Virginia at the time Captain Maxwell arrived there.  They had several children who survived and had issue.

Captain James Maxwell fought in the American Revolution and pledged allegiance to the American revolt by organizing militia troops to fight the British crown.  He is the registered Daughters of the American Revolution patriot #A075932.  Thomas Jefferson mentions Captain Maxwell in some early papers, asking that he be sent to defend and lead.  James Maxwell was also at the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780.

Dr. K.S. Rolph (

Maxwell Springs and the Maxwell Graveyard in Lexington, Kentucky.  John Maxwell was one of Lexington’s pioneers, arriving there in 1774 and marrying his wife Sarah there four years later. With a 1,000 acre tract acquired from his fellow pioneer Robert Patterson, he owned much of what became southeast Lexington.

Their home was near a spring and was called Maxwell Springs. They lived there for almost forty years.  Over time the springs became so well-known that Henry Clay said of it:

“No man can call himself a true Kentuckian who has not watered his horse at Maxwell Springs.”

The springs were used for political gatherings, for celebrations, and for agricultural fairs.

Their home was burned down during the Civil War.  In 1861 a Union encampment surrounded the springs and burned the house for fuel. The troops also burned the nearby trees, stripping the area of its old-growth trees.

When John Maxwell himself died he deeded the land for the Maxwell Graveyard to the city of Lexington. Here the mother of John Maxwell had been buried in 1804, his wife in 1811, and the old pioneer himself in 1819.

The Maxwell Graveyard did not remain as a cemetery, however, as the land was subsequently sold for redevelopment.  The irate lawyers for the Maxwell heirs claimed that “the bones of these patriots who were the founders of the city of Lexington have been carted away to fill up ponds and the tombstones cracked up and built into foundations for buildings.”

Reader Feedback – John Maxwell in Tennessee.  I am a descendant of John Maxwell.  My records show that the Maxwell cemetery is located in Knox Co, Tennessee.  They show, identical to this cemetery, builders came in and destroyed the graves. Have proof of its location.

Denise Shadron (

Reader Feedback – Isaac Maxwell in Texas.  Isaac Byler Maxwell was my 2nd great grandfather.  He established Bluffton near Austin in Texas. He also served as a Texas representative and preacher of Church of Christ. I knew some of the connections in New Mexico, Tennessee, Virginia, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. Although this was informative beyond measure, I’m trying to connect to those responsible in the Revolutionary War.

Wanda Arend (

Comment: Born in Ripley, Tennessee in 1837 and raised in Arkansas, 17-year-old Ike Maxwell saddled a mule and started riding southwest toward Texas in 1854. He didn’t stop until he got to the Colorado river in Burnet county. Looking at the high limestone cliffs across the river in what would become Llano county, he told his mule, “This is the place I’ve dreamed of all my life.” He named Bluffton after his home in the Quachita mountains of Arkansas.  When he died in 1931, he was reportedly the oldest living Llano county pioneer.

The Maxwell Land Grant.  It was a Mexican citizen Carlos Beaubien who in 1841 first acquired from the Mexican government the land along the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains neighboring the Santa Fe Trail.

After his death and that of his partners, ownership passed to the former trapper and explorer Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell who had married Beaubien’s daughter.  The Maxwell Land Grant, as it became known, turned out to be the single largest tract of land in the private ownership of one person ever in the history of the United States.

In 1866 gold was discovered in the area and prospectors rushed in. Maxwell became rich by leasing out land to the miners.  The scramble for land was such that Maxwell eventually sold the Land Grant to an English syndicate for the sum of $1.35 million.

The Maxwell Land Grant is mostly remembered for the problems that arose after it was sold rather than for the six years that it was Lucien Maxwell’s private kingdom.

Although the Territorial Secretary had approved the transaction, the new owners had years of legal battles over ownership ahead of them.  Backed by the politicians and financiers known as the Santa Fe Ring they tried to evict the squatters, settlers, miners and small ranchers. There was much bloodshed around the rights of ownership and the claims to pieces of property on the Grant.  The unrest became known as, the Colfax County War, with litigations, shootings and riots plaguing the area until the 20th century. 

Maxwell House – Good to the Last Drop.  Introduced in 1892, Joel Cheek named his new coffee blend Maxwell House in honor of the Maxwell House Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee.  For many years until the late 1980’s this coffee was the largest-selling coffee in the United States.

The Maxwell House Hotel was a major hotel in downtown Nashville.  Construction of the hotel had begun in 1859 and it was finally completed ten years later in 1869.  The hotel was at its height from the 1890’s to the early 20th century.  Its Christmas dinner featuring calf’s head, black bear, opossum, and other unusual delicacies became famous.  President Teddy Roosevelt was one of the many US Presidents who stayed there. His comment that a cup of coffee he drank was “good to the last drop” became an advertising slogan for the Maxwell House coffee which was served at the hotel.

The hotel had been built by Colonel John Overton who named it after his wife Harriet Overton nee Maxwell. The Maxwells had been in Nashville since the 1790’s.  Captain Jesse Maxwell had in fact opened a new hostelry himself there in 1797, having migrated there from Pennsylvania.

John Maxwell Who Perished on the Titanic.  Andrew Maxwell, a Scotsman by birth, had married in Liverpool and John, born in 1882, was his eldest son.

John, a carpenter by trade, was on board the Titanic on her delivery trip from Belfast to Southampton and signed on again in Southampton, on 6 April 1912, for her maiden voyage to America.  On the night of the collision, he was one of a party of the crew who went out to inspect the damage caused by the iceberg.  He died in the sinking.  His body, if recovered, was never identified.

He was remembered on the headstone of his father, mother and sister Agnes in the Kirkdale cemetery in Liverpool.

“Also John, eldest son of the above who was drowned through the foundering of the SS Titanic on April 14th, 1912, aged 29 years.”

Sadly his widow Ada died in November 1912, only eight months after the Titanic sank, from typhoid and tuberculosis – leaving their daughter Dorothy an orphan at 18 months.

Maxwell Names

  • John Maxwell, killed at the Battle of Flodden Field in 1513, is considered the patriarch of the Maxwell Cærlaverock line. 
  • James Clerk Maxwell was the Scottish 19th century scientist who made pioneering discoveries in the field of electromagnetism. 
  • Elsa Maxwell was an American gossip columnist and writer, renowned for her parties for royalty and high society figures of her day. 
  • Robert Maxwell, a Jewish entrepreneur who was born Jan Hoch and escaped the Nazis, developed a publishing and newspaper empire in Britain after the War.   He fell overboard from his yacht in 1991 as his businesses began to fail.

Maxwell Numbers Today

  • 16,000 in the UK (most numerous in Glasgow)
  • 24,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 21,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Maxwell 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.


Click here for return to front page

Written by Colin Shelley

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *