Nelson Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Nelson Surname Meaning

Nelson in England is patronymic – from the personal name Neil or Neal adopted by Scandinavians in the form of Njal and introduced by them in the north of England and East Anglia where they settled.

There are many more Nelsons in America than in England, by a factor of six to one.  Most of the American Nelsons have a Scandinavian origin, from the Swedish Nilssons or the Danish Nielsens.  Nelson in recent times has become popular as a first name.

Nelson Surname Resources on The Internet

Nelson Surname Ancestry

  • from England (East Coast), Scotland and Sweden
  • to America, Canada and Australia

England.  The Nelson surname started to appear in the 14th century. An early family was the Nelsons of Maudsley in Lancashire, starting with Richard Nelson recorded there in 1377.

Yorkshire.  The name John Nelleson was recorded in the Wakefield rolls of 1324 and John Nelson was a Catholic martyr in the late 16th century. The county had the largest number of Nelsons by the 19th century:

  • Nelsons were seamen out of the port of Whitby in the 19th century.
  • while James Nelson was the forebear of a prosperous 19th century family of iron founders in Leeds. One of his descendants Captain Robert Nelson was an explorer with Henry Stanley in Africa (where he died).

Norfolk.  There was a long-established family of Nelson clergymen at Hiborough in north Norfolk which produced Horatio Nelson, the English naval hero. His Lord Nelson title passed after his death at Trafalgar in 1805 first to his elder brother William and then to his nephew Thomas who adopted the Nelson name. Another branch of this Nelson family resided at Holme House on the Norfolk coast.

Scotland. The Nielson name appeared in Ayrshire, the Craigcaffie Nielsons, as early as the 14th century. Another line appeared at Corsock further south near Wigtown. John Neilson of Corsock was a noted Covenanter who was executed in Edinburgh in 1666 “after having been tortured with the boot.”

The Nielson name had generally become Nelson by the 18th century; and most Nelsons were to be found in and around Glasgow by the 19th. Alexander Nelson was a tanner from Glasgow who enlisted in the British army in the 1750’s and later settled in Nova Scotia.

Ireland. Scots Nelsons brought the name to Ireland where it was to be found in Dublin, Antrim, and Armagh.

America.  Early Nelson sightings were in Virginia.

Virginia.  Thomas Nelson, a merchant from Cumberland known as Scotch Tom, came to Virginia around 1705 and made his home Yorktown (where he built Nelson House). His family became one of the leading Virginia colonial families. Son William was Governor of Virginia and his son Thomas a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

This Nelson family became closely connected with another leading Virginia family, the Pages. Both were impoverished by the Civil War. But Thomas Nelson Page later thrived as a writer who served up an idealized version of the old Antebellum South.

North Carolina.  Captain John Nelson was an early settler in 1702 in North Carolina at the Hunting Quarters Plantation in what is now Carteret county.  Later Nelsons migrated in the 1820’s to Alabama where three descendants – the Rev. Thomas, the Rev. Elisha, and the Rev. Joseph Nelson – were prominent Baptist ministers often credited with having brought the Baptist religion to the South.  The family line was covered in Dawn Boyer’s 2012 book The Nelson Family of Carteret County.

John Rogers Nelson from Orange county, North Carolina fought on the American side as a major during the Revolutionary War.  The famed country singer Willie Nelson, born in 1933, is a descendant.

Minnesota.  However, the largest numbers of Nelsons in America today are in Minnesota, a state noted for its Scandinavian immigration.

Anders Nilsson, for instance, changed his name to Nelson on his arrival in New York from Sweden in 1854. He later settled down in Chisago county, Minnesota. Carl Nelson moved to a Scandinavian settlement in Nicollet county in 1857 and survived an Indian raid there five years later. From Swedish roots also came Ozzie Nelson and the 1950’s teen idol Ricky Nelson.

Canada. William Nelson had come to Quebec province as a teacher from Newsham in Yorkshire in 1781. He had what turned out to be two firebrand sons, Wolfred and Robert, who led a short-lived revolt against British rule in 1837. Both were exiled but later allowed to return. Wolfred in fact became mayor of Montreal in 1854. Dr. Horace Nelson of this family was the inventor of Nelson’s inhaler.

Australia.  Joseph Nelson from Yorkshire came out with the British army to what was then the Swan River colony in Western Australia in 1851.  He stayed on after his service ended in 1860 as a lighthouse keeper on Breaksea island.  He later worked as a blacksmith at Albany and Eticup.

Willie Nelson’s’ Family Ancestry

The country singer Willie Nelson, born in Texas has a family line extending back to Arkansas and to North Carolina at the time of the Revolutionary War.

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

Nelson Surname Miscellany

Nelson Surname Origins.  The Nelson surname Nelson seems to have been of early medieval English origin, and is a patronymic form of the Middle English given name Nel(le), itself coming from the Old Gaelic Irish personal name Niall. This was adopted by Norsemen in the form Njall or Njal and was brought to England by Scandinavian settlers and introduced by them to the north of England and East Anglia where they settled.

Patronymic forms of the name appear regularly towards the end of the 13th century usually as Neilson or NellesonThe Ne(i)lsons of Craigcaffie in Scotland are said to have traced their descent from Neil, Earl of Carrick who died in 1256. The first record of the full Nelleson name seems to have been John Robert Nelleson in the 1324 Wakefield rolls. 

John Nelson, Catholic Martyr.  The son of Sir Nicholas Nelson of Yorkshire gentry, John Nelson was born at Skelton near York in 1535.  He was firm in his conviction that Catholics should be bold in professing their faith and did not accept the practice of attending Protestant services to avoid penalties.  However, it was not until he was nearing forty when he received his training as a Catholic Priest.

Father Nelson’s ministry did not last long.  He was posted to London, a hotbed of Protestantism.  After less than a year he was arrested when priest-catchers burst into his residence “late in the evening as he was saying the Nocturne of the Matins for the next day following.” They arrested him on suspicion of being a Catholic. He proudly said that that was true. He was executed in February 1578 in the particularly vile manner of the time.

Nelsons of Hiborough.  Horatio Lord Nelson is traditionally associated with the village of Hiborough in Norfolk.  His grandfather, father, uncle, and brother were all rectors of its All Saints parish church.  He may neither have been born there nor have died there.  But as the current rector explained: “We’ve got seven Nelson bodies in the graveyard.  What more do they want?”

Horatio Nelson’s ancestry goes back to William Nelson who was born at Dunham Parva in Norfolk in 1654. Three generations later came the Rev. Edmund Nelson, the first of the Nelson rectors at Hiborough and Horatio’s grandfather. His daughter Alice married the Rev. Robert Rolfe, the next rector of Hiborough.  His son Edmund, and Horatio’s father, was rector of nearby Burnham Thorpe.

Scotch Tom and Nelson House in Yorktown.  Thomas Nelson was called Scotch Tom even though he came from Cumberland in England rather than from Scotland. His line in Cumberland went back to Hugh Nelson who was born in Penrith in 1658. His parents were cloth merchants.

As a merchant himself, he had made two previous trips to Virginia, in 1696 and 1698, before deciding to move to Yorktown in 1705.  Within ten years he had established himself as a man of wealth and influence in Yorktown. He was a merchant there, an operator of a ferry and a mill, a farmer, a gentleman jurist, and a trustee for the port landing.

He lived in Yorktown for all of forty years, before his death in 1745.  The epitaph on his monument read:

“Here lies in certain hope of resurrection in Christ Thomas Nelson, gentlemen, son of Hugo and Sarah Nelson of Penrith in the county of Cumberland.  Born on February 20, 1677, he well fitted the fold of a merry life. He died October 7, 1745 aged 68 years.”

Family tradition has it that he started construction of his mansion on Main Street in Yorktown in 1711.  Some records suggest that it started out as a wood house.  What was handed down was a brick house.   This house stayed with the Nelson family through the 19th century.  During the Civil War, it was a hospital for Confederate soldiers and later for Union soldiers.

The family sold the home in 1907 and it was acquired by the National Park Service in 1968.  It has undergone a thorough restoration since that time.  Still, there are said to be some old ghosts around, including one of a young British soldier killed in the siege of Yorktown.  The British had commandeered the Nelson House during the fighting at that time.

The Rev. Joseph Nelson, An Early Baptist Minister in the South.  “A Baptist minister of high standing, he was an Alabama Congressman, a husband, a father, and a friend.  Few men of his time reached the attainment of spirit realized in the life of this leader of men.”

The Rev. Joseph was married three times.  The first marriage in 1830 was to Sarah “Sally” Lyon, a sister to his brother the Rev. Thomas’ second wife Mahala Ann. They had four children. But she died suddenly in 1842.  He married second, Margaret Miller, in 1843 and they had thirteen children. In 1868, when their home at Barnwell in Baldwin county was destroyed by fire, Margaret was seriously injured and died.  He married third in 1869 Cornelia Alford, a young widow, and they had six children of their own.

That is a count of twenty-three children for the Rev. Joseph. Family lore had it that there were twenty-seven in total.  Family lore also said that it took two doubled team wagons to take his family to church on Sunday. He always invited the congregation to dinner at his home after church and someone always went home with them.

The Rev. Joseph was the minister at the Barnwell Baptist Church and he founded the Brook Cedron cemetery near Barnwell where he and his wives are buried along with a lot of his descendants. He died peacefully in his sleep.

Carl Nelson, A Pioneer in Nicollet County.  In the year 1858 four Swedish families arrived with ox-teams in Nicollet county, Minnesota from Illinois, including Carl Nelson and his family.  They found the county a wilderness, uninhabited with the exception of Indians.

In August 1862, their little community learnt that the Indians were on the war path and had prepared to attack the settlement.  The Johnsons hid in the tall grass near their place but were found out. Mother and son were killed.  The Nelsons hid in the cornfields near their home.  The Indians came rushing by, but fortunately did not stop to search them out. Carl Nelson then set off on a 20-mile hike to Henderson across the prairie to spread the news of the massacre.

A company of soldiers was formed to accompany him to the vicinity the next morning. They searched through western New Sweden where the Indians had frightened the settlers but failed to find anyone, living or dead.  Most of the cabins and grain stacks had been burned to the ground.

Carl Nelson’s son Carl was in 1925 one of New Sweden’s oldest living pioneers in Nicollet county. He was seven years old at the time of the Indian massacre.  The sights he saw and the experiences he and the members of his family and the neighbors had were indelibly stamped on his memory. 

Nelson as a First Name.  Nelson has been a popular first name for boys in recent times.  There has been Nelson Rockefeller, Nelson Piquet, Nelson Eddy, Nelson Riddle, and – most famous of all – Nelson Mandela (who was given the name of Nelson by his teacher).  Nelson has been particularly popular in Portuguese-speaking lands such as Brazil.

Nelson Names

  • Thomas Nelson was Governor of Virginia in 1781 and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
  • Horatio Nelson was the famous and celebrated English naval commander, the victor at Trafalgar in 1805.
  • Ricky Nelson was a teen idol and second only to Elvis Presley as the most popular rock and roll artist of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.
  • Willie Nelson is the legendary American country singer/songwriter.
  • Prince Rogers Nelson is more commonly known as the musical artist Prince.

Nelson Numbers Today

  • 24,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 175,000 in America (most numerous in Minnesota)
  • 63,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Nelson and Like Surnames

These were originally Scandinavian patronymic surnames, with conversion usually from the Scandinavian “-sen” and “-sson” to the American “-son” on arrival or soon afterwards.  Here are some of the Scandinavian surnames that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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