Parsons Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Parsons Surname Meaning
The Parsons name could have dated back in England to the time of the 12th century Crusades.  It is thought to have derived the Middle English persone or persoun meaning a parson or priest. Parsons might have been an occupational name for the parson’s servant, a patronymic form denoting the child of a parson, or it might also have been a locational name, as with Ralph del Persones recorded in 1323, denoting residence at the parson’s house.

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Parsons Surname Ancestry

EnglandThere was an early story of a Richard Persons in 1192 at the time of the Third Crusade.

The next references were in Norfolk. Clemens Persone appeared in the county rolls of 1273; Sir Richard Parson was resident at Antingham in 1344; and John Parson was rector at Yaxham in 1425. Three Parsons brothers from Norfolk migrated to Ireland in Tudor times.

SW England.  However, there were larger numbers in SW England. Kirby’s Quest recorded William Parson and Isabel Parsones as living in Somerset in the 14th century. Robert Parsons, the Tudor composer of church music, was born in Exeter in the early 1530’s.

Parsons have been particularly numerous in Somerset and the Bristol area:

  • Robert Parsons, born at Nether Stowey in Somerset in 1546, was a prominent Jesuit missionary of his time.
  • the Parsons of Kington Magna across the border in north Dorset originated in the mid-1600’s from Wincanton in Somerset.
  • the Parsons at Horsington in Somerset date from the 1750’s and from Moses Parsons of Kington Magna. William Parsons of this family emigrated to Brisbane, Australia in 1888.
  • Thomas Parsons from Middlezoy in Somerset had been imprisoned in 1685 for having attended a Quaker meeting at Ilchester. Immediately upon his release he departed with his wife for Philadelphia.
  • Parsons in Bristol is the oldest jewelry store in Britain. It was established in 1710 and was run by ten generations of the family until its recent closure.
  • while Joseph Parsons was a maltster at Laverton near Frome in the early 1800’s. His son Joshua was a practicing doctor at Beckington from 1845 to 1862.

Oxfordshire.  Thomas Parsons, born in 1495, was the forebear of the Parsons of Great Milton in Oxfordshire.  His family, it was said, was typical of the class of small men who were successful in rising in the social scale during the 16th century.  A later Thomas Parsons was knighted by Charles I in 1634.  Around that time some Parsons of the next generation departed for New England.  Robert Parsons was recorded in 1684 as the owner of the Bull inn which is still standing in the village.

Another Thomas Parsons was a china, glass, and tea merchant in Oxford in the 1750’s. Both his son John and nephew Herbert became mayors of Oxford. A later Herbert, a banker, made his home in the 1850’s outside of Oxford at Elsfield Manor.

Elsewhere. Parsons have also extended to London and SE England. The Parsons brewery at East Smithfield in London, established in the mid-1600’s, brought much fame and fortune to Sir John Parsons later in the century. His son Humphrey Parsons became the proprietor of the Red Lion brewery and Lord Mayor of London in 1730.  Meanwhile the Parsons of Langley Hall in Buckinghamshire also dated from the mid-1600’s, although this line died out in the early 1800’s. 

Ireland. William Parsons from Leicestershire, but of probable Norfolk ancestry, came to Ireland around 1600 with his brothers Laurence and Fenton.

As a young man William grasped land in Ireland, dubiously acquiring land titles that had been held by Gaelic clans; and as an older man grasped power – notably with his suppression of the Irish Rebellion of 1641. He continued in power for another two years before he was removed from office, charged with treason, and briefly committed to prison.

Despite his fall from grace, the Parsons remained an important Anglo-Irish family, based on their home of Birr castle at Parsonstown  in Offaly. They were ennobled as the Earls of Rosse in 1718. Their line included:

  • William Parsons, the 3rd Earl of Rosse, who became famous as an astronomer, building his Leviathan of Parsonstown in the 1840’s.
  • and his son Sir Charles Parsons, the inventor of the steam turbine engine in 1884.

According to Griffith’s Valuation of the mid-19th century, there were 86 Parsons households recorded in Ireland, widely spread around the country. The largest numbers were in Leitrim, Mayo, and Meath, followed by Offaly.

America. There were early Parsons in New England.

New England. Benjamin Parsons from Great Milton in Oxfordshire arrived in 1635 and settled in Springfield, Massachusetts. Samuel Holden Parsons, a Major General during the Revolutionary War, was a notable descendant.  Later came Judge Levi Parsons of Fulton county, New York.  A wealthy lawyer, he was appointed the first judge of the Supreme Court in San Francisco in 1850.  He was also a keen genealogist of the Parsons family.

Cornet Joseph Parsons arrived in 1636 and also initially settled in Springfield before moving to Northampton, Massachusetts. His son Daniel, however, stayed at Springfield as an inn-keeper and Parsons Tavern remained a feature of the town, as the following tablet inscription revealed:

“Here stood the Parsons Tavern where Washington was entertained in 1775, traveling in the saddle from Philadelphia to Cambridge to take command of the American forces.”


Joseph’s line of descent was covered in Henry Parsons’ 1912 book Parsons Family.

Meanwhile Jeffrey Parsons from Lodiswell in Devon came via Barbados and arrived in New England sometime in the 1650’s. He settled in Gloucester, Massachusetts. His line led to the Rev. Moses Parsons, a minister at Byfield, and his son Theophilus Parsons, whose judicial knowledge and legal acumen won for him the title of “Giant of the Law.” He served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts from 1806 until his death in Boston in 1813. His son Theophilus was the author of Parsons on Contacts at Harvard.

Elsewhere.  Joseph Parsons died young in Charles City, Virginia in 1656 and Edward Mosby became guardian to his daughter Judith. Joseph’s line is thought to have extended through his son Joseph to Gustavus Parsons, born in 1801, who served Thomas Jefferson for much of the President’s life. After Jefferson’s death Gustavus moved to Jefferson City, Missouri. His son Mosby fought in the Mexican War and Civil War, but died soon after in Mexico.

Peter Parsons arrived in Somerset county, Maryland in 1672, either from Virginia or from England. He was a planter there. Early Somerset records have three Parsons brothers – Peter, John and Amos – as part of the Maryland militia combating the Nanticoke Indians.

Thomas Parsons, a Quaker from Somerset, came to Philadelphia in 1686. His line led to the eastern shore of Maryland in 1725 and then to Hampshire county, Virginia (now West Virginia) in the 1740’s. Isaac Parsons, born there in 1752, was a militia officer during the Revolutionary War and a plantation owner at Wappacomo. His son Isaac who inherited his estate was killed in 1862 during the Civil War.

There were railroad towns named Parsons in Kansas and Tennessee. The first was named after Judge Levi Parsons, the wealthy New York lawyer and President of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad. The Parsons of Parsons, Tennessee is uncertain.

Canada. Parsons in Newfoundland, mainly from Devon, appeared at an early time. Joseph Parsons arrived at Carbonear with his wife and children in 1677; while Edward Parsons was listed in 1801 on property at Parsons Cove that dated back to 1745. Parsons were to be found at Harbour Grace from 1765.

William Parsons and his wife came to Shelburne, Nova Scotia from the Isle of Wight in 1783. Their descendants have generally remained in Nova Scotia, mainly in Hants county.

Australia. Thomas and Mary Parsons came to Western Australia on the Rockingham in 1830. Their son Thomas purchased the Greenhills estate in the hills behind Victor Harbor in South Australia after his marriage in 1865. His grandson Allenby was mayor of Victor Harbor in the 1980’s.

Matthew Parsons, his wife Puah and their two children left Chalford, Gloucestershire on the Leyton in 1838 for Sydney. One child died during the 133 day voyage, another child was born. The couple ended up settling south of Sydney in Wollongong, NSW. They celebrated their platinum (70th) wedding anniversary there in 1900; and their son Henry celebrated his golden (50th) anniversary there in 1923.

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Parsons Surname Miscellany

Richard Persons at the Third Crusade.  In 1192 during the Third Crusade Richard Persons or Parsons was said to have been one of King Richard’s body of battle-axe guards.

Legend has it that he saved the life of the King at Ascalon when he killed two of the enemy with a single blow of his battle-axe.  He was knighted on the field by King Richard and was granted three tigers’ heads for his arms and a battle-axe for his crest.

Parsons of Kington Magna.  Richard Parsons was a weaver and flax-dresser from Wincanton in Somerset who in later years was a farmer in Kington Magna, just across the county border from Somerset in north Dorset.  He died there in 1682. Generations of the Parsons family continued to live at Kington Magna until the 19th century.

William Parsons was an inn-keeper and land-owner at Kingston Magna and at Holton in Somerset where he died in 1835; while Charles Parsons was a prosperous farmer at Marston Magna in Somerset.  Three of Charles’s children decided to move to Southampton.  John Parsons, born in 1845, was one of them and he became a well-known Southampton publican.

Meanwhile Parsons continued at Holton where a later William Parsons served as churchwarden. Freeborn Parsons emigrated to New Zealand in the 1870’s.  The Freeborn name was handed down to his son and then to his grandson who died at the Battle of Alamein in 1941.

Reader Feedback – Parsons in Oxfordshire.  My ancestors came from Steeple Barton in Oxfordshire. Got to 1710 with a John Parsons (too many John Parsons) and then got stuck.

David Parsons (parsonsdh@shaw.ca).

Humphrey Parsons’ Fame.  Humphrey Parsons is said to have been brought under the notice of King George II during hunting, a sport to which he was passionately addicted.  His spirited English courser outstripped the rest and, in contravention of the usual etiquette, brought him in at the death.  At an interview which followed, Parsons offered his horse which had attracted the King’s admiration for his Majesty’s acceptance.  The horse was accepted, and the king, who showed him every mark of favor, presented him in 1731 with his portrait set in diamonds.

A broadside of 1741 entitled A Hymn to Alderman Parsons, our Lord Mayor described him as a churchman, an incorruptible Tory, and being proof against the bribery and wiles of the Whigs. It then proceeded:

  • “In France he is respected,
  • The French King does agree
  • That he should bring his beer
  • Over there duty free.”

The Leviathan of Parsonstown.  The Leviathan of Parsonstown was the unofficial name for the Rosse six-foot telescope.  It is a historic reflecting telescope of 72 inch aperture and was the largest telescope in the world from 1845 until the completion of the 100 inch Hooker telescope in Los Angeles in 1917.

The Rosse six-foot telescope was built by William Parsons, the 3rd Earl of Rosse, on his estate of Birr castle at Parsonstown in county Offaly, Ireland.

In its construction Parsons improved upon the techniques of casting, grinding and polishing large telescope mirrors from speculum metal and he constructed steam-powered grinding machines for the parabolic mirrors.  In 1842 he cast his first six foot mirror.  But it took another five casts and three years before he had two ground and polished mirrors.  Speculum mirrors tarnish rapidly. With two mirrors, one could be used in the telescope while the other was being re-polished.

After the 3rd Earl died in 1867, his son Laurence continued to operate the telescope until 1890. When he died in 1908, the telescope was no longer used and was partially dismantled.  But interest revived in the 1990’s and a reconstructed version of the telescope was completed in 1999.

Benjamin Parsons’ Descendants in New England.  Charles Nickey’s 1913 book Parsons’ Family History and Record began as follows:

“Benjamin Parsons came from England in 1635 and settled at Springfield, Massachusetts.  Of his children I have been able to learn but little.  His grandson Ebenezer Parsons was deacon of the church at Springfield and had a numerous family, of whom I can name five sons – Jonathan, Moses, Solomon, David and Nathan.

Jonathan Parsons, born in 1705, was a man of pre-eminent talent and a very celebrated preacher of the New Light or Revival Class.  It was said that he had a passion for fine clothes, for gold and silver lace and ruffled shirt fronts, which distressed some of the good Puritans of his church.

He had thirteen children, one of whom was Samuel Holden Parsons who settled as a lawyer in Middleton, Connecticut.  He was a Major General in the Revolutionary War and afterwards was appointed by George Washington as Governor of the Northwest Territory.  He drowned in the Ohio river near Pittsburgh in 1789.”

Gustavus Parsons and Thomas Jefferson.  Gustavus Adolphus Parsons had been born at Charlottesville, Virginia in 1801, close by Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello.  He worked there as a young man and he served as the last personal secretary to Thomas Jefferson when President.  After Jefferson’s death he moved with his family in 1837 to Jefferson City in Missouri.

A few years after their arrival, a young nephew of Thomas Jefferson came to live there.  He married one of Captain Gustavus’s daughters.  But soon afterwards Merriwether Lewis Jefferson was stricken with illness and he died at his father-in-law’s home. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the Parsons lot next to his wife Mary Ann who had already passed away at the young age of twenty one.

Gustavus himself lived into his eighties and died at Jefferson City in 1882.

John Parsons and Parsons, Tennessee.  Clarence Parsons in his book A History of the Parsons Family stated:

“Dr. John Parsons settled in Decatur county in western Tennessee, living in what is now known as Parsons, Tennessee. He practiced medicine here in this area for about 50 years.  Dr. Parsons owned several pieces of land at one time or another and, according to the records in the state archives in Nashville, owned 300 acres north of railroad track in Parsons. This railroad, built in the 1880’s, ran from Memphis to Perryville. The officials of this, the Tennessee Midland Railroad, honored Dr. Parsons by naming the town of Parsons, Tennessee for him.”

Some of these facts may not be right.  Dr. John died in 1879 and was buried at the New Beech Grove cemetery west of Lexington.  He was probably not an M.D. but rather a D.D. (Doctor of Divinity) as his tombstone described him as Rev. John Parsons.

And John died in 1879.  So he was not the Parsons Flats land owner when the railroad was built 10 years later.  There was indeed another John Parsons. In an article about Parsons in Decatur County, Tennessee Families and History, Edwin C. Townsend wrote:

“Located on Buckner Street about two blocks north of Main Street was a stagecoach inn operated by John Parsons. Parsons owned a considerable amount of land known as Parsons Flat. The survey crew for the Tennessee Midland Railway stayed at the Parsons Inn while they were surveying the right-of-way for the railway.”

Reader Feedback – Parsons in Newfoundland.  I can trace my Parsons family back with sources to Harbour Grace (Bears Cove), Newfoundland to the mid-1700’s.  William Parsons died there in 1775.  I was wondering if you could share with me where the earliest Parsons in Harbour Grace (Bears Cove) came from in SW England.  I have been trying to find this out, with no success.

Timothy Marcoe (timdmarcoe@hotmail.com)

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Parsons Names
  • Robert Parsons was an English composer of the Tudor period, noted for his compositions of church music. 
  • Sir Charles Parsons was an Anglo-Irish engineer, the inventor of the steam turbine engine in 1884. 
  • Talcott Parsons was an American sociologist, considered one of the most influential figures in the development of sociology during the 20th century. 
  • Nicholas Parsons was an English radio and TV presenter, best known for the radio panel show Just a Minute which he hosted for over fifty years from 1967.
  • Jim Parsons has been the star of the long-running American TV series The Big Bang Theory.
Parsons Numbers Today
  • 35,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 28,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 31,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

 

Parsons and Like Surnames

Many surnames originated from SW England, the principal counties there being Devon and Cornwall, Somerset and Gloucestershire.  These are some of the prominent and noteworthy surnames that you can check out.

BryantJewellPerkinsRowe
DrakePalmerPhelpsScudamore
HancockPascoePhillipsWilcox

 

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