Rutherford Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Rutherford Surname Meaning

Rutherford is a Scottish border clan name.  The name comes from a place-name in Roxburghshire on the south bank of the river Tweed, midway between Melrose and Kelso.  A village there, then called Rothersfurth, was burnt and razed by an English army in 1545 and has disappeared from the map.  

The origin of the Rutherford name is thought to have been the Old English hryther meaning “cattle” and ford, “a river crossing.”

Rutherford Surname Resources on The Internet

Rutherford Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Borders)
  • to Ireland (Ulster), America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

ScotlandThe Rutherford name in Roxburghshire on the Scottish borders probably dates back to the 12th century (although there is no evidence that Robertus Dominus de Rodyrforde of that time did exist). Three Rutherfords swore fealty to Edward I of England in the Ragman Roll of 1296, including Sir Nicholas de Rutherford who was considered the ancestor of the Rutherford line.

During the lawless Border times of the 14th to 16th centuries they were a reiving family, well-known for their raids into Northumberland. They allied themselves with the larger Douglas and Home clans in the area.

James Rutherfurd gained possession of Edgerston, south of Jedburgh and close to the English border, in 1448.  Thomas Rutherfurd, the Black Laird of Edgerston, turned the tide in the fighting against the English at the Battle of Reidswire in 1575.  Edgerston remained in Rutherfurd possession until 1915 when the last laird sold Edgerston and emigrated to Kenya.

The Rutherfords of Jedburgh were well-known as ‘lorimers’ or saddle makers.  In the 1630’s came Adam Rutherford of Hall, the forebear of Rutherfords in Virginia, who was a maltman and burgess of Jedburgh. There were cadet Rutherford lines at Hunthill and Hundalee nearby (although these had mainly died out by the next century). Indeed, except for Edgerston, much of the other Rutherford lands had been ceded through marriage to the Earl of Traquair back in 1513.

The Hunthill line did contribute the Rev. Samuel Rutherford, a leading Presbyterian in the 1650’s, and the Rev. John Rutherford, a Presbyterian minister at Yarrow in Selkirkshire in the 1680’s.  His son John moved to Edinburgh and became an eminent physician there.  His grandson Daniel was a scientist famous for his isolation of nitrogen in 1772.

Rutherfords were still most numerous in Roxburghshire by the time of the 1881 census in Scotland.  But many had dispersed elsewhere by then.  Some had crossed the border into Northumberland, others had gone to Ireland and to America and elsewhere.

Much of this ground was covered in Kenneth Rutherford Davis’s 1987 book The Rutherfords in Britain which corrected many of the errors found in earlier Rutherford books.

Ireland.  Captain James Rutherford was brother to the Presbyterian leader Samuel Rutherford. His son John was a captain in King William’s army at the Battle of the Boyne in 1689 and was granted lands in county Down (where he died in 1740).  Two of John’s sons emigrated to America.

The Rev. Samuel Rutherford was a Presbyterian minister who was banished from Scotland in 1689 and settled in county Monaghan. His three sons all came to America, settling in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and later in Lunenburg county, Virginia.

David Rutherford left Scotland with his brother John shortly after the dissolution of the Scottish Parliament in 1707. David settled in Fermanagh and John in Dublin where he started a wholesaling business and acquired an estate at Bath Mines.

Adam Rutherford, born in Fermanagh in 1794, worked in the Dublin firm until he enlisted in the British Army in 1814.  He was granted land in Canada but never went.  His son Adam and wife Jane did though.

America.  The first Rutherford to come to America was John Rutherford who arrived at Elizabeth City, Virginia in 1621 on the Warwick.  However, the line to him and from him is not really known.

Robert Rutherford had come to America in 1730 with his parents from Roxburghshire in Scotland when but an infant. He settled in Virginia where he organized Rutherford’s Rangers at the time of the French and Indian War.  In his later years he was a staunch friend of George Washington and one of Virginia’s delegates that first rallied to the American cause. Subsequent Rutherfords of his line moved to Knox county, Tennessee and then further west.

Other Rutherfords in America came via Ireland, having fought with William of Orange or having left Scotland because of their Presbyterian faith.  The most prominent of these was Griffith Rutherford who arrived in America in 1739 (his parents dying on the voyage) and settled in North Carolina. He was a Brigadier General in the Revolutionary War and an important figure in the early development of Tennessee (where he died in 1805). Rutherford county was named after him.

Griffith’s grandson James Rutherford moved to Texas in 1830 where he established a medical practice in an area now known as Cockville.  Another grandson John arrived in Texas in 1835.  When Lamar county was formed in 1842, he was elected its Chief Justice by the Republic of Texas Congress.  He was a surveyor, a farmer, and the first schoolteacher in Honey Grove.  In his latter life he kept a diary which painted a vivid picture of farm life in NW Texas after the Civil War.   

Canada.  Richard Rutherford came around the year 1817 from Northumberland in England to Northumberland county in Ontario.

“Richard Rutherford had been a shepherd who herded his flock on the Cheviot hills.   On landing at Quebec, he sailed up the St. Lawrence river into Lake Ontario and traveled west to Northumberland county, Ontario where he located 100 acres as a homestead and built his log cabin.  For ten years he worked on his land before returning to England for a partner in life (which he found).”  

Many Rutherfords came to farm in Brant county, Ontario. William Rutherford, for instance, came to South Dumfries township around 1830; while James Rutherford arrived there four years later.

Rutherfords headed later for the Canadian West.  Agnes Rutherford kept a journal of her family journey from Selkirk in Scotland to Manitoba in Canada in 1882, where they made their home in the Tarbolton district.  The family story was narrated in Agnes Florence’s 1982 book Andrew and Agnes Rutherford.

Alexander Rutherford, the son of Scottish immigrants to the Ottawa area in 1855, came west in 1886, became involved in politics, and served as the first Premier of Alberta in 1905.

Australia.  James Rutherford arrived at the Victorian goldfields in the 1850’s from America.  He did not discover gold, but instead developed Cobb & Co. as the leading coaching company in Australia in the second half of the 19th century. 

New Zealand.  James and Martha Rutherford had been early colonists to New Zealand, James arriving at four years old from Perth in Scotland in 1843.  Their second son Ernest, born in 1871, excelled in science and studied at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University. There he became known as the father of nuclear physics. 

Rutherford Surname Miscellany

The Origin of the Rutherford Name.  There is an old story, probably apocryphal, that an ancient king of Scotland, King Ruther, was fleeing for his life and was helped by a young man of Teviotsdale who aided him in crossing the ford on the river Tweed.  That spot was henceforth known as Ruther’s Ford.

Another story was said to have dated back to the time of Wallace or before.  The tradition was that an English invading force was allowed to cross the river at the ford and, after they had done so, the Scots fought and defeated them and drove them back across the ford making the English “rue the ford.”

Some have suggested that Rutherford might even have been derived from the West Flemish name of Ruddsvoorde as the early Rutherfords may have come to Scotland from West Flanders.  A more plausible story is that Rutherford name originally meant “red ford,” as ruther, meaning “red,” was a Celtic word.

The Rutherfurds at Reidswire.  The Rutherfurds were present at the battle of Reidswire in 1575, considered the last actual battle fought between the English and the Scots.  Richard Rutherford of Littleheuch, son of the “Cock of Hunthill,” was at that time provost of Jedburgh and led on the burghers.  They came upon the scene while the skirmish was going on and, raising their slogan “a Jedworth! a Jedworth,” turned the tide of battle in favor of their countrymen.

Thomas Rutherfurd, the Black Laird of Edgerston, was also a principal player in this battle.   An old ballad in reference to this said:

  • “Bauld Rutherfurd he was fu’ stout,
  • Wi’ his nine sons him round about,
  • He led the town of Jedward out;
  • All bravely fought that day.”

Another surviving tradition from that time is called “The Hand Ba’ Game.”  It is celebrated on Candlemas (February 2nd) and comes from the troubles of 1549 when a few Scots played a post-battle football game with the severed heads of some Englishmen.  Nowadays a leather ball replaces the Englishman’s head.

Rutherford Books.  The Rutherfords have spawned a number of Rutherford genealogy books.  The earlier books had a great many errors which Kenneth Rutherford Davis’s 1987 book sought to deal with.

  • The Rutherfurds of that Ilk and their Cadets by Thomas Cockburn-Hood, 1884.
  • Family Records and Events from the Rutherfurd Collection by Livingston Rutherfurd, 1894.
  • The Rutherfords of Roxburghshire by Ora Z. Rutherford Story and Gary Rutherford, 1918
  • Genealogical History of the Rutherford Family by William Kenneth Rutherford and Anna Clay Rutherford, 1986
  • The Rutherfords in Britain: a History and Guide by Kenneth Rutherford Davis, 1987.

According to one reviewer, William and Anna Rutherford’s work was excellent when it dealt with North American data and got much better with its Scottish materials after they and Davis discovered each other’s work and began to communicate.

William and Anna Rutherford’s major contribution was in ferreting out many of the colonial Rutherford records and documenting well established Rutherford emigrations from Scotland and Ireland. William and Anna Rutherford were then able to verify the presence of Hunthill, Edgerston, Chatto/Nisbet and Castlewood Rutherford groups in early colonial Virginia and Pennsylvania.  They also documented, as well as they could, the survivors of the Rev. Samuel Rutherford’s family here in America following his death in 1660.

Rutherford County.  After General Griffith Rutherford’s death in 1805, both North Carolina (where he lived most of his life) and Tennessee (where he spent the last ten years of his life) renamed counties Rutherford county after him.

Apparently Kentucky planned to do the same for the area which surrounded Louisville. But they then changed their mind and called the county Jefferson county instead.  Rutherford was also a township across the Ohio river in Indiana.

Adam Rutherford and Canada.  Adam Rutherford was employed in the wholesale house founded by Sir John Rutherford in Dublin at the time he enlisted as an officer in the British Army in 1814.

He enrolled with the Eniskillen Dragoons and, according to his account, injured himself while fighting at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.  However, he may instead have been guarding Edinburgh castle at the time.  It is believed that Adam could have fabricated the Waterloo story to explain his leg injury to his grandchildren.

On his retirement from the British Army he was awarded a free grant of 400 acres of land, with the privilege of making his own selection anywhere in Canada. But, at the time there was so much land, and Canada was such a big country, he deferred making his selection from time to time and wound up by never filing at all.

At that time his son Adam, then a dashing young officer stationed in Edinburgh as a recruiting officer, met and fell in love with the beautiful and aristocratic Jane Borthwick of Borthwick Castle.  But the affair met with the stern disapproval of the Borthwicks.

In 1816, an elopement was therefore staged and the couple succeeded in eluding their pursuers and in making their way to Ireland.  Jane was never again accepted into the House of Borthwick.  Adam and Jane emigrated to Canada where they raised eight children. 

Reader Feedback: I am researching Jane Borthwick, wife of Adam Rutherford.  Through a DNA match I concluded, perhaps wrongly, that Jane was the daughter of Alexander and Isabella Borthwick. Alexander could have been a notable Borthwick (anecdotal) but did not reside in Borthwick castle.  Just wondering where this information originated.  Andy Coates (

James Rutherford of Cobb & Co.  His family had been originally from Roxburghshire in Scotland.  They went to Ulster about 1660 where they were prosperous farmers until the troubles of 1798.  James Rutherford of this family was then ambushed and murdered by Irish rebels, his house burned down, and its occupants butchered – with the exception of his wife, her infant son (also a James), and a nurse.

The widow went to relatives in upstate New York with this James and later had a farm outside Buffalo.  James Rutherford was born on this farm in 1827.   He had tried his hand unsuccessfully as a schoolmaster and then set off for Australia to try his luck in the Victoria goldfields.

He did not find gold.  But he did become an investor in the stagecoach company Cobb & Co.  He later became its general manager, a post which he held for over fifty years, and under his control the business flourished.

By 1870 the firm was harnessing 6,000 horses a day, their coaches were travelling 28,000 miles a week, mail subsidies amounted to £95,000 a year and the annual pay sheet totaled £100,000.  It was said that one million sheep a year were being shorn on the Cobb & Co. and Rutherford stations in Western Queensland and outback New South Wales under the famous ‘Diamond Tee’ brand so named from the Diamentina river where the largest Rutherford station was situated.

Cobb & Co. became a household word in the Australian out-country in the second half of the 19th century.

Rutherford Names

  • Daniel Rutherford, an uncle of the novelist Sir Walter Scott, was the Scottish chemist famous for his isolation of nitrogen in 1772. 
  • Ernest Rutherford was the New Zealand-born physicist, a director of the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, who is considered to be the father of nuclear physics. 
  • Margaret Rutherford was a well-known English character actress.  Her stage and film career spanned from the 1930’s to the 1960’s.

Rutherford Numbers Today

  • 13,000 in the UK (most numerous in Scottish Borders)
  • 9,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 7,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Rutherford 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.





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Written by Colin Shelley

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