Smith Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Smith Meaning
Smith is an occupational name for a
worker in metal, deriving from the Anglo-Saxon smitan to strike.  This term
led to the occupational name because the smith had to strike the metal
a hammer in order to shape it.
Metal-working was one of the earliest occupations for which specialist
skills were required.  Medieval smiths were important not only for making horseshoes, plowshares and other domestic articles, but above
all for their skill in forging swords, other weapons, and armor.
As a result, the name and its equivalents became the most widespread of
all occupational surnames in Europe.
Smyth or Smith?
Smyth was the early surname spelling.  Smith is now almost
universal.  Smith is in fact the leading
surname in terms of numbers in both England and America.  “John
Smith” has become a generic name for the average man.

Smith Resources on

Select Smith Ancestry

England.  The
earliest recorded Smith in England was an
Ecceard Smid in Durham in the year 975.

Smyths from Sneinton in Yorkshire
moved to nearby Rosedale Abbey in
the 1530’s after the dissolution of the monasteries.
A hundred years or so later, William Smyth
left Rosedale Abbey for Ireland after the death of his wife Ann.  A related Smyth line stayed in Durham and was
staunchly Catholic through the religious turmoils of the 16th and 17th
centuries.  Edward Smythe of Eshe Hall
was rewarded for his loyalty at the time of the Restoration.  He later made his home in Shropshire

Smyths/Smiths of Cuerdley and Hough near Nantwich in Cheshire dated
from the
early 1400’s.  A century later these
Smiths were important civic leaders in Chester and Thomas Smith was its
in 1504. William Smyth, the Bishop of
Lincoln and founder of Brasenose College in Oxford, came from this

prominent early Smiths hailed from the west country:

  • a Smythe family were
    clothiers at Corsham in Wiltshire in the early 1500’s.
    Thomas Smythe, known as Customer Smythe,
    moved to London and established a large merchant trading business there.  His son, Sir Thomas of Westenhanger Castle in
    was in the early 1600’s the first Governor of the East India Company
    and the Treasurer
    of the Virginia Company.  In the latter
    capacity he funded both explorers and colonizers.
  • while Matthew Smyth from the
    Forest of Dean was the progenitor of the Smyth family of Bristol
    merchants.  His son John acquired the Long
    Ashton estate in
    Somerset in 1545, which was to remain with the family until 1946.

There was an
early Smith family from Saffron Waldron in Essex which claimed descent
from the
Black Prince. Sir Thomas Smith of this family was Secretary of State
Queen Elizabeth.  These Smiths of Hill Hall in Essex became,
Smijths and then Smyths.

families have lent their names to three well-known brands, one of
and two still operating:

  • Smith’s Bank which was begun in Nottingham by Thomas
    Smith in 1658 and is believed to have been the first bank ever formed
    of London.  Family members ran the bank
    for the first hundred years.  The bank
    remained independent until it was acquired by National Provincial Bank
  • W.H. Smith the booksellers which was started by, strangely,
    H.W. Smith in
    London in 1792.  However, three W.H.
    Smiths were to follow.  It remained a
    family-run business until 1948, although a Smith stayed on as Chairman
  • and Smith’s Crisps which began in Frank Smith’s garage in
    London in 1919.  By 1931 Smith’s Crisps
    was selling in both the UK and Australia.  Since
    that time, his company has passed through many hands.
    Pepsico are the present owners.

Smith today is the most common surname in
England.  However, it is not equally
spread about the country. It has its
largest concentrations in the East Midlands and East Anglia, both areas
early Anglo-Saxon settlement.  Some
have suggested that it was these Anglo-Saxon invaders that brought the
name with them

Scotland.  The name
was first recorded in SE Scotland in the 13th century.
According to
legend one clan of Smiths, known as sloich gow chrium (the race
of the
hunchback smith), originated in Perth a century or so later.
There was
a Smythe family
of Braco and later of Methven in Perthshire from the 1470’s.

The Gaelic word gobha for smith gave rise to surnames
such as Gow, MacGow and MacGowan, but also by the 17th century, in an
around Loch Lomond, to the anglicized form of Smith.
Later it was said that many Highland
clansfolk adopted the Smith name after the Jacobite defeat in 1746 to
their clan association.

The name Smith was also widespread in Lowland Scotland.
Adam Smith, famous for his book The Wealth of
, was born in
Kirkcaldy, Fife in 1723.  The largest
Smith numbers in Scotland are now in and around Glasgow.

Ireland.  The Gaelic name MacGabhann
(from the Gaelic word gobha) was often anglicized, as in
Smith.  Smiths in county Cavan were descended from Irish families
that had
been transplanted there from Antrim and Down in the 16th century.
The progenitor
of the Smiths of Ballinure in Cavan was the Rev. William Smith, rector
Clones for forty years who died there in 1717.
It has been said that many of the Scots Smiths in Ulster were in
fact McGowans
in disguise.

William Smyth of the Yorkshire Rosedale Smyths moved to Dundrum
near Dublin with his family in the 1630’s. Later
Smyths of this family were prominent churchmen:

  • the Rev. Arthur
    Smyth, Archbishop of Dublin in the 1760’s
  • the Rev. John Smyth,
    Archdeacon of
  • and, more controversially, the Archdeacon’s son Edward Smyth
    who was
    expelled from his living as an Anglican minister and became a
    Methodist preacher.

Captain Thomas Smyth, grandson of William Smyth, had arrived
in Westmeath by 1671 and was
forebear of the Smyths of Drumcree.  His
brother the Rev. Robert Smyth acquired Portlick castle in Westmeath in

Smiths in Kilkenny and Tipperary have descent from the William Smith
who had come
to Kilkenny from Ashton Court in Somerset in 1630.
It was recorded that the Earl of Ormond “was
well pleased that William Smith of Damagh should bear some parcel of
his arms
for diligent services done by him to the said Earl.”
The family line continued through William’s
grandson Valentine.

Both Smith and
Smyth spellings
persist in Ireland.  Overall, the Smith
spelling is slightly more popular
than Smyth.  Smyth is more common in
Northern Ireland.

America.   One of the first Smiths in America was the
explorer and writer John Smith of Jamestown fame. Born
in Lincolnshire, he arrived there with
the first Virginia colonists in 1607.  He
was famously saved from execution that winter by the Indian chef’s
Pocahontas.  He returned to England and,
after voyages of exploration along the New England coastline, died in
England in

Robert Smith, also from Lincolnshire, came to Topsfield, Massachusetts
1638.  His descendants lived there
through five generations and Joseph Smith
Sr. was born there in 1771.  It was his
son Joseph Smith Jr. who founded the Church of Latter Day Saints or
Church.  Mormons point out Topsfield in
their history books and continue to visit the Smith ancestral hometown

Other early Smiths in America included:

  • Henry Smith who
    arrived in 1637 and settled in Wethersfield, Connecticut.
    His descendants included the Puritan minister
    Cotton Mather Smith and his son John Cotton Smith who became Governor
    Connecticut in 1812.
  • Richard Smith who came around 1640 and was the first
    European settler on Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island.
  • Thomas Smith who came to
    Charleston, South Carolina in 1684 and was a planter and merchant there
    briefly its colonial Governor).  His
    grandson Josiah was a prominent evangelical preacher.
  • and William Smith who was
    born in Virginia, probably in Old Rapahannock county, around 1690.  A later William Smith in Fauquier county was
    “Extra Billy” because of the extra fees he charged on the mail service
    established in Virginia in the 1820’s.  He
    was twice Governor of Virginia and, at the age of sixty
    five, the
    oldest Confederate general in the Civil War.  

John Smith came to Philadelphia from Ireland in 1720 and
made his home in the Brandywine settlement in
Chester county, Pennsylvania
He was the forebear of the first prominent Irish-American Smith
family. Son James was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, but
lost most of his money supporting the Revolution. Grandson Joseph was
financially more successful, a Philadelphia merchant who traded with
the East.

were already 35,000 Smiths recorded in the US census of 1840, with 20%
of that
number in Pennsylvania and a further 20% combined in Ohio and New York.

larger number of Smiths in Pennsylvania is probably explained by the
German Schmidts who arrived there in the 18th and 19th centuries and
Smiths.  Smith was also adopted as a
surname by some from other countries whose name meant Smith but was
spelt and
sounded different.  Alfred Ferraro from
Italy, for instance, fought in the American Civil War and took the name
Alfred Smith.  His son Al Smith was four
times Governor of New York and in 1928 the first Catholic US

Smith was an important name in early Texas history:

  • Henry Smith, born
    in Kentucky, arrived in Texas in 1817, and became the leader of the
    pro-Independence party.  However, he lost
    out to Sam Houston and died in a mining camp in California.
  • another Smith, James
    Smith, was much honored in Texas and had Smith county named after him.  Born in South Carolina, he arrived in Texas
    in 1835 and earned his spurs leading the fight at the Battle of San
  • also at the battle was Erastus Smith,
    a scout for Sam Houston despite his deafness.
  • while an early settler in Texas
    was French Smith
    and his family who arrived in Gonzales county, Texas
    1837.  He was a descendant of William
    Smith who had come to Northumberland county, Virginia around 1657.

Today the
Smith numbers in America are greater than those in England, having
absorbed these
non-English immigrants as well as many African Americans also taking
the Smith name.


Smith Miscellany

Smyth or Smith?  The initial spelling preference for Smyth rather than
Smith might have come about because of the difficulty in reading
blackletter type where “Smith” might look like “Snuth” or “Simth.”  Still there were some early Smiths, such as Richard Smith the London cloth merchant in the late 1400’s.

The Smith spelling became more widespread in the 1600’s.  The earlier spellings of Smyth and Smythe have now faded and Smith is

The Smyths of Rosedale Abbey.  According
to Raymond Hayes’ 1970 book The History of Rosedale:

“On the dissolution of the priory in 1538 Rosedale
Abbey was granted to Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland who leased it
William Smithdike of the household of the King, at seven pounds nine
per annum for twenty one years.”

came the statement: “When the manor of Rosedale
was leased in
1576, there were forty farms and six mills.”
may conclude that William Smithdike was probably running a rented
estate of
considerable size.

Smithdike, according to Sir William
Dugdale’s 1665 Visitation, resided
at Sneinton in Pickering Lythe in the same wapentake as Rosedale Abbey.  How he had been connected to the King’s
household and why his son Thomas had the contracted surname spelling of
is not known.  But the subsequent
generations were all Smyths.

Smyth left Rosedale Abbey for Ireland in
1630 with his children after the death of his wife Ann.
He lived first at Dundrum in county Down
before moving to Lisburn in county Antrim.

The Smyths of Westmeath.  The
Smyths were a rather grand family in 18th
century Westmeath, local country gentry and local MP’s.
The following story went the rounds:

“There was once a Smyth, whose house, Glananea, had such a
triumphal arch and gates at the entrance to his demesne that he became
known as
“Smyth o’ the Gates.”   A later descendant, growing weary and
annoyed with this hereditary tag, sold the arch and the gates to a
neighbor –
whereupon the family was immediately dubbed Smyth wid’out the

The Rev. Robert Smyth had acquired Portlick
castle in Westmeath (formerly the home of the Dillons) in 1703.  There was a colorful story about how Portlick
remained in Smyth hands after the death of his son Ralph in 1782:

the Rev. Robert Smyth’s son Ralph died, it
was generally assumed as a bachelor that he had no heirs.
His sister prepared to take over the
castle.  As was to be expected, distant
relatives also began to lay claim to Portlick, insisting that they were
true and rightful heirs.  But the future
ownership of the castle was decided when a local woman came forward.  Maggie Gerrity presented her son Robert as
Ralph’s secret child and heir.  A local
clergyman confirmed the story and the Smyth name was secured in
Portlick once more.”

castle remained in
Smyth hands until 1861 when it was destroyed by fire.

Smiths and Smyths in Ireland.  Smiths
and Smyths in Ireland may have come from either
the plantation in Ulster and disbanded Cromwellian soldiers; or by
from the Scottish McGowan or the Irish MacGabhann
or Mac an Ghabhainn.  County
Cavan included these Mac an Ghabhainns, as well as
transplanted there from Antrim and Down because they had sided with the
O’Neills at the time of Queen Elizabeth.

are approximately 55% Smiths and 45% Smyths in all of Ireland
today.  However, there remains a clear
divide between the two spellings.  Smyth
is very much the spelling in Northern Ireland, Smith elsewhere in
Ireland.  Maybe Smyth was the Protestant
name, to
distinguish themselves from the other Smiths.

John Smith of Chester County, Pennsylvania.  John
Smith was born and brought up in county
Monaghan, probably of Scottish stock.
There was a story in the family that his father had been
MacDonald and
had been given the nickname of Smith when he had replaced a shoe on
William’s horse at about the time of the Battle of the Boyne.  The nickname stuck.

Smith came to Philadelphia with his wife and five children in 1720.  They made their home in the Brandywine
settlement of Chester county, Pennsylvania.  His gravestone at the
Presbyterian church there bore the following inscription:

“Sacred to the memory
of John Smith who died December 19, 1765,

And to Susanna his wife who died December 24, 1767,
Parents of fifteen
An honest man’s the noblest work of God.
The virtuous woman’s a crown
to her husband.”

John was the forebear
of the first prominent Irish-American Smith family.  Their history
recounted in George Lasher’s 1906 book The
Smith Family

French Smith in Texas.  French Smith
arrived in Texas in 1837 with his wife Mary. He was one of the original
shareholders of the newly founded town of Seguin in Gonzales county.  He spent his life in the area and is buried
in part of his land that he designated as a graveyard.

graveyard, deeded by
the family to the town of Seguin in 1880, is now part of the old
cemetery.  French Smith is buried there
with his brother Paris and their father Ezekiel.  Ezekiel
Smith has a marker over his grave
that was put there in 1936:

Smith, soldier in the army of Texas in the
Mier expedition, 1842.  Born in Virginia,
died in Seguin, Texas on October 28, 1854.  Erected by the state
of Texas in

Smith was in
fact an
old man at the time he was taken into the interior of Mexico as one of
the Mier
prisoners in 1842.  He was
one of the fortunate ones to survive until his release two years later.



Select Smith Names

  • William Smyth was Bishop of Lincoln
    and founder of Brasenose College in Oxford.
  • Adam Smith was a famous 18th century Scottish economist, the author of The Wealth of Nations. 
  • Joseph Smith Jr. was the founder of
    the Church of the Latter Day Saints (the Mormon movement).
  • Donald Alexander Smith was
    the Scottish-born fur trader, railroad baron,
    and politician in Canada in the 19th century.
  • Ian Smith was Prime Minister of
    Rhodesia from 1964 to 1979, the last leader of white minority rule.
  • Jimmy Smith was a jazz
    musician, a virtuoso on the electric organ.
  • Alexander McCall Smith is the
    author of the No. 1 Lady Detective
    series of books.
  • Will Smith is a popular African
    American hip hop artist and actor.

Select Smith Numbers Today

  • 730,000 in the UK (most numerous
    in West Midlands)
  • 907,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 346,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Smith is the #1 ranked surname in the UK and America.


Select Smith and Like Surnames   

The various medieval trades and occupations were a source of surnames as John the baker would over time would become known as John Baker.  Some skilled craftsmen – such as chandlers, fletchers and turners – were able to form guilds, protective organizations, and style themselves Worshipful Companies.  These are some of the occupational surnames that you can check out.



Return to Main Page


Leave a Reply