Smith Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Smith Surname 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 with 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.  The Australian equivalent has been “the Smith family.”

Smith Surname Resources on The Internet

Smith and Smyth Surname Ancestry

  • from England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany (Schmidt) and Italy (Ferraro)
  • to America, Caribs (Barbados), Canada and New Zealand

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

Smiths in the North.  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.

The 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 Mayor in 1504. William Smyth, the Bishop of Lincoln and founder of Brasenose College in Oxford, came from this family.

Smiths West and East.  Some other 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 Kent, 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 under Queen Elizabeth.  These Smiths of Hill Hall in Essex became, curiously, Smijths and then Smyths.

Smiths Today.  Smith families have lent their names to three well-known brands, one of yesteryear 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 outside of London.  Family members ran the bank for the first hundred years.  The bank remained independent until it was acquired by National Provincial Bank in 1918.
  • 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 until 1972.
  • and Smith’s Crisps which began in Frank Smith’s garage in Cricklewood, 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 of early Anglo-Saxon settlement.  Some have suggested that it was these Anglo-Saxon invaders that brought the Smith 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 area 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 hide their clan association.

The name Smith was also widespread in Lowland Scotland.  Adam Smith, famous for his book The Wealth of Nations, 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 Scotland, to 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 of 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 Limerick
  • and, more controversially, the Archdeacon’s son Edward Smyth who was expelled from his living as an Anglican minister and became a travelling Methodist preacher.

Captain Thomas Smyth, grandson of William Smyth, had arrived in Westmeath by 1671 and was the forebear of the Smyths of Drumcree.  His brother the Rev. Robert Smyth acquired Portlick castle in Westmeath in 1703.

Many 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 daughter Pocahontas.  He returned to England and, after voyages of exploration along the New England coastline, died in England in 1631.

New England.  Robert Smith, also from Lincolnshire, came to Topsfield, Massachusetts in 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 Mormon Church.  Mormons point out Topsfield in their history books and continue to visit the Smith ancestral hometown there.

Other early Smiths in New England 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 of Connecticut in 1812.
  • and Richard Smith who came around 1640 and was the first European settler on Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island.  

Virginia and Carolinas.  William Smith was born in Virginia, probably in Old Rapahannock county, around 1690.  A later William Smith in Fauquier county was nicknamed “Extra Billy” because of the extra fees he charged on the mail service he 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.  

Thomas Smith came to Charleston, South Carolina in 1684 and was a planter and merchant there (and briefly its colonial Governor).  His  grandson Josiah was a prominent evangelical preacher.

Pennsylvania.  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 he lost most of his money supporting the Revolution. Grandson Joseph was financially more successful, a Philadelphia merchant who traded with the East.

There 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.

The larger number of Smiths in Pennsylvania is explained in part by the many German Schmidts who came there in the 18th century and were later Smiths.  Thus Johann Schmidt who arrived on the Loyal Judith in 1743 became John Smith; as did similarly Johann Schmidt on the Patience ten years later.  Dale Smith’s The Book of Smiths covered the descendants of Johann Nicholas Schmidt of Albany township, Berks county.

Other 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 of Alfred Smith.  His son Al Smith was four times Governor of New York and in 1928 the first Catholic US Presidential candidate.

Texas. 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 Jacinto.
  • 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 in 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.

Caribbean.  Richard Smith from Cumberland was a merchant and slave-owner who from the 1740’s owned plantations in Barbados.  His son Richard was a rector on the island, his grandson Richard received compensation from the Government after emancipation in 1834.

Frederick “Sleepy” Smith, born in Barbados in 1924 and descended from slaves, was one of the leaders in bringing the country to independence in the 1960’s.

Canada.  Elias Smith was an Empire Loyalist from New York who departed with his family for Canada in 1794.  He built a sawmill and gristmill that formed the basis of the town of Port Hope in Ontario which developed there.  His son John and grandsons Sidney, James and John were prominent citizens there.

Another Loyalist Smith family, this time from New Jersey, came in 1786 to the Niagara peninsula where they received land grants in and around Grimsby township.

Two notable 19th century Smiths in Canada were from Scotland and Ireland:

  • Donald Smith, from a well-connected Morayshire family in Scotland, emigrated to Quebec in 1838 and joined the Hudson Bay Company.  His long company and political service culminated in him being ennobled as Baron Strathcona in 1897.
  • while Frank Smith, the son of a widowed Irish Catholic immigrant from Armagh, was more of a rags-to-riches story.  In 1835 his older brother Joseph was murdered in SW Ontario.  His father Patrick died soon afterwards and Frank was just thirteen years old.  He found work in the grocery business and by 1849 had started his own wholesale and retail grocery business which thrived.  He became a business leader in Toronto, a friend to Catholics, and embarked on a political career.

New Zealand.  Thomas (TWP) Smith from Ireland came to New Zealand with the British army in the 1860’s and stayed.  He moved to the then-remote Kaitaia region in the far north of the country and became one of its first dairy farmers.  His family story was recounted in Margaret Bowater’s 2010 book The Smiths of Kaitaia. 

Smith and Smyth Surname 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 dominant. 

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 to William Smithdike of the household of the King, at seven pounds nine shillings per annum for twenty one years.”

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

William 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 Smyth is not known.  But the subsequent generations were all Smyths.

William 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 English Financial Smiths.  Thomas Smith, born in Nottingham in 1631, was the forebear of the long-lasting “financial” Smiths.  It was his second son Abel Smith who founded Smith’s Bank in Nottingham, one of the first in the country.

In the late 1700’s Robert Smith was banker to the British Prime Minister William Pitt.  The story goes that Smith asked the PM for the privilege of driving his carriage in London through the horse-guards.  “No,” replied Pitt, “but I can make you an Irish peer.”  The next day Robert Smith became Lord Carrington.

His descendants forsook banking for landowning and Conservative politics.  A later Lord Carrington was British Foreign Secretary under Thatcher during the Falklands invasion.

The Smith family bank continued in existence until 1918 when, under Desmond Smith, it was absorbed by the National Provincial Bank (now part of NatWest).  However, Smith descendants remained remarkably active in English banking.

In 1960 seventeen descendants of Thomas Smith were reported to have held 87 directorships in 75 companies in the City.  Their numbers included:

  • the heads of two merchant banks, Lord Bicester of Morgan Grenfell and Reginald Abel Smith of Arbuthnot Latham.
  • partners in two other merchant banks, Hambros and Schroders.
  • directors of two lending banks, National Provincial and Coutts.
  • while Brian Abel Smith was an economist at the London School of Economics.

At that time every summer, a lunch was given by the Smith Family Club, presided over by Sir Alexander Smith, which was confined to the descendants of Thomas Smith.

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 flamboyant 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 Gates.

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:

“When 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 the 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.”

Portlick 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 translation from the Scottish McGowan or the Irish MacGabhann or Mac an Ghabhainn.  County Cavan included these Mac an Ghabhainns, as well as families transplanted there from Antrim and Down because they had sided with the O’Neills at the time of Queen Elizabeth.

There 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 King William’s horse at about the time of the Battle of the Boyne.  The nickname stuck.

John 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 children.  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 was recounted in George Lasher’s 1906 book The Smith Family. 

Elias Smith, Empire Loyalist to Canada.  Knowledge of this family has been greatly increased by the work of Joseph Shuter Smith, a grandson of Elias who in the early 1900s undertook the task of tracing the genealogical history of the family.

The genealogy he compiled begins with Elias’s birth in 1736 at Goshen in Orange county, New York and ended in 1909 in Port Hope.  It is said that he wrote hundreds of letters in his efforts to trace the family lines of his grandparents, Elias and Catharine Smith, which he recorded in a “the little red book,” which has long since disappeared.

From various records it appears that Elias arrived in New York City in 1761 as a master carpenter. By 1768 he was engaged in construction work for the city and held leases on several lots on Queen Street in Manhattan.

After the Revolutionary War, he was determined to depart for British Canada.  Seven ships made the difficult voyage from New York to Quebec in the fall of 1783, the seventh known as the Industry being captained by Joseph Bagley under the direction of Elias Smith.

However, he returned to New York the following year “for business purposes” and remained there for a decade before departing for Montreal.  He was granted land at what became Port Hope in Ontario on his promise to build mills on the creek there.  The community’s name Port Hope was adopted at a public meeting in 1818, despite local pressure to call the place Toronto.

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.

The graveyard, deeded by the family to the town of Seguin in 1880, is now part of the old Riverside 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:

“Ezekiel 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 1836.”

Ezekiel 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.

The Smith Family in Australia.  On Christmas eve 1922 five businessmen walked into a Sydney orphanage carrying armfuls of toys and sweets.   They walked out inspired by a single goal –  to improve the lives of disadvantaged children in Australia.

When asked who the children could thank, one of the men, preferring to remain anonymous, said “Smith.”  “What about the others?” the matron asked. “They’re Smiths too,” replied the man. “We’re all Smiths. We’re The Smith Family.”

And so the Smith Family children’s charity was born.

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 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 Agency series of books.
  • Will Smith is a popular African American hip hop artist and actor.

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.

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.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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