Stevenson Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Stevenson Surname Meaning

It could be Stevenson, it could be Stephenson – being “son of Steven” and “son of Stephen,” a personal name from the Greek Stephanos meaning “crown.” It was a popular name in the early Middle Ages, having been borne by the first Christian martyr. Stevensons outnumber Stephensons by roughly 60/40 today.

Stevenson Surname Resources on The Internet

Stevenson and Stephenson Surname Ancestry

  • from Northern England and Scotland (Lowlands and Orkneys)
  • to America, Canada and South Pacific

England.  Both Stevenson and Stephenson are northern English surnames:

  • Stephenson was more so. It was hardly to be found south of Yorkshire and Lancashire in the 19th century.
  • Stevenson, by contrast, extended down into the west Midlands (the largest numbers are in Nottinghamshire today) and there were also increasing numbers further south.

John Stephenson was recorded as a freeman of York in 1395. But the best-known Stephenson is probably George Stephenson, the man who built the first public railway line from Stockton to Darlington. He was born in 1781 to illiterate parents in a small village north of Newcastle. He worked in the mines nearby and was soon an expert in steam-driven machinery. He built his first prototype locomotive in 1814 and the first line on the Stephenson gauge began in 1825.

From Alston in Cumbria came two brothers, William and John Stephenson, who were to do well for themselves. William made his way to London, became a successful brewer there, was knighted and made Lord Mayor of London in 1764. His brother John Stephenson headed to Newcastle where he became a wine merchant, directing in the north his brother’s speculation in hops down south. John was sheriff of Newcastle in 1728 and its mayor in 1750.

There was a line of Stevensons at Balladoole on the Isle of Man from the 14th century. Many of them emigrated in the 19th century, primarily to Canada.

Scotland.  Stevenson but not Stephenson extended as a surname into Scotland.  The writer Robert Louis Stevenson suspected a Highland origin for his Stevensons. But most see Stevensons as having their origins in the Lowlands, in the counties of Lanark, Renfrew and Ayr. One early Stevenson family came from Bothwell near Motherwell in Lanarkshire.

Neilston parish near Paisley in Renfrewshire was a source of many Stevensons. John James Stevenson was a tenant farmer there in the 1650’s.  The family later moved to Glasgow and prospered as merchants. Robert Stevenson, the famous lighthouse engineer, was born there in 1772. Robert Louis Stevenson was his grandson.

Bella Bathurst’s 1999 book The Lighthouse Stevensons narrated this family story.  “Bathurst tells how four generations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s family designed and built the 97 manned lighthouses that speckle the Scottish coast. A reluctant engineer turned writer, RLS transmuted his lighthouse-building expeditions into Treasure Island and Kidnapped, but he rebelled against his quarrelsome father Thomas who tried to corral him into the family business.”

RLS spent his final years in the South Pacific.

James Stevenson of humble Lanarkshire origins moved to Paisley in the 1750’s to profit from the house building boom there. His eldest son James became a textile merchant in Glasgow before moving south in the 1840’s to work on Tyneside. One of his sons became a local MP there, another a well-known architect; while his two daughters were active in women’s causes and educational reform. Their family story is told in Hew Stevenson’s 2009 book Jobs for the Boys.

A Stevenson line in the Orkneys can be traced back to the 1740’s on the island of Westray. However, the agricultural depression in the 1870’s saw emigration. From a Stevenson family there at that time, eight Stevensons – including Ben Stevenson – emigrated to Canada, one to Australia, while two of the daughters married and stayed home.  

America. Thomas Stevenson, an Englishman, arrived in Dutch New York from London around the year 1643. He settled in Southhold, Long Island. The lines from his sons Edward and Thomas, Quakers, led to Hunterdon county, New Jersey and Bucks county, Pennsylvania.

Illinois.  The Stevenson family of Illinois were prominent politicians in the American Democratic party for almost a hundred years:

  • from Adlai Stevenson I, the American Vice President in the 1890’s
  • to Adlai Stevenson II, the Democratic Presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956
  • and to Adlai Stevenson III, the Illinois Senator in the 1970’s.

These Stevensons were originally Scots Irish. William Stevenson had arrived from Ulster in 1748, settling first in Pennsylvania and then in North Carolina. The family moved to Kentucky in 1813 and, after the Civil War, to Bloomington, Illinois which was where the first Adlai Stevenson grew up.

Two other Stevenson families arrived in Illinois sometime earlier.

Benjamin Stevenson came via Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky, getting there in 1809, the year that the Illinois territory was opened up. He served as the first Sheriff of Randolph county and died in Edwardsville in 1822. His house in Edwardsville has been preserved as the Colonel Benjamin Stephenson House.

Michael and Janet Stevenson meanwhile arrived from Renfrewshire in Scotland in 1840, also settling in Randolph county. A descendant recalled that their five grandsons played in the Stevenson Boy’s Band in southern Illinois in the late 1800’s.

Canada.  A number of Stevensons from the Orkney islands departed for Canada in the 1870’s and 1880’s.  They made their home in Mud Bay/Elgin district of Surrey, British Columbia.

Australia. George Stevenson, a wanderer from his early days in Berwick, ended up in South Australia in 1836 where he produced the first newspaper of the colony. Stevenson was an enthusiastic horticulturist and his garden and orchard were among the best in early Adelaide.

Four years earlier Joseph Stevenson had left his home in Banff in NE Scotland to seek his fortune in Australia. He worked first in the timber trade in Tasmania and then moved to Victoria with his family and eventually homesteaded on Kangaroo Ground at what became known as Stevenson’s Creek. Towards the end of his life this aged pioneer handed over his vineyard to his son Robert, preferring instead to live out his years in the solitude of the Australian bush.

Stevenson and Stephenson Surname Miscellany

Stevensons and Stephensons in 1891

Numbers (000’s) Stevenson Stephenson Total
Northumberland    0.3    1.5    1.8
Durham    0.4    3.7    4.1
Yorkshire    1.4    5.9    7.3
Lancashire    1.7    2.4    4.1
Nottinghamshire    1.2    0.1    1.3
Derbyshire    1.1    0.1    1.2
Staffordshire    0.9    0.1    1.0
Elsewhere    5.7    4.0    9.7
Total   12.7   17.8   30.5
Scotland    6.7    0.4    7.1

Stevensons and Stephensons Today.  Stevensons outnumber Stephensons by roughly 60/40 today.  The table below shows the approximate numbers:

Numbers (000’s) Stevenson Stephenson Total
UK    45    31    76
Elsewhere    40    25    65
Total    85    56   141

The Stephensons of Balladoole on the Isle of Man.  The Stevensons of Balladoole in the parish of Arbory were among the oldest landed families on the Isle of Man.  Their name was first mentioned in 1302 when Gilbert Makstephan Reginald MacStephan was recorded in a court case regarding a land dispute.  One line traces from John Stevynson said to be living in Balladoole in 1336.  In 1417 Reginald Stevenson was recorded as a member of the House of Keys and Thomas Steveson and John Stevenson were listed as Corners in the Manorial roll of 1511.

These Stevensons were supporters of the Stanleys in the 1600’s and opponents of the Christians.  Richard Stevenson was Deputy Governor of the Isle of Man in the late 1600’s.

Later Stevensons interchanged in name with the Woods family.  For instance, William Baring Woods was returned to the first elected House of Keys in 1867 as W.B. Woods, but by the time of the next election in 1874 he had become W.B. Stevenson.  Sons of his were William Augustus Stevenson, also a member of the Keys, and Surgeon General Henry Wickham Stevenson who returned to the Isle of Man bearing the decoration of Companion of the Star of India.

John Stephenson, Newcastle Merchant, and His Family.  John Stephenson and his wife Elizabeth raised three sons who all did well.

His eldest son Henry was called to the Bar.  But he then married his cousin Alice, daughter and co-heir of Sir William Stephenson, inherited much of his father’s wealth, and had no need to practice his profession.  His means enabled him to live in some style, with a London house in Park Lane and a country seat in Berkshire and to eventually see his only daughter Elizabeth, one of the noted beauties of her day, marry John Saville, the second Earl of Mexborough.

His second son Matthew remained in Newcastle and was sheriff of Newcastle in 1759.  Later in life he purchased the Walworth castle and estate in Durham.

The youngest son John went out to India where he amassed a large fortune.

Stevensons from Neilston Parish in Renfrewshire.  The Lighthouse Stevensons came from Neilston parish in Renfrewshire.  So did a number of other Stevensons.

One line began with Robert Stevenson who married Christian Reid in Paisley in 1744 (his descendants later emigrated to America).   A Stevenson of this line married into a nearby Stevenson family of the same period – the family of James Stevenson, burgess of Paisley in 1753. Then there was another Stevenson line descended from James Stevenson who married Margaret Sproule in Neilston parish in 1771; and Alexander Stevenson of Glasgow was born in this area around 1770.

The Lighthouse Stevensons.  A romantic historical story full of adventure and invention, The Lighthouse Stevensons is a unique account of how a single family virtually defined the Scottish coast by designing and building lighthouses in the 18th and 19th centuries.

For centuries the seas around Scotland were notorious for shipwrecks.  Mariners’ only aids were skill, luck, and a single coal-fire light on the east coast which was usually extinguished by rain.  In 1786 the Northern Lighthouse Trust was established, with Robert Stevenson appointed as chief engineer a few years later – the beginning of a partnership spanning almost two centuries and four generations of the same family, which became known as the “Lighthouse Stevensons.”

The family tradition was started with Edinburgh man Thomas Smith, who installed his first light on Kinnaird Castle, near Fraserburgh, in 1787.  He passed the baton on to his son-in-law (and stepson) Robert Stevenson, who founded a dynasty of lighthouse engineers including sons, Allan, David and Thomas (father of RLS), and in turn David’s sons David Alan and Charles and finally Charles’s son, David Alan.

The Stevensons fought foul weather, jagged coastlines, and certain opposition to build these lighthouses in some of the most remote and inhospitable locations on the Scottish coast and reefs. They not only designed the lighthouses towers  to resist the gales of the North Sea but supervised the actual construction under often desperate conditions and perfected a design of precisely chiseled interlocking granite blocks that would withstand the enormous waves that batter these stone pillars.

The same Stevensons also developed the lamps and lenses of the lights themselves, which “sent a gleam across the wave” and saved the lives of thousands of sailors whose ships would otherwise have foundered on the headlands and hidden reefs of  Scotland.

Ben Stevenson – from Orkney to British Columbia.  Ben Stevenson was born in Orkney in 1870.  He began training for a carrier in law but when he was seventeen years old he decided that he would join his brothers, John and Stuart, and his sister Margaret who had immigrated to Canada and were farming at Elgin in British Columbia.

He reached New Westminster in June 1887.  But Elgin was many miles from New Westminster.  As there was no means of transportation, the only way to get there was by walking and that is what Ben Stevenson did.  When he arrived at Elgin he was welcomed by his brothers and sister and stayed with them, working on their farm.

In 1899 he was able to purchase a 240 acre farm, known as the Eldorado Farm, at Mud Bay and started farming on his own.  Ben married there, prospered, and became a leading member of his community.

“Ben Stevenson was a very progressive and public spirited citizen. Anything that was for the good of Surrey always got Stevenson support.  It was through his efforts that the first water was piped to Mud Bay.  He donated the land for the first school at Ocean Park. He had the first mail contract, carrying the mail by horse and wagon from New Westminster to the Elgin Hotel at Elgin.  Mr. Stevenson, together with Daniel Johnson, Dave McKee and John Oliver (later to become Premier of British Columbia) started the first Mutual Fire Insurance Company of B.C. to give the farmers of Surrey protection.”

Ben Stevenson passed away in 1966 at the age of 96.  His wife Amelia died in 1979, aged 95.

Martha Stevenson Finding Her Son.  For sixteen years Martha Stevenson searched for her son Peter.  He had left home in Edinburgh, aged fourteen, in 1903 after his father had died.  She eventually found him in 1919 in Pueblo, Colorado, one day before his death.

Peter Stevenson, in the last stages of tuberculosis, had been walking the streets there, his face drawn and pallid, homeless, a stranger in a strange land. He ended up in an emergency hospital where he talked of his hardship, of his nights spent in the open country during snowstorms and blizzards contracting the “white plague.”  He also spoke of his long search for his mother who was somewhere in Canada.

The Rocky Mountain News from Denver told of the final meeting of mother and son.

“That’s my mother, I know her.” These words were feeble, though joyous words of Peter Stevenson as he lay on a bed in a ward at St. Mary’s hospital, almost at his life-journey’s end.

Aghast and dazed by the shock and by doubt stood Martha Stevenson.  She gazed into the pain-distorted face of a man of thirty years instead of a bouyant boy of fourteen. It had been sixteen years since she had last looked into his face in Scotland.”

Stevenson and Stephenson Names

  • Robert Stevenson was a Scottish civil engineer and a famed builder of lighthouses in the early 1800’s.
  • George Stephenson built the first public railway line in 1825 to use steam locomotives. He is known as the father of railways.
  • John Stephenson, a coachbuilder from Ireland, patented in 1832 the first streetcar to run on rails in the United States.
  • Robert Louis Stevenson was a highly popular Scottish novelist, the author of children’s classics such as Treasure Island and Kidnapped. He was the grandson of lighthouse builder Robert Stevenson.
  • Adlai Stevenson, a Governor of Illinois, was defeated by Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Presidential race in 1952 and again in 1956.
  • Teofilo Stevenson was a Cuban boxer who won three Olympic gold medals between 1972 and 1980.  His parents had been immigrants from the Anglophone island of St. Kitts.

Stevenson and Stephenson Numbers Today

  • 76,000 in the UK (60% Stevenson, 40% Stephenson)
  • 43,000 in America (58% Stevenson, 42% Stephenson)
  • 29,000 elsewhere (65% Stevenson, 35% Stephenson)

Stevenson and Like Surnames  

Patronymic surnames can be with either the “-son” or the shorter “s” suffix to the first name.  The “son” suffix is more common in northern England than in the south and in lowland Scotland.  Here are some of these surnames that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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