Todd Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Todd Surname Meaning

The Scots and Middle English tod of northern origin means “fox.”  The word cropped up in the 14th century writings of Wycliffe.

This was Beatrix Potter’s description in The Tale of Mr. Tod: “Nobody could call Mr. Tod “nice.”  The rabbits could not bear him; they could smell him half a mile off.  He was of a wandering habit and he had foxey whiskers; they never knew where he would be next.”

As a surname, Todd would be a nickname for someone resembling a fox, either by his slyness or cunning or by his red hair, or he could be a fox hunter.  Todhunter means fox hunter.

Todd is both an English and a Scottish surname. DNA testing suggests that the English Todds have tended to be of European descent, whilst the Scots Todds are Nordic.

Todd Surname Resources on The Internet

Todd Surname Ancestry

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

England.  Todd only really appears in England as a surname in the north (instead of the Fox surname to be found in the midlands and the south).  The earliest surname reference appears to have been a Richard Todd in the 1231 Northumberland rolls.

Yorkshire.  John Todde was High Sheriff of York in 1390 and Sir William Todd held the same office in 1487.  A Todd family from Pontefract in Yorkshire included Christopher and Grace Todd who were among the early New England settlers in 1638 in New Haven colony.

Many Yorkshire Todds were seafarers and sea captains.  The Todds of Fylingdales near Whitby date from the 1650’s and were very much part of the Whitby seafaring community for the next 150 years. Charles Todd used to sail out with the Whitby whaling ships in the 1750’s.

William Todd was born in Kirby Overblow near Harrogate in 1761 and later made his home in Hull.  Meanwhile the Todds of Swanland near Hull claimed that they could trace their ancestry back to 1625.  They were the principal landowners and benefactors to the village during the 19th century, in fact until they sold Swanland Hall in 1926.

Scotland.  Todd was at first a Border name.  James Todd, for instance, was the laird of Dunbar in the late 1600’s who met an untimely end.  Another Todd family has traced itself back to Skaithmuir near Coldstream in the late 1700’s.

However, hard times on the Borders brought about an out-migration:

  • to Glasgow in Lanarkshire where the Todds of Easter Haghill were to be found
  • and across the Irish Sea to Ulster where Scots Presbyterians were being granted land tenancies.

Ireland.  Many Todds settled in Antrim and Armagh.  A Todd family acquired Buncrana castle in county Donegal.  William Todd of Buncrana was said to have fought the last fatal duel in Ireland in 1812.  James Henthorn Todd from Dublin was a noted 19th century Irish historian and writer.

A number of these Scots-Irish Todds emigrated to America.  They included descendants of James Todd, the laird of Dunbar, who had settled in Armagh.  A few moved back to Scotland, such as John Todd, a weaver, who travelled the Scots border towns in the 1830’s and 1840’s in search of work.

America.   Of the nine distinct early families of Todds in America, they divided equally between England, Scotland, and Ireland.

The early immigrant Christopher Todd, who arrived in 1639 from Yorkshire, ended up in New Haven, Connecticut (while his first cousin John settled in Rowley, Massachusetts).  Christopher’s descendants later spread across America.   They included Rev. James Doeg Todd, a Presbyterian minister in Johnstown, Wisconsin.  From this line came a New Jersey political dynasty:

  • it started with John R. Todd, who helped build Rockefeller Center
  • and continued to Webster B. Todd and his daughter, Christine Todd Whitman, the Republican Governor of New Jersey from 1994 to 2001.

A Todd family was one of the first to establish a farmstead, later called Todd’s Inheritance, along Chesapeake Bay.

The following is the historical marker at the site:  “Thomas Todd settled here from Gloucester County, Virginia in 1664.  The homestead has remained in the Todd family for more than three centuries.  The 17th century brick house was burned by British soldiers in 1814 as they withdrew from an unsuccessful assault on Baltimore.  The house was rebuilt on the site in 1816 and remodeled in 1867.”

There is a telescope surviving from these times which was used, it was believed, to spy on British vessel movements during the War of 1812.

Another early arrival was Joseph Todd.  He came to Pennsylvania where he died in 1699.  His descendants moved onto North Carolina and then in 1797 undertook the trek to Kentucky, settling in Madison County.

Mary Todd’s ancestry was said to include:

  • the Scots Covenanter James Todd who had fought and lost at Bothwell Bridge in 1679
  • and the Scots-Irish Robert and Andrew Todd who had come to Pennsylvania in 1737.

Kentucky.  Their Todd descendants moved onto Kentucky where John Todd was killed in one of the last battles of the Revolutionary War (Todd County in Kentucky is named after him).

Mary Todd herself, who married Abraham Lincoln in Illinois in 1842, grew up in Lexington, Kentucky.  Kentucky at that time was one of the four slave states that did not secede from the Union (Lexington being a major slave market for the Deep South).  Mary’s own family loyalties were divided at the time of the Civil War.  Some of her relatives supported the Confederate cause; while her cousin John was a Union general (and later a representative for the Dakota territory).

Stephen Todd also came from Kentucky.  But he was a runaway slave who escaped on the underground railway to Indiana and thence with his wife to Remus, Michigan.   In 1983, at a Todd family reunion, six Todd women began a quilting project to commemorate their family history.

Canada.  Canadian Todds, like American Todds, originated from England, Scotland and Ireland.  William and Elizabeth Todd arrived from Roxburgh on the Scottish borders in 1827 and headed for Quebec.

In 1816 Dublin-born William Todd had gone out to Canada to work for the Hudson Bay Company, as surgeon and later as trader, in the Red River colony in Manitoba.  He married two and possibly three times.

“At York factory in 1824, Dr. Todd took Elizabeth Dennet, half-breed daughter of William Dennet, to wife by “the custom of the country.”  Together for seventeen years until her death in 1845, they raised a family of twelve, nine of whom survived to adulthood.  In 1849, Dr. Todd married Jane Johnstone and at the ripe old age of 65 fathered two more children.”

Todd’s descendants are to be found in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.  John Todd, the last of Saskatchewan’s long-trail men, died in 1943 at the age of eighty seven.

Another Todd who headed west was the Englishman James Todd.  He was one of the first settlers in Barnhartvale, British Columbia in 1865.  He had gone west to California during the Gold Rush but, being unsuccessful, had headed north.

Australia and New Zealand.  Todds started to move to Australia and New Zealand as the 19th century proceeded.  Thomas and Elizabeth Todd, for instance, set sail for South Australia in the 1850’s.  Alexander and Jane Todd arrived in New Zealand in 1849 and settled in Dunedin.

Perhaps the most successful of these immigrants was Charles Todd who arrived in 1885.  He started off with a rural goods store in Otago, got into automobiles and petrol stations, and built up the Todd Corporation to the large New Zealand energy company it is today.

Todd Surname Miscellany

Todd as a Surname.  Tod is the Scots word for Fox.  In Scotland and the north of England a todhunter is a fox hunter.  The name Todd is an altered form of the Scotch word tod.  This shorter form of the name is the original and correct one.  The doubling of the final letter is a corruption.  But now the corrupt form is the more common one.

The first to assume the word as a surname was perhaps a keen sportsman.  He followed the hounds or he may have been a fox hunter.  Tod as a name occurred in the writings of Wycliffe, as did Todman.

The arms of the Todds, or of such as were authorized to bear them, were three fox heads in red, in a shield, with a fox sitting or running away with a goose for a crest, and the motto, opertet vivere or “one must live” (even if he has to steal for it).

The Todds from Pontefract in Yorkshire.  William Todd and Isabel Rogerson married in 1592 and had two sons, William and John.  It is thought that this William Todd was the son of Reginald Todd, a freeman of York in 1605, and a descendant of Sir William Todd who was the Lord Mayor of York in 1487.

The son William married Katherine Ward in Pontefract in 1614 and they had two children, Mary born in 1614 and Christopher born in 1617.  But William was killed in a duel in York just four months after the birth of Christopher.

The following records are still preserved in the old parish church at Pontefract:

  • 1592 Sept. 24.  Will Todd and Isabelle Rogerson were married.
  • 1592 June 29. Wlll, son of Will Todd, was baptized.  Oct. 18.  John, son of Will Todd, was baptized.
  • 1614 May 22. Willm Todde and Katherine Warde were married.
  • 1614 Oct. 14. Mary, daughter of Willm Todde, was baptized.
  • 1617 Jan. 12. Christopher, son of Willm Todde, was baptized.
  • 1617 May 8. Willm Todde was buried.

Later, Christopher Todd and his wife Grace would emigrate to America, settling in New Haven colony in 1638.  He became a planter, miller, and baker.  In 1650 he bought the house built by Jasper Crane and this house stayed in the Todd family for the next hundred years.  By this time his cousin John had also arrived, settling in Rowley, Massachusetts.

Early Todds in America.  Of the nine distinct and, as far as is known, unconnected early families of Todds in America:

  • three came from England, the Massachusetts Todds, the New Haven Todds, and the Virginia Todds (the first two being Puritans).
  • three came from Scotland direct, namely the  (probably) the Philadelphia Tods.
  • and three came from the north of Ireland, the New Hampshire Todds, the Maryland Todds, and the Pennsylvania Todds.

The table below shows these Todds and the first immigrants and date of arrival:

Massachusetts (Rowley) John Todd 1637
Connecticut (New Haven) Christopher Todd 1639
Virginia Thomas Todd 1651
New York Adam Todd 1744
Connecticut (Suffield) David Todd 1761
New Hampshire Andrew Todd 1720
Maryland Thomas Todd 1785
Pennsylvania Robert Todd 1737

Todd’s Inheritance.  Todd’s Inheritance is a four acre historic farmstead overlooking the Chesapeake Bay on the North Point Peninsula of Eastern Baltimore County.  It offers a window on American history as seen through the eyes of one family.

For over three hundred years, the Todd family lived and worked the land, passing the property from father to son for ten generations.  The land was their inheritance and in 1765 the family farms were combined in a single holding named “Todd’s Inheritance.”

Originally from Virginia, the Todds were prosperous landowners and among the first in the region to receive a land grant, eventually holding more than 1,000 acres.  As slave-owners they cultivated tobacco and later switched to more dependable grains, vegetables, and fruit.  The family was also involved in shipbuilding and maritime trades.

The Lineage of Mary Todd Lincoln – Part One.  The Mary Todd Lincoln line may trace back to Sir James Todd, Laird of Dunbar on the Scottish borders.

James and his sons Robert and John were captured with other Covenanters by the English after the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679.  They were loaded on a ship with 250 others to be transported to the West Indies and sold as slaves.  The ship sank in a storm off the Orkney islands.  James and Robert died.  The ship’s captain had all the holds shut and padlocked while the ship was pounded against the reef.  Only a few of the prisoners survived.

Son John did escape and resettled in county Antrim in northern Ireland.  He was known as “John the Fox (Tod)” for evading the English.  The story has it that he wore a looped up hat and buckskin breeches, with long stockings and large silver shoe buckles.    It is thought that John’s offspring emigrated to America.

The Lineage of Mary Todd Lincoln – Part Two.  Emilie Todd Helm, half sister to Mary Todd Lincoln, and her daughter Katherine were Todd family historians. They spent years corresponding with Todds throughout the country and developing family charts.  In the early part of the 1900’s, Emilie sold her papers to Kittochtinny Magazine.  This magazine published a Todd family history explaining much of the family history back to the James Todd who was born in Scotland in 1669.

The Todd family had travelled from Scotland to Ireland and, finally in 1737, Robert Todd immigrated to Philadelphia in America.  He was the father of eleven children.  It was this family that could claim among its members statesmen, educators, ministers, was heroes, and the wife of a President, Mary Lincoln.

Since her White House years, Todds have tried to tie their family line into Mary Lincoln’s.  Some can; and some cannot.  Emilie and Katherine Helm’s diligent genealogy work has provided many Todds with answers as to whether or not they are related to the former First Lady.

Emilie and Katherine protected and often changed the ages of women in the family.  Emilie’s grandmother commented that a woman’s age was “a changeable number,” and Emilie heeded her grandmother’s advice on several occasions.  Even in census records, Emilie changed her daughters’ ages.  To further protect their age, Emilie listed family members by listing all the male children in their order of birth, and then listing the female children.

Reader Feedback – Charles Todd of Yalesville, Connecticut.  My grandfather was Charles Kirkland Todd of Yalesville, Connecticut who died in California in the 1970’s.  I would love to find relatives.  My uncle Bruce Todd lives in Michigan, but has no male children to carry on the name.

Wendy Camp (

Inside The Todd Empire.  Charles Todd, the founder of the Todd family fortune, had left no room for doubt.  You were either in or out – there was no in-between.  Todd Corp’s founding document made the distinction clear:

“Todd family means the persons who are descendants natural or adopted of Charles Todd, late of Wellington, merchant who died on August 21, 1942 and his wife Mary Todd.”

Even spouses, individuals most New Zealanders would regard as family, are excluded from holding shares. Bloodline control of the company is also firmly vested in the family.  Direct relatives, who number 160, must make up at least a quarter of the board, currently four out of nine directors.  They also get to appoint the chairman and set his terms of employment.

Chairman John Todd has not been prepared to apologize for that.  In a rare public interview, the 78 year old grandson of the company’s founder and family patriarch, told The Business that keeping the business in the family was an ethos developed over decades.

Todd Names

  • Sir William Todd was High Sheriff of York in 1487 and later Lord Mayor.
  • Mary Todd Lincoln was the wife of Abraham Lincoln.
  • Sweeney Todd was the fictional Victorian barber and serial killer, recreated in a Broadway musical and film.
  • Alexander Todd from Glasgow was awarded the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1957.
  • Mark Todd is the New Zealand horseman voted “Rider of the 20th Century” by the International Equestrian Association.

Todd Numbers Today

  • 31,000 in the UK (most numerous in Yorkshire)
  • 29,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 16,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Todd and Like Surnames

Many surnames have come from Yorkshire.  These are some of the noteworthy surnames that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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