Underwood Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Underwood Surname Meaning

Underwood would describe a dwelling at the foot of a wood, literally  below the trees of a forest. It became a place-name and also a surname. Its first recording as a surname was a William de Underwode of Bury St. Edmonds in Suffolk in 1188.

Underwood Surname Resources on The Internet

Underwood Surname Ancestry

  • from England (Northamptonshire and East Anglia) and from Scotland (Ayrshire)
  • to America and Australia

EnglandThe Underwood name seems to have derived from a number of associated place-names, of which examples have survived in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. Early Underwoods were recorded:

  • possibly as far back as 1177 at Bixley in Norfolk
  • and possibly as early as 1334 at Weston in Hertfordshire.

London and Eastern England.  Edward and Robert Underwood from Weston prospered as grocers in London in the early 1600’s. They owned The Woolsack, a huge building in the city which combined a grocery, apothecary, warehouse and dual dwelling house for the two brothers’ families.

By 1881 the principal concentration of the Underwood name (around 30 percent) was in the northern Home Counties and East Anglia, centred on Northamptonshire, with some spillover into London and the rest of the southeast.  There was a high number of Underwoods in the Northamptonshire village of Yardley Hastings.

Elsewhere.  A secondary concentration occurred in the area around Wiltshire and Gloucestershire, with some spread up into the West Midlands.

An Underwood family has flourished on the north Yorkshire moors since the Middle Ages, with probate records surviving for a Hugh Undirwood of Whitby in 1390 and a Thomas Underwode, vicar of Lastingham, in 1461.  And, from 1559, there have been Underwoods recorded at the Pickering and Egton parishes near Whitby. Other Underwoods were to be found from an early time around Selby.

Scotland. The Underwood place-name (at Symington) and surname were also to be found in south Ayrshire. James Underwood started up a potato mill at Maybole in Ayrshire in 1831. His mill was soon the scene of a riot which saw Underwood’s equipment and machinery destroyed.

America. A number of early Underwoods came to New England.

New England.  Lucien Underwood in his 1913 book Underwood Families of America identified six early Underwood families in New England – four in Massachusetts (in Watertown, Lincoln, Chelmsford and Boston), one in New Hampshire (Newcastle), and one in Rhode Island (Newport).  The four main lines of descent were from:

  • Martin Underwood who came with his family in 1634 and settled in Watertown.
  • Joseph Underwood who arrived with his brother Thomas in Hingham in 1637 and settled in Watertown in 1645.
  • William Underwood who came initially to Concord and moved to Chelmsford in 1652.
  • and Henry Underwood who settled near Newport, Rhode Island in 1665.

William Underwood came to Boston from London in 1817 and five years later founded a processed food company there.  He later expanded it into canned foods that were supplied to Union troops during the Civil War. Afterwards the company began producing a popular spiced ham mixture known as Devilled Ham. The Underwood company continued to be owned by his family until its eventual sale to Pillsbury in 1982.

New York.  John Thomas Underwood, born in London, had emigrated to New York with his father, a chemist who had studied with Michael Faraday, in 1873.  In 1895 John bought out the patent for a typewriter and started his own company, the Underwood Typewriter Company.

In its heyday in the 1910’s and 1920’s, the Underwood was so synonymous with typewriters that Jack Warner the film producer was quoted as saying that screenwriters were “schmucks with Underwoods.”  John Underwood’s younger brother Horace was a Presbyterian missionary in Korea.

South.  Thomas Underwood came with his family to Maryland from London around 1650. He was described as “a poor man with several small children.”

One of these children, Samuel, prospered in nearby Delaware.  His son Alexander, who became a Quaker, moved to Pennsylvania in 1722. The line from Alexander’s son Benjamin migrated west to Ohio in the early 1800’s.  Carole and Rodman Underwood narrated the latter story in their 2007 book Underwood Families of Caledonia, Ohio.

William T. Underwood came out to Virginia as a merchant’s clerk in 1680 and settled in Goochland county. He was the forebear of two prominent Kentucky politicians of the mid 19th century, Joseph and his brother Warner. Joseph’s grandson Oscar Underwood, born in Kentucky, was an important Democratic politician in Alabama during the 1910’s and 1920’s.

The ancestry of Carrie Underwood, the country music star, dates back to the 19th century in Oklahoma where Carrie was born.  She may have had Native American ancestors there.

Australia. Underwoods in Australia started with three brothers, the sons of Thomas and Mary Underwood from south London:

  • James Underwood the convict, who was transported to Australia in 1791. On release he established Sydney’s first private shipyard and an early distillery. Upon his death in 1844 he left a legendary estate which required no fewer than three Acts of Parliament to resolve.
  • Joseph Underwood the merchant, who came to Australia to take charge of one of James’ ships in 1807. They both ran ships to the sealing islands in the Bass Straits. In later years he became the squire of Ashfield Park.
  • and William Underwood the drunk. He ran a pub on a corner of his brother Joseph’s land, but died drunk on the street there.

Their story was recounted in Liz Parkinson’s 2011 book The Underwoods: Lock, Stock, and Barrel.

Carrie Underwood’s  Family Ancestry

The country singer Carrie Underwood is from Oklahoma and has roots going back to the Civil War in Arkansas.  Just click below if you want to read more about this history:

Underwood Surname Miscellany

Early Underwoods in England.  Lucien Underwood in his 1913 book Underwood Families of America had the following to say about early Underwoods in England.

“The name Underwood appears on the face of it to have arisen from some locality where the family lived and very probably originated independently in connection with different families who happened to live in similar surroundings.

The origin of the name is even more apparent in some of the more ancient forms in which it appears.  In old records it was written in several ways – as Underwode, Underode, Underwoode, and even as Under-the-wode and Under-the-wood.

The earliest trace of the name in documents was found as far back as 1177 in the pedigree of Underwood of Bixley in Norfolk in the Harleian MSS. in the British Museum.  In 1476 Underwood from Hertfordshire was mentioned in the Visitation of London.  At the Herald’s College in London there is a pedigree of Underwood from Weston, Hertfordshire, signed by Robert Underwood in 1634 who made the following note: ‘Vide Visitation of Hertfordshire where the family hath remained 300 years.’  This would put the date of the family in Weston family back to about 1334.

The principal families in England by the name of Underwood of whom there are more or less extensive pedigrees preserved are the Underwoods of Weston in Hertfordshire, the Underwoods of Hereford, and the Underwoods of Bixley and Hevringham in Norfolk.

Besides these there is also an Irish family the extent of whose pedigree cannot be stated. The Duchess of Inverness, morganatic wife of the Duke of Sussex, uncle to Queen Victoria, was descended through her mother from the Irish line and assumed the name and arms of Underwood.”

Underwood Name Distribution in the 1881 English Census.  The table below shows the distribution by county of the Underwood name in the 1881 English census.

County Numbers Percent
London    940    12
Northamptonshire    760     9
Leicestershire    650     8
Surrey    620     8
Yorkshire    430     5
Lancashire    370     5
Essex    360     4
Warwickshire    350     4
Gloucestershire    300     4
Suffolk    300     4
Elsewhere  3,020    37
Total  8,100   100

Underwoods in Pickering and Egton in Yorkshire.  From the beginning of the surviving parish registers in 1559 there were Underwoods recorded in Pickering parish in north Yorkshire.

Although a viable tree can be constructed for the early family, some of the critical links are missing. The James Underwood who married Margaret Watson in Pickering in 1642 was undoubtedly part of this earlier family.  His son Thomas moved to Egton, marrying Mary Smallwood there in 1684.  He was by trade a roper.  Thomas and his second wife Ann were buried in the old churchyard at Egton in 1729 and their gravestone survives there.

Thomas’s descendants have flourished in the Egton area down to the present day.  Paul and Alison Underwood run the Horseshoe Hotel at Egton Bridge on the river Esk.

Underwoods in Yardley Hastings, Northamptonshire.  The largest concentration of Underwoods in the 1881 census, a count of 171, was in the village of Yardley Hastings in Northamptonshire.

One Underwood family there goes back to an earlier date in the village.  An Australian connection exists with the transportation of George James Underwood and two of his friends in the 1840’s for the killing of a gamekeeper.   Others of his family emigrated to Canada.

Meanwhile the christening of John Underwood was recorded in Yardley Hastings back in 1726.

James Underwood’s Early Shipping Ventures.  In the early years in Sydney, some very enterprising convicts, after they had served their terms of imprisonment, went into the shipping business.  There were seals on all of the islands, all waiting to be killed for their skins, and there were plenty of casks of whale oil, ready to be sent back to England, and there was also plenty of sandalwood growing on the islands in the Pacific.

Three ex-convicts – James Underwood, Henry Kable and Simeon Lord – owned quite a number of small sailing ships; and they had a band of sealers on the various Bass Strait and other islands killing seals for their skins.

Then they embarked on a bigger enterprise. They bought a small ship, the Sydney Cove, in England.  By the time that they had had her repaired and fitted out, she had cost them over £7,000. And they had to borrow most of this money. Still, the Government agreed to employ the Sydney Cove to carry female convicts and an escort of soldiers from the NSW Corps.

In November 1806 the Sydney Cove, sitting at Deptford on the Thames, was sent down to Portsmouth to receive the women and girls.  In addition to the 109 female convicts and the NSW Corps soldiers, the passengers included Joseph Underwood, James’s brother, and his wife and two children and also their mother.  The party arrived at Port Jackson after an uneventful voyage in June 1807.

The fee for the convict carriage was £2,961 and this marked the beginning of James Underwood’s rags-to-riches story.

Oscar Underwood, the Ku Klux Klan, and the 1924 Democratic Convention.  Oscar Underwood was Alabama’s senator from 1915 to 1927.  He was a longtime opponent of the Klan.  In 1914, when the Klan organized a parade in Birmingham during that year’s National Democratic Convention, Underwood called it:

“An effort to intimidate me, the Alabama delegation and the Democratic party.  It will not succeed.  I maintain that the organization is a national menace.  It is either the Ku Klux Klan or the United States of America.  Both cannot survive.  Between the two, I choose my country.”

By 1924 Underwood was one of very few anti-Klan officeholders left in the South. He led the anti-Ku Klux Klan forces at the 1924 Democratic Convention where he was running as its Presidential nominee.  Even before the convention considered its platform, the speech nominating Underwood called for the condemnation of the Klan and produced a lengthy floor demonstration.

The convention was marked by a deadlock between the supporters of the Irish Catholic New York Governor Al Smith and Georgian politician William McAdoo.  As the convention labored through 103 ballots, Alabama, as the first state alphabetically, cast its votes first, each time without variation: “Alabama casts 24 votes for Oscar W. Underwood.”  Underwood  therefore became a symbol of the convention’s deadlock.  Finally the convention turned to John W. Davis whose work as a Wall Street lawyer proved less of a political hurdle for the delegates.

The Underwood Typewriters.  The Underwood typewriter was the creation of German-American inventor Franz X. Wagner.  Its name came from John T. Underwood, a manufacturer of ribbons and carbon paper who bought the company early in its history.

The scarcest and most valuable Underwoods are the No. 1 and No. 2 models. About 12,000 of these were made between 1896 and 1900.  They were labeled “Wagner Typewriter Co.” on the back and they differed in a number of other subtle ways from later Underwoods.

Underwood models 3, 4, and 5 were made from 1900 until 1932. The No. 3 was a wide-carriage machine, the No. 4 typed 76 characters, and the No. 5 typed 84 characters.

By 1920, almost every typewriter made in America was imitating the Underwood.  The No. 5 was the quintessential Underwood. Millions of these machines were used by secretaries, journalists, government officials and writers throughout the first half of the 20th century.  Later Underwoods were superficially modernized, but retained the same basic mechanism.  The name “No. 5” was even given to some of these later typewriters, in honor of the model that made the company’s fortune.

The founder of the company, John T. Underwood, became so wealthy that he built a stately home in the neighborhood of Clinton Hill in Brooklyn. Following his death in 1937, the estate was donated to the city and transformed into Underwood Park.

Carrie Underwood’s Ancestry.  There has been a lot of speculation regarding Carrie Underwood and whether she has Native American ancestry. Many of her ancestors lived in Indian Territory which is now Oklahoma.

The evidence does suggest that Carrie Underwood may have Native American ancestors.  They would have moved from Texas and settled in the Cherokee Nation (now Oklahoma) in a town called Texanna.  This town was settled by a band of Native Americans who were driven out of the newly independent Republic of Texas in 1839.

Underwood Names

  • James Underwood, a former convict, was an early entrepreneur in the new colony of Australia.
  • John T. Underwood was the British/American entrepreneur who started the Underwood Typewriter Company in New York in 1895.
  • Derek Underwood, known as “Deadly,” was an English cricketer of the 1960’s and 1970’s, one of the foremost spin bowlers of his day.
  • Rory Underwood, of Chinese-English parentage, played on the wing in the English rugby teams from 1984 to 1996.
  • Carrie Underwood is a popular country music singer/songwriter.

Underwood Numbers Today

  • 10,000 in the UK (most numerous in Norfolk)
  • 17,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 4,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)


Click here for return to front page

Written by Colin Shelley

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *