Wallace Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Wallace Surname Meaning

The English who had arrived from the east as invaders had the cheek to refer to the original inhabitants as waleis or foreigners. Waleis came to be used as a description for Welsh speakers.

The surnames that subsequently developed varied in their spelling probably because of differences in regional dialect. Thus we find Welch mainly in the English counties bordering Wales, Walsh in Lancashire, Wallis along the east coast, and Wallace in Scotland.

The name Wallace in Scotland is believed to have come from the Strathclyde Britons, a mixture of Gaels, Picts and Scots who laid claim to territories from Lancashire to the Firth of Clyde.  In western Scotland, Welsh-speaking Strathclyde Britons survived well into the Middle Ages.

Wallace Surname Resources on The Internet

Wallace Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Ayrshire), Northern England, and from Jewish emigrants
  • to Ireland (Ulster), America, Caribs (St. Vincent), Canada and New Zealand

Scotland.  Variations of the name Wallace can be found in records in Ayrshire and Renfrewshire in the 12th century. Richard Wallensis of Riccarton appeared as a signature on a charter at Paisley abbey, dated 1163, for land grants that had been part of the ancient kingdom of Strathclyde.

Alan de Waleys can be found in the Ragman Roll of nobles paying allegience to Edward I in 1296. However, his brother Malcolm of Elderslie refused to submit and was executed. The banner of rebellion passed to William Wallace who beat the English at Stirling but was later captured, tried in London in 1305, and then hung, drawn and quartered. His death elevated him to the status of martyr to the cause of Scottish independence, as the film Braveheart demonstrated.

Ayrshire. The Wallace line did survive. Wallaces held castles in Ayrshire from the 1350’s.  A century later, General John Wallace commanded a Scottish army to victory over England at the Battle of Sark.  Their castles at Sundrum and Carnell still exist, although now converted into country house hotels. In the 1730’s, Sir Thomas Wallace built Craigie House in Ayr to replace his former castle.

The Wallace name was also to be found in Dundonald where they once held Dundonald castle, Kilmarnock and Brighouse.  James Wallace married Mary Harris at Kilmarnock around the year 1680.

Many Wallaces were, after Knox, staunch Presbyterians.  Colonel James Wallace was a Covenanter at the time of the Civil War. But when the climate changed after the Restoration he had to flee the country. Since that time, a number of Wallaces emigrated; and many drifted to Glasgow and its environs.

Elsewhere.  Glasgow in the mid-18th century was the center of the tobacco trade and the Wallace name figured prominently here.

John Wallace was a leading tobacco merchant of that time (a picture shows him eccentrically wearing a white nightcap under his cocked hat, instead of the customary wig). Alexander Spiers, the biggest of these merchants, bought up the estate of Helen Wallace, the last of the William Wallace line, in 1767.  Spiers built for himself a stately mansion which he named Elderslie House.

England.  The name Wallace can also be found across the border in England, particularly in the Pennine hills of Cumbria. Both Wallis and Wallace appeared in the early parish records of villages such as Renwick and Alston.

Richard Wallasse was a schoolmaster, fluent in Latin and Greek, and parish clerk in the early 1700’s for the mining town of Alston. One Wallace family, whose forebears were buried in Abbotsford church, traced their roots back to the mid 1700’s.  With the coal reserves being worked out by the early 19th century, many of these Wallaces emigrated, mainly to Canada.

Ireland. Presbyterian Scots came to Ulster in the reign of James I to settle in lands that had been taken away from their Catholic owners. Among them were many Wallaces.

However, the Presbyterians themselves were subject to discrimination in the 1700’s. There began an major exodus, this time to America. Among them were:

  • four Wallace brothers from Donegal – Peter, Andrew, William and Adam – who came to Lancaster county in Pennsylvania in the 1720’s. Adam’s son Benjamin was a captain in the Revolutionary War.
  • while three Wallace brothers from Ballymena in county Antrim – Ephraim, John, and James – also came to Pennsylvania, around 1768, and settled in Westmoreland county. John Wallace’s 1902 book Genealogy of the Wallace Family covered this line.

Many Wallaces did remain in Ireland. Perhaps the best noted of these Wallaces was William Vincent Wallace from Waterford, the son of a Scots regimental bandmaster. He achieved fame around the world in the 19th century for his musical compositions and operas.

Another Wallace with Irish connections was in fact English, Richard Wallace. Although known mainly for his Wallace art collection in London, he represented the town of Lisburn in county Antrim for many years and left his name on many of its public buildings.

However, some Wallaces were less fortunate. The Donegal Woman, recently published, tells the story of Margaret Wallace a century ago in rural Donegal. Born of poor Protestant farmers, she was hired out as a child, raped by her master, and then, pregnant, forced to marry another many times her age. Yet she managed to survive, driven on by her passionate determination to do right by her children.

America. There were early Wallace arrivals into New England and Virginia:

  • many of the New England Wallaces ended up in New Hampshire and Maine where they were freer of the Puritan restrictions.
  • Matthew and Elizabeth Wallace came from Donegal in the 1680’s and settled in Somerset County, Maryland.
  • while John Wallace arrived in Virginia from Scotland around 1700 and Michael Wallace, a tobacco merchant, in the 1730’s.

Some Wallaces lost out as a result of the Revolutionary War. Two young Wallaces from Ireland, Hugh and Alexander, had come to New York in the 1750’s and married well. Hugh became a wealthy New York merchant. But the war took it all away.  As his brother commented: “If ever a man is to be pitied, it is he. His losses hang heavy on him and his being away from his wife hurts him very much.”

One who lived to fight another day was another merchant loyalist, the Glasgow-born Michael Wallace. He operated out of Virginia and South Carolina and was able to re-construct his business and his contacts from Halifax in Nova Scotia. He did, however, lose his servant Belfast who, perhaps not relishing the cold weather, escaped by stowing away on a ship.

Later on, George Wallace ran the Glencoe plantation along the North Carolina border. His wife Elizabeth kept a diary of her experiences of the Civil War which was subsequently published as the Glencoe Diary.

By that time many of the Wallaces in Virginia had moved on. Robert Wallace and his wife were among the pioneer settlers who had crossed the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky in 1779. Others went south. Perhaps the most celebrated of these Wallaces was “Big Foot” Wallace, born in Lexington, Virginia in 1817. He joined the Texas Rangers and provided his followers and later the reading public with a fund of stories.

Pennsylvania.  From the 1720’s, the main point of entry for Scots and Scots Irish Presbyterians was Philadelphia. Pennsylvania offered religious toleration, unlike Puritan New England. Some of these immigrants stayed; others moved inland, to Ohio, Indiana and, in one notable case, to Iowa.

David Wallace from Donegal had been an early settler in the 1750’s in Lack township, Pennsylvania. From here came another David who moved to Indiana and, rising through the ranks, became Governor of that state in 1837. His son Lew Wallace was a Union General who in later life wrote the best-selling novel Ben Hur.

Another David Wallace, in his case from county Armagh, came to Philadelphia in 1811.  His eldest son Robert married twice and moved to Chillicothe, Ohio.  William Wallace’s 1986 book Genealogy of the Wallace Family covered his line.

Meanwhile a Scots Irish family came to West Newton, Pennsylvania in the 1830’s.  Their son Henry Wallace set off for Iowa in 1863 as a Presbyterian missionary. He subsequently turned his attention to agriculture, starting up the Wallace’s Farmer newspaper. His son and grandson both became US Secretaries of Agriculture, the latter also serving for a term as FDR’s Vice President.

Other Wallaces.  American Wallaces outnumber British Wallaces by a factor of three-to-two. Many of these Wallaces have other origins.

The surname was adopted in the 19th and 20th centuries as an Americanized form for various Jewish and Eastern European  surnames. From Wallechinsky came Irving Wallace the writer; from Woleck Mike Wallace, the CBS 60 Minutes correspondent.

Caribbean. Wallaces from Scotland were planters in Jamaica in the 18th century.

But they probably made a bigger mark on the small island of St. Vincent.  William Wallace, the son of a Scottish naval officer, worked for many years on New England whaleboats before returning in the 1870’s to set up a whaling station on the island. Curtis Wallace continued this seafaring tradition in the 20th century with his development of sea going links in the Eastern Caribbean.

Canada. Among the Loyalists who left America after the Revolutionary War was Michael Wallace. He set up his trading business in Halifax and soon became the treasurer of the province of Nova Scotia, a position he held for more than forty years. Many of the Wallaces in Atlantic Canada are his descendants.

Scots immigrants poured into Ontario as the 19th century progressed, including many Wallaces. Later, a number headed west to homestead. The rail terminus was at Medicine Hat in the 1880’s and the onward journey, for Richard Wallace to High River, was on freight teams.

An English Wallace, Alfred Wallace from Plymouth with a shipping background, made it to Vancouver in the 1890’s. He started the Burnall yard shipbuilding business in north Vancouver a few years later, a business that was later carried on by his son Clarence.

New Zealand. Early Wallaces came from both Ireland and Scotland.

Three Wallace brothers from Antrim – Arthur, John, and James – came to New Zealand with the 65th Regiment in 1846, stayed, and settled in Wanganui. Arthur’s son William joined the Wanganui constabulary and spent much of the 1860’s and 1870’s in skirmishes with the Maoris. His reminiscences of those times were collated in James Cowan’s book The New Zealand Wars.

Meanwhile David Wallace arrived from Dundee via Australia in 1856 and brought his wife out two years later. They were early settlers in what was originally the Wallace electorate near Dunedin on South Island.

Billy Wallace, the son of a cook in Wellington, was a New Zealand rugby hero. He was the star performer of the victorious All Black team that toured the British Isles in 1905 and he managed a number of touring teams later.

Wallace Surname Miscellany

William Wallace and the Wallace Oak and Yew.  At Elderslie in Renfrewshire two famous trees once stood, the Wallace oak and the Wallace yew.  The yew alone remains.  Some doubt has recently been cast on the antiquity of this tree.  But parish records from the 1700’s refer to it as “the ancient tree.”

As the oldest tree in Europe is a yew which stands in Fortingall in Perthshire and is over 3,000 years of age, it is interesting to think that this tree is named the Wallace yew because of its association with Wallace.

The famous Wallace oak which is claimed to have afforded shelter to William and his followers from an English patrol fell in a storm in the 1800’s.  This ancient tree had been measured some years before its fall when it was found that its branches covered 495 square yards!

When Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army began its march south in 1745, they used the words “Wallace oak” as a camp password.  The story of this tree must have been well known to the highland soldiers to have understood its meaning.

Sundrum and Carnell Castles.  Sundrum Castle is amongst the oldest inhabited castles in Scotland, dating back to the war of Scottish independence when it was declared forfeit to the crown.  Sir Robert Wallace, a relative of Sir William Wallace the Scottish freedom fighter, was appointed Sheriff of Ayr in 1342, succeeded by his son Duncan in 1359 who commissioned the building of the present castle in the 1360’s.

The Tower, which has been recently refurbished, re-equipped and redecorated to a very high standard, makes excellent accommodation and is a perfect choice for keen golfers, anglers, horse riders, and racegoers.

The tower of Carnell was built in the 16th century for the Wallaces.  Carnell was extended to what can be seen today by the architect William Burn in the 1840’s.  Set in a 2,000 acre estate, Carnell offers accommodation, weddings, falconry, archery, and shooting (clays, pheasant, and grouse).

Wallace in the Canadian Wilderness.  Mary McKerley nee Wallace was interviewed for the Granby Leader in 1898.  These are some extracts from the article.

“Mary McKerley of Abbotsford, widow of the late William McKerley, is now 83 years of age and has resided at Abbotsford since early childhood.  She is a native of Alston Moor, Cumberland.  Her father’s name was William Wallace and when they came to this country they had quite a large family of which she was the youngest.  Some of them went to Upper Canada.

Those best known in this vicinity were: Job Wallace, father-in-law of the late James Irwin of Granby; Joseph Wallace, father of William Wallace of Granby who settled in Canaan; and Thomas Wallace who recently died at Waterloo at an advanced age.

The family sailed from Liverpool in 1820.  At the same time came Isaac and Jacob Wallace, the survivors of triplets.

The Wallace family located at the east end of Yamaska Mountain, on a place where there was an old rude cabin.  As they had masons in the family they built a stone house as soon as they could.  Her brothers went to Granby to mill, a distance of eight miles, with a bushel of corn on a hand sled and blazed trees to guide them.  At times they had to come back without their grist, the mill being so full.  Mr. Wallace had to pay 25 cents per day for the use of a plough and he had the first pair of cartwheels in the place that had iron tiers or bands around them.

When he commenced to farm in Canada, he had only six shillings in his pocket and he owed his brother the amount of his passage money.  He was a miner in England and consequently did not know much about farming.  When he began land clearing he chopped all around the tree to his own great danger.  Then he sat down and shed tears at the hard prospect before him.  Plucking up courage, he tried again until success rewarded his efforts.”

Big Foot Wallace.  At his birth he weighed 13 pounds and “could kick harder and yell harder than any youngster I ever saw,” so said his favorite aunt who was his midwife.

But why Big Foot?  A name as long as William Alexander Anderson Wallace demands a nickname.  The reason for Mr. Wallace’s peculiar nickname is easy to explain.  He simply had big feet.  They measured 11 and 3/4 inches.  That doesn’t seem so large today.  But Wallace at 6’2″ and 240 pounds was considered quite large by early 19th century standards.

He arrived in Texas from Virginia in 1837 and joined the Texas Rangers.  Many are the stories that have been told about his adventures there.

He was part of a splinter group that mutinied and headed off to Mexico, determined to make it worth their time and trouble.  However, they were surrounded and captured by a larger force.  They were rounded up and made to participate in what became known as the “black bean incident.”  There was a lottery in which 159 white and 17 black beans were drawn from a crock to determine which men (one in ten) would be executed.  A black bean meant execution; a white bean meant prison.  Wallace, always a non-conformist, drew a grey bean. The Mexican officer in charge determined the bean to be white and he was thereby spared death.

Once Wallace went without water for six days and then drank an entire gallon at once.  His fellow prisoners attempted to stop him, but he fought them off.  He collapsed in sleep and everyone, including his captors, never expected him to awaken.  He awoke the next day completely refreshed.

Since the captives were allowed free access to quills and ink, many letters and memoirs were published about their captivity and it remains one of the most written-about incidents in Texas history.

Over the years his willingness to recount his adventures insured he would become a genuine Texas legend. He never told a story he couldn’t later improve upon.  In 1870 The Adventures of Big Foot Wallace, The Texas Ranger was published and later went into multiple printings, becoming perhaps the first best-selling book on a Texas personality.

Lew Wallace.  Lew Wallace grew up in Indiana.  At the outbreak of the Civil War, he enlisted and a year later was a Major General.  He had an up-and-down war.  He was known as “the man who arrived too late at Shiloh.”  But he fought later at Monocacy which became known as “the battle that saved Washington.”

He became even more well known after President Lincoln was assassinated, being second in command of the military court that convicted and hanged the conspirators.  Later he became Governor of New Mexico and then US Minister to Turkey.

But he is not remembered for these accomplishments. On retirement back in Indiana, he sat down and wrote a book which was published in 1880.  The title was Ben Hur.  It became the biggest selling novel of the nineteenth century.

Mike Wallace and Jewishness.  In 2005, Wallace talked about his Jewish background to author Abigail Pogrebin.  He recounted how he grew up in a moderately observant home and said he still recites the Sh’ma prayer every night before retiring. However, he has not been a practicing Jew in his adulthood and only his first wife was Jewish.

Wallace said that he was hurt by charges that he was a “self-hating Jew” because of some hard-hitting pieces he did on Israel and he defined himself in general terms as a supporter of Israel.

He told Pogrebin that he has to remind his son, Fox cable newsman Chris Wallace, that Chris is in fact Jewish.  Wallace explained that Chris was raised by a non-Jewish stepfather, is married to a non-Jewish woman, and barely acknowledges being Jewish.  Why a Jewish couple should name their son Chris was a question Pogrebin didn’t ask.

Wallace Names

  • William Wallace was the Scottish patriot who fought the brave battle against the English until he was caught and executed in 1305.
  • Lew Wallace was the Civil War General who later wrote the best-selling novel Ben Hur.
  • Edgar Wallace, born Richard Edgar, was a prolific and hugely popular English crime writer in the 1920’s.
  • DeWitt and Lila Wallace co-founded Reader’s Digest and published its first issue in 1922.
  • George Wallace was elected Governor of Alabama for four terms and stood as a pro-segregation Presidential candidate in 1968.
  • Randall Wallace is the Scots Irish hillbilly from Tennessee who wrote and put together the film Braveheart which starred Mel Gibson.

Wallace Numbers Today

  • 41,000 in the UK (most numerous in Renfrewshire)
  • 72,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • and 34,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Wallace and Like Surnames

These were names originally given to outsiders in the British Isles that became surnames.  Thus Walter the Scot became Walter Scott.  Outsiders could also have been Welsh, Irish, French or Flemish.  These are some of the “outsider” surnames which are covered here.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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