Washington Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Washington Surname Meaning

The surname Washington comes from the place-name Washington (originally Wassyngton) near the river Wear in what was then Durham. The Washington family took their name from this location.

Washington Surname Resources on The Internet

Washington Surname Ancestry

  • from Northern England
  • to America (incl. African Americans) and Canada

England. George Washington’s family dates from 1183 at Washington on the Wear and possibly before. They were landed gentry and owned property in Yorkshire (Selby) and in Lancashire (Chorley).

Some 350 years later, a descendant, Lawrence Washington, moved south and bought Sulgrave manor near Banbury in Oxfordshire. This was the home from which George Washington’s great-grandfather, John Washington, departed for Virginia in 1656.

There are still Washingtons to be found in the north of England, but more in Staffordshire. The earliest record is a will and inventory of Edmund Washington of Leek, dated 1537. The name has continued there and in nearby towns and villages.

America. The John Washington who settled in Westmoreland county and was the forebear of President George Washington was not the only Washington to come to Virginia in the 17th century. The records show two others:

  • Edward Washington, possibly related, who became constable of Westmoreland county 
  • and John Washington of Surry county.

There was descent from both of these Washingtons.

George Washington and his wife Martha had no children. Their Mount Vernon estate passed onto his nephew Bushrod and then to Bushrod’s nephew John Augustine. The Washington trail then went south:

  • Thomas Washington moved his family to Alabama and Thomas Pratt Washington brought his family and slaves to Texas in 1845.
  • Joseph Washington from Tennessee was one of the men who perished at the Alamo at the hands of the Mexicans in 1836.
  • while Lewis Washington, a writer and journalist from Georgia, lived through these times as well. He was killed in 1857 while covering a war in Costa Rica.

African Americans. The number of Washingtons in America has a lot to do with African Americans adopting the name before or after emancipation.  One early sighting was Henry Washington who was born in Virginia in 1829, probably to freed slaves.  Richard Washington was born on Edisto Island, North Carolina in the 1850’s and took his Washington name after emancipation.

Booker T. Washington, born a slave in Virginia in 1856, took his name from his step-father, Washington Ferguson. He was an educator and writer and emerged as the spokesman for African Americans post-emancipation. His autobiography Up From Slavery is still widely read.

Another former slave was John Washington from Fredericksburg whose ordeals after the war have recently been retold by the historian David Blight. And Jesse Washington, a seventeen year old lynched in Waco Texas in 1916, provides a further sobering reminder of the past race divides.

It is a remarkable fact that 90% of the Washingtons in America were black in 1900 and the same percentage holds true today. African Americans could choose their name after Emancipation and many of them obviously chose Washington, the founder of their country.  Washington was a slave-owner. But he did give orders that 124 of his slaves should be released on the death of his wife. 

Today’s African American Washingtons include jazz performers, baseball players, and the Academy award winning actor, Denzel Washington. Of course, these Washingtons have their own genetic roots. The actor Isaiah Washington discovered that his DNA roots lay on his mother’s side with the Mende people of Sierra Leone.

But Washington has been considered a “black” name.  And white Washingtons bearing that name have been subject to discrimination as if they were black.

Denzel Washington’s  Family Ancestry

The actor Denzel Washington has roots going back to Virgina and the time of slavery.  Just click below if you want to read more about this history:

Washington Surname Miscellany

The 1537 Will and Inventory of Edmund Washington of Leek.  Edmund’s inventory is that of a prosperous yeoman farmer.  He willed about £7,000 in today’s money to the church to pray for his and his family’s souls.  His was the first of a long line of Washington wills in Staffordshire.  As he was the first recorded Washington in Staffordshire, it raises the question as to where his parents came from.

John Washington Arrives in America.  John Washington was about 19 when his father died.  Two years later his mother died and he went to London, probably taking his brother Lawrence with him.

The brothers saw the new opportunities in trade with the American colonies and John, already married, sailed for Virginia in 1656 as mate and voyage partner of Edward Prescott, the owner of the Sea Horse.  His first wife died and he remarried the daughter of an American planter, Nathaniel Pope.  Their wedding present was a 700 acre estate at Mattox Creek where their eldest son, Lawrence, was born in 1659.

George Washington and His Lineage.  In a letter written near the end of his life to an English genealogist, Washington claimed that he knew little and cared little about his English ancestry.

He may not have; but he had sufficient family pride to have a Washington coat of arms imprinted on his bookplate in 1771, displayed next to a similar bookplate, of slightly earlier date, for a distant English cousin.  He employed a seal bearing his family coat of arms on many of his personal letters and he had a large wooden carving of the crest on the wall at Mount Vernon.

Thomas Pratt Washington.  In the fall of 1845, Thomas Pratt Washington brought his family and slaves from Alabama to Texas and improved a 2,000 acre farm at the mouth of Onion Creek on the Colorado river.  The plantation house was completed in 1848 and the plantation itself had a gin and a press.

Mrs Washington taught the neighbors’ children as well as her own.  But the property and its 106 slaves were lost as a result of the Civil War. Reconstruction difficulties caused further setbacks.  After the Colorado river flood in the summer of 1869, Washington moved to Austin where he died in 1873.

Booker T. Washington Recalling Emancipation.  “As the great day grew nearer, there was more singing in the slave quarters than usual.  It was bolder, had more ring, and lasted later into the night.  And most of the verses of the plantation songs had some reference to freedom.

Some man who seemed to be a stranger made a little speech and then read a long paper, the Emancipation Proclamation, I think.  After the reading we were told that we were all free and could go when and where we pleased.  My mother, who was standing by my side, leaned over and kissed her children, while tears of joy ran down her cheeks.  She explained to us what it all meant, that this was the day for which she had so long been praying but fearing that she would never live to see.”

John and Ruth Washington.  Ruth Washington had no idea that her grandfather, John Washington, was a slave.  That truth came to light in a new book by the Yale historian David Blight.  The book tells the story of two slaves, Washington and Wallace Turnage of North Carolina, who wrote about their ordeals after the Civil War.

Eighty nine year old Florida resident Ruth Washington made a recent trip to Virginia to pay her respects to a man she is just beginning to know.  She saw John Washington’s world at Fredericksburg which has been preserved.  It includes the slave living quarters where he spent much of his life and the site on the Rapahannock where he went across in 1862.

She said her grandfather died the year she was born, so she never knew him.  Her father never talked about that dark chapter in the family history.

Washington Discrimination as a Black Name.  Larry Washington – not related to George Washington – can trace his family tree back to England in the 1700’s.

However, when he moved to New Jersey in 1962 to teach at a college there, he and his family tried to scout housing over the phone, but nothing was ever available.  When we showed up, there were plenty of houses, he recalled.  After that, he taught his six children to always apply in person.

Washington Names

  • George Washington was the first President of the United States. 
  • Eugenia Washington, grand niece of the President, was one of the founders of the DAR (Daughters of the Revolution) in 1890. 
  • Booker T. Washington, born a slave, was an educator and writer and emerged as the spokesman for African Americans until his death in 1915.
  • Ora Washington was a black tennis and basketball star of the 1930’s, not recognized during her lifetime.  
  • Dinah Washington, the jazz singer, was born Ruth Lee Jones. It is said that Lionel Hampton gave her this name. 
  • Harold Washington was the first African American mayor of Chicago, serving from 1983 to 1987. 
  • Denzel Washington, the American actor, is a two-time Academy award winner.

Washington Numbers Today

  • 1,500 in the UK (most numerous in West Midlands)
  • 52,000 in America (most numerous in Texas).

Washington and Like Surnames

The surnames found here cover most of the US Presidential surnames since the first President, George Washington.  Click on the surname below if you wish to know more of that particular President and his name.

ClintonJacksonNixonVan Buren

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Written by Colin Shelley

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