Watson Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Watson Surname Meaning

Watson is patronymic, from “son of Wat.”  Wat was a medieval abbreviation of the Germanic name Walter, coming from wald meaning “rule” and heri meaning “army.”  The surname sprung up in the Scots Lowlands and in the north of England.

Watson Surname Resources on The Internet

Watson Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Lowland) and England
  • to Ireland (Ulster), America, Caribs (Guyana), Hong Kong and Australia

Scotland.  Watson, Watt, and MacWatt are all names in Scotland derived from Wat or Walter.  There was an early presence of the Watson name – in Edinburgh, Dumbarton and on the east coast of Scotland.

Watsons in Edinburgh dated from 1392. The Watson family of Saughton near Edinburgh was influential landowners in the area for about three centuries from 1537.  George Watson was a wealthy Edinburgh banker who, on his death in 1723, bequeathed the bulk of his fortune to what was to become Watson’s College in the city.

Walter Watson was recorded as a landowner in Dumbarton on Clydeside in 1494. A number of his descendants became magistrates and provosts (mayors) there. The Watsons have also been long-established at Applegate in Arbroath.

John Watson started the John Watson & Company printing firm in Glasgow in 1824.  It remained in family hands until 2013.

England. A Watson family has been at Rockingham castle in Northamptonshire since 1530 when Edward Watson, the founder of the Watson dynasty, first leased the castle. The direct family line ended with the death of the 3rd Earl of Rockingham in 1746.

Another line, however, continued with Charles Watson-Wentworth, Lord Rockingham, who was twice British Prime Minister in the late 1700’s. Some of the Watson families in Yorkshire may also have had a lineal descent from these Watsons.

Yorkshire and Northern England.  John Watson, born in Holme-on-Spalding-Moor in Yorkshire in 1472, had probable Scottish ancestors.  Godfrey Watson married Margaret Woode in Kirkby Malzeard in 1654.

A line of Watsons held the old Malton priory and later acquired Bilton Hall near Harrogate in Yorkshire. Joseph Watson started his soap business in Leeds in 1830. This was transformed by his grandson Joseph into the largest soap manufacturer in the north of England. The firm was known as “Soapy Joe’s.”

One Watson family history began with the birth of John Watson in Renwick, Cumberland in 1721. They later spread across Cumberland and Northumberland, as well as abroad.

Jacob Watson married Elizabeth Burn in 1752 on Alston Moor in Cumberland.  Their descendants, who were miners, moved to Ireland in 1785, to the Vale of Avoca in county Wicklow.  Subsequently, in 1855, they decamped to Wisconsin.  Thomas Watson, known as “the Teacher,” was sixty two at this time, but sadly died three days into the journey.

Ireland. Many Scots Watsons migrated to Ulster during the 17th century. Watsons from Ayrshire were in county Down as early as 1607 as part of James Hamilton’s plantation.

A number of Watsons were involved in the defense of Londonderry during its siege in 1689, including Captain Alexander Watson, Master of the Gunners, and Captain George Watson, a signer of the letter to William and Mary.

Many Ulster Watsons left for America in the 18th century.

The Rev. G.W. Watson was a Presbyterian minister who attended to the condemned in county Down before their hanging in 1798 after the United Irishmen Rebellion.  Robert Watson was a pioneer of the linen industry in Lurgan, Armagh. In 1808 he built one of the first hand-loom factories in Ireland.

America. Thomas Watson came to Salem, Massachusetts from Devon in 1640. A much later Thomas Watson, who worked with Alexander Graham Bell on the telephone, was born in Salem in 1854. Whether the two were related is not known.

John Watson arrived in Rhode Island from Durham with his family around the year 1650.  His line in America was traced in George Davis’s 1983 book The American Family of John Watson of Narragansett County.

Scots/Scots Irish. The majority of the Watson arrivals, however, were Scots or Scots Irish.

Matthew Watson arrived in Boston from Derry in 1718 and settled in Leicester, Massachusetts shortly thereafter. He was not to live long, however, being hit by a falling tree in 1720. But his son Matthew, who was born in 1696, lived onto 1803.

Major Watson of possible Scots Irish origin lived to be 100 years old.  Some reports have him born in 1739 in New York state; others indicate 1747 and born overseas and arriving in America seven years later.  Major fought against the British in the Revolutionary War and in the War of 1812.  He was captured in both wars, first by the Indians and then by the British.   When he died in Wisconsin – either in 1840 or 1848 – he was one of the last survivors of the Revolution.

Thomas Watson the Scotchman arrived at Cherrystone Creek in Pittsylvania county, Virginia sometime in the 1740’s when it was still frontier territory. His descendants, at first Presbyterian and then Methodist, were still living at the Scotchman’s old homestead in 1892 and are still in the area today, the last five of them being named Fletcher Watson.

Others who stayed put were the Watsons on land between the Edisto and Saluda rivers in South Carolina.  William Watson had arrived there in 1745 in a circuitous route that had taken in New York, Virginia, and North Carolina. He himself met his death in a fight with Cherokee Indians on the Edisto river, supposedly through the treachery of false friends.

Among other Scots Irish Watson arrivals at that time were John Watson from Donegal who came to Lancaster county, Pennsylvania in 1730; and the Watsons who came to Pennsylvania and then moved to South Carolina by the time of the Revolutionary War.  A later Watson of this line, the Rev. Cyrus Lewis Watson who had settled in Missouri by the 1860’s, wrote a family account of those times.

Caribbean.  Watsons from the Orkney islands off Scotland were prominent in the sugar plantations and slave-procuring in Demerara (now Guyana).  Their forebear was James Watson, born in 1770, who acted as a factor in Demerara for Lord Dundas.  Four of his sons went out there and became wealthy. 

One son Peter had a son Andrew from a slave girl and had him educated in England. Andrew is thought to have been the first black footballer ever to have played at an international level.  He was capped three times for Scotland between 1881 and 1882. 

Asia. Thomas Boswell Watson, born on the outskirts of Edinburgh, moved to Asia in the 1840’s and started a small chemist business in Hong Kong. From these beginnings came the Watson chain of beauty and health stores in SE Asia.

Australia.  John Watson had come to Tasmania in 1833 from a shipbuilding family in Beverly, Yorkshire.  He built clippers and whalers there, many of whom his brother George sailed.

George Watson, a soldier, arrived at Sydney with his wife Ann and nine children in 1839.  Ann died the following year.  But George soon remarried and they had three more children.  They moved in Melbourne in 1848.  John Watson’s 1979 book The Watson Family in England and Australia gave their story.

Watson Surname Miscellany

The Watsons at Rockingham Castle.  Rockingham castle in Northamptonshire had been built by William the Conqueror on the site of an ancient fortress commanding the valley of the Welland river.  It remained a royal residence for close on five hundred years.  However, despite its admirable hunting grounds, the castle was not well frequented by England’s monarchs.

In 1530 Edward Watson, a local landowner, obtained a lease of Rockingham from Henry VIII and set about restoring what remained of the Norman castle, converting it into a comfortable Tudor house.  He had grown rich in wealth and influence through his marriage to Emma Smith, the niece of William Smith the Bishop of Lincoln and a great favorite of Henry VII.  His own line extended back to an earlier Edward Watson who had been living at Lydington in Rutland county in 1460 and was the father of fifteen children.

Edward’s son, also named Edward, had suspect recusant tendencies and even attended the funeral of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587 after her execution.

His grandson Sir Lewis Watson bought the castle freehold from James I in 1619 in more favorable times.  Sir Lewis supported the Royalist cause in the Civil War and as a result was created Baron Rockingham.  Apart from a brief period when Roundheads occupied the castle during the Civil War, the Watsons have lived there ever since.

Early Presence of the Watson Name in Scotland.  Early presences were:

  • 1392.  There were Watson landowners in Edinburgh.
  • 1402.  The records show a Robert Watsoun living in Aberdeen.
  • 1450.  Nicholas Watson of Dalkieth held land near Arbroath.
  • 1493.  Sir Donald Watsone was a church presbyter in the diocese of Moray.
  • 1494.  Walter Watson was a burgess and landowner in Dumbarton and a number of his descendants became bailies and provosts.

Watsons of Saughton.  The lands of Saughton lay within the village of Corstophine, some three miles outside of Edinburgh. They had been held by the Abbey of Holyroodhouse until they were divided up among various families in the 16th century.  Richard Watson was the first of the Watsons there in 1537.

The Watson line at Saughton extended until 1818 and James Watson, but no further.   His two sons were reported killed in the Boer War.

The mighty oak was the symbol of the family.  Their coat of arms showed two hands extending out of clouds gripping a young oak sapling with roots extending.  There were five oak trees leading up the lane to the estate at Saughton.  When a school was built on this estate in 1920 after Saughton House had burned down, the children re-planted the five oaks on the road into Broomhill Primary School.

George Watson and His School.  George Watson was born in Edinburgh in 1654, but orphaned at an early age.  Thanks to an aunt, he was sent at the age of 18 to be educated in book-keeping at Rotterdam.  He returned to Edinburgh to be the private secretary to Sir James Dick in 1676.  Based partly on this experience he became one of Scotland’s most famed accountants of his time.  He was appointed chief accountant to the Bank of Scotland when it was founded in 1695.

He died in 1723 a wealthy man.  There is a memorial plaque to him in Greyfriars churchyard.  His fortune was estimated at £12,000, a vast sum in those days.   Most of that money was bequeathed to found a hospital school for “entertaining and educating the male children and grandchildren of decayed merchants in Edinburgh.”  Its foundation stone was laid in 1738 and the building was completed early in 1741.

In 1870 the Merchant Company of Edinburgh was granted powers by Parliament to reform all the hospital schools under its management.  George Watson’s Hospital was then remodeled into a day school.  It first opened as George Watson’s College that year, with a roll of 1,000 pupils. It still operates on that basis today.

Watsons of Lurgan.  The Watson name appeared in the records of Lurgan in county Armagh as early as 1667.

It was Robert Watson, born there much later, who was to make his mark on the town.  His linen factory was founded at The Flush, so called after the river which flowed through the site in 1808.

The factory was sited at the end of Flush Place at the point where the extended main street of Lurgan branched in three directions, to Belfast, Waringstown and Gilford.  It was thus very much at the road transport hub of the linen industry in the area.  It is considered by many industrial historians to have been one of the earliest hand loom factories in Ireland.

Robert Watson made his home at Lakeview.  He died in 1848 and he was succeeded in the company by his son Francis and his son Thomas followed him in turn.

They were known in the area for the interest they took in their employees.  In 1861 when Shankill Parish Church was rebuilt, the principal window in the chancel consisting of three lights was presented by Francis Watson; and, when a peel of eight bells was installed in 1878, the largest subscription of £200 came from William Watson.

The Watsons were still living at Lakeview in the mid 1950’s and their company was manufacturing fine quality handkerchiefs until the early 1960’s.  But then, like others in the area, competition drove it out of business. The factory site is now long gone.

Thomas John Watson the Scotchman.  Thomas John Watson was known as “the Scotchman” in Virginia.  Legend has it that he had been sentenced to be executed for his religious beliefs (he was a Presbyterian), but had subsequently been pardoned.  It was also said that he had come to America in search of a brother who had been an Admiral in the British Navy.

He made his home at Cherrystone Creek in Pittsylvania county around the year 1740 and was one of the very first European settlers there.  Eight generations of the family have gone by and the Watsons are still there in what is now the town of Chatham.

Judge Fletcher B. Watson IV is the present incumbent.  He resides at the Whittle Street Watson home, on a ridge above Cherrystone Creek, that was built in 1894 by the first Fletcher Bangs Watson, a veteran of the Civil War.  Prior to that time the family had lived in the Scotchman’s old homestead.

The Watsons were instrumental in establishing Methodism in the area. Today’s Watson Memorial United Methodist Church stands on North Main Street. 

Reader Feedback – Major Watson Who Lived To Be 100.   Does anyone know anything about the family of Major Watson who migrated to the American colony in 1754? He was born in 1747 and died in 1848. The monument at Hebron, Illinois and Family Search have the wrong dates.

I have an obituary from Wisconsin where he had been interviewed for a newspaper.  He gave no information about who his family was.  In his interview he said that he came to the colonies in 1754. He might have been an indentured servant or was coming to join relatives at the age of seven.  That would mean he was born about 1747.

I found a footnote where it said his father was John Watson in the 1878 book The History of St. Lawrence County, New York.

The biography at the Hebron, Illinois website leaves off a lot of his information – like his having to write the President for permission to come back to New York since he acted as an Indian agent for the British in Canada after the Revolution or of him being arrested and spending time in jail for illegally buying land from the Indians.

In 1843 he moved to Wisconsin with Daniel Downs and Clarissa Watson’s daughter.  His death was recorded around March 16th 1847 at Linn in Walworth, Wisconsin.

Jeanne Sumner (ajeanne94547@gmail.com).

Family History from the Rev. Cyrus Lewis Watson. The Rev. Watson was a Presbyterian minister in Missouri and Illinois, well-known in his day (that was the 1860’s).  He wrote the following about his family history, in particular about their experiences during the Revolutionary War:

“Soon after the battle of the River Boyne in 1690, owing to religious intolerance and dissension, the Watson family moved from Scotland to county Tyrone in Ireland.  How long they remained there I have no means of” knowing, but perhaps not for many years.

In the early part of the eighteenth century (presumably in the year 1729 when the great tidal-wave of emigration crossed the Atlantic from Scotland and Ireland), they came to America and located for a season in Franklin county, Pennsylvania, near where Chambersburg now stands.

This was before the old French wars from 1740 to 1750. Here they were greatly harassed by the Indians.  During that war one of my grandfathers was subjected to a long and painful captivity among them.

A few years later they removed to the Carolinas, the Watsons settling in York district, South Carolina and the Barbers, my mother’s ancestors, in Lincoln county, North Carolina, only a few miles apart being in adjacent counties. They were all staunch Presbyterians, thoroughly imbued with the spirit of civil and religious liberty.

When the Revolutionary War began, though greatly in the minority, they hastened to enroll themselves under the banner of freedom, regardless of the perils incurred.

My grandfather Watson, (the father of James Watson of Noix Creek), fell at the battle of Briar Creek in 1779, fighting under General Lincoln.  One of his brothers was killed at the battle of King’s Mountain in 1780.   The other brother was brutally waylaid and shot when just returning from a term of active service in the army and while in the act of embracing his young wife on his own doorstep.

After my grandmother was made a widow with seven small children dependent on her for subsistence, a bandit of Tories one night robbed her home of everything they could carry away.

My mother’s father, Col. John Barber, commanded a regiment of North Carolina troops and was in many a hard-fought battle, often out on reconnoitering expeditions, greatly harassed.  By the enemy, he was greatly feared and hated by them and often waylaid, yet through the entire war he never received a scratch.”

Reader Feedback – Watsons from South Carolina.  I am 76 years young!  I was told many years ago by one of my great aunts who lived to be 100 that our ancestors came from Buford or Sumter, South Carolina. They came to South Georgia to live. They laid out townships etc.

My father was a War Department chemist before, during and after World War Two.  His father was Samuel Morgan Watson and his father Willis Rice Watson.

Marsha Watson Gandy (MarshaWatsonGandy8@outlook.com)

Reader Feedback – Watsons from Iowa to California.  My uncle has thought that we are Scots IrishMy great grandfather John Watson had been a volunteer in the Civil War.  He stayed at a soldier’s home for Civil War veterans.  My grandfather Harris Watson moved his pop from Iowa to California in the 1950’s.  He worked for MGM as a sound man and won a medal for his work on the musical Oklahoma.

Glenn Watson (barbnglenn0@gmail.com)

Reader Feedback – American Scots Irish Watsons.  I come from a long line of the born fighting Scots Irish.  My line of Watsons has been in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War and my father was in the navy in WW2 in the Philippines.  We are proud to be Americans.

Glenn Harris Watson (barbnglenn0@gmail.com).

The Afro-Caribbean Who Was a Pioneer of the Game of Football.  Andrew Watson was born in 1856 in Demerara (now Guyana) to Peter Miller Watson, a wealthy sugar planter, and Anna Rose, a black slave girl.

He moved to Britain with his father when he was about two and was educated at some of the finest schools in England. His white Watson family boasted significant wealth and powerful family connections.  At nineteen he studied at the University of Glasgow where his love of football blossomed.

Within six years he’d established himself as one of the most talented and well-respected footballers, a trailblazer who helped popularize the Scottish ‘passing and running’ game – an early step in football’s evolution towards what we recognize today.  He played twice against England and on each occasion Scotland were convincing winners.

The second victory, 5-1 at Hampden Park, was a pivotal result that convinced the English Football Association that its approach had to change.  They turned to Watson to show them the way.  He assumed the role of “Scotch Professor” and taught his English peers the science of a more dynamic passing style.

After his football career ended Watson turned to the sea, working for the West Indian and Pacific Steamship Company and rising to the rank of chief engineer. To football he was lost and his achievements there forgotten.

The Watson Brothers in Tasmania.  One of the pioneers of the shipbuilding industry at Battery Point in Hobart was John Watson.  After his arrival in 1833 he began his Tasmanian career as a shipbuilder in the government yards at Port Arthur.  His brother George was also well-known as a seafarer in Tasmania’s shipping world.  He had arrived three years earlier at the age of 29 with his wife and two sons.

John Watson and Captain George Watson – one a shipbuilder and the other a ship’s captain – induced young men to build ships and to take them to sea. They did this with the convict lads from Point Puer at Port Arthur and also with the roughest and toughest of the adult convicts there.

While John Watson built the Blue Gum Clippers it was his brother George who navigated them.  Their main business was whaling.  Whaling activities in fact reached their peak in Hobart in the late 1840’s.

George Chale Watson, George’s eldest son, left Tasmania and made his way to Victoria and then to Queensland to fulfill his dream of becoming an explorer. Sprinkled within his journal notes are many references to his boyhood days when he spent time onboard boats that visited Tasmania.  He had fond memories of time spent with the sea captains who enjoyed the hospitality of his family household.

Reader Feedback – Captain Samuel Marshall Watson.  It is with an humble heart and not with pride and arrogance that I declare that I am deeply honored to bear the name of Watson.

My father had a brilliant mind, but was not arrogant one bit. He was a quiet man -never did much “talking” – when he spoke it was worth hearing. He had beautiful manners, and conducted himself with the utmost refinement. He loved to read – it was his passion, and he loved studying foreign languages. He also loved working crossword puzzles with a passion.

He loved dogs and cats and birds. He loved the oceans and was an accomplished swimmer. It seemed to Mother and me that he was always happiest when he was near or in the water.  Marsha.

Watson Names

  • George Watson was a 17th century Edinburgh banker who founded Watson’s College, one of the leading private schools in the city.
  • Thomas Watson worked with Alexander Graham Bell on the invention of the telephone.
  • William Watson was a coal mining baron in West Virginia in the early 1900’s.
  • John Watson was the fictional associate of the detective Sherlock Holmes.
  • Robert Watson-Watt was the Scottish pioneer of radar.
  • James Watson did pioneering work with Francis Crick in the 1950’s on the structure of DNA.
  • Thomas J. Watson was the founder of the computer giant IBM.
  • Tom Watson is an American golfer, the great rival to Jack Nicklaus in the 1970’s.

Watson Numbers Today

  • 181,000 in the UK (most numerous in Yorkshire)
  • 90,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 64,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Watson 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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