White Surname Meaning, History & Origin

White Surname Meaning

White in England could owe his name from an ancestor bearing the Old English name Hwita, from hwit or white, or be a nickname for someone with white hair or an unnaturally pale complexion. The German Weiss has a similar origin, as does the Dutch Witt or de Witt.

White in Scotland and Ireland, if not an implant, would have displaced the Gaelic ban or fionn, meaning “white” or “fair.” And a number of the French Huguenots fleeing France for England in the 17th century changed their names from Blanc to White.

Other suggestions for the origin of the White name have been:

  • from the Anglo-Saxon wiht, meaning “valiant,” which gave rise to both the White and Wight names
  • from atte wyte, one who lived by a bend in the river
  • or from Wait or White, a place name in Devon.

White Surname Resources on The Internet

White and Whyte Surname Ancestry

  • from Southern England, Scotland and Ireland
  • to America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

England. White appeared as a name in pre-1066 documents, possibly to describe the pale Saxons or Vikings in contrast to the darker original Celts.

Early Whites in England were Walter Whyte, knighted by Henry II in 1171 and probably the first known bearer of the White surname, and Robert Whyte of Yorkshire, knighted in 1303. White, however, is very much a surname of southern England.

SE England.  In Sussex Thomas Wytte married Annes Seles in Rye in 1540.  The spelling here varied between Wyght, Whyte, and Whytte before White became the standard form in the early 1600’s. There were other early Whites in Horsham, Brighton and Hastings.

Robert White was a merchant at Calais across the Channel in the late 1400’s. These Whites were based at Farnham in Surrey for several generations and generally remained Catholic in their persuasion.  From this family came the White landowners in Nottinghamshire.  Thomas White held Tuxford Manor in Elizabethan times and they maintained their fortunes through propitious marriages, with the Wallingwells heiress in 1698 and the Woollaston heiress in 1765.

The Whites of London were early cloth merchants, most notably Sir Thomas White who was Lord Mayor of London in 1553. He was a principal member of the guild of merchant taylors and helped found the Merchant Taylors’ School in London. A Catholic, he also founded St. John’s College in Oxford.

At the same time Thomas White, a descendant of the Farnham Whites, was Warden of New College, Oxford and a man of decidedly Puritan views.  His nephew was the Rev. John White who became the patriarch of Dorchester and founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Sampson White had been mayor of Oxford in 1660 and again in 1665.  His son Gilbert became vicar at the village of Selborne in Hampshire in 1681, the first of three Whites to hold that position.  The third of these, the Rev. Gilbert White, was a pioneering naturalist who popularized the science of natural history in England (as evidenced by the success of his Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne published in 1798).

SW England.  A White family of Marlock and South Petherton in Somerset dates back to the late 1400’s.  This Protestant family may have produced the John White who emigrated to Massachusetts in 1639.

The White name first started to appear in the village records of Badsey and Wickhamford in Worcestershire in the 1560’s.  They were yeoman farmers mainly and their line continued into the 1800’s.

Further North.  There was a White family in York from the 1400’s.   William and Michael White were dyers there in the late 1400’s, with  William being its mayor in 1491.  Richard White, a tailor, was the mayor in 1552.

In Durham Miles White was active in the coal trade and served as the mayor of Newcastle in 1691 and again in 1703.  His son Matthew acquired the Blagdon estate near Newcastle in 1700.

Blagdon has been home to the same family since that time. The first three generations of owners were all named Matthew White. The next nine generations of owners have all been named Matthew White Ridley. Thus for more than three hundred years Blagdon has been owned by somebody called Matthew.

Scotland.  The spelling here could be either White or Whyte. The earliest reference – an Uwiaett Hwite at Coldringham in Berwickshire in 1097 – may have been English.  Johannes Quhite was prior at St. Andrews in Fife in 1236 and the Quhyt name subsequently began to appear in Forfar.

White was also a semi-translation of the Highland Gaelic Mac GhilleBhain, “son of the fair-haired servant or youth.” And Whyte was often adopted as a name by many of the MacGregors and Lamonts when they were outlawed and had their own names proscribed.

But both White and Whyte have been more of a Lowland name. The spelling today is about 65% White and 35% Whyte.

  • William Whyt, born in 1600, was the first of a family line of Whytes in Forfar; and Robert Whytte was the first Provost of Kirkcaldy in Fife in 1658.
  • while John White began his company in Fife making weighing machines in 1715.  It is still operating today under the eighth generation.

Ireland. Walter Whyte was part of Strongbow’s invasion force in 1170 and the Whyte name started to appear in Limerick from 1213.  Simon White was sheriff of Limerick City in 1684 and its mayor in 1696.  Father James White, who compiled a history of Limerick in 1738, was from this family.  Another White family, this time Catholic, was based at Knocksentry in Limerick.  

The Whites of Waterford, probably related, first began to appear among the list of mayors in 1414.  The family then resided at Whyteshall near Clonmel in county Kilkenny. Sir Nicholas Whyte was Master of the Rolls in the reign of Queen Elizabeth and bought Leixlip castle in Kildare in 1567.  His descendant John Whyte moved to county Down when he married the heiress of the Loughbrickland estate in 1704.  The Whyte family remains there today.  

Some Whites in Ireland were later English or Scottish arrivals. Sir Thomas White came to Cork in the 1660’s, having acquired land there, and his family held estates on Bantry Bay until 1913. There were early Whites and Whytes in county Down in Ulster.

Today the surname is mostly found in Clare, Galway, Limerick, Waterford and Kilkenny. The spelling is roughly 80% White and 20% Whyte. 

America. The White name figured prominently in the early English settlement of America.

New England.  John White, a Puritan preacher in Dorchester, was the founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony which sent the first large party of English people to settle in New England in 1630.  He himself never sailed to America. Other Whites did.

William White, a passenger on the Mayflower, died during the first winter in America. But his son Peregrine White, who was the first English child to be born to the Pilgrims in the New World, did survive.  Descendants of this family were farmers at Freetown and operated a cotton mill at nearby Acushnet.

Other early Whites in New England were:

  • John White from Essex who, arrived on the Lyon in 1632 after twelve weeks on board and was one of the founders of Hartford, Connecticut four years later.
  • Thomas White who came to Weymouth in 1635.  Nathan White of this family settled in Shelburne, Vermont after the Revolutionary War.  His son Lavater, grandson Robert, and great grandson Frank were all Lake Champlain steamer captains.
  • and another John White, this one from Somerset, who arrived at Salem in 1639 before moving onto Wenham and Lancaster.  His line was covered in Almira White’s 1909 book Genealogy of the Descendants of John White.

Pennsylvania.  Thomas White came to Maryland from London as a surveyor in 1720 and  later moved onto Philadelphia. There he was the founder of what became the University of Pennsylvania. His son William was the first Episcopal Bishop of Pennsylvania. Related Whites in New York was wealthy merchants who as ardent Loyalists had to depart for London in 1783.

Moses and Hugh White from Scottish Covenanter roots had come from Ireland to Bucks county, Pennsylvania in 1722. John White, born in Rowan county, North Carolina, was a captain in the county’s militia during the Revolutionary War and led an expedition in 1783 into the upper Tennessee valley where he set his eyes on the future site of Knoxville.  Later Whites of this line started the White Furniture company in Mebane, North Carolina in 1881.

Meanwhile Hugh White, Scots Irish from Antrim, arrived in Maryland in 1716 and, soon afterwards, moved onto Pennsylvania.  By the 1770’s these Whites had gone onto South Carolina.  In 1837 George Pendleton White and his wife acquired White House in Rock Hill, York county and five succeeding generations of Whites were to live there.

Virginia.  Robert White, also from a Covenanter family, was the progenitor of a distinguished White political family of Virginia and West Virginia. He had resigned his position in the Royal Navy in England and set off for America in the 1720’s because his sweetheart was there. He became one of the first settlers of Frederick county, Virginia. He built his home White Hall there and started his physician’s practice.

Another Virginia White family began with the marriage of James Taylor White and Elizabeth Powe in Orange county around the year 1730. They moved to the Carolinas in the 1750’s. Their son James was in Mississippi (Natchez) in 1782 and his line was later to be found in Louisiana and Texas.

James’s son Martin White, who crossed into Spanish Texas in 1822, was a Texas pioneer.  Taylor White, probably related, arrived in Texas in 1828, also from Louisiana. He was a cattleman and came to be known as the “Cattle King of SE Texas.”  His cattle brand, the “crossed W” inherited from his father in 1806, continued to be used by later Whites.

Canada.   Robert White departed Tyrone in Ireland for King’s county in New Brunswick in 1842.  It was after him that the district of Whites Mountain was named.  Another Irish White family was to be found in St. John, New Brunswick around this time.

David White traveled west from New Brunswick to Alberta in the 1880’s, being one of the first to open a store in the fledgling township of Banff.  His descendants developed the ski industry there, turning Banff into the major ski resort it is today.

Australia.  James White and his wife Sarah from Somerset arrived in Sydney in 1826 and acquired land in the Hunter valley district of NSW:

  • their eldest son James, born in 1828, grew up to be a well-known racehorse owner and breeder
  • son William became an Archdeacon and son Edward a cattle rancher in the Hunter valley
  • but it was another son Francis who was to have the most famous offspring.  His son James was a well-known breeder of Aberdeen Angus cattle, his grandson Patrick White became Australia’s most renowned author.

John and George White came to South Australia in 1836.

New Zealand.  Whites from Durham were early arrivals in New Zealand.  William White, a Methodist missionary, came there in 1823 and, after going back to find a wife in England, based himself in Hokianga.  William’s brother Francis, after getting shipwrecked off Norfolk Island, followed him to Hokianga with his family in 1835.  His son John became an authority on Maori writings.

White and Whyte Surname Miscellany

Early Whites in England.  Walter Whyte, knighted by Henry II in 1171, was the first known bearer of the White surname in England.  He was one of the soldiers of fortune who accompanied Strongbow to Ireland in 1168.  He died in the year 1188 and was buried at the Abbey of Greyfriars in Wexford.

Robert Whyte of Egton in the North Riding was recorded as a knight in Yorkshire in 1303.  His line has been traced in Yorkshire through the 14th century.   Johannis White was an alderman of York in 1394.  His son of the same name, then living at Cilyngham in Nottinghamshire, was named in the list of landed gentry in 1428. 

The Whites of Farnham.  The first sighting of this family was in Yateley in Hampshire and Robert White, recorded as a wool merchant there.  He may have been the mayor of Sandwich in the 1430’s.  He died in 1467 and his son John died in 1469 two years later.

John’s son was the Robert White who made the family fortune as a merchant in Calais.  During his lifetime Robert acquired estates at Farnham in Surrey and South Warnborough in Hampshire.

Robert died in 1518.  Eight sons were mentioned in his will: Robert, Henry, Thomas, William, John the elder, John the younger, Leonard and Eustace.   John the elder was the future Bishop of Winchester, John the younger the future Sir John White, MP and Lord Mayor of London in 1563.  The line meanwhile from the eldest son Robert descended to Sir Thomas White of Warnborough.

John the Bishop and Sir Thomas had strong Catholic tendencies.  John the Bishop was described as follows:

“A man of austere life, eminent for piety and learning, an eloquent orator, a solid divine, a nervous preacher, and a tolerable poet for the time.”

He was also a resolute pursuer of heretics during Queen Mary’s reign. Afterwards he was briefly imprisoned, deprived of his see, and soon died.  His nephew Sir Thomas then died.  An ex-Marian priest was charged in 1567 with having buried him “with tapers and other papistical ceremonies.”

The Whyte Family in Ireland.  The Waterford & S.E. Ireland Archaelogical Society Journal had the following entry about the Whytes:

“The family of Whyte held a distinguished position in Wales in the reign of Henry II, where Ethebert Whyte governed the southern province as Justiciary or Proconsul.  His son Chevalier Gautier (Walter) Whyte and his brothers assisted Strongbow, Earl of Pembroke, in the invasion of Ireland.  The Whyte family established themselves in county Waterford and in different parts of Ireland.  Sir Nicholas White was Master of the Rolls in the reign of Queen Elizabeth and owner at that time of Duncannon Castle.”

Abbe MacGeoghegan remarked that the Whites were to be found in the counties of Kilkenny, Wexford, and Down. Among the different families of the Whites, “that of Lexlip was the most celebrated for its opulence, magnificence and illustrious alliances.”  Leixlip lay outside Dublin and had been acquired by Sir Nicholas White in 1567.

Early Whites and Whytes in County Down.  These were some of the early Whites and Whytes recorded:

  • John White.  A supporter of Rev. Thomas Pollard, Bishop of Down and Connor circa 1447.
  • Hugo White (Killinchy).  Built a castle on the site of Killinchy fort in the 16th century, then removed it to Killyleagh in 1561.
  • White family (Killyleagh).  An English family; held Dufferin district circa 1503; White’s Castle was besieged by Shane O’Neil in 1567, but attack repelled; in reduced circumstances by 1590.
  • Eleanor Savage White (Ardkeen).  She died in 1661; niece of K. Montgomery (died in 1654); buried in Ardkeen parish graveyard.
  • Rowlan White (Newry).  Member of Parliament in 1689.
  • David Whyte of Magheradrool (Ballymaglave).  The son of Hugh Whyte; married Anne Livingston in 1701 at Ballynahinch Presbyterian Church; described as the most opulent and respectable resident gentleman of the parish, his family being distinguished for their zeal in the cause of King William.

Later there was Nicholas Charles Whyte of Loughbrickland House.  He was recorded as a justice of the peace, proprietor of seven townlands, and the man who had gifted the land in Loughbrickland to build St. Patrick’s church in 1827.

John White and the Roanoke Colony.  John White arrived at Roanoke island off North Carolina in 1585 as the artist and mapmaker for Sir Walter Raleigh’s expedition to establish the first permanent English settlement in the New World.  He later became the governor of the new colony.  Virginia Dare was born to his daughter Eleanor there in August 1587.

In late 1587 White returned to England for supplies. His return expedition was delayed due to various reasons, including the Spanish Armada. Governor White finally got back to Roanoke Island in August 1590.  But when he arrived, he found the colony to have been long deserted.  There was no trace of Eleanor or Virginia Dare nor of the other colonists.  Roanoke is remembered today as “the Lost Colony.”

After the failure of the colony, White retired to Raleigh’s estates in Ireland, never giving up hope that his daughter and granddaughter in America were still alive.  He died a few years later.

Peregrine White, First-Born in New England.  The name Peregrine is derived from the Latin word peregrinus, meaning “pilgrim.”  He was the second son of Mayflower Pilgrim William White and his wife Susanna.  Susanna was pregnant during the Mayflower voyage and gave birth to Peregrine in late November 1620 while the ship was at anchor at Cape Cod.

Peregrine is thus believed to have the distinction of being the first known English child born in America. Pilgrim Hall in fact owns and exhibits the cradle of Peregrine White.  His father did not survive the first winter and his mother remarried in the first wedding to take place in New England.

Peregrine settled in Marshfield north of Plymouth with his older brother Resolved in 1636.  He died there in 1704 at the age of 83.  We have not much idea of his character, but certain traits reported about him suggest a possible dissolute youth (at least in terms of the Puritan norms):

  • in 1648 Peregrine and his wife Sara were fined for fornication before marriage
  • in 1649 Peregrine and William Halloway were cautioned for fighting
  • in 1696 Peregrine White, “the first born child of New England” was finally admitted into the Marshfield church at the age of 78.
  • in 1704, on his death it was said that “although he was in the former part of his life extravagant, yet was much reformed in his last years and died hopefully.”

His descendants remained in Marshfield until the Revolutionary War.  Whites later migrated north to Maine.

John White, Early Hartford Settler.  In June 1636, under the leadership of the Rev. Thomas Hooker, John White and his family joined a group of men, women and children that left Cambridge and traveled through wilderness 110 miles to Hartford, Connecticut.

They had no guide but a compass. Some of the women were carried on litters. They drove 160 head of cattle and carried on their backs their packs, arms and utensils. The journey took nearly a fortnight.

John White was one of the original proprietors of Hartford.  However, after Thomas Hooker’s death, there was dissension in the camp and one group, of which John White appears to have been a leader, in 1659 decided to leave Hartford and to start afresh elsewhere.

These “withdrawers” began their journey northward into the wilderness with great difficulty. The Great Falls prevented travel by water and mountains stood across the most direct route by land.  Undaunted, they packed their household goods in ox carts and made nests for their children in the feather mattresses in these carts.  Each wife was mounted behind her husband on a pillion and thus they plodded to Windsor and then onto Hadley where they were going to lay out their new home.

The first winter, the heads of the families and their sons were obliged to hunt on the mountains and fish in the rivers through the ice for their food.  They also traded with the friendly Indians who lived to the north along the river.

However, in his old age, John fell out with the other churchmen at Hadley and he returned to Hartford in 1671.  He died there in 1684.

Martin White, Texas Pioneer.  Martin White, born in Louisiana, came early to Texas.  He moved to Sabine, Texas in 1822 with his mother and his brother Benjamin, having received a land grant from the Mexican government.  Their family was listed in the 1835 census for Sabine.  As was required by Mexican law, the religion of all of them had to be shown to be Catholic.

In 1836 Martin joined Sam Houston’s army fighting for independence and was involved in the decisive Battle of San Jacinto.  For his service he received a bounty land grant.

In the following years, Martin and his brother Benjamin moved around various places in East Texas.  Benjamin served as a sheriff of Trinity county and Martin died at Alabama Creek in the same county in 1861. 

Early White Settlers in South Australia.  Two brothers, John and George White from Worcestershire, were early settlers in South Australia, arriving at Port Adelaide on the Tam O’Shanter in 1836.

John was a building contractor and a man of some means.  He had brought with him a large load of building materials, as well as nine laborers and their families. John had pre-purchased town acres and a section of land in Reedbeds on which he established the Fulham Farm suburb of western Adelaide.  His son Samuel developed some reputation as an ornithologist.

Meanwhile his younger brother George was a carpenter who experienced some financial problems early on in the colony.  He recovered and settled with his wife Mary Ann and family at Scotts Creek in the foothills of the Lofty Ranges near Adelaide.  He lived there until his death in 1863.

White Names

  • John White of Dorchester was the founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony which sent the Pilgrims to America.
  • James and Ellen White were the co-founders of the Seventh day Adventist Church in the 1840’s.
  • Stanford White was a well-known American architect, sensationally murdered in 1906.
  • Harry Dexter White was an economist and Treasury official who was the prime mover behind the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement.
  • Patrick White was the award-winning Australian novelist who won the 1973 Nobel Prize for Literature.
  • Barry White was an American soul singer from Texas.
  • Betty White is an American actress and comedian with a TV career spanning over eighty years.

White Numbers Today

  • 182,000 in the UK (most numerous in Yorkshire)
  • 239,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 120,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

White and Like Surnames

Nicknames must have been an early feature of medieval life in a family or community as these nicknames later translated into surnames.  People then lived a more natural life than we do today and the surnames have reflected that.

They could be about color (Brown, Gray, Green etc), whether of hair or complexion or other factors; mood (Gay and Moody are two extremes); youth (Cox and Kidd); speed of foot (Swift and Lightfoot); and actions (such as Shakespeare and Wagstaff).  Then there were likenesses to animals (notably Fox and Wolfe but also Peacock) and to birds (Crowe and Wren for example).  And then there were some extraordinary nicknames such as Drinkwater and Wildgoose.

Here are some of these nickname surnames that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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