Whitney Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Whitney Surname Meaning

The surname Whitney comes from an old place-name near Hay in Herefordshire, recorded as Witenie in the 1086 Domesday Book and Whyteneye in the 1283 Herefordshire charter rolls. A Robert de Wytenye was the first surname to be found there.

The root of Whitney is the Old English hwit meaning “white” and eg “island,” hence white island.  The name probably refers to the river Wye which runs through the area and can become a torrent when heavy rains in the Welsh mountains cause it to swell.

Whitney Surname Resources on The Internet

Whitney Surname Ancestry

  • from Western England
  • to Ireland and America

England.  Whitneys at Whitney-on-Wye and Clifford in Herefordshire dated from the 13th century.  The first recorded were the brothers Robert and Eustace de Whitney, born in the 1220’s.  Their line continued at Whitney until around 1600.

Later descendants included:

  • Captain Thomas Whitney the pirate who served with Raleigh.  He was born in Whitney in 1594.
  • John Whitney who departed from London for America in 1635.  His ancestry was traced in Henry Melville’s 1896 book The Ancestry of John Whitney.  
  • and Colonel Thomas Whitney, born in Ireland in 1644, who came from a reputed branch of the family in Icomb, Gloucestershire.

Some Whitneys moved north towards Cheshire and Lancashire. The Whitneys of Coole Pilate near Nantwich in Cheshire, first recorded in the 16th century, included the poets Geoffrey and Isabella Whitney.  Whitneys had also started to appear in London and in Northamptonshire (Yardley Hastings) by this time. James Whitney the famous highwayman was born in Hertfordshire around 1660.  

Ireland.  Colonel Thomas Whitney, a son of Thomas Whitney from Gloucestershire, was born in Westmeath in 1644.  He seems to have been a bit of a rogue.  He was married twice and had a long-term mistress.

During the siege of Derry in 1689, he was imprisoned for having given horses to a captain in the enemy camp (a story recounted in Carlo Gébler’s play Walking to the Ark).  Nevertheless his family were major landowners in Westmeath and remained so through the 19th century.

AmericaJohn Whitney embarked from London on the Elizabeth and Ann for New England and settled in Watertown, Massachusetts in 1635. His descendants, enumerated in Frederick Pierce’s 1895 book The Descendants of John Whitney, are legion and include:

  • Eli Whitney, born in Massachusetts in 1765, the man who invented the cotton gin.
  • Asa Whitney from New York, an early backer of transcontinental railroads.
  • Josiah Whitney, the geologist from Massachusetts after whom Mount Whitney is named.
  • David Whitney from Vermont, one of the earliest settlers in Iowa.
  • David Whitney the lumber baron, born in Watertown, Massachusetts.
  • and Amos Whitney from Maine, the co-founder of the Pratt & Whitney machine tool company in 1860.

The late 19th century saw the rise of the New York branch of this family, through William Collins Whitney.  He became an extremely wealthy businessman who made the Whitney name synonymous with thoroughbred horse racing. His family was known in America for their social prominence, wealth, business enterprises and philanthropy.

Richard Whitney was President of the New York Stock Exchange from 1930 to 1935. However, his own speculative investments turned sour and he took to embezzlement to cover his losses. He was finally caught, arrested, and convicted of embezzlement.

“On April 12, 1938, six thousand people turned up at Grand Central Station to watch as a scion of the Wall Street establishment was escorted in handcuffs by armed guards onto a train that delivered him to prison.”

Other Whitneys.  There were Whitneys in America other than the descendants of John Whitney:

  • Henry Whitney had came to Huntington, Long Island sometime in the 1650’s. His grandson Henry was one of the earliest settlers of Ridgefield, Connecticut.
  • and Samuel Whitney, born in 1734 in eastern Massachusetts, raised seventeen children there, including Captain Ebenezer Whitney:

“Stories handed down over the years claimed that Eben Whitney was shipwrecked off Cape May in 1806 and, while stopping in Glassboro on the way to Philadelphia, met his future wife.”

Ebenezer’s sons Thomas and Samuel built a successful glassware business in south Jersey there. Thomas’s mansion, Hollybush, still stands.

Samuel Whitney from Hartford, Connecticut went further afield. He was among the first Christian missionaries to Hawaii in 1820. His son Martyn, born there four years later, was its first postmaster and founded a number of long-lasting newspapers on the islands.

Whitney Surname Miscellany

The Whitneys of Whitney and Clifford in Herefordshire.  These Whitneys would seem to have started with Robert de Whitney sometime in the mid 13th century.

Robert already held the Whitney and Clifford lands at that time; while his brother Eustace was the parson at Penscombe.  Robert was listed in the Scutage of Gascony in 1242, payment made by those who held land in return for military service, but who were unable or unwilling to perform it.

He appears to have married twice, the first time to Constance Touchet, daughter of James Touchet, the 5th Baron Audley, and the second time to Elizabeth Vaughan, daughter of Thomas ap Roger Vaughan.

The Whitneys of Whitney and Clifford lasted for almost five hundred years.  They came to an end in the late 17th century when Thomas Whitney, the last of the line, died without issue.

Captain Thomas Whitney the Pirate.  Thomas was the captain of the ship Encounter, the largest of Sir Walter Raleigh’s fleet, in his last disastrous voyage in search of El Dorado.

In a letter Raleigh referred to him as: “Whitney, for whom I sold my plate at Plymouth and to whom I gave more credit and countenance than all the captains of my fleet.”

However, the defeat of Raleigh’s company in a collision with the Spaniards and the failure of his search for gold cost Raleigh his head.  Whitney may have died soon afterwards.

“Just what became of Captain Whitney is uncertain.  While searching the mortuary registers of St. Margaret’s Church in Westminster where Raleigh’s headless body was buried in 1618, there was found the following, which probably indicates that his final resting place was beside his old friend and commander:  1621, June 13, Captain Thomas Whitney.”

Captain James Whitney the Highwayman.  Captain James was called “the gentleman highwayman,” a prototype of Captain Tom Faggus in Blackmore’s Lorna Doone.  He believed in dressing well and affected to be generous and noble.  Macaulay called him “the most celebrated captain of banditti in the kingdom.”

Whitney was finally betrayed by a female acquaintance, captured and sent to Newgate prison.  He was hanged in Smithfield in 1694, at the age of 34.  He was said to have made the following speech before his death:

“I have been a very great offender, both against God and my country, by transgressing all laws, both human and divine.  The sentence passed on me is just and I can see the footsteps of a Providence, which I had before profanely laughed at, in my apprehending and conviction.  I hope the sense which I have of these things has enabled me to make my peace with Heaven, the only thing that is now of any concern to me. Join in your prayers with me, my dear countrymen, that God will not forsake me in my last moments.”

Colonel Thomas Whitney and Walking to the ArkCarlo Gébler’s play Walking to the Ark, first performed in Dublin in 2015, served up the siege of Derry in 1689 through the eyes of a family in crisis.

The play was inspired by a book called Fighters of Derry.  In this book Carlo came across a reference to Colonel Thomas Whitney who was sent to prison for selling or giving horses, saddles and weapons to an Irish Jacobite captain (and former prisoner) named Nicholas Darcy. He realized that Darcy, who was later recaptured over the horses, ended up back in prison in Derry at the same time as Colonel Whitney.

Half of the story in the play took place at Mallow in Cork, where the characters were from; while the other half unfolded in Derry during the siege, mainly in the prison. To further add to the mayhem, Darcy’s mother (and Whitney’s mistress) was revealed as the wife of Whitney’s quarter master (although this was probably a fictional touch).

Twenty-five years after fathering a child by this mistress Martha, Colonel Whitney in the play found himself inside Derry during the 1689 siege when his son, a Jacobite, arrived in the city a prisoner.  Colonel Whitney a colonel in the garrison during the siege, was imprisoned for providing horses to Darcy and thus to the enemy.

Eli Whitney and His Cotton Gin.  In 1793 Eli Whitney had designed and constructed the cotton gin, a machine that automated the separation of cottonseed from the short-staple cotton fiber.  It revolutionized the cotton industry in the United States.  Prior to his invention, farming cotton required hundreds of man-hours to separate the cottonseed from the raw cotton fibers.

Simple seed-removing devices have been around for centuries. But Eli Whitney’s invention automated the seed separation process.  His machine could generate up to fifty pounds of cleaned cotton daily, making cotton production profitable for the southern states.

However, Eli Whitney failed to profit from his invention because imitations of his machine appeared and his 1794 patent for the cotton gin could not be upheld in court until 1807.  Whitney could not stop others from copying and selling his cotton gin design.

While the cotton gin did not earn Whitney the fortune he had hoped for, it did give him fame.

Captain Ebenezer Whitney in Glassboro.  In the year 1806 a young New England sea captain named Ebenezer Whitney set sail from the Island of Madeira for Philadelphia.  But his ship was wrecked off the coast at Cape May.

The captain was injured in the wreck.  After being rescued, he was put on a stage bound for Philadelphia.  His condition worsened while enroute so that he was taken from the stage at Heston’s tavern located at what is now Glassboro.

It was said that the innkeeper’s daughter, Bathsheba Heston, helped to nurse Ebenezer Whitney back to health.  Colonel Heston was also a partner in the Heston and Carpenter Glassworks in Glassboro, having taken over the glassworks started by the Stanger brothers in 1780.

Ebenezer Whitney married Bathsheba Heston in 1807 and raised a family.  Two of their sons, Thomas and Samuel, became closely involved in the glassworks business.

The Whitneys in Hawaii.  Samuel Whitney was an early missionary to what was then the Sandwich Isles, arriving there with his wife Mercy in 1820.  Their journals recorded early life there.  He made the following journal entry within two months of their arrival.

“Kailua is on the southwest side of Owhyhee.  A few miles south of this is Kealakekua, the spot where the celebrated navigator Cook was killed in 1779.  They said he was a god and for a long time worshipped him as such.  A man in Kiropah told one of our number that he had eaten part of Cook’s entrails.”

The Whitneys were warmly welcomed by the King, Kaumuali‘i.  He oversaw the building of a large dwelling house for them at Waimea in Kauai.  Kaumuali‘i and his favorite wife Kapule later became Whitney’s first students in English.

Samuel lived at Waimea doing missionary work and teaching the Hawaiians to read in Hawaiian and English until his death in 1845.

Whitney Father, Whitney Heiress.  William Collins Whitney was one of the richest men of his time.  W.A. Swanberg had the following take on him and his family in his 1980 book Whitney Father, Whitney Heiress.

“William Collins Whitney was born in rural Massachusetts in 1841 of estimable lineage but slender fortune.  Educated at Yale, charming, and with a calm authority even in his youth, he seemed destined to a brilliant future.  His marriage to Flora Payne, the vivacious though not truly beautiful Cleveland heiress, could only have appeared to enhance his prospects.

Dividing his time between Washington and New York, Whitney abandoned the road to the White House to make a fortune of his own, while trying to accommodate Flora’s social ambitions in a day when Mrs. Astor was queen of the “400” and “parvenus’ like the Vanderbilts were spending millions to storm the gates.

Whitney, the charmer, the mediator, the consummate politician and a pivotal force in Tammany and the national Democratic party, made his fortune by methods so subtle that they remained undiscovered in his lifetime.  But he was not to escape tragedy.

His daughter Dorothy, an heiress to millions, was an orphan at seventeen.  A lover of dance and society, but with a social conscience lacking in her parents, she fell in love while touring China with Willard Dickerman Straight an orphan who had neither social standing nor money.  Dorothy’s family was horrified.   She had rejected dozens of suitors who had both.  But Straight was handsome and gifted and, like Dorothy, had political and social ideals.

She married him and their marriage was touching in its closeness.  Persisting in their political and social concern, they were founders of The New Republic.   Dorothy was instrumental in starting the New School for Social Research.  But their marriage, too, would be cut short.  Straight died of influenza during the great epidemic of 1918.”

The Whitney Mansion in Detroit.  In the late 1800’s, when David Whitney Jr., the first of a three-generation family of DAC members, built his majestic home on the corner of Woodward and Canfield, he was famous in local lore as “the man who could out-lumber Paul Bunyan.”

He had arrived in Detroit in 1859 at the age of 29 and started his lumber business there.  He foresaw the great future of lumbering in the Midwest and put everything he had into buying pine lands.  Whitney’s fortunes expanded in the north woods as swiftly as Paul Bunyan’s prowess in the loggers’ legends and he soon became a millionaire.  His instincts concerning land values in Detroit were equally keen and he became known as “Mr. Woodward Avenue.”

The Whitney mansion on Woodward Avenue was described in one newspaper account in 1894 as “the most elaborate and substantial residence in this part of the country.”  Created in the Romanesque style, the structure was built of South Dakota Jasper, a rare variety of pink granite which gave the outside of the house a striking rose hue.  The exterior featured a multi-gabled roof and arched windows that added drama to the luxurious facade.

The 21,000 square foot home has 52 rooms, 218 windows, 20 fireplaces, a secret vault in the original dining room and an elevator.  The construction took four years at a cost of $400,000.  The Whitneys spent another $250,000 on decorating and furnishing their home and a further $300,000 on art treasures.

David died in 1900 but his wife Sara continued to live in the house until the 1920’s.  Today the mansion has been turned into one of Detroit’s finest restaurants, The Whitney.

Whitney Names

  • Eli Whitney was the American inventor best known for inventing the cotton gin. It was one of the key inventions of the Industrial Revolution and shaped the economy of the antebellum South.
  • David Whitney was a Midwestern lumber baron of the late 19th century who made his home in Detroit.
  • William Whitney was an American financier and politician of the late 19th century and founder of the socially prominent Whitney family.
  • Jock Whitney of the Whitney family was one of America’s first venture capitalists. He was reportedly one of the ten wealthiest men in the world in the 1970’s.

Whitney Numbers Today

  • 3,000 in the UK (most numerous in Carmarthenshire)
  • 13,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 4,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)



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Written by Colin Shelley

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