Whitney Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Whitney 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 Resources on

Whitney Ancestry

Whitneys at
Whitney-on-Wye and Clifford
in Herefordshire date from the
13th century and the Whitney name continued to be reported in
Herefordshire in succeeding centuries. However, by the time of
the 1891 census, the number of Whitneys recorded in Herefordshire
was quite small.

by then had 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.

London and Northamptonshire Whitneys also
started to appear at this time. They
included in the 1600’s the Whitney pirate and highwayman – Thomas Whitney the pirate and James Whitney the highwaymanJohn Whitney the emigrant departed from London in 1635.

Unlike America, no Whitney in England really claimed the headlines.

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
    , born in Massachusetts in 1765, the man who invented
    the cotton gin
  • Asa Whitney from New York, an early backer of transcontinental
  • Josiah Whitney, the geologist from Massachusetts after whom Mount
    Whitney is named
  • David Whitney from Vermont, one of the earliest settlers in Iowa
  • David
    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.
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. 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

Ebenezer’s sons Thomas and Samuel built a successful glassware business
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 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.

Two Whitney Captains – One a Pirate and the Other a

Captain Thomas Whitney

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
which probably indicates that his final resting place was beside his
old friend
and commander:
1621, June 13, Captain
Thomas Whitney.”

Captain James Whitney

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,
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
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.”

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.

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
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.

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.

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

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
with his wife Mercy in 1820.  Their
journals recorded early life there.  He
made the following journal entry within two months of their arrival.

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.”

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

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.

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
enhance his prospects.

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
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
national Democratic party, made his fortune by methods so subtle that
remained undiscovered in his lifetime.
But he was not to escape tragedy.

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
touring China with Willard Dickerman Straight an orphan who had neither
standing nor money.  Dorothy’s family was
horrified.   She had rejected dozens
suitors who had both.  But Straight was
handsome and gifted and, like Dorothy, had political and social ideals.

married him and their marriage was
touching in its closeness.  Persisting in
their political and social concern, they were founders of The New
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

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
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
pine lands.  Whitney’s fortunes expanded
in the north woods as swiftly as Paul Bunyan’s prowess in the loggers’
and he soon became a millionaire.  His
instincts concerning land values in Detroit were equally keen and he
known as “Mr. Woodward Avenue.”

Whitney mansion on Woodward Avenue was described in one newspaper
account in
1894 as “the most elaborate and substantial residence in this part of
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
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
$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.


Select 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.

Select 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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