Whitney Surname Meaning, History & Origin
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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.
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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.
America. John 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.
- 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
- 13,000 in America (most numerous in California)
- 4,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)
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