Williams Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Williams Surname Meaning

Williams is a patronymic (son of) name from William, common in both England and Wales. Because of William the Conqueror, William was the most used personal name in England until it was superseded by John in the 13th century.

Williams Surname Resources on The Internet

Williams Surname Ancestry

  • from Wales and SW England
  • to Ireland (Ulster), America (incl. African Americans), Caribs (Jamaica), Canada, Australia and New Zealand

Wales. Williams emerged in different places as a Welsh surname in the 16th century. Oliver Cromwell in fact might have been a Williams if his Welsh great grandfather, Richard Williams from Glamorgan, had not changed his name to Cromwell at the instructions of Henry VIII.

Other early Williams were:

  • the Williams family of Vaynol near Bangor in north Wales. Wyn ap William (Thomas Williams) took ownership of the estate in 1572. John Williams, the Archbishop of York in 1641, held Vaynol for a while.  But it passed out of family hands when Sir William Williams died without issue in 1696.
  • the Williams family of Aberpergwm in the Neath valley, beginning with Jenkin William (a descendant of William ap Hopkin of Blaen Baglan) who first settled there around the year 1500. This family later owned coal mines in the Neath valley and St. Donat’s castle. But after World War One both coal mines and castle were sold.
  • the Williams of Llangibby castle in Monmouthshire. This line boasted an old Welsh lineage. Roger Williams of Usk, the first to adopt the Williams surname, acquired Llangibby in 1554. These Williams constructed a new house there in the 17th century which continued in use until 1951.
  • while Glasbury in Breconshire boasted three notable Williams during the course of the 17th century.

Thomas Williams developed the Parys and Mona copper mines in Anglesey in the late 18th century. When he died in 1802 he was said to have been the richest man in Wales.

John Williams, a lawyer born in Carmarthen in 1757, was the progenitor of a line of England-based lawyers and judges and the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

England.  Thomas Williames was recorded in the 1307 Staffordshire rolls.  But the Williams name was mainly to be found in southwestern counties in succeeding centuries.

SW England.  A Williams family has held Herringstone House near Winterborne in Dorset continuously since 1513.  Robert Williams of this family, a banker in London, acquired the Bridehead estate nearby in 1797; while a branch of the family moved to Trevers in Cornwall. In 1901 Edward Williams, JP for Dorset, and his wife lived at Herringstone with a lady’s maid, two housemaids, a kitchen maid, butler, footman, and hall boy.

Some Williams in Cornwall supposedly had Welsh origins.  Family tradition has it that two brothers from Wales came to Cornwall in pursue mining projects in the early 1700’s.  The elder brother John settled at Burncoose in Gwennap in 1715 and died there in 1761.

The Williams family of Burncoose and Caerhays – through their ownership of mines and smelting works – became a major force in the Cornish industrial revolution of the 18th and early 19th century.  Charles Williams is the current owner of Caerhays castle, a mock-medieval castle on the Cornish coast acquired by the family in 1854.

Elsewhere.  Morgan ap William reportedly came to England after the triumph of Henry VII in 1485 and became Morgan Williams.  His family made their home at St. Albans in Hertfordshire.

Williams were also in London.  Edward Williams, born in London in the 1750’s, made his mark there as an engraver.  His son Edward and Edward’s six sons were all well-known landscape painters in the mid-19th century, generally referred to as the Barnes school.

One family story began with Thomas Williams, a mariner born in Stepney in 1682.  Subsequent Williams were lightermen on the Thames, but they then ran drinking places after Dalby Williams became the publican of the Three Tuns tavern in Poplar in 1827.

Ireland. Williams in Ireland would probably have come originally from either Wales or England.

One such family of Welsh origin settled in county Monaghan in the 1640’s. Charles Williams, from Coleraine in county Derry, was a 19th century war correspondent who founded the Press Club. And a Williams family has been running the Tullamore whiskey distillery in county Offaly since the early 1900’s.

America.  Early Williams came to New England and Virginia. 

New England.  Roger Williams from Hertfordshire arrived at the Massachusetts colony in 1631. At odds with the Puritan authorities there, he fled the colony and purchased land at a place he called Providence. He is considered the founder of Rhode Island and the founder of religious toleration. 

Matthew Williams from Wales (said to have been a kinsman of Oliver Cromwell) had arrived in Massachusetts some years earlier. He was one of the early settlers of Wethersfield, Connecticut in 1644.  Later Williams of this family moved to Essex and Orange counties, New Jersey.

Robert Williams from Norfolk arrived in 1638 and settled in Sudbury, Massachusetts.  One line via his son Isaac led to Ephraim Williams, the benefactor of Williams College in NW Massachusetts. 

Another line via his son Samuel led to the Rev. John Williams, the first pastor at Deerfield.  In 1704 he was captured by Mohawk Indians and taken to Canada in an incident that became known as the Deerfield massacre. During that time his daughter Eunice was adopted by a Mohawk family. Her grandson Thomas was a tribal chief at the time of the Revolutionary War. He lived until 1848.

Virginia.  Roger Williams, said to have been a nephew of Roger Williams the founder of Rhode Island, came to Northern Neck, Virginia in the 1650’s.  The line from his son Shadrach in Richmond extended into South Carolina by the early 1800’s.

John Williams, possibly related to Roger, had come to Isle of Wight county, Virginia sometime in the 1640’s.  The early generations of this family appear to have been involved in whiskey distillation, something possibly brought with them from Wales.

These Williams moved to North Carolina in the 1740’s.  John Williams was a colonel in the state militia there during the Revolutionary War and started the Montpelier plantation in Granville county.  In the 1760’s Hukey Williams, the son of Welshman Rodger Williams, had been foully murdered by ruffians in the same Granville county.

Roger Williams, born around 1690, was the progenitor of the Williams family in what became Cumberland county, Virginia.  His descendants were to be found in Kentucky and Missouri.  Linda Stufflebean’s 2001 book The Williams Family of Cumberland County covered this family.

African Americans.  Williams is the most common surname amongst African Americans. In fact almost half of the Williams in America are African American. The Williams name appeared in many places before Emancipation:

  • Molly Williams, a black slave in New York, was recorded as the first female firefighter in America in 1818.
  • Peter Williams was a black minister in Harlem, New York in the 1830’s who spoke out against slavery from the pulpit and advocated emigration.
  • James Williams from Alabama, a driver on a cotton plantation, provided in 1838 the first slave narrative published by the American Anti-Slavery Society.
  • while Cathay Williams from Missouri, legally a slave, was enlisted into the Union army during the Civil War. She is the only documented woman who fought in the war as a man. Sadly she was denied a military pension when she needed it later in her life.

It was estimated that more than 3,000 of the enlistments by African Americans during the Civil War did so under the surname of Williams.

Caribbean.  Rowland Williams was an early planter and slave owner in Jamaica.  He died in 1722 and his Westmoreland estates was held by his descendants until the death of Joseph Stone Williams in 1836.

There were freed blacks recorded in Jamaica as early as 1700.  Francis Williams was born into such a family at around that time.  He was educated, travelled, and wrote poetry.  In 1837 after emancipation, James Williams, a former slave, came to Britain and had published his Narrative of Events.

Williams has become in Jamaica, as in America, a fairly common African American surname.

Canada.  John Tucker Williams from a Cornish Williams family came to Canada with the Royal Navy in 1812, stayed and dabbled in land speculation. His son Arthur, born at Port Hope in Ontario, died west in 1885 after military skirmishes along the Saskatchewan river; his grandson Victor was a Canadian general during the First World War.

Edward Williams, a master carpenter from Devon, had come to Prince Edward Island in the 1820’s.  The William family would become a prominent member of their Poplar Grove community – through Edward, his son Robert, and his grandson Little Harry who was a house builder of Colonial Revival style homes.

Australia and New Zealand.  Henry and William Williams were early Christian missionaries, arriving in New Zealand with their wives in the 1820’s. Henry was instrumental in the negotiations with the Maoris over the Treaty of Waitangi. William translated the Bible and the prayer book into Maori.

John Williams, unrelated, was another Christian missionary, this time from a nonconformist background. He came to Tasmania in 1817 and later established Congregational churches in Sydney and Brisbane.

There were Cornish Williams from the Redruth area who emigrated to Australia in the 1840’s after the downturn in Cornish tin mining.  Many headed for the copper mines of South Australia like Kapunda. Others went to Victoria and Queensland.  John Williams came in 1833 and settled with his family in the Hunter valley of NSW.

Serena Williams’ Family Ancestry

Serena Williams has been acclaimed as one of the greatest tennis players of all time.  She and her sister Venus came from an African American family that had roots in the segregated South.  It was their talent and the dedication of their father that got them where they are.  Just click below if you want to read more about this story:

Williams Surname Miscellany

Williams at Herringstone.  John Williams was a prosperous merchant in Dorchester who bought the Herringstone estate near Winterborne for £360 just before his death in 1515.  It was his grandson John who began a major rebuilding of the house in the 1580’s.

He is generally credited with the “spectacular splendor” of the great chamber at Herringstone.  This was redecorated in the later Jacobean style, apparently to mark the creation of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales in 1616 (since its ornaments include his initials and the heraldic emblem of three feathers).

The project was left unfinished, perhaps because of John Williams’ death in 1617.  He was buried with his ancestors at St. Peter’s Church in Dorchester.  A sumptuous monument was later erected in his memory.  He was succeeded at Herringstone by his grandson, his eldest son having predeceased him.

Williams at Glasbury.  Glasbury on the river Wye in Breconshire has associations with three notable Williams.

First there was Sir David Williams, a prominent judge, who died there in 1613.  He was the first in his family to adopt the Williams name, his father being Gwilym ap John Vychan.

Unrelated was the Sir Thomas Williams who died at Glasbury and was buried there in 1712 at the grand old age of 108.  He was the grandson of Thomas Williams of Tallyn in Llangasty parish and had trained as a doctor.  He became physician to both Charles II and James II.  Charles heaped honors on him and he died a baronet and a wealthy man.

Then there was Henry Williams of Glasbury who cast bells in the period 1677 to 1719. Colin Lewis’s book Henry Williams: The Glasbury Bellfounder described his life, his craft, and his family background.

Roger Williams, Founder of Rhode island.  Roger Williams had arrived from London on the Lyon in Boston with his wife Mary in early 1631.  He preached first at Salem, then at Plymouth, then back to Salem, always at odds with the structured Puritans.

When he was about to be deported back to England, Roger fled southwest out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and was befriended by local Indians.  He made his first settlement on the east bank of the Seekonk river, but found that it still lay within the boundaries of the Plymouth colony.  He eventually settled at the headwaters of what is now Narragansett Bay.  Roger purchased land from the Narragansett chiefs, Canonicus and Miantonomi, and named his settlement Providence, as in “thanks to God.”  From this purchase came the Rhode Island colony.

Roger Williams was Governor of the colony from 1654 to 1658.  During the later years of his life, he saw almost all of Providence burned during King Philip’s War of 1675-1676.  He lived to see Providence rebuilt.  He continued to preach and the colony grew through its acceptance of settlers of all religious persuasions.

The Murder of Hukey Williams.  Rodger Williams had come to Virginia in the early 1700’s.  He had many wives and children.    It was said that he was murdered by his own slaves, although that was never definitely known. Some time after his death, his body was found concealed in the body of a hollow tree.

His son Hukey married in 1762 and settled down in Granville county, North Carolina.  And he too was foully murdered.  The circumstances were as follows:

“One day Hukey Williams was on his way to Petersburg to transact business.  A short distance from the road in a thick pine woods, he heard the cries of a woman in distress, to whose rescue he immediately detoured.  He found the woman in the hands of two strange men who were violating her person.  When he vigorously assaulted them, they fled, leaving the woman. Hukey Williams took her up behind him on his horse.

Learning that she was the respected wife of a citizen in the neighborhood, he carried her to her home. On the urgent request of the lady and her husband, he tarried with them during the noon meal.

After the meal, bidding farewell to his hosts, Hukey resumed his journey toward Petersburg. This was the last time he was seen alive. When he failed to return home, the alarmed family and friends started an investigation and learned he had not reached Petersburg.

Search was made along the road, and his body was found about two miles from the house where he had dined. His body was a short distance from the road, sunk in a pool of water in the creek. He was taken home and buried.”

Reader Feedback – Williams of Jamestown, Virginia.  John Henry Williams of Jamestown, Virginia married Amy Wilson his slave and they had two sons. Their names were Eddie and Walter Williams. This took place after slaves were freed. John Henry Williams senior must have brought Amy Wilson from her original owner when she landed by ship in Jamestown. She died in 1936.

No further search has been found. Not to mention black people getting their names of Williams from slave owners.

Gloria Verneuil (Glogiver1@gmail.com).

Williams from Cornwall to Canada.  John Tucker Williams, from the Williams family in Cornwall, had started his career in the British Navy.  At the age of 16, he was in a ship fighting under Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar.  He later fought in Canada in the War of 1812, remaining there until the British navy in the Lower Lakes was dispersed in 1816. He went back to England, but quickly returned to Canada in order to marry Sarah, the daughter of another sea captain and an early settler in Port Hope, Ontario. He made his home there.

His life in Canada was a mixture of military adventures (in putting down the Rebellion of 1837), land speculation, and local politics.  He died at his estate in Port Hope, Penryn Park, in 1854.

His elder son Arthur had the same range of interests, but died of fever after a military skirmish along the Saskatchewan river in 1885:

“Colonel Williams was the only nationally known figure to die in the northwest campaign and his body was brought home in state. A huge funeral was held in Port Hope where citizens erected a statue in his honor. Parliament voted his orphaned children a special pension. Then, like most heroes, he was gradually forgotten.”

His son Victor had a military career.  He fought in the Boer War and was a Canadian Brigadier-General in Europe during World War One.

Henry and William Williams in New Zealand.  The Williams brothers had Welsh nonconformist blood in them from their grandfather the Rev. Thomas Williams who had been a minister at Gosport in Hampshire in the 1750’s.

The older Henry had served as a naval officer during the Napoleonic war before embarking as a Christian missionary to New Zealand in 1823.  He was joined three years later by his younger brother William.  They and their wives Marianne and Jane were to be active missionaries with the various Maori tribes they encountered over the course of their lives.

Henry was leader of the Anglican mission in the Bay of Islands and became Archdeacon of Waimate in 1844.  He was active in succeeding years as a peacemaker between hostile tribes and was instrumental in the negotiations with the Maoris over the Treaty of Waitangi. His brother William was consecrated the first Anglican bishop of Waiapu in 1859.  He was a translator of the Bible and the prayer book into Maori and wrote a comprehensive dictionary of classical Maori that was first published in 1844.

The two families had a total of 94 grandchildren.  Descendants of the two families now number several thousand, scattered throughout New Zealand and overseas.  Details about these descendants were first published in the 1991 book Faith and Farming: The Legacy of Henry Williams and William Williams by Evagean Publishing. 

John Williams, Early Australian Settler.  John Williams was little more than a youth when he arrived in Sydney aboard the Portland in 1833.  John was English, from Manchester, but had embarked on the vessel in Ireland.  The 385 ton ship took four months to complete its journey from Cork to Sydney.  John could have considered himself lucky to have disembarked in New South Wales as the ill-fated vessel was to be wrecked on rocks off the coast of Tasmania on its onward journey to Launceston.

During his early years in the colony, John worked for John Macarthur, the man who was responsible for the introduction of Merino sheep to Australia.  John Williams and his wife Mary later settled in the Hunter valley of NSW near Singleton and both lived into their nineties.  Along the way they raised a large family, twelve children in all.

Williams Names

  • Roger Williams was the founder of the state of Rhode Island.
  • Francis Williams, the son of freed blacks in Jamaica in the early 1700’s, was educated, travelled, and wrote poetry.
  • Edward Williams was Chief Druid and bard of Wales in the 18th century.
  • William Williams was the author in the 1770’s of the hymn Bread of Heaven.
  • Ralph Vaughan Williams was an early 20th century English composer.
  • Hank Williams was an American country singer who has achieved almost cult status.
  • Andy Williams is a well-known American singer.
  • Eric Williams was the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, serving from 1956 to 1981. 
  • Robin Williams was a popular American movie actor and comic.
  • Vanessa and Serena Williams, sisters, are American tennis champions.

Williams Numbers Today

  • 411,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 523,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 145,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Williams is the #3 ranked surname in America and the #4 ranked in the UK.

Williams and Like Surnames   

Patronymic surnames can be with either the “-son” or the shorter “s” suffix to the first name.  The “s” suffix is more common in southern England and in Wales.  Here are some of these surnames that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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