Williamson Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Williamson Surname Meaning

Williamson has been a Scottish and northern English patronymic surname, from the William that had been brought to England by William the Conqueror. William is derived from the Germanic elements of wil meaning “will” or “desire” and helm “helmet” or “protection.

Williams has been a more popular patronymic surname than Williamson in England. But Williams was never common in Scotland which preferred the longer Williamson form. Williamson is mainly found in the Lowlands. It has also cropped up in the Highlands and the Shetlands (in some cases from the Highland MacWilliams).

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Williamson Surname Ancestry

Scotland. Williamson was first found in Peebles on the Scottish borders:

  • Adam, son of William, rendered the accounts of the burgh of Peebles in 1343
  • and John, son of William, was baillie there in 1365.

These Williamsons were one of the recognized border clans. However, they – like other border clans  were dispersed in 1603 when the Scottish and English crowns became unified.

Some Williamsons did remain in the Scottish borders. There are Williamson relics near Peebles and they were Williamsons also at Balgray in Dumfries. But many migrated north to the more populated areas of the Scottish Lowlands. Williamsons here have included:

  • the Rev. David Williamson, the preacher at St Cuthbert’s church in Edinburgh in the late 1600’s. His is forever remembered by the Scottish folk song Dainty Davie.
  • Stephen Williamson was a counsellor at his home-town of Kilrenny in Fife around the same time. A descendant, also named Stephen, grew up in Fife and co-founded the shipping company of Balfour & Williamson in Liverpool in 1851. His son Archibald was made Lord Forres.
  • while there has also been a long line of Williamsons in Kirkcaldy in Fife, prominent merchants there in the 19th century.

Peter Williamson, who was resident in Edinburgh from 1760 until his death in 1799, came there in an extraordinary journey that had begun with a kidnapping as a boy in Aberdeen and was followed by a hair-raising spell in the American colonies, a return to Aberdeen where his kidnapping story was not believed, and finally a sanctuary in Edinburgh.

There was also a seepage across the border into northern England and across the Irish Sea to Ulster. Of the 7,600 Williamsons recorded in the 1891 Scottish census, just 5% remained in the Scottish border counties.

Highland.  Williamsons, possibly as an offshoot of the Gunn clan, were recorded at Banniskirk in Caithness from 1665 onwards. Benjamin Williamson was a colonel in the Caithness Highlanders. His sons James and John both died in the Peninsular War in Spain in 1812. Other Williamsons held the castle of Craighouse near Dingwall at the head of the Cromarty Firth in the 1700’s.

Shetlands.  Williamson was the fifth most common surname in the Shetland Isles in 1804. The name had appeared there as early as 1630. Williamsons were recorded at Ruster on the island of Fetlar from the early 1700’s, according to a descendant Laurence Williamson. Some like Robert Williamson of Lerwick were seafarers. He died after a shipwreck off the coast of Ireland in 1877.

England. Scottish Williamsons undoubtedly crossed the border into northern England, but it is difficult to trace which Williamsons there might have come from Scotland.

Cumberland had some early Williamsons. John and Jane Williamson were married at Newhall in Crosthwaite parish in 1568. Joseph Williamson was the vicar of Bridekirk from 1625 to 1634. His son Joseph, knighted in 1671, rose to high office in London as a civil servant and diplomat in the late 1600’s.

Robert Williamson acquired the village and estate of Markham in Nottinghamshire in 1606. His family came from nearby Wakeringham, although some reports have suggested a Scottish origin. Robert’s son Thomas, a Royalist, was created a baronet in 1642. The family moved to Whitburn Hall in Durham in 1723 and subsequent baronets served as High Sheriffs of Durham and local MP’s.

Other early English Williamsons were:

  • Richard Williamson, the son of a Gainsborough draper and descended from Lincolnshire yeoman farmers, who was an influential MP and was knighted in 1604.
  • and Joseph Williamson, born in Yorkshire in 1769, who amassed a fortune in Liverpool selling tobacco and snuff. But he is best remembered as an eccentric businessman who constructed a maze of tunnels in the Edge Hill area of Liverpool.

Ireland. Many Williamsons came to Ulster with grants of land in the 17th century on the understanding that they would remain Protestant. A Williamson family was at Donaghadee on the Ards peninsula in county Down as early as 1603 and another Williamson family from Ayrshire was in Down four years later. Later Williamsons came because of Covenanter persecution in Scotland. They settled primarily in the Ulster counties of Armagh, Antrim and Down. Many departed for America in the 18th century.

Notable Williamsons in Ulster in the 18th century were:

  • the Rev. John Williamson of Magheradroll in Antrim who died in 1724. His family was to remain prominent there until the 1850’s.
  • and John Williamson who bought up much of the village of Lambeg in Antrim in 1760. He played a role in the development of the linen trade through his ownership of the Lambeg bleach green.

The Scottish influx has meant that Williamsons outnumber Williams in Northern Ireland by about two to one today.


America
. The early Williamsons in America were probably of English origin, such as Timothy Williamson of Marshfield, Massachusetts in the 1650’s. From his line came the Williamsons of Maine, including William D. Williamson who was a force behind its move to statehood in 1820.

Richard Williamson from London came to Isle of Wight county, Virginia in 1641. He is considered to be the forebear of most Williamsons in Virginia. One line from him led to Colonel Micajah Williamson who fought in the Revolutionary War and afterwards became a big landowner in Georgia. His son Peter was the father of Robert McAlpin or “three legged Willie” Williamson, a legend in the early history of Texas.

Scots and Scots Irish.  Most of the early Williamsons in America, however, were Scots or Scots Irish.

The best known of them was Hugh Williamson, the son of an immigrant clothier from Dublin. He was born in 1735 in West Nottingham township in what was then the frontier region of Pennsylvania. He was a man of many talents – a professor of mathematics, a scientist, and a medical practitioner – who developed a close friendship with Benjamin Franklin. He served as a surgeon during the Revolutionary War and, after the war, was a member of the Continental Congress. The Williamson counties in Tennessee and Illinois were named in his honor.

Two Williamsons made their mark as rather blood-thirsty Indian fighters at this time:

Andrew Williamson had come to the Long Cane district of South Carolina with his Scottish parents in the 1750’s and survived the Indian attack on the settlement there in 1760. He later became a soldier in the South Carolina militia, rising to Brigadier General during the Revolutionary War, and led numerous attacks against the Cherokees along the frontier settlements.

Meanwhile David Williamson, born in Pennsylvania in 1752, was a colonel in the Pennsylvania militia in the Revolutionary War. After the war he lived along the western frontier, dealing with the Indian menace there. He is most remembered for his expedition that led to the massacre of a hundred Delaware Indians at Gnadenhutten, Ohio in 1782. Sadly, he died in prison in 1805 through indebtedness.

Samuel Williamson, Scots Irish, came to America about the year 1733. His wife died at sea leaving him with six young children in his care. About eleven years later he remarried and fathered six more children. These Williamsons first settled in Pennsylvania and later in Virginia.

In the early 1770’s two brothers, Thomas and John, made the long trek across the mountains to Fort Henry (now Wheeling) in
West Virginia. Thomas was a weaver by trade and carried his loom with him over the mountains to his new home. They migrated to the nearby Union district in Tyler county in 1785 and their descendants have been there ever since. The family story was narrated in Raymond Bell’s 1986 book The Williamson
Family
.

Dutch. It should be said that the first Williamsons in America were in fact Dutch. In 1636 a Wiliemson family sailed from Holland to begin a new life in Dutch New York. They settled on Long Island where William Wiliemson was admitted as a burgomaster.

This family flourished over the next two hundred and fifty years, changing the pronunciation and the spelling of their last name to Williamson in 1761. Their business enterprise began in 1877 when Cornelius Titus Williamson started a company in Newark to manufacture corkscrews. This business prospered under his descendants until 1946 when a decision was made to sell out. The family history was covered in James Williamson’s 1896 book Genealogical Records of the Williamson Family.


Australia. Williamsons from England, Scotland and Ireland came to Australia to settle in the 19th century. Among them were:

  • Joseph Williamson from Kent who first came out with his brother to Tasmania in 1822. He moved with his family to Colac township, Victoria in 1847 where he farmed and later ran a grocery store. Joseph Williamson lived in Colac township for sixty four years until his death in 1911. 
  • James Williamson from Edinburgh who arrived in Sydney around 1837. He did well as a sheep farmer at Port Phillip and later was active in NSW local politics.  
  • and Michael and Anne Williamson from Belfast who came to Sydney with their four children on the Resource in 1840. They settled in the Redfern suburb of Sydney. Michael arrived as an unskilled laborer but prospered there as a local businessman and civic leader. Michael was mayor of Redfern in 1860 and his son William and grandson Thomas followed him as mayors. The family moved to Perth in Western Australia in 1898.

New Zealand. There were two Williamsons from Ireland that were early settlers in New Zealand.

James Williamson from Belfast came out in 1840 and made his home in Auckland. He did well there as a businessman and land speculator, building a beautiful mansion for himself, the Pah, outside Auckland. But no sooner had he moved into his mansion that his business empire crashed on the back of falling land prices.

John Williamson meanwhile from Newry in county Down arrived in 1841. He too moved to Auckland, set up a printing press there and started publishing a local newspaper. He died in 1875.

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Williamson Surname Miscellany

Williamson Castle Relics near Peebles.  There were four castles and fortified buildings within a four mile radius of Peebles that used to belong to the Williamsons that are now mainly relics:

  • Hutchinfield Tower, one mile from Peebles.  This tower passed to the Williamsons in 1659.  Little now remains of this tower house which was built in the 16th century.
  • Chapelhill Farm, one mile from Peebles.  This is a harled two story farmhouse held by the Williamsons during the 17th century.  It is a private house and still occupied.
  • Foulitch at Winkston, two miles from Peebles.  This was the site at one time of a Williamson castle.
  • and Cardrona Tower, three miles from Peebles.  This tower passed to the Williamsons in 1685 and they held it until 1794 when it was abandoned.  It is now a ruin.

Williamsons in the 1891 Scottish Census

Area Numbers (000’s) Percent
Scottish borders    0.4     5
Lanarkshire    1.8    24
Midlothian    1.2    16
Fife    0.7     9
Other Lowlands    1.3    18
Highlands    1.1    14
Shetlands    1.1    14
Total    7.6   100

Dainty Davie.  The Scottish folk song Dainty Davie, which has
been around since the 17th century, is believed to have been based on a preacher named David Williamson, the seven times married minister of St. Cuthbert’s church in Edinburgh.  The following story about him was well-known in Scotland.

In 1676 Williamson was said to have been staying at the house of a sympathetic family of landowners on the Scottish borders when a party of dragoons led by Captain Creighton arrived late at night.  Mrs. Kerr, the mistress of the house, hurriedly concealed Williamson in bed alongside her eighteen-year-old daughter, disguising him with her own nightcap, and went downstairs to “soften the hearts of the soldiery with liquor.”  While Creighton’s men were searching the house, the story ran, Williamson and Miss Kerr became more intimately acquainted, with the result that he was later compelled to marry her.

She was in fact his third wife to that point, and he went on to be married three more times, making him the object of some degree of curiosity and ridicule. Creighton in his ghost-written memoir added:

“This Williamson was alive in the reign of Queen Anne; at which time I saw him preaching in one of the kirks in Edinburgh.  It is said that King Charles the second, hearing of Williamson’s behavior, wished to see the man that discovered so much vigor while his troopers were in search of him; and in a merry way declared that, when he was in the royal oak, he could not have kissed the bonniest lass in Christendom.”

The Rev. David Williamson was a real person.  He died in 1706 and his grave can be found at St. Cuthbert’s church.

The Extraordinary Story of Peter Williamson.  Peter Williamson was born in his parent’s croft and brought up by an aunt in Aberdeen.  In 1743, at the age of 13, he was kidnapped on Aberdeen harbor and taken as a slave to Philadelphia, where he was sold for seven years to a planter.  This planter died in 1750 as Williamson’s period of indenture was coming to an end and he left all his possessions to him. Williamson remained in America and in 1754 married the daughter of a wealthy planter.  She came with a dowry of 200 acres of land in Pennsylvania.

In 1754 Indians attacked Williamson’s farm and took him prisoner. After three months in captivity, he made his escape, only to find his wife had died during his absence. William then joined the British army.   At the Battle of Fort Oswego in 1756 he was captured by the French and became a prisoner of war.  He was subsequently marched to Quebec, and then put on a ship to England as part of a prisoner exchange.

On arrival in Plymouth he was declared unfit for further service because of a hand wound, given six shillings, and discharged from the army. This was enough to get to him as far as York, by which time he was pennilessHe managed to persuade some local businessmen to publish his book titled The Life and Curious Adventures of Peter Williamson, Who was Carried off from Aberdeen and Sold for a Slave.   This sold very well and gave him enough money to return to Aberdeen in 1758, fifteen years after having been kidnapped.

His book, however, caused outrage in Aberdeen:

“That by this scurrilous and infamous libel, the corporation of the city of Aberdeen, and whole members thereof, were highly hurt and prejudged; and therefore that the said Peter Williamson ought to be exemplary punished in his person and goods; and that the said pamphlet, and whole copies thereof, ought to be seized and publicly burnt.”

He stood trial and was found guilty.  He was told by the judge to lodge a document with the court confessing to the falsity of the book and to pay a ten shilling fine, otherwise he would be imprisoned.  This he reluctantly agreed to, leaving Aberdeen and moving to Edinburgh.

The story does have a happy ending, however.  In Edinburgh Peter contacted a lawyer and started planning for a legal challenge.  The year 1760 saw the start of an extended phase of courtroom battles against his persecutors in Aberdeen. The story of the kidnappings came out.  In 1762 he was successful in getting the result of the Aberdeen trial reversed and was awarded costs and a £100 in damages.

Williamson used his legal winnings to buy a tavern in Edinburgh. He embarked on many new commercial enterprises in the next thirty years, including a street directory and a mail service, and remained a tavern keeper there until his death in 1799.

Joseph Williamson, the Mole of Edge Hill.  Having made a small fortune from his tobacco and snuff business, Joseph Williamson bought an area known as Long Broom Field in Edge Hill, Liverpool in 1805.   This was then a largely undeveloped outcrop of sandstone.  He began to build houses there “of the strangest description.”

Following their construction he continued to employ his workmen and recruited even more to perform various tasks, some of which appeared to be useless (such as moving materials from one place to another and then back again). Labor was plentiful at the time following the ending of the Napoleonic wars in 1816 and there were plenty of unemployed men in Liverpool.

He also used the men to build a labyrinth of underground halls and brick-arched tunnels.  The tunnels were built at depths between 10 and 50 feet and they stretched for several miles.  In the 1830’s he came into contact with George Stephenson who was building the extension of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway from Edge Hill to Lime Street stations and whose own excavations passed through those of Williamson.

The reasons for his building the tunnels have been widely discussed.  He tended to be secretive about his motives. This led to speculation that he was a member of an extremist religious sect fearing that the end of the world was near and that the tunnels were built to provide refuge for himself and his friends.  However, the most likely explanation was Williamson’s own, that his workers “all received a weekly wage and were thus enabled to enjoy the blessing of charity without the attendant curse of stifled self-respect,” his prime motive being “the employment of the poor.”

The Williamsons of Maine.  A family tradition has long existed that three brothers by the name of Williamson came to the Plymouth colony from England soon after the first arrivals.  There was a Master Williamson who was with Governor Winslow in March 1621.  But no other early records of the name exist until Timothy Williamson at Marshfield in 1657.  His descendants settled in Canterbury, Connecticut.  George Williamson fought in the Revolutionary War and afterwards made his home in Bangor, Maine.

His two sons William and Joseph were both to make their mark on the new state of Maine.

William in fact was a force behind the movement for Maine statehood.  In 1820 when Maine did separate from Massachusetts, he was the President of the State Senate, then briefly Governor, and then one of its first US Congressmen.  William was also Maine’s first historian, writing a two-volume History of the State of Maine (from its first discovery in 1602 to its separation in 1820) in the late 1830’s.  This stood as the standard reference on early Maine history for the rest of the 19th century.

Joseph meanwhile followed his brother into state politics and served as President of the State Senate in 1833 before running unsuccessfully for Congress.  His son Joseph, like his uncle William, was also a historian of Maine, taking the story up to 1891.  The Joseph Williamson house in Belfast, built in 1844, is considered one of the most important historical architectural residences in the state of Maine.

Joseph Williamson of Colac Township, Victoria.  The following obituary related to the late Mr. J. Williamson appeared in 1911 in the Geelong local newspaper in Victoria, Australia in 1911.

“To the long list of deaths that have taken place among elderly people during the past few months, there must now be added one more.  Yesterday the Universal Reaper claimed Mr. Joseph Williamson, who, we believe, was the oldest resident of the district.

The deceased, who had reached his 92nd year, first sighted Lake Colac in 1847 and has been a resident of the town and district ever since, for a period of 64 years.  This event carries us back to the day when Colac was a mere way-side town, with its “Cook and Plaid” as its central rallying point.  Mr. Williamson, although not actively engaged in public affairs, may be regarded as typical of that large class of humble workers – the rank and file – to whom we are so much indebted for the steady and uniform growth of the town to its present proportions.

The late Mr. Williamson was born in Canterbury, Kent on the 23rd September 1819, his father being a Church of England minister in that town.  In 1823 the father was induced to emigrate to Tasmania, where the family resided for a number of years.  It was there that the son Joseph married his first wife.  In 1847 the deceased, with his wife and young family, came over to Geelong and were almost immediately engaged as employees by the late Dr. Stoddart who then had a station at Colac.  In the following year the family returned to Colac, purchasing an allotment of land at the east end as a site for a residence.

When the gold discovery was made at Ballarat in 1851, Mr. Williamson, in company with several other local residents, was attracted thither, and being fairly successful, he returned and purchased 50 acres of land at Birregurra, where he engaged in farming pursuits for the next eight years.

His experience there for the first two years were rather disastrous.  His first crop was burnt out by a bush fire and he estimated his loss at 300 pounds.  The next year he suffered heavily with the grubs, which were prevalent in the early days all through the district. Returning to Colac, he purchased an allotment of land in Murray Street where he carried on a grocery store for some time.”

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Williamson Names
  • Rev. David Williamson who died in Edinburgh in 1706 is forever remembered by the Scottish folk song Dainty Davie. 
  • J.C. Williamson was an American actor who in the 1880’s became Australia’s foremost theatrical manager. 
  • Sonny Boy Williamson was an American blues harmonica player, singer and songwriter, one of the most recorded blues musicians of the 1930’s and 1940’s. 
  • Nicol Williamson was a leading British actor in the late 1960’s. 
  • Roy Williamson was the Scottish song-writer who wrote the de facto Scottish national anthem Flower of Scotland in the 1970’s.
Williamson Numbers Today
  • 48,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 44,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 20,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

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