Wilson Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Wilson Surname Meaning

Wilson is a patronymic English name, meaning “son of Will,” a contraction of William. It is mainly found in the north of England, as opposed to Wills and Willis which are far more common in the south.

In Scotland, the thinking has been that the Scottish Wilsons were originally of Viking origin and that Wilson was instead a corruption of “wolf’s son.” The name was found in the Orkney islands as early as the 9th century.

Wilson Surname Resources on The Internet

Wilson Surname Ancestry

  • from Northern England and Scotland
  • to Ireland (Ulster), America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

England.  The Wilson surname first came into use in northern England in the 1300’s.  Robert Wilson was recorded at Kirkstall in Yorkshire in 1341. 

In the late 1300’s a Yorkshire line ran from William son of John de Waldershelf to John Wilson de Broomhead.  John’s descendants were resident for centuries at Broomhead Hall near Sheffield.  The estate then passed in 1822 to James Rimington (through his mother’s brother) and he changed his name to James Rimington Wilson.  

Then there were the Wilsons of Eshton Park in Malhamdale. Mathew Wilson from Westmoreland had purchased this Yorkshire estate in 1646. He was a Royalist supporter during the Civil War and the ghost of the Royalist leader in the north, James Fairfax, was said to have haunted the grounds. The house stayed with the family until 1960. A notable 20th century descendant was Peter Wilson, the man who put the art auction house Sotheby’s on the global map.

There were other Wilson estates in the north of England from the 17th to the 19th century:

  • at Bank Hall in Cumberland
  • at Casterton Hall in Westmoreland
  • at Forest Hall in Durham
  • and at Melton Hall, Sneaton Hall, and Tranby Croft in Yorkshire.

From Thomas Wilson, a Leeds wool merchant of the 17th century, came:

  • one line in London and Sir Robert Wilson, a British army general,
  • and another line in Yorkshire that inherited Melton Hall near Doncaster.

Thomas Wilson started the Wilson shipping line in Hull in 1822.  His sons Charles and Arthur took over the business after he died in 1869.  They both became Yorkshire MP’s.  Arthur was a crony of the Prince of Wales and famously entertained him once at his Tranby Croft estate.

Harold Wilson’s Yorkshire forebears were to be found in the manorial records of Helmsley in Ryedale. His great great grandfather James Wilson, born in 1790, was a cordwainer and farmer there.

Scotland. The Wilson clan in Scotland may have taken its name from Will Gunn who held the title of “Crowner” of Caithness around 1464.

However, the name had surfaced earlier on the Scottish borders. There were the Wilsons of Croglin near Dumfries and Wilsons in Berwickshire (where John Wilson was a burgess in 1467). Wilsons featured initially as a Border clan. By the 17th century, with the Border pacification, some of these Wilsons had drifted southwards into England.

The Wilson name had become fairly well established in Ayrshire and also in Lanarkshire and Stirlingshire by the 18th century. In 1684 Margaret Wilson, the martyr of Wigton, was drowned for her Covenant faith, whilst her brothers fled Ayrshire for Ulster. Later Wilsons were:

  • Robert Wilson, living in the late-1700’s, who was the forebear of the Wilsons of Kilwinnet in Ayrshire.
  • a Wilson family from East Forth in Lanarkshire who started up the Wilsontown ironworks in the 1770’s.
  • and another Wilson family, merchant weavers at Bannockburn near Stirling, who have handed down their records of the tartan trade from 1750 to the early 1900’s.

Ireland. The Wilson name is also to be found mainly in Ulster, and in particular in Antrim.  The name could have been an anglicization of the Gaelic word O’Shauaghor “fox.” However, most Wilsons there are probably of Scottish ancestry. Some 70% of Irish Wilsons are to be found in Northern Ireland today.

America.  The early Wilson arrivals in America were English.

The Rev. John Wilson was a Puritan divine from Suffolk who was the minister of the First Church of Boston from its beginnings in Charlestown in 1630 until his death in 1667.  William Wilson meanwhile arrived in Boston from Lincolnshire in 1636.  He later moved to Braintree where he became the town jailer.

Gowen Wilson was in  Boston by 1641, possibly English but more likely Scottish.  Being in default on a loan he moved to Kittery, Maine in 1652.  His line there was covered in Fred Wilson’s 1898 book Wilson Family of Kittery, Maine.

Wilsons were prominent landowners in Norfolk county, Virginia and later in Corntuck county, North Carolina. Colonel James Wilson of probable English roots was the forebear of this family, arriving in Virginia in 1693.

Scots Irish.  Some of the later Wilson arrivals were Scots Irish:

  • John Wilson from Derry who came to Cumberland county, Pennsylvania in 1729
  • William Wilson from Antrim who came to Lancaster county, Pennsylvania in the 1730’s.
  • Charles Wilson, also from Antrim, who came to Augusta county, Virginia in 1737.
  • and “Big John” Wilson from Derry who came to Londonderry, New Hampshire around 1750.

President Woodrow Wilson, the 28th American President, was also from this Scots Irish stock. His grandfather James Wilson had arrived from county Down around 1805 and worked as a printer in Philadelphia before heading west to Ohio. His father was the Rev. Joseph Wilson, a Presbyterian minister.

Scottish.  Two notable Wilson arrivals from Scotland were:

  • James Wilson who came to America from Fife in 1765 and established a law practice in Philadelphia. He was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and in 1789 one of the first six Justices of the Supreme Court.
  • and Alexander Wilson who came to Philadelphia from Paisley in 1794. He became so well known for his studies and drawings of birds that he is now considered as the father of American ornithology.

Canada.  Benjamin Wilson, a Loyalist from Vermont, was an early settler in 1794 at Oshawa on the Lake Ontario shoreline when it was still wilderness. His first house was a deserted log cabin once used by the French as a fur trading post.

Tom Wilson, born of Irish parents outside of Toronto in 1859, headed west as a young man and became a famous early guide of the Canadian Rockies.

Australia and New Zealand.  William and James Wilson were from a merchant and shipping family in Banffshire in northeast Scotland.  William came to Hobart in 1822 and his brother James followed him seven years later.  James was mayor of Hobart in 1868 and Premier of the colony a year later.

Another notable early Tasmanian settler was also Scottish.  George Wilson arrived in 1831 and moved to the central district of Oatlands where he built is mansion home of Mount Seymour.  He died there, much missed, in 1874.

William Chisholm Wilson and his family left Scotland for Tasmania in 1832, before moving onto New Zealand in 1841.  They settled in Auckland.  William started a weekly newspaper there which had a modest success.  By the 1860’s he realized that the country needed a daily newspaper and the New Zealand Herald was born.  Since that time the Wilson family, joined by the Horton family, have been running the paper.

Wilson Surname Miscellany

Reader Feedback – Wilson Origins in the Orkney Islands.  The oldest Wilsons are from the Nordic Scottish clan, formerly Wolf ‘son,’ dating back hundreds of years before the English Wilsons.

They were descendants of a Danish prince from the Royal House of Norway. They established themselves in Orkney and surrounding areas in around the year 888, evidence being found in the Viking and Orkneyinga sagas.

George Wilson (weedoddy@hotmail.com).

Wilson Estates in the North of England.  The table below shows six of the estates that were owned by Wilson families in the north of England during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.  The main locations were in Cumberland, Westmoreland, and northern Yorkshire.

Date Wilson Estate Location Comments
1646 Mathew Wilson Eshton Hall nr. Gargrave, Yorkshire from Westmoreland (1)
1668 Edward Wilson Casterton Hall nr. Kirkby Lonsdale granted then (2)
1786 William Wilson Bank Hall nr. Penrith, Cumberland county sheriff then
1790 Richard Wilson Forest Hall nr. Newcastle, Durham acquired then
1802 Richard Wilson Melton Hall nr. Doncaster, Yorkshire inherited (3)
1820 James Wilson Sneaton Hall nr. Whitby, Yorkshire acquired (4)
1874 Arthur Wilson Tranby Croft nr. Hull, Yorkshire built then (5)

Note (1): These Wilsons were recorded at Nether Levens and Heversham in Westmoreland from the 1550’s. Edward Wilson founded a grammar school at Heversham in 1613.  Peter Robinson wrote his book A History of Eshton Hall in 2006.

Note (2): Casterton Hall was in Westmoreland.  These Wilsons had made money in manufacturing in Kendal before becoming landowners in Westmoreland and northern Lancashire.  They were related to the Wilsons of Eshton Hall.  Edward Wilson of Dallam Tower was granted the Casterton Hall estate by Queen Catherine out of her dower lands.  The Wilson name here later became Carus-Wilson.

Note (3): Richard Wilson was descended from Thomas Wilson, a Leeds wool merchant in the 17th century. The family had become rich by the next century.  One line of this family moved to London and produced Benjamin Wilson, the painter, and his son the British army general Sir Robert Wilson.  Meanwhile Christopher Wilson of the family lost both his father and mother in the 1780’s and was brought up as an orphan.  But he was the grandson of John Fountayne, the Dean of York, and inherited his estates and took the Fountayne name after the Dean’s death in 1802.

Note (4): James Wilson had sold his St. Vincent sugar plantation in the Caribbean and used the proceeds to buy this estate in England.

Note (5): Thomas Wilson founded the Wilson shipping line of Hull in 1822.  His family home of Tranby Croft near Hull, built in 1874, became well-known because of a gambling scandal involving the Prince of Wales in 1890.

Peter Wilson of Sotheby’s.  Peter Wilson was the architect of international art-auctions in the post-World War II period and of the growth of Sotheby’s, the London art-auction house that he headed for 22 years.

Born into Yorkshire landed gentry at Eshton Hall, he had joined Sotheby’s in 1936 as a porter in the furniture department and rose to be its Chairman in 1957.  Over the next two decades, he dramatically altered the art market by making art auctions not only respectable but also glamorous and one of the most popular ways to disperse art collectibles.

In the process, he transformed Sotheby’s from a small fine-arts auction house  sales were $2 million in the late 1930’s – into a $575-million-a-year enterprise that functioned in 21 countries and also dealt in real estate, stamps, livestock, automobiles and ships.

Peter Wilson did it by his expert use of publicity, mass marketing, jet travel, and his tireless energy and extraordinary knowledge of art.  This tall charismatic man was known to the writer Ian Fleming and some think that he was the inspiration for Fleming’s creation James Bond.  However, the real-life Peter Wilson was different.  His own marriage was dissolved in 1951 after his discovery of previously latent homosexuality.

The Martyr of Wigton and Her Brothers Who Fled.  In 1684 a Wigtonshire farmer named Gilbert Wilson and his wife attended conformist services. However, their children had become attracted to the teaching of the Covenanters and attended illegal ‘conventicles’ to hear their prayers and sermons. Gilbert Wilson was fined for his children’s nonconformity and his family was treated like outlaws. The children took themselves into the hills of upper Galloway and spent months hiding from the troopers.

Two of the daughters, Margaret and Agnes, were then found and imprisoned.  Their father secured Agnes’s release as she was just thirteen at the time.  But Margaret, aged eighteen, was pronounced guilty and killed by drowning through “being tied to palisades fixed in the sand and there to stand until the tide overflowed her.”  She became known as the Wigton martyr.

Tradition has it that three Wilson brothers – Robert, Samuel and John – fled to Ireland in an open boat that year, bringing with them two ancient wooden family armchairs.  They made their home at Ballymena in county Antrim.

John Wilson of this family emigrated with his family to Bucks county, Pennsylvania in the 1730’s.  Some Wilsons departed for Australia in the 1850’s.  Samuel Wilson prospered there and returned to England thirty years later a rich man.

William Wilson the Braintree Jailer.  Apparently William Wilson the jailer lived in the jail building.  After his death in October 1646 the General Court “had some difficulty in persuading his widow Patience to move from her comfortable quarters in the jail building.”

Eventually it was decided six months later that widow Patience was “due for expenses her husband was at for laying out of charges in the prison and to be allowed her.” Patience went to the farm in Braintree and remained there until her death in 1663.

Their son Joseph lived in Andover and married Sarah Lord who was tried for witchcraft during the Salem madness.

Wilsons from Ireland to Pennsylvania and Beyond.  John Wilson, according to the family lore, was one of the defenders of Londonderry during the siege by Jacobite forces in 1689.  His son John departed for America in 1729 and made his home in what was then still the frontier in Pennsylvania, Letterkenny township in the Cumberland Valley.  He was an elder of the Presbyterian church that was built there in 1737.  He died in 1773.

His eldest son Hugh went to Georgia and was apparently “lost sight of.”  John moved to North Carolina in 1764, following other Scots Irish families there, in what is now Gaston county.  James moved west from Pennsylvania to Ohio in 1797 after his wife died.

“He and several others clubbed together and built a flat-boat on the Monongahela river, on which they placed their families, and floated down to the Ohio river. They had on board horses, cattle and sheep. The wolves one day made sad havoc with their little flock of sheep.  When they arrived at their destination of Chillicothe, they found but one house with a shingle roof and that a log structure.”

Only Samuel remained in Pennsylvania.  He became the pastor of the Big Springs Presbyterian church at Newville in Cumberland county, Pennsylvania.

Robert Wilson and Robert Burns.  The Wilson family of Kilwinnet can trace their line of descent back to the Ayrshire village of Mauchline. Robert Wilson was said to have been a native of Mauchline, although he may have been born in Paisley and taken as a baby to Mauchline.

According to the poet Robert Burns, Robert Wilson was the childhood sweetheart of Jean Armour. In 1786 Wilson was in Paisley working when he was visited there by a Jean Armour pregnant by Burns. Burns and Armour were later married in 1788 after Jean’s return to Mauchline from Paisley.

Robert Wilson’s nickname was the “gallant weaver” from the song Burns wrote about him. He was carrying on a family tradition of weaving. Robert married Margaret Thomson in 1789 and they had a large family.  His son William and his grandson Robert were also weavers. Robert eventually gave up weaving in 1855 for snuffbox making.

Reader Feedback – Wilsons in South Carolina/Georgia.  Supposedly my Wilson surname is of Scottish origin but I’ve always had a strange “pull” to the Irish. Found my first Wilson ancestor in 1850 Georgia, shown as born ca 1803-1810 in South Carolina. I’ve never been able to place him anywhere in South Carolina.  Have a lot on him and his family after 1850 with locations ranging from Georgia, Alabama and Texas with possible Tennessee ties.

Paula Wilson Dunklin (dunk14323@verizon.net)

Tom Wilson and the Canadian Rockies.  Tom Wilson was born of Irish parents in Simcoe county just outside Toronto in 1859.  Excited by tales of the Canadian West, he decided to enlist in the NW Mounted Police.

Getting there from Ontario at that time was an arduous journey.  To reach his destination, according to his daughter, he travelled from Barrie to Sarnia in Ontario and then by steamship.

Marquis Claude de Jouffroy d’Abbans is generally credited with the first experimentally successful application of steam power to navigation; in 1783 his to Duluth, Minnesota.  There he took the Northern Pacific Railway to the end of its line at Bismarck, North Dakota.  Here he transferred to a vessel which made its way up the Missouri river to Fort Benton, Montana.  From there he travelled by horseback to Fort Walsh.

He worked there for a time for the NW Mounted Police but then in 1882 got a job as packer, pathfinder and surveyor for the Canadian Pacific Railway.  In his initial surveying role for them that year he was the first white man to see the beautiful Lake Louise.  Tom went on to become one of the great mountain men of the Canadian Rockies.

He and his wife Minnie made their home in Banff where he opened an outfitter’s store.  He remained in Banff to the end of his days.  He was active in the mountains until 1920.  As an old man he would entertain guests at the Banff Springs Hotel with stories of the old days in the Rockies.

Wilson Names

  • Alexander Wilson was a Scots-born American ornothologist of the 18th century.
  • Woodrow Wilson was the 28th President of the United States. He saw America through the end of World War One but failed to get American backing for the League of Nations.
  • Sir Henry Wilson was Chief of the Imperial General Staff during World War One. He was assassinated by Irish extremists in 1922.
  • Bill Wilson was the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous in New York in the 1930’s.
  • Edmund Wilson was an American writer and literary critic.
  • Harold Wilson was the British Prime Minister in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
  • Brian Wilson was the founding member and lead singer of the American Beachboys group.

Wilson Numbers Today

  • 228,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 295,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 134,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Wilson and Like Surnames  

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



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Written by Colin Shelley

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