Wisdom Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Wisdom Surname Meaning

Wise and Wisdom derived from the Old English wis meaning “knowing” and would refer to a learned person in medieval times who would be regularly consulted on legal or other matters. Wise emerged as a surname sometime in the 13th century, Wisdom a century later.

Wisdom is the rarer of the two surnames. Wises outnumber Wisdoms by about ten to one. Both names are concentrated in London and the southeast. The Wisdom name is also to be found in West Africa.  Wisden is a variant of the Wisdom name.

Wisdom Surname Resources on The Internet

Wisdom and Wisden Surname Ancestry

  • from SE England
  • to America and Canada

England. The Wisdom name first appeared in the west country:

  • in 1327 Robert Wisdom appeared in the Somerset rolls
  • and in 1377 Thomas Wisdom, the MP for Wilton, was recorded in the Wiltshire rolls.

However, the name is mainly to be found in London and the southeast.

The Wisdom name began to appear in Sussex from the 14th century, in west Sussex near present-day Chichester and Worthing and in east Sussex at Pevensey. An early Wisdom appearance in records, as Wisdome, seems to have been at South Stoke near Arundel in Sussex in the 1550’s. There was a more continuous line in Frant and Wadhurst in Kent from the 1650’s.

John Wisdom was recorded as a carpenter in Glynde in Sussex in 1766 and William Wisdom later lived in Pear Tree Cottage. The comedian Norman Wisdom was a descendant.

The variant spelling Wisden came later and also appears to have originated in Sussex. John Wisden, born in Brighton in 1826, began the famous Wisdens Cricketers Almanac in 1864.

America. There are, surprisingly, more Wisdoms in America than in England.

The origin of these Wisdoms appears to have been Thomas Wisdom from Berkshire who came to Virginia with his wife Martha in 1662. The main lines derive from their sons Francis and John. Later Wisdoms moved onto Kentucky, North Carolina, and elsewhere in the South.

There is another genealogical line posited by George W. Wisdom in his 1910 book Genealogy of the Wisdom Family. The patriarch of this line was Abner Wisdom, an English lawyer. Three of his sons came to America around the year 1730, initially to Virginia and later to Kentucky. However, critics today have raised doubts as to whether this line is really valid.

One line from Jesse Wisdom of North Carolina led to Georgia and thence, a generation later, to Abner Wisdom in Chattanooga, Tennessee and John Henry Wisdom, the Paul Revere of the Confederacy.

Francis and Nancy Wisdom migrated to Kentucky and Tennessee in the early 1800’s. Later Wisdoms of the line settled in the Missouri Ozarks (a Wisdom family lived on a farm in the Hogles Creek community from 1839 to 1967). From Kentucky one line moved south and settled in New Orleans in the 1830’s. John Minor Wisdom died in a blaze there in 1857, but a later Wisdom of the same name was a Louisiana judge at the time of civil rights.

The main numbers of Wisdoms in America were first in Missouri and are now in Texas.

Canada. Wisdoms were early arrivals in Nova Scotia, coming to Halifax from New England in 1749. The name of John Wisdom, a carpenter, and his wife Mary can be found on a plaque commemorating the first settlers. Later Wisdoms were also carpenters in Halifax. Alonzo Wisdom and his wife emigrated to New Zealand in the 1860’s and settled in Cobden, South Island.

Wisdom Surname Miscellany

William Wisdom of Glynde in Sussex.  In 1788 William Wisdom purchased Pear Tree Cottage.  He was then described as a carpenter, but not only did he run the malthouse but also the village coal merchant’s business from these premises.  Wisdom rented a wharf by Glynde Bridge river where coal and other materials could be landed by barge.

He took out a mortgage on his property in 1802, but appears to have struggled to meet the repayments. This may have been because the government had imposed a malt tax to help finance the struggle against Napoleon and the custom of cottagers brewing their own beer had fallen into disuse.

Wisdom sold his property to the Glynde estate in 1815 but continued to occupy part of the house. His wife Lucy died in 1818.  After that time he appears to have left the village. He died in Cambridge in 1841.

Wisdoms in the 1881 Census

County Numbers Percent
Kent    137    25
Surrey    135    24
London     80    14
Hampshire     57    10
Sussex     32     6
Elsewhere    117    21
Total    558   100

An Alternative Wisdom Line in America.  There is an alternative genealogical line that was posited by George W. Wisdom in his 1910 book Genealogy of the Wisdom Family.  He wrote:

“Abner Wisdom was born near the border of Wales around the year 1675.  Although it is not known who or when he married it is believed he married at a young age.  He was a man of high intellectual powers and was a member of the House of Commons during the reign of George II.  He was a very brilliant lawyer and was reputedly quite influential among his colleagues.

Abner had five sons – Brinsley Mortimer, Pollard William, Francis Torrence, Abner Jnr, and Tavner.  The three elder sons emigrated to America sometime around 1730 and settled in Virginia. Later they moved and took up land near present day Dansville, Kentucky.  These brothers were the first of the name of Wisdom to come to America.“

Critics today wonder whether some of these people ever existed.  The author can be forgiven because he didn’t have the resources that are now taken for granted. He could only rely upon correspondence with living people. Consequently anything he said about events more than two or three generations before his time has to be read with some degree of skepticism.

Wisdoms in Chattanooga.  The following article was written in 2009 locally about Hamilton county pioneers in Tennessee.

“In 1853, when Chattanooga was “a struggling town of about two thousand inhabitants,” Abner J. Wisdom arrived here “practically penniless” from Arkansas.  Up to the time of the Civil War, he was in the livery business.  Later, he also became a builder, large property owner, and pioneer of the streetcar lines.

He was born in 1826 in Floyd county Georgia, the son of Jesse Wisdom, a farmer and Virginia native. His mother was Elizabeth Griffin whose family was from South Carolina.  He had a brother, Frank Wisdom, who also came to Chattanooga.  He attended a dance at a house on Market Street near Seventh and was shot and killed after a quarrel.  A sister, Julia Wisdom Strickland, also lived in Chattanooga.   Another brother, John Wisdom, lived at Hokes Bluff, Alabama, as did a sister Mary Wisdom Wright.”

The Paul Revere of the Confederacy.  There is a marker in John Henry Wisdom’s home town of Hokes Bluff, Alabama that was erected by the citizens of Rome, Georgia. It reads as follows:

“On the night of May 2nd and the morning of May 3rd, 1863, John Wisdom rode 67 miles from Gadsden, Ala. to Rome, Ga. under very harassing conditions, to warn the citizens there of Colonel A. D. Streight’s proposed march to burn and sack the city, Rome being a stronghold of the Confederacy having an iron works and supply depot. Through this man’s efforts barricades were erected leading to the eventual surrender of Colonel Streight to General Bedford Forrest. John Wisdom lived his last day here and is buried nearby.”

John Wisdom had been born in Green county, Georgia and had moved to Gadsden, Alabama just before the Civil War.  There he ran a ferry across the Coosa river. Federal troops destroyed his ferry during the conflict.  On questioning the troops he learnt that four regiments of Federal troops were en-route to Rome, Georgia to capture the garrison there.

To warn them he traveled the 65 miles from Gadsen to Rome in 7½ hours, using six horses and one mule that farmers provided him along the way.  He was able to arrive 18 hours before the first Federal Scouts came.

After the threat was over the citizens of Rome held a great celebration and John Henry Wisdom was officially proclaimed the “Savior of Rome.”  He was “presented with a substantial purse and a handsome costly gift of silver service.”

Wisdom Misfortunes During the Civil War and After.  Lee Wisdom farmed on a small hill farm in Tennessee. Just after the Civil War began, he knew he would be called into the armed service so he went out to raise feed and food for his family while he was in service.

Several weeks after he left, on a cold rainy day, northern soldiers raided his household and farm taking everything they could carry on their horses, the sacks of wheat they could not carry were cut open and dumped out onto the ground. In trying to retrieve some of the wheat, his wife became sick with pneumonia.  He was informed of her illness and given leave to return home. En route home he was bushwhacked by northern troops and killed.  His wife died a few days later, leaving two little boys as orphans.

The two orphans, Billy and Lee, lived with their uncle Jessie for a while but then ran away because they were being treated so badly.  After three weeks they journeyed to another uncle’s house.  Their only food in those three weeks were wild blackberries and gooseberries. They were practically naked, very weak and almost sick from ticks and other insect bites. Still this uncle Sipe was very glad to see them and took them in as part of the family.

In 1880 the two boys left Tennessee by wagon train to Texas.  The younger, Lee, married, returned to Tennessee and later moved onto White county, Arkansas.  His son Walter Wisdom, who was born in Tennessee in 1894 and died in Arkansas in 1988, wrote his reminiscences in White County Wisdom.

Reader Feedback – Wisdoms in Africa.  There are surprising number of people in West Africa (Nigeria and Ghana) bearing this family name.

Simon Wisdom (wisdom.simon@orange.fr).

Wisdom Names

  • John Wisden began the famous Wisdens Cricketers Almanack in 1864.
  • Norman Wisdom was an English comedian, actor and singer-songwriter of the 1950’s and 1960’s best known for his slapstick routines.
  • Chigozie Wisdom is a prominent Nigerian gospel singer.

Wisdom Numbers Today

  • 1,300 in the UK (most numerous in Kent)
  • 1,800 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 200 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

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Written by Colin Shelley

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