Witherspoon Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Witherspoon Surname Meaning

The name Witherspoon is Scottish. Its meaning is uncertain. “Sheep pasture” has been suggested, wether being an archaic name for sheep and spong being an obsolete English word for a tongue-shaped of land. But no one is quite sure.

Witherspoon Surname Resources on The Internet

Witherspoon Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Lanarkshire)
  • to America

Scotland. Witherspoon is to be found in Lanarkshire, Glasgow, and Paisley. There were many early spellings of the name. James Wydderspoon, for instance, born in 1435, is the forebear of a family line that has been traced. But only Witherspoon and, to some extent, Wotherspoon, have survived. Early 18th century registers show more Wotherspoons than Witherspoons (although the Witherspoons had spread a little more widely).

Many Witherspoons were weavers by trade; many were clergymen. In fact, the Presbyterian faith propounded by John Knox had taken a deep hold on the weaving community. John C. Witherspoon, related on his mother’s side to Knox, became one of the most admired preachers of his day.

America. Three Witherspoons brought their stern Presbyterian faith to America.

The first, John Witherspoon, came with like-minded colleagues in 1732 after a lengthy enforced stay in county Down in Ireland. “These ‘poor Calvinists’ sailed up the Black river from Charleston to the King’s Tree, a white pine on the banks of the river.” They settled in Williamsburg and branches of this family later became plantation owners and politicians in South Carolina. The actress Reese Witherspoon is a descendant.

The second was John Knox Witherspoon, the preacher who arrived in America in 1768 to be President of what is now Princeton College, attended the Continental Congress, and was one of the signers of the American Declaration of Independence. His descendants later moved to Tennessee.

A third immigrant, Thomas Witherspoon, settled in Jefferson County, Indiana in 1818. He and his descendants are buried in the Caledonia Presbyterian Church which he helped establish there.

Some Wotherspoons also made it to America. James Wotherspoon left Glasgow for New York in the early 1800’s where he set up a comb-making business. His son, William Wallace Witherspoon, became a noted 19th century American painter.

Witherspoon Surname Miscellany

Witherspoon Genealogies.  The first genealogy of the family and lineage of John Witherspoon the signer was undertaken by his grandson in 1780.  There is a handwritten genealogy of the Witherspoon and Knox families dated May 1900, written by Newton Peirce of Boston and sent to Eleazor Witherspoon in Roxbury.

Wardlow’s Genealogy of the Witherspoon Family appeared in 1910.  Another Witherspoon genealogy was written in 1944 by William S. Witherspoon.

John Witherspoon Arrives in America.  In September 1734, a band of colonists set sail from Belfast for Williamsburg on the ship The Good Intent. These were John Witherspoon, his wife Janet, his sons David and James, his daughter Janet and her husband John Fleming and their families.

After a stormy voyage, the Witherspoon colonists landed at Charleston in December and, after, suffering many hardships (of which there is a vivid account written by one of the party), they finally reached Kingstree, only to find it a small collection of clay-chinked huts and the country a timbered wilderness infested with howling wolves and peopled by savage Indians.

According to The History of Williamsburg by William Willis Boddie: “John Witherspoon settled on Boggy Swamp in Williamsburg in 1734 and died there in 1737.  He was the first person to be buried in the Williamsburg district of South Carolina.”

John Witherspoon, The Signer.  In the first draft of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Witherspoon demanded the deletion of a phrase that complained that the king of Britain had sent to America “not only soldiers of our common blood, but Scotch and foreign mercenaries.”

Some of the delegates sensed the difficulty of taking on the might of the British Empire.  It was Witherspoon who urged them to sign the Declaration, saying:

“There is a tide in the affairs of men, a nick of time.  We perceive it now before us.  To hesitate is to consent to our own slavery.”

It is worth noting that of the 56 men who signed the document, 23 had some Scottish ancestry. Witherspoon was the only clergyman to sign the document.  It did have some similarities with the Declaration of Arbroath which proclaimed Scottish independence for the first time.

Thomas Witherspoon’s Lineage.  Thomas Witherspoon of Jefferson County, Indiana was almost certainly the Thomas, son of Robert Wotherspoon and Agnes Craig of Paisley in Scotland.

The Sassines (Scottish tax records) in Renfrewshire in 1817 identified him as: “Thomas Wotherspoon, weaver, Seedhil in Paisley, and heir to Robert Wotherspoon, a wright there, his father.”  Robert, a native of Glasgow who had moved to Paisley before he married Agnes, generally used the Wotherspoon spelling. But Thomas is most often given as Witherspoon, including in his marriage record.

The Witherspoon Problem.  The Witherspoon controversy centered around three parcels of land in an economically depressed neighborhood of South Knoxville in Tennessee.  Here was located the David Witherspoon Candora landfill site.  It covered forty acres and was used for the processing of scrap metal.

Starting in the 1950’s, these scrap metals were heavily contaminated with radio-isotopes, asbestos, and various toxic chemicals.  Yet neighborhood women – often working for little more than the minimum wage – would sort out the radioactive metals by hand, placing them in barrels and carrying them to a warehouse for grinding.  Then in 1985, Dorothy Hunley, who had worked there for twelve years, died of osteogenic sarcoma, a rare bone cancer associated with the inhalation of radio-isotopes.  This alerted public attention to the problem.

In response of news accounts of Dorothy Hunley’s death, an organization called South Knoxville Citizens for a Better Environment was set up and they demanded a prompt cleanup of the site.  They discovered that, although there had been numerous violations reported at the site for many years, this had not resulted in any alteration or revocation of Witherspoon’s license to handle radioactive materials.

Again, nothing much was done.  Then, in 1989, local residents formed Project Witherspoon with the same cleanup objective.  But it was not until 1992, after much legal delaying, that a state committee on Public Health actually toured the Witherspoon site. Finally, in October 1993, the State of Tennessee filed a court action which effectively halted operations at the site.  Cleanup of the site was not to start until ten years later, in 2003.

Witherspoon Names

  • John C. Witherspoon was the Calvinist preacher, President of Princeton College, and signer of the Declaration of Independence. 
  • Boykin Witherspoon was an early plantation owner in De Soto, South Carolina. 
  • Jimmy Witherspoon, born in Arkansas, was a master of the blues. He is probably best known for his blues standard Ain’t Nobody’s Business, recorded in the late 1940’s. 
  • Reese Witherspoon, born in Nashville, made her name as an actress with Legally Blond in 2001.

Witherspoon Numbers Today

  • 2,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lanarkshire)
  • 3,000 in America (most numerous in North Carolina).

Witherspoon and Like Surnames 

These are surnames from the Scottish Lowlands.  Some are clan names; some – like Gordon, Graham and Hamilton – have Anglo-Norman antecedents that crossed the border into Scotland; and some – like Douglas and Stewart – were very powerful in early Scottish history.  Stewart in fact became the royal Stuart line.




Click here for return to front page

Written by Colin Shelley

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *