Witherspoon Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Witherspoon 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.

Resources on

Witherspoon Ancestry

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
mother’s side to Knox, became one of the most admired preachers of his

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

The first, John
, 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
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.

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.


Select Witherspoon 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.


Select 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.

Select Witherspoon Numbers Today

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


Select 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.




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