Wright Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Wright Surname Meaning

Wright comes from the Old English wryhta, meaning a craftsman, and usually described a maker or user of machinery.

The name in England could have a Norman heritage, from John Wryta of Bayeux whose family was expert in the manufacture of wooden and metallic articles and in weapons of war and whose sons may have accompanied William the Conqueror to England in 1066.

Wright existed as an occupational name in its own right, or in compounds such as Cartwright and Wainwright. Wright was a more generic name in the north of England, taking over trades such as carpenters which appeared as their own surname in the south. Thus Thomas Wright who worked on the roof of Berwick castle in 1324 was by trade a carpenter.

Wright Surname Resources on The Internet

Wright Surname Ancestry

  • from England (southeast and East Anglia) and Scotland
  • to America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

England.  Early Wright lines were in Essex, Norfolk and Kent in southern and eastern England.

Essex.  The early Wrights from Essex included:

  • a le Wright family which was recorded in Hornchurch Priory documents in the late 14th century. Sir Henry Wright of this family built Dagnam Park nearby in the 1660’s.
  • the Rev. Henry Wright who lived in South Weald in the 1450’s.  From his line came John Wright who purchased Kelvedon Hall near Brentwood in 1538. His descendants were to live there for nearly four hundred years. They stayed Catholic well into the 18th century.
  • while Nathan Wright, a merchant in London, acquired in 1648 another Catholic house in Essex, Cranham Hall at Bishop’s Ockendon.

Norfolk.  Meanwhile the Norfolk Wrights, said to have been a prosperous family of flock masters (sheep farmers), acquired Kilverstone Hall near Thetford in 1588 and built for themselves a fine new manor house there. Robert Wright married Joan Finse at Wheathampstead in Hertfordshire in 1562. Wrights have continued to live in Wheathampstead since that time.  

Kent.  John Wright was a steward to Henry VIII in Kent and bought Plowland Hall in north Yorkshire in the 1530’s. His family was Catholic and remained so. Two of its later members, John and Kit Wright, were involved in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. A branch of the family moved to Bolton-le-Swale near Darlington. There were later some other Wright estates in Yorkshire and the northeast.

Edward Wright, born at Aldington in Kent, moved to London around 1710 but did not fare well.  He was a “scavenger” employed to deal with London’s street cleaning, but was charged for not doing the job well.  His son Thomas apprenticed as a stationer and later started his own stationery and printing company with a partner William Gill.  This became very successful.  He was Lord Mayor of London in 1785.

Later distribution of the Wright name showed the Wright name strongest on the east coast of England, in a line running south from Durham through Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, and East Anglia to Essex and London. This eastward bias comes out in the 1891 census.  

Scotland. The Wright name moved north across the border and Wrights were recorded as far north as Aberdeen.  Those from the Highland clan named McIntyre (meaning “son of the wright”) sometimes anglicized their name to Wright to hide their Highland origins.

Other than Aberdeen, however, Wright has been very much a Border and Lowland name. The name appeared as early as 1296 when Ralph Wright of Stirling and Thomas Wright of Blakenhall in Lanarkshire rendered homage to Edward I of England in the Ragman’s Roll. It later was evident in Berwickshire.

Ireland. Some Scots Wrights migrated to Ireland in the 17th century, settling primarily in Ulster.  Captain John Wright from Yorkshire was with Cromwell’s army in 1649 and was granted lands in county Monaghan.

America. John Wright, a Puritan, came to New England from Kent with the Winthrop expedition of 1630 and settled in Woburn, Massachusetts. A number of the other early Wright arrivals were from the Wrights of Kelvedon Hatch in Essex:

  • Thomas Wright came sometime in the 1630’s and settled in Wethersfield, Connecticut by 1639. Grandson Samuel, a sea captain, later moved his family to Lenox, Massachusetts. His line was covered in Gertrude Wright Ketcham’s 1913 book History of the Wright Family.
  • Samuel Wright was there by 1636 and he settled in Springfield, Massachusetts. A descendant, Dan Wright, fought in the Revolutionary War and moved to Vermont and later to Ohio. It was from this line, via the Rev. Milton Wright of the United Brethren Church, that the aviation pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright came.
  • while others of the line were also believed to have arrived by 1640.

Some early Wrights were from the Kilverstone line in Norfolk. Three Wright brothers – Anthony, Peter, and Nicholas – came in the 1630’s and first made their home at Sandwich on Cape Cod:

  • it was said that Peter united the Kilversone and Kelvedon lines by marrying Alice Wright in 1637. Their grandson Peter moved to Covington, Virginia in the 1740’s where he became renowned as a famous hunter and backwoodsman (he is commemorated by Peter’s Mountain there).
  • meanwhile Peter and his brothers had become Quakers and settled on Oyster Bay in Long Island in the 1650’s. Anthony died childless. Nicholas and his wife Ann raised nine children there.

There were other Wright Quakers, none more notable than James Wright, a Quaker minister first recorded in Chester county, Pennsylvania in the early 1700’s. He moved with his family to the Quaker Hopewell community in the Shenandoah valley of Virginia in the 1730’s.

His son John Wright headed to another Quaker community in Bush river, South Carolina in the 1760’s.  There were later family migrations to Tennessee, Ohio, and Indiana. One line settled at Russiaville in Howard county, Indiana where there was a Wright family reunion in 1908.

Captain Nathaniel Wright immigrated to Maryland from England in 1673 and settled in Queen Anne county. His descendant Robert Wright, who grew up on the Blakeford estate there, was Maryland Senator in 1801 and three times Governor of Maryland. At Blakeford he was a breeder of racehorses and fine cattle.

Scots.  James Wright arrived in North Carolina from Scotland sometime in the 1740’s.  His grandson Isaac owned large acreage and ran plantations in the lower Cape Fear region of North Carolina.  He also served as a state senator in the years preceding the Civil War.  His son Clement was a Confederate colonel killed in the war.

William Wright, Scots Irish, was first recorded in the Shenandoah valley of Virginia also in the 1740’s.  He was a farmer in Augusta county where many other Scots Irish had settled.  Later Wrights moved to Ohio.

Canada. In the winter of 1800 Philemon Wright, a descendant of John Wright of Woburn, led a party across frozen fields and rivers from Massachusetts to the Ottawa valley in Canada.  They were the first permanent settlers in that region.  Philemon is regarded as the founder of the capital city Ottawa.

His grandson Alonzo Wright, born there in 1821, got rich through the family’s lumber business.  He was known as the “king of the Gatineau” because of his role in the building of the Alonzo Wright bridge across the Gatineau river.

Ebenezer Wright was a Loyalist to the British crown who had moved from Connecticut to Vermont before the Revolutionary War.  Losing property, he fled to Canada and made his home in Cornwall along the St. Lawrence river.  At the conclusion of the war, three of his sons and two of his daughters joined him there.  Many later settled in Augusta nearby, which had become a home to displaced Loyalists.

Another Loyalist was Nathaniel Wright from Westchester county in New York state.  He departed for Canada in 1784 and settled in Prince Edward Island.  He was a Methodist preacher there.  His home at Bedeque, built in 1807 in New England style, still stands.

Australia.  Joseph (nineteen) and Sarah (sixteen) Wright were very young when they married in Sydney in 1811.  Three years later they left for Tasmania where Joseph ran an inn in Hobart and then a travelers’ inn at York Plains on the route from Hobert to Fort Dalrymple.

This did well for a well, but then the family fell on hard times. Many of the children moved away.  James Wright moved to farm in Gippsland, Victoria in the 1860’s and his descendants are still there.

New Zealand.  John Wright and his family arrived in New Zealand from Scotland on the Helenslee in 1864 under an assisted passage scheme.  They made their home in the Pokeno hamlet of Waikato district, North Island.

Wright Surname Miscellany

The Wrights and the Gunpowder Plot.  Sometime in the 1530’s John Wright of Kent, a steward to Henry VIII, moved to Holderness in the North Riding of Yorkshire and started to acquire land there.  He and his wife Alice made their home at Plowland Hall. It is significant that John Wright was Catholic. His will of 1540 made mention of a number of well-known recusant families in the Yorkshire area.

Robert, his son and heir, eventually became Sheriff of Yorkshire and was granted a coat of arms.  He reached this position despite being Catholic.  His second wife Ursula was in fact was incarcerated for a total of fourteen years, chiefly in Hull prison and with a number of other recusant wives.

The Catholic faith extended to the next generation.  John Wright was described as one of the finest swordsmen of his day, but was hot-headed.  He had formed part of the entourage of the Earl of Essex along with his friend Robert Catesby and, after the aborted uprising in 1601, had spent time in solitary confinement for his crime.  He was one of Robert Catesby’s first recruits for the Gunpowder Plot.  His younger brother Kit was later brought into the plotting.

After the failure, the conspirators escaped north from London, eventually holing up in a house in Staffordshire.  There, after a series of skirmishes, Catesby and the Wright brothers lay dead. The Wright line in north Yorkshire continued through their half-brother William.

Wright Estates in the Northeast

Date Wright Estate Location
1535 John Wright Plowland Hall Holderness, Yorkshire
1601 Rev.Francis Wright Bolton-le-Swale nearRichmond, Yorkshire
1771 Richard Wright Bradbury Sedgefield, Northumberland
1851 SirWilliam Wright Sigglesthorne Hall near Hull, Yorkshire
1869 Samuel Wright Brattleby Hall Brattleby, Lincolnshire

James Wright, Drunk in Wheathampstead.  One day in 1838 James Wright, extremely inebriated, sat in his cottage armed with a pig knife and threatened to do dreadful things. His daughter, fearing the worst, ran out onto the common and sought the assistance of a clergyman who was passing by in his carriage.  The Reverend, who was the curate of Wheathampstead, went to assist and was injured by the knife.

Up before the Hertfordshire magistrate, James Wright was sentenced to 15 years transportation.  He did spent some time in Hertford jail. But sanity prevailed.  Following a recommendation from the prison surgeon, he was pardoned – because of his age (he was 72 years old!) and because of his poor health.

Wrights in the 1891 Census

Wrights (000’s) Numbers Percent
Durham     3     3
Yorkshire    13    14
Lancashire    12    13
Lincolnshire     3     3
East Anglia    10    10
London    14    14
Elsewhere    42    43
Total   100   100

James Wright the Quaker.  The Wright name was well-known along frontier settlements in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia in the early 1700’s.  Perhaps the best-known and most recounted of these Wrights at that time was the Quaker minister James Wright.

He was said to have come to Pennsylvania with Penn’s fleet in 1682, although that may have been too early a date.  The Quaker community at East Nottingham in Chester county was not formed until 1702 and James Wright was first recorded there in 1716.

In 1735 James Wright moved with his family to the Opeckon settlement in the Shenandoah valley in Virginia.  This colony was situated along what was known as the Great Wagon Road, the road that wound its way through the Shenandoah valley into the Carolinas.  James Wright was an elder at the Quaker Hopewell monthly meetings there.  He was described as follows:

“A sober honest man, grave in manners, and solid and weighty in his conversationsHe was diligent in the attendance of religious meetings, exemplary in humble waiting therein, and of a sound mind and judgment.  He was cautious of giving just offence to any one and was earnestly concerned for the unity of the brethren and the peace of the church.”

He seemed to show more concern about matters of the church than about his own affairs and landholding (which remained relatively modest).

He was an old man by the time the French and Indian War broke out in the 1750’s. Wave after wave of well-armed Indian warriors came into the Shenandoah valley, massacring men, women and children in their way.  In 1759 the Quaker colony where the Wrights lived was attacked.  Some reports had James and his wife Mary fleeing their home for sanctuary elsewhere; others had them being killed and scalped during the attack.  In any event James Wright was dead by the end of the year.

Soon afterwards, his son John Wright and wife and children, in frustration and in grief, moved to the Quaker colony in Bush river, South Carolina. 

Wilbur and Orville Wright.  Wilbur was the older brother, born in Indiana in 1867. Orville was born in Dayton, Ohio four years later.

The boys grew up loving to invent things. They got interested in flying when their father gave them a toy helicopter than flew with the help of rubber bands. They experimented with making their own helicopters and Orville liked to build kites.

Orville made the famous first flight. The flight took place at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903. They chose Kitty Hawk because it had a hill, good breezes, and was sandy which would help soften the landings in case of a crash. The first flight lasted twelve seconds and they flew for 120 feet. Each brother made additional flights that day that were slightly longer.

Around a year later, in November 1904, Wilbur took their newly designed airplane, the Flyer II, to the air for the first flight lasting over five minutes.

This wasn’t a simple or easy task they had completed. They had worked and experimented for years with gliders perfecting the wing design and controls. Then they had to learn how to make efficient propellers and a lightweight engine for the powered flight. There was a lot of technology, know how, and courage involved in making this first flight.

Philemon Wright’s Trek to Canada.  Philemon Wright was a descendant of the Puritan John Wright who had come with Winthrop’s party in 1630 and settled in Woburn, Massachusetts.

In the winter of 1800, he set out from Woburn by sleigh with his brother Thomas, Elijah Allen, Amos and Solomon Childs, Daniel Wyman, Henry Kendrick, Harvey Parker, Ebenezer Hadley and Joel Adams, their women and children and enough household goods and tools to take up life in the wilderness. They had in fact left Woburn in February so that they could take advantage of the frozen rivers where no roads existed.

Progress was slow as it was necessary that men should go ahead with axes to try the strength of the river ice over which the party would be travelling; the fear being that the loss of animals and a sleigh with all its valuable load of humans and settlers’ effects would be disastrous in the extreme.

The party eventually came to the north side of the Ottawa river. Wrightstown, now part of the new city of Gatineau, was chosen as a better locale than the south side of the river. The portage route past the Chaudiere Falls was better on the north side as there was more sun and a longer stretch of favorable shoreline.

Once arrived Philemon Wright established his Utopian agricultural settlement.  His group comprised the first permanent settlers in the Ottawa area.  They received the land grants to what became Hull township in 1802.

The Wright Family Arrival in New Zealand.  The Helenslee dropped its anchor on Thursday, December 22 1864 in Auckland, but it wasn’t until after Christmas on the 27th that the passengers were allowed to disembark.

There was no accommodation available for the immigrants and many of them slept under trees until they got word they were to be sent on to Mangere.  They then went by boat up the Drury Creek and stayed in a farmer’s large flourmill or wool shed until they got word that they were moving on to Pokeno down the Great South Road. Pokeno was at that stage known as Queens Redoubt.

The Wrights settled in the Pokeno area.  Many of the Helenslee passengers intermarried and their children intermarried too. Many descendants of the original immigrants are still in the area today.

Wright Names

  • Edward Wright was a noted English mathematician and cartographer of the 16th century.
  • John Wright was the London bookseller who published Shakespeare’s First Folio in 1623.
  • Orville and Wilbur Wright, two brothers, were the first to fly in 1903.
  • Frank Lloyd Wright was the renowned American architect.
  • Richard Wright was the African American writer of controversial novels dealing with racial themes.
  • Billy Wright was the English football captain in the 1950’s.

Wright Numbers Today

  • 171,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 163,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 96,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Wright and Like Surnames  

The various medieval trades and occupations were a source of surnames as John the baker would over time would become known as John Baker.  Some skilled craftsmen – such as chandlers, fletchers and turners – were able to form guilds, protective organizations, and style themselves Worshipful Companies.  These are some of the occupational surnames that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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