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Johnston: A Very Brief History of the Surname


Within the bounds of Annandale
The gentle Johnstons ride;
They have been there a thousand years,
A thousand more they’ll bide.
Sir Walter Scott


    Few surnames can boast a more colorful history.  Residing in Annandale, a border region that experienced centuries of warfare between Scots and English, the Johnstons[1] became known as one of the most active and feared of the "riding clans", i.e. those clans whose principle activity was cattle and horse rustling, or "reiving".  They rode not only against the hated English, but also against rival clans.  Each raid brought retaliation, each murder necessitated revenge, and the consequence was often blood feuds.  None is more notorious in Scottish lore, both for its longevity and its brutality, than the almost two hundred year feud between the Johnstons and Clan Maxwell.  It’s no wonder that the Johnston motto was "Aye Ready", their symbol a winged or flying spur, and their ironic appellation the "Gentle Johnstons".   See badge.

    In 1603 King James, who had united Scotland and England under one monarch, was determined to pacify the lawless, Presbyterian border country.  Ruthless subjugation ensued.  In 1606, when James offered land in Ireland in an attempt to also pacify the recalcitrant Irish, many borderers accepted the offer.  James was pleased.  After all, who better to control the unruly Irish than the brutal, violent borderers.  The resulting Ulster Plantation became the home of the Scots-Irish, many Johnstons among them.  And from Protestant Ulster, of course, many Scot-Irish made their way to the colonies.

    Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that our Johnstons were part of this colorful tradition.  There was a sizeable Johnston clan in Caskieben in Aderdeenshire, as well as in Lancashire and Yorkshire on the English side of the border.   Many Scotsman took their surname from the town of "St. Johnstoun", now Perth.  And to complicate matters even further, many Irishmen, such as the MacShanes or McGowans, took the name Johnson or Johnston after their own surnames were banned.

    So where does that leave us?  Whatever their origin in the Old World, can't we discover our progenitors fairly easily in the American Colonies?  Not necessarily.  After 1717, the Scots Irish emigrated here in great numbers, leaving the settled areas with their laws, towns, and Englishmen.  Soon the valleys of Pennsylvania and Virginia were brimming with Johnsons and Johnstons and Johnstones, many living relatively cheek by jowl in the same county, although unrelated, and seemingly all of them naming their sons Samuel, William, and James and their daughters Mary, Elizabeth, and Martha.

In researching the history of our own Johnston line, even in North America, the pitfalls must by now be evident.   The only way to disentangle the many families is to pay close heed to location –   especially creeks – and associated surnames, slowly eliminating the impossibles until only the probables are left.   Thus we arrive at our earliest, beyond-a-doubt Johnston forbear: Samuel Johnston of Henry County, VA.[2] 




[1] The surname of Johnston is often simply a variation on Johnstone.  Both refer to "John's Town" or John's Tun, i.e. farm, as opposed to the more common Johnson, or "John's son".  The problem arises with the wandering, often disappearing, letter T.  Thus, many modern Johnsons started out as Johnston or Johnstone, and one can find the same individual referred to by all three in the record.

[2] There is also information about many apparently unrelated Johnstons, who were eliminated as close relatives by Y-DNA tests.  See also Nancy's Thoughts on Genes and Genealogy. 


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