The Newton Name


©Joe M. Newton


From earliest times, when man first used some specific vocative sound or call to identify and differentiate members of his community, name calling has undergone many adaptations. This development has not, however, been steady, for it was most affected by the experiences of people who promoted or participated in progress. As new occupations were created by the growth of industry and commerce, people took on the names of their profession. Miller, Cook, Tucker, and Wright are typical of names that originated in this manner. However, progress brought obsolescence as well as new occupations - thus, a names like Woodmonger (one who sells firewood), which were once very common in England, disappeared.

The Romans can be credited with originating our modern system of names, however, as the Roman empire collapsed and the barbarians swept across western Europe between the third and fifth centuries A.D. the use of single names once again became customary. Indeed, during the Dark Ages (following the fall of Rome) most Europeans were known first only by their given name, and later occasionally by their given name prefixed to their place of birth.

The arrival of the eleventh century, however, saw the cultural, social, and economic conditions in Europe grow more complex. Europe's population increased dramatically; the rise of feudalism and the early stirrings of mercantilism replaced the simple communal life of the country village. These developments forced people into the growing towns and cities and communication, the servant of commerce, became more important and efficient. Because of these changes, the use of a single name began to cause great confusion. To resolve this problem people began to take on the hereditary surname (a last name, bequeathed to each generation's children in the same or similar form).

As indicated, the development of feudalism in England that came with the Norman Invasion on 1066 was instrumental in the development of our present name form. Within about three generations, the French worked an almost total transformation of the English culture. In particular, the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic language was merged with and in some cases was replaced by the native tongue of the new Norman rulers. In the course of time other modifications followed and hereditary surnames achieved a clearly defined order previously unknown. By the 12th century, the use of a second name had become so widespread that, in some places, it was considered vulgar not to have one. However, at this time the second name did not apply at families, nor were they hereditary. It was not until about the 13th century that the use of hereditary name became customary.

The modern hereditary use of surnames was a practice that originated among the Venetian aristocracy in Italy about the 10th or 11th centuries. Crusaders returning from the Holy Land took note of this custom and soon spread its use throughout Europe. By the 1370's the word "surname" is found in documents, and had come to acquire some emotive and dynastic significance. Men sometimes sought to keep their surname alive by encouraging a collateral to adopt it when they had no direct descendants of their own in the male line.

The surnames that people took came from many different sources. For example, people took surnames from the names of flowers (Lilly, Rose), fish (Herring, Pike), and animals (Fox, Beare). Another source surnames was nicknames, such as Longfellow (a tall skinny fellow) or Goodman (a person of good character). Still other, as stated previously, took their surnames from their occupations, such as Smith or Carpenter. However, the most popular source of surnames was a place name, for it identified a person by the place he lived or the place from which he had originally come. For example, someone who lived on top of a prominent hill might be call Hill or Knowle (from "knoll"). Other well known place names are Church, Wood, and Mills. The name Newton is in this category of names. It is a shortened form of "New Town," and there were dozens of little towns throughout medieval England by that name. If a person originally from New Town moved to another town, he would be readily identifiedd as "the man from New Town" or simply "Newton." Other English surnames with a similar origin are London, Bristol, and Holland.

In French, the aristocratic "Neville," from Neuville ("newtown"), had the same origin as the English Newton; in German it was Newburg..

Because of the evolutionary nature of name development, it is virtually impossible to pinpoint the exact date of the formation of any new name. Newton, of course, is no exception. However, the Newton name is found in some of the early English records, including the famous Hundred Rolls. This shows that the name Newton was being used as early as 1273. The names listed below are from the 1273 Hundred Rolls and 1379 Yorkshire Poll Tax records.

Gunnora de Neutone - County Suffolk - Hundred Rolls, 12733

Ralph de Newtone - County Huntingdonshire - Hundred Rolls, 12733

Alan de Neuton - County Lincolnshire - Hundred Rolls, 12733

Willelmus de Neweton - Yorkshire Poll Tax, 13799

Johannes de Neuton - Yorkshire Poll Tax, 13799

The Newton surname is most abundant in Huntingdonshire, Cheshire, Durham, and Oxfordshire, but is found to a lesser degree inn numerous other English counties. By the time of the first United State Census in 1790, many Newton families had settled in America. From these records it may be found that the average Newton household had 5.5 members with more Newton heads-of-households living in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Vermont than in any other part of America. Official United States records compiled in 1974 indicate that in that year Newton was the 367th most frequently occurring surname in the nation..

The information presented here is derived from Bardsley, Charles Wareing, "A Dictio nary of English and Welsh Surnames with Special American Instances," Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1968..

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Joe M. Newton