Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Gordon Surname:
Scottish? Or German?

An opening like the title, above, seems to introduce a preposterous question. Ask any number of people their opinion on the matter, and the answer you're likely to get would be, "Scottish. Of course!"

Back when I first began this exploration of my husband's Gordon roots, the only resources at handother than the rare email exchange, like the longstanding relationship I mentioned developing with one Gordon researcherwere books. And in one book in particularfocusing on the Gordon family from precisely the location where our Gordons had once settledeven that Gordon family couldn't quite agree on the origin of their progenitor's surname.

You can hardly blame the innocent bystander answering such a question with an emphatic, "Scottish." Taking a look at surname histories for the name Gordon puts that location front and center of all possibilities.

For instance, in a confusing summary, dubbed Gordon a "habitational name," and explained it likely referred to those living in Berwickshirehistorically part of Scotland, though by 1482 considered part of England, yet later lying partly in either jurisdiction.

Further explanation showed, however, that Scotland did not have a lock on that surname. Of course, one likely reason is the migration patterns witnessed between Scotland and Ireland. However, that is not the only spread of the surname. A similar place nameGourdonmay have come from Normandy or another French location. In addition, the name has popped up in Spanish history as well as in Basque language documents, all ostensibly referring to surnames drawn from place names. To add to the puzzle, apparently there are Jewish descendants from the region of Belarus claiming that same surname.

None of that, however, helps me find any explanation for the contentionby members of his own family, no less!that our family's progenitor, John Gordon, emigrated to Maryland not from Scotland, but from Germany.

I was fortunate to obtain a copy of a slim genealogical volume entitled The Gordons of Greene County Pennsylvania, which laid out the case for the disagreement about John Gordon's origin. Although my copy doesn't state the author, publisher, nor date it was printed, I've found attributionsnowonline, giving credit to Ellen M. Gordon-Dye and dating the volume to 1908.

In the book, the author jumps right into the explanation on the first page:
In so far as there are any traditions at all on the subject, it seems to be agreed that [John Gordon] either spoke a foreign language or at all events talked with an unusual and strongly marked accentbut as to his nationality a striking difference of opinion has existed. The Gordons of Greene County, Pennsylvania, have strongly maintained that he was a German; the Gordons of Ohio, with two exceptions, have been equally insistent that he was Scotch.

Within the first chapter of the book, there are some pages in which, other than one or two lines of text, the rest is filled with footnotes, detailing quotes from family letters with assertions and reasons why one side of the argument or the other was the correct explanation. Though one side of the story or the other would then, obviously, seem to be incorrect, each side felt very strongly that their version was the truth of the matter.

Perhaps the concluding compromisestill visible today on the property of the old Gordon homestead near Waynesboro, Pennsylvaniacomes closest to the truth. From a monument erected ("recently," according to the 1908 Gordon family history book) in memory of the man considered the American family's patriarch:
John Gordon
Ancestor of the
Gordon Family
of Greene County.
In Scotland A.D. 1739.
Removed to Germany,
and Thence Emigrated
to America.
March 29, 1816.
Aged 77 Years.


  1. I recall some migratoon for religious reasons from UK to Germany and Holland that was short lived and they movef again to the colonies.

  2. You might find the first 20-25 pages of this interesting reading.

    1. Actually, it made for some interesting reading this afternoon. Thanks for sending the link, Iggy!


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