Brown Family History

Family sitting for portrait

With almost 1.4 million people claiming the last name of "Brown" in the United States alone, this is one of the most common surnames you may encounter. However, the history of the Brown family is anything but common. Members of this family have made their mark in a variety of ways, including activism, acting, politics, and even surviving the sinking of the Titanic.

History of the Brown Family

The Browns are an ancient family. The name means exactly what it says; it's a descriptive surname. Likely, the earliest bearers of the name had brown hair, wore brown-colored clothing, or had darker skin tones. According to Surname Database, the name most likely comes from the Anglo-Saxon or Germanic word "brun," used prior to the seventh century to mean "brown." It may also originate from the Olde Norse first name of "Bruni."

The first known written record of the name dates to the year 1169. This was the era in which surnames were first gaining popularity, and the name of William le Brun appears in the "Pipe Rolls," or financial documents, for Northumberland, England.

Common Variations of the Brown Name

Although you'll most often see the name spelled "Brown" in recent records, this surname actually has a number of common variants that have been used over the years. Some are still in use today. As you search for information about this illustrious family, you'll likely see the name spelled in some of these ways:

  • Browne
  • Brun
  • Bruni
  • Brauner
  • Brunet
  • Broune

Browns in the New World

The first Brown family member to arrive in the New World was likely Mayflower passenger Peter Browne. According to Pilgrim Hall Museum, he was one of the lucky passengers who survived the first harsh winter in the Colonies. After his arrival in 1620, he married and had three daughters. He died in 1633. Since his children were female, he did not pass his name directly to his descendents.

Following the Jamestown Massacre in 1622, the colonists of Virginia compiled a report to send back to England. The document, called The Living and Dead in Virginia was dated February 16, 1623 and included several Brownes.

Emigration Patterns reports that the majority of Browns in the United States can trace their ancestry back to Scotland, Ireland, and England. Browns steadily arrived from these countries in large numbers throughout the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s; there was no particular surge in immigration for this family name. In 1840, the highest concentration of Brown family members was in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. However, by 1920, Illinois, Georgia, and Texas also had large populations of Browns. In 1920, all six states boasted between 8,313 and 16,624 inhabitants with this surname.

According to's Canadian site, nearly half of all Browns lived in Ontario in 1911. Browns who immigrated to Canada also hailed from the British Isles.

Notable Browns reports that many important people have shared the Brown surname, including the following:

  • John Brown (1800-1859) - He was a famous civil rights activist and abolitionist who believed in using violence as a means of ending slavery. He was executed after attempting to raid the federal armory at Harper's Ferry in 1859. The song "Battle Hymn of the Republic" is about him.
  • Molly Brown (1867-1932) - Famous for surviving the sinking of the Titanic, she received the nickname "the Unsinkable Mrs. Brown." She was also an actress, a human rights activist, and a philanthropist. She was active in promoting women's suffrage.
  • Henry Billings Brown (1836 - 1913) - He was a Supreme Court Justice from 1890 through 1906. He is most famous for writing the court's majority opinion in the segregation case Plessy v. Ferguson.
  • James Brown (1933-2006) - A famous singer, dancer, and musician, James Brown had the nickname "the Godfather of Soul." He was also an important civil rights activist who promoted peaceful protest instead of violence.

Learning More About the Brown Family

If you or your ancestors bear the last name of Brown, you can easily learn more about your family online. Start by working back as far as you can with what you know, and use that information to search for the roots of your family tree.


The Brown family coat of arms varies depending on the country. However, if you know your family's country of origin, you can find images of the crest at the following sites:

  • House of Names - Here, you'll find both the Scottish and English versions of the family crest. You can choose the one that best meets your needs and download a copy for a fee. You can also buy other products featuring the image.
  • The Tree Maker - This site offers even more options for the country of origin. You can find Brown coats of arms for countries with smaller populations, as well as Ireland, England, and Scotland. You can purchase the image as well as products featuring the design.
  • All Family Crests - At this site, you'll find the Brown crest and many products featuring it. There's an excellent explanation about all the parts of the family crest and their meaning.

Brown Genealogy Sites

There are a number of sites devoted specifically to various branches of the Brown family and to the general family history. Use the following resources to learn more:

  • Brown Family Genealogy - Offering a central place to look for information on dozens of different branches of the Brown family, this is a good place to start. There are also links to other research resources that can help you in your search.
  • Brown Genealogy Society - This site offers general family history information, details about specific branches, a coat of arms, and a DNA project. You can add your own family information and help with the DNA project.
  • IrishGathering - This site is specific to the Irish branch of the Brown family. You can join for free and get access to the family crest, census archives, public records, and other members' trees.

More Than Dates and Names

Researching your family history is about more than recording names and dates on a family tree. It's also fun to learn about the real people behind the names and share your discoveries with the other branches of your family who are also excited about their history.

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