How to keep a surname going?

The poet James Russell Lowell

Reading Scott Steward’s post about surnames being changed to keep another family name going reminded me of two examples we encountered when we wrote The Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts together.

The first example is relatively straightforward. This involved the descendants of the poet James Russell Lowell (1819–1891). James had three daughters and one son, but only his daughter Mabel survived childhood. She married Edward Burnett and had three sons – James Russell Lowell Burnett (b. 1873), Joseph Burnett (b. 1874), and Francis Lowell Burnett (b. 1878). In 1890, Mabel’s eldest son James had his name changed to James Burnett Lowell to continue his maternal grandfather’s surname.Lowell chart The middle son Joseph died unmarried, and the Burnett name continued with the youngest brother Francis, although in both cases the number of Lowell’s male descendants bearing the surname Lowell or Burnett is relatively small.

The other case, involving the Russell surname, is more complicated. Judge John Lowell, the focus of our genealogy, was married three times, his final wife being the widow Rebecca (Russell) Tyng, by whom he had his last four children (including Charles, the father of James Russell Lowell). Rebecca was the daughter of Judge James and Katherine (Graves) Russell, wealthy loyalists of Boston. While they never had to flee Massachusetts, a few of their sons did, including their son James, who relocated to England.

In 1820, many of the American Russells were “running out” (although the name continued in England), and a name change occurred. Judge John and Rebecca (Russell) (Tyng) Lowell’s daughter, Elizabeth Cutts Lowell (1783–1864), married Warren Dutton and had three sons – John Lowell Dutton (b. 1807), James Russell Dutton (b. 1810), and Francis Lowell Dutton (b. 1812). On 21 February 1820, the middle son’s names were reversed by an act of the Massachusetts legislature to James Dutton Russell. Elizabeth’s oldest and youngest son both died unmarried. The renamed James Dutton Russell had two daughters and three sons, with one son dying young and the other two during the Civil War, so in this case neither the Russell nor the Dutton surname continued.

While the specifics as to why the name change occurred are unclear, it is interesting to note what was happening in 1820 with the English Russells. Rebecca’s brother James in England was granted a coat of arms on 18 August 1820, and the grant specified the arms could be used by certain American cousins as well (see p. 168). Did this have something to do with why J.R. Dutton’s name was changed to Russell? It would appear so, as these renamed Russells appear in certain heraldic journals as well.

Their family went back to the immigrant Richard Russell of Charlestown, who from genealogical gleanings had family in Bristol, England. After the death of Francis Lowell Dutton Russell in 1864, the last of the American “Russells,” the English Russells were not just the only male line descendants of Judge James Russell (d. 1798), but the Russell family’s representatives all the way back to the immigrant Richard Russell; further, they believed that they were descended from an even more ancient Russell family.

Judge Russell’s grandson Lechmere Coore Graves Russell (1786-1851) had thirteen children, including six sons, three of whom died in childhood. His three remaining sons were Sir Edward Lechmere Graves Russell (1816–1904, who had two daughters), Lieut. Frederick Thomas Lechmere Graves Russell (1817–1890), and Lt.-Col. Lechmere Russell (1837–1915); these last two both unmarried. When Colonel Lechmere Russell died in 1915, his obituary included the following tidbit:Russell for Chris


Without discussing the claimed ancient origins of Richard Russell of Bristol, Gloucestershire, and Charlestown, Massachusetts, the genealogies do indicate that the family name was “revived” (or continued) in America through a name change, which was unsuccessful due to young deaths in the Civil War, and completely ended in 1915, with the last descendants being a Loyalist line in England.

Russell chart, males only, except when tracing the renamed American Russells. Click on the image to expand it.

About Christopher C. Child

Chris Child has worked for various departments at NEHGS since 1997 and became a full-time employee in July 2003. He has been a member of NEHGS since the age of eleven. He has written several articles in American Ancestors, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and The Mayflower Descendant. He is the co-editor of The Ancestry of Catherine Middleton (NEHGS, 2011), co-author of The Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2011) and Ancestors and Descendants of George Rufus and Alice Nelson Pratt (Newbury Street Press, 2013), and author of The Nelson Family of Rowley, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2014). Chris holds a B.A. in history from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.

11 thoughts on “How to keep a surname going?

  1. Hi Chris,
    I hope you remember the Knights who used to live in Madison. First of all congratulations on your new job! It is very gratifying to see you rising up in the profession you have loved for so many years.

    Secondly, I have a similar name change in my HOLYOKE line that I thought might interest you. Edward Augustus Holyoke (1728-1829) was the first graduate of the Harvard Medical School and the first president of the Mass Medical Society. He married twice and had 14 children most of whom didn’t survive childhood. His daughter Judith married William Turner and had Edward Augustus Holyoke Turner (1796-1855). In 1818, by order of the General Court he dropped the Turner name at the request of his Holyoke Grandfather with whom he trained to be a doctor. Thus the name has been carried down to this day – when they all should be Turners! Some descendants have been given Turner as a middle name.

    I hope to see you when we next visit NEHGS,
    Millicent Knight

    1. Hi Millicent,

      Thank you! Yes I remember Eliot and yourself, hope you both are well, it has been over twelve years since I was at Drew. Thanks for sharing the Holyoke/Turner name change. It’s always interesting to see how this happens.

      Yes let me know when you will be at NEHGS.

      Chris Child

  2. Could this explain why my ancestor John Russell Estabrook, born 23 July 1801 in Arlington, Mass,changed his name through a legal petition to the Massachusetts legislature in 1820 to John Brooks Russell?
    HIs father who died when he was a baby, was John Estabrook, his mother born Anna Russell.
    She quickly remarried Abner Stearn.
    She did have a brother Thomas Russell, born in 1776.
    From census records I believe that young John was raised by his Russell grandparents, rather than his mom and stepfather.
    Didn’t realize the Russell name was dying out. As it happened with John taking the name, his son was a famous civil war general known as Charles Sawyer Russell.

    1. Erica – Thanks for very much for comment! While the date of 1820 is interesting, I don’t think your particular name change had to do with this above example as your Russell family is quite familiar to me. Anna Russell’s paternal grandparents are my own ancestors Jason and Elizabeth (Winship) Russell of Arlington, Massachusetts. You may already know that Jason is on the earliest casualties of the of the American Revolution, see here – – Jason is also ancestor of the actor Kurt Russell. I think in your case, John Brooks Russell was raised by his uncle Thomas Russell and his wife (his maternal grandfather, Thomas Russell [Sr.] died in 1809), so that probably was the reason for the change. Our Russell family descends from William Russell of Cambridge, Massachusetts, who is not related to the above Richard Russell of Charlestown. Russell stays as a middle name up to my great-grandfather. My line is below.

      1. Jason Russell (1715/6-1775) = Elizabeth Winship [parents of your Thomas]
      2. Jason Russell, Jr. = Elizabeth Locke
      3. Jonathan Russell = Betsy Nutting
      4. Emma Russell = Robert Thompson
      5. Alice Goodridge Russell Thompson = Josiah Steward Challender
      6. Alton Russell Challender = Elizabeth Belle Severance
      7. Willard Alton Challender = Daisy Dolores Horton
      8. Joy Dolores Challender = William Chapin Child, II
      9. Christopher Challender Child

      1. Greetings dear cousin!
        We are 8th? cousins or so. How cool.
        My line
        Thomas Russell and Anna Whittemore
        John Estabrooks and Anna Russell, (married second Abner Stearns)
        John Estabrook aka John Brooks Russell and Mary Hicks Sawyer (John ended up ghost writing A Colored Man’s Memoirs in the White House, also invented the idea of putting printed packaging on seed packets)
        Charles Southworth Holmes and Helen Maria Russell
        John Russell Holmes and Emma Buchanan
        Ralph Goldsmith Carothers and Helen Buchanan Holmes
        George Rudolph Hahn and Mary Buchanan Carothers
        Erica Lis Hahn

        Why John changed his name has always been a bit of a family mystery.I had suspected that it had to do with his mother’s remarriage and Abner came into the marriage with a slightly older son and his moving in with his grandparents. I wondered if maybe the boys did not get along. If you have better information my family would love to hear what you can tell us.

        Yes knew of the famous Jason, whose house I understand now belongs to Harvard.
        Do you know whether his son Thomas served any role in the AR?

        1. Hi Erica – Yes we would be seventh cousins, my ancestor Jonathan Russell is first cousin to your ancestor Anna (Russell) (Estabrook) Stearns. I’ve visited the Jason Russell House, which is owned by the Arlington Historical Society. I am not aware of any service by Thomas Russell in the AR, I know his son Jason, Jr. did serve.

        2. Erica,
          I am your 4th cousin once removed. I follow your same line except I am the descendant of Helen Maria’s brother, Charles Sawyer Russell. Charles was my 3X Great Grandfather.


      2. It’s been a while since you posted this but I am also a descendant of Jason Russell and am your 7th cousin once removed! I descend through their son Thomas Russell who married Anne Whittemore. Charles Sawyer Russell was my 3X Great Grandfather. My father’s first name was Russell which for some reason he did not like…so he went by his middle name. I know it had nothing to do with the Russell name itself…probably the nicknames derived from it.

        Your Cousin,

  3. A variation on this surname survivorship was seen in the Lee Family of Virginia’s Blenheim or Maryland branch. In order to retain the Lee surname, even in a nominal way, James Clerk (1758/1759-1820), who married Margaret Russell Lee (1774-1819) in 1792 adopted the surname “Clerklee.” Clerk, a London and Maryland merchant, and Margaret were first cousins and his mostly family-member partners in business might have encouraged his clear and outward association with the then seeming governor-for-life, Thomas Sim Lee (to whom both James and Margaret were related even before they married). Even though the Clerks were descended from King Edward III through their Rattray ancestors, that name was lesser known in America; this was certainly a surname adoption for prestige. As it is humorously put in Jacob M. Price’s “One Family’s Empire: The Russell-Lee-Clerk Connection in Maryland, Britain, and India, 1707-1857” (Maryland Historical Magazine 72:165-225), “[i]t was apparently better in Maryland to be a Lee than to be a Plantagenet.”

  4. It was exciting to see some distant connections mentioned in your article. The Cary, Russell, and Graves families of Charlestown have multiple points of intermarriage. I’m familiar with Copley’s portrait of Katherine (Graves) Russell, and two by the same artist of her nephews Samuel and the Rev. Thomas Cary, my first cousins 6 times removed. Thanks for this interesting article on name changes.

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