The Surname DENNISON, & the DENNISON DNA Project


The goals of this project are to bring Dennison patrilineage cousins together for purposes of sharing their genealogical research, and to promote knowledge and understanding of DNA testing as a genealogical tool. “Dennison” (or henceforth, DENNISON) has been adopted as the generic spelling of this surname even though for many who spell their name that way, or as "Denison", the original ancestral surname was the Scottish "Denniston".

Formal membership in this project is open to all men surnamed DENNISON, or to men whose test results closely match to a tested member. If you apply to join through the project, the recommended FTDNA 37-marker panel costs only $149, instead of the usual $179 .

People with yDNA test results from testing groups other than FTDNA are also welcome as members of this project on request, but they are strongly encouraged to retest at FTDNA, taking advantage of the special upgrade price ($119) for the 37-marker panel, which is much more sensitive to genetic change than the tests offered by other companies, and which therefore provides a much better basis for comparison to existing project members.

Non-tested sponsors of tests for members, or genealogists with serious interest in the surname are also encouraged to participate, and in fact this project essentially exists for those who desire to be active research participants, whether they be formal (tested) members, or not.

If you wish to further the genealogical goals of this project by sponsoring further DNA testing at FTDNA, a General Fund has been set up to receive donations to that end.

Detailed DENNISON haplotype charts will be found on the individual DENNISON patrilineage pages, but all of them (ungrouped) may accessed for analysis here.

DENNISONs: Surname Roots & Family Branches

The great mystery about this surname is whether it is one or two. On the one hand, we have the ancient Scottish surname Denniston/Deniston (spelled with a “t”) of known derivation, and on the other, we observe the overwhelming prevalence of the “t”-less Dennison/Denison, not only in England and America, but even in Scotland. And just to further cloud the issue, amongst the well-researched Scotch-Irish Dennistons of the 18th-century American frontier, we observe a process by which the “t” gradually eroded away in the records, so that when surname spelling crystallized in the early 1800s, the preferred forms of this Scottish surname were Dennison/Denison. The 1901 UKCensus for Scotland suggests that the same process of erosion may have taken place there, because the “t”-less forms are far more prevalent by then even in Scotland.

Surname distribution maps based on the 1881 UKCensus provide further clues. By that year Dennistons were clustered along the west coast of Scotland in the adjacent counties of Renfrew (the locus of the original Danzielstoun) and Dunbartonshire, and spread out from there to Lanark (with its great port city of Glasgow), and Argyllshire. A second and even greater concentration is found in Kirkcudbright, and adjacent Wigtown, and this lot appears to be of quite independent origin, since there are virtually no “Denniston”s in the intervening county of Ayr. The distribution of the first cluster tempts one to theorize that at least some of these are descendants of the original Daniel of Danzielstoun, or if not actually descended from him, they may have been tenants who adopted the surname of this early Scottish gentry family.

Some of the “t”-less Dennisons appear in some of the same areas of Scotland as the first group of Dennistons, but they are conspicuously missing from Kirkcudbright and Wigtown. “Dennison”s cluster predominantly in the northernwestern counties of Westmoreland, Cumberland, and Yorkshire (West Riding). The latter was one of the first rural English areas to be transformed by the Industrial Revolution, through the spectacular growth of cloth manufacturing in the city of Leeds from 1780-1880. This city, besides drawing in much of the surplus labor of the rural counties in the area was also a magnet for Irish immigrants from across the Irish Sea, and one might suppose that the name was brought over to England that way, and was a patronymic derivative of the given name “Dennis”, itself derived from the 3rd-century bishop of Paris, St. Denis, the patron saint of France.

While it does seem likely that many English Dennisons derived their surname from Irish immigrants named Dennis, this probably occurred very much farther back in time—back as far as the 14th century when surnames were just coming into general use. According to R.A. McKinley, A History of British Surnames (pp111-112), surnames ending in “-son” became especially prevalent during this early period in Yorkshire in particular, and in the north of England in general. And George Redmond’s book on Christian Names shows that the given name Dennis comes up on the radar only for Yorkshire, and to a lesser extent Berkshire in the period 1377-1381 when surname adoption was peaking, and that it had all but vanished two centuries later. Thus, we may conjecture that many English Dennisons are descended from Dennises of Irish derivation who settled in the area of Yorkshire and Lancashire before 1400, but as with most surnames derived from common personal names (like Robb from Robert), the Dennison surname probably had a number of independent origins, even in Yorkshire, over the ensuing centuries.

Reaney’s Dictionary of British Surnames also reports an early occurrence of Denizen, from the French Latin for a burgess—a freeman entitled to reside in a particular city. And in his entry for the possibly related surname “Denson” (son of the dean), Reaney also offers a 13th century example, “Henry le Deneson”, who, it seems might bridge the gap between Denison and Denson; maybe some of the early English DENNISONs were also descended from “sons of the dean”.

DENNISONs to America

There is one smallish cluster of Dennisons that appears on the surname map for England, which is worth making special note of. Quite a few Dennison families are found in 1881 in several towns of the eastern county of Essex, fanning out into the adjacent inland counties, of Cambridge and Hertfordshire, an area that was a fountainhead of much of the early 17th-century Puritan migration to New England. And sure enough, it turns out that the first known American immigrant bearing the DENNISON surname was William Denison of Hertfordshire, who emigrated with his family in 1631 on the Lion to Roxbury, in Massachusetts Bay. These families may have drifted down from Yorkshire, or even from Scotland, or this line may have had an independent local origin, perhaps from one of the other derivations suggested by Reaney.

The surname DENNISON was next brought to America in the early 1700s by Scotch-Irish settlers. More often than not the name was spelled “Denniston” (with the “t”) among this contingent, betokening its Scottish origin. And so far, all of the tested members of the DENNISON DNA Project for whom the name is sometimes spelled this way in the records, all are of the same broad Scottish patrilineage, and all settled on the Virginia frontier—along with western Pennsylvania, the most popular destination for the Scotch-Irish who began to emigrate in numbers to America in the 1720s and 1730s.

Yet despite this early clustering of Dennisons in SW Virginia, a survey of the 1820 USCensus (the first that was substantially complete for all states), shows that the 20 out of the 30 household heads whose name was spelled “Denniston” or “Deniston” resided in New York! Presuming that most of these were Scotch-Irish too, this is an unexpected finding and it will be interesting to learn more about these lines when their descendants find their way to the DENNISON DNA Project.

Meanwhile, no fewer than 298 1820 households were headed by “Dennison”s or “Denison”s (without the “t”) and these are overwhelmingly concentrated in New England, and New York. Many of these, and perhaps the majority, may be descended from the very early William Denison of Roxbury, who brought over sons, and there was also a John Denison, early settler of Ipswich in Massachusetts, but I suspect that a certain minority of these New Englanders and New Yorkers were of Scottish, or Scotch-Irish descent. Once we have accrued some project members from this main line of American DENNISONs, we should be able to begin to sort this out.



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MAPS of DENNISONs & DENNISTONs in Great Britain, 1881

“Dennison” and “Denniston” are broken out separately in these surname distribution maps (created from Archer Software’s Surname Atlas), and I have capitalized the latter surname to indicate this. Elsewhere on this page, however, the ““Dennison”” spelling will be subsumed for convenience under the generic capitalized form DENNISON, because there is reason to believe that there is substantial overlap between these surnames that are nominally independent. If this seems a rather arbitrary compromise, it should be remembered that even if the generic spelling “DENNISON” were made to represent only surnames whose spellings crystallized out as “Dennison”, it would still represent a collection of many independent surname lineages.

It is suggested that the following maps be opened in pairs for comparison. To do this, right click each map link and select “Open in New Window”; you can then size and array the two map windows side by side for comparison, first minimizing the surname page if necessary.


DENNISONs in Great Britain, 1881, per 100,000 Population

DENNISTONs in Great Britain, 1881, per 100,000 Population


DENNISONs in England, 1881, Actual Numbers

DENNISONs in Scotland, 1881, Actual Numbers


DENNISTONs in Great Britain, 1881, Actual Numbers

(there are only 16 south of Yorkshire, mostly in London)


The Surname DENNISON

The original form of this surname, in many cases, was “Denniston”, derived from “Danzielstoun”, a large landholding in the ancient Scottish county of Renfrew, in the neighborhood of Glasgow. The proprietor of this land was a member of the Scottish gentry named Daniel, and the original form of the name “Danziels” is the Latin genitive for Daniel.

Many original bearers of this Scottish name have come to adopt “Dennison” or “Denison” in its place, but there is every reason to suppose that the form “Dennison” arose independently as a surname, with an entirely different derivation, perhaps as a patronymic of the surname “Dennis”. This is suggested particularly by the fact that the form “Dennison” is more common in England than in Scotland or the U.S.

The DENNISON Surname in Britain and the U.S.
Born between: 1881-1901 1880-1900
Surname(s) in: England Scotland United States
all names (millions) 13.5 2 34.3
Dennison 1303 117 2083
Denison 480 24 1462
Den(n)iston 36 46 456
---------- -----
TOTALS 1819 187 4001
Number of people bearing the generic surname DENNISON per million of population
Surname Frequency Index
1900      1997
England 134.7                 
Scotland  93.5                 
United States 116.6       106.8

The Surname Frequency Index (SFI) for 1900 was derived by dividing the number of people with the generic surname DENNISON (including all the above listed spelling variants) who were born during the 20 year period immediately preceding the census for each country, by the total in millions of population enunmerated in that census.

The SFI for the US in 1997 is based on a database of listed telephone subscribers, as reported in Hanks’s Dictionary of American Family Names.

The SFI is only a surrogate for the actual frequency in each country of the generic surname DENNISON compared to other surnames, but it is the best measure of surname frequency I can conceive and readily compute. Any attempt to estimate the total number of surnames in existence must also take spelling variations into account. But who, in the end, can definitively say, for each surname, which are its variants, and which are independent surnames, or variants of other names? Thus, both the numbers that go into this SFI calculation are formally indeterminate. However, the variants chosen for sampling here as DENNISONs were carefully considered, and based on extensive experience in searching for these names in the records, and I believe that they account for at least 98% of the names that can reasonably be considered spelling variants of DENNISON in the countries of Britain and its erstwhile empire.

More importantly, as I have tried to indicate above, when I speak of the surname DENNISON, I speak knowingly of a hybrid. Not only do I expect there to be derivations of the name other than from the Scottish place, Danzielstoun, I also expect the name to have arisen independently in several, if not many, different families, just as most surnames have done.

"Dennison" (but not the other variants that comprise DENNISON) was the 1527th most common surname as of 1964, according to the Social Security data for that year, as reported in American Surnames.

Elsdon C. Smith, American Surnames (1969; reprint GPC, 1994)
Patrick Hanks, Dictionary of American Family Names, 3 vols
   (Oxford University Press, 2003)



A General Fund has been set up to facilitate the purchase of additional testing at FTDNA to further the genealogical goals of the project. Donations to the General Fund may be made by accessing the default FTDNA project website and clicking on the link under the heading "General Fund". FTDNA acts as the custodian of these funds, but the money may then be spent on further testing at the discretion of the project administrator(s), or in consultation with the donors.

If you wish to donate for a specific purpose, say to extend the test of another member whose result may shed light that will benefit several or all project members, please contact the administrator(s) to discuss the idea. FTDNA organizes its projects by surname, but I have broken these down into patrilineages, and I will be glad to segregate any donations accordingly in my records, so that the money will be spent only on the donor's patrilineage, or to allocate funds for a specific purpose.

One reason to pre-donate funds is that FTDNA runs occasional short pop sales throughout the year, and with money on hand to take advantage of them, it will not be necessary to first contact the interested members, who may be on vacation or otherwise out of communication during the sale period.

Last updated 17Mar2014
© John Barrett Robb
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