More origins details

JISHOU, HUNAN — The amateur sleuths tracking down the origins of the Wheatons have uncovered another intriguing detail — the likely origin of the surname.

DNA tests of several members of our FamilyTreeDNA surname group have shown there are at least four unrelated family lines sharing the same surname from Devon, England. That in itself is no big surprise. Surnames are a relatively new thing in European culture, dating from the late Middle Ages. Before surnames became common, people went by their given names and perhaps their hometown or occupation, “John, the smith,” “Mary, from Edinburgh” and so on. In the Scandinavian countries, the custom was to use one’s father’s name (patronymic) as a second name: Brita Persdotter “Brita, daughter of Peter,” for example. This custom fell out of fashion in Sweden in the 19th century, but Icelanders still name themselves this way. (Apparently, the Reykjavik phone book is alphabetized by first names for this reason.)

It seems that the four Devon Wheaton branches took the surname from a location in Devon, a tiny hamlet named Wheaton. On modern maps, the name is now Whiddon. If you follow this link, you can see a very old farmhouse there called Lower Whiddon. Two other photos at the same site show the cob and stone barn and a path leading to Higher (or Upper) Whiddon.

There’s also nearby Whiddon Moor, which makes me think of Wuthering Heights for some reason, although Wuthering Heights was set in a much more desolate moor than the Devon countryside. And Whiddon Down. Curiously, families with the Whiddon surname are also unrelated to any of the four Wheaton branches.

Here’s a description of the area from a 1851 gazetteer.

LEW (NORTH), a village and a parish in Okehampton district, Devon. The village stands on an eminence near a head-stream of the river Torridge, 7 miles NW of Okehampton r. station; is a large place, with an ancient cross in its centre; commands an extensive view; and has a post office under Exbourne, North Devon, and a cattle fair on the third Wednesday of April. The parish contains also the hamlet of Wheaton, and comprises 7,247 acres. Real property, £3,611. Pop. in 1851, 1,047; in 1861,930. …

As a surname, Wheaton is not especially common, which would lead one to assume we are all related somehow. But no. It seems Wil Wheaton and I are not long lost cousins. I have no direct connections to either of the two Wheaton Colleges (in Massachusetts and Illinois), who were founded separately by descendents of Robert Wheaton, a New England colonist from (as it turns out) Devon. The Robert Wheaton branch is one of the four we have identified from Devon.

I’m not sure about Wheaton Van Lines, which was founded in 1945 in Indianapolis by Earnest S. Wheaton. But there is a family connection to the Wheaton Glassworks of Millville, NJ, and the nearby Wheaton Village. I was surprised when, during my first year of teaching, I discovered some of the chemistry glassware had my name molded into their bases. The company was founded specifically to make scientific and pharmaceutical glassware by another descendent of my great-great-great-great-grandfather.


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