Select Dunn Surname Genealogy

The surname Dunn has English, Irish and Scottish origins.  Both the English and Irish have the meaning of “brown-haired” or “dark-colored,” whether it be from the Old English dunn or the Gaelic donn (which gave rise to the O’Duinn sept).  In Scotland Dunn might also have derived from the place-name Dun in Angus. 

Dunn and Dunne are the two main spellings, Dunne in Ireland and Dunn elsewhere.

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Select Dunn Ancestry

Ireland.  The early O’Duinn sept was separated into two branches:
  • first the Tara O'Duinns in county Meath
  • and then the Tinnahinch O'Duinns in county Laios.
The Tara O'Duinns were dispersed at the time of the Anglo-Norman invasion.  The Tinnahinch O'Duinns held firm.  As lords of Iregan they became one of the principal families of Leinster and managed to resist the English incursions in the 16th century

But their Chief Rents were abolished in 1613; and then their stronghold of Tinnahinch castle, built by Tadhg MacLaighnigh Ui Duinn in 1475, was destroyed by Cromwell.   Later, six Dunnes fought in King James' army. Lieutenant Colonel Dunne and Captain Terence Dunne both fell at the Battle of Aughrim in 1691.  Many Dunnes then fled as “wild geese.”

The Dunne chief built for himself a more modest new home at Brittas near Clonaslee.   In 1771 the Dunnes of Brittas conformed to the Protestant church.   Francis Dunne, known as the Squire, was said to have been so angry at losing his silver mounted rapier that he registered himself as a Protestant.  However, he continued to have his children baptized and brought up as Catholics.  A later Francis Dunne built a neo-Gothic mansion at Brittas in 1869, but this building burned down in 1942.

The Dunns of Ards descended from a younger brother of the Dunne chief of the late 16th century.  Other
Dunns in Ulster were more likely to have been of Scottish rather than of Irish origin.

Wales.  Donne came from the Welsh dwnn and the Donnes were a distinguished family at Kidwelly in Carmarthenshire.   Sir John Donne was a Yorkist figure at the time of the War of the Roses.  He may have been related to the Jacobean poet John Donne, although not as a direct ancestor as Sir John had no male Donne grandchildren.  However, the poet did use the same coat of arms as Sir John.

Scotland.  The early spelling was Dun.  The Dunn spelling was relatively rare until 1800.  But fifty years later the Dunns exceeded the Duns by almost six to one and now it is Dun that is rare.

The Dun name, possibly originating in Angus, was to be found along the East Coast, from Aberdeen to the Borders.  Early examples were:
  • Adam de Dun who was elected to the deanery of Moray in 1255
  • and Thomas Dun who was hanged at Elgin in 1296 for stealing books and vestments from the church.
The Border Duns appeared later but were sizeable in number by the 17th century.  George Dun, a Covenanter in Selkirk, narrowly escaped with his life in 1679.

.  Dunn has been very much a northern name, with close to 50% of Dunns in the 1881 census to be found in the five northern counties. 

North.  Sizeable numbers were in Northumberland.  The Dunns were a Border reiver family, albeit a minor one, on the Eastern Marches.  The Dunn name surfaced in Whickham and the surrounding villages of Blaydon and Stella in the 17th century.  Mrs Dunn of Burnt Houses in Whickham Fell had lived to be 107 on her death there in 1804.  The Dunns of Stella Hall were Catholic.  Matthias Dunn was an inspector of mines in the early 1800's, his son Archibald a prominent local architect.

In Yorkshire the Dunn name appeared in the East Riding – in the 17th century at Brandesburton and Hornsea and in the 18th century in places such as Beeford, Howden and South Cave.  In Lancashire the Dunn numbers were augmented by Irish immigrants such as Michael Dunn, the well-known Irish fiddler.

Elsewhere.  Dunns were to be found in the Hertfordshire village of Ware from the 17th century.   Robert Dunn went from there to South Africa in 1824 where he set himself up as a merchant trading in ivory.  He died in 1847.

"There are many stories as to how exactly Robert Newton Dunn died.  One was that his son John saw him trampled to death by an elephant.  Another said that he died after a fall from his horse when surprised by elephants.  A third was that he died in Congella drunk on the side of the trail, supposedly from an apoplectic fit."

Another branch of the family had clergymen overseas, including the Rev. Andrew Hunter Dunn who served as the Bishop of Quebec in the early 1900's.  From his line came the Joan Hunter Dunn made famous by John Betjeman's poem.

John Dunn was born in Cornwall around the year 1670 and there were numerous Dunns at Megavissey in Cornwall a century or so later.  The best-known was James Dunn, a smuggler during the Napoleonic Wars. His son Samuel became a Methodist minister.  In Devon, there were Dunn yeoman farmers in Crediton and Bondleigh at that time.

America.  The first Dunn who came to America was probably Thomas Dunn who arrived in Virginia in 1620 at the age of 14 on the Temperance as a servant to Governor George Yeardley.  He was later granted land in Essex county and lived to be 93:
  • one line of his family migrated to North Carolina and were plantation owners in Wake county in the early 1800's.  David Dunn enlisted on the Confederate side in the Civil War but died of gunshot wounds in 1864.
  • another line headed north to Massachusetts and then to Vermont.  Aaron Dunn married a Canadian in the 1820’s and moved to Nova Scotia before settling in Wisconsin.
The first Irish Dunn in America was probably Hugh Dunn from Tipperary who had come to Piscataway, New Jersey in 1666 and was one of the early landowners there.  But he was of English rather than of Irish stock and Protestant not Catholic.  In fact he took a leading role in organizing the Baptist church in Piscataway.  These Dunns then became Quakers.  Later:
  • Captain Hugh Dunn fought in the Revolutionary War and migrated afterwards with his family to Ohio.
  • while Captain Josiah Dunn was plundering on the Georgia frontier and did not survive the war.
John Dunn, born in Dublin, might have been a truer Irishman.  He had come to Bullitt county, Kentucky sometime in the 1790's, drawn there by reports of salt deposits.  His brick house, built in 1805, still stands. His son Charles served as the Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court and Dunn county there was named after him. 

Canada.  Charles and Rebecca Dunn were Loyalists of Scots origin from Vermont who had crossed the border into Canada as early as 1778.  They settled on a farm near Trois-Rivieres in Quebec.  Their grandson T.H. Dunn pioneered the development of the timber trade in the province in the mid/late 1800’s.  Another descendant Oscar Dunn became a prominent Montreal journalist.  

New Brunswick.  The Loyalist John Dunn departed New York for New Brunswick in 1784 and built his home (which is still standing) in St. Andrews, New Brunswick.  Dunns from Ireland came to the province in the early/mid 1800’s:
  • John Dunn arrived from Derry in 1824 and established himself as a cabinet maker in St. John. His son John was a prominent St. John architect.  
  • while sometime later another Scots Irish Dunn family came to Bathurst and developed a very profitable business building wooden boats.  However, that business was in decline by the 1870’s and James Dunn, born into this family in 1874, also lost his father Robert when he was still an infant.  
“The widow raised her son in the best Presbyterian tradition.  The mother and boy’s survival depended on her selling the family furniture and working as a live-in housekeeper, which she did.”  

James’s rise from there was a rags-to-riches story.  He owed much of his success as a financier in England to his relationship with fellow Canadian Max Aitken who became Lord Beaverbrook.  His daughter Mona, described at the time as the most beautiful girl in England, died tragically young; another daughter Anne became a painter; while grand-daughter Nell Dunn made her name in the 1960's as an author and playwright

Australia.  John Dunn was a miller in Devon who found himself eking out a meager living in the 1830's. Poverty was so close that he was only dissuaded from migrating to Canada in 1833 by a rise in wages.  He rented out his own mill until 1840 when he was persuaded by four of his six brothers to join them in South Australia. 

There, with the emergence of Mount Barker as a wheat-producing center, his fortunes changed dramatically.  He and his sons prospered greatly and he was running eleven modern mills by the time of his death in 1894.

Select Dunn Miscellany

If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for further stories and accounts:

Select Dunn Names

Gilliananaemih O'Duinn
was a poet and a historian in 1102 of the early Dunnes.
John Donne
was the English metaphysical poet of the early 17th century.
Sir James Dunn, Canadian-born, was a prominent financier and steel magnate in London during the first half of the 20th century.
Clive Dunn was the popular TV actor in the BBC sitcom Dad's Army.

Select Dunns Today
  • 51,000 in the UK (most numerous in Yorkshire)
  • 52,000 in America (most numerous in Texas) 
  • 61,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)


PS.  You might want to check out the surnames page on this website.  It covers surname genealogy in this and companion websites for more than 800 surnames.

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