Note: this is chapter 2 from my book, The Uncommonly Common.

I'm starting this off just like most genealogies – about the name Wilson – but I am warning you, this is a story of more, for it is a tale of a number of entwined families of early Maine.

According to, Wilson is the tenth most common name in the United States[1]; it is even more common in Great Britain – the seventh most common name there[2] As normal with a name with son on the end, Wilson at one time probably was son of Will, a popular medieval name.

First recorded in England in 1324[3], the name Willeson gave rise to the present day Wilson and Willson, the more common American spellings. It is found among the Scottish and Irish as well as the British. There are multiple coats of arms (over 70!) so I am not even going to talk about the possibilities of that. I'm pretty sure my forebears were not worried about that kind of thing: they worried about survival.

The origin of the name William (where Will probably came from) is actually quite important in genealogy because of DNA. William the Conqueror, the first Norman king of England, was a descendant of the Vikings. His 1066 entry into England brought the blood of those Vikings into Anglo-Saxon England.

If your ancestors are from the British Isles, your DNA test is quite likely to show Scandinavian origins.[4] Mine does, my husband's does (he is mostly English) and, as the footnoted page tells you, "even individuals with deep British pedigrees often have some Scandinavian" ancestry. So there is almost no such thing as pure English, Irish or Scottish.

In fact, origins can to get really murky for us of Scotch Irish descent as my line of Wilsons (and one of my southern lineages) is. My DNA test is right on the mark with Irish, Scandinavian, British, Scottish, French and Polish origins – nice to have that confirmation!

Wilsons can be solely English or Scottish but the Scotch Irish Wilsons of Maine make no claims to either. This Scotch Irish background is extremely important for these Wilsons as it explains a lot of things I found in this family tree.

I had been told I had Scotch Irish origins and years later I was totally confused about whether my Scotch Irish Presbyterian southern ancestors on my Mom's side originated in Scotland or Ireland and what difference did it make?

I found the answers in my Yankee tree. The Scotch Irish background is a tale of survival starting back in Scotland originally for some but this American term is more likely used to describe the Protestant inhabitants of Northeastern Ireland or Ulster who came to America in the 1700s and the 1800s. The term Scotch Irish is said to have been adopted by the Protestant Irish to distinguish themselves from the influx of Catholic Irish after the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s[5] and is not a term most Englishmen are even familiar with.

(Oh, and one side note here – as I mentioned before I make no claims to be producing a scholarly tome of history; thus, I frequently consulted for part of this historical background. When I refer to a Wikipedia page, I am also providing access to further reading material in case anyone wants to read more about a topic. I have used original source material where most important.)

This Scotch Irish pride is manifested in one 1910 book written by a little known but important New England author named Charles Knowles Bolton. He writes, "They came to America, not as discoverers, but as the pioneers of their race; they defended the frontiers against Indians, and their numbers in the South so much augmented the forces in the Revolutionary army that they may fairly be said to have saved Washington from defeat."[6]

His book is an interesting look into the early Scotch Irish pioneers starting in New England as many American stories do. One particular relevant fact is found in his appendix – a list of ships that arrived from Ireland between 1714 and 1720. Interestingly, among those ships is the first one in 1718 with a master named John Wilson.[7] No, he's not my original ancestor and he most likely did not settle in the New World but my James Wilson did arrive on one of those ships.

The history of these "Scotch Irish" immigrants is a tale of a people looking for religious freedom and opportunity denied to them, first in Scotland and later in Ireland. First sent to Ireland by James VI, the king of Scotland who inherited the English and Irish thrones in the 1500s, the original Scotch Protestants left an overpopulated low country Scotland with its high rents and harsh conditions.

By the end of the seventeenth century, a third of the Ulster, Ireland, population was Scottish. Conditions, however, worsened as time went on because there was no government support there for Protestantism and the long term Irish leases started expiring. A well-written description of this piece of history is available at if you desire a more detailed account of this time period.

Bolton tells us: "Under Queen Anne (1702-1714) the Presbyterians in Ireland again lost almost every advantage that had been gained, and became by the Test Act of 1704 virtually outlaws. Their marriages were declared invalid, and their chapels were closed. They could not maintain schools nor hold office above that of a petty constable."[8]

This lead to a rush to immigrate between 1717 and 1727 that was encouraged by American colonists such as those in the Massaschusetts colony. Massachusetts did not desire the Scotch Irish as their neighbors though; they only wanted them for protection.

As early as 1706 the well-known Rev. Cotton Mather wrote, "I write letters unto diverse persons of Honour both in Scotland and in England; to procure Settlements of Good Scotch Colonies, to the Northward of us. This may be a thing of great consequence." It was Mather's plan to settle hardy families on the frontiers in Maine and New Hampshire to protect the towns and churches of Massachusetts from the French and Indians.[9] This was actually common all over the Eastern seaboard – delving into my South Carolina roots found the same story down there.

So the Scotch Irish arrived after generations of migration, upheaval and, in Ireland, the isolation of being surrounded by and increasingly suspicious of the Irish Catholics. They tended to be clannish as the Scottish and this shaped many things in Maine – not marrying out of their extended family, for example.[10] This marks the Maine Wilsons in many ways and actually has assisted me and other family researchers because the only other Wilsons in coastal maine in the 1700’s and early 1800’s were an Irish and an English family. The family patterns are obviously different between the three families and there was little intermarrying. 

In addition, they used different first names; whether by design or because of naming traditions in the different Wilson families, I just don’t know. For example, you’ll find very few Thomas Wilsons among James’ descendants; there’s only two. The Irish Wilson original ancestor was Thomas and there were plenty of Anns in his family as well. James’ family used Ann as a middle name and not as a first name. Between the clannishness of James’ family and the naming traditions, separating out who was who was much easier than one would think. (except for those Marys – I swear the most common first name back then for a woman was Mary!)

  1. Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Smith: America's Most Common Surnames,, accessed 9 Feb 2015.
  2. Wilson (name),, accessed 9 Feb 2015.
  3. Reaney, Percy Hilde (1995), Wilson, Richard Middlewood, ed., A Dictionary of English Surnames (3rd ed.), Oxford University Press, p. 495.
  4. Got Scandinavian? Why your DNA results may have unexpected ethnicities,, acccessed 4 April 2014.
  5. Scotch-Irish American ,, accessed 4 Jan 2014.
  6. Charles Knowles Bolton, Scotch Irish Pioneers in Ulster and America (Boston: Bacon and Brown, 1910), 6.
  7. Bolton, 15.
  8. Bolton, 231.
  9. Bolton, 17.
  10. W.J. Montgomery, A Montgomery Family Genealogy,, accessed April 4, 2014.