Origins Of the Surname Wheaton

Updated 1/2013

Wheaton, Whetene, Wheten, Wheyton, Weyton, Wheton, Wheeton, Wheeten, Weeton, Weeten, Weaton, Weaten, Whetten, Whetton, Wheatin, Wheadon, Weeton, Wedden, Wheaton, Wheadon, Wheaddon, Wheydon


"What's in a Name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." SHAKESPEARE

The name Wheaton and all its various permutations have been adopted in widely separated areas by men with no familial relationship. This has made the sorting of families more complicated than we originally anticipated. I will be adding information on additional locations and family clusters as time permits. Please see maps here.

Some commonly cited origins of the name:

"English: habitational name of uncertain origin, possibly from places in Lancashire and East and West Yorkshire named Weeton, from Old English wiðig ‘willow’ + tun ‘settlement’."
Dictionary of American Family Names, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-508137-4

Or this at the Surname database
"This unusual surname is of Anglo-Saxon origin, and is a locational name either from Wheaton-Aston, a village north west of Brewood in Staffordshire, or from any of the various places in the north of England called Weeton or Wetton. Wheaton-Aston, recorded as "Wetenaston" in the 1248 "Inquisitions post mortem", is believed to have as its initial element "wheten", an adjective from the Olde English pre 7th Century "hwaete", wheat, a derivative of "hwit", white, because of its use in making flour, with "tun", enclosure, paddock, farmstead."

And for Trivia's sake this on the origins of the Wheaten Terrier:
The Wheaten was not even recognized as a breed by the Irish Kennel Club until 1937. The breed is believed to have originated in Ireland. The name probably being used to denote color of the breed's hair.

DNA testing and exhaustive research suggest that these definitions are over simplifications of more complex origins.

Origins of the Surname Wheaton, Wheadon, Weeton, Wetton
The following article was researched and written originally in collaboration with John Wheaton of, Heavitree, Exeter, England in the 1977 and revised in June of 2011, September 2012 and January 2013 Permission granted for personal use with attribution. For publication please contact me.

Most of the available information about the origins of the surnames Wheaton, Wheadon, Weeton, Wetton etc. is based on the same limited research. In general it associates the surname with a place or with a connection to wheat. In England, where all known progenitors of Wheaton lines occur, there are the following place names of note:

Wheaton-Aston, Staffordshire

Wetton, Staffordshire

Wetton, Derbyshire

Weeton, East Riding Yorkshire

Weeton, North Yorkshire

Weeton, Lancashire

Weddon Cross, Somerset

Weedon, Northamptonshire

Whitnage, Devon 

Upper and Lower Wheaton (now known as Upper and Lower Whiddon)

Through my own research and DNA testing we know that the name developed in different areas independently and likely had different meanings. In fact we have evidence that two distinct family groups separated by geography and DNA had adopted the name, specifically Wetton/Wheaton in Staffordshire and Whetene/Wheaton/Wheadon in Devon. It is also likely that the Lancashire and Yorkshire Weetons and Wheatons are of equally diverse origins. In Devon Wheadon and Wheaton are not genetically related, although they lived in close geographic proximity. In fact there is strong DNA evidence that several Wheaton lines in Devon have adopted similar names but are totally unrelated. It is likely that the names as well as their meanings had many origins and do not represent one original family but rather many. Over time the names normalized with Wheaton and Wheadon being the most common in the Southwest of England and Weeton and Wetton in much of the rest. There is however no hard and fast rule. 

The earliest located record of a surname resembling Wheaton is in the year 1298. It is of a "Roger le Whetene," recorded at the Exeter Guildhall, (From the Cartulary of St. John's Hospital, fol. 22 Devon, England). There he witnessed two deeds as a steward and bailiff. It is assumed this is the same Roger le Whetene or Whetene that is mayor of Exeter in the years 1303, 1304, 1307, 1309 and 1320. As John Wheaton pointed out many years ago it is unlikely that Roger would have been mayor of such a large city before he was at least 45 years old so that puts his birth about 1260. Approximately 100 years after the Norman invasion. Roger le Whetene is listed in several National Archives Documents as "citizen" [merchant] of Exeter during the years 1303-1309 from the "Chancery: Certificates of Statute Merchant and Statute Staples" where he is the creditor and these documents list amounts owed him.

Records in Exeter mention a "Gilbert le Whetene" in 1323 and a "John le Whetene" in 1346 becoming freemen. The 1332 Subsidy Rolls for Devon include the following spellings: le Whetene, Wettene, De Wottone, atte Wettene, Whetena, Whetene and possibly the first instance of Wheadon as Weydon. (please see maps)

In the year 1353 and again in 1367 a John Whetene is mayor of Dartmouth, Devon, England. The next record is of a "John Whetene" in the Dartmouth Archives in 1409 and 1410, as a previous landowner mentioned in two deeds. Interestingly the deed dated 19 March 1410 "in Dartmouth in which John Lande and Luke Pottter now live called Whetene place." There is a farm near Dartmouth called Wheatland today. Whether this is the earlier Whetene Farm is not known.

By the year 1524 the Devon Subsidy Rolls list twenty three "Whetons" (Whetton) in Exeter and surrounding parishes. And in 1569 the Devon Muster Roll mentions fifteen "Wheatons". In a period of 370 years the name "le Whetene" changed to "Whetene", "Wheton", and then to its present day "Wheaton" and "Wheadon." It is still in the range of possibilities that names as distinct as Wooten and Wheddon were at one time used interchangeably with Wheaton and Wheadon thus confounding our efforts to sort them out. In the counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire the name is most often seen as Weeton whereas in Norfolk Weedon or Wheddon.

From The History of Family Names in Great Britain by Henry Brougham under the chapter titled Devonshire "Peculiar Names" (confined mostly to this county) is found Wheaton and Wooten. And from the same source "Wheaton was a frequent Exmouth name in the 17th century and it still occurs in the town..... Also amongst the old Devonshire knightly families now scantily represented in the county is that of Wyddon of Chagford in the 16th and 17th century." To date Whyddon is often written Whiddon, but presently there are no DNA matches with any of our Wheatons or Wheadons of Devon. It is likely the place name Whiddon Down northwest of Exeter is related to the early Wyddon family.

Other places of note are the previously mentioned Whetene place near Dartmouth. Wheddon Farm in Wheddon Cross in the Exmoor Forest and Wooten Courtenay in North Somerset adjacent North Devon. And Upper and Lower Wheaton Near Beaworthy that have morphed into Upper and Lower Whiddon today.

More on the specifics of spelling. "The early records of Devon are fraught with so many different spellings sometimes its hard to recognize the same name. Apocopation, the dropping of the last letter or syllable, is widely observed in Devon and lists with consecutive individuals of the same name will often show these truncations. So John Wheten Sr. would be followed by Jon Whet Jr.  In addition "many of the difficulties of derivation arise from irregular interchange of consonants, particularly of single vowels, semi-vowel and diphthongs." (Ewing p7-8) Examples might include: wh=w, t=d , t=tt and vowels showed much interchange such as e=ea, e=ee, e=y or e=o. 

What kind of name is "Wheaton"? Where did it come from and what was its meaning? Starting with the earliest form, "le Whetene" has a decidedly French flavor, but is it French? "le" is the French word for "the", but the letter "W" did not exist in the French language at the time (and only later in borrowed words from other languages). What if the "W" was originally a "V" making it "le Vhetene.” Unfortunately, there are no words in the French or English language beginning "Vh". The French words for wheat being ble or fromune which bear no resemblance to Whetene. If not a French surname was it English and why the French trimmings?

To answer these questions we must look back to the first usage of surnames. In Norman France surnames began about the year 1000. In 1066 when "William the Conqueror" invaded England, he brought with him the custom of adopting surnames. However it took over 250 years before the practice became widespread in England, especially among the middle and lower classes. According to Ewen in Early Surnames of Devonshire, surnames in Devon, as elsewhere in England, became prevalent in cities and towns sooner than in rural areas. In general they were used in the East and South of England before the North and West. By the year 1332, about 40% of Devon had NOT adopted hereditary surnames (p.4).  We have 6 Whetene or similar surnames in Devon in the 1332 Lay Subsidy Rolls.

In the year 1298 our first Roger "le Whetene" appears not surprisingly in the large city of Exeter.  Ewans writes "Another distinguishing mark of [Devon] County nomenclature is the relative use of the definitive article le and la....Long after the Norman-French language had fallen into desuetude the article remained." (p.4) Of the 1,600 Devon Entries in the 1332 Lay Subsidies only 2% retained the article "le" of "la" and these occur mostly in East Devon. (p.4) "Le" was generally an occupational article as in Roger "the" wheat farmer or wheat merchant. Also in 1332 we find a Roger atte Wettene. This Roger was more likely "of" or "at" Wetten which may have been a reference to a "wet place" or near a stream or river (p.13). "Atte" was found in 8% of the Devon names in 1332 (p.4).  Furthermore the most common preposition in Devon was the use of "De" at 29% as in Gilbert De Wootone and yet another Roger: Roger de Weydon. "De" was used more than twice as much in the North than in the south---perhaps indicating a connection of Gilbert De Wootone to the village Wooten Courtenay in the north of Somerset. (p.4)

In the original version of the article I wrote: "It is probably impossible to know if the original 'le Whetene' was an Englishman, a Norman or perhaps of mixed heritage. He could have been a Norman who adopted the name in England or an Englishman who took the name for himself. We do know that the word 'wheat' from which the name was derived was not Norman, therefore it is not a 'Norman' name." This statement was written pre-DNA testing and we now know that the Wheaton name in Devon represents very different ancient origins as to the men that bore the names.

Stanes in A History of Devon states: 

"The county boundaries do not seem to have been much of a hindrance to prehistoric man. The whole peninsula was open to influence and perhpas invasion from the sea, more readily so than much of the rest of the country. The result was a diversity of people's and cultures, some with Clear connections with the rest of the country, and some with obvious links across the seas. In contrast, the peninsula, and even the county, we're large enough and divided enough by rivers, valleys and hills to create further diversity, so that there seems little overall uniformity in, for instance, burial customs, or in the building of hill-forts. " (Stanes p. 17)


Perhpas this helps to explain the diversity in naming patterns, names, and the very different origins of DNA. There are several possibilities for the original meaning of Whetene. First is the "name" likely of English origin although the recording of it shows Norman influence. The English word for "wheat" comes from the Middle English "whete." "Whete" is derived from the Anglo-saxon word "hwaete." The "wh" is a respelling of the old English "hw." It is interesting to note that the word "wheat" is strictly a Germanic word and is not found in any of the other Indo-european languages (including Norman French). Both "whete" and "weizen" originating from the Indo-european base "kweit." Kweit meaning: to gleam; bright; white. Wheat was named for its white seed. The English word "white" comes from the same root "kweit".

However, Ewans introduces one other possibility and this one likely refers to the earliest spellings beginning "We" rather than those beginning "Wh." As was common during this period when surnames were beginning to emerge a man might take his name from either his occupation or the place where he lived or came from.  About half the early surnames in Devon are derived from localities or topographical features. That being so, Wettene meaning spring or stream; literally a wet place. This may point to the possible origins of some of the Devon Wheatons but also those of Staffordshire: Wetton or Wetten, Yorkshire: Weetons and Lancashire: Weetons. Before DNA testing showed that there are at least 5 different DNA Wheaton lines I wrote:

"The most likely meaning was from an association with "wheat." Interestingly the Latin "tene" to hold and the English use of the suffix ton or tone were used at this time to denote a farm or land holding. So should the name have been written Whete + tene = Whetetene becoming Whetene, meaning a Wheat farm? This would have meant the dropping of the repeated middle syllable...Gilbert le [the] Whetene, should read Gilbert de [of] Whetene. The suffix "ne" may have been used as a possessive adjective to emphasize the possessor rather than the thing possessed (common in Scotch Gaelic or Finnish usage). Thus Whete + ne = Whetene, meaning the possessor of wheat. So Roger, if he was the first to adopt the surname Whetene, may have been literally le + Whete + ne = Roger the owner of "whete." This would be consistent with our previously mentioned occupation of Roger as a merchant. Since Exeter, as a prosperous port city,  was engaged in wheat trading during this time period this would make perfect sense."1

In the case of the Weetons and Wettons of the north The Domesday Book lists the original spelling as Witetune or Widetune. As previously mentioned "t" and "d" being interchangeable. Some have interpreted this as wide-tun suggesting a wide village but I tend towards the alternative wheat enclosure or village. An equally compelling case may be made for Wheaton being associated with a wet place. Ewans associates these names with a spring or stream: Wettene, (Wooten?), Weye and Wille. And from Wiktionary:

Middle English wett (wet, moistened), past participle of Middle English weten (to wet) from 

Old English wǣtan (to wet, moisten, water) from 

Proto-Germanic *wētanan (to water, wet) from 

Proto-Indo-European *wed-*wod- (wet).

And upon detailed searching, a new perhaps far-fetched possibility. In my Conjectures of the Origins of Robert Wheaton I believed him to have been an early Baptist. I note that one of the earliest Baptist foundations is at Tiverton, Devon. A mere 5 miles to the east is the village of Halberton where we find in 1323 a William Whetene. About 2.5 miles to the north of Halberton is the hamlet of Whitnage. Now Whitnage seems a far cry from Whetene, but a look at the root and perhpas there's something there. In the Domesday Book of 1086 Whitnage is recorded as Witenge. Back to Wikitionary:

Old English witena ġemōt.

1) Any assembly, parliament or discursive gathering.

2) (history) The assembly of the Anglo-Saxon national council.  

From Old English witan, plural of wita (“wise man”), or more literally "men of wit"

From Proto-Indo-European *weyd- (“to know; see”)

Old English: witan

English: wit

Old Frisian: wita

Old Saxon: witan

Old Dutch: witan

Dutch: weten


From Wikipedia:
The Witenagemot (Old English witena gemōt IPA: [ˈwitena jeˈmoːt] "meeting of wise men"), also known as the Witan (more properly the title of its members) was a political institution in Anglo-Saxon England which operated from before the 7th century until the 11th century. The Witenagemot was an assembly of the ruling class whose primary function was to advise the king and whose membership was composed of the most important noblemen in England, both ecclesiastic and secular. The institution is thought to represent an aristocratic development of the ancient Germanic general assemblies, or folkmoots. In England, by the 7th century, these ancient folkmoots had developed into convocations of the land's most powerful and important people, including aldormenthegnsand senior clergy, to discuss matters of both national and local importance.      
                                                                                                                                                                                               So perhaps this hamlet was the place of a meeting of "wise men" or leaders and thus derived its name from such a meeting.  And perhpas a man who later lived nearby took his name from such a place. In the Domesday Book "Witenge" lies within the Hundred of Tiverton. Halberton is the Hundred just to the south of Tiverton Hundred, in this case literally across the road from one another. It is quite possible that each tribe of Wheatons has its origin in one of the possibilities I have recounted here.

As to spelling, the name has been spelled in many ways: le Whetene, Whetene, Wheten, Wheyton,  Weyton, Wheton, Wheeton, Wheeten, Weeton, Weeten, Weaton, Weaten, Whetten, Whetton, Wheatin, Wheadon, Weeton, Wedden, and of course Wheaton. All the above having sounds of either Wee-ten, Way-ton, Wi-ten or Wi-don, We-don or Way-don depending on local dialect and time frame. So far DNA has not yielded any matches between Wheaton and Whiddon or Whitton. It is possible that they are variations of the same name at some point in time, or they may be distinct families. We do know of the existence of a branch of the Wheadon family in early America changing their name to Wheaton. It is clear that making assumptions based on location or spelling have long led researchers astray. 

So DNA is proving to break down our long held theories and over simplifications. The origins of surnames like that of families is much more complicated than we may have imagined. I now posit that the names represented in Devon in 1323 are actually representative of different origins, possibly different meanings, and different family lines. Over the course of time the names became unified into several spellings which may or may not be reflective of their origins. In addition the inconsistency of spellings and differences in pronunciation have also muddied the waters. If that is not enough name adoptions and other forms of non-paternal events bring our obsession with names into question.

Parallels Between the Spelling of the Words "Wheat" & "Wet"  & "Wit"

1000-1200     hwaete, hwaete, wǣtan, witena, witen

1200-1300     wete, hwaete, qwetene, wetene, wett, weten

1300-1400     whete, quhet, huetene, wet, wette, witan

1400-1500     whette, whete, whetyn, wet, wit, wot

1500-1600     wheat, wheton, wheaton, wheaten, wet, whit

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Dolan, J.R., English Ancestral Names: The Evolution of the Surname from Medieval Occupations, New York, Clarkson N. Potter Inc., 1972

Ewan, C. L.'Estrange Early Surnames of Devonshire from the Exchequer Subsidy Roll, 1332  Paignto, Devon 1947

Guppy, Henry Brougham, Homes of the Family Name of Great Britain, Harrison & Sons, London, 1890

Oxford University, The Oxford English Dictionary Vol. XII, Oxford England, Oxford University Press, 1933

Pei, Mario, The Story of the English Language, Philadelphia and New York, J.B. Lippincott Co., 1967

Pine, Leslie Gilbert, The Story of Surnames, Rutland VT.,Charles Tuttle Inc., 1966

Stanes, Robin. A History of Devon. Phillimore & Co. Chichister, Sussex, 1986

University of London Centre for Advanced Study: Institute of Historical Research, Centre for Metropolitan Research Annual Report for 1998-9. "Metropolitan Market Networks" 1999

Williams, Joseph M., Origins of the English Language: A Social and Linguistic History, New York, The Free Press, 1975

Wiktionary http://www.wiktionary.org/

1 Univ. of London http://www.history.ac.uk/cmh/arpt98.html#mkt2 "The spreadsheet compiled from the Exeter series alone, which covers the period 1316-1640, contains over 6,000 price entries for wheat." "Devon's trade networks do not appear to have been undermined by the activities of Londoners. Indeed, the prosperity of the county and its leading town, Exeter, may have derived in part from an apparent decline in engagement with London- focused networks, as its merchants established or consolidated independent overseas trading contacts." "Prices at Exeter and London move closely together in the earlier fourteenth century, but the correlation breaks down in the 1360s."

*Background Colors of the website were chosen with wheaten in mind.

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