Cunningham


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The Scots name Cunningham was derived from the place-name Cunninghame in northern Ayrshire.  There are many different theories as to the origin of Cunninghame.

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Scotland.  A Cunningham family can trace their ancestry back to Wernebald, a vassal of the Norman nobleman Hugh de Morville, who obtained the manor of Cunningham from his feudal superior in the early 12th century.  One story has the Cunninghams appearing earlier, at the time of Macbeth.  The first recorded spelling of the name was Richard de Cunningham in 1210.  Alexander Cunningham was made Lord Kilmaurs and the first Earl of Glencairn in the late 15th century and assumed Finlaystone castle as the family seat.

The early history was full of clan warfare, in particular against the Montgomeries.  The Montgomeries destroyed clan Cunningham's Kerelaw castle in 1488 and their feud continued for the next two centuries. The Cunninghams were Royalist during the English Civil War and British Government supporters during the Jacobite uprising.  It was Captain Cunningham who commanded the British artillery at Culloden which fired grapeshot at the advancing Jacobites. 

James Cunningham, the 14th Earl, was a great supporter and friend of the poet Robbie Burns.  A Cunningham family who lived near the Burns establishment in Dumfriesshire contained two men who became poets, Thomas and Allan, and their brother Peter who became a naval surgeon.

The 1891 census showed the Cunningham name mainly in Ayrshire and neighboring Lanarkshire.  The numbers at that time probably included many Irish Cunninghams in Glasgow.

Ireland.  The Cunningham name was brought to Ireland during the Scottish plantation of Ulster in the 17th century.  The first Cunninghams arrived around 1610 and took up lands in Donegal confiscated from prior Irish owners.  The villages of Newtown Cunningham and Manor Cunningham testify to their presence there.

Some Ulster Cunninghams acquired their surnames differently.  There had been a small sept of MacDonegan in county Down, one of whom, John Donegan or MacDonnegan, was Bishop of Down from 1395 to 1412.  The spelling of this surname got corrupted in some cases to Cunningham in imitation of the Scottish settlers. However, their pronunciation was closer to "Cuineagan."  The Cunningham name also cropped up in the Connacht counties of Galway and Roscommon.  Their original Gaelic forms were O'Cunnigan and MacCuinneagain, which became as well Cunningham. 

The Scottish influx, together with a considerable number of Irish Cunninghams, made the Cunningham surname common and widespread throughout Ireland.

America.  John Cunningham had come to Virginia in 1681 from Scotland seeking religious freedom.  Robert Cunningham of this family moved to South Carolina in 1769 and became a wealthy plantation owner.  He was a Loyalist during the Revolutionary War, lost his lands, and departed for the Bahamas.  William Cunningham, known as "Bloody Bill" for his rough fighting on behalf of the British, was deported to Cuba.  Another brother Patrick was able to stay and his descendants held the Rosemont plantation until 1930 when it burned down.

Cunninghams in America are more likely to be Irish than Scottish in origin.  Early Cunninghams have included:
  • Thomas Cunningham who came to America from county Donegal in Ireland around 1737 and settled in Frederick county, Virginia.   His descendants emigrated west to Ohio in the early 1800's.
  • James Cunningham, also Scots Irish, who came with his brothers to Virginia in 1752.  James settled in Augusta county and died there in 1763.  His sons held land in Beverley manor.  Later Cunninghams of this family were Presbyterian pioneers in Washington county, Tennessee.  Dr. Samuel Blair Cunningham of this family led the building of the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad.
  • another Scots Irish was Barnett Cunningham who came from Ulster province and settled in York county, Pennsylvania sometime in the 1750's.  His son Barnett was the first ruling elder in the Tyrone Presbyterian Church in nearby Cumberland county.
  • meanwhile William Cunningham who had come to Albemarle county, Virginia in 1785 as a young boy, married there, and brought his family to Kentucky in 1818.  His grave at the Cunningham cemetery in Twigg county is marked by a twelve foot monument erected by his descendants in 1936.  The family genealogy has been covered in Bertie Gingles' 1957 book History and Genealogy of William Cunningham.

Canada.  Cunningham's Inn had become a well-known establishment in Gloucester township near Ottawa by the 1830's, being a stop on the passing stagecoach route.   It was run by John Cunningham from Ireland and his wife Catherine.

Robert Cunningham from county Tyrone in Ireland set out for the Canadian West Coast in 1862 as a missionary for the Anglican Church Missionary Society.  He became an entrepreneur there and founded the town of Port Essington in British Columbia.  Another Robert Cunningham, although this time from Scotland, arrived in Canada in 1868 and also headed west, to Manitoba.  He ran a local newspaper in Winnipeg, the Manitoban, and became involved in the local politics.

Australia.  The first Cunningham in Australia was a bit of a firebrand.  Phillip Cunningham, a veteran of the Irish rebellion in 1798 and the mutiny of the convict transport ship Ann, led a convict rebellion against the British colonial authority in Australia.  The mutiny was eventually put down and Cunningham was executed.

Peter Miller Cunningham from Dumfries in Scotland was a surgeon and supervisor on convict ships.  He wrote a highly informative account of convict life in Australia in his 1827 book Two Years in New South Wales.


Another Scot, Andrew Cunningham, had bought land along the Murrumbidgee river in NSW in 1848 and his family raised sheep there.  His grand homestead there, Lanyon House, was the center of a large sheep-raising enterprise.  The colorful story of this family was told in Jennifer Horsfield's 2004 book Mary Cunningham, an Australian Life.

Select Cunningham Miscellany

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


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William Cunningham
was briefly Lord High Treasurer of Scotland in 1526.
John Cunningham was an 18th century Irish actor, playwright and poet.
Sir Arthur Browne Cunningham (ABC) served as Commander in Chief of the British Mediterranean fleet during the Second World War.
Merce Cunningham was an American dancer and choreographer, considered one of the greatest creative forces in American modern dance of the late 20th century. 

Select Cunninghams Today
  • 38,000 in the UK (most numerous in County Down, Northern Ireland)
  • 40,000 in America (most numerous in California) 
  • 38,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

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Ainsworth 
Chambers Hammond 
Middleton  
Stevenson 
Andrews Chandler Hayes Morrison Stone
Arnold Cole Hodgson Norman Sutton
Atkinson Cummings Howe North Tate
Barclay Cunningham Hunt O'Leary Thorpe
Barry Dickinson Innes O'Reilly Townsend
Beattie Dillon Irvine Oliver Underwood
Beck Dodd Jeffries Payne Unsworth
Bentley Doherty Jennings Penn Vance
Bernstein Duncan Kemp Pennington Venables
Bird East Kerr Pettigrew Walton
Boone Edgar Knight Phelan Watkins
Brady Emerson Lawrence Quigley Waugh
Branson Everett Leary Quirk West
Brooks Faulkner Levine Regan Whelan
Buck Fettiplace Levy Reilly Whitney
Burke Ford Lloyd Rhodes Wolfe
Bush Goldberg McIntosh Sharp Woodward
Carr Goodman McLaren Sheehan Yates
Carson Gordon McMillan Sinclair York

For other surnames check the select surname page where there are to be found the history and genealogy of more than 500 common and notable surnames in the English-speaking world.