The DENNISON Surname Patrilineages Association (DenSPA)

DenSPA and the DENNISON Patrilineage Projects

The DENNISON Surname Patrilineages Association is comprised of a set of independent DENNISON Patrilineage Projects.

One of the key concepts in genealogy is the genealogical patrilineage. This is because in most modern societies the public documentary records that constitute the principal body of genealogical evidence identify males and unmarried females by their hereditary surname, which is passed down in the patriline from father to son to son....

Also passed down from father to son to son..., virtually unchanged, is the male-only Y-Chromosome, and since the early 2000s, when the pioneer testing company, Family Tree DNA, introduced their 37-marker ySTR test of certain areas of the Y-Chromosome, it has become possible through this yDNA testing to uniquely and conclusively identify the patrilineage of every tested male, and therefore to create genealogical patrilineage projects all of whose members know for sure that they descend from a common patrilineal ancestor.

The DENNISON patrilineage projects to which the links at the top left of this page refer, are the cultivated fruits of this possibility. These projects and their umbrella association, DenSPA, have no affiliation with FTDNA or any of its surname projects, including the FTDNA DENNISON Surname Project—even though one of the criteria for membership in DenSPA is to have taken, or sponsored, an FTDNA 37-marker ySTR test either of a male who is himself surnamed DENNISON, or of a male whose resulting test haplotype matches that of an existing DENNISON patrilineage.

Each of these patrilineage projects has been organized for the purpose of bringing together in one place all the best genealogical research and researchers of the patrilineage, to encourage and facilitate active and possibly collaborative research on the part of the members. To best accomplish these ends, these are open public projects, and members are required to provide both their raw yDNA results and an ancestral pedigree back to their earliest documentable ancestor, and to consent to the publication of this information on the project web pages, backed by their names and a current email address. This contact information is essential to the whole cooperative spirit and open nature of these projects, as it allows each of the member experts in their particular sub-branch of the patrilineage to be contacted both by other project members, and by other genealogists interested in the patrilineage who might want to test and join the project themselves.

Because these patrilineage projects are essentially genealogical projects (unlike the FTDNA surname projects, which are now just places for tested males to anonymously park their yDNA result haplotypes), the members of these patrilineage projects aren’t necessarily the tested males themselves. Rather, each member is the designated “principal genealogist” representative of a particular tested male’s ySTR haplotype. A member may thus be either the person tested or a female (or male) relative who has commissioned the test and obtained the permission of the test subject to use his haplotype within the project guidelines to elucidate his (and their) patrilineage ancestry.

Since these haplotypes don’t sample any part of the genome with known genetic function, and are thus indicative only of membership in a broad patrilineage group descended from a common patriarch who lived many hundreds of years ago, there is no reason why any male DENNISON who is interested in his ancestry, and/or sufficiently sympathetic to the interest of a genealogist relative to test his yDNA test for him or her, should have any qualms about publishing a list of from 37-111 ySTR numbers derived from his Y-Chromosome. There is, however, a small chance that ySTR testing might determine that somewhere up the ancestral chain there has been an NPE (Non-Paternity Event)—a divergence between the surname and the biological patriline. The corollary of a famous line from Shakespeare is also true: it's a wise child who knows his own father.

The DENNISON Patrilineages and the Surname they share

Each of these individual patrilineage projects has its own stand alone project web pages, and there is no more reason to suppose that any two patrilineages that share a common surname are any more closely related to each other than, say, a JONES and a SMITH patrilineage chosen at random.

However, since the members of these unrelated patrilineage groups do share a common surname (possibly with characteristic spelling variants), their research stands to benefit in comprehensiveness if they take the time to familiarize themselves with the genealogies of the other patrilineages, particularly when these overlap in spacetime.

And since adequately comprehensive research typically requires the compilation of abstracts of many, or even of all, of the records of a certain class that pertain to a particular surname, the comprehensive research of a member of one patrilineage may benefit not only his own patrilineage cousins, but also the researchers of other, unrelated surname patrilineages. It is for this reason that a number of such comprehensive abstract collections and other trans-patrilineage genealogical resources for the surname DENNISON have been published under the DENNISON Genealogical Resources & Evidence heading in the upper left navigation panel of this page.

There’s a home here for all DENNISON researchers who’ve sponsored a ySTR DNA test

I was the original founder and administrator of the FTDNA DENNISON Surname Project, but I feel obliged to resign that position now that FTDNA has voluntarily imposed a set of crippling restrictions on their projects that represent their poorly thought out interpretation of the new GDPR regulations imposed by EU bureacrats on citizens of member countries, in the name of the long vanished possibility of internet privacy.

FTDNA Project administrators are now forbidden from publishing the test results of their project members in association with their names or contact information. These regulations make it impossible to organize fruitful surname or patrilineage projects, and thereby largely obviate any genealogical benefits to serious researchers of ySTR DNA testing. Consequently, only by severing these DENNISON patrilineage projects from the FTDNA DENNISON Surname Project, and terminating my own association with the latter, can I and the members of the DENNISON patrilineage projects that I administer continue to exploit the unique opportunities that such projects offer for focused collaborative genealogical research.

As for the supposed danger of exposing an individual member’s ySTR DNA haplotype, since their haplotype merely samples a tiny portion of the Y-Chromosome that has no known genetic function, the only meaning to be derived from the string of two digit numbers that make it up is that the person tested belongs to a patrilineage whose common ancestor lived, in most cases, many hundreds of years ago. I dispense with other aspects of FTDNA’s spurious rationale for imposing these restrictions here.

For as long as FTDNA continues to offer their ySTR DNA tests and genealogists order these tests for DENNISON males in the hope of advancing their genealogical objectives, I shall continue to act as an independent advisor and coordinator of DenSPA and the DENNISON patrilineage projects that collectively offer a home to all qualifying researcher members. The terms and requirements of membership are spelled out in more detail in the “To Join this Project” section of each of the DENNISON patrilineage projects for which links are provided above.

The final patrilineage project link above, Singleton DENNISON Patrilineages, points to a catch-all page for DenSPA members who have as yet no patrilineage matches. If and when at least one other match to one of these Singleton members turns up, a separate independent patrilineage project page will be created for them, provided that the match isn’t to a known close cousin (there is little or no point in ySTR testing known close cousins for the simple reason that their genealogy is already known).

One can order a qualifying 37-marker Y-Chromosome (ySTR) DNA test directly from Family Tree DNA, but (except when one of their sales is going on) a better price ($149) can be obtained by ordering a test while joining one of their surname projects. For example, one can apply to join the FTDNA DENNISON surname project. Then, once the test results are in, just notify me by email. The “Email JBR” button in the upper right corner of this page should open up an email blank addressed to me.

The DENNISON Surname: Etymology, Origins, and History

The great mystery about this surname is whether it is one or two. On the one hand, we have the ancient Scottish surname Denniston/Deniston (spelled with a “t”) of known derivation, and on the other, we observe the overwhelming prevalence of the “t”-less Dennison/Denison, not only in England and America, but even in Scotland. And just to further cloud the issue, amongst the well-researched Scotch-Irish Dennistons of the 18th-century American frontier, we observe a process by which the “t” gradually eroded away in the records, so that when surname spelling crystallized in the early 1800s, the preferred forms of this Scottish surname were Dennison/Denison. The 1901 UKCensus for Scotland suggests that the same process of erosion may have taken place there, because the “t”-less forms are far more prevalent by then even in Scotland.

Surname distribution maps based on the 1881 UKCensus provide further clues. By that year Dennistons were clustered along the west coast of Scotland in the adjacent counties of Renfrew (the locus of the original Danzielstoun) and Dunbartonshire, and spread out from there to Lanark (with its great port city of Glasgow), and Argyllshire. A second and even greater concentration is found in Kirkcudbright, and adjacent Wigtown, and this lot appears to be of quite independent origin, since there are virtually no “Denniston”s in the intervening county of Ayr. The distribution of the first cluster tempts one to theorize that at least some of these are descendants of the original Daniel of Danzielstoun, or if not actually descended from him, they may have been tenants who adopted the surname of this early Scottish gentry family.

Some of the “t”-less Dennisons appear in some of the same areas of Scotland as the first group of Dennistons, but they are conspicuously missing from Kirkcudbright and Wigtown. “Dennison”s cluster predominantly in the northernwestern counties of Westmoreland, Cumberland, and Yorkshire (West Riding). The latter was one of the first rural English areas to be transformed by the Industrial Revolution, through the spectacular growth of cloth manufacturing in the city of Leeds from 1780-1880. This city, besides drawing in much of the surplus labor of the rural counties in the area was also a magnet for Irish immigrants from across the Irish Sea, and one might suppose that the name was brought over to England that way, and was a patronymic derivative of the given name “Dennis”, itself derived from the 3rd-century bishop of Paris, St. Denis, the patron saint of France.

While it does seem likely that many English Dennisons derived their surname from Irish immigrants named Dennis, this probably occurred very much farther back in time—back as far as the 14th century when surnames were just coming into general use. According to R.A. McKinley, A History of British Surnames (pp111-112), surnames ending in “-son” became especially prevalent during this early period in Yorkshire in particular, and in the north of England in general. And George Redmond’s book on Christian Names shows that the given name Dennis comes up on the radar only for Yorkshire, and to a lesser extent Berkshire in the period 1377-1381 when surname adoption was peaking, and that it had all but vanished two centuries later. Thus, we may conjecture that many English Dennisons are descended from Dennises of Irish derivation who settled in the area of Yorkshire and Lancashire before 1400, but as with most surnames derived from common personal names (like Robb from Robert), the Dennison surname probably had a number of independent origins, even in Yorkshire, over the ensuing centuries.

Reaney’s Dictionary of British Surnames also reports an early occurrence of Denizen, from the French Latin for a burgess—a freeman entitled to reside in a particular city. And in his entry for the possibly related surname “Denson” (son of the dean), Reaney also offers a 13th century example, “Henry le Deneson”, who, it seems might bridge the gap between Denison and Denson; maybe some of the early English DENNISONs were also descended from “sons of the dean”.

DENNISONs to America

There is one smallish cluster of Dennisons that appears on the surname map for England, which is worth making special note of. Quite a few Dennison families are found in 1881 in several towns of the eastern county of Essex, fanning out into the adjacent inland counties, of Cambridge and Hertfordshire, an area that was a fountainhead of much of the early 17th-century Puritan migration to New England. And sure enough, it turns out that the first known American immigrant bearing the DENNISON surname was William Denison of Hertfordshire, who emigrated with his family in 1631 on the Lion to Roxbury, in Massachusetts Bay. These families may have drifted down from Yorkshire, or even from Scotland, or this line may have had an independent local origin, perhaps from one of the other derivations suggested by Reaney.

The surname DENNISON was next brought to America in the early 1700s by Scotch-Irish settlers. More often than not the name was spelled “Denniston” (with the “t”) among this contingent, betokening its Scottish origin. And so far, all of the tested members of the DENNISON DNA Project for whom the name is sometimes spelled this way in the records, all are of the same broad Scottish patrilineage, and all settled on the Virginia frontier—along with western Pennsylvania, the most popular destination for the Scotch-Irish who began to emigrate in numbers to America in the 1720s and 1730s.

Yet despite this early clustering of Dennisons in SW Virginia, a survey of the 1820 USCensus (the first that was substantially complete for all states), shows that the 20 out of the 30 household heads whose name was spelled “Denniston” or “Deniston” resided in New York! Presuming that most of these were Scotch-Irish too, this is an unexpected finding and it will be interesting to learn more about these lines when their descendants find their way to the DENNISON DNA Project.

Meanwhile, as of 1820 no fewer than 298 households were headed by “Dennison”s or “Denison”s (without the “t”) and these are overwhelmingly concentrated in New England, and New York. Many of these, and perhaps the majority, may be descended from the very early William Denison of Roxbury, who brought over sons, and there was also a John Denison, early settler of Ipswich in Massachusetts, but I suspect that a certain minority of these New Englanders and New Yorkers were of Scottish, or Scotch-Irish descent. Once we have accrued some project members from this main line of American DENNISONs, we should be able to begin to sort this out.



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Distribution of the DENNISON Surname in Britain & the US

MAPS of DENNISONs & DENNISTONs in Great Britain, 1881

“Dennison” and “Denniston” are broken out separately in these surname distribution maps (created from Archer Software’s Surname Atlas), and I have capitalized the latter surname to indicate this. Elsewhere on this page, however, the ““Dennison”” spelling will be subsumed for convenience under the generic capitalized form DENNISON, because there is reason to believe that there is substantial overlap between these surnames that are nominally independent. If this seems a rather arbitrary compromise, it should be remembered that even if the generic spelling “DENNISON” were made to represent only surnames whose spellings crystallized out as “Dennison”, it would still represent a collection of many independent surname lineages.

It is suggested that the following maps be opened in pairs for comparison. To do this, right click each map link and select “Open in New Window”; you can then size and array the two map windows side by side for comparison, first minimizing the surname page if necessary.


DENNISONs in Great Britain, 1881, per 100,000 Population

DENNISTONs in Great Britain, 1881, per 100,000 Population


DENNISONs in England, 1881, Actual Numbers

DENNISONs in Scotland, 1881, Actual Numbers


DENNISTONs in Great Britain, 1881, Actual Numbers

(there are only 16 south of Yorkshire, mostly in London)


The Frequency of DENNISONS/DENNISTONs in Britain & the US

The original form of this surname, in many cases, was “Denniston”, derived from “Danzielstoun”, a large landholding in the ancient Scottish county of Renfrew, in the neighborhood of Glasgow. The proprietor of this land was a member of the Scottish gentry named Daniel, and the original form of the name “Danziels” is the Latin genitive for Daniel.

Many original bearers of this Scottish name have come to adopt “Dennison” or “Denison” in its place, but there is every reason to suppose that the form “Dennison” arose independently as a surname, with an entirely different derivation, perhaps as a patronymic of the surname “Dennis”. This is suggested particularly by the fact that the form “Dennison” is more common in England than in Scotland or the U.S.

The DENNISON Surname in Britain and the U.S.
Born between: 1881-1901 1880-1900
Surname(s) in: England Scotland United States
all names (millions) 13.5 2 34.3
Dennison 1303 117 2083
Denison 480 24 1462
Den(n)iston 36 46 456
---------- -----
TOTALS 1819 187 4001
Number of people bearing the generic surname DENNISON per million of population
Surname Frequency Index
1900      1997
England 134.7                 
Scotland  93.5                 
United States 116.6       106.8

The Surname Frequency Index (SFI) for 1900 was derived by dividing the number of people with the generic surname DENNISON (including all the above listed spelling variants) who were born during the 20 year period immediately preceding the census for each country, by the total in millions of population enunmerated in that census.

The SFI for the US in 1997 is based on a database of listed telephone subscribers, as reported in Hanks’s Dictionary of American Family Names.

The SFI is only a surrogate for the actual frequency in each country of the generic surname DENNISON compared to other surnames, but it is the best measure of surname frequency I can conceive and readily compute. Any attempt to estimate the total number of surnames in existence must also take spelling variations into account. But who, in the end, can definitively say, for each surname, which are its variants, and which are independent surnames, or variants of other names? Thus, both the numbers that go into this SFI calculation are formally indeterminate. However, the variants chosen for sampling here as DENNISONs were carefully considered, and based on extensive experience in searching for these names in the records, and I believe that they account for at least 98% of the names that can reasonably be considered spelling variants of DENNISON in the countries of Britain and its erstwhile empire.

More importantly, as I have tried to indicate above, when I speak of the surname DENNISON, I speak knowingly of a hybrid. Not only do I expect there to be derivations of the name other than from the Scottish place, Danzielstoun, I also expect the name to have arisen independently in several, if not many, different families, just as most surnames have done.

"Dennison" (but not the other variants that comprise DENNISON) was the 1527th most common surname as of 1964, according to the Social Security data for that year, as reported in American Surnames.

Elsdon C. Smith, American Surnames (1969; reprint GPC, 1994)
Patrick Hanks, Dictionary of American Family Names, 3 vols
   (Oxford University Press, 2003)

Last updated 27Aug2018
© John Barrett Robb
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