The Surname ROBB


The surnames “Robb”, and “Rabb”, and scores of other surnames are derived from the personal name “Robert”, a popular given name in northwestern Europe for 1000 years and more. As genealogists, we are interested in surnames primarily because in most modern Western cultures they represent patrilineages—male lines of descent from the man who first adopted and passed on a particular surname to his children. And indeed, the emergence of surnames in the documentary records (typically about 650 years ago in Britain), is what makes genealogy possible going back that far.

Most of our work as genealogists is based on tracking surnames,

Unfortunately for our genealogical enterprises, surnames with such common derivations as “Robb” are bound to have arisen independently in many different places, and to constitute as many unrelated patrilineages, and the proliferation of patrilineages is perhaps the biggest problem with using surnames to trace relationships.

Another is that, before the era of standardized spelling (which begins in the U.S. only in the early 1800s), one encounters in the old records, not a simple set of individual surnames, but rather overlapping complexes of soundalike surnames with many variant spellings. For example, although “Robb” is the standard spelling on both sides of the pond, the surname is predominantly Scottish, and the original Scottish pronunciation was more like “Rabb”. It should not be surprising, therefore, that “Rabb” was the way it was often written down phonetically by the colonial clerks on behalf of their less-than-literate clients, and the name was sometimes preserved in that form despite later notions of “correct” spelling. Moreover, the colonial Pennsylvania clerks also had to deal with German immigrants with the unrelated but similar-sounding surnames “Rapp”, “Rabe”, and “Raub” and these too could be heard and set down in various ways.

To sort these surnames out, one must look at the wider context—for example, the German and Scottish immigrant populations favored different, though overlapping, sets of given names. However, even if the first and second-generation colonial Pennsylvania Germans and Scots can generally be differentiated by methods like these, once standardized spelling began to come in, there was a tendency for similar-sounding surnames to converge on a particular spelling—in this case on the most popular, and standardized, spelling “Robb”—so that by 1820 or so, there were many German “Robb”s. And of course by that time intermarriage between these very different cultural groups was in full swing, further complicating the task of sorting patrilineages out by surname.

When I first began studying the colonial PA records, I was able to formulate a simple rule for differentiating the various German surnames from the Scottish ROBB, and this rule has held up fairly well. I validated my rule by noting the associated distribution of given names, and also the different geographic clusterings of these two populations, since one or the other tended to predominate in particular townships. The rule is that surnames of this phonetic complex with a medial vowel “u”, or a final consonant “p” were German, and the others were Scottish (or Scotch-Irish). I have since expanded this simple sorting scheme into a comprehensive analysis of all of the ROBB-soundalike surnames.

The Scottish (& English) ROBBs

ROBBs in Scotland in 1881 are widespread, but the largest concentration, adjusted for population size, is in Aberdeenshire in the northeast, and if this is taken as ancient area of origin, these ROBBs seem to have spread out from there to the adjoining counties north and south, then southwest into Perth, and Fife, and the counties embracing the Firth of Forth on the east coast. Outside of Aberdeen, ROBBs seem especially concentrated in Angus, which suggests that an independent patrilineage may have arisen there.

Meanwhile, on the west coast, there is a heavy concentration of ROBBs in Lanarkshire, whose seat is the huge city of Glasgow, and this concentration holds up even adjusting for population size. Consequently, it is not surprising to find ROBBs in numbers in the counties adjacent to Lanark: Renfrew, Ayr, Stirling, and Dumbarton, but especially in urbanized Midlothian, locus of the great city of Edinburgh. These southwestern areas of Scotland appear to be home to a quite different line of ROBBs, or probably to several, though it is perilous to generalize much about the shifting populations of cities.

There are few ROBBs in England and Wales even by 1881—except in Lancashire, where there were 149. Since there were only 34 ROBBs in Lancashire for the 1841 UKCensus, most in the large cities of Liverpool and Manchester, it is probable that most of these Lancashire ROBBs were recent arrivals from Scotland or northern Ireland, drawn by the economic opportunities of the Industrial Revolution. I also note that by 1881 the surname variants, “Rabb” “Robe”, “Robbs”, etc., have all but disappeared from Britain—no doubt folded into the standardized spelling, “Robb”.

I speak of these Scottish ROBBs “spreading out”, because, surprising to an American, even very ancient British surnames tend to remain concentrated around their place of origin right into modern times, and the diminishing concentration gradient out into surrounding areas, points conveniently back to the original area of origin. Since all but the rarest surnames tend to have at least several independent origins, maps like this one for the far-from-rare surname ROBB (which suggests only two or three areas of independent origin) beg the question: why aren’t there many more of these apparently independent clusters, corresponding to the many ROBB surname lineages that presumably arose over the centuries?

There are several reasons for this, I think. First, a recent surname study by Turi King & Mark Jobling confirms what both experienced genealogists and population geneticists have come to suspect: that over time, most patrilineages peter out, or at least “daughter out”. And, second, certain other lineages inexplicably proliferate in modern times, swamping all the other (struggling) ones in statistical charts and maps. Thus, it would be a mistake to jump to the conclusion that all or most of the Robbs originated in just one or two areas of Scotland.

Still, the statistics are what they are, and there is no doubt here of where the surname has most flourished in recent times, and from the extent of the distribution extending out from Aberdeenshire, there can be very little doubt that these NEeastern Scottish ROBBs have quite a long history in Scotland, extending back many centuries. Another factor that likely comes into play is that many Scots finally settled permanently on a surname very late, as late as the 18th century in fact, and quite often they merely assumed the surname of a locally prominent family—a pattern that goes back to clan days. Thus, several independent patrilineages might have arisen over time in the same area in which a single ancient lineage had come to some prominence.

A finer-grained analysis of where the ROBBs were to be found in 1841 (the earliest every-name UKCensus), down to the parish level, might shed further light on the origins of the various lines of ROBBs in Scotland.

Since Aberdeenshire appears to be particularly thick with ROBBs, it’s perhaps worth taking a closer look at this county. Although Aberdeen has its own city, the eponymous Aberdeen, the 1881 UKCensus shows that only about a quarter of the county ROBBs lived in the city or its environs. The largest concentrations of Aberdeenshire ROBBs are found in the parishes of Old Deer, New Deer, and Strichen, so that area would seem to be a logical place to look for ancient ROBB origins. In the 1841 UKCensus fully 23% of all Scottish ROBBs reside in Aberdeenshire, and most of the oldest ROBBs (born between 1750-1780), appear in the coastal parishes of Peterhead and Cruden, just one parish to the east of Old Deer. The possible significance of this will emerge in what follows.

Scottish Clan Names

To pursue another tack, in Scotland, when one thinks of surnames and their ancient origins, one inevitably thinks of the clans. The clan histories agree that no ROBBs ever constituted a clan, but they also report that groups of ROBBs were attached to several clans as “septs”. One derivation of the word “sept” is from the Gaelic sliocht, meaning “seed”, in the patrilineal biblical sense. As each clan is nominally descended from one man, the first bearer of the clan surname, so these attached septs are supposedly from the seed of one man, or in our terminology, they constitute patrilineages.

However, the reality is that most clan or sept members, at least after the first few generations, were men of other seeds who had simply become allied with the group, perhaps through intermarriage, and had therefore assumed the clan or sept name in much the same way as the later Scots of whom I have spoken did. The bottom line is that in Scotland, and particularly during the clan period, we need to be cautious in associating surnames with particular ancient clan patrilineages. Indeed, it has long been known (even before DNA testing became popular) that in many cases the original male line of the clan founder has long since died out, even as the surname goes marching proudly on.

Still, it is worth considering these reported ROBB septs when looking for the Scottish roots of the name, and the two that are most stressed in the clan books are the ROBB septs associated with the clans McFARLANE, and ROBERTSON. The McFARLANE territory lies in northeastern Argyll, at the head of Loch Long, and the ROBERTSON territory begins about 30 miles to the NE of that, in Perthshire. It is said that the troublesome McFARLANEs were outlawed as early as 1608, just in time to participate in the earliest English Crown-sponsored plantations in northern Ireland, and several McFarlanes are known to have been among the major proprietors of these plantations. At least one John Robb was an early tenant in this first Ulster enterprise, and one might imagine others moving NE across CAMPBELL territory to the ROBERTSON lands where they were perhaps more welcome, and forming a sept there. Alternatively, of course, the ROBERTSON association may have been independent of the McFarlane one, as east coast Aberdeen or Angus ROBBs drifted west over the centuries.

However, I have found in my research that at least two of the first four ROBB families to settle in colonial Pennysylvania had associations there with McKNIGHTs (a further Anglicization of Scottish McNAUGHTAN), and the McNAUGHTAN lands lay adjacent to those of the McFARLANEs in Argyll. Unfortunately for this plausible-seeming theory of the origins of the early PA ROBB families, a Scottish McNAUGHTAN specialist I’ve been in touch with finds no great spate of ROBB-McNAUGHTAN marriages over there during or after the period of the Pennsyvania settlement, or for that matter, between ROBBs and McFARLANEs, but the data before that period are scant-to-non-existent, both for Scotland and Ireland, and there may nonetheless still be something to this theory. For a more detailed consideration of the colonial PA ROBBs against the backdrop of the clan histories, see my paper “Thoughts on the Possible Scottish Origins of the Robbs of Colonial Pennsylvania”.

Although ROBBs were sparse in Argyll in 1881, its eastern portion, where the McFARLANE and McNAUGHTAN lands lay, practically abuts Dunbarton and Stirling, which run down to Lanark. Thus, it would not be surprising if the western Scottish ROBBs who we’ve seen were concentrated in the Glasgow area in 1881, were descendants of these ancient clansmen. And these westerners would also have been the most likely to have continued their migration across the seas to Ireland, and thence to the New World.

Now we turn to a new factor, recently emerged, which sheds quite a different sort of light on ROBB origins than what we have considered so far.

What the DNA Evidence Suggests

That factor is the evidence of the yDNA tests on men surnamed ROBB—tests of the yChromosome inherited virtually unchanged by each man from his father, who inherited it from his father, etc. I refer at this point to the valuable ongoing ROBB DNA project, from which I have co-opted data to support my discussion here of ROBBs and their origin.

The haplotypes that are determined by yDNA testing for genealogical purposes are sufficient, where the test is extensive enough, to sort living men into patrilineages —sets of male cousins all descended from a common male ancestor who lived hundreds of years ago. Most of these descendants will also bear the same surname—the one adopted by the first male ancestor of their patrilineage—the patriarch. Thus yDNA testing dovetails nicely with genealogical studies that are also necessarily focused on surnames. Furthermore, as more and more haplotypes of the same patrilineage are tested, the tests can yield an increasingly accurate estimate of the time back to the most recent common ancestor (TMRCA) of the tested group.

A different sort of yDNA testing, often called deep clade testing, can be used to elicit each test subject’s haplogroup, which includes all the descendants of a man who experienced a rare mutation thousands of years ago. In fact, each living man belongs to a succession of such haplogroups, each marked by a particular rare mutation (a branching of the tree of man), going back to an ultimate patriarch who lived many tens of thousands of years ago. Most men can be located somewhere up the line of this branching haplogroup tree just by an analysis of their haplotype test results, but determination of their most recent haplogroup-defining ancestor would require deep clade testing.

Since the patriarch of a haplogroup lived thousands of years before the patriarch of a surname patrilineage, haplogroups are of limited use for genealogical purposes, but they can sometimes provide clues to ethnicity or deep cultural origin, where haplogroups have been correlated with archaeological evidence. Thus, for example, the ROBB DNA project includes the Germanic surnames RAPP and RABE, many of whose spelling variants overlap with those for the surname ROBB, but many individual members of the two groups can be differentiated to a fairly high degree of probability, by the different haplogroups they belong to. And so far, with about 28 people tested, it appears that nearly all the men tested who have non-Germanic haplogroups, have Scotch-Irish pedigrees.

The majority of these Scotch-Irish ROBBs sort into ROBB DNA Project Patrilineages 2 and 3.

ROBB DNA Project Patrilineage 2

My extensive research into the colonial Pennsylvania ROBB families, considered in connection with the test results for ROBB Project Patrilineage 2, strongly suggests that four of the five ROBB families who settled in PA before the Revolutionary War, were of this patrilineage and that this line goes back a very long way. These ROBBs of Patrilineage 2 belong to an unusual haplogroup for Brits of Scottish background (which these ROBBs most assuredly were): haplogroup I2b (or I-M223 in the most recent nomenclature). Men of this I-M223 haplogroup appear to have come to Britain from their homeland in what is today northwestern Germany or the Jutland Peninsula (Denmark). They contrast, though, with some of the Germanic-pedigreed ROBB project members, whose haplogroup E1b1b1 is quite uncommon in the northerly parts of Germany, but widely distributed up into Europe from the Balkan an Italian peninsulas. Deep clade testing of these various continental ROBB project clusters, would likely refine the geographical differences in their ultimate origins.

The vast majority of Brits, and especially Scots, belong to the broad haplogroup R1b, which is quite common across northwest Europe, and which is associated in the last few thousand years with Celtic ethnicity; ROBB Patrilineage 3 (discussed below) are of that ilk. The second largest contingent of Brits have Viking or at least Scandanavian roots: most of these are haplogroup I1 (I-M253), although a minority of I1s are not Scandanavian, but have roots similar to those of the I2bs (I-M223s). In fact, many of these northern Germanic types probably migrated across the Channel to southern England as part of the Anglo-Saxon invasion from the 4th-6th centuries CE, filling the vacuum left by the Romans. And although it has long been assumed that this invasion must have been a prime source of modern British blood, the extensive yDNA testing that has now been done suggests that “invasion” is too strong a word. Rather, it seems that a relatively small number of Anglo-Saxon warrior types, well organized and well-led, came over and simply displaced the indigeneous suzerain Celtic class (much as the Normans were to do 700 years later) but without creating more than a few ripples in the Celtic gene pool.

That, at least, is the current theory of how most of these I2bs and Anglo-Saxon I1s got to Britain. Yet one imagines that the particular progenitor of the Patrilineage 2 ROBBs probably had a very different story. There would have been little likelihood that an Anglo-Saxon settler of the southern English kingdom would have gradually worked his way as far north as Scotland, not least because that Anglo-Saxon kingdom was at perpetual war with the Scandanavian kingdom that ruled the north. Far more likely that an Anglo-Saxon I2b ROBB sailed directly to the coast of what is now Aberdeen and settled there, and in time his descendants became just as good Scots as any of the indigenous Celtic natives.

I have published an analysis of individuals in the YSearch DNA database who, like the Patrilineage 2 ROBBs, are of haplogroup I-M223 and have Scottish roots, and the results are consistent with the hypothesis that the immigrant ancestor of this male line that later adopted the surname ROBB landed on the Aberdeen coast as part of a small group between 300 BCE and the time of Christ. Since this was well before the time substantial overseas settlements were made in Britain from the Continent, most likely these were of a seafaring people, and they may have stemmed from a tribe who plied between southern Sweden and the tip of the Jutland Peninsula, and/or the isles lying off it’s eastern coast, where the earliest referenced Danes are thought to have settled.

Thus we arrive full circle back at the area of greatest concentration of ROBBs in the 1881 UKCensus. And considering the extent of the ROBB proliferation in this area, and the diffusion outward from this hypothetical starting point, an ancient origin for this line appears likely—consistent with the test results, which predict a common ancestor for the Patrilineage 2 as far back as far as 1000 years ago.

ROBB DNA Project Patrilineage 3

Patrilineage 3 has been definitely traced back to Ireland, and also to the western areas of Scotland. The descendants of this patrilineage bear the most common British (and Celtic) haplogroup of R1b1b2 (R-M269), although their haplogroup has yet to be fully articulated by a deep clade test. Note that although Argyll, where the McFarlane and McNaughtan clans dwelt, has among the fewest ROBBs in Scotland, the theory presented here to account for the unusual ROBB haplogroup of Patrilineage 2 is by no means inconsistent with the possibility that certain of the NEastern Scottish ROBBs migrated westward and founded septs that became attached first to very early to the ROBERTSON clan in Perthshire, and that only later some of these moved on to the McFARLANEs in NE Argyll, and so to Ireland and the New World. But it would seem far more likely that the ROBBs of Patrilineage 3 are the ones with at least the McFARLANE clan background.

(Ulster) Irish Robbs

Probably most of the ROBBs who immigrated to America, before 1800 at least, spent some time first in Ireland. For many hundreds of years before the New World came into the picture there had been a continuing and substantial population flow back and forth between northern Ireland and the western portions of Scotland, particularly from Argyll and Ayr, and out of the port of Glasgow. That these ROBBs were primarily of Scottish ancestry is indicated by the fact that of the 146 Robb households in the 1848-64 Primary Valuation survey, 140 of them were in Belfast or the counties of northern Ireland (Ulster), while 3 of the remaining 4 were in adjacent counties.

Meanwhile, the English monarchs, beginning with Henry the 8th, came to view Ireland in much the same way their successors were to regard the rest of the world: potentially valuable lands ripe for colonization, still unfortunately inhabited by primitive and troublesome natives who would first have to be tamed and displaced.

The 1606-1610 Plantations of Ulster, under King James, were the first successful step in the colonization of Ireland (1607 also saw the first permanent English settlement in North America—the Jamestown settlement in Virginia). After defeating the local Irish chieftains in a costly war, the Crown promised landless Englishmen and Scots tenancy of the seized land in Ireland if they would agree to abide by Crown rules, and organize for defense against Irish counterattack. Only English dissenters (extreme Protestants) and Scottish Presbyterians were wanted, since they could be relied on to resist the displaced native Irish, who were Catholic, tooth and nail. The land would actually be owned as an investment by wealthy friends and clients of the Crown, and handsome profits were expected.

According to an Ulster-based researcher and ROBB descendant, the surname ROBB first appears in northern Ireland on a County Down militia muster roll of 1631, in which one John Robe is listed as “bearing swords and pikes”, and in December 1633, John Robb is named as an assessor in an agreement concerning lands in Carrowreagh of that county. Despite the discrepancy in spelling, this is likely the same man. Since ROBB is primarily a Scottish name, there is little reason to doubt that this ROBB was from Scotland, although there appears to be no specific evidence regarding his origin. What we do know is that quite a number of ROBBs appear in Ireland a century later, and by then many Scotch-Irish, chafing under the political and religious restrictions of this badly micromanaged Crown Colony were beginning to move on to America.

James Robb of Newtonards, County Down (1747-1825)

We are fortunate in that one set of American ROBB researchers have managed to connect their immigrant ancestor, with credible supporting evidence, to a particular place in Ireland. I am speaking of the descendants of the James Robb who arrived with his family in Philadelphia in 1773, having emigrated from Newtonards, an important coastal town near Belfast in northern Ireland. Meanwhile, one other American ROBB immigrant whose ancestor came over more than 100 years later, can show that his ancestor had at least transient roots in Glasgow, and perhaps an earlier history in Midlothian, and there is reason to suspect also, that he had at least a commercial association with northern Ireland.

Because descendants of both of these lines have been tested for the ROBB DNA Project, and are classified together in Patrilineage 3 (discussed above), we have here the first credible linkage of any colonial-era ROBB immigrants that I know of to the Old World. DNA test results and pedigrees for descendants of this family can be found at the ROBB DNA project (member R-3 is a descendant of James of Newtonards, and R-13 of Glaswegian ROBBs).

Researchers of the line of American ROBBs stemming from the 1773 immigrant have also made contact with a family of northern Irish ROBB researchers who are still living on portions of ancestral lands that they can trace back to the period of early settlement. ROBB Project members R-4 and R-9 have been tentatively connected to this family, and it is highly likely, though the link cannot be definitely established, that the early American immigrant James belongs to this Ulster family as well. Unfortunately, none of the Irish male descendants of this line can be persuaded to get their DNA tested, which would confirm the relationship, though of course it wouldn’t be able to tell us just where to fit James into this line of northern Irish ROBBs.

American Robbs:1790

The early American ROBBs were virtually all of Scottish ancestry, and most of them were also what we call in America, Scotch-Irish—Scots who settled first in northern Ireland (Ulster), and then moved on to America when their political, economic, and religious circumstances in Ulster became increasing constricted by pigheaded English monarchial and ecclesiastical mismanagement, and by grasping English absentee landlords. Although individual Scots and Scotch-Irish trickled in during the first century of the British settlement of North American, the migration of Scotch-Irish began in earnest in 1718 when a large party of Scotch-Irish settled in southern New Hampshire, near the border with Massachusetts.

The 1790 USCensus, although missing for the important state of Virginia, shows 48 ROBB heads of household, including the spellings “Robb” “Rob”, “Rabb”, “Rab”, “Robbe”, and “Robe”. For Virginia, a surrogate census compilation based on the 1787 tax county tax records, turns up another 7 ROBB households, for a total of 55, including one in Monongalia County, much of which overlapped with lands claimed by Pennsylvania (PA), and which were later ceded to that state; accordingly, I’ve included that one MonogaliaCo ROBB (William Robe) amongst the Pennsylvanians. I’ve eliminated 5 of these 55 households from consideration here, as of probable German ethnicity, based on their given names, their surname spellings and their locations: Jacob Rabb of BedfordCoPA, Jacob Rob and Richard Rab of the suburbs of Philadelphia, and Adam and Frederick Rob of Maryland.

Southern ROBBs

Of the remaining 50 ROBB families in 1790, 4 of the 7 “Rabb”s are of Fairfield County, South Carolina, including a Jos[eph] Rabb and a fifth, Captain William Rabb, is of North Carolina. There is also a Joseph Robb in YorkCoSC. One Henrietta Robb published a book in 1902 on her Robb ancestors going back to John Robb of DeWitt County, Illinois, who was aged about 58 in 1850, born in South Carolina, and had a son named Joseph. She does not tell us the name of John’s father, but says only that he was born in Ireland and also had sons named Joseph and Eli, and that the family moved to LexingtonKY. These data point to the Jos[eph] Rabb of FairfieldCoSC, and since there were several other Rabb households in that county in 1790, and Joseph’s household in 1810 had what appears to be five sons, this would seem to be quite an important line of American Robbs, but it is one on which I myself have done no research.

There is room for doubt, however, that these Rabbs came via Ireland. First, there is the spelling of the surname, but more importantly, there is a record that three Robbs, James, Thomas, and John, were transported to SC in 1715 as Jacobites, and sold there into indentured servitude. These Robbs were presumably captured as prisoners in the 1715 rising on behalf of the Catholic Pretender to the Scottish throne, James Edward; most Jacobites were themselves Catholic, and most were highlanders. It may be that the Rabbs found in Fairfield County, SC, two generations later were the descendants of these men, whatever Henrietta Rabb may have thought.

The remaining 6 southerners are Virginians of the cismontane counties, whom I have researched not at all except to find them in Schreiner-Yantis’s The 1787 Census of Virginia. They may not even have been Scottish. Most Virginians of the colonial period were exported from England to the tidewater to be indentured servants, if they were not also convicted criminal transportees. I would welcome any specific information on any of these other southern Robbs of eastern Viriginia.

New England & NY ROBBs

Of the remaining 38 ROBB households in the USCensus, 13 are headed by New Englanders (8 in New Hampshire, 3 in Massachusetts, and 2 in Connecticut). There are also 2 ROBB households for eastern New York who probably either descend from New England families, or who came over themselves directly to New York City. I haven’t researched any of these ROBBs either, and would welcome contact with anyone who has. Interestingly, the heads of 4 of these households spelled their surname “Robbe” or “Robe”, or at least that was the way the census enumerator thought the name should be spelled. I think it likely that this was an original Scottish spelling of the name, and suggests that many or most of these New England ROBBs probably came directly from Scotland; the more northerly latitude and the less hospitable climate suggest that too.

Although I know nothing specific about any of these New England ROBBs, there is quite a bit of documentary history for the first major Scotch-Irish settlement of New England in 1718, when several ships of settlers sailed to New England from Irish ports. And prior to these voyages, on 26Mar1718, about 300 Scotch-Irish put their names to a petition to Governor Shute of New England, soliciting his permission to immigrate. One of these petitioners, who signed by mark, was “John Robb”.

Colonial Pennyslvania ROBBs

Of the 50 or so households headed by ROBBs in the 1790 USCensus (counting the missing Virginians), fully 22, the largest number, are to be found in PA, mostly in the central or western counties, and there is reason to believe that one of the Virginians, the William Robe of MonongaliaCoVA mentioned above, was also born into one of these Pennsylvania families.

My ROBB Research Project

I have been researching the ROBBs of colonial Pennsylvania for almost 20 years now. When I first traced my own ancestors back through the USCensus to Pennsylvania, to, I supposed, the John Robb who was father to my Samuel Robb of Pennsylvania and Ohio, I was flabbergasted to find that there were no fewer than six Pennsylvania households headed by John ROBBs in the 1790 USCensus. And none of the secondary sources I could find (the only kind of sources I knew about then or understood) were able to shed any light on how one was supposed to discriminate amongst these households; indeed, none of them even seemed to be aware that there might be a problem with their claimed pedigrees back to John Robb of Pennsylvania.

Consequently, not knowing how to proceed, I backed off and took up the study of my mother’s New England ancestors instead. Compared with researching the Scotch-Irish of America's colonial frontiers, New England genealogy is fun and easy, with virtually complete vital records going back to the very beginnings in the 1630s, but I gradually learned something about probate, land, and town records (which include court records) in the process. Eventually I was ready to return to investigating my own ROBB surname with a more sophisticated idea of what needed to be done.

First, it was evident that no progress could be made in working out my own ancestral colonial ROBBs without studying all of them. The records are too scant, and the names are largely the same from family to family, thanks in large part to the Scotch-Irish onomastic (child-naming) pattern (which turns out to be a blessing in disguise). Second, it was evident that almost none of the secondary sources (and I looked at everything I could find) had a clue about the real evidence—that they were all just shooting blind with their vague and conflicting claims, usually culminating in a link to Ireland or Scotland (take your pick). And this is largely true, even, of the as-told-to family histories published in the “mug book” biographical compendiums of the First Golden Age of American Genealogy, from 1870-1910. Beyond the grandparents in these biographical subjects, even these old accounts were long on assertions and short on specific facts

So I have undertaken a comprehensive, indeed exhaustive, canvass of the primary records of the many Pennsylvania counties where people surnamed ROBB, and their suspected in-laws, first appeared, from the early 1700s on. I have framed my Robb research project as the reconstruction of the patrilineal trees of descent from the patriarchs of all the families surnamed ROBB who settled in Pennsylvania before 1800.

Naturally, I am no less interested in the females of these lines, and strive always to reconstruct complete families, and wherever possible to ascertain the names of marriage partners, but the fact that documents track surnames, and surnames run with patrilineages, combined with the sheer comprehensiveness of the project, demands that I focus on the male lines. Also, I am pursuing this investigation into the 1800s only far enough to hook up with researchers pushing their way back to colonial times.

I have been through just about everything from 1720 (the first appearance of a ROBB in PA) through about 1760, though in some areas, I have completed my canvass through 1800. I am just beginning to consider what is known of Robbs beyond 1800, although I have a very extensive USCensus collection through about 1860. I am pushing things that far only in lieu of, or in supplementation to, the work of others to whom I am hoping to connect these colonial families. I am very interested in working with any Robb researchers who realize, as I do, that only a thorough exploration of the primary sources is ever likely to result in convincing solutions to the manifold genealogical puzzles we are faced with.

My research has shown that five ROBB families settled in PA before the Revolution, and I believe that most of the 23 PA ROBB households in 1790 (including the one in MonogaliaCoVA), were headed by members of the first four of these five families, or their descendants, and that all of these four families were at least distantly related and belong to ROBB DNA Project Patrilineage 2.

The most recent DNA test result for Patrilineage 2, showing a perfect match on 37 markers between R-24, a descendant of the man I call “John of Cumberland” County, PA, and R-05 & R-06, descended from William Robe of Monongalia County, VA, is consistent with my compound working hypothesis that: (1) William Robe of Monongalia was the son (or grandson) of the man I call “William of Chester” County, PA who died there, leaving a will, about 1745; and that (2) John of Cumberland was the younger brother of William of Chester (or otherwise very closely related to him). For those who understand what genetic distance is, here is a link to the GD matrix for ROBB Patrilineage 2.

Since I will shortly be posting a separate page devoted largely to these first four colonial PA ROBB families and their descendants, I shall say no more about them here.

The fifth colonial Pennsylvania family, headed by James Robb of Newtonards, in County Down, I have already discussed, above, and see also the pedigree for member R-3 of Patrilineage 3 of the ROBB DNA Project, where e-mail addresses for researchers of this line of colonial PA ROBBs will also be found.


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ROBB Surname Distribution MAPS

ROBBs in Scotland, 1881, per 100,000 Population

ROBBs in Scotland, 1881, Actual Numbers

ROBBs in England & Wales, 1881, Actual Numbers

The Surname ROBB

The surname ROBB is primarily Scottish and derived from the personal name Robert. It encompasses a number of variant spellings, some of which may have additional derivations.

The ROBB 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
Robb 484 2529 2529
Rob 13 6 246
Robbs 87 1 230
Rabb 10 18 439
Rab 1 0 86
Robbe 3 0 146
Robe 86 3 285
TOTALS 684 2557 3961
Number of people bearing the generic surname ROBB per million of population
Surname Frequency Index
1900       1997
England 50.6                 
Scotland 1278.5                 
United States 115.5         76.0

The Surname Frequency Index (SFI) for 1900 was derived by dividing the number of whites with the generic surname ROBB (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; black American ROBBs have been omitted from these statistics to make the comparison between the US and the UK more straightforward (See my paper on the ROBB-like surnames for more information and analysis of the American blacks of this surname).

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 ROBB 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 ROBBs 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 ROBB in the countries of Britain and its erstwhile empire.

In 1964, “Robb” did not make the list of the 2000 most common 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 31May2015
© John Barrett Robb
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