Select Douglas Surname Genealogy

Myths surround the origin of the Douglas name.  Linguistically, Douglas comes from the Gaelic dubh, meaning “dark” or black,” and glas, meaning “stream,” and was probably at first a place-name.  

There are many such places with this name in Scotland.  However, it is thought that the Douglas in south Lanarkshire was the origin of the Douglas surname as this was the early stronghold of the Douglas clan in Scotland.

Douglass is an alternative spelling.

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Scotland.  The forebear of the Douglas clan in Scotland is generally recognized as William de Douglas.  His name appeared as a witness to charters between 1175 and 1211 around Lanarkshire, including a charter by the Bishop of Glasgow to the monks of Kelso.  The family rose to prominence during the Wars of Scottish Independence when James Douglas, known as “the Good” or “the Black,” was Robert the Bruce’s closest ally, sharing in both his early misfortunes and his later triumphs.  The Douglases were a power in the land from that time on.

They steadily grew in influence in Scottish affairs and by the 15th century were even seen as a threat to the monarchy.  The 6th Earl Douglas and his brother was invited to an infamous "Black Dinner" at Edinburgh Castle where they were both
seized and beheaded. The 8th Earl suffered a same fate in 1452.   Three years later the 9th Earl and his supporters were defeated at the Battle of Arkinholm, bringing an end to the power of the "black" Douglases.  The Earl of Angus was granted the lordship of Douglas.

Four main branches of the Douglases had emerged by that time:
  • the "black" Douglases of Douglasdale in south Lanarkshire
  • the "red" Douglases of Angus and Fife
  • the Douglas earls of Morton in Dumfriesshire
  • and a branch at Drumlanrig in Nithdale nearby.
The Angus and Morton Douglases were prominent in Scottish political life in the 16th and 17th centuries.  In 1703 leadership passed to the Douglases of Drumlanrig on the Scottish borders.  As supporters of the Royalist cause in the Civil War they had been ennobled as the Marquesses of Queensberry.  They were influential in making possible the union between England and Scotland in 1707. 

The family began a slow decline in the 19th century.  It has been called the Queensberry curse. Unhelpfully, the men of the family were plagued by mental illness and by a tendency towards suicide.  In addition, they had a nasty tendency to sue people for perceived slights and to be sued for libel, all of which was very costly.  The 19th century culminated with an affair between Lord Alfred Douglas and the playwright Oscar Wilde.  Douglas's father, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, did everything in his power to sever their relations.  This led to an infamous libel trial and Oscar Wilde's subsequent imprisonment.

Ireland.  The Douglas name in Ireland is primarily a Scottish implant to be found in Ulster.  Robert Douglass had arrived in county Down in 1640 and his family established themselves at Grace Hall.  There were later Douglases in Antrim and Derry.  Some emigrated to America in the 18th century.

Robert Douglas of the Whittinghame Douglases enlisted in the Swedish army during the Thirty Years War.  Due to his prowess he was made Field Marshal in 1643 and then created a baron and a count in Sweden.  His descendant Count Ludwig Douglas was Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs in the late 1800's. Douglas lines from there continued in Sweden and extended into Germany.

.  Family tradition has William Douglas, together with his wife and two children, arriving in Boston, Massachusetts in 1640.  William was later deacon in New London, Connecticut and his family were to remain there for many generations.  Stephen A. Douglas, famous for his 1858 debates with Abraham Lincoln, was a descendant.

Colonel John Douglas was a tobacco farmer in Charles county, Maryland, who had arrived from Glasgow around 1654.  He owned the Blythswood plantation on the Potomac river, the name of his family estate back in Scotland.  His descendants were there for about a hundred years before starting a plantation in Fauquier county, Virginia.  The Douglas family was described in H.W. Newman's 1967 book A Branch of the Douglas Family.  

Other Douglases in the area were:
  • the Douglass family from Antrim who settled around 1760 in Augusta county, Virginia and later moved onto Tennessee.
  • the Rev. Robert Douglas, a Presbyterian minister from Ireland who purchased the Ferry Hill plantation in Maryland in 1848.  His eldest son Henry Kyd Douglas fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War.
  • and Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave from Maryland who became a powerful advocate for social reform in America before and after the Civil War.
A Douglas family was an important part of the development of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  George Douglas had come to America in 1848 and, working in the railroad construction business, migrated west to Cedar Rapids. There in the early 1870’s he started a family cereal business that combined with others in 1906 to form Quaker Oats.

Caribbean.  There has been a long history of Douglases in the Caribbean, most noticeably in Jamaica and St. Kitts. 

From a Douglas family of Dornock near Dumfries came Major James Douglas who died in Jamaica in the mid 1660’s.  His descendants were merchants and sugar planters on the island.  Samuel Douglas started the Windsor Castle plantation.  From the Douglas Baads family in Midlothian came merchants and planters in St. Kitts.  Walter Douglas was Governor General of the Leeward Islands, but was suspended from that office in 1716 for embezzlement; and Robert Douglas died in St. Kitts in 1780 in most unfortunate circumstances.

Later there were many mixed and black Douglases on these islands.  Denzil Douglas has been Prime Minister of St. Kitts since 1995.

Canada.  James Douglas, the son of a Scottish planter in the Caribbean, has been called the father of British Columbia.  He arrived in Canada in 1819 and in the 1850’s began the process of making British Columbia a province out of what was then a remote Hudson Bay outpost on Vancouver Island. 

Tommy Douglas arrived from Scotland with his parents in 1910.  He rose to become Premier of Saskatchewan and is most remembered today for introducing universal health care into Canada.  Daughter Shirley is a well-known Canadian actress.

Select Douglas Miscellany

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

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Sir James Douglas, known as Good Sir James and the Black Douglas, was the Scottish soldier and knight who fought beside Robert the Bruce in the Scottish Wars of Independence.
James Douglas of Drumlanrig was instrumental in drawing up the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707. 
Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery in Maryland and was a powerful advocate for social reform before and after Emancipation.
Sir James Douglas has been called the father of British Columbia.
Count Ludwig Douglas was Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs in the late 1800's.
Donald Douglas was an airplane pioneer and founder of the Douglas Aircraft Company (of DC-3 fame) in 1921.
William O. Douglas served on the US Supreme Court from 1939 to 1975, the longest term ever by a Justice.
Kirk Douglas, born Issur Danielovitch, is a famous American film actor; as is his son Michael Douglas.

Select Douglases Today
  • 34,000 in the UK (most numerous in East Lothian)
  • 33,000 in America (most numerous in Texas) 
  • 28,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

PS.  You might want to check out the surnames page on this website.  It covers surname genealogy in this and companion websites for more than 800 surnames.

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