Origin of the Name “Bynum”

The Origins of the Name in England

The various branches of the Baynham and Bynum families of America eventually developed legends that the name, and the family itself, originated variously in Wales, Scotland, England, and Ireland.  All of the immigrants mentioned herein, and all other colonial immigrants of the name who can be identified, were certainly English.

However, the name itself is of Welsh derivation, taking the Baynham and other forms in fifteenth century England among families of Welsh origin.   Many English surnames were formed from Welsh given names by prefixing the patronymic “ab”(before vowels) or “ap” (before consonants).  Eventually, the vowel was dropped and, for example, ap Hugh became Pugh, ab Owen became Bowen, and ap Rhys became Price.

One of the most common Welsh given names was Ennian (or, in more modern times, Enyon or Enion).   With the patronymic prefix “ab”, this name produced a great many English surnames. The Origin of English Surnames notes that ab Enyon “survives as Ennion, Eynon, Inions, Anyan, Onians, Onions, and Hennion and, compounded with ap or ab, as Pinnion, Beynon, Benian, Benyan, and Binyon… In 1455 in Worcestershire and in 1486 in Gloucestershire this acquired a pseudo-topographical form Baynham which still survives.”1  A companion book by the same author gives the same derivation, adding that “in spite of appearance, Baynham is not local in origin.”2   All authorities on English surnames seem to reject the notion that Baynham and its variants were derived from a place name.

T. E. Morris, in “Welsh Surnames in the Border Counties of Wales”, writes that “Eynon and Beynon have undergone curious changes in England, producing such divergent variants as Haynes and Onions and Baines, Baynham and BeniamsBaynham is an old Gloucestershire and Herefordshire surname.  The son of one Robert ap Eignon was Robert Baynham… Thomas Baynham was married in 1437, hence this is an early instance of the name.  Another even earlier instance of Baynham as a surname is [1421 in Herefordshire].  Thomas Baynham was the High Sheriff of Gloucestershire in 1476,  Laurence Bynion or Benyon or Benion or Bygnion was at the University of Oxford in 1581…”3   Note that all the referenced English counties border South Wales.  The same book lists Baynham, Banham, Beynon, Benniam and similar variants as originating in these border counties.  It does not list any version of Bynum at all.   Morris further notes that, in these particular surnames, “the vowels are interchanged at will.”4  Pronunciation of Baynham and its variants, as we know from contemporary poems that presumably rhymed, would have at times been pretty close to “bye-nom”. 5

The 1901 The Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames repeats the same Welsh origin and calls Baynham “a Gloucestershire surname: “…Robert ap Eignon had for his son Robert Baynham, of Chorewall in the forest of Dean.  Henceforward the family were so known… The name looks wonderfully English and local, but, as shown, is not so.  Beynon, Binyon, and Benyon are other forms…”6

The National Library of Wales, located in the charmingly-named town of Aberystwyth,  kindly provided two gentlemen to discuss this further some years ago.  While referring to the above authors, they added the observation that the Welsh patronymic produced different forms even within Wales.  For example, ab Enyon  tended to became Bennion and variations in North Wales, but Beynon in South Wales.  These gentlemen also pointed out that the Welsh use of patronymics continued well into the 19th century, so it is clear that derived surnames like Baynham developed outside Wales in the adjoining English border counties.  It is true, however, that in the last century or two, variants like Baynam, Beynom, and Bynom have occasionally appeared in South Wales as well as in the border counties.

The Visitation of the County of Gloucestershire Taken in the Year 1623, referenced by some of the authors above, contains a lengthy genealogy that begins with one Raffe ap Eignon of Gloucestershire  Several generations later, roughly in the year 1400, his descendents had adopted Baynham as the surname.  There follows eight generations of Baynhams, through the early 1600s.  (Alas, there is no evidence of a relationship with any of the Virginia Baynhams.)  The Knights of England lists four knights of this name, all spelled “Baynham”, three of whom are in the genealogy of Raffe ap Eignon.7

It seems clear, then, that “Baynham” was the dominant form of the name in the seventeenth century and that the Baynham immigrants to America (like most of that period) came from the southwestern counties or from the vicinity of London.

Surnames of the Earliest Immigrants

The surnames of the two earliest seventeenth century Virginia immigrants, John Baynham of Jamestown and Alexander Baynham of Westmoreland County (both of whom are discussed in Chapter 1) are most often recorded as “Baynham”.  This is surely due to the fact that both were literate and could sign their own names.  What copies of signatures we can find for them are rendered as “Baynham”.  The clerks who wrote their names into the records were perhaps either familiar with their signatures or were told how to spell the name.  However, the names of both men were sometimes  recorded as Baynam, Bainham, Baineham, and even Banum and Beanum.

A century later there came to Caroline County, Virginia another literate immigrant, William Baynham (also see Chapter 1) who, along with his descendants, consistently signed as “Baynham”, though the rendering of the surname by clerks on occasion exhibited nearly as much imagination.  The descendants of this immigrant, essentially all of whom were literate, continued to use the “Baynham” name in later generations.

Transformation of the Name in America

Two non-literate immigrants of the 17th century perhaps were named “Baynham” as well, though because neither was literate, the name was recorded by clerks in a different form.  These two immigrants were George Baynam of Maryland (see Chapter 1) and John Bynum of Surry County, Virginia (see Chapter 2).  Neither of these two men could read or write and so we have no example of a signature.   Their illiteracy undoubtedly contributed to the transmutation of their surnames.  In the case of the former, the surname was recorded as both Baynam and Banum but his descendants generally adopted Bainum and variants when they became literate.

John “Bynum” of Surry County – 11 different spellings

John Bynum, who arrived in Surry County by 1663, is the progenitor of the large American Bynum family.  Neither he nor his sons were literate.  Lacking the ability to spell his own name, we find it recorded by numerous clerks in what appears to be a more or less phonetic rendering of “Baynham”.   John Baynham’s name appears some 37 times in Surry County records, in eleven different versions – in order of frequency: Byneham, Bynham, Bynam, Bineham, Binam, Bynom, Bayneham, Binnom, Binham, Benham, and Benom.   Note that his name was never spelled “Bynum” during his lifetime.   The “Bynum” form of the name was rarely found, in fact, until his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, having learned to write, employed it as the preferred form.  While some styled themselves as Bineham and other variants, the great majority of the descendants of this man had adopted Bynum by the nineteenth century.

The name Bynum is thus a uniquely American name, used almost exclusively by the descendants of a single immigrant.  It is also a relatively unusual name. The first census of the United States in 1790 lists a total of 24 households headed by persons of the name (by one spelling or another) – one each in Massachusetts and Maryland, five in Virginia, fourteen in North Carolina and three in South Carolina.  At the same time, the name was virtually non-existent in England; only a handful of references pre-1790 can be found.

How do we determine the original surname of the Surry immigrant?  The answer, unfortunately, is that we cannot be absolutely certain.  But there are several good reasons to conclude that his name was actually “Baynham” or one of its close variants:

  • The form in which the immigrant’s name is most often recorded by clerks (Byneham and variants) appears to be a phonetic form of Baynham, which would have been pronounced, roughly, as “Bynum.”8   Indeed, his name is recorded on at least one occasion as Bayneham.  Among the other variations of his name, as recorded by the Surry County clerks, such as Benham and Benom, are mentioned in the above-referenced works as surnames with the same derivation as Baynham.
  • As Morris noted, families who used Baynham sometimes appear in early records as Bynion, Beynham, and other variants, and the same root name evolved in South Wales and the English border counties into Bynom.9   The name Bynom and Beynham seem more than coincidently similar to Bynum.  In fact, of those foreign-born immigrants named Bynam, Bynom, and Bynum appearing in the U.S. censuses of the mid-1800s, essentially all were Welsh.
  • The name Byneham and its variants is completely ignored by the authorities quoted above.  That is, the name in that form was almost entirely unknown in England (but see below)  Thus the odds are that the Surry immigrant’s name was a phonetic rendering of some other name unusual enough that the clerks of Surry County were unfamiliar with it.  The surname that best fits that description is “Baynham” or one of its variants.  I  also note that a similar transformation may have taken place in England a century or two later, when the English censuses of the mid-19th century recorded numerous households in southwestern England with similar surnames.10   As the National Library of Wales pointed out, both South Wales and the English border counties developed the forms Baynam, Beynom, and Bynom from the same root name by the early 19th century.
  • Finally, I would point out that the vast majority of immigrants to Virginia in the early and mid seventeenth century originated in either the southeastern counties (where Baynham originated) or the metropolitan area of London.  Thus it seems plausible that the Surry immigrant’s name would have been prevalent on one of those areas.

There is an alternative explanation for the Bynum surname which, upon inspection, seems so unlikely that we can safely consider it implausible.  Some researchers have noted that a priory named Binham existed in early Norfolk County in northeastern England.11   Spelled “Binneham” in the 1086 Domesday Book, it eventually became known as “Binham.”  (There was also a town in Nottinghamshire called Bingheha, which eventually became spelled Bingham, then Byneham in the Vale.  However, all English surname authorities reject the idea that any surname developed from this place name.)   While it is possible that a similar sprang from the place called “Binham”, the reverse is also possible, for Reaney mentions Binham (Bineham) as a Norfolk surname among “Surnames of Norwich Immigrants 1285-1350.”12

If such a surname did develop in eastern England it was exceedingly rare compared to those of the southwest and west.  In fact, the surname Binham and Bineham does not appear to have survived in eastern England.  A search of English records of the 16th century uncovers only a few persons of that name, most of them in the southwest.  By the1851 English census not a single person of that name was enumerated, though many similar names existed in the western counties.  The 1861 English census listed no families in the vicinity of Norfolk named Binham, Bineham, Byneham, or similar, but several of that name in the west and southwest.  Thus it appears that the name in that form had an origin outside of Norfolk, more akin to Beynham, Beynom, and Bynom, than to the priory of Binham.   In any event, an origin in eastern England for the Surry County immigrant is considerably less likely than an origin in the southwestern counties.

Variations on the Name in Surry County, Virginia

To clearly illustrate that Bynum developed as a uniquely American name, I’ve noted below the distribution of the spellings of the name found in all 101 Surry County, Virginia records from the first occurrence in 1663 through 1700.  These citations were for the first two generations of the family in Surry, none of whom could sign their own names.  It seems obvious from this table that the clerks and magistrates wrote the name phonetically.

50 times as Bineham or Byneham
30 times as Binham or Bynham
13 times as Binam or Bynam
4 times as Binnom or Bynom
2 times as Binum or Bynum
once each as Bayneham and Benom

  1. P. H. Reaney, The Origin of English Surnames (London, 1967), pp318-319. []
  2. P. H. Reaney, A Dictionary of British Surnames (London, 1958), p32. []
  3. T. E. Morris, “Welsh Surnames in the Border Counties of Wales”, Y Cymmrodor, Volume XLIII (London, 1932), p108 and pp157-159. []
  4. T. E. Morris, p158. []
  5. Per the helpful staff at the National Library of Wales.  See also Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue (William Morrow, New York, 1990) for a very readable summary of English pronunciation in the 17th century. []
  6. Charles W. E. Bardsley, The Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames (London, 1901), p86. []
  7. William Arthur Shaw, The Knights of England (London, 1906), Volume II, p18, 41, 58, and 98. []
  8. Helpful gentlemen at both the National Library of Wales and the British Museum assured me in 1979 that the pronunciation was probably “bye” for “bay”.    It helps to recall that pronunciation of English vowels was often considerably different a few hundred years ago.  Several books on early English pronunciation, especially H. L. Menken  and Bill Bryson, make the same point. []
  9. Morris, pp158-159. []
  10. The form Bynum and variants appears very rarely in English records.  For example, the 1861 English census lists only 5 households rendered as Bynam, Binam, Bynom, Bynum, and the like but lists 90 households rendered as Baynham and Baynam.   As another example, Pallot’s Marriage Index for 1780-1837 lists no persons named Bynum and similar, but 34 named Baynham.  Among such seventeenth century records as could be found, the Bynum form of the name appears to have been essentially nonexistent in England. []
  11. Its history is described in considerable detail by Francis Blomefield, An Essay Towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk, Vol. IX, (London, 1808). []
  12. P. H. Rainey, The Origin of English Surnames (London, 1967), pp334-335. []