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Probable Origin of Our Name

The origin of our surname has baffled students of genealogy for many years. The number of theories almost equals the number of ways the name has been, and still is, spelled.

These varied spelling range from today's Rathbun, Rathbone, Rathburn and Rathborne to such forms as Rawsbone, Rawbone, Rabone, Raubun, Raburn, Rathbebon, Raithbone, Rathbourne and many others.

Based on the research of Frank H. Rathbun, Editor of The Rathbun-Rathbone-Rathburn Family Historian, a new theory indicates that the name was originally Irish and is derived from the ancient parish of Rathboyne.

Before outlining this ideal, however, let us take a look at what earlier writers have said.

One called our name a derivation of Radbourne or Redborn, but the early and continued use of "Rath" as the first syllable seems to rule this out.

Another claimed that the name was Hebrew in origin, was originally spelled Raphen, and was changed to Rathbun in Holland and to Rathbone in England. There is absolutely no documentation for such a theory.

One imaginative writer traced the name to an early Englishman who was so cranky his neighbors called him "Old Wrathbyones."

Getting down to more serious studies, the respected Bradsley's Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames theorizes that the name was originally Welsh, and is derived from the town of Ruabon in northern Wales. Bradsley says: "The change to Rathbone is peculiar but perhaps the place name Ruabon has undergone a change." A check of early Welsh records shows that Raubon, with emphasis on the "u" sound, has been unchanged since the early Middle Ages.

Harrison's Surnames of the United Kingdom offers two theories. One, also with a Welsh origin, suggests that the name comes from the old Welsh words "rhath," meaning a clearing or plain, and "bon," meaning stump; hence, someone who lived in a stumpy clearing.

His other theory was that the name came from Ireland, and is derived from old Irish "rath,: meaning fort or castle, and "bane" or "boun," meaning white; hence, someone who lived in or near a white castle.

Harrison, himself, did not place much stock in the Irish origin and considered Wales the most likely starting point. The name, however, does not appear in Wales under any spelling, and a Welsh origin is most unlikely.

After considering all these theories, and rejecting them all, Frank H. Rathbun conducted his own research into the origin of our name.

The earliest records of the name that could be found were in the city of Chester, on the western edge of England, not for north of the Welsh border. Many of the early Chester records still survive, but they are written in Latin, making research difficult. Fortunately, a few early court records have been published, and in these volumes were found the first written record of our name.

In the year 1287, William de Rathebon, and others, were sued in the Chester court by Hugh deBestan. Three decades later, in 1318, Richard de Rathebane was listed as bondsman for a defendant before the court.

The prefix "de" before the last name is significant, for it indicates that Rathebon, or something very similar, was a place name where the family members had previously lived. A brief account might be in order here on the development of surnames in early England. They were just becoming common in the 13th Century, and were derived either from a trade (such as tailor, carpenter or thatcher), from a physical description (such as small, stout or strong), or, most commonly, from the name of a city or village where the family originated.

In the case of a trade or physical description, the surname was preceded by the Latin "le," meaning "the." Hence, there was John le Taylor, Peter le Stout. Surnames derived from a geographic location were preceded by "de," meaning "of" or "from."

Originally, these surnames were not passed on from father to son. William le Farmer might have sons called Joseph le Strong and Edward le Carpenter. By the 13th Century, however, surnames were being retained by families, and the prefixes "le" and "de" were being dropped.

William Slater's sons were known as Joseph Slater and John Slater even though they might be farmers or wheelwrights, or moved to another community.

At any rate, knowing that our family name came from a geographic location (because of the prefix "de"), Frank Rathbun pored through old English maps and atlases, seeking a town, village or parish with a name that sounded like Rathebon. There were absolutely none, even though he went as far back as the Doomsday Book.

Mr. Rathbun checked Welsh and Scottish maps, again without success. He then checked Irish geographies, and soon found a likely candidate.

In the 1837 Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, Mr. Rathbun found: Rathboyne, a parish mostly in the barony of Lower Navan, but chiefly in that of Upper Kells, County of Meath, and Province of Leister, 2 1/2 miles southeast from Kells on the road to Kilock and (the road) from Longford to Drogheda.

An examination of the map of Ireland shows that Rathboyne is on the Boyne River, inland from Drogheda, not far from Dublin. The name obviously derives from a fort (rath) on the Boyne River. Drogheda and Dublin are directly across the Irish Sea from Chester, and a thriving trade was carried on between the three cities for many centuries, dating back to the Middle Ages.

It is not difficult to imagine an early resident of Rathboyne Parish, possibly a merchant seaman or trader, visiting Chester in the middle 1200s, and later migrating there to live permanently. His name may have been William who became known to his new neighbors as William from Rathboyne, or William de Rathboyne. The change from Rathboyne to Rathebon or Rathbone is easily explained by the differences in English and Irish pronunciation, which still exist to this day.

This theory of an Irish beginning is bolstered by the fact that the name spelled Rathbourne and Rathburne has been common in Dublin - Dorgheda area for many centuries. The Rathbornes were prominent candle-makers in Dublin for generations.

In England, the family became wealth and influential in Chester during the 14th Century, serving as mayors, sheriffs and aldermen. One branch spread south into Cheshire County, and was members of the landed gentry in the 14th and 15th Centuries in Malpas, Tushingham and Masafen.

Others moved north into the County of Lancashire. One branch ended up in Liverpool, where Rathbones have been listed among the city's leading citizens for more than four centuries.

Others settled in the little towns along the north side of the River Mesey, where in the tiny village of Ditton, in 1629, was born John Rathbone, sone of a humble shoemaker, who was to become our first American ancestor.

Transcribed from The Rathbun-Rathbone-Rathburn Family Historian, Volume One, Number One, pages 12 -   13.
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