Caution! There are several commercial operations that offer a Mashburn surname book. For the most part, these are NOT legitimate services and their “research” consist of harvesting phone numbers and other information that is freely obtained on the Internet.
Perhaps because the compound name of Mashburn includes the surname of the famous Irish poet, Robert Burns, or because the Mashburns intermarried with the Scotch-Irish as they moved across western North Carolina, some have the belief that the name is Irish or Scotch.
In fact, the name Mashburn (and its variants) first appears in English records during the 1500’s but has never been found in any early Irish or Scottish record.
The Meaning and Origins of MASHBURN
In England, surnames (also known as last names or family names) began with the Norman invasion and the subsequent tallying of people and property in the Domesday Book. Surnames did not become common among the lower classes for several centuries after being adopted by the nobility and gentry,
It appears that the Mashburn surname is Old English, although one etymologist states that a migration from the Germanic lowlands in the very distant past (late Middle Ages) cannot be ruled out.
Marsh (meaning a low, wet place) derives from the Old English MERSC and, in certain locales, was pronounced as “mash.”
Bourne (meaning a small stream) derives from the Old English BURRNA and, in various spellings, appears as burne, born or burn.
Therefore, the surname MASHBURN literally means ‘he who dwells near the marsh’s stream.’ Early MASHBURN records are rare; the name is extinct in England and is now found only in southern American families.
By combining the two roots in their various forms, one can easily find most of the deviations that are contained in old (and current) records:
Because spelling was not standardized until the 1800’s, one cannot place much genealogical importance on the spelling of the surname. One must remember that most people were not literate and clerks were often only barely so.
Variants of the name throughout the country appear to be the result of poor education or local dialect rather than an attempt to distinguish a separate line. Despite the variants, three forms of the surname became wide-spread – Mashborne, Mashburn and Marshburn.
Which is the Variant?
Since the surname Marsh is more common than Mash, most etymologists have assumed Mashburn is a variant of the surname Marshburn
In fact, the Dictionary of American Family Names (©2013, Oxford University Press) states “Mashburn – Name Meaning English: probably a variant of Marshburn.”
However, the actual historical record, however, indicates that the reverse is true.
In 16th and 17th century England the most common spelling is Mashborne which was also the most common spelling for the first three or so generations in America. The name first appears in North Carolina and then Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, and Alabama followed by all the other southern states. (Oddly enough, few Mashburns settled in South Carolina.)
After the American Revolution, the spelling, Mashburn, became prevalent in the United States and the Mashborne name in England appears to have died out by the mid 1800’s.
During the 1800’s, the Onslow County, North Carolina branch began using the Marshburn spelling, no doubt reflecting the accent of the region, which often added ‘r’s to words with the “ash” sound (warsh for wash, for example).
Interestingly, modern statistics support the historical evidence. In 2010 there were 6688 MASHBURNS in the United States. While we know there were some blacks with the surname Mashburn they were so few that they did not registered as a percentage of the total. (Ironically, the most famous Mashburn in America, former basketball star Jamal Mashburn, is black).
In contrast, in that same year, 1887 people held the surname MARSHBURN and 14% of those were black. This is explained by the early Mashburn branches moving westward across NOrth Carolina and into Georga and eastern Tennessee where slavery was not common while the Marshburns who were rice plantation owners centered in Onslow County had slaves. No doubt, some of the former slaves assumed the surname Marshburn after the Civil War..
The River Misbourne
A more nuanced theory for the origin of the surname is proposed by Steve Mashburn, webmaster of the Mashburn Genealogy Archives. Since the Old English roots of Mashbourne and Misbourne are the same, it is possible that the original Mashborne surname might have indicated “people from the Misbourne Valley.”
The River Misbourne is only 30 miles from Brackely where the largest concentration of the Mashborne surname is found in the late 1500’s to early 1600’s.
For more on this theory, read Mish-Mash.
Downing, John C. (n.d.). “Know Your Name”, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution.
The Historical Research Center, Inc. (1992).”Mashburn,” Family Name History.