Sunday, July 15, 2007

One Dunham Danced

Tim Agazio has the coolest name origin (even if it is just speculative). By way of comparison, my surname is an old English place name meaning "homestead by the hill," "estate on a hill," or "settlement on a hill." Tim's ancestors were named for holy warriors, mine for prime real estate.

The spelling is usually "Dunham," though the "Donham" spelling was sometimes used in the 18th century when my forebears lived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and adjacent towns. When my ancestor, Moses Dunham, moved to Hartford, Maine, he took with him the "Dunham" spelling. When his brothers Thomas and James Thomas migrated to the nearby town of Hebron, they were denominated "Donham." It's hard to tell whether this was a deliberate choice (doubtful stories abound of men who changed the spelling of their surnames to distinguish themselves from siblings). Bill West of West in New England descends from a son of James Thomas Donham who readopted the "Dunham" spelling.

The Dunham name is neither rare nor common in the U.S. It became more common when a shady character named Jonathan Singletary began using it as an alias. Before absconding to New Jersey, he raised some hell in Plymouth.

Wheras Jonathan Dunham, alias Shingleterry, hath long absented himselfe from his wife and family, tho advised and warned by authoritie to repaire to them, and for some considerable time hath bine wandering about from place to place as a vagabond in this collonie, alsoe deseminating his corrupt principles, and drawing away another mans wife, following him vp and down against her husbands consent; and att last hee meeting with and accompanying a younge woman called Mary Rosse, led by inthewiasticall power, hee said hee must doo whatt shee bad him, and according did, both of them, on her motion, att the house of John Irish, att Little Compton, kill his dogg, against the declared will of the said Irish; and although hee put them out of his house, yett they would goe in againe; and according to theire antick trickes and foolish powers, made a fier in the said house, and threw the dogg vpon it, and shott of a gun seuerall times, and burnt some other thinges in the house, to the hazard of burning of his house and younge children, keeping the dores and not opening them to the said John Irish when he come with some of his naighbors to rescue the same; to the disturbance of his maties peace commaunded, and against the laws. [Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England (1856), 6:113f]
He was sentenced to be "publickly whipt att the post" and was booted from the colony. Among his descendants was Ann Dunham, the mother of Barack Obama.

The most famous person to bear my surname was a remarkable woman named Katherine Dunham. A pioneer of modern dance, she was the daughter of Albert M. Dunham, a dry-cleaner in Joliet, Illinois, and the granddaughter of John Dunham, a former slave who settled in Memphis after emancipation. If our paternal lines intersected, it was probably in some millennium long past. Katherine died last year, but her legacy lives on at the Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities.

I should also mention Dunham Bootmakers, a company founded by three brothers from North Paris, Maine—just a stone's throw from my hometown of Greenwood. They were distant cousins of mine, but neglected to mention me in their wills.

Steve Danko

I'm pleased to say that when I worked in Southern Vermont in the late 1970s, I bought my boots at the Dunham boot store in Brattleboro. Those boots got a lot of use, since I was working at a summer camp and, among other duties, led hikes on the Long Trail between Bromley Mountain and Bennington.


I doubt that store still exists, since the company moved its manufacturing out of state and was eventually gobbled up by New Balance. At least they kept the Dunham name intact—always a sure sign of quality.

Tim Agazio

While my very distant ancestor may have been a holy warrior, by the time the gene pool got to my grandfather our family status seems to have gone down quite a bit...but I'm hoping we are on an upswing now.

Thanks for mentioning my post.

Genealogy Reviews Online


Somewhere along the line it was suggested that Dick Cheney was related to Barack Obama, a descendant of Richard Singletary (father of Jonathan Dunham alias Singletary) who is credited with being the first Singletary in America. Would you happen to know if that relationship is actually on the Dunham side of Obama's line? As a descendant of Jonathan's brother Joseph, I'm curious to know.


I believe it was through their common descent from the Duvalls of Maryland. Cheney's genealogy is here, and Obama's here.


Thanks for the interesting article. I am a descendent of Jonathan "Singletary" Donham. My father researches our genealogy and he discovered the connection with Obama. I don't know where I read this , but Obama's mother's first name was really Stanley. Her father reportedly wanted a boy. She died in the 1990's. His maternal grandmother raised him much of the time.
My brother's name is also Christopher (small world!)
Paula Donham from Pennsylvania

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