Introduction: Allen


Larry Pearce




Allen is a common enough name, whether first or last, but few definite traces of the surname of our pioneering Allen family are left in Pittsburgh’s North Hills. In fact, to reach our Allens, one must go back over 200 years to Anne (or Annie) (1785-1855). Her husband John Nelson (1778-1859), my grandfather’s great-grandfather, was the Scots-Irish farmer/patriarch of that line. Annie and John are buried with several famous Pittsburghers of a later age in the Hiland Presbyterian Church Cemetery, just off Perry Highway/Rt. 19. In this article we’ll take a look at the first uses of the Allen name and clan origins in the old world, then consider several famous namesakes in the new, and end with some possible relatives in Western Pennsylvania.

Like most family names, Allen has been spelled several different ways: Allan, Alan, even Alwyn in Scotland. The Saxon translation is “winning all.” Tradition has it that this name was popular among the Bretons who accompanied William in 1066 when he conquered England. The literal British translation is “swift like a greyhound.” As it worked its way north, it infiltrated many of the noble families, including the Stewarts. Some say Allen has a symbolic origin: “Aluin,” or “sparkling.” It does grace many streams and rivers throughout the isles, such as the Allan River in Perthshire, but the Celtic translation has more to do with mental qualities or conduct, illustrious. Furthermore, it is linked to clans in both the Scottish Highlands and Lowlands: Macfarlane and Mcdonald. In the farthest north the linkage is with the Mackays. The following are notable old world namesakes:

Alan, son of Waldeve, witnessed charters by King David I in 1139

Alanus witnessed a sale in Perth in 1219

David Allan (1744-1796), an eminent historical painter, was encouraged by his father (also David) as the boy was kept home from school with a burnt foot

Robert Allan (1774-1841), a minor poet whose songs in the Scottish dialect have been popular

Sir William Allan (1782-1850), also an historical painter but was president of the Royal Scottish Academy of Painting

In the new and modern world the surname Allen is quite recognizable:

Ethan Allen (1738-1789), Revolutionary War hero best know for his capture of Ft. Ticonderoga with Vermont’s Green Mountain Boys; Today a fine furniture manufacturer and retail chain

Fred Allen (1894-1956), star of radio comedy who reached 20 million listeners a week

Gracie Allen (1895-1964), wife and partner of comedian George Burns whose fame began in vaudeville and lasted through radio, film, and TV

Steve Allen (1921-2000), TV game and variety show host and composer, credited with creating NBC’s TONIGHT SHOW.

Woody Allen (b. 1935), director, screenwriter, playwright, actor, and comedian with dozens of films to his fame

Tim Allen (b. 1953), entertainer and actor famous for his many films and TV shows

Debbie Allen (b. 1950), TV actress, director, producer, and choreagrapher

Allen Organs, world’s largest manufacturer of digital electronic organs headquartered in Allentown, PA

Allen-Bradley products, now part of the international conglomerate Rockwell Automation, the company makes electronics, drives, pumps, and tools

Today, in Googling the Pittsburgh area, one can find the Allen name prominent, dealers of furniture and organs, but also of automobiles and much more:

Fort Allen, built in 1774 in Hempfield Twp., Westmoreland Co., for the protection of settlers from Indian attacks, named for a state legislator

Bob Allen, Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher from the 1960’s

Don Allen Auto, General Motors dealer and survivor of its bankruptcy

In nearby Fayette County, in the 18th century, local records list two interesting weddings: James Allen wed Mary Polly Peairs, (an ancient form of Pearce for whom a fort near Uniontown is named) who lived to be only 30 years old, and Susannah Allen married Joseph Peairs. Although I have no direct relation to the Peairs, it’s ironic that these two families were merged even then. John Lee Allen (b.1826) was born in Washington County to Scots-Irish immigrants Thomas and Nancy Allen and married Elizabeth Kirk before moving to the mid-west after the Civil War. Other Allens, with connections to Pittsburgh’s North Side (then Allegheny City) farmed in southern Butler County. My guess is that our Annie Allen originated from one or both Allegheny City and Butler County families, then met and married John Nelson of the North Hills. Research continues and we covet your information to share with our Allen family worldwide.

Works Cited

Alan/ Allan. 14 January 2009<>.

Sweeney, Maureen. E-mail. 21 July 2009.

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