Origin of Piland/Pilant/Pyland/Pylant/Pylate

By James Pylant
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Several mail order heraldic companies have offered surname histories and coats of arms with conflicting claims about the origin of the surname Pylant. Coats of arms, however, were granted to specific individuals, not to everyone with the same surname. One such report presented the “Pylant coat of arms,” which actually belonged to the counts and barons van Bylandt, descendants of a thirteenth century Dutch nobleman named Theodericus Doys De Bilant. Pylant, however, is not a variant of van Bylandt. Another claim says Piland, Pilant, Pyland, and Pylant are all variants of the surname Phelan, which is also incorrect.1

Pylant sometimes appears in 19th century American records under the spellings of Pelant, Pillot, and Pilot. Others with similar spellings, particularly Pilote and Pilotte, descend from Leonard Pilote of La Rochelle, France, who went to Canada and settled in Quebec about 1660.2

The descendants of Etienne Pilant lived in Nomeny, in Meurthe-et-Moselle, France,3 but it’s not known if any members of this family immigrated to America. A tradition passed to the descendants of Stephen Pilant of Clay County, Missouri, said that they descend from a Huguenot family settling in New York; however, the Huguenot Historical Society in New York found no evidence of this claim.4 Regardless of the various spellings and pronunciations, most Americans with the surnames Piland, Pilande, Pilant, Pyland, Pylande, Pylant, and Pylate share a common seventeenth century ancestor, James Pyland, who immigrated to America from Bristol, England.

The name Pyland made its way into English literature when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote of “King’s Pyland,” a training stable near Tavistock, Devonshire, in Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, Pyland is a Devonshire name, originating in that county from an estate, Pilland, some seventy miles south of James Pyland’s birthplace, Bristol. Capper’s A Topographical Dictionary of the United Kingdom identifies Pilland as a hamlet in the parish of Pilton, hundred of Braunton, Devon, near Barnstable.5

Pilton Parish derives its name from pill (meaning brooklet or small stream) coupled with ton (meaning town). Likewise, Pilland indicates it was an estate (land) by a brooklet.6 The Domesday Book notes that Pilland, under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Coutances, was a small estate with no more than fourteen sheep.7

Another place called Pylland (later recorded as Pilland) is found in Leicestershire, in the East Midlands, as of 1518.8 Because of Devonshire and Leicester’s nearly equal proximity to Gloucester, the county of James Pyland’s birth, it’s uncertain which may have been his ancestral shire, although Pylland (and the variants Piland and Pilland) emerged in Devon after the Fauvel family adopted it as their surname in the Middle Ages and descendants of that family were in Bristol and Gloucestershire in the 14th century. Yet, a third locality with the name Pilland is found in Surry, below London. Richard Grover’s last will and testament, dated 5 August 1488, made a bequest to his daughter of “All my lands called Pilland in Bentley.” No evidence, however, has surfaced of Pilland as a surname originating from the Bentley location.9

The earliest appearance of the spelling Pyland found so far is in Guilford, Surrey, southwest of London, where a deed made on 7 June 1365 for a messuage (a house with adjacent buildings and land) in Blessed Mary Parish, described as being between the barn of Henry Colas and “the house formerly John Pyland’s.”10

Another John Pyland was one of three merchants in Tavile, Portugal, who sailed from there to England to transport 107 tons of wine and thirty tons of fruit. En route to London a storm cast the ship ashore along the Devonshire coast between Plymouth and Dartmouth. John Pyland and the two other merchants filed a grievance on 14 February 1441 at Westminster complaining that various “subjects of the king forcibly took the ship with her cargo and tackling from the merchants, master and mariners while they labored to save the same, and utterly spoiled them of their clothing.”11 The Pylands continued to thrive in the merchant class in the British Isles. John Pylande, merchant tailor, lived in London, as of 1560.12

Decennial census records, which began in Great Britain in 1841, reveal the surname’s rarity: only four Pyland households in England that year, all in the East Midlands— in Nottinghamshire and two in Lincolnshire. None were recorded under the variant Piland.

  1. According to Michael C. O’Laughlin’s The Book of Irish Families Great & Small (Kansas City, Mo.: Irish Genealogical Foundation, 1992), p. 265, Phelan and Whelan, both stemming from O’Faolain, together “form one of the most numerous surnames in all of Ireland.” The same author’s comprehensive volume, The Master Book of Irish Surnames: Locations, Ethnic Origins, Variant Spellings & Sources, sourced more than 60,000 entries from the Archives of the Irish Genealogical Foundation. The variants of Phealan, O’Phealan, Phelan, Pheland, Phelane, Phellane are found, but O’Laughlin gives no entries for Pyland, Piland, Pilant, or Pylant.
  2. Geraldine I. Pilotte, A History of the Pilotte Family of France, Quebec, and Illinois (Fort Wayne: the author, 1977), p. 18.
  3. “World Miscellaneous Births and Baptisms, 1534 — 1983,” FamilySearch, familysearch.org, accessed 15 December 2012. Also, see a diagram of the descendants of Etienne Pilant and Jeanne Lienard in “The Pilants of France,” Peylont, No. 3, pp. 36-37.
  4. Ann Grove, Librarian, Schoonmaker Memorial Library, Huguenot Historical Society, New Paltz, NY, to the compiler, 17 February 1993.
  5. Benjamin Pitts Capper, A Topographical Dictionary of the United Kingdom, unpag.
  6. John Eric Bruce Gover, The Place Names of Devon, Vol. 8 (Cambridge: The University Press, 1931), p. 55, which states: “‘The ‘pill’ here must have been the brooklet which rises near Pilland. Possibly in early times it was a tidal creek or cove.” Tristram Risdon, Survey of the County of Devon (London; 1811), gives the origin of the name Pilton.
  7. The Domesday Book Online, http://www.domesdaybook.co.uk/devonshire5.html#pilland, accessed 14 January 2012.
  8. Barrie Cox, The Place-Names of Leicestershire (English Place Name Society, 2009), p. 273.
  9. The Surry Record Society, Surry Wills. (Archdeaconry Court. Spage Register.) (London: the society, MDCCCXXI), p. 274.
  10. Receipt, Accounts, Notes (968-263) [12th — 20th Cent: Charters and papal bulls, statues, deeds, administrative material and estate papers, Eton College], GB/NNAP/C5483; National Register of Archives, online, www.nationalarchives.gov.uk, accessed 15 July 2012.
  11. Calendar of the Patent Rolls Preserved in the Public Record Office, Henry VI, Vol. III A.D. 1436 — 1441 (repr. Nendeln/Liechtenstein: Kraus-Thomson Organization, repr. 1971), pp. 534-535.
  12. Index to Wills Proved in Prerogative Court of Canterbury, p. 253