Select Clay Surname Genealogy

The surname Clay comes from the Old English claeg meaning clay.  It could describe someone who lived in an area of clay soil; or else someone who worked in clay, say in a clay pit, or who worked with clay, i.e. with wattle and daub.

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Select Clay Ancestry

England.  The Clay surname has been mainly evident in the Midlands and in Yorkshire.  It was said first to have been found in the vicinity of Nottingham, the name bearer then living on clay land. 

Derbyshire.  The Clay name, firstly as del Clay and later as Clay, had appeared in Derbyshire in the 13th century.   The surname first appeared in the parish of North Wingfield in NE Derbyshire in 1327 and was and still remains the largest concentration of Clays within Derbyshire.  The place name of Clay Cross probably took its name from these Clays. 

They were later to be found at Shirland and at Hucknall across the border in Nottinghamshire.  Hercules Clay was Mayor of Newark at the time of the Civil War.

"On the night of March 11, 1644 Hercules Clay dreamt three times that his house was on fire and, unable to stand it any longer, got his family out in the middle of the night, just as a siege machine sent a fireball over the ramparts and burnt down his house."

A John Claye of Derby was knighted by Edward IV at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471.  His descendant is thought to have been the Sir John Claye, the coal baron of Wales with his estates in Monmouth during the reign of Queen Elizabeth.   Another Clay family of Derbyshire traces itself back to a Henry Clay, born in Wirksworth in 1672.   

Yorkshire  There were also early references in Yorkshire.  Nicholas del Clay was the name that was recorded in the Yorkshire subsidy rolls of 1302 and there was a Clay family at Greetland near Halifax from late Elizabethan times. 

A Clay family from the Halifax area, blacksmiths in the 18th century, became well-to-do mill-owners in Ossett in the 19th.  Their business, Edward Clay & Son, still flourishes.  Yorkshire was accounting for more than 20 percent of the Clays in England by the time of the 1891 census.

America.  John Clay, the English grenadier, arrived in Virginia in 1613 and his wife Ann followed ten years later.  It is claimed by some that he came from the Welsh Monmouth family; but others believe that he was of English origin. 

He had at least three sons and from these sons came most of the Virginia Clays.  It was said that the strong-willed Clays of colonial Virginia were prosperous yeomen farmers and church ministers of the upper middle class stratum of the time, but not of the ruling gentry.

Kentucky.  These Clays were established in Kentucky by the 1790's through General Green Clay and, famously, the American statesman Henry Clay.  The Clays were divided by the slave issue, with some on the Union side during the Civil War, including (prominently) the emancipationist Cassius Marcellus Clay, and others on the Confederate side. 

Henry Clay's cousin was the Alabama Governor and Senator, Clement Comer Clay.  A relative Nestor Clay was an early settler in Texas in the 1830's; and another of these Clays, Charles Edward, was a pioneer in Wyoming territory in the 1860's.  The genealogy of this Clay family was first traced by Mary Rogers Clay in the Filson Club's 1899 book The Clay Family.

Clays in the South.  There were also other early Clay lines in the South.  Joseph Clay arrived in Georgia around 1760 and prospered as a merchant in Savannah in the late 18th century.  Alexander Stephens Clay grew up in Georgia and became that state's senator in the early 1900's.  His sixth son Lucius rose through the US Army ranks to become Eisenhower's deputy and the military governor of the US Zone in Germany in the years after World War Two. 

The emancipationist Cassius Marcellus Clay left two significant legacies:
  • first his daughters - Laura, Mary, Annie and Sallie - who became early women's rights activists
  • and second his name, handed down to the boxer Cassius Clay who later derided it as his "slave name."
African American.  Clay as an African American name cropped up noticeably in Alabama and Texas, as well as in Kentucky.  One family traces their history back to Gurley in Alabama.  The jazz band leader Sonny Clay was born in Chapel Hill, Texas.  He moved at an early age to the West Coast.  More recently there has been the athlete Bryan Clay, born in Austin, Texas of Afro-Asian origins. 

Australia.  Early Clay arrivals were convicts, two from Nottingham in the 1820's and William Clay from Warwick, transported in 1835 and sent out to work in Hunter valley.  Among later settlers were:
  • John and Agnes Clay from Devon who arrived in 1854 and settled in Doncaster, Victoria.
  • and Charles Clay and his family from Cheshire who came to Western Australia in 1859.  He was a Methodist minister.  Son Henry achieved some recognition as a writer of religious verse.
Select Clay Miscellany

If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for further stories and accounts:

Select Clay Names

Sir John Claye
, knighted by Queen Elizabeth, was called the coal baron of Wales.
Henry Clay was a US Senator from Kentucky and one of the most prominent political figures in American history in the first half of the 19th century.
Cassius Clay from an old-line Kentucky family became one of the leading emancipation advocates in the years preceding the Civil War.  His nickname was "the Lion of White Hall."
Lucius Clay was the American general who acted as the military governor of Germany in the years following World War Two.
Cassius Clay was the "slave name" ditched by three time heavyweight boxing champion Mohammed Ali.  He grew up in Louisville, Kentucky.
Bryan Clay, the son of an African American father and Japanese immigrant mother, was born in Texas, raised in Hawaii, and won the gold medal in the decathlon in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

Select Clays Today
  • 12,000 in the UK (most numerous in Manchester)
  • 18,000 in America (most numerous in Texas).
  • 5,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada).

PS.  You might want to check out the surnames page on this website.  It covers surname genealogy in this and companion websites for more than 800 surnames.

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