Clay Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Clay Meaning
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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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

Clay Surname Distribution in England.  There were 6,500 Clays recorded in the 1891 census in England
and Wales.  The table below shows the main counties where these
Clays were to be found.

Number Percent
Yorkshire   1,350   21
Nottinghamshire     730   11
Lancashire     470    7
Staffordshire     450    7
Derbyshire     340    5
London     650   10
Elsewhere   2,510   39
Total   6,500

The Clay name crops up most in Yorkshire and in the Midlands.

Clays from North Wingfield in Derbyshire.  The will of John Clay of The
Hill
in North Wingfield was recorded in 1588.  But this
family is likely to go back at least two generations in the village.

Descendants were the Clays of Ault Hucknall across the border
in Nottinghamshire (some of whom were Quakers in the late 1600’s) and
later Clays in Bonsall and Matlock.   One branch moved
to Sheffield in Yorkshire and had emigrants to America (Philadelphia)
around 1700; another settled in Lancashire and included the Rev. John
Clay, the Victorian prison disciplinist from Preston.

 Reader Feedback – Clays from Derbyshire.  I am a descendant of William Clay and Margaret Newbould who were
married at St. Lawrence church in North Wingfield in 1577.  There
are Clay descendants still in North Wingfield.

There were two men named John Clay in Derbyshire and each was
knighted.  They lived a hundred years apart.  The first Sir
John was knighted by Edward VI in 1471.  He was the one who had
the coal mines.  The second Sir John was knighted by Queen
Elizabeth around the year 1577.  This John Clay was born and lived
in the village of Glapwell near Chesterfield.  He sold his farm
there and then moved across the county to the village of Crich near
Matlock.  He had two sons and three daughters.  His sons died
in childhood and his daughters inherited his property.

Kathleen S. Deveril (ksdeveril@gmail.com)

Clays at Greetland near Halifax.  Greetland near Halifax is the location for Clay House.  There had been a home on this site recorded in 1296  and again in 1419 which was subsequently the property of Robert Clay the vicar of Halifax.  The Clay House which stands today was built for John Clay and the Clay family around 1650.  However, this family had died out by 1693 and the house passed into other hands.

American Clay Genealogy

John Clay (1587-1639), the English grenadier, m. Anne Nicholls in
England, he arrived in Jamestown in 1613.

– John Clay (1610’s-1650’s) m. Elizabeth

– Charles Clay (1638-1686) of Henrico Co, m. Hannah Wilson

– Henry Clay (1672-1760) of Chesterfield Co, m. Mary Mitchell and their sons:

– William Mitchell Clay (1709-1774) m. Martha

– Mitchell Clay (1736-1812), m. Phoebe Belcher

– Henry Clay (b. 1713) m. Lucy Green

– William Clay (1760-1841) of Grainger Co, Tennessee, m. Rebecca Comer

– Clement Comer Clay (1789-1866) of Huntsville, Governor and Senator of Alabama

– Clement Claiborne Clay (1816-1882), Senator for Alabama

– Rev. Charles Clay (1716-1789) of Powhaton Co, m. Martha Green

– Rev. Eleazar Clay (1744-1836), a Baptist minister in Chesterfield Co

– General Green Clay (1757-1828), the Kentucky landowner, m. Sally Lewis

– Brutus Clay (1808-1878), Kentucky landowner and politician

– Cassius Marcellus Clay (1810-1903), the Kentucky emancipationist.

– John Clay (1721-1762) of Chesterfield Co, m. Sarah Watkins

– Rev. John Clay (1742-1781), a Baptist minister in Hanover Co, m. Elizabeth Hudson

– Henry Clay (1777-1852), the Kentucky Senator and American statesman

The Grave of the Rev. Charles Clay.  The Rev. Charles Clay was an Episcopalian minister who
served St. Anne’s parish in Powhaton from 1769 to 1784.  His grave
is covered by a huge pile of rocks measuring at one time twenty by
twelve by twelve feet high.

Legend has it that he asked each of his sons to put a
rock on his grave for each sin they had committed that he did not know
about.  These boys must have been some handful.  It took 100
wagon loads of rock to make that pile.  Another legend is that
this Clay was of questionable character and he was afraid that the
devil would get him, so that he asked that his grave be covered with
rocks.  Apparently the real reason was that he did not want a road
crossing over his grave and figured that it would be easier to go round
than over that pile of stone.

His grave today lies between the 6th and 7th fairways of
the Ivy Hill golf course.

The Clays During The Civil War.  The nation was divided by the slave issue and
Kentucky embodied that division.  The Compromise of 1850,
orchestrated by Henry Clay, had established it as a border state, and
it was caught between pro-Union and pro-secession forces.

Brutus J. Clay, the family patriarch, was the state’s largest slave
owner and yet also a supporter of fellow Kentuckian Abraham
Lincoln.  Even after the war had broken out, Brutus attempted to
balance these contradictions as a member of Congress.  He would
rise in the House to voice his objection to the Emancipation
Proclamation and also to give his support of the Union cause.
Brutus’s own brother, Cassius Clay, on the other hand, was a firebrand
abolitionist and was among the most colorful and controversial public
figures of his day.

One of Brutus’s sons ran off to join the Confederate army; a nephew
joined the Union army.  Despite the divisions, family ties bound them
together.  During Brutus’s absences in Washington during the Civil
War, his wife Ann kept the farm running, hiding the family china in the
cistern and scolding rebel soldiers for stealing vegetables.
While her husband fought in Robert E. Lee’s army, Brutus’s daughter
Martha raised and fed her family, protecting her farm from marauding
Union soldiers.  When his rebel son was wounded and captured,
Brutus himself went to Lincoln to get a pardon, which Lincoln granted.

For nearly a century, letters written by the Clay family between 1843
and 1870 lay undetected in a trunk in the dusty attic of an estate in
Bourbon County, Kentucky.  Once discovered they soon captured the
attention of regional historians and local archivists.  Mary Clay
Berry’s 1997 book Voices From the
Century Before: The Odyssey of a 19th Century Kentucky Family

recounts through these letters this turbulent time.

Cassius Clay to Mohammed Ali.  The boxer Cassius Clay, like his father, was named after the 19th
century abolitionist and politician of the same name.  His
paternal great grandparents were John and Sally Anne Clay and
grandparents, from Jefferson County in Kentucky, Herman and Edith Clay.

Cassius Clay said that it was his “slave name” and changed it to
Mohammed Ali when he joined the Nation of Islam in 1964.

 

 

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 Clay Numbers 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).

 

Select Clay and Like Surnames

These names are locational, describing someone who lived in those medieval times by the side of a bank, or by a barn or a lane or a shaw (which means a wood) or a wood and so forth.  Both the oak tree and the ash tree have in fact provided locational surnames – Oakes and Nash (from atten Ash).  Here are some of these locational surnames that you can check out.

BanksFieldMeadShaw
BarnesFordMooreStone
BrooksHillNashWells
CrossLaneRhodesWood

 

 

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