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.

Resources on

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
there was a Clay
family at Greetland near Halifax from
late Elizabethan

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
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
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

  • 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
    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.

Clay Miscellany

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

Select Clay Names

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).


Click here for return to front page

Leave a Reply