Clay Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Clay Surname 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.

Clay Surname Resources on The Internet

Clay Surname Ancestry

  • from England (Midlands)
  • to America (incl. African Americans), and Australia

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.  And of course there was a boxer from Louisville, Kentucky who famously discarded his “slave” name of Cassius Clay for his Moslem name of Mohammed Ali.

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 Surname 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 (

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.

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.

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).

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.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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