McCoy Surname Meaning, History & Origin

McCoy Surname Meaning

The root of the McCoy surname is the old Gaelic Mac Aodha, meaning “son of fire,” which was originally the name of a Celtic pagan god. 

This name cropped up in the Western Isles of Scotland, where Gilchrist M’ay of Ugadale was recorded in 1326, and this produced the Mackays of Kintyre and Islay; and on the Isle of Man, where the name Cucail Mac Aedha appeared as early as 1098, and here it came out as MacQuay or Quay. 

Many of them became mercenaries, called Gallowglasses, to Irish chiefs in the 14th century and stayed.  Their surnames in Ireland were various but the most common one became McCoy.

The real McCoy – meaning “the genuine article” – is an idiom that has been around since the mid-19th century.  There are many explanations but no agreement as to where the term came from.

McCoy Surname Resources on The Internet

McCoy Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland (Ulster) and Scotland
  • to America, Canada and South Pacific

Ireland.  The McCoys had originally come to Ireland as Gallowglasses at the behest of the McDonnells. They settled first in Ulster, but a number then made the move to the banks of the Shannon river in Limerick in the early 1500’s.

There were some McCoys in Fermanagh and Donegal that were originally MacHugh, a branch of the O’Flaherty clan in Connemara. And there were also Scottish MacKays that arrived later in the 17th and 18th centuries and became McCoys.

The anglicized spelling of the name was initially very variable – from McCoy and MacCoy to MacCay, MacKay, McKie, MacCooey and others as well.  Often the MacKay and McCoy spellings were interchangeable.  In general it is true to say that whenever McCoys were found, there were MacKays close by.  Many McCoys emigrated to America in the 18th century.

Notable McCoys in Ireland have been the two Gaelic poets – Art MacCoy from Ulster in the 18th century and Father Edward MacCoy from Galway in the 19th.

Today McCoys are principally to be found in the Armagh-Monaghan area in Ulster on both sides of the border, with some also in Antrim, including at one time on Rathlin Island, and others in Limerick and Cork.  The best known is Tony McCoy, the champion horse racing jockey from Antrim.

America.   The McCoys of Norfolk county, Virginia – starting with Dennis McCoy in 1648 – appear to have been the first McCoys in America.  But there is no indication of where they came from and why.

James McCoy from county Tyrone meanwhile was in Augusta county, Virginia by the 1730’s.  A descendant John McCoy was captain of the Augusta county militia during the Revolutionary War.  Another McCoy line from Augusta county made its home in McCoy, Montgomery county.

An early arrival from Scotland was Alexander McCoy who came to Windham, New Hampshire in 1721.  He was a soldier during the French and Indian wars.  The only thing remarkable about his son John was the manner of his death.  “One day John McCoy laid down under a tree.  While here, an earwig entered his ear. Efforts to dislodge it were made, but they were unavailing and it caused his death.”  

John McCoy from county Down came to Rye township in Cumberland county, Pennsylvania sometime in the 1750’s. He operated a sawmill and gristmill there.  His descendants migrated first to Kentucky and then to Louisiana.  Mary McCoy, on the death of her husband in 1858, became the mistress of the Bayou Boeuf plantation in Louisiana.  

Maryland and Kentucky.  John McCoy came to America from Belfast in 1732 and received a land grant in what is now Washington county, Maryland.  He operated the Neglect plantation there.

A branch of his family, through “Old” William McCoy, migrated to Pike county, Kentucky near the West Virginia border around the year 1810. His descendants were the McCoys of the famous Hatfield-McCoy feud in the 1880’s, a story told in Otis Rice’s 1982 book The Hatfields and the McCoys. The McCoy numbers here included “Squirrel Huntin’” Sam McCoy who lived until 1941 and whose memoirs and family tree were published in 1979.

Another Maryland-to-Kentucky line began with Daniel McCoy who first owned land in Frederick county, Maryland in 1749.  His son Daniel was in Bourbon county, Kentucky around 1810. But these McCoys later moved onto Indiana in 1830.

Tennessee.  Archibald McCoy, Scots Irish, was born in East Tennessee in 1809 and prospered in the horse business there.  After the Civil War his descendants moved to Noonday in East Texas but still maintained the family horse farm.

Heading West.  It is uncertain who David McCoy’s parents were, although they were believed to have been Enoch and Sarah McKay, natives of Virginia.  They died soon after David’s birth in 1790 and he moved to Ohio and then in 1818 to Sangamon county, Illinois where he built a sawmill and gristmill.  David passed on his entrepreneurial spirits to his son Joseph who is credited with opening up the markets for cattle by extending cattle drives to the rail lines at Abilene, Kansas.

Some McCoys went further west.  Arthur McCoy, known as “the wild Irishman,” left Ireland for the California goldfields in 1850 and then ended up in eastern Missouri during and after the Civil War.   There were reports of him joining the James-Younger gang of bank and train robbers.  He is said to have died sometime in the 1870’s.

Meanwhile James McCoy came to California from Ireland in 1850 and stayed there.  He was one of the early settlers of San Diego and held the post of sheriff there from 1862 to 1872. His home in Old Town San Diego has been preserved

Canada.  Archibald McCoy left Tyrone for Hinchenbrooke in Huntingdon county, Quebec in 1836.  One of his sons John McCoy died, curiously, after fighting in the American Civil War. The family history was recounted in Robert McCoy’s 1992 book The Archibald McCoy Family of Herdman Corners.

South Sea Islands.  The McCoy name came to the South Sea Pitcairn Islands because William McCoy, a mutineer on the Bounty in 1789, ended up there.  McCoys continued on the island with his grandson Matthew who was its Chief Magistrate.  In 1935 Annie McCoy, aged about seventy, was the sole McCoy left.  Others were living on Norfolk Island.

McCoy Surname Miscellany

The Real McCoy.  Some have the term the real McCoy originating in Canada.  In 1881 the expression was used in James Bond’s book Boy Life in Canada in which a character says, “By jingo! yes; so it will be. It’s the ‘real McCoy,’ as Jim Hicks says. Nobody but a devil can find us there.”

The expression had been associated with Elijah McCoy’s oil-drip cup invention that was patented in 1872.   It was said that railroad engineers looking to avoid inferior copies would request it by name, inquiring if a locomotive was fitted with ‘the real McCoy system.”

Another story relates to Charles “Kid” McCoy who was a clever and popular fighter in America at the turn of the century. To gain a psychological advantage over his opponents, he would feign illness before several bouts or he would spread the word to the media that he had neglected training. On fight night, much to the surprise of the press and his opponents, McCoy would be fit and ready to fight. Thus reporters often asked: “Is this the real McCoy?”

Then the expression was used in 1920s flapper slang to describe something that was good or the best, most likely related to its origins in the prohibition era and Bill McCoy’s rum-running operation.

McKay and McCoy in Ireland.  From the families of MacKay that migrated from Scotland to Ulster arose the variant form of MacKay or McCoy.

As late as 1900 the name MacCoy was still being used interchangeably with MacCay near Castlederg in county Tyrone, with MacKay around Monaghan town and in Newry in county Down, and with MacKie in the Ballyshannon district of Donegal.

McCoys on Rathlin Island.  Rathlin, an island on the northernmost tip of county Antrim, had been for many hundreds of years under the control of the McDonnells of Antrim. It was home to a number of McCoys going back to the late 1700’s.

Michael McCoy was the island innkeeper and a farmer in the early 1800’s.  His parents were named McCouaig.  It is believed that they were ousted crofters from the Scottish Highlands who had made their way to the Western Isles and Islay before leaving for Rathlin.  The dialect spoken on Rathlin Island was considered in fact to be a Scottish Gaelic one.

At its most, the total island population had been about 2,000.

However, there appears to have been a mass exodus from Rathlin Island in the 1830’s and 1840’s, including most of the McCoys.  After the death of her husband John, Nancy McCoy left Rathlin with her two sons for New Brunswick in Canada before crossing the border to Lubec in Maine where others from Rathin had made their home.  There was only one McCoy recorded on Rathlin in the 1901 census.

The McCoys in Maryland.  Daniel McCoy first owned land in Frederick county, Maryland by 1749.  The following account came from a descendant in Katherine Taney Silverson’s book Remembrances of a John McCoy, Descendant.

“Our father remembered hearing of five brothers who came to America.  One or two went to Virginia, also to New York and Maryland.  Physically they were unusually tall men. Our father, was six feet tall and slender, said he was considered the small one of the family.

There were Revolutionary flint-lock muskets in the attic of the old stone house in Antietam Creek as the family was on the side of the Colonies, though there was one Tory of whom the family was ashamed of and said “do not name anyone after him.”  And now we have lost his name!

Some research might prove definitely that members of the family were soldiers in the Revolution. Now this is about all that has come down to us from early days, except for the knowledge that the McCoy farm was a land grant from Lord Baltimore.  When our mother was visiting in Maryland she saw this imposing document. Unhappily it was afterwards lost when an old man was said to have accidentally burned it in a barrel of trash.”

Reader Feedback – McCoys in Tennessee and Missouri.  I am descended from John McCoy, a captain in the American Revolution and his son Archibald. He was awarded a land grant in Virginia. They moved to Hawkins county in Tennessee and later to Ozark, Missouri where the McCoy cemetery is still maintained. Archibald is buried there.

We have not yet been able to trace John back to Scotland. He and his brother William (‘Ol Wilam’?) arrived in America after the 1745 clearance, according to oral tradition from Archibald.

Walt MccCoy (

John McCoy and the American Civil War.  John McCoy was a Canadian farmer who happened to be in Massachusetts in 1864 while the American Civil War was raging.  He got offered a $627 bounty, more than double the normal enlistment bounty for a substitute soldier at the time.  He took the money and enlisted, without apparently letting his wife Martha and six children back in Hinchinbrooke, Quebec know.

Serving in North Carolina, he was stricken with illness and confined to military hospitals, first in North Carolina and then in Rhode Island.  His letters home at that time described his convalescence.  However, he never regained his health and died in 1867 at the age of 44.

Reader Feedback – McCoys in North Carolina.  Was any of the McCoys slave owners in Rowland, Scotland or Fairmount, North Carolina?

Diana Williams (

Mary McCoy, the Mistress of Bayou Boeuf.  She was born on June 16, 1834, but didn’t know her parents. Before she was three months old they had both died within days of each other of yellow fever, first her mother Mary and then her father James Dixon McCoy.  She was brought up instead by maternal relatives at their Bayou Boeuf plantation in Louisiana.

In 1853, when she was nineteen, she married Dr. DeWitt Rhodes who then bought into the Bayou Boeuf estate.  Five years later DeWitt Rhodes died unexpectedly and she became the mistress of Bayou Boeuf.  She owned 142 slaves at the time of the 1860 census.

Solomon Northrup in his 1853 slave narrative Twelve Years A Slave described her as “the beauty and glory of Bayou Boeuf.”  He went on: “No one is so well beloved, no one fills so large a space in the hearts of a thousand slaves as young Madam McCoy.”  She was known for staging generous Christmas feasts for her slaves, and on one such occasion, she hired Northup to play his violin.

Mary McCoy married two more times, to Austin Burgess in 1860 and to Silas Cooper in 1876, and outlived both men.

Her granddaughter had the following memory of her when she was an old lady:

“My happiest recollections are being driven in my grandmother’s buggy by her along Bayou Boeuf’s edge which meandered in and out according to the contours of the bayou, seeing the long grey Spanish moss, which is fast disappearing, dangling from the trees, the hyacinths on the edge of the water, the hooves of the horse sinking into the soft alluvial soil of the natural pathways.”

Mary McCoy remained mistress of the house until her death in 1913.  She is buried in the cemetery of the Trinity Episcopal church in Cheneyville nearby. 

Reader Feedback – McCoys in Tennessee and Texas.  My three times great grandfather Archibald McCoy was born in East Tennessee in 1809 and prospered in the horse business there.  He wed Celia Turman who was born in North Carolina.  Among their children in my line was Emanuel McCoy who was born in 1838 in East Tennessee.  Emanuel served as a Confederate Partisan Ranger under Forrest in the Tennessee and Kentucky campaigns.

After the Civil War my McCoys, together with their Turman, Williams and Prichard kin, moved to my native East Texas.  They founded the town of Noonday there near my hometown of Tyler. Four of our family cemeteries in Noonday are now official historic sites. Mike Turman is currently the mayor of Noonday.  Emanuel and his wife Lucinda Prichard McCoy are buried in the Midway cemetery in Noonday.

The McCoy Horse Farm near the Big Eddy of the Neches River in Noonday was the heavily fortified McCoy home-place from around 1870 until 1947 when my grandfather Sherman and his four brothers sold the property.

I am in search of my fourth times McCoy great grandparents and would be most appreciative of any help in tracing them.

Another McCoy possibly in East Texas was Captain Arthur C. McCoy.  He apparently was a firefighter in Boston before joining the Confederacy.  He served under Shelby alongside Cole Younger and was later one of the most active members of the James gang.  He may have come to East Texas and done a “Josey Wales” name change to elude the law.

James McCoy (

The Hatfield-McCoy Feud.  The origins of the feud are obscure.   Although animosities had built up and occasional fights had broken out, the first major bloodletting did not occur until 1882 when Ellison Hatfield was mortally shot in a brawl with McCoys.  In revenge, the Hatfields kidnapped and executed three McCoy brothers – Tolbert, Phamer, and Randolph, Jr. These murders sharpened the backwoods warfare and thereafter the Hatfields and McCoys repeatedly ambushed and killed one another.

The fighting reached a climax in New Year’s Day in 1888 when a group of Hatfields attacked the home of patriarch Rand’l McCoy, missing him but shooting dead a son and a daughter and burning his houses.  In retaliation, a posse of McCoys and their neighbors made successive raids across the border into West Virginia, killing Vance and at least three others. They battled with a West Virginia posse and eventually rounded up nine of the Hatfield clan for indictment and trial in Kentucky.

West Virginia filed suit in federal court, charging kidnapping and lawlessness; Kentucky defended the abduction; and newspapers all over the country began carrying front-page stories of the feud and sending in reporters.

Finally, in May 1888, a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Kentucky had the legal right to detain the accused for trial. The trials, later in the year, resulted in one sentence of death by hanging and eight sentences of imprisonment.

The Hatfield-McCoy legend was embellished by a brief love affair that occurred about 1880 between Johnson (“Johnse”) Hatfield and Rose Anna McCoy – an affair that was opposed and eventually broken up by the McCoys. Newspapers turned it into a Romeo-and-Juliet romance.

Why did the protagonists get so angry? On the McCoy side, one explanation offered is a rare, inherited disease that can lead to hair-trigger rage and violent outbursts.  Dozens of McCoy descendants apparently have this disease.  It causes high blood pressure, racing hearts, severe headaches and too much adrenaline and other “fight or flight” stress hormones.

In 2003 a symbolic peace treaty was signed by 60 descendants from the McCoys and Hatfields, 138 years after the feud began.  But the feud really ended in 1979 when descendants appeared on the TV game show Family Feud and vied for cash prizes.

William McCoy, Bounty Mutineer.  William McCoy was a sailor and a mutineer on board HMS Bounty.  We know almost nothing about his early life, although he does appear to have been an employee of a Scottish distillery at one point.  He was five foot six inches tall, fair complexion, light brown hair with a heavy beard, strong-made, a scar where he had been stabbed in the belly, and a small scar under his chin.  He was heavily tattooed all over his body.

Following the mutiny led by Fletcher Christian, the Bounty was taken to Tahiti for a few days before being compelled to set sail.McCoy joined Christian and seven other mutineers there.  They took with them eleven Tahitian women and six men. After months at sea, the mutineers discovered the uninhabited Pitcairn Island and settled there in early 1790.  McCoy had just one consort Teio and fathered two children, Daniel and Catherine.

After three years a conflict broke out between the Tahitian men and the mutineers, resulting in the deaths of all the Tahitian men and five of the Englishmen including Fletcher Christian.  McCoy was one of the survivors.

His life came to a tragic end after liquor was introduced to Pitcairn Island.  By some accounts McCoy himself was the one who discovered how to distill alcohol from one of the island fruits.  He became an alcoholic and finally ended his life in 1798 by jumping off a cliff in a drunken frenzy.

A tragedy also ended the life of his grandson Matthew McCoy. In 1853 on the occasion of the arrival of the Virago, the first steamship to visit there, it was planned to raise a salute from the ancient gun of the Bounty. But a spark there ignited the charge prematurely and Matthew, standing nearby, had his right arm shattered.  The arm was amputated but Matthew died two days later.

McCoy Names

  • Joseph “Cowboy” McCoy was the 19th century American entrepreneur famous for promoting the transport of Longhorn cattle from Texas to the eastern United States. 
  • Randolph “Ole Ran’l” McCoy was the leader of the McCoy clan in the notorious Hatfield-McCoy feud in Appalachia in the 1880’s. 
  • Tony McCoy is a former horse racing jockey from Northern Ireland who was the British Champion Jockey for a record 20 consecutive times, from 1995 to 2015.

McCoy Numbers Today

  • 7,000 in the UK (most numerous in Northern Ireland)
  • 35,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 7,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

McCoy and Like Surnames 

The Irish clan or sept names come through the mists of time until they were found in Irish records such as The Annals of the Four Masters.  The names were Gaelic and this Gaelic order was preserved until it was battered down by the English in the 1600’s.

Some made peace with the English.  “Wild geese” fled to fight abroad.  But most stayed and suffered, losing land and even the use of their language.  Irish names became anglicized, although sometimes in a mishmash of spellings.  Mass emigration happened after the potato famine of the 1840’s.

Some surnames – such as Kelly, Murphy and O’Connor – span all parts of Ireland.  But most will have a territorial focus in one of the four Irish provinces – Leinster, Munster, Ulster, and Connacht.

Ulster in NE Ireland covers the counties of Derry, Antrim, Down, Tyrone, Armagh, Fermanagh, Cavan, Monaghan, and Donegal.  Here are some of the Ulster surnames (excluding the Scots Irish surnames) that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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