McKean/McCain Surname Meaning, History & Origin

McKean Surname Meaning 
The McKean and McCain names have been intertwined – from their origins in Argyllshire in the Scottish Highlands to their establishment in Ulster in the north of Ireland and then to their spread across the Atlantic to America.  Their root is the Gaelic Mac Iain meaning “son of John.”  McKean has been the more common in Scotland and Ireland.  But McCain outnumbers McKean by about two to one in America today.

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McKean and McCain Surname Ancestry


ScotlandThere have been two schools of thought as to the origin of the McKeans/McCains. 

The Traditional View.   The traditional thinking has been that McKeans and McCains originated from the MacIan clan in Argyllshire, starting around 1350/1400 – one of their lines being at Ardnamurchan from Iain Spranguich or John the Bold and the other at Glencoe from Iain Fraoch or John the Heather.  Both of these clans were related to and relied on support from the Macdonalds:

  • the MacIans of Ardnamurchan were at first the more prominent. But Macdonald support had waned by 1600 and they fought a losing battle against the Campbells.  They were denounced as rebels in 1619 and their rebellion was then suppressed.  These MacIans lost their lands and disappeared as a clan.   
  • the MacIans of Glencoe lasted a little longer.  They were also known as MacIan Abrach as one of their chiefs had come from Lochaber.  However, their end came decisively, again at the hands of the Campbells, with the massacre at Glencoe in 1692.

Their clan histories were covered in Fred McKean’s 1906 book McKean Historical Notes. 

A Modern View.   However, this thinking pre-dated the DNA revolution and the 2014 publication of Barry McCain’s Finding the McCains, where the findings were based on Y-chromosome DNA testing.

His conclusion was that most McCains and McKeans were not descended from Highland chieftains, but from a Mac Eain who lived in the 1400’s in the parish of Kilmichael Glassary in mid-Argyll.  The family was under the protection of the MacLachlan clan of Cowal.  Donnchadh Rua Mac Ailein became thane of Glassary in the early 1500’s.  However, they were supporters of Mary Queen of Scots and had to flee their home for Ireland after her downfall in 1568.  

“The military commander of Mary Queen of Scots was Giolla Easpuig Caimbeul.  He was landlord to the McCains and drew his troops from their lands.” 

McKeans.  A McKean spelling was beginning to take root in Scotland in the 1600’s.  Robert McKeane was recorded as being a citizen of Edinburgh in 1661 and some McKeans migrated to Elgin in Morayshire around this time.  William McKean had cited religious pressure as the reason for his leaving Argyllshire for Ireland in the 1650’s.

Robert McKeand meanwhile was a burgess of Kirkcudbright in 1682; while Samuel McKeand, born there in 1740, was the progenitor of the Gatehouse Fleet McKeans.

Ireland.  Scottish McCains and McKeans came to Ulster in the north of Ireland.  They should be distinguished from other similar-sounding names in Ulster – such as McCann and McKeown – which were, however, not of Scottish origin.

The McCains fleeing Scotland were first apparent in east Donegal around the year 1570.  William McCain was recorded in a muster roll near Porthall in 1630 and McCains were later to be found in the Finn valley and St. Johnston area.  A branch of the family moved to the northeast corner of Antrim in the 1660’s and there were settlements also in Derry and Tyrone.

William McKean, a Presbyterian, had come to Derry from Argyllshire in the 1650’s.  His son William was known as William the Soldier because of his exploits during the siege of Londonderry in 1689.

“One time, while foraging for food outside the city, he was savagely
attacked, beaten, stripped of his clothing, and left for dead.  He did, however, regain consciousness and made his way back to Londonderry, clad only in his battered hat that had been discarded by his assailants as worthless.”


James McKean meanwhile at Ballymoney in Antrim had a son named James who departed for America in 1718.  He was an early settler in Londonderry, New Hampshire, although not with his brother John who had died earlier that year.  However, John’s widow Janet and her four children did come with him.  A reported younger brother William came across in 1727 and settled in Pennsylvania.

America.  There are McKeans but more McCains in America.

McKeans.  McKeans, sometimes McKeen, came to Londonderry, New Hampshire from Antrim in 1718.  Their lines were covered in Cornelius McKean’s 1902 book McKean Genealogies.

The patriarch was James McKean, known as Justice McKean, who lived until 1756.  One of his nephews John McKeen migrated north to Nova Scotia; another Robert McKean moved to Pennsylvania where he was killed during the French and Indian wars (as were three of his sons).

James McKean, probably a descendant of this Robert, settled in Pennsylvania in the 1770’s.  His son Samuel was the US Senator for Pennsylvania in 1833; while another son Andrew, ordained a
Methodist minister, was attached to the New York circuit.

“On large circuits he traveled many thousands of miles, mostly on horseback, enduring much hardship and exposure until his health became impaired and he settled in 1828 on a farm in Saratoga county, New York.”


Andrew’s son James was a New York Congressman from 1859 to 1863 and later the Chief Justice in Utah territory.

William and Susannah McKean came from Antrim to Pennsylvania with their family in 1727.  Their son William married Ann Logan and kept a tavern at New London township near the Logan plantation.  His son Thomas was an influential American politician at the time of independence, first in Delaware and then in Pennsylvania.

“In the Broadway musical 1776 McKean was portrayed as a gun-toting, cantankerous old Scot who could not get along with the wealthy and conservative planter George Read.  This was probably close to the truth as McKean and Read belonged to opposing political factions in Delaware.”


Thomas McKean was a signer to the Declaration of Independence and served as the Chief Justice of Pennsylvania from 1777 to 1799.

Hugh McKean from Antrim arrived in Pennsylvania in the late 1780’s and settled in Mercer county.  His son James, a Presbyterian minister, was sent to Ohio in 1834 and later moved to Iowa where he died in 1876.

McCains.  Hugh McCain, first found in Pennsylvania, had settled in Waxhaw, North Carolina by the 1770’s.  Joseph McCain was an early settler in Calhoun county, Alabama in 1845; while another descendant William McCain migrated in 1848 to Mississippi where he started a cotton plantation at Teoc in Carroll county.  Of his sons:

  • John, born in 1851, served as the Sheriff of Carroll county.  His son John grew up there, but left in 1902 when he enrolled in the US Naval Academy.  He and his son John S. McCain Jr. were the first father-and-son pair to achieve admiral rank in the US Navy.
  • Henry, born in 1861, joined the US Army and helped set up the World War One draft in Washington.  He is known as the father of the US Selective Service.  
  • while William, born in 1862, moved from Mississippi to North Dakota where he farmed in Traill county.  

Senator John McCain, whose death in August 2018 occasioned much national mourning, descended from the McCain admirals.

Another McCain family, beginning with William McCain from Derry, came to Pennsylvania in 1793.  McCain descendants became active in Pennsylvania in the oil industry in the 1870’s before moving on later to farm in Indiana and South Dakota.

McCains migrated around 1835 from Tennessee to Alabama where they settled in Clay county.  DNA analysis has suggested that these McCains were related to Thomas McKean the signer rather than to Hugh McCain of Waxhaw, North Carolina. 

Canada.  The main spellings in Canada have been, in order of numbers, McKeen, McCain and McKean:

  • McKeen is mainly found in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick
  • McCain also in New Brunswick  
  • while McKean, sometimes McKane, has been more widely spread.

The McKeen name in Nova Scotia began with John McKeen, a farmer, who had arrived in New Hampshire from Antrim in 1718 and then came to Truro in Colchester county in the 1750’s.  Later McKeens of this family were to be found in Pictou and Guysborough counties.

The McCains of Florenceville in New Brunswick are descended from Andrew McCain from Ballanahinch in Antrim who arrived
there as an immigrant in 1827.  His youngest son Henderson, known as Henry, became a successful businessman involved in farming and the production and shipping of agricultural commodities, primarily seed potatoes.

It was two descendant brothers, Harrison and Wallace McCain, who founded in 1956 the first factory to process potatoes into frozen French fries.  McCain Foods is now the largest producer of French fries in the world.

John McKane arrived with his family from Ulster sometime in the 1860’s and farmed near Kingston, Ontario.

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McKean and McCain Surname Miscellany

McKeans and McCains Today

Numbers (000’s) McKean McCain Total
UK *    4    1    5
America    3    6    9
Elsewhere    3    3
Total   10    7   17

*Includes Northern Ireland.

Barry McCain’s Finding the McCains.  Barry McCain’s Finding the McCains, published in 2014, was an account of one Mississippi McCain’s forty-year odyssey to find his family in Ireland.  Senator John McCain and his cousin, novelist Elizabeth Spencer, both included a short history of the Mississippi McCain family in their respective memoirs Faith of Our Fathers and Landscapes of the Heart.

The search for the McCains became a mystery story for Barry McCain with clues, false turns, many adventures, and then ultimate success through Y chromosome DNA testing.

The Y chromosome DNA results revealed that the McCains of Mississippi, which include Senator John McCain’s family, were the same family as Wallace and Harrison McCain, the founders of Canada’s McCain Foods.  They were also the same family as James McKeen who organized the 1718 fleet that began the great Ulster migration to the English colonies.  Then it was discovered that the New Brunswick and Ontario McKanes were also cousins.

However, all those stories about the McCains being Highland chiefs in Argyllshire, alas, were not true.   The DNA connection instead originated with a Mac Eain who lived in the parish of Kilmichael Glassary in mid-Argyll in the 1400’s.  These McCains
were connected to the MacLachlan clan of Cowal, by whom they held rights to their lands in Glassary.

Thanks to the protective care of the Earls of Argyll, there has been some primary source data on the McCains in Kilmichael Glassary prior to their exodus to Ireland in the 1500’s.  These McCains had supported Mary Queen of Scots and fled to Donegal after her downfall in 1568. 

McKean and McCain and Like-Sounding Names in Ulster.  It is easy to confuse McKean or McCain with other similar sounding surnames in Ulster.  The McKean and McCain names are Scots Irish names. McCann, much larger in number and more widespread, is Irish in origin.  It was the anglicized form of the Old Gaelic MacCana, a patronymic of the personal byname Cana from cano meaning “wolf cub.”  And McCann as a
surname was not just restricted to Ulster, but also spread across Ireland.

The table below shows their numbers in Ulster at the time of Griffith’s Valuation in the mid-19th century.

Numbers in Ulster McKean McCain/McCane McCann
Antrim    6    6   240
Armagh    9    2   333
Derry    4    2    95
Donegal    3    49
Down    3    2   140
Fermanagh    25
Tyrone    9    5   212
Total   34   17  1,094
-from Griffith’s Valuation.

McKeown also developed as an Irish name in Ulster, but from an Anglo-Norman family that had established themselves as the Lords of the Glens of Antrim sometime in the 1300’s.   The heads of the leading branch of the family soon adopted the Gaelic lineage style name of Mac Eoin (“son of John”) Bissett of the Glens, by which they were known in the Irish annals.  In time in Antrim the surname became Mac Eoin, which was later anglicized to McKeown.

The McKeans of Gatehouse Fleet in Kirkcudbright.  The
first recorded was Samuel McKeand, born around 1740, who had married Helen McMillan in Kirkcudbright in 1759.  He was a weaver by trade and went on to live to almost a hundred years of age.

His son Alexander built and ran the Ship Inn in Gatehouse Fleet, but died before his father did.  So too did his grandson Alexander, a sea captain, who was lost at sea off Newfoundland in 1837.  The family inheritance then passed to a younger grandson James who had found work as a joiner in Manchester.

James’s son Thomas grew up in Manchester. He moved to Gatehouse in the 1860’s and, with some of the inheritance, bought up the Gatehouse brewery in 1869.  But he was not to hold the brewery long.  He had fathered a child out of wedlock and got into trouble in 1874 with the local Kirk session.  He therefore decided to sell the brewery and emigrate to the United States. His sister Margaret meanwhile departed for New Zealand to join her brother there.

Hugh McCain in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.  Some researchers believed that Hugh McCain was born in Pennsylvania, the son of William Alexander and Sarah Hamilton McKean or McCain. Other researchers have maintained that Hugh was the son of Robert McKean and that he was born in Antrim in Northern Ireland. They said that Hugh came to America in 1752, initially settling in York county, Pennsylvania where his father died about 1789.

The problem has been a lack of documentation to tie down his parentage, birth, and immigration date.  Since this “Hugh” has been listed as a cousin of William Alexander McCain, he has been placed as son of Robert McKean/McCain so he and his family can be found in the McCain family history.

There is no conflict as to the initial settlement location of Hugh’s family. This was in the southern part of Pennsylvania in vicinity of York, Lancaster and Philadelphia. Hugh’s father was part of a group of Scotch-Irish who lived near Londonderry in Northern Ireland.

Prior to the American Revolution War Hugh moved south and established a home in Waxhaw, North Carolina in what was then Mecklenburg county. He was the progenitor of the Waxhaw McCains.

One story about Hugh McCain at Waxhaw occurred during the Revolutionary War when he was running a tannery. The British came to take away his leather.  However, hearing of their coming, Hugh got some men to help him, dug a hole in the bottom of the creek, sank the leather there and covered it over with sand.

When the British made their demand for the leather, they accompanied it with a threat that if he did not disclose the hiding place they would have him hanged. Failing to get the information, they then hanged him until he was almost dead, then they let him down, and on his recovering, still refusing to disclose the hiding place, they again swung him up. This cruel treatment was repeated three times before they stopped, but the British never received the information sought and never found the leather. 

William McCain and His Slave-Holding Legacy.  William McCain was a slave-holder at his Teoc cotton plantation in Carroll county, Mississippi, which he had started in 1848.  He was recorded as owning 52 slaves in 1851.  He died in 1863, fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

His legacy was interesting, a hundred years on, at the time of the civil rights movement.

One descendant, William David McCain, was a recognized leader of the Mississippi political establishment and a leader in its struggle in the 1950’s and 1960’s to maintain the “southern way of life.”  That meant continuing the pattern of racial segregation within the state.

On the other side of the fence were “the black McCains.”  They were descendants of Isom and Leddie McCain, slaves who had worked at the Teoc plantation.  During the 1960’s they resisted the Ku Klux Klan, were leaders in the civil rights movement and voter registration efforts, and later helped to integrate public schools in Mississippi.

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McKean and McCain Names
  • Thomas McKean was a signer of the American Declaration of Independence and served as the Chief Justice of Pennsylvania from 1777 to 1799. 
  • Harrison and Wallace McCain founded in Canada in 1956 the first factory to process potatoes into frozen French fries.  McCain Foods is now the largest producer of French fries in the world. 
  • Ginger McCain was the English horse trainer who led the champion steeplechaser Red Rum to three Grand National victories in the 1970’s. 
  • John McCain, captured and imprisoned during the Vietnam War, later served as the US Senator for Arizona and was the US Republican Presidential candidate in 2008.

McKean and McCain Numbers Today
  • 5,000 in the UK (most numerous in Northern Ireland)
  • 10,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 3,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

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