McKean/McCain Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select McKean/McCain Meaning 
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
McKean has been the more common in Scotland and Ireland.
But McCain
outnumbers McKean
by about two to one in America today.

McKean/McCain Resources on

McKean/McCain Ancestry

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

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
    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

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

His conclusion was that most McCains and
McKeans were not descended from Highland chieftains, but from a
Eain who lived in the 1400’s in the parish of
Kilmichael Glassary in mid-Argyll.  The
family was under the protection of the Mac
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.” 

  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
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

“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

America.  There are McKeans but more
McCains in

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.

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
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
minister, was attached to the New York circuit.

large circuits he traveled many thousands of miles, mostly on
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
plantation.  His son Thomas was an
influential American politician at the time of independence, first in
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
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
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.

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
  • 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

McCain family, beginning with William McCain from Derry, came to
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.

migrated around 1835 from Tennessee to Alabama where they settled in
county.  DNA analysis has suggested that
these McCains were related to Thomas McKean the signer rather than to
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.

McKeen name in Nova Scotia
began with John McKeen, a farmer, who had arrived in New Hampshire from
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
and the production and shipping of agricultural commodities, primarily

It was two descendant brothers, Harrison and Wallace McCain, who
founded in 1956 the first factory to process potatoes into frozen
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.


McKean/McCain 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
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
that the New Brunswick and Ontario McKanes were also cousins.

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
exodus to Ireland in the 1500’s.
These McCains had supported Mary Queen of Scots and fled to
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
was not just restricted to Ulster, but also spread across Ireland.

table below shows their numbers in Ulster at the time of Griffith’s
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
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
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
1837.  The family inheritance then passed
to a younger grandson James who had found work as a joiner in

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
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
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

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
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
Lancaster and Philadelphia. Hugh’s father was part of a group of
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
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
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
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
in its struggle in the 1950’s and 1960’s to maintain the “southern way
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
efforts, and later helped to integrate public schools in Mississippi.


McKean/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
    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

Select McKean/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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