Ray Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Ray Meaning
surname in America seems to span a number of different surname
spellings in
England, Scotland and Ireland.  Ray,
are the most common spellings here.
Ray and Rea are English names, perhaps derived from the Old English word ea, pronounced “ay,” and meaning stream.  It might in this case be topographical, describing someone who lived by a stream. Alternatively, Ray could come from the Old French rey or roy meaning “king,” and would be a nickname for someone who behaved in a regal fashion.
Rae and Reay in Scotland are said to derive from the Old English word ra, meaning a female roe deer. It is a Border name and bears no relationship with the McRae name which came from the Scottish Highlands and had different roots (although McRae could sometimes be shortened to Rae).
Ray and Rea are also Irish names, with Rea being pronounced as “ray.”  Ray can be a contraction of Reavy, derived from the Gaelic Riabhaigh, meaning “grey-haired;” while Rea could come from MacCrea which also gave rise to MacGreevey.

Ray Resources on

Ray Ancestry

Scotland.  The Rae name first
appeared in a document as Raa in
Fife in 1239 when Robert Raa, described as a mason, witnessed a charter
at the
Abbey of Culross; while Thomas filius Ray appeared in a Paisley
document in the
same year.  However, Rae has been more of
a Scottish Border
, found
initially in the Dumfries area.  They
were one of the Border reiving families, although not amongst the
largest in
terms of numbers.

The Rae name extended into Galloway and Ayrshire and later
into Lanarkshire.  Elsewhere the Raes of Esk Grove in Midlothian
came in the
1700’s from Fife.  Patrick Rae married
Margaret Monteith at Muiravonside in Stirlingshire in 1710.
Two Raes
from the Dumfries area were the Rev.
Peter Rae
, who published an
account of the 1715 Jacobite rebellion, and James Rae, an early
photographer in the 1860’s

England.  The Ray name in
England would seem to divide into a northern name and a southern

In the north, the Scottish influence has been strongest.
It was said that the estate of
in Bromfield parish in Cumberland belonged to a
Scottish Reay or Ray family around the year 1200.  William
Reay of this family was Bishop of Glasgow in the early 16th
century.  The
Scottish Rae spelling outnumbered
the Ray spelling in Cumberland in the 1881 census, although the reverse
true for Lancashire with its larger Ray population.
Meanwhile the Wray spelling appeared at an early date in Wensleydale in
north Yorkshire.  Sir Christopher Wray from Bedale became Speaker
of the House of Commons in 1571.

Ray was also a surname in the southeast, in London and nearby
counties.  Johnt Ray died in Denston in Suffolk around the year
1450.  Another Ray family in Suffolk began with Joseph Ray who
Sarah Sparrow in Depden in 1652.  John Ray, widely regarded as one
of the first English
botanists, was born in the village of Black Notley in Essex in
1627. The Rea spelling cropped up in the west country, in
particular in Worcestershire.  John Rea from Powick was mayor of
Worcester in 1676.


The O’Rea name appeared in Limerick and Cork during the 16th
century.  It was the principal Irish name recorded in the barony
of Owney in Limerick (on the boundary with Tipperary) in 1659.

the name was probably of Scottish or English origin:

  • most of the Reas (pronounced Ray) in Antrim, Down and in
    Cavan were probably Scottish in origin.  The Reas of
    Ballynahinch in county Down descended from David Rea, born there in
    1672.  Matthew Reagh from Argyll became Rhea in Donegal.
    His son the Rev. Joseph Rhea was a Presbyterian minister there.
  • there
    was a Yorkshire family of Wray that
    came to Ulster just before the Scottish plantation era.
    John Wray was rewarded with confiscated land near
    in Donegal in 1603 and built Castle Wray there.  His
    family became part of the Protestant gentry
    in the area.  The line was covered in C.V.
    Trench’s 1945 book The Wrays of Donegal, Londonderry,
    and Antrim

America.  Rays, mainly English, came first to New
English.  Rays more numerous, mainly Scots and Scots Irish, came
to points south.

New England.  Some of
the early Rays here were:

  • Daniel
    Ray, a seaman, was in the Plymouth colony by 1630 and
    moved to Salem the following year.  He
    lived there until his death in 1662.   His
    descendants, covered in Joseph Ray’s 2005 book Descendants
    of Daniel Ray
    , later spread across New
    England.  Some of them adopted the Rea
  • while Simon Ray
    from Suffolk came
    with his
    parents to Braintree as a boy in 1640.  His
    father died the following year.  In 1661
    Simon departed with his mother and step-father to
    Block Island
    off Rhode Island where he was one of the original settlers.  He lived to be 102, dying there in 1737.

Ray was the Boston
jailer from 1687 to 1699 when he was removed from the position for
allowing pirate prisoners to escape.  Samuel Ray meanwhile was a
who came to Nantucket island around the year 1720.
One line from him led to Columbia county in upstate New York
where Francis
Ray started a Quaker community at Rayville in 1781

Rays Further
.  These Rays were mainly, it would appear,
Scots Irish and started coming in the 1730’s.

Isaac Ray had arrived in Virginia from Ireland in 1730.  His grandson Joseph grew up in South Carolina
and in the 1790’s moved with his family to Kentucky.
They later migrated to Alabama and Texas
before returning to Alabama in their old age in the 1850’s.

Various Rays were in
North Carolina:

  • Moses
    Ray from Scotland died in North Carolina in 1766.  His
    son Thomas later moved to southern Ohio,
    following the Quaker migration there.
  • John
    and Martha Rea family came to Mecklenburg county, North Carolina from
    in 1763.  They helped organize the local
    Presbyterian church.  
  • while
    James Ray,
    probably Scots Irish in origin, came to North Carolina via the Great
    Wagon Road
    in 1747.  His descendants migrated to
    Tennessee around the year 1817.  They
    settled in Bedford county.  Later Rays of
    this family were to be found in Missouri and Arkansas.

Ray had moved from
Tennessee to Missouri in 1840 and made his home in what became known as
Wilson’s Creek.  In 1861 during the Civil
War it was the site of a conflict between the two forces on what became
as Bloody Hill.  Many of the dying and
wounded were brought to the Ray house, including the Union commander.  The Ray house survived the war and the Rays
continued living there for another ten years.
It is now a national museum.

Meanwhile the Rev. Joseph Rhea, a Presbyterian minister, had come to
eastern Tennessee from Donegal via Maryland in 1778.
His son John fought in the Revolutionary War
and was a longtime US Congressman from Tennessee.  Rhea
county in Tennessee was named in his

William Ray
from Belfast was in
Pennsylvania in the 1770’s and fought in the Revolutionary War.   After the war he moved to Kentucky and
to Indiana where he died in 1840 at the grand old age of 99.  He was alive to see his son James elected
Governor of Indiana.  Matthew Rea left county Down for
Pennsylvania in 1774.  His descendants
moved west to Wisconsin in 1840.

Rays West.  Adam and George Ray came
west from upstate
New York in 1837 to what was then Wisconsin territory.
Adam’s son Patrick headed further west in
1881 to Barrow, Alaska where he established a US meteorological station.  The Ray river and Ray mountains in Alaska
were named after him.

Rae, a Scotsman, ended up even further West in Hawaii.
His path took him from Aberdeen to Ontario
and thence, in a circuitous route via New York and Central America, to
Francisco in 1849 at the time of the Gold Rush.
He departed there two years later for Hawaii where he worked as
medical officer and published tomes on economics.

Canada.  Dr. John Rae
was the famous Scottish explorer of the Canadian Arctic who settled
later in
life in London.  His brother Thomas Rae
did make the move to Canada in the 1840’s.
Thomas’s son John was an Indian agent along the North
Saskatchewan river
in the 1880’s.  Another Rae family in
Canada also came from Scotland and they, surprisingly, were Jewish in origin.

Thomas Rea and his family had come to
Canada from Fermanagh in the 1820’s.
They settled in the Ops township in Victoria county, Ontario.  Thomas had commanded the Irish Fusiliers
and fought in the Battle of Waterloo.

and New Zealand.   Two Raes from
Dumfries area headed south in the 1850’s.
William Rae travelled on the Marco
to Melbourne in 1857 and married and settled down in Rathscar,
Victoria.  Simon Rae came to South
Island, New Zealand about the same time.
His story was told in Annie Irving’s 2005 book A
Good Scotch Shepherd


Ray Miscellany

Rae, Rea and Ray Today

Numbers (000’s) Rae Rea Ray
UK    13     6    12
America     2     5    44
Elsewhere     7     4    17
Total    22    15    73

Rae is more common in Scotland, Ray in England, Rea in Ireland. 

Raes Not Timid on the Scottish Border.  Tradition has
it that the original Rae was a faithful adherent of the Scottish
greatly esteemed for his swiftness of foot in pursuing deer.
The Rae name is derived from the Old
English word ra, meaning a female roe
deer.  If used as a nickname, Rae would on
the face of it be a description for a rather timid person.

could be the reverse of what they appeared to describe.  This was
certainly the
case with the Raes from the Dumfries area.
They were said to be among the fiercest and most disruptive of
the Border reivers.  They were
described in a 15th century warrant of the Scottish court as being as
and contumacious as any of the borderers.”
Their refusal to cooperate in the lawful business of the region

The Rev. Peter Rae from Dumfries.  Peter Rae was an inventive man for his time.  Born near Dumfries in
1671, he was a clockmaker, mechanic, printer, clergyman and scholar.

He was secretary of the Hammerman trade guild
in Dumfries and had his own private printing press in Kirkbride as
early as 1712.  The astronomical
chime clock at Drumlanrig castle,
made and constructed in all parts by his own hand, was testament to his
powers.  And Rae
wrote and had printed privately by his son Robert the
History of the Rebellion, an account
of the 1715 Jacobite Uprising.

He was also active in the Dumfries Kirk
sessions.   He proved to be a
controversial minister at Kirkbride.  But
when the Kirkconnel kirk was restarted in 1732 after having being
the previous century, Rae was appointed as its first minister.  He held that post until his death in
1748.  He was considered in later life a
fine scholar and clergyman. 

Gill House in Cumbria.  Gill House, an old farmhouse in Bromfield parish, is said to be the most haunted house in Cumbria.

It has been surmised that the house
harbors the spirit of a woman hater.
Some think that the ghost may have been that of the 18th century
satanist Gerald Reay who was said to have taken this house that had
been consecrated by the nearby St. Kentigern’s Church.  Or maybe
the ghost
belonged to his
Jackson who had brutally murdered his wife and was tried for the
crime in Carlisle.  Subsequently John Reay inherited the Gill
House estate in 1824.

Simon Ray of Block Island.  In 1660
Simon Ray met at Braintree with six other men to discuss the settlement of
Block Island off Rhode Island.  Simon not
only pledged to pay a sixteenth of the purchase-money for the island
and to
bear his proportionate part of the expense of moving the colony of
families there, but he also built a vessel at his own cost for
promoting and
settling the island.

following year
these sixteen families – including Simon, his mother, and his
step-father –
embarked on this vessel and moved to Block Island.  In 1664 Simon
married Mary
Thomas on the island and they raised three children there, two
daughters and
one son.  Their son Simon was the father
of four daughters, but no sons.

the father died in 1737 at the grand age
of 102 and was buried at the Common Burying Ground in New Shoreham on
Island.  His monument reads:

monument is erected to the memory Of Simon Ray esquire, one of the
proprietors of this island.  He was
largely concerned in settling the township and was one of the chief
magistrates.  And such was his
benevolence that besides the care which he took of their civil
interests, he
frequently instructed them in the most important concerns of our holy
religion.  He was deprived of his
eyesight many years, cheerfully submitting to the will of God, his life being in this trying instance, as in
all others, a lovely example of Christian virtue.  He
died on the 17th of March 1737 in the
102nd year of his age.”

William Ray, Early Indiana Settler.  In 1810 William Ray moved his family from Jefferson county in Kentucky to
Butler county, Ohio where they were to remain for eight years.

restless, the Rays moved again.  The
party comprised William Ray and his wife Ann, his daughter Elizabeth,
his sons,
John, Samuel, Martin, and also the younger William and his wife Sallie.  They rode on horseback to Riley township when
it was a wilderness and was inhabited by Indians.  They
were pioneers in this new land and built
the first church and schoolhouse.  They
settled on Section 19 where they homesteaded on 80 acres of land and
built a
log house for a home.

was on March 12, 1820 that John Ray and his little son
Elias went to a neighbor’s to sharpen an ax.
On returning home they were overtaken by a snowstorm and both
frozen to death.  The Vigo county history
says that these were the first deaths in the township. 

Jewish Raes in Canada.  Goodman
Cohen had fled with his family from the pogroms in
Lithuania to Scotland in the 1890’s.  There
Goodman met Helen Rae, the
daughter of a metal plater in
the Glasgow shipyards. Their
romance and subsequent marriage caused considerable turmoil in both
and they moved to Winnipeg in Manitoba in 1912.

two sons did
well in very different fields.  Saul Rae
a diplomat and served as Canadian ambassador to the UN, Mexico and the
Netherlands during the 1960’s and 1970’s.
His son Bob was the Premier of Ontario in the 1990’s.  Meanwhile the younger brother Jackie Rae got
his start in vaudeville and was the host of The
Jackie Rae Show
on CBS Television during the 1950’s.


Ray Names

  • Dr. John Rae was a mid-19th century Scottish explorer of the Canadian Arctic.  Rae Strait was named after him.
  • Gabrielle Ray was an English stage actress, dancer and singer, best known for her roles in
    Edwardian musical comedies.  She was in the early 1900’s one of the most photographed women in the world. 
  • Man Ray, born Emmanuel Radnitzky,
    was an American painter and visual artist active in the Dada and Surrealist movements. 
  • Johnnie Ray was a popular American singer,
    songwriter, and pianist during the 1950’s
  • Chris Rea is a popular English singer-songwriter.  He was born in Yorkshire to an Italian father named Rea.

Select Ray Numbers Today

  • 31,000 in the UK (most numerous
    in Lancashire)
  • 51,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 28,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)




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