Ray Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Ray Surname Meaning

The Ray surname in America seems to span a number of different surname spellings in England, Scotland and Ireland.Ray, Rae and Rea 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 Surname Resources on The Internet

Ray, Rae and  Rea Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Borders), England, and Ireland (Munster)
  • to America, Canada and Australia

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 name, found initially in the Dumfries area.  They were one of the Border reiving families, although not amongst the largest in terms of numbers.  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 Scottish photographer in the 1860’s.

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.

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

Northern England.  Here the Scottish influence has been strongest.  It was said that the estate of Gill 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 was 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.

Southern England.  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 married 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.

Ireland.  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.

In Ulster the name was probably of Scottish or English origin.

Most of the Reas (pronounced Ray) in Antrim, Down and in county Cavan were probably Scottish in origin.  The Reas of Ballynahinch in county Down descended from David Rea, born there in 1672.  Matthew Reagh was recorded in Donegal in the 1660’s.  He had descendants in America that took the name of Rhea.

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 Letterkenny 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 England.  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 spelling.
  • 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.

Caleb 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 Quaker 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 South.  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 Ireland 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.

John 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 known 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 Reagh, a Presbyterian minister, had come to Maryland from Donegal via Pennsylvania sometime in the 1770’s. His son John Rhea (as he spelt his name) fought in the Revolutionary War and was a longtime US Congressman from Tennessee.  Rhea county in Tennessee was named in his honor.

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 then 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.

John 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 San Francisco in 1849 at the time of the Gold Rush. He departed there two years later for Hawaii where he worked as a 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.

Australia and New Zealand.   Two Raes from the Dumfries area headed south in the 1850’s.  William Rae travelled on the Marco Polo 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, Rae and Rea Surname 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 monarch, 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.

However, nicknames 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 “troublesome and contumacious as any of the borderers.” Their refusal to cooperate in the lawful business of the region was legendary.

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 mechanical 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 suppressed 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 grandson 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 sixteen families there, but he also built a vessel at his own cost for promoting and settling the island.

The 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.

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

“This monument is erected to the memory Of Simon Ray esquire, one of the original 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.”

Reader Feedback – Samuel Ray of Nantucket.  I’m a descendant of Samuel Ray who settled on Nantucket. I have his father’s baptism record, David Ray. His father William Ray is listed on it but no mother. It’s the dead end that tortures me.

Jennifer Ray (Msrayo6@yahoo.com).

Reader Feedback – Reagh not Rhea.  You mentioned a Mathew Reagh supposedly from Argyle whose son Joseph became Rhea in Ireland.  This has been copied from fake American history for the Rhea family of Tennessee, made up by Senator John Rhea sometime around the 1820’s. Since then, it has been repeated without pause.

Mathew Reagh was not born in Argyle. He was born in either Tyrone or Donegal, adjacent to the river Foyle near St Johnston. Earliest records are in 1660. Then, with his presumed brothers, Hugh, Patrick and John, he was listed on the Hearth Tax Rolls in Donegal in 1663.

They are Reagh. not Wray, Ray, Rea, Rae or any other spelling. The family remained Reagh until the last dies in Ireland in the 1960’s. Some did get recorded in various documents as Wray and Rea and Reah, but the name remained Reagh.

Reverend Joseph Reagh was the Presbyterian minister for Fahan Church, Donegal until he emigrated in 1769 to Philadelphia initially, then Maryland where he died in 1777.  In America he would most likely have retained the spelling Reagh.

That his Donegal born son John Reagh couldn’t spell his baptized name and changed it to Rhea, but could write in Greek and Latin, is an American mystery.  In Nova Scotia, where the family also emigrated to in 1761, and in Ireland the name remained Reagh.

The Reagh and Dill families in Donegal, America and Canada were interlocked for generations. In Canada the ice hockey Hall of Fame claims the sport in its modern format was started on the Dill farm in Nova Scotia by schoolboys using the frozen lake.

Robert Elliott (robelliottellru6@outlook.com).

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.

Then, growing 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.

It 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 were frozen to death.  The Vigo county history says that these were the first deaths in the township. 

Reader Feedback – Ray in Illinois Who Knew Abraham Lincoln.  My grandfather Jesse Ray was born in Illinois around 1873 and his father owned a hotel there where he would meet with Abe Lincoln.  Grandfather Jesse moved to Ortley, South Dakota and land granted a farm around 1900.

Gerald Ray (jerray41@gmail.com)

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 families and they moved to Winnipeg in Manitoba in 1912.

Their two sons did well in very different fields.  Saul Rae became 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.

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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Written by Colin Shelley

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