Tracy Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Tracy Surname Meaning

The Gaelic word treasach meaning “warlike” or “fighter”  gave rise to various O’Treasaigh septs. The earliest name reference was in 1008 when it was recorded: “Gussan, son of Ua Treassach and lord of Ui-Bairriche, died.”

O’Treasagh was most often anglicized as Treacy, sometimes as Tracey, and often in its travels to America as Tracy.  All three spellings – Treacy, Tracey, and Tracy – exist today.

Tracy also has a Anglo-Norman origin in England, from the place-name Tracy in Normandy.

Tracy Surname Resources on The Internet

Tracy, Treacy and Tracey Surname Ancestry

  • from SW England and Ireland (Galway and Cork)
  • to America and Australia

England. Early sightings of the Tracy name in England were in Devon. A Tracy line was said to have derived from an illegitimate son of Henry I who took his mother’s name de Tracy and was granted the estate of Toddington in Gloucestershire.  His son, Sir William de Tracy, was notorious for being one of the four assassins of Sir Thomas a Becket in 1170.

Despite this ignominy, the Tracys through his daughter continued at Toddington and were frequently recorded as sheriffs and knights of Gloucestershire in the succeeding centuries.

Sir William Tracy was one of the earliest champions of the Reformation under Henry VIII and secured the manor of Stanway.  However, the family were Royalist during the Civil War, were heavily fined, and lost their position.  The Tracys did retain the Irish title of Viscount of Rathcoole until the line became extinct in 1797.

Ireland.  There were initially three distinct O’Treasaigh septs:

  • one in SE Galway, although they were dispersed from there at an early date
  • the second in west Cork, a branch of which migrated to Limerick
  • and a third in county Laios near the Carlow border, although these were also dispersed over time.

The Trassy and O’Trassy spellings were recorded in the 1659 census.  Tracy, Tracey, and Treacy appeared in Griffith’s Valuation of the mid 19th century.  Tracy has retreated in favor of Treacy since that time.  Sean Treacy, the young IRA leader at the time of the Irish War of Independence, came from Tipperary.

The main Treacy groupings today are in east Galway and west Cork and in counties around Laios.  Patricia Treacy is an award-winning violinist from Louth who played for US President-elect Joe Biden on his inauguration in 2021.  Further north the spelling becomes Tracey; while Tracy is found in Dublin.

America.  The early Tracys in America were of English origin, with William Tracy of the Gloucestershire Tracys in Virginia in 1620.

New England.  Stephen Tracy from Norfolk was an early New England arrival, coming with the Leiden Puritans on the Anne in 1623.  Although he eventually returned to England, he left descendants in Duxbury.  Sherman Tracy’s 1936 book The Tracy Genealogy covered his line.

Thomas Tracy, a ship’s carpenter, came in the 1630’s.  He was among those who helped settle the Connecticut river valley and found the town of Norwich, Connecticut in 1660.  Descendants of Thomas Tracy included:

  • two brothers, Phineas and Albert, who were New York state politicians in the early 1800’s.
  • and a third brother Edward who left New England for Macon, Georgia where he prospered.  He served as its second mayor in 1826.  His sons Edward and Philemon Tracy were Confederate officers who perished during the Civil War.

Another line via Wheeler Tracy settled in Gouldsboro, Maine.

Irish.  Early Traceys in Maryland may well have been Irish.  The name first appeared at Mount Calvert manor around 1690.  The descendants of Teague Tracey and Mary James were to be found in Anne Arundel county.

Patrick Tracey left Wexford penniless for Massachusetts in the 1740’s and prospered in shipping at Newbury.  His son Nathaniel, an ardent American patriot, was one of the first Yankee privateers to harass and capture British shipping.   However, when the war ended, conditions changed and Nathaniel soon found himself bankrupt.  He retired to a farm in Newbury.

Most later Tracys in America have been of Irish extraction, the most famous of them being Spencer Tracy the Hollywood actor who was born in 1900 to an Irish Catholic family in Milwaukee (his grandfather John Tracy had immigrated from Ireland in the 1850’s).

Australia.   Biddy Tracy, orphaned in Galway, came to Victoria in 1841 and married John Andrews.  Her life story was handed down in family papers.

Brother Patrick Treacy was a Roman Catholic educationalist from Tipperary who in 1868 established Australia’s first permanent Christian Brothers community in Melbourne.  By the time he retired in 1900 he had set up 27 of these schools in Australia.

Tracy, Treacy and Tracey Surname Miscellany

Sir William de Tracy at Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.  The following is a late 19th-century account of the murder of Thomas a Becket:

“Sir William de Tracy was one of the four knights who at the instigation of Henry II assassinated Thomas a Becket.

After entering the cathedral the other three knights struggled violently to put him on Tracy’s shoulders.  In the scuffle Becket fastened upon Tracy’s shoulders, shook him by his coat of mail, and, exerting his strength, flung him down on the pavement.

Tracy, who since his fall, had thrown off his haubeck to move more easily, sprang forward and struck the first blow. The next blow, struck either by Tracy or Fitzurse, was only with the flat of the sword and again on the bleeding head.  At the third blow from Tracy, he sank on his knees, his arms falling, but his hands still joined as if in prayer.

In this posture, he received from Richard Breton a tremendous blow, aimed with such violence that the crown of the head was severed from the skull and the sword snapped in two on the marble pavement.

This story differs from other accounts which said that Tracy simply put his hand on Becket and arrested him in the name of the king, but did not strike him.  He was killed instead by Fitzurse.  Before Becket died he put a curse on Tracy’s family, a water curse.  His family would always have too little or too much water.”

The King did not arrest the knights and told them to flee. The Pope in Rome, however, excommunicated them, saying them that they should do penance by joining the Crusades.  What happened to Tracy after that is not known.  Did he go and did he come back?  Local legend had it that his ghost returned to the west country.

“The worthy folks of Devon averred that his tormented spirit may be heard moaning and lamenting on the Woollacombe sands where he was doomed to wander restlessly to and fro, toiling to ‘make bundles of sand and wisps of the same’ for all time to come.”

According to tradition, it was imposed on the Tracys for miraculous penance that whether they go by land or water, the wind was always in their faces.  Hence the old saying: ‘The Tracys have always the wind in their faces.”

Treaceys, Traceys and Tracys in Ireland.  At the the time of Griffith’s Valuation in the mid 19th century, the surname had settled into three main forms:

  • Tracy (686 households), mostly in Tipperary and and Limerick
  • Tracey (350 households), mostly in Galway and Tipperary
  • and Treacy (94 households), mostly in Galway.

The Tracy spelling reflected English influence which has receded.  Treacy was the main spelling in birth registrations in 1890 in Tipperary and Galway, while Tracey and Tracy were principally found in Dublin.

Treacys, Traceys and Tracys Today.  It is mainly Treacy in Ireland, Tracey in Northern Ireland, and Tracy in America.  The following are the rough numbers today.

Numbers (000’s) Treacy Tracey Tracy
Ireland     4     2     1
UK     2     6     1
America     1     2    10
Elsewhere     1     4     2
Total     8    14    14

Biddy Tracy – from Galway to Australia.  Biddy Tracy Andrews told stories of her life to her children which were relayed to later generations of her family.

In the 1830’s Biddy Tracy was the youngest of a family of three girls and one boy living with their parents in the town of Galway.  Her father was a shipping clerk employed by the Galway Shipping Co, while her mother devoted her life to her husband and children.  They were not endowed with wealth but lived as comfortable as was possible in those times in Ireland.

Then one day their lives were to be completely changed.  A storm brought a tremendous shoal of fish upon the shores of Galway Bay.  The people were unable to clear the fish fast enough and, as the story goes, the fish began to decay and that in turn caused an outbreak of typhus.  Biddy’s parents caught the typhus and died with within hours of each other.  The children survived it but soon after the family broke up.

Biddy was sent off to an Aunt Ellen who had a small farm.  Later she lived in a convent.  She wasn’t happy there.  Then she heard that they were in need of domestic servants in Australia.  So she made up her mind to emigrate.  The voyage took six months and she had many memories of that trip.

Edward and Philemon Tracy, Confederate Officers.  Edward Door Tracy is remembered today in his hometown of Macon, Georgia with the following state marker in Rose Hill Cemetery:

“Edward D. Tracy, Jr., was born in Macon, Georgia, on Nov. 5, 1833.  His father served as Macon’s second Mayor (1826-1828), a Judge of Superior Court, and hosted General Lafayette during his visit to Macon in 1825.

The younger Tracy graduated from the University of Georgia in 1851, studied law, and was admitted to the bar in 1853.  He was a member and deacon of First Presbyterian Church, and Macon Lodge No. 5, F.& A.M.  In 1857, Tracy moved to Huntsville, Alabama. He was a Delegate to the 1860 Democratic national Convention, and an Alternate elector for John C. Breckinridge in Alabama.

In April 1861, Tracy was commissioned a Captain in the 4th Alabama Infantry, C.S.A.  He fought in the battles of First Manassas, Farmington, Shiloh and Vicksburg.  He was rapidly promoted and on recommendation of General E. Kirby Smith, Tracy was promoted from Lt. Colonel to Brig. General on August 16, 1862.  On May 1, 1863, leading his brigade of Georgians and Alabamians, General Tracy was killed at Port Gibson, Mississippi. His body was returned to Macon and buried here.

His brother, Major Philemon Tracy, Editor of the Macon Telegraph, was killed September 3, 1862 at Sharpesburg, Maryland.”

Philemon Tracy was one of the first casualties at the Battle of Antietam.  He is believed to have been the only Confederate officer that was buried north of the Mason-Dixon Line.  His grave is in the Batavia Cemetery in upstate New York.  In fact his body had been requested by his uncle Phineas Tracy who lived there.  Philemon had frequently visited him in earlier summers.

Spencer Tracy’s Upbringing.  Spencer Tracy was part of a Hollywood acting club in the 1930’s that included James Cagney, Frank McHugh, and Pat O’Brien and were dubbed the Irish mafia.  However, his father was not the tough Irishman climbing his way into the middle class that studio publicists later made him out to be.

John Tracy came from a fairly prosperous Irish American family in Freeport, Illinois, with earlier roots in Mazomanic, Wisconsin.  A Catholic, he had attended college in Notre Dame and worked for a time for a bank in Freeport before coming to Milwaukee.  There, however, he developed a drinking problem and could never hold down a job for more than a year.

Spencer, born in Milwaukee in 1900, was a difficult and hyperactive child with a poor school attendance.  He later said: “I never would have gone back to school if there had been any other way of learning to read the subtitles in the movies.”

Tracy and Treacy Names

  • William de Tracy was notorious as one of the four English knights that assassinated Thomas a Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.
  • Sean Treacy was a young IRA leader during the Irish War of Independence.  He was shot dead by the British during a shoot-out in 1920.
  • Dick Tracy was a popular American comic book character devised by Chester Gould in the 1930’s.
  • Spencer Tracy was a renowned Hollywood actor who career spanned the 1930’s to the 1950’s.

Tracy, Treacy and Tracey Numbers Today

  • 9,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 13,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 14,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)

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Written by Colin Shelley

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