The Surname GAY

GAYs: Surname Roots & Family Branches

In the Oxford Dictionary of Surnames, the surname Gay is said to be of (at least) three derivations: from an English personal name meaning light-hearted or cheerful, from a Norman French locative, or place name, and from a Catalan medieval name derived from the Latin given name Gaius—the first given name, as a matter of fact, of Julius Caesar. The OED shows it being used by Chaucer with something like the modern connotations, including the homosexual stereotyping.

Be all that as it may, the Dictionary of Surnames also lists Guy as a separate surname, derived from the popular French personal name, “Guy”. Which raises the crucial question of whether the generic surname GAY that I have hypothesized as embracing “Gay” and “Guy”, is really one name or two.

I think the true answer straddles this question. Yes, Guy is a separate surname, which is suggested by its prevalence in England over Gay, and its different geographical distribution there, but at the same time, I believe that most Guys are actually Gays in disguise (apologies for the pun). I think that because the surname Gay was pronounced “Guy” in many areas of Britain and the colonies, that when spelling became standardized in the early 1800s, phonetic spelling carried the day in many cases, and I know that to be the case with many (American) Scotch-Irish Gays.

GAYs and GUYs in Great Britain

Links to a set of maps showing the geographic distribution of he surnames GAY and GUY in Great Britain in 1881 will be found in the left column. The population-adjusted maps are the most useful for indicating the likely places of origin for a surname, because they minimize the distortions caused by the inevitable clustering of people of all surnames in urban areas during modern times, and allow the typical British pattern of gradual radiation out from a center of origin, to show through.

If one opens and examines the population adjusted maps for both Gay and Guy side by side, it is quickly evident that each surname has at least several such centers of origin. It is also evident that there is little or no overlap between the centers for GAY and for GUY, and in general, the very different distribution of these surnames makes it clear that most of the families who bore these different names probably were unrelated by blood. Nonetheless, it is a common pattern throughout the British-speaking world for different branches of the same family to have settled on variant spellings of their surname, and this is especially likely to have occurred in Britain where pronunciations have varied widely from area to area even unto the present day, and during a period when “Gay” was as often as not pronounced like “Guy” (or “Why”). It is best, therefore, to keep an open mind about the possibility of blood relationships between certain “Gay” and “Guy” families, and to focus instead, on the clustering and radiating patterns in each of these maps.

From these two maps, one can see that both surnames (or surname variants) are widely distributed and dispersed in Britain, especially the more prevalent “Guy” form. One would expect a surname of especially common and widespread derivation, like the occupational name Smith (every substantial village had its blacksmith) to have at least scores, if not hundreds, of independent origins. But “Gay” is said to derive primarily from a nickname representing personal characteristics, while “Guy” is supposed to come from a French personal name, and neither surname is particularly common today. It is therefore likely that both surnames developed quite early, and certainly no later than the 1300s, when the majority of Englishmen acquired surnames.

Given its somewhat wider and more diffuse distribution, it would appear likely that the surname “Guy” may have come into use as a surname a century or two earlier than that. However, Reaney & Wilson, in their Oxford Dictionary of English Surnames, have found instances of “Gay” dating back to the late 12th century, while the earliest usage of “Guy”, per se, dates only to 1384, although earlier cases of the Latinized font name Guido are cited. However, there is no proof in any of these instances that these surnames had yet become hereditary; they may have simply been bynames acquired as identifiers by the individuals involved during their lifetimes but not passed on to their children. And lest one suppose that “Guy” might go back to the early post-Conquest Normans, it should be understood that few, even, of the higher Norman gentry had surnames, hereditary or otherwise, and in any case, the Norman French form of the name was “Why” or “Wi”, not “Guy” (Reaney & Wilson do find a couple of instances of this Norman form dated about 1200).

To return to the maps, one can see that the more common “Guy”s are not found everywhere in Scotland, and to extent that they cluster at all, it is in the western coastal areas around the greater port of Glasgow, and to a lesser extend in Ayr. These are the areas that were host to to a constant back-and-forth traffic between Scotland and northern Ireland (Ulster), and it may well be that originally English “Gay”s and “Guy”s both ended up here by 1881, when people of that name who had settled in Ireland from England, later made their way to Scotland. And once in Scotland, Many of these “Gay”s may have had their surname converted phonetically to “Guy”.

In England we find “Guy”s especially prevalent all along the south coast, apparently radiating east from their county of greatest concentration, Dorset, as far as Sussex. The lesser concentration of “Guy”s in Cornwall might betoken a family of independent origin there, or it may be that there is a sea connection with the Dorset families via the major Cornish port of Plymouth. There are also independent clusters of “Guy”s in the English counties of Westmoreland, Nottingham, and Shropshire (“Salop”).

It occurs to me that if the surname “Guy” really is derived from the French given name spelled the same way, but pronounced in that language to rhyme with “tree”, rather than “try”, then we shouldn’t be surprised to find many of them settled on the southern coast of England. The original “Guy” settlers might have been Breton fisherman or other coastal people, but if so, wouldn’t their surname have been Anglicized to a more phonetic equivalent:“Gee”? As it happens, however, the surname “Gee” is heavily concentrated in the English midlands. The Breton fisherman theory seems even less convincing given the concentration of Guys (and also Gays) in the Scottish west coastal areas, where “Gay” and “Guy” were probably used interchangeably in the records (as they were in Scotch-Irish America), but where the surname “Gee” is comparatively rare.

Meanwhile, “Gay”s appear to be more tightly clustered, and they seem to favor coastal areas especially, even more than “Guy”s, though not necessarily near major ports. Their greatest concentrations are in two areas: County Fife in Scotland; and in Wiltshire and Gloucester in England, and radiating SSW from there into Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall. Apart from Wiltshire, which is landlocked, all these English counties are proximate to the great River Severn estuary or to the Bristol Channel into which it broadens—an area that has been dominated since the 1300s by the major and ancient port of Bristol. The fact that “Gay”s also appear in numbers in the adjacent southwestern counties of Dorset and Hants (Hampshire) is unsurprising and merely reinforces the impression that this large and rather diffused cluster of southwest English GAYs has rather a long history in this region.

There is also some radiation from Gloucestershire into the adjacent Welsh county of Monmouth, and an independent cluster of Gays in the westernmost coastal Welsh county of Pembroke. Finally, there is a significant cluster of “Gay”s way over on the other side of England, in the coastal county of Norfolk

Despite the considerable proponderance of “Guy”s over “Gay”s in Britain in about 1890, and their impressive 43% showing in America at that time, there are only 9 members of the FTDNA Guy Project with posted haplotypes (vs. 36 for the Gay Project), and of the five Guy project members who actually spell their name that way, three of them appear to match to Gay project haplotypes. I think that many of the British “Guy”s and probably a majorty of American “Guy”s were really “Gay”s whose surname simply crystallized out into its phonetic spelling—“Guy”—just as it did in America.

GAYs/GUYs to America

I will have more to say about the American GAYs presently, but I would like to include a word here, in the context of the British surname maps, about where each group may have come from. There were three principal lineages who settled in the Thirteen Colonies before the Revolution, and these can be fit neatly into three of the four British sub-populations identified by David Hackett Fischer’s in Albion’s Seed (1989).

The first American founder bearing the surname was John Gay the New Englander (there by 1634), and we know that the largest contingent of early Puritans hailed from East Anglia. The 1881 maps suggest that Norfolk and Essex might be the best place to look for this first John’s origins.

The second American immigrant founder was Henry Gay who came to the Virginia tidewater in the 1660s. It has recently come to be recognized that the vast majority of early Virginia immigrants were indentured servants (typically transportees via London) but there are reasons, which I will discuss below, why Henry was not, probably, of this class. According to Fischer, the southern colonies, and especially Virginia, were disproportionately settled from the southwest of England, which had quite a different subculture from that of the central and eastern portions of the home country—a subculture that was more rural, more conservative, and more hierarchical, all of which characteristics correspond to the plantation economy of the southern tidewater areas. Thus, one would expect that Henry emanated from the main area for GAYs in England—the one that runs from Gloucestershire SSW down the Bristol Channel.

Finally, the several families of Scotch-Irish Gays who came into Pennsylvania in the 1720-1740 period, and so on to the western Virginia frontier, most likely came over from western Scotland, by way of Ireland, although they may not have originated specifically in the Scottish west. The maps show quite a few Gays and Guys in the western Scottish regions around Glasgow, and this was indeed the jumping off point for Ireland, but the maps suggest that this patrilineage of Scottish GAYs most likely originated in Fife. Fischer calls this British subculture that sent so many shoots out to Ireland and America, “borderers”, emphasizing the lowland origins of most of these Scots, but neither Gays nor Guys were present in numbers in the border counties of Scotland as late as 1881.

GAYs & GUYs in America

The surnames GAY & GUY in Canada

Because there is reason to believe that both the surnames GAY and GUY ultimately have French roots, a look at these surnames in Canada, where English and French mingle, ought to be interesting. I find 464 people surnamed “Gay” in the 1881 Canadian Census (45 in Quebec), and 619 “Guy”s (275 in Quebec), compared with 3469 and 6178 in England & Wales for that year.

Since Canada was settled very early by the French, it’s likely that the surnames of many of those Quebecois “Guy”s were independently derived from the French personal name “Guy” either in French Canada or the home country. And when we consider that surnames were generally spelled the way they sounded until well into the 1800s, and that the French pronunciation of Guy (rhyming with English “tree”) is very different from the English pronunciation (“try”), it is unlikely that many of these Quebecois “Guy”s can be explained as alternate spellings of “Gay”, particularly given how uncommon the spelling “Gay” is in Quebec to begin with. Therefore, subtracting out the Quebec “Guy”s, we arrive at a Canadian proportion of GAY to GUY of 464 to 344, or 1.35 to 1, compared with the proportion in the United States from about the same period of 1.32 to 1.

It seems likely to me that 1.3 to 1 is likely to be about the proportion of GAYs to GUYs in England as well, once the English GUYs whose surnames truly derive from the French personal name are factored out, and applying this theory to the statistics of 1881 for England & Wales, would result in nearly equal numbers of English GAYs and English GUYs without the French derivation, just as though it were a coin toss that when surname spelling crystallized in England as to whether the phonetic spelling or the “correct” (literary) spelling should be adopted.

The Surnames GAY & GUY in the United States

By 1881, then, there were about 800 people in Canada surnamed GAY/GUY (omitting the French-derived GUYs), and about 7000 in England & Wales. In the 1880 United States Census, on the other hand, there were already 9372 “Gay”s and 5740 “Guy”s—a proportion of 1.63 to 1—markedly different from Canada and the mother country. And if a similar adjustment were made to factor out the GUYs of French derivation, the proportion would become even more lopsided toward “Gay”s in the US.

As a genealogist who works primarily with American (excluding Canadian) families, this finding doesn’t surprise me. In the United States, and in its predecessor colonies, there has always been a powerful tradition of assimilation and new beginnings,and a concomittant tendency to warp one’s inherited alien surname into a form that better fits in with the conventions of the majority. Thus many German colonial immigrants to Pennsylvania bearing the surnames “Rapp” or “Rabe”, ended up in the 19th century with the Scotch-Irish surname “Robb”, and more to the point, so did those most of those Scotch-Irish whose surname was sometimes spelled phonetically “Rabb” or “Robe” in the pre-19th century records.

I know that for the Scotch-Irish GAYs with whom I am most familiar, the spellings “Gay” and “Guy” were more or less interchangeable during the colonial period (although “Gay” was the form preferred by the more literate families, and clerks), and I have observed similar spelling crossover amongst the other southern GAYs of the Virginia and Carolina tidewater, most of whom came over from England. I also know that many, and perhaps the majority of those whose surnames were sometimes spelled “Guy”, ended up as “Gay”s.

For convenience, therefore, I shall speak, hereinafter, exclusively of GAYs in America, meaning to designate by that term all those whose surnames in the records of the United States and its colonial predecessors were spelled “Gay”, or “Guy”, or some other phonetic equivalent to these, remaining aware, as I do so, that some of these GAYs may really be GUYs—if that is even a distinction with a difference. In the end, for genealogical purposes, we care not about surnames or their spellings, but about particular patrilineages, of which surnames in their variant spellings are merely the identifiers.

GAY Lineages in the United States

It appears that the vast majority of American GAYs are descended, about equally, from one of three major lineages. My focus here will be on my own line of Scotch-Irish GAYs.

The GAYS of New England: John of Watertown, 1634

The first Gay to settle in America was probably the John Gay, born say 1613, who was admitted, before 6May1635, to membership in the church of Watertown, in Massachusetts Bay Colony, implying that he had been recognized as a freeman of the colony the previous year. A few years later he removed to the nearby town of Dedham where he was for one year a selectman and held many other minor town offices. No one has discovered where John came from, but in Massachusetts he married a widow and had seven sons by her (Samuel, Hezekiah, Nathaniel, Eleazer, Abiel, John, and Jonathan), and at least three daughters: the basis for an extensive descendancy. All this data comes from Robert Charles Anderson, The Great Migration: Immigrants to New England, 1645-1645, 3:39-42 (2003); I have done no research on this line of New England Gays myself.

The GAYs of the Virginia Tidewater: Henry, by 1663

On 6Feb1663, one James Long was granted a patent to land in Nansemond County in the Virginia tidewater, on a “headright” obtained for paying the passage of Hen[ry] Gay and eight others to the New World {Cavaliers and Pioneers, 1:492}. then on 22Apr1669 Hen[ry] Gay was himself granted four hundred acres in Nansemond County by patent {VA Patents 6:242}. There is record of the passage of three other GAYs to Virginia about the same time (Geo[rge] by 1654, Thomas by 1661, and Walter by 1673), but Henry is the only early GAY who seems to have purchased land. The vast majority of Virginia immigrants during this period were indentured servants, and at least a minority of those were able to save enough to later purchase their own small piece of land, but if Henry was an indentured servant, his story may be a particularly interesting one.

There is a reported deed, dated 1Feb1688, in which “Henry H. Gay” of Isle of Wight County, VA, is selling land “formerly belonging to Mr. Henry Gay”. The quotations come from a genealogical report posted by one Craig Rhodes, a descendant of Henry. Mr. Rhodes appears to assume that this is a son of the 1669 patentee selling his father’s land, and despite the difference in counties, it might well be the same land because much of NansemondCo was transferred to IsleOfWight in 1774. The reported name of the grantor does raise some doubt that the deed was read correctly, as middle names were exceedingly rare during this period. Evidently, the name of the former owner (“Ms Henry Gay”) was misread, but if the original was instead “Mr Henry Gay”, that would be of considerable interest, because it would mark this Henry as a recognized gentleman—a member of the social elite.

The honorific, “Mr.”, in those days, was the equivalen of “Esq.” or “Gent.”, and to merit such recognition required more than the wealth a former indentured servant might have acquired through extraordinary hard work, talent, and luck; it also required evidence of higher education and gentlemanly bearing. It is worth noting, also, in this connection, that Henry’s patent of 400a was a fairly large holding, especially for a former indentured servant; it seems likely, therefore, that he was no such thing—at least if the deed does really make Henry a “Mr”, which remains to be seen.

Be that as it may, according to Rhodes’s compilation, a second Henry left a will in IsleOfWightCo in 1737, in which he names sons Henry, Thomas, William, Joshua, and John, so this GAY family was at any rate well established in that part of the world by then. The compiler’s line is then carried down to the present day with much additional primary records material. I should also mention that this compendium is published on the website “Electronic Scotland”, but neither the area in which the original Henry settled, nor the given names in his descendancy suggest that he was of Scottish descent.

There are many GAYs who appear in the records of these tidewater counties, and later in counties to the west, and on down into the Carolinas and Georgia, but it’s likely that a fairly large proportion of these tidewater GAYs are descendants of these early Henrys, although few genealogists researching their GAY roots have been able to establish clear links to Henry’s line. Hopefully, further yDNA testing will be able to strengthen the sketchy paper trail evidence for this important family, and accomplish the desired link-ups.

The Scotch-Irish GAYs of the Pennsylvania & Virginia Frontiers: 1720-40

Several families of GAYs arrived in western Pennsylvania in the 1720s to 1730s amidst the waves of Scotch-Irish displaced from northern Ireland by economic, political, and religious discrimination. The yDNA evidence accumulating in the FTDNA Gay DNA surname project (Lineage 3), is showing that all or most of these Gays were related, albeit some distantly.

The first family of that name was headed by John Gay, who was in Pennsylvania by 1719, and settled in Sadsbury, ChesterCoPA by 1721. Although Sadsbury was only some 30 miles west of the town of Philadelphia, it was then the western frontier, and in 1721, John of Sadsbury’s family was one of only 19 families situated there. John & his wife Isabella had sons Robert, Henry, William, Thomas, Samuel, and Archibald, and several of his sons and grandsons followed members of the other families of Gays south, down the Great Road, to the Valley of Virginia (the Shenandoah Valley).

The second family of Scotch-Irish Gays, and the first to settle in the Valley of Virginia was headed by Samuel Gay (not the son of John of Sadsbury), who in 1738 surveyed land in the newly created western VA frontier county of Augusta. In an OrangeCo county court record (Orange was the parent of Augusta), Samuel alleged that he himself paid for the transportation of his wife and two sons from Ireland to Philadelphia, and so to Virginia; thus Samuel came over independently of the other Gays, yet the yDNA of a probable descendant (G-16 in the Gay DNA project) places him in the same broad lineage as John of Sadsbury..

Samuel’s land was astride the Great Road from PA, and the south fork of the Shenandoah River, a few miles due north of present day Waynesboro, and in the morning shadow of the Blue Ridge—a prime spot. He was one of AugustaCo’s first captains of militia, and one of its first county justices, but he was sued successfully several times, at least once for non-payment of debt, and he removed east over the Blue Ridge Mountains to the adjacent county of Albemarle, about ten years after his first coming.

The first record for a member of the third family, was probably the appointment, in 1742, of one John Gay as a constable of Orange County, which at the time was still handling the administrative affairs of the new AugustaCo, beyond the mountains. There is every reason to believe that this was the same John Gay who settled by 1747, but probably several years before, on some 400 acres of prime bottom land along the Big Calfpasture River down to the mouth of the Little Calfpasture. Across the Big River from him, and astride the Little River, was his brother, James, and continuing up Litte River, their brothers, Samuel, and William. A fifth brother, Robert, also shows up in the early records of the Calfpasture, though he was never a landholder there. And there is solid evidence that these brothers also had a sister, or a half-sister, Eleanor, who married William Kinkhead of the Calfpasture.

Finally, considering the “onomastic” (child-naming) patterns in the families of these siblings GAY, and putting it together with other evidence, one is able to infer that they came to PA in the 1730s with their parents, who were named John & Agnes, and that they came from the vicinity of Londonderry, in northern Ireland. According to a grandson of Eleanor, who heard it from her in his childhood, Eleanor’s grandfather participated in the defense of Londonderry during the famous siege of 1688, and her ancestors of that generation had come shortly before that to Ireland from Scotland, after the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679. There was, as it happens, a John Gay who was a ruling elder of the Letterkenny Presbytery, located in County Donegal (in the present Irish Republic) about 20 miles east of Londonderry; this John Gay may, therefore, have been the American immigrant or the father of the immigrant.

There are known living descendants of this family of Gays. I am a descendant of John, while Mr. Alan Denison of the DENNISON DNA project (also hosted on this site) is a descendant of brother William, and there are many descendants of brother James, who lived in between these two on the Big and Little Calfpasture Rivers. At least three of James’s descendants, males surnamed Gay, are members of the Gay DNA project (numbers G-19, -21, and -24) although their full lines back to James haven’t yet been posted. Brother Robert of this family left no sons, and brother Samuel appears to have gone to the Carolinas, where his male line may, or may not, have died out. Sister Eleanor (Gay) Kinkhead had a colorful life. She was captured by Indians and had two children murdered by them, but was freed by a party of militia that included her husband, and she lived to have many more, including a number of sons.

Most of the members of this family of GAYs, and their children, lived in the Calfpasture, and most engaged in cattle ranching for a generation or two, but all had moved on to greener pastures by 1820. My own ancestor, John, prospered sufficiently to have owned nine slaves when he died, and one or two of these probably worked for him as cowboys; John’s only son, John Gay, manumitted at least one of the slaves he inherited from his father. Son John was a justice of newly created RockbridgeCo from the age of 21, and was later high sheriff of the county, yet he removed to the Indiana frontier when he was almost 60. Three of brother James Gay’s children were among the first several hundred settlers of Kentucky, and his daughter Jane was apparently the first wife and mother to have braved the Indians and settled in the blue grass country of the Lexington area, in the year 1779. Jane’s husband and brothers are credited with introducing the first improved cattle into the region.

Finally, besides these three families of Scotch-Irish GAYs, there were two other men surnamed GAY who settled in the Calfpasture at about the same time as the siblings of family three, but who weren’t brothers, or even, probably, first cousins of any of the other AugustaCo GAYs. Although the records show these two, named Robert and William, associating with each other, but not with any of the other GAYs of Augusta, it nonetheless seems almost certain to me that they must of the same broad patrilineage as all the others, but we have yet to discover any descendants who might be DNA tested as confirmation. In the meantime, I nurture the theory that Robert and William were sons, or possibly brothers, of the James Guy who died about 1743 in LancasterCoPA—the same county where John of Sadsbury, head of the first family (which also sent offshoots to the Calfpasture), lived.


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MAPS of GAYs & GUYs in Great Britain, 1881

“Gay” and “Guy” are broken out separately in these surname distribution maps (created from Archer Software’s Surname Atlas), and I have capitalized the latter surname to indicate this. Elsewhere on this page, however, the ““Guy”” spelling will be subsumed for convenience under the generic capitalized form GAY, because there is reason to believe that there is substantial overlap between these surnames that are nominally independent. If this seems a rather arbitrary compromise, it should be remembered that even if the generic spelling “GAY” were made to represent only surnames whose spellings crystallized out as “Gay”, it would still represent a collection of many independent surname lineages.

It is suggested that the following maps be opened in pairs for comparison. To do this, right click each map link and select “Open in New Window”; you can then size and array the two map windows side by side for comparison, first minimizing the surname page if necessary.


GAYs in Great Britain, 1881, per 100,000 Population

GUYs in Great Britain, 1881, per 100,000 Population


GAYs in Scotland, 1881, Actual Numbers

GUYs in Scotland, 1881, Actual Numbers


GAYs in England & Wales, 1881, Actual Numbers

GUYs in England & Wales, 1881, Actual Numbers


The Surname GAY

The surname GAY is English, and encompasses the spelling "Guy" as well as "Gay", since the former spelling better reflects the actual British, and colonial North American, pronunciation of the name.

The GAY Surname in Britain and the U.S.
Born between: 1881-1901 1880-1900
Surname(s) in: England Scotland United States
all names (millions) 13.5 2 34.3
Gay 1918 189 6068
Guy 3276 198 4590
----- ----- -----
TOTALS 5194 387 10658
Number of people bearing the generic surname GAY per million of population
Surname Frequency Index
1900       1997
England 384.7                 
Scotland 193.5                 
United States 309.8      227.1

The Surname Frequency Index (SFI) for 1900 was derived by dividing the number of people with the generic surname GAY (including all the above listed spelling variants) who were born during the 20 year period immediately preceding the census for each country, by the total in millions of population enunmerated in that census.

The SFI for the US in 1997 is based on a database of listed telephone subscribers, as reported in Hanks’s Dictionary of American Family Names.

The SFI is only a surrogate for the actual frequency in each country of the generic surname GAY compared to other surnames, but it is the best measure of surname frequency I can conceive and readily compute. Any attempt to estimate the total number of surnames in existence must also take spelling variations into account. But who, in the end, can definitively say, for each surname, which are its variants, and which are independent surnames, or variants of other names? Thus, both the numbers that go into this SFI calculation are formally indeterminate. However, the variants chosen for sampling here as GAYs were carefully considered, and based on extensive experience in searching for these names in the records, and I believe that they account for at least 98% of the names that can reasonably be considered spelling variants of GAY in the countries of Britain and its erstwhile empire.

In 1964, “Gay” was the 803rd most common surname, while “Guy” was the 1162nd, according to the Social Security data for that year, as reported in American Surnames. Putting these together yields the generic GAY, which would have been ranked 438th. In 1997 the ratio of “Gay”s to “Guy”s was 1.21.

Elsdon C. Smith, American Surnames (1969; reprint GPC, 1994)
Patrick Hanks, Dictionary of American Family Names, 3 vols
   (Oxford University Press, 2003)

My GAY Ancestors


Harriet Anna Gay (1847-1937)

Harriet, like her father and most of her siblings, was musical: she sang and played the organ. Her sister, Emma, was an accomplished pianist who performed in public, but her sister Lottie and brother Jim had the most concentrated talent: they could hear a new piece of music at a concert and go home and play it without needing a score. Harriet’s youngest son, John Donald Robb, abandoned his career as a prominent Wall Street attorney in midlife to pursue his first love:music; in his second career he was a professor of Music at the University of New Mexico, and a nationally known composer.

Hattie’s father, John McKee Gay, was a stern Presbyterian who disapproved of dancing and forbade it to his children. Since a love of dancing goes naturally with a love of singing and music, several of Hattie’s siblings employed stratagems to circumvent their father’s disapproval. She, however, was content to stay home and read a book, and had a genuine love of learning. Growing up in a semi-rural area, she began high school only at the age of 17, yet she had already, before that, qualified for her teacher’s certificate, and had spent several years teaching summer school for the lower grades. As she says in her memoir: “I loved school and was in school up to the day I was married”. In fact she postponed her wedding repeatedly so she could finish. Like Chaucer’s Clerk of Oxenford: “gladly wolde [s]he lerne and gladly teche”.

Harriet married a tall young Civil War veteran, John George Robb, who had helped to organize his volunteer company, “The Kickapoo Rangers” of the 12th Wisconsin Infantry, and had gone marching off to war at age 18. By the time he was invalided out of the Vicksburg campaign on 3Jul1863, the day before the town fell, he had been elected 1st Sergeant of this company of rough lumbermen. When he first proposed to Harriet, his health was broken and he had no job, and she didn’t take him too seriously. He recovered from the trauma of war, however, and went on to become a successful Minneapolis businessman, and a two-term alderman. In 1921, one of his sons calculated that his father’s net worth was conservatively $170,492 (over $2 million in today’s currency).

Harriet had nine children, and lived to be 90 years old. Her five sons lived to an average age of 91 and a half years. In 1937, she was induced by my grandmother, Maude (Orth) Robb, to author a memoir, and she signed an accompanying photo of herself with the following words: “Love of family and friends is the joy of living”.

John G. Robb, Harriet's husband, c1882 Harriet Anna Gay, c1882

John George & Harriet Anna (Gay) Robb, abt 1882

John G. Robb, Harriet’s newlywed husband, 1869 Harriet Anna Gay as newlywed, 1869

And as Newlyweds, 1869
John aged 26, Harriett 22

Harriet Anna (Gay,) Robb “Memories” (Minneapolis, abt 1930); original in my possession.

John McKee Gay (1797-1877)

John McKee Gay was born in Rockbridge County, Virginia, in 1797, the first child of John Gay, Esq. & Agnes (“Nancy”) McKee. He was a first cousin, once removed, of Sam Houston, who also grew up in Rockbridge. John’s father was an educated man (a county justice, sheriff, and major of its militia) and owned around 1000a of lush river bottom land in the Calfpasture valley, where he ran cattle. Oldest son, John McKee Gay, was therefore naturally given a secondary education, followed by a course of law at William & Mary, in the capital city of Williamsburg. According to John McKee’s oldest child, Nancy, he was accompanied to Williamsburg by his “colored valet ... who studied with him”. Probably the valet was a freed man, because this family of mountain valley cattle ranchers, while obliged to purchase slaves to obtain labor, made a practice of freeing, and hiring for wages, those able to support themselves.

Nancy continues: “After he finished his courses, John McKee Gay entered his brother-in-law, Mr. Rhea’s, office in Indiana, where he assisted, but did not follow his profession, because he said he could not take the side he did not believe was right. He was a tall, gentlemanly person, and could take his place anywhere with credit to himself.” John’s brother-in-law, “Mr. Rhea”, was James Brown Ray, Governor of Indiana from 1825-1831.

Discovering that he was not cut out to be a lawyer, John McKee Gay headed for the frontier, pausing in Urbana, Illinois, to pick up a wife: Sarah Thomas, daughter of a Baptist minister of that place. The newlywed couple settled initially in Peoria County, Illinois, for several years, where their first two children were born, then removed by 27Sep1832 to the vicinity of Princeton in Putnam County (hived off as Bureau County in 1837) where he was on hand as a justice of the peace to validate and record the first legal document pertaining to the future Bureau County: a surveyors’ plan presented by a set of county trustees for the prospective town of Princeton.

The first settler of this area was Henry Thomas, a cousin of Gay’s wife Sarah, who arrived in 1828, and by 1830 Thomas was joined by Sarah’s brother, Ezekiel Thomas, and by Abram Stratton. John McKee Gay was one of the three Putnam County justices who established Hennepin as the county seat. Pioneer settler Stratton was obliged to wait until John Gay arrived, probably early in 1832, before he could marry his bride, Sarah Baggs, as there was no one else in this remote area with the authority to solemnize marriages.

The Gays with their young children were frequently menaced by marauding Indians, and were able to avoid possible massacre on one occasion only by buying off hungry Indians by opening up their “pototo hole”. At another time, when the Indians were reported out, their eldest child, Nancy, recalls her father wordlessly lying down to a sleepless night with all his loaded weapons at hand.

The most serious incident occurred late in 1832, their first year, when a massive Indian incursion by warriors of the Black Hawk tribe was opposed, unsuccessfully, by “Stillman's Army” (including a young private from SangamonCoIL named Abe Lincoln), and when the army was defeated, all the settlers fled to safer parts.

Many settlers never returned, but John McKee Gay and his family were back by the following spring, when Gay erected the first frame structure in Princeton, on the west side of Main Street, and there they resided until about 1840; the Gays also had a farm in surrounding Wyanet Township. By 1837, when Bureau County came into existence, Princeton had become a thriving hamlet, complete with a courthouse, a church, and a hotel. “Opposite the hotel, on the west side of the street [Main Street], was a small one story building, over the door of which were the words ‘Post Office.’ Above the sign of Post Office, was a large one, reading thus, ‘Dry Goods and Groceries; John M Gay.’ Outside of the building, and fronting the door, stood a tall, spare, dark-complexioned man, known by everyone as the proprietor of the establishment, and post master.”.

Sometime between 1840 and Sep1843, John & Sarah removed to Potosi in SW Wisconsin, where their seventh child, Fannie Gay, was born, and when their eighth, my gGrandmother Harriet, came along in Feb1847, they were settled just across the Mississippi from Prairie du Chien, in Garnavillo, IA.

Meanwhile, John’s much younger brother, James Dunlap Gay, had studied engineering and himself removed to SW Wisconsin, where he went into the lumber business. Finding a superior site for a dam and sawmill on the Kickapoo River, James proceeded to design and build these structures, the first in the area, thus greatly facilitating the development of this important timbering region, with its access to the Mississippi.

The construction of the mill and dam has been variously dated 1847 or 1848, but I have seen no evidence for those dates. At any rate, I think that brother John, who was 15 years older and an experienced businessman, was probably involved with the enterprise from the start. As we have seen, John was in the area by 1843, and in the 1850 USCensus we find “James D. Gay” head of a household of three lumbermen aged 30-40 in Prairie du Chien, on the east bank of the Mississippi, about 15 miles from the dam site, while (brother) “John M. Gay” in the village of Garnavillo, IA, across the river and 15 miles to the SW is shown as having the occupation “sawyer”, although his daughter Harriet also remembers him working as a traveling surveyor. I think at this stage that the brothers were probably partners in the lumber business, with James being the working partner, and that the works on the Kickapoo were probably still on the drawing boards, or in a state of construction.

Be that as it may, what several of my private family sources agree on is that James’s health was failing (probably he had TB), and sometime between 1855 and 1858 he came to his brother John’s home in Iowa to die. And when that event occurred, John McKee Gay then moved his family to the mill complex and took over the active management of the business, which he carried on by himself until the conclusion of the Civil War. Then, just about the time the young men were coming home, John added a grist mill to the operation, and built a bridge across the Kickapoo to facilitate access by local farmers.

By an incredible coincidence, the man my ggGrandfather John McKee Gay commissioned to put in the foundation for the grist mill, was an Irish stonemason by the name of Martin Loftus, who happens to be another of my ggGrandfathers. I call it a coincidence because Loftus lived some distance away, on the banks of the Mississippi, and I have no reason to suppose that he and his family would have had anything further to do with the well-to-do Gay milling family. Yet over 40 years later, Martin’s granddaughter, Maude Orth, married my grandfather, Paul Raymond Robb, a grandson of John McKee Gay, in Minneapolis, 200 miles away.

According to John McKee Gay’s daughter Harriet, who was aged about 10 when she moved with her family to the mill, there were only two houses standing on the bluffs overlooking the Kickapoo: her Uncle James’s house, and another belonging to his factotum, a Mr. Jenks. There was no town of Gays Mills, in fact the next closest neighbor, was a Mr. Twining who “lived about a mile below us in the little valley”. The 1860 USCensus bears this out. In that year there were about 625 residents of Utica township in about 100 households, and sawyers and lumbermen are found only on the first page, followed by 15 pages of farmers with a smattering of artisans and merchants. The six households on the first page include those headed by John M Gay, and Isaac Jenks, both lumbermen, and one Jonathan Willard, sawyer, as well as the household of Benjamin Twining, farmer, and they share a post office different from that of the remaining households of the township. It is only by 1870, when the township population has doubled that we can see the probable beginnings of the town of Gays Mills, in the wake of the erection of the grist mill.

At any rate, three children of John & Sarah Gay married three children of Joel & Jeanne Patton Robb, and about 1870, John McKee turned the businesses over to his son Thomas Gay, and his son-in-law James Alexander Robb (who was the principal owner in the 1870 USCensus), and it continued on in their hands for several decades as the town burgeoned. A newspaper story written about Gays Mills around 1930, said of the Gays and the Robbs that they had “culture and education unusual to the frontier”, and that they were “energetic businessmen”. The original mill and dam works are still in use, although the mill complex was converted to a hydroelectric power station. Sadly, this picturesque and historic little town (“The Apple Capital of Wisconsin”) suffered back-to-back flood disasters in 2007 and again in 2008, when the Kickapoo experienced the worst flooding in 500 years. Many of the inhabitants of the town are committed, though, to rebuilding and restoration, and our best wishes must go out to them.

My ggGrandfather, John McKee Gay

John McKee Gay, 1841 (aged 44)

John McKee Gay, abt 1865 Sarah (Thomas) Gay, abt 1865

John McKee & Sarah (Thomas) Gay, abt 1865

Gays Mills, WI, abt 1930

Town of Gays Mills, WI, abt 1930

Mill dam at Gays Mill, WI, 1930

Mill dam at Gays Mills, WI, abt 1930

Mill dam at Gays Mill, WI, today

Mill dam at Gays Mills, WI, today

found on Flickr

Harriet Anna (Gay,) Robb “Memories” (Minneapolis, abt 1930), with John McKee Gay family bible pages; original in my possession.
[Nancy (Gay) Barker] & Estella Barker Ordway, “Genealogy of the Gay Family” (AngelsCampCA, undated); typescript copy in my possession.
George B. Harrington, Past and Present of Bureau County, Illinois (Chicago, 1906), 103, 107, 127
N. Matson, Reminiscences of Bureau County (PrincetonIL, 1872), 34, 89, 203

John Gay, Esquire (1756-1827)

On 4Aug1778 John Gay was sworn to his commission as Justice of the Peace in RockbridgeCoVA—at the age of 21! John's oldest son, John McKee Gay, had both a secondary education and a course of law at William & Mary, and I suspect that the father received a higher education too, thus accounting for this otherwise extraordinary appointment for such a young man; it didn't hurt, either, that his father was prosperous enough to own 8 or 9 slaves. Be that as it may, John was generally referred to thereafter as John Gay, Esq., or Gent., or later, as Major John Gay for his highest militia rank.

John’s career in the Rockbridge militia began in 1779, when “John Gay, Gent.” was commisioned as Ensign—the lowest rank for an officer and gentleman, and according to the memoirs of two of his grandchildren, he served as an Ensign at Yorktown, which is credible enough, because virtually every Virginian with a military obligation was called up for that campaign. John continued active service in the Rockbridge County militia for over two decades, resigning his commission as Major (the second highest rank) only in 1803, when he was 47, perhaps in contemplation of removal from the county.

Besides his part time public service, John Gay, Esq. was many times called on to perform the duties of executor for the estates of friends and neighbors, and he twice undertook the guardianship of orphaned children—more a fiduciary duty than a fatherly one, in those days. Principally, though, he carried on with his father’s cattle raising business in the Calfpasture. At least once in his career, though, he ventured much farther afield. Let’s let his oldest grandchild, Nancy Gay, tell the story:

I remember hearing my father say that grandfather, finding there was something to be made sending ginseng to China, set the colored people to digging it, and, when they had a thousand pounds, sent it to China and received in return a thousand yards of silk, enough to dress his daughters for some time.

An account of this episode by a friend adds that Gay himself transported his load of ginseng from remote SW Virginia to New York City, where he must have personally arranged for the shipping and the necessary letters of credit.

John Gay, Esq., inherited slaves from his father, but accounts by two of his granddaughters tell us that these slaves were purchased because labor was otherwise in short supply in a time and place where every man aspired to his own land, and land was cheap. However, as a general policy, these slaves were then freed, and paid wages as employees. I have found at least one deed of manumission to back up this claim, but I see no reason to doubt it in any case, as many Virginians, especially west of the Blue Ridge, felt the same way about this issue. The granddaughters also tell us that John’s son, John McKee Gay, participated in the Underground Railroad, and the history books say that Princeton, Illinois, a town that the latter helped found, was a waystation in that railway to freedom.

John Gay, Esq., married very late in life, at 41, and he was obliged to venture to Kentucky for his bride, Agnes (“Nancy”) McKee, of a prominent Rockbridge County family. Her father, John McKee, was apparently a modest and private farmer, who married (also late) Esther Houston, the aunt of the famous Sam Houston, Commanding General of the Texas Revolutionary army, and the Lone Star Republic’s first president. When John McKee died, his daughter Agnes became the ward of his brother, William McKee. William was wounded as a captain of militia at the 1774 Battle of Point Pleasant that ended Dunmore’s War with the Shawnees, and he was an active serving officer throughout the Revolution. He rose to Colonel, commanding, of the Rockbridge militia in 1785.

Colonal William McKee was commissioned a Rockbridge County justice in 1778, the same year as his future son-in-law, John Gay, Esq., and McKee represented his county for many years in the Virginia House of Burgesses. He was one of its two ratifying delegates at the 1788 U.S. Constitional Convention. Others of this family had political careers. One of William’s sons was a U.S. Congressman and federal judge, and one of his nephews (Nancy’s brother, Robert) was a U.S. Senator from Alabama. William McKee was also one of the trustees of Liberty Hall Acadamy (of which he was probably a graduate) when it was refounded in 1782 as Washington College in Lexington (today this institution is known as Washington & Lee).

Like his future son-in-law John Gay, William McKee was apparently still looking for greener pastures in his old age, because in spite of his prominence in Rockbridge County, he resigned his commissions and removed to LincolnCoKY in 1796 at the age of 64, with his niece and ward Nancy McKee. Consequently, John Gay, when he decided to marry, was obliged to follow McKee there to obtain William’s consent to the marriage. Although William and Nancy’s father, John McKee, lived in a different part of Rockbridge, on Buffalo Creek some 20 miles south of the Calfpasture, the fact that he and Gay were both county justices, and high-ranking county militia officers, presumably accounts for the marriage alliance formed between their families.

John & Nancy had seven children, but sadly, she died young, perhaps in childbirth with her last, James Dunlap Gay, the builder of the sawmill and dam at Gays Mills, WI. It was just after her death that husband John sold his nearly 1000a Calfpasture spread and removed in 1816 to the vicinity of Richmond, IN, in the so-called "Whitewater" region. There, he purchased a farm on the IN-OH border, but also (as his son, John McKee Gay, was to do) set up a store in the town. On his land, he built a fine brick two story home, complete with gargoyles, which was abandoned but still in reasonably good shape when it was discovered by my predecessor as family genealogist, Mr. E.G. Chapman, in the 1920s. During that visit, Mr. Chapman, and other family members, including my gGrandmother, Harriet Anna Gay, commissioned a commemorative cemetery marker honoring John Gay’s Revolutionary War service, and the DAR organized a public ceremony, complete with the Boy Scout troop, which was written up in several local newspapers.

John Gay had only a decade of life left when he removed to IN, but he didn’t quite succeed in rusticating himself. I’ve come across a letter in a recently digitized manuscript collection that indicates that when Gay’s son-in-law, James Brown Ray, was elected governor of Indiana in 1825, Gay himself became the object of at least one patronage seeker. Considering the high moral character that seems to run in this family, I’m quite sure that this importunate fellow was given short shrift.

Tracts of the Gay brothers on the Big & Little Calfpasture Rivers, abt 1750

Tracts of John3’s father (John2) & uncles on the Big & Little CalfpastureRivers, abt 1750
Click this thumbnail map for a more detailed one that shows the Big Calfpasture to the left.
The compass rose points N towards the upper left corner.
The two rivers run roughly parallel NE to SW, until the Big river swings ESE
to its confluence with the Little river, which has been dammed to make Lake Meriweather.


John Gay’s Calfpasture holdings, 1798

The Calfpasture holdings of John Gay, Esq at maximum extent (about 1000a as of 1800)
are outlined in magenta, and blue (frontage on both rivers totalling some 5 miles).
The 172a tract labelled “Robert Gay” was purchased by John’s nephew
(brother James’s son) in 1797, but delivered to “John Gay” in 1798.
Click this thumbnail map for a more detailed (zoomed in) view.


This is not the place for an exhaustive set of scholarly citations. Sufficeth it to say that all the primary records for all the Gays who settled in the Valley of Virginia during the colonial period and beyond have been thoroughly combed by myself and other researchers. However, I offer by way of example, my sources for the ginseng export episode:

[Nancy (Gay) Barker] & Estella Barker Ordway, “Genealogy of the Gay Family” (AngelsCampCA, undated); typescript copy in my possession.

Interview with Walter Kelso, undated, in the Draper Collection: Kentucky Papers, 1768-1892 (microfilm), Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, WI (12CC:42)

The McKee families of the Valley are well documented from private primary records by

George Wilson McKee, The McKees of Virginia and Kentucky (Pittsburg, 1891), 60-81, 104-106

while Waddell, a classic Valley source, summarizes the gist:

Joseph A. Waddell, Annals of Augusta County, from 1726 to 1871, 2nd ed. (StauntonVA, 1902), 210.

Much more work with the public records needs to be done for this family, though I have made a beginning.

John Gay, the pioneer (abt 1715 - abt 1776)

John Gay, the first of the Calfpasture, left very few records, like most of the pioneers of his generation. He was appointed a constable of OrangeCo in 1742, while the affairs of transmontane Augusta were still being handled by the parent county; consequently, there is no way of telling for sure, when or where this constable was living at the time. The Little Calfpasture tract on which the several Gay brothers were among the first settlers was patented by William Beverley on 30Aug1743, but John Gay never recorded his deed in the records of Orange, Augusta, or its successor, RockbridgeCo. In fact, I have only this last year come across the deed of his brother James—one of about 40 loose papers in a post-1800 AugustaCo chancery case. Beverley was one of the nobs of the colony and he was an absentee landlord who spent most of his time in the capital, Williamsburg, and James’s deed evidently came from a repository of Beverley’s papers there. Perhaps John’s will turn up as well. I have nonetheless been able to work out the details of John’s Calfpasture holdings from a dozen other deeds extending well into the 19th century.

It is significant, I believe, that John’s land was, in a sense, the anchor tract of the whole Little Calfpasture grant, which extends upstream from the SW to NE some 25 miles. A comparable Big Calfpasture grant (patented 27Apr1742) more or less parallels Beverley’s Little River grant, and there exists a detailed plat of its original purchasers dated 1744. The anchor tract of the Big Calfpasture grant (Lot# 1) was allocated to John Gay’s close neighbor, Alexander Dunlap, who unfortunately died young, but whose property eventually came into the hands of his infant sons, who remained neighbors for three generations with the Gays. Dunlap’s estate was probated in Feb1744/5, and it includes over 30 horses, and he was evidently planning to use his lush river bottom land (that no doubt flooded every spring, creating rich marsh pastureland) for horse breeding.

I go into all this, because later records show that the first John Gay of the Calfpasture, whose land ran for a mile and a half along the Big River just below Dunlap’s, was a cattle rancher, as were many of the later denizens of this river valley. And just as Alexander Dunlap was evidently a man of capital and standing (besides his large estate, he was supposedly commissioned a “captain of horse”), so John Gay was able to build up a comparable estate of many cattle, and 9 slaves by the time he died about 1776. These two tracts, Dunlap’s and Gay’s were the two best in the Calfpasture for their purposes, and I wouldn't be surprised if the proprietors of these two grants deferred the filing of their patents (in 1742 and 1743) until Dunlap and the Gays were on board.

Be that as it may, the first appearance of John2 Gay in records associated specifically with the Calfpasture was on 19Feb1746/7, when he was appointed, with Henry Gay and William Elliott, to inventory Robert Crockett's estate. Henry Gay was only a distant relation, and lived about 7 miles north of Dunlap on the Big Calfpasture, but William Elliott owned the Little Calfpasture tract sandwiched between that of John Gay, and his brothers James, and Samuel. James Gay’s deed, the earliest for any of these Little Calfpasture Gays, was dated 27Nov1747, and it is probable that all the Gay brothers were in residence no later than that, although brother Robert, at least, was probably still a minor. At any rate, we next find John’s name on a petition of about 1749 for a local road to be built, along with James Gay, William Gay, and William Elliott.

John’s wife was named Jean, and it was the opinion of Robert H. Montgomery, FASG, also descended from John, that she was Jean Ramsey. The evidence for this rests largely on a hearsay opinion in a late 19th century letter, but there is some circumstantial evidence as well. One complication is that there were several Ramsey families of the Calfpasture, but Mr. Montgomery has done a pretty good job of sorting them out, and the key piece of circumstantial evidence points to a specific family headed by William Ramsey; John Gays wife Jean was probably William’s sister.

The key piece of evidence is that John Gay made Samuel Ramsey one of the three co-executors of his 1775 will. To appreciate the significance of this requires some understanding of the context.

John named three young men as his co-executors—passing over his widow, and his son John, who was only a couple of years short of his maturity. These were, in order: Robert Dunlap, Samuel Ramsey, and James Crockett. The choice of Dunlap and Crockett can be easily accounted for because both were from closely neighboring Calfpasture families whose heads had died young, and both had grown up as wards of John Gay. However, the only Samuel Ramsey of suitable age in 1775 was the Samuel who was the eldest son of William Ramsey who settled originally on the Little Calfpasture no later than 5May1752, when he appears on a road list with several of the Little River Gays. Yet when John made his will in 1775, this Ramsey family had long since relocated some 20 miles south to Whistle Creek, in the Forks of the James. Since in cases where the widow was passed over for the executorship it was considered good form to include a representative of her family in the probate process, it is highly likely that Samuel Ramsey was appointed for that reason.

An alternative possibility for the wife is that she was a sister of John’s close neighbor, Alexander Dunlap, and it is interesting in light of the Scotch-Irish onomastic tradition of naming sons for their grandparents that John’s son, John Gay, Esq., named his second son James Dunlap Gay, although there are other possible explanations for that.

John Gay’s will named (in order): wife Jean, daughters Agnes and Mary, son John, and daughters Jean, and Elizabeth. The fact that the legacies to the children were in the form of a list with the son (who received all the real estate on reversion from his mother) embedded in the middle, means that the children were probably listed in order of their birth.

John’s will also disposed of nine slaves. It is a tradition in this family, that slaves were purchased only to secure cheap labor, and that they were then manumitted, but the fact that these negros were devised as property in the will, contradicts that tradition, at least with respect to the first John. On the other hand, the fact that all of John’s real property, and with it, his cattle business, went to his only son John (in reversion of the widow’s dower interest), yet only one slave went with it, suggests that these people of color had a more personal relationship to the family than as mere cheap labor, and the fact that they were all named in the will, and carefully allocated to specific family members, supports that supposition. I have found one deed of manumission by the son, John Gay, Esquire, and his son, John McKee Gay, probably was an active participant in the Underground Railway to freedom, so I think that there is an essential truth to this tradition. A dislike of slavery may also have figured into John Gay, Esquire’s, decision to migrate to Indiana, rather than Kentucky.

John’s personal estate (including the slaves, but excluding his land) amounting to over 600 Virginia pounds (worth over $55,000 in today’s currency) marks him as one of the more affluent citizens of the county, but he was never styled “Esquire” in the records, as his son, John, was to be, even at the young age of 21. Indeed, the Gays’ close neighbor John Dunlap, who inherited his father’s Calfpasture land and was thought to be the largest landowner of Rockbridge County when he died in 1804—Dunlap himself was never awarded the honorific. It appears, therefore, that a higher education (and the corresponding acquisition of polite manners and speech) counted for more than mere wealth when it came to social status, even in this rough frontier society.

alt="Tracts of the Gay brothers on the Big & Little Calfpasture Rivers, abt 1750" />

Tracts of the Gay brothers on the Big & Little Calfpasture Rivers, abt 1750
Click this thumbnail map for a more detailed one that shows the Big Calfpasture to the left.
The compass rose points N towards the upper left corner.
The two rivers run roughly parallel NE to SW, until the Big river swings ESE
to its confluence with the Little river, which has been dammed to make Lake Meriweather.


Just brothers John & James, 1747

Just brothers John & James on opposite sides of the Big Calfpasture, 1747.
Click this thumbnail map for a more detailed (zoomed in) view.



Again, I omit sources here, even though the research underlying my conclusions has been exhaustive, and I am prepared to back up my evidence with citations, and in most cases, photocopies. I have, however, attempted to adumbrate some of my reasoning from that evidence where the conclusions derived are less than certain. The deed maps, incidentally, are plotted from original documents that are, typically, replete with errors; these errors have been carefully reconciled by cross-checking, by reference to the underlying terrain, and by correspondence to the total acreage given in the deed, and it is hoped that the resultant plots are considerably more true to the reality than the transcriptions in the deed books.

John Gay, the immigrant (say 1685 - say 1745)

This person whom I call John Gay, the immigrant, the supposed father of John and the other Gays of the Calfpasture, is a wholly hypothetical person. The fact that a number of mostly grown-up sons appear and take up land at the same place and time on the remote Virginia frontier, at least suggests that they all immigrated together, with their parents, to Pennyslyvania, but, despite exhaustive research, no records have been found that support this presumption. However, there is another kind of evidence, coupled with a 19th century published family memoir, which justifies consideration of John Gay, the immigrant, as a real person.

Scots have for many centuries, and to the present day, followed a characteristic “onomastic” pattern in naming their children, one which first memorializes the children’s grandparents, then their parents, and finally, their aunts and uncles. And the Scotch-Irish (Scots who emigrated first to Ireland, and then to America) brought this pattern with them to the New World. Although I know of no published studies regarding the prevalence of this pattern amongst the first several generations of American Scotch-Irish, my considerable experience in researching these people has convinced me that the pattern was followed, at least for the first few children of each sex, by the overwhelming majority; indeed I would estimate that this may reasonably be said of at least 80% of Scotch-Irish families of the first two generations.

And if this is so, and if we can reconstruct the families of these Gay brothers of the Calfpasture sufficiently to be reasonably sure of the names of their children, and of their birth order, a very strong probabilistic case may be made that they did follow the pattern, and from this the given names of their parents may be inferred with confidence.

I haven’t the space here to adequately present the extensive research and argument required to support the application of the Scotch-Irish onomastic pattern in this case. I here simply assert that I am convinced, beyond reasonable doubt, that the parents of these Gay siblings (William, James, John, Samuel, Robert, and Eleanor) were named John & Agnes. Reference is made here, instead, to my paper on Scotch-Irish onomastics for the methodology, and to my research paper on William Gay of the Calfpasture (the brother of John) for its application to this family.

The family memoir bearing on the Old World origins of this family was written by William Bury Kinkead, a grandson of Eleanor (Gay) Kinkead, and a judge by profession. Here is what he wrote:

The ancestors of my grandparents were Scotch people. They left Scotland after the battle of Bothwell Bridge, and went to Ireland, settling in the northern part of that country; my grandmother's people, about four miles out from Derry. They were devoted Presbyterians, but did not side with either of the extreme parties of that day. King William represented their ideas, and they held him in highest admiration.

I can well remember, a little boy of ten years of age, standing by my grandmother, and being delighted to listen to her give this history of that memorable siege, which she had heard from the lips of her mother, whose father was in the siege.

.     .     .     

Not a great while after this the ancestors of my grandfather and grandmother emigrated to the United States. They first came to Pennsylvania, and soon after moved to Virginia, to the county of Augusta. My grandfather, William Kinkead, was born in 1736. My grandmother, Eleanor Guy, was four years younger than he was.

John & Agnes probably came to Pennsylvania in the mid-1730s and settled initially in Lancaster County, for which the records before 1750 are few to scant, and moved on quite early (by 1740 or so) to the newly opened Valley of Virginia frontier. There, the first appearance of a Gay who likely belongs to this family is the appointment of John Gay as an Orange County constable on 24Jun1742. Although Augusta County was created on paper in 1738 to cover the whole of Virginia’s west from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Mississippi River, and although perhaps as many as 100 families had settled there by 1742, Augusta didn’t really get going until 1745, and in the meantime, we have only the records of the parent county, Orange, whose courthouse was separated by a major mountain range from these early settlers.

Since the next appearance of a member of this family in the records wasn’t until Feb1746/7, when John Gay was appointed to make an estate inventory of a deceased Calfpasturite, and next after that, in the ensuing May, when William Gay was appointed constable, it is entirely possible that the John Gay who was appointed constable in 1742 was John, the father.

Unfortunately, while the probate and land records for both LancasterCoPA and Orange/AugustaCoVA survive, they are less than complete for the frontier areas, owing to remoteness from a functioning county court (some of LancasterCo’s affairs were handled in ChesterCo during the early days). Under the circumstances, settlers often squatted, deferring formal land transactions, and if they died during that period, lacking substantial (real) property, left no trace in the probate records either. At any rate, we find no trace of John, the immigrant (or of his widow, Agnes) in the records, and he may have died in either place.

Finally, there is reason to suppose that Eleanor was only a half-sister of the brothers Gay, the child of a different mother, whose name was, perhaps, Isabella, but I would not want to lean too heavily on that hypothesis, which is really little more than a conjecture.


William Bury Kinkead’s narrative is quoted from “Kinkead”, in Peyton Neale Clarke, Old King William Homes and Families: An Account of Some of the Old Homesteads and Families of King William County, Virginia, From Its Earliest Settlement (LouisvilleKY, 1897; reprint 1976), 71


Last updated 8Jul2021
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