Select Gay Surname Genealogy

The older meaning of Gay comes from the Old French gai, meaning “light-headed” or “joyful,” which became first a nickname and then a surname.  The word could also have ithe undesirable meaning of “wanton” or “‘lascivious’ in some cases.  Gay as a surname might as well have been derived from the place-name Gaye in Normandy.

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The surname Gay has French origins and France has the largest numbers of those with the name Gay today, estimated to be around 20-25,000.  This surname might have had its origin in Normandy.  There were early reports of the Gaye name in the Channel Islands after the Norman invasion of England.  But most Gays are to be found in southern France today, with some overflow into French-speaking Switzerland.

Prominent French Gays have been Jean Baptiste Gay, a statesman at the time of the Bourbon restoration, and Joseph Gay-Lussac, a chemist who lived at the same time and was best known for his work on gases.

Gay has been mainly a West Country name, although there were early sightings elsewhere.  John and Alice Gay were recorded in the county of Devon in the late 14th century.  Their son John, born in 1409, held Goldsworthy manor in Devon.  Descendants included John Gay the poet and dramatist, who was born in Barnstaple in 1685.

The Gay name was prominent in the town of Bath from the early 1500’s when John Gay was the mayor of the town.  He later acquired the nearby Haycombe estate.  This estate was subsequently inherited by Richard Gay, a Baptist Minister and the friend in the 1660’s of the John Bunyan of Pilgrim’s Progress fame.  Bunyan and possibly Gay as well were imprisoned for their religious beliefs at that time. 

There were Gay stone masons in Bath in the 1700’s; while Robert Gay, later the MP for Bath, went to London where he made a name for himself as a surgeon.  He died in 1737 and Gay Street in Bath was named after him. 

The Gay name had also appeared in Bristol in the 17th century where Anthony Gay who died in 1683 was a merchant, working with family members that were based in Barnstaple in Devon.  George Gay was an architect and builder active in Bristol in the mid-19th century. 

  A de Gay family flourished in north Oxfordshire in the 12th century and included Robert Gay who founded a Cistercian abbey at Otley in 1137.  The Gay name cropped up in East Anglia, but later.  William Gray was the first of the Gays of Alborough New Hall in Norfolk in the early 1600’s; William Gay was MP for Ipswich in 1621; and Dr. William Gay was recorded in Kelvedon in Essex in the 1690’s. 

  The Gay name was also to be found in Fifeshire in Scotland.  William Gay was born in Crail, Fife in 1778.  Thomas Gay of this family was a whaling captain who married and settled down in New Zealand where he died in 1865.  The name here probably came from the much older Gayre family who held Castle Gay in the glen of Callowa.  Castle Gay was the title of a 1930 novel by John Buchan

America.  There were two early Gay arrivals in America:
  • first was John Gay who came to New England with Winthrop's fleet and a party of a thousand Puritans in 1630.  He settled in Watertown and later in Dedham, Massachusetts.  The Puritan streak ran deep. It was said that eleven of the Gay family had graduated from Harvard by 1826, five of whom became ministers.  Some of these Gays migrated to Canada in the 1760's.
  • then came Henry Gay who arrived in Virginia on the Safety in 1638.  He and his descendants were to be found in Isle of Wight county.  Gays were still to be found on the family farm in the late 19th century.  One branch of the family settled in Northampton, North Carolina after the Revolutionary War.
Gays who came to Virginia in the 1730’s and 1740’s seem to have been Scots Irish in origin.  This certainly applied to Samuel Gay who came with his family first into Philadelphia and then to Augusta county in Virginia.  John Gay, a constable in Orange county, and four of his brothers settled along the Calfpasture river.

A significant number of Gays ended up in the state of Georgia.  It ranked number two in terms of the number of Gays in America in 1840, number one in 1880, and has held that position since that time.

Gays appeared in Bulloch county, Georgia as early as 1788.  William Gay from North Carolina lived most of his life in Lafayette county, Georgia where he died in 1852.  His son Sherrod had a plantation near Riverdale. Beth Gay has traced the line of Simon Gay from North Carolina who was living in Lowndes, Georgia in 1830 in her 1993 book Descendants of Simon Gay.  Mary Gay, the southern writer, lived at Decatur in DeKalb county.

The soul singer Marvin Gaye (murdered by his father Marvin Gay) and the sprinter Tyson Gay both hailed from Kentucky.

Canada.  David Gay from Massachusetts came to Nova Scotia in the early 1760's and married Thankful Hayward there in 1764.  Some Gays moved onwards to Prince Edward Island, others returned to America and Maine and later headed west.   Thomas Gay ended up in Iowa.

Australia.   William Gay from Devon, a carpenter on the Medway, had arrived in Hobart in 1836 where he stayed, married, and raised a family.  He got gold rush fever in the 1850’s and departed for Ballarat.  He later settled down in the Armidale area of NSW.

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If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for further stories and accounts:

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John Gay was a 17th century English poet and dramatist, the author of The Beggar’s Opera.  
George Gay
, an English sailor, was a pioneer settler in Oregon territory in 1837.  
Marvin Gaye
was an American soul singer.

Select Gays Today
  • 7,000 in the UK (most numerous in Gloucestershire)
  • 12,000 in America (most numerous in Georgia) 
  • 5,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Austrlalia)

PS.  You might want to check out the surnames page on this website.  It covers surname genealogy in this and companion websites for more than 800 surnames.

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