Select May Surname Genealogy

May is a first name that became a surname.  Some see its origin in England as the Old French mai brought by the Normans as a term of endearment or greeting to a close friend.  It could also designate someone who was born in the month of May.  Alternatively, it could be an abbreviated version of Matthew in England or of Matthias in Saxony and in other German-speaking lands. 

Early examples of the surname were Thomas le Mey and Goscelin Mey recorded at Ely Abbey in Suffolk in 1221.  The spelling had become May by the 16th century.  The May and Mays spelling are both found in America

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England.  May has been very much a name of London and the home counties. 

  The first recorded here was probably Richard May, born in Wadhurst in East Sussex in 1464.  He had two grandsons, Thomas and William, and the family split into two branches. 

Thomas’s descendants were to be found at Mayfield Place. 
Here in 1595 was born Thomas May, a poet and historian, much in favor at the court of King Charles I.  When the Civil War broke out he switched sides.  He died in 1650 and was given a public funeral by Parliament.  After the Restoration, however, his body was dug up and thrown into a common grave.  John May of this family emigrated to Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1640.  
The other line ran via William who moved as a merchant to Portugal where he died around 1540.  These Mays lived at Raughmere near Chichester in West Sussex and included Richard May, a merchant tailor in London, and his son Sir Humphrey, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1618.  Later Mays of this line were Hugh May, a practicing architect during the Restoration era, and Richard May, the MP for Chichester. 

Suffolk.  From Suffolk came the two 16th century clergymen brothers, William who was nominated as Archbishop of York in 1560 but died the same year and John who became Bishop of Carlisle in 1577.  John May was recorded as a yeoman of Bawdsey on his death in 1655.   One family history began with the birth of George May near Butley in 1777.  His descendants later moved to the Campsea Ashe area.  

  More recent Mays in London have been the Quaker Francis May, co-founder of the match company Bryant & May in 1850, and the young solicitor William May, co-founder of the law firm Slaughter & May in 1889. 

Elsewhere.  Cornwall has been an outpost for May where it is thought to have been an abbreviation of the French diminutive form Mayou.  Mays were long associated with the town of St. Austell.  One line of these Mays was later to be found nearby at Polgooth.  A May family at Newlyn dates from the 1660’s, another at St. Mawgan-in-Ryder from the 1720’s. 

  Edward May, a younger brother of the poet and historian Thomas May from Mayfield, came to Waterford where his family established themselves at Maypark House.  The Mays later moved to Belfast where Sir Edward May was MP in the early 1800’s and pioneered many urban developments at that time. From a related line came the Rev. Edward May whose son George was Lord Chief Justice of Ireland and whose grandson Francis became Governor of Hong Kong from 1912 to 1919. 

May in Ireland may have Irish roots, an anglicized form of O’Miadhaigh.  This surname, meaning “honorable,” was to be found in Westmeath and Roscommon.  

.  In 1727 John May arrived in Amsterdam with two other English shipwrights to improve Dutch ship design at the invitation of the Amsterdam Admiralty.  May remained in Holland with his family.  A later May was an Admiral in the Dutch Navy who assisted in restoring the Prince of Orange to the throne of Holland after the fall of Napoleon.  The Mays then returned to England and Sir William May became an Admiral in the English Navy. 

America.  May arrivals in America
include many from England, some Irish and Scottish, and a contingent from German lands. 

New England.  John May came to America on the James in 1640 and settled in Roxbury, Mass
achusetts, marrying Sarah Brewer there in 1656.  One of his descendants Colonel Samuel May was the Warden of King’s Chapel in Boston, the first Unitarian church in America.  He and his wife Dorothy had thirteen children. They included Samuel, the Unitarian minister and abolitionist, and Abigail, the mother of Civil War novelist Louisa May Alcott. 

Virginia.  Various Mays were to be found in Virginia in the 17th century.  They included John May who was transported to Accomack county in 1642 and other Mays who made their own way there.   Other Mays were first recorded in Sussex county, Virginia.

One line from Accomack county was later to be found in Pitt and Beaufort counties, North Carolina.  John May had his home along the Dan river.  He was a captain during the Revolutionary War and subsequently a surveyor and land speculator in eastern Kentucky.  The town of Maysville in Kentucky, initially a trading post, was named after him.  

Chester May, thought to have been a descendant of the Mays of Roxbury, headed west and was a co-founder of the town of Mayville, Wisconsin in 1845.  He and his son Eli were active in exploiting the nearby iron ore deposits. 

Irish.  Some Mays, like James May from county Cork, were Irish in origin.  He settled in Maryland in 1800.  His son John May migrated to Texas in 1835.  A later John May, who came to Texas from Germany, fought with distinction in the Texas-Indian wars in 1870. 

German.  Indeed many Mays in America, in some cases originally Meys, were of German origin.  Among the early arrivals were: 
  • Daniel May who came to Philadelphia on the Loyal Judith in 1743.  He settled in Guilford county, North Carolina  
  • Catherina May, a widow, who arrived with her family on the Edinburgh in 1748 and settled in Conestoga township in Lancaster county, Pennsylvania.  Her children later moved to Virginia and eastern Kentucky.  
  • Frantz and Anna May who arrived on the Phoenix in 1752 and settled in Berks county, Pennsylvania
  • and Jacob May who arrived sometime in the 1750’s.  He is thought to have been the ancestor of the Mays of Ashe county in North Carolina. 
David May arrived in New York with his family in 1854 at the age of 16.  He migrated west to Colorado in the 1870's for health reasons.  There he started his first store and his business rapidly expanded into the St. Louis based chain of department stores.

  William May, Protestant, was a soldier in Ireland and came with his family from county Carlow in 1817 to Canada where they settled in the Ottawa Valley.  He and his wife raised ten children there. 

Mays from Germany also came to Canada.  William May was an Empire Loyalist from Albany, New York who had fought with Butler’s Rangers and crossed the border into Niagara in 1783.  He was the descendant of German Palatine refugees who had arrived in New York as early as 1709.  Much later German arrivals, around 1850, were Thomas and Ida May from Hamburg who settled in Montreal. 

.  William May. a Quaker from London, emigrated with his family to South Australia in 1839 and later settled in Tasmania where he established an orchard at Sandford. His eldest son William studied shells and painted Tasmanian wildflowers; another son Alfred created paintings of birds. 

John May was a Cornishman who came to Western Australia with his first wife in 1878.  They raised eleven children at May Cottage in the outback at Bridgetown.  May Cottage, a simple timber framed structure with gabled roof, still stands

Select May Miscellany

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

Select May Names

Thomas May was a 17th century English poet, dramatist and historian. 
Samuel May
was a radical 19th century American reformer who championed women’s rights and abolitionism. 
Peter May
was an English cricket captain in the 1950’s and 1960’s. 
Willie Mays
was a great American baseball center fielder of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Theresa May became the British Prime Minister in 2015.

Select Mays Today
  • 35,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 53,000 in America (most numerous in Texas) 
  • 26,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

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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