Select McCoy Surname Genealogy

The root of the McCoy surname is the old Gaelic Mac Aodha, meaning “son of fire,”which was originally the name of a Celtic pagan god.  This name cropped up in the Western Isles of Scotland, where Gilchrist M’ay of Ugadale was recorded in 1326, and this produced the Mackays of Kintyre and Islay; and on the Isle of Man, where the name Cucail Mac Aedha appeared as early as 1098, and here it came out as MacQuay or Quay. 

Many of them became mercenaries, called Gallowglasses, to Irish chiefs in the 14th century and stayed.  Their surnames in Ireland were various but the most common one became McCoy.

The real McCoy
- meaning “the genuine article” - is an idiom that has been around since the mid-19th century.  There are many explanations but no agreement as to where the term came from

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Select McCoy Ancestry

Ireland.  The McCoys had originally come to Ireland as Gallowglasses at the behest of the McDonnells.  They settled first in Ulster, but a number then made the move to the banks of the Shannon river in Limerick in the early 1500’s. There were some McCoys in Fermanagh and Donegal that were originally MacHugh, a branch of the O'Flaherty clan in Connemara.  And there were also Scottish MacKays that arrived later in the 17th and 18th centuries and became McCoys.

The anglicized spelling of the name was initially very variable – from McCoy and MacCoy to MacCay, MacKay, McKie, MacCooey and others as well.  Often the MacKay and McCoy spellings were interchangeable.  In general it is true to say that whenever McCoys were found, there were MacKays close by.  Many McCoys emigrated to America in the 18th century. 

Notable McCoys in Ireland have been the two Gaelic poets – Art MacCoy from Ulster in the 18th century and Father Edward MacCoy from Galway in the 19th.  Today McCoys are principally to be found in the Armagh-Monaghan area in Ulster on both sides of the border, with some also in Antrim, including at one time on Rathlin Island, and others in Limerick and Cork.  The best known is Tony McCoy, the champion horse racing jockey from Antrim.

The McCoys of Norfolk county, Virginia – starting with Dennis McCoy in 1648 – appear to have been the first McCoys in America.  But there is no indication of where they came from and why.

James McCoy from county Tyrone meanwhile was in Augusta county, Virginia by the 1730’s.  A descendant
John McCoy was captain of the Augusta county militia during the Revolutionary War.  Another McCoy line from Augusta county made its home in McCoy, Montgomery county.

An early arrival from Scotland was Alexander McCoy who came to Windham, New Hampshire in 1721.  He was a soldier during the French and Indian wars.  The only thing remarkable about his son John was the manner of his death.

“One day John McCoy laid down under a tree.  While here, an earwig entered his ear.  Efforts to dislodge it were made, but they were unavailing and it caused his death.”

John McCoy from county Down came to Rye township in Cumberland county, Pennsylvania sometime in the 1750’s.  He operated a sawmill and gristmill there.  His descendants migrated first to Kentucky and then to Louisiana.  Mary McCoy, on the death of her husband in 1858, became the mistress of the Bayou Boeuf plantation in Louisiana.  

Maryland and Kentucky
.  John McCoy came to America from Belfast in 1732 and received a land grant in what is now Washington county, Maryland.  He operated the Neglect plantation there.

A branch of his family, through “Old” William McCoy, migrated to Pike county, Kentucky near the West Virginia border around the year 1810.  His descendants were the McCoys of the famous Hatfield-McCoy feud in the 1880’s, a story told in Otis Rice’s 1982 book The Hatfields and the McCoys.  The McCoy numbers here included “Squirrel Huntin’” Sam McCoy who lived until 1941 and whose memoirs and family tree were published in 1979.

Another Maryland-to-Kentucky line began with Daniel McCoy who first owned land in Frederick county, Maryland in 1749.  His son Daniel was in Bourbon county, Kentucky around 1810.  But these McCoys later moved onto Indiana in 1830.

Heading West.
  It is uncertain who David McCoy's parents were, although they were believed to have been Enoch and Sarah McKay, natives of Virginia.  They died soon after David's birth in 1790 and he moved to Ohio and then in 1818 to Sangamon county, Illinois where he built a sawmill and gristmill.  David passed on his entrepreneurial spirits to his son Joseph who is credited with opening up the markets for cattle by extending cattle drives to the rail lines at Abilene, Kansas.

Some McCoys went further west.  Arthur McCoy, known as “the wild Irishman,” left Ireland for the California goldfields in 1850 and then ended up in eastern Missouri during and after the Civil War.   There were reports of him joining t
he James-Younger gang of bank and train robbers.  He is said to have died sometime in the 1870’s. Meanwhile James McCoy came to California from Ireland in 1850 and stayed there.  He was one of the early settlers of San Diego and held the post of sheriff there from 1862 to 1872.  His home in Old Town San Diego has been preserved.

Canada.  Archibald McCoy left Tyrone for Hinchenbrooke in Huntingdon county, Quebec in 1836.  One of his sons John McCoy died, curiously, after fighting in the American Civil War.  The family history was recounted in Robert McCoy’s 1992 book The Archibald McCoy Family of Herdman Corners.

South Sea Islands
.  The McCoy name came to the South Sea Pitcairn Islands because William McCoy, a mutineer on the Bounty in 1789, ended up there.  McCoys continued on the island with his grandson Matthew who was its Chief Magistrate.  In 1935 Annie McCoy, aged about seventy, was the sole McCoy left.  Others were living on Norfolk Island.

Select McCoy Miscellany

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

Select McCoy Names

Joseph "Cowboy" McCoy was the 19th century American entrepreneur famous for promoting the transport of Longhorn cattle from Texas to the eastern United States.
Randolph “Ole Ran’l” McCoy
was the leader of the McCoy clan in the notorious Hatfield-McCoy feud in Appalachia in the 1880’s.
Tony McCoy
 is a former horse racing jockey from Northern Ireland who was the British Champion Jockey for a record 20 consecutive times, from 1995 to 2015

Select McCoys Today
  • 7,000 in the UK (most numerous in Northern Ireland)
  • 35,000 in America (most numerous in Texas) 
  • 7,000 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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