Select Ray Surname Genealogy

The Ray surname in America seems to span a number of different surname spellings in England, Scotland and Ireland.  Ray, Rae and Rea are the most common spellings here.

Ray and Rea
are English names, perhaps derived from the Old English word ea, pronounced “ay,” and meaning stream.  It might in this case be topographical, describing someone who lived by a stream.  Alternatively, Ray could come from the Old French rey or roy meaning “king,” and would be a nickname for someone who behaved in a regal fashion.

Rae and Reay
in Scotland are said to derive from the Old English word ra, meaning a female roe deer.  It is a Border name and bears no relationship with the McRae name which came from the Scottish Highlands and had different roots (although McRae could sometimes be shortened to Rae).

Ray and Rea
are also Irish names, with Rea being pronounced as “ray.”  Ray can be a contraction of Reavy, derived from the Gaelic Riabhaigh, meaning “grey-haired;” while Rea could come from MacCrea which also gave rise to MacGreevey.

Ray or Rai is as well a common Indian surname.  The name comes from the same root as Raj and means “king” or “ruler.
  Rea is a surname in Italy.

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Select Ray Ancestry

Scotland.  The Rae name first appeared in a document as Raa in Fife in 1239 when Robert Raa, described as a mason, witnessed a charter at the Abbey of Culross; while Thomas filius Ray appeared in a Paisley document in the same year.  However, Rae has been more of a Scottish Border name, found initially in the Dumfries area.  They were one of the Border reiving families, although not amongst the largest in terms of numbers.

The Rae name extended into Galloway and Ayrshire and later into Lanarkshire.  Elsewhere the Raes of Esk Grove in Midlothian came in the 1700’s from Fife.  Patrick Rae married Margaret Monteith at Muiravonside in Stirlingshire in 1710.   Two
Raes from the Dumfries area were the Rev. Peter Rae, who published an account of the 1715 Jacobite rebellion, and James Rae, an early Scottish photographer in the 1860’s.

.  The Ray name in England would seem to divide into a northern name and a southern name. 

In the north, the Scottish influence has been strongest.  It was said that the estate of Gill in Bromfield parish in Cumberland belonged to a Scottish Reay or Ray family around the year 1200.  William Reay of this family was Bishop of Glasgow in the early 16th century.  The Scottish Rae spelling outnumbered the Ray spelling in Cumberland in the 1881 census, although the reverse was true for Lancashire with its larger Ray population
.  Meanwhile the Wray spelling appeared at an early date in Wensleydale in north Yorkshire.  Sir Christopher Wray from Bedale became Speaker of the House of Commons in 1571.

Ray was also a surname in the southeast, in London and nearby counties.  Johnt Ray died in Denston in Suffolk around the year 1450.  Another Ray family in Suffolk began with Joseph Ray who married Sarah Sparrow in Depden in 1652.  John Ray, widely regarded as one of the first English botanists, was born in the village of Black Notley in Essex in 1627. The Rea spelling cropped up in the west country, in particular in Worcestershire.  John Rea from Powick was mayor of Worcester in 1676.

The O'Rea name appeared in Limerick and Cork during the 16th century.  It was the principal Irish name recorded in the barony of Owney in Limerick (on the boundary with Tipperary) in 1659. 

In Ulster the name was probably of Scottish or English origin:
  • most of the Reas (pronounced Ray) in Antrim, Down and in county Cavan were probably Scottish in origin.  The Reas of Ballynahinch in county Down descended from David Rea, born there in 1672.  Matthew Rreagh from Argyll became Rhea in Donegal.  His son the Rev. Joseph Rhea was a Presbyterian minister there.  
  • there was a Yorkshire family of Wray that came to Ulster just before the Scottish plantation era.   John Wray was rewarded with confiscated land near Letterkenny in Donegal in 1603 and built Castle Wray there.  His family became part of the Protestant gentry in the area.  The line was covered in C.V. Trench’s 1945 book The Wrays of Donegal, Londonderry, and Antrim.
America.  Rays, mainly English, came first to New English.  Rays more numerous, mainly Scots and Scots Irish, came to points south.

New England.  Some of the early Rays here were:
  • Daniel Ray, a seaman, was in the Plymouth colony by 1630 and moved to Salem the following year.  He lived there until his death in 1662.   His descendants, covered in Joseph Ray’s 2005 book Descendants of Daniel Ray, later spread across New England.  Some of them adopted the Rea spelling.
  • while Simon Ray from Suffolk came with his parents to Braintree as a boy in 1640.  His father died the following year.  In 1661 Simon departed with his mother and step-father to Block Island off Rhode Island where he was one of the original settlers.  He lived to be 102, dying there in 1737.
Caleb Ray was the Boston jailer from 1687 to 1699 when he was removed from the position for allowing pirate prisoners to escape.  Samuel Ray meanwhile was a Quaker who came to Nantucket island around the year 1720.  One line from him led to Columbia county in upstate New York where Francis Ray started a Quaker community at Rayville in 1781.

Rays Further South
These Rays were mainly, it would appear, Scots Irish and started coming in the 1730’s. 

Isaac Ray had arrived in Virginia from Ireland in 1730.  His grandson Joseph grew up in South Carolina and in the 1790’s moved with his family to Kentucky.  They later migrated to Alabama and Texas before returning to Alabama in their old age in the 1850’s.

Various Rays were in North Carolina:
  • Moses Ray from Scotland died in North Carolina in 1766.  His son Thomas later moved to southern Ohio, following the Quaker migration there. 
  • John and Martha Rea family came to Mecklenburg county, North Carolina from Ireland in 1763.  They helped organize the local Presbyterian church.  
  • while James Ray, probably Scots Irish in origin, came to North Carolina via the Great Wagon Road in 1747.  His descendants migrated to Tennessee around the year 1817.  They settled in Bedford county.  Later Rays of this family were to be found in Missouri and Arkansas.
John Ray had moved from Tennessee to Missouri in 1840 and made his home in what became known as Wilson’s Creek.  In 1861 during the Civil War it was the site of a conflict between the two forces on what became known as Bloody Hill.  Many of the dying and wounded were brought to the Ray house, including the Union commander.  The Ray house survived the war and the Rays continued living there for another ten years.  It is now a national museum. 

Meanwhile the Rev. Joseph Rhea, a Presbyterian minister, had come to eastern Tennessee from Donegal via Marylandin 1778.  His son John fought in the Revolutionary War and was a longtime US Congressman from Tennessee.  Rhea county in Tennessee was named in his honor.

William Ray
from Belfast was in Pennsylvania in the 1770’s and fought in the Revolutionary War.   After the war he moved to Kentucky and then to Indiana where he died in 1840 at the grand old age of 99.  He was alive to see his son James elected Governor of Indiana.  Matthew Rea left county Down for Pennsylvania in 1774.  His descendants moved west to Wisconsin in 1840.

Rays West
.  Adam and George Ray came west from upstate New York in 1837 to what was then Wisconsin territory.  Adam’s son Patrick headed further west in 1881 to Barrow, Alaska where he established a US meteorological station.  The Ray river and Ray mountains in Alaska were named after him.

John Rae, a Scotsman, ended up even further West in Hawaii.  His path took him from Aberdeen to Ontario and thence, in a circuitous route via New York and Central America, to San Francisco in 1849 at the time of the Gold Rush.  He departed there two years later for Hawaii where he worked as a medical officer and published tomes on economics.

  Dr. John Rae was the famous Scottish explorer of the Canadian Arctic who settled later in life in London.  His brother Thomas Rae did make the move to Canada in the 1840’s.  Thomas’s son John was an Indian agent along the North Saskatchewan river in the 1880’s.  Another Rae family in Canada also came from Scotland and they, surprisingly, were Jewish in origin.

Thomas Rea and his family had come to Canada from Fermanagh in the 1820’s.  They settled in the Ops township in Victoria county, Ontario.  Thomas had commanded the Irish Fusiliers and fought in the Battle of Waterloo.

Australia and New Zealand
.   Two Raes from the Dumfries area headed south in the 1850’s.  William Rae travelled on the Marco Polo to Melbourne in 1857 and married and settled down in Rathscar, Victoria.  Simon Rae came to South Island, New Zealand about the same time.  His story was told in Annie Irving’s 2005 book A Good Scotch Shepherd

Select Ray Miscellany

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

Select Ray Names

Dr. John Rae was a mid-19th century Scottish explorer of the Canadian Arctic.  Rae Strait was named after him.
Gabrielle Ray was an English stage actress, dancer and singer, best known for her roles in Edwardian musical comedies.  She was in the early 1900’s one of the most photographed women in the world.
Man Ray,
 Emmanuel Radnitzky, was an American painter and visual artist active in the Dada and Surrealist movements.
Johnnie Ray
was a popular American singer, songwriter, and pianist during the 1950’s
Chris Rea is a popular English singer-songwriter.  He was born in Yorkshire to an Italian father named Rea. 

Select Rays Today
  • 31,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 51,000 in America (most numerous in Texas) 
  • 28,000 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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