Select McKean/McCain Surname Genealogy

The McKean and McCain names have been intertwined – from their origins in Argyllshire in the Scottish Highlands to their establishment in Ulster in the north of Ireland and then to their spread across the Atlantic to America.  Their root is the Gaelic Mac Iain meaning “son of John.”

McKean has been the more common in Scotland and Ireland.  But McCain outnumbers McKean by about two to one in America today

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Select McKean/McCain Ancestry

ScotlandThere have been two schools of thought as to the origin of the McKeans/McCains. 

The Traditional View
.  The traditional thinking has been that McKeans and McCains originated from the MacIan clan in Argyllshire, starting around 1350/1400 – one of their lines being at Ardnamurchan from Iain Spranguich or John the Bold and the other at Glencoe from Iain Fraoch or John the Heather.  Both of these clans were related to and relied on support from the Macdonalds:
  • the MacIans of Ardnamurchan were at first the more prominent.  But Macdonald support had waned by 1600 and they fought a losing battle against the Campbells.  They were denounced as rebels in 1619 and their rebellion was then suppressed.  These MacIans lost their lands and disappeared as a clan.  
  • the MacIans of Glencoe lasted a little longer.  They were also known as MacIan Abrach as one of their chiefs had come from Lochaber.  However, their end came decisively, again at the hands of the Campbells, with the massacre at Glencoe in 1692.
Their clan histories were covered in Fred McKean’s 1906 book McKean Historical Notes. 

A Modern View
.  However, this thinking pre-dated the DNA revolution and the 2014 publication of Barry McCain’s Finding the McCains, where the findings were based on Y-chromosome DNA testing. 

His conclusion was that most McCains and McKeans were not descended from Highland chieftains, but from
a Mac Eain who lived in the 1400’s in the parish of Kilmichael Glassary in mid-Argyll.  The family was under the protection of the Mac
Lachlan clan of Cowal.  Donnchadh Rua Mac Ailein became thane of Glassary in the early 1500’s.  However, they were supporters of Mary Queen of Scots and had to flee their home for Ireland after her downfall in 1568.

“The military commander of Mary Queen of Scots was Giolla Easpuig Caimbeul.  He was landlord to the McCains and drew his troops from their lands.” 

  A McKean spelling was beginning to take root in Scotland in the 1600’s.  Robert McKeane was recorded as being a citizen of Edinburgh in 1661 and some McKeans migrated to Elgin in Morayshire around this time.  William McKean had cited religious pressure as the reason for his leaving Argyllshire for Ireland in the 1650’s.

Robert McKeand meanwhile was a burgess of Kirkcudbright in 1682; while Samuel McKeand, born there in 1740, was the progenitor of the Gatehouse Fleet McKeans.

.  Scottish McCains and McKeans came to Ulster in the north of Ireland.  They should be distinguished from other similar-sounding names in Ulster - such as McCann and McKeown - which were, however, not of Scottish origin.

The McCains fleeing Scotland were first apparent in east Donegal around the year 1570.  William McCain was recorded in a muster roll near Porthall in 1630 and McCains were later to be found in the Finn valley and St. Johnston area.  A
branch of the family moved to the northeast corner of Antrim in the 1660’s and there were settlements also in Derry and Tyrone.

William McKean, a Presbyterian, had come to Derry from Argyllshire in the 1650’s.  His son William was known as William the Soldier because of his exploits during the siege of Londonderry in 1689.

“One time, while foraging for food outside the city, he was savagely attacked, beaten, stripped of his clothing, and left for dead.  He did, however, regain consciousness and made his way back to Londonderry, clad only in his battered hat that had been discarded by his assailants as worthless.”

James McKean meanwhile at Ballymoney in Antrim had a son named James who departed for America in 1718.  He was an early settler in Londonderry, New Hampshire, although not with his brother John who had died earlier that year.  However, John’s widow Janet and her four children did come with him.  A reported younger brother William came across in 1727 and settled in Pennsylvania.

.  There are McKeans but more McCains in America. 

  McKeans, sometimes McKeen, came to Londonderry, New Hampshire from Antrim in 1718.  Their lines were covered in Cornelius McKean’s 1902 book McKean Genealogies.

The patriarch was James McKean, known as Justice McKean, who lived until 1756.  One of his
nephews John McKeen migrated north to Nova Scotia; another Robert McKean moved to Pennsylvania where he was killed during the French and Indian wars (as were three of his sons).

James McKean, probably a descendant of this Robert, settled in Pennsylvania in the 1770’s.  His son Samuel was the US Senator for Pennsylvania in 1833; while another son Andrew, ordained a Methodist minister, was attached to the New York circuit.

“On large circuits he traveled many thousands of miles, mostly on horseback, enduring much hardship and exposure until his health became impaired and he settled in 1828 on a farm in Saratoga county, New York.”

Andrew’s son James was a New York Congressman from 1859 to 1863 and later the Chief Justice in Utah territory.

William and Susannah McKean came from Antrim to Pennsylvania with their family in 1727.  Their son William married Ann Logan and kept a tavern at New London township near the Logan plantation.  His son Thomas was an influential American politician at the time of independence, first in Delaware and then in Pennsylvania.

“In the Broadway musical 1776 McKean was portrayed as a gun-toting, cantankerous old Scot who could not get along with the wealthy and conservative planter George Read.  This was probably close to the truth as McKean and Read belonged to opposing political factions in Delaware.”

Thomas McKean was a signer to the Declaration of Independence and served as the Chief Justice of Pennsylvania from 1777 to 1799.

Hugh McKean from Antrim arrived in Pennsylvania in the late 1780’s and settled in Mercer county.  His son James, a Presbyterian minister, was sent to Ohio in 1834 and later moved to Iowa where he died in 1876.

McCainsHugh McCain, first found in Pennsylvania, had settled in Waxhaw, North Carolina by the 1770’s.  Joseph McCain was an early settler in Calhoun county, Alabama in 1845; while another descendant William McCain migrated in 1848 to Mississippi where he started a cotton plantation at Teoc in Carroll county.   Of his sons:
  • John, born in 1851, served as the Sheriff of Carroll county.  His son John grew up there, but left in 1902 when he enrolled in the US Naval Academy.  He and his son John S. McCain Jr. were the first father-and-son pair to achieve admiral rank in the US Navy.
  • Henry, born in 1861, joined the US Army and helped set up the World War One draft in Washington.  He is known as the father of the US Selective Service.  
  • while William, born in 1862, moved from Mississippi to North Dakota where he farmed in Traill county.  
Senator John McCain, whose death in August 2018 occasioned much national mourning, descended from the McCain admirals.

Another McCain family, beginning with William McCain from Derry, came to Pennsylvania in 1793.  McCain descendants became active in Pennsylvania in the oil industry in the 1870’s before moving on later to farm in Indiana and South Dakota. 

McCains migrated around 1835 from Tennessee to Alabama where they settled in Clay county.  DNA analysis has suggested that these McCains were related to Thomas McKean the signer rather than to Hugh McCain of Waxhaw, North Carolina. 

.  The main spellings in Canada have been, in order of numbers, McKeen, McCain and McKean:
  • McKeen is mainly found in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick
  • McCain also in New Brunswick  
  • while McKean, sometimes McKane, has been more widely spread.
The McKeen name in Nova Scotia began with John McKeen, a farmer, who had arrived in New Hampshire from Antrim in 1718 and then came to Truro in Colchester county in the 1750’s.  Later McKeens of this family were to be found in Pictou and Guysborough counties.

The McCains of Florenceville in New Brunswick are descended from Andrew McCain from Ballanahinch in Antrim who arrived there as an immigrant in 1827.  His youngest son Henderson, known as Henry, became a successful businessman involved in farming and the production and shipping of agricultural commodities, primarily seed potatoes.

It was two descendant brothers, Harrison and Wallace McCain, who founded in 1956 the first factory to process potatoes into frozen French fries.  McCain Foods is now the largest producer of French fries in the world.

John McKane arrived with his family from Ulster sometime in the 1860’s and farmed near Kingston, Ontario

Select McKean/McCain Miscellany

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

Select McKean/McCain Names

Thomas McKean was a signer of the American Declaration of Independence and served as the Chief Justice of Pennsylvania from 1777 to 1799. 
Harrison and Wallace McCain founded in Canada in 1956 the first factory to process potatoes into frozen French fries.  McCain Foods is now the largest producer of French fries in the world. 
Ginger McCain
was the English horse trainer who led the champion steeplechaser Red Rum to three Grand National victories in the 1970’s. 
John McCain
, captured and imprisoned during the Vietnam War, later served as the US Senator for Arizona and was the US Republican Presidential candidate in 2008.

Select McKeans/McCains Today
  • 5,000 in the UK (most numerous in Northern Ireland)
  • 10,000 in America (most numerous in Texas) 
  • 3,000 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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