The Origin of the Seay Surname

(A Partial Explanation)

Raleigh F. (Sandy) Seay, Jr., Ph.D.

* Introduction.

Here is a summary of the Seay surname research as I understand it from thirty years of research. I am not including footnotes here although every reference is fully attested. For many years, the explanation of the origin of the Seay surname has been unclear. The earliest citations of the Seay surname itself, in the 1600's and 1700's, may be found in England, Ireland and Scotland, although the Scot Seays trace back to the County Down Irish Seays in every case I have seen. In later years, the name is found in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but these are most certainly descendants of the earlier Seays of the British Isles. In particular, the Australian and New Zealand Seays trace to County Down, Ireland, as do the Scot Seays. The origin of the Seay surname in the United States and Canada is less clear.

Recent DNA studies have provided substantial insight into the origin of the Seay surname and reveal at least two lines of unrelated Seays, one Irish ancestry and the other of putative English ancestry. The English line may ultimately be of Norman origin and may include the Seay family of the north of Ireland. The Irish line has been identified as belonging to an ungrouped O'Shea cluster.

* The Seays from England.

In America, the English line has been traced to three persons who are either brothers or cousins - James and Jacob Seay, who appear in Virginia in King William and Amelia counties in the late 1600's and early 1700's, and Abraham Seay who appears in Fluvanna/Goochland counties in the early 1700's. A representative group of descendants of these three persons have taken the DNA test and have a close DNA match with each other. Thus, the DNA data taken together with the documentary evidence make it clear that these Seays are related and have a common ancestry. The most likely place of origin for this Seay surname is Devon, in the south of England, although this is not conclusively proved, and one researcher has found a Seay presence in Shropshire. Some evidence suggests that this line descends from de Say or de Sai of Normandy and the DNA evidence supports this hypothesis, along with some documentary evidence.

However, to this point there has been no evidence revealed that would support a Huguenot origin for the Seay surname, as some Seays have posted, and we note that the de Say/Sai surname is Norman, not Huguenot. The Seay surname in the north of Ireland is found primarily in County Down and has DNA that is consistent with the English Seay line. One researcher has opined that the family must have originated in Normandy as de Say/de Sai and come to England with William the Conqueror in 1066, from where they spread to Ireland, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and other locations.

* The Seays of the South of Ireland.

The other line of unrelated Seays in America is smaller than the English line and has DNA that is consistent with the O'Shea surname of the south of Ireland, found primarily in counties Kerry, Cork, Limerick, Tipperary and Kilkenny. A representative number of descendants from this line have also taken the DNA test and have results that are a close match with each other, but distinctly different from the British line, making it clear that there is no relationship between the two lines. In particular, the two lines have different haplogroups and DNA principles declare that different haplogroups may not be related to each other. According to an O'Shea DNA study, this Seay line has been identified as an ungrouped O'Shea cluster. This means that this group possesses DNA that is consistent with O'Shea DNA, but does not match any current O'Shea DNA study groups. One explanation for this lack of clarity is that our ancestor, Mathew See/Seay, came to America so early, perhaps as early as 1683. With respect to spelling, the evidence suggests that Mathew's surname was spelled See when he arrived in Virginia at some point prior to 1685, which is our first mention of him, and that it evolved to the Seay spelling over a period of about 40 years in America, perhaps in response to the presence of the English Seay family that lived in the same area.

See and O'See are variant spellings of O'Shee, which is an alternative spelling of O'Shea. In Ireland, the pronunciation of both names is similar. The Irish do not need an "h" to get an "sh" sound, thus See or O'See would be pronounced the same as Shee or O'Shee, just as Sean and Seamus and pronounced "Shawn" and "Shaymus." Thus, an Irishman named Mathew See would come to Virginia as an Irish immigrant in British surroundings and, in this environment, would have his name pronounced as it looked to the British - "See," rather than "Shee." Then, over a period of forty years, the See spelling evolves into the name as we have it today -- Seay. The earliest citation of O'See in Ireland that I have found is Ryckerd O'See in 1577 in Galbally, County Limerick, although there is an earlier citation for Conoch O'Seeye in County Cork in 1573. No doubt these are the same surnames. And, there is a citation for Thomas O'See in Shandon, County Cork, in 1682, three years before Mathew See arrived in Virginia.

* Caveat.

DNA has shed more light on Seay research than any other recent development, as it has helped resolve the mystery of the two unrelated Seay lines. However, DNA research cannot resolve every issue and there are some questions yet outstanding. For example, DNA research measures the Y chromosome which is possessed only by the male and is handed down from father to son. If, however, there is a "parental event," meaning an adoption, taking in of a child as orphan, child outside of marriage by a different father or some similar event, then there is a break in the DNA. DNA research has revealed that more of these events occurred than one might have expected.

Further, there has been a limited number of Seays who have taken the DNA test, so that our knowledge is similarly limited by this number. Additional tests may offer additional insights. The documentary evidence suggests the presence of other unrelated Seay lines, possibly in South Carolina and Mississippi. We shall see. O See. Or Seay.