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The Meaning and History of the McGee Surname

Unveiling the Origin and Significance

The name McGee, derived from Gaelic roots, holds a deep history and meaning. It is a combination of the Gaelic elements “mag,” a variant of “mac” meaning “son of,” and the personal name “aodh,” which signifies “fire.” This combination gave rise to the surnames McGhee, McGee, and Magee in both Scotland and Ireland.

In Scotland, McGhee is the predominant spelling, although it did spread to Ulster during the Scottish plantations. On the other hand, McGee and Magee names were also prevalent in Ulster. Interestingly, the variation in spelling often mirrored religious affiliations, with Magee being associated with Protestantism and McGee with Catholicism.

Discovering McGee Surname Resources

To delve deeper into the history and genealogy of the McGee surname, you can explore the following resources:

  • The McGhee Family: Learn about the origins of the McGhee family in Scotland.
  • McGee Family Genealogy: Discover the lineage of John McGee, a Revolutionary War figure, and his descendants.
  • Magee and McGee Surnames in the Ottawa Area: Explore the presence of Magees and McGees in Canada.
  • John Magee – the Boy Hero and the Poet Legend: Uncover the story of John Magee and his remarkable poem, “High Flight.”
  • McGee DNA Project: Gain insights into McGee genealogy and DNA analysis.

Tracing the Ancestry of McGee and Magee Surnames

Scotland: The Ancient Origins

The presence of McGhees in Scotland may have originated from Ireland, although records indicate that they predated the Irish McGees. The earliest recorded evidence of the name in Scotland dates back to 1296, with Gilmighel McEthe of Dumfries at the Ragman’s Ball. However, the roots of the McGhee family can be traced back even further, possibly spanning several centuries.

Notably, Gilbert M’Ghie became the first Lord of Balmaghie in Galloway around 1400, and his descendants rose to prominence during the reign of the Stuarts in the 1640s. One branch of the family held control over the Rinns of Islay for several centuries.

Sadly, the decline of their prominence was accompanied by the sale of their estates and the absence of male heirs. By the 18th century, the McGhee families of Balmaghie, Airie and Airds, and Castlehill were virtually extinct. John McGhee, the last of Castlehill, saw his six sons tragically die without bearing children. Similarly, William McGhee, despite inheriting Balmaghie, had no interest in the estate and sold it in 1768. The last remnants of the McGhee line at Balmaghie were two elderly ladies who resided in a neighboring cottage.

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Towards the late 19th century, the concentration of McGhee and McGee names had shifted to Lanarkshire, particularly in and around Glasgow, rather than their ancestral homeland in southwest Scotland.

Ireland: The Enigmatic McGee and Magee History

The history of the McGee and Magee names in Ireland is less well-documented. The old Irish form of the name was Mac Aodha, meaning “son of Hugh.” Another variant, Mac Gaoithe, meaning “of the wind,” emerged in Donegal. In the parish of Condahorkey, a family with this name served as erenaghs. Over time, the name transformed into McGee, or sometimes McKee, along the Tyrone border.

Tyrone also saw the presence of early Scottish settlers known as McGhee or McGee. Notably, Sir John McGhee of Balmaghie, buried in Leckpatrick cemetery near Strabane in 1617, belonged to this lineage. George McGhee, his descendant, was laid to rest there in 1741.

In County Antrim, the spelling predominantly used was Magee. It is believed that the Magees of Island Magee, a peninsula near Larne, initially migrated from the Scottish Rinns of Islay. Other Scots-Irish settlers in Antrim also adopted the Magee spelling, although some retained the traditional Scottish spelling. Prominent figures with Magee surnames include James Magee, a Belfast-born newspaper printer and publisher, and Martha Magee, who established Magee University in Derry.

The McGee and Magee Journey to America

The McGees and Magees who arrived in America during the 18th century were predominantly Scots-Irish. For instance, Michael McGee, believed to have hailed from Island Magee in Antrim, settled in Brunswick County, Virginia in the 1750s. His son, also named Michael McGee, later migrated to Abbeville, South Carolina in 1791.

Other Scots-Irish settlers who made the transatlantic journey include John McGee, who potentially was born while en route to America, and his second wife Martha, recognized as a heroine during the Revolutionary War. Their sons, John and William, relocated to Tennessee in the 1790s and became esteemed Presbyterian ministers.

Five McGee brothers from Tyrone also ventured to America, initially arriving in Augusta and Botetourt counties, Virginia, in the 1750s. Subsequently, they joined Daniel Boone in the migration to Kentucky around 1775. Another notable figure, John McGee, fought in the Revolutionary War as part of the 12th Virginia Regiment. He later settled in McGee Cove, Warren County, Tennessee.

Patrick Magee from Antrim arrived in Georgia in 1779 and eventually made his way to Missouri Territory. Barclay McGhee, a Scots-Irish man from North Carolina, played a vital role in the development of Blount County, Tennessee. His son, John McGhee, accumulated an extensive property base along the Little Tennessee River and contributed significantly to the railroad construction in east Tennessee during the late 19th century.

David McGee, a Scottish immigrant who enlisted in the Continental Army in 1777, fought valiantly in the Revolutionary War. Afterward, he relocated to Tennessee and later settled in Alabama. Interestingly, the character “Bobby McGee” in the famous song was inspired by a Tennessean named Bobby McKee, despite the slight alteration of the spelling in the lyrics.

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McGee and Magee Legacy in Canada

Thomas D’Arcy McGee, born into an Ulster family in Louth, immigrated to North America in 1842 and found his home in Montreal. As a devout Catholic and fervent advocate of Irish and Canadian nationalism, he tragically fell victim to assassination on the streets of Ottawa in 1868, just one year after Canada’s Confederation.

D’Arcy’s family originally hailed from County Down, and his grandmother, Elizabeth Magee, had immigrated to Canada in 1823, settling in Lanark County, Ontario. John Wellington McGee, born in Lanark County in 1863, considered himself a descendant of D’Arcy McGee. Initially named Magee, he changed his name to McGee upon converting to Catholicism.

McGee, Magee, and McGhee Today

The prevalence of the McGee, Magee, and McGhee surnames varies across different regions:

  • Ireland: Currently, there are 2,000 individuals with the McGee surname and 3,000 with the Magee surname, making a total of 5,000 people.
  • UK (including Northern Ireland): The McGee surname has 7,000 bearers, while the Magee surname has 10,000. Additionally, the McGhee surname accounts for 5,000 individuals. The total count amounts to 22,000 people.
  • America: In the United States, there are 19,000 individuals with the McGee surname, 9,000 with the Magee surname, and 6,000 with the McGhee surname, summing up to a total of 34,000 people.
  • Elsewhere: Outside of the aforementioned regions, there are 8,000 individuals with the McGee surname, 4,000 with the Magee surname, and 2,000 with the McGhee surname, making a total of 14,000 people. These regions include Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Exploring Fascinating Trivia About McGee Surname

The McGees of the Rinns of Islay

The MacGees, who resided in the Rinns of Islay, hold a rich history dating back to the 14th century and possibly even earlier. According to the Annals of Islay, the MacGees were the most prominent family in Islay under the Lords of the Isles. McAodha na Renna, known as MacGee of the Rinns, was regarded as the Islay seer and was possibly buried beside the ancient chapel on Orsaig Island. However, specific details about his death and given name remain uncertain.

In 1493, King James IV of Scotland defeated the MacDonalds, who had held a leadership position in the Isles. Although the MacGees continued to own land in Islay during the 1500s, they likely dispersed to Antrim later on.

The Last McGhees of Balmaghie

William McGhee’s sale of the Balmaghie estate in 1768 marked the decline of the direct line from Balmaghie. The last surviving members of this line were two elderly individuals known as Tibbie and Maggie McGhee. In Malcolm Harper’s 1876 book “Rambles in Galloway,” it was recorded that Burnside Cottage, a mile from Lochenbreck Hotel, served as their humble abode. These two individuals were regarded as the final representatives of the once powerful McGhee family of Balmaghie.

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Michael McGee of Abbeville, South Carolina

Michael McGee, born in Virginia in 1759, played a significant role in the development of Abbeville, South Carolina. He was buried in the Turkey Creek Baptist church cemetery near Ware Shoals, Abbeville. His tombstone, still standing, is inscribed with the following words:

“Sacred to the memory of Michael McGee who departed this life on the 21st of June 1834, aged 74 years and 4 days. He was a soldier in the Revolutionary War and had been a member of the Turkey Creek Baptist church upward of forty years. Peace was his theme in life, and he died in peace with all men and his God.

Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord, from henceforth yea saith the spirit that they may rest from their labors and their works do follow them.”

Michael McGee arrived in South Carolina on horseback in 1791, accompanied by his wife Anne. He played a huge role in purchasing inexpensive land offered by the state, eventually becoming a community banker who lent money to selected neighbors without requiring security but only a plain note.

The Murder of Thomas D’Arcy McGee

In a traumatic incident that shook Canada only nine months after its formation, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, one of the nation’s founding fathers, was assassinated. In the early hours of April 7, 1868, McGee was shot at close range, just steps away from Parliament in Ottawa. Only minutes before, he had passionately defended the fragile federation in his speech.

The news of his murder was shared with a solemn House of Commons by a grieving Prime Minister, Sir John Macdonald, who had personally carried McGee’s lifeless body to his lodgings. Macdonald described McGee as a hero and martyr, emphasizing his dedication to the nation and his open-hearted nature.

McGee’s funeral procession, occurring on what would have been his 43rd birthday, drew an incredible crowd of 80,000, attended by nearly 15,000 mourners in Montreal alone. This remains the largest funeral in Canadian history. Pierre-Joseph Chaveau, Quebec’s first premier, delivered a eulogy, highlighting McGee’s oratory prowess and referring to his death as a baptism in blood for the Confederation he had fought tirelessly to establish.

Reader Feedback

Mary Pritchard Nixon: My mother’s maiden name was McGee, and she always claimed to be related to Thomas D’Arcy McGee. Her father, Patrick McGee, also had relatives residing in Lanark County, Ontario.

Donald Magee: My great-grandfather, Earl Magee, was a farmer in Don Mills during the early 1900s. Despite the encroachment of buildings around him, he continued to farm the land with his faithful horse, Ned, until the 1960s. His farm was located beside the Flemington family farm, which is now Flemington Park.

John Magee the Boy Hero: On August 18, 1941, a young teenager named Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee Jr. took flight in his Spitfire Mark I from an aerodrome in Wales. As he soared through the sky, he experienced a profound sense of exhilaration and spirituality. Inspired by this flight, he later penned the iconic poem “High Flight.”

John Magee Jr. was born in Shanghai and received his education in England. His father, Reverend John G. Magee, hailed from Pittsburgh and served as a missionary in China during the Japanese occupation of Nanking.

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