Monday, 4 August 2008

From Scotch-Irish to Irish Princes; the McAmis family

Here is a report on the interesting history of the McAmis family from County Tyrone, by genealogist Linda Merle. There was some surprise when their DNA test results linked them to the old Ó Catháin clan…

Around 1770 three brothers McCamish appeared in old Bedford County, Virginia. Two served in he Revolutionary War and were present at Yorktown. One was wounded there. After the Revolution, all three moved to eastern Tennessee where many descendents still live. Family lore claimed they were Scotch-Irish from Ulster and were of Scottish descent – Clan Gunn. But no trace of their origins had ever been found.

left, retired attorney Ed McAmis

Several years ago I did extensive research to locate the father of the three brothers, all born between 1750 and 1757 – so dad was alive until 1757. If in America, he survived the French and Indian (Seven Years) war. This is a good because the war resulted in many military records. There had been a McCamish living near Philadelphia who married a Quaker and died in the 1740s. His will was not proven due to debts, but many years later a man surfaced in Carlisle, PA who forced a sale of property seized by his debtors. Unfortunately this Thomas McCamish disappeared without a trace not long after the Revolution. Also there was a William McCamish who settled far to the west in Old Cumberland (now Franklin County, PA) by 1751. He had several sons, one of whom (Joseph) had an estate in Virginia. Joseph died before the Revolution. A comparison of his heirs and that of a Joseph McCamish in the Northern Neck area of Virginia seemed to indicate they were different men. The Northern Neck man disappeared without a trace, possibly into Kentucky. William’s son James died in the late 1700s. His widow and children sold and moved to Ohio. To date we’ve found no descendents of these people – or any connection to the three brothers.

Tamlaght Church of Ireland

Research also established that they didn’t seem to descend from the McComis family of Maryland. That family left extensive records in Maryland and did send out spurs to the Carolinas and to the future West Virginia. But no one had three sons named William, James and Thomas. We also researched the McCormick family of central Pennsylvania (this Ulster family produced Cyrus), the McCamies of Cumberland Co, PA, various McCormacks, etc…..any one whose name remotely resembled theirs. The McCormicks did have three sons with the right names but they remained and died in Pennsylvania. Military records from the colonial wars allowed us to place almost all of the men of interest named in Virginia military records into a family. It seemed clear their father was in the old country and that they had migrated as adults.

The Old World

Were did they come from then? A quick survey for the surname and its many variants disclosed pockets in various places in Scotland. Some McGregors adopted it after their surname was banned. Also Stuarts. The heads of the Gunn clan in northeast Scotland bore it. There were many on the Isle of Man, once an Irish colony. In Ireland there were two pockets: a larger one in County Down and a smaller centered in southeastern Tyrone. The larger group in County Down usually spelled the name McComish and didn’t use the same first names as the three brothers gave their sons. The smaller group in Tyrone DID share a distinctive first name pattern with the Brothers McCamish.

As probably 90% or more of individuals in 18th century up-country Virginia are believed to have come from Ulster and descendents all believed that they’d come from Ireland (and had details that suggested perhaps they did), we decided to check it out first.
Meanwhile we began DNA testing so that we could identify matches even without a paper trail.. Eventually I located a descendent of the larger Irish group in County Down, Jim, who agreed to having his DNA tested.

We also wondered what the surname was originally. Originally our ancestors didn’t have fixed surnames. The Celtic populations of Britain used sept names indicating descent from a well known ancestor. However when someone accomplished something memorable, his descendents often took his given name as a ‘surname’ instead of the sept name. Many dropped the sept name altogether. Furthermore, Gaelic is an odd language. Often when the case changes, instead of the ending of the word changing, the first part does. Furthermore, consonants were then pronounced differently so that ‘son of James’ and ‘son of Thomas’ are impossible to distinguish because after the Mc both the S of Sean and the T of Thomas are lenited to what sounds to us as h. Spelling was not standardized till very late in English too. The spellings are generally phonetic, meaning people spelled the name as they pronounced it. Thus we’re fairly certain the brothers McCamish always pronounced their name with an A (not an O like McComish) and didn’t harden the ending into ack like McCamack.

Which brings us to the smaller group in Ireland. Until they began moving to Belfast, where the magistrates rapidly confused them with the McComishes of Down, they were always McCamish in the records in Tyrone and Derry.

Finally the results of the DNA test arrived. They showed that the Brothers McCamish had northwest Irish DNA. This distinctive pattern, called R1b1b2e (R1b1c7) was first identified in February 2006 when geneticists in Dublin who had tested men with surnames indicating they descended from the fifth century high Irish king Niall of the Nine Hostages announced that these men do share a distinctive DNA pattern indicating that they do descend from the same man (excepting the main line of O’Neills who suffered a ‘non-paternity event’). Most likely the DNA pattern is far older than Niall. It was shared by his brothers who lived in southern Ireland.
Niall’s northern descendents, the Ui Neills, invaded and conquered Ulster. Today 20% of the men in north west Ireland descend from Niall. Jim in Belfast was also in this 20%. But did he share a common ancestor within seven generations with the McCamishes? With 37 markers the results were ambiguous. The experts indicated that if we upgraded to 67 markers it would be clearer. When those results came in, it was clear that Jim in Belfast did not share a common ancestor with the descendent of the three brothers within 7 generations.

Our attentions then turned to the smaller group in Tyrone that used the same first names as the three brothers. Could we find a descendent? It took some time, but eventually we found a lady in Australia who descended from a daughter of a man who was from the village of Tamlagh, Tyrone. Her family had first migrated to Scotland and then to Australia.

the record of Elizabeth McCamish's marriage to Thomas Fulton in 1834, below

An Australian connection is wonderful to find because Australian records are very good. Her ancestress’ death certificate gave her parish of birth in Ireland as Tamlagh where her baptism was also recorded, the names of both her husbands, the names of all her surviving children and the total number. Her surname was Thompson. However when she married in Scotland and registered the births of children she used McCamish and Thompson interchangeably. Because those records also identified her place of origin and her prior surnames – it was clearly the same woman.

The Irish experts had indicated they believed the surname was originally Thomas. Clearly this lady agreed with them. However we needed to find male descendent. With the help of our friend in Australia we contacted several other McCamish researchers before locating the only son of a man from Tyrone. Certificates again conclusively proved that his ancestor had come from the Tamlagh area of Tyrone. We eagerly awaited the DNA test results.

Meanwhile something else interesting surfaced. It was determined that the brothers’ DNA appeared to be a very close match to that of the chieftains of the O'Cahans, one of the major Ui Neill clans. They ruled much of what is now known as Derry, parts of Antrim, and parts of Tyrone for a thousand years. They were long lost princes! But which Thomas might they be named after? We can’t prove it (yet)…but possibly they descend from Thomas O'Cahan, son of Aibhne. Thomas died 1521 after a bitter struggle to retain the title of clan chief. He had two sons. We do not know what became of them, yet. The DNA experts now tell us that they suspect the ancestor of the brothers branched off from the main clan in this time period.

Finally the DNA results arrived. Most amazingly, THEY MATCHED. We had a match with a man whose ancestors were in Tyrone in the early 1800s, whose ancestors used the same first name patterns that the brothers did, and who ‘felt’ like the same people: Protestant tradesmen.
I’ve also compared the McCamish DNA with that of the various families whose ‘paper trails’ came to dead ends. They are DNA dead ends too. The three brothers were not McComis or McCormicks or McCamies, etc. There are no matches in Clan Gunn. Haven’t found any matches at all in Scotland.

I suspect someday matches may show up as Thompsons, McCombs, or some other Thomas derived name, or O’Kane, Kane, or McCane. Consequently, we are fairly certain that the three brothers came from Tyrone or adjoining parts of Derry, an area their ancestors lived in and ruled for a thousand years.

for more information look into the links below

Our project webpages are here:

Linda Merle (c) 2008


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the info from one mcamis to another

Karen Beckler said...

Thank you for the information. I have been tracing my mother's ancestry and came to a dead end with John McCamish in Ulster about 1750.

Karen Beckler said...

Thank you for the information. I have been tracing my mother's ancestry and came to a dead end with John McCamish in Ulster about 1750.