history of the "McNitt," "McNett," and
"McNutt" surnames, including their Colonial "immigrant
ancestors" and the Celtic origins of the MacNaught branch of
Scotland's Clan MacNauchtan.
(above): crest from the
coat of arms of MacNauchtan of Argyll]
A McNitt Family History
With a few exceptions, children born to
the home of a McNitt, McNett, or McNutt in the United States can be
presumed to descend from the Celtic clans of medieval Scotland.
Many also share common "immigrant ancestors," men and women
who bid farewell to their friends and relatives in the Scottish
communities of Ulster Province, Northern Ireland and set sail on a
dangerous voyage to an uncertain future in Colonial America.
For three such families ocean-crossing
families in the early 1700s, the rewards surely merited their
sacrifices. Not only did they realize their dream to own their own land
and be rid of the threat of religious persecution, they also planted
seeds that would bear fruit down the centuries in successive generations
of bright-eyed young lads and lassies. Their names were:
and Sarah McNitt of Donegal, Northern Ireland, who landed at
Boston, Massachusetts in 1720 and settled in Palmer, Massachusetts;
and Jean McNitt of Donegal, Northern Ireland, who arrived in Pennsylvania in
1722 to settle among their fellow "Ulster Scots" in the
newly formed community of Donegal Township, Pennsylvania;
and Jane McNutt of Donegal, Northern Ireland, who settled in
Hagerstown, Maryland in 1735 and moved to Staunton, Virginia in
1744. Alexander McNutt is presumed to be the oldest son of Alexander
and Sarah McNitt.
Today, more than 1,000 individuals born as a McNitt, McNett or
McNutts are the direct descendants of one of these three families.
Sadly, what has not survived the march of time, are records linking
these Colonial settlers to their forefathers. If such
evidence exists, it has yet to be discovered among the baptismal and
marriage certificates of the Presbyterian parishes of Donegal
County, Northern Ireland.
Although we may never see the European roots of the McNitt family
tree, we have a grand vista of the forest. Their names, religion and
point of origin in Donegal County mark the three "Alexanders"
as sons of Scotland's Clan MacNauchtan. And about the MacNaughtans
we know a great deal.
By the time of the Renaissance, Clan
MacNauchtan had developed four distinct branches, or "septs,"
each recognized by the Crown with its own coat of arms. The senior line,
MacNauchtan of Argyll, is assumed to descend from Sir Gilchrist
MacNauchtan, who was granted land in Argyll in the early 1200s by
Alexander III, King of Scotland. Parchments from 1247 and 1267 bearing
the seal of Sir Gilchrist MacNauchtan are among the oldest existing
charters in Scotland.
The second branch, MacNaught of Kilquhanty, received estates in Galloway
near the English border. Families related to this sept - which include
the McNitts of America - are thought to descend from Gilbert MacNaught,
whose name appears on the "Ragman Roll" of 1296.The last
direct male heir to the MacNaucht estates, John McKnight, was lost at
sea in 1738 on a voyage from New York to Jamaica. With him died the
right to bear the MacNaught coat of arms. The two other distantly
related clans are MacNaughten of Antrim in Northern Ireland and MacMath
of Dalpedder and Edinburgh.
More than four centuries before John McKnight's lost his life to the
stormy Atlantic Ocean, the MacNaught
chieftains, had become "crown vassals" who enjoyed land rights
and were required to give military service and bear a coat of arms
featuring "an escutcheon chequy"-- indicating that the first
bearer had been married to a Stewart heiress.
Coat of arms of the
"MacNaughts of Kilquhanity"
The MacNaughts were centered in the
Lowland region of Galloway near Dumfries,
not far from the border between Scotland and England where the ruins of
Hadrian's Wall still stand. Here, well removed from the bloody turmoil
of the Highlands, they tended modest estates, the largest of which was
called Kilquhanity. By most accounts, the "MacNaughts of
Kilquhanity" were peaceful farmers who lived in quiet prosperity
from approximately 1300 until the late-1600s when the the English kings
demanded they renounce their religious convictions upon penalty of
Exactly how "MacNaught" became
"McNitt" is itself a complicated tale, and will be told in
more detail later. But the gist is this: The Scots-Gaelic name "MacNaught"
was difficult for English speakers to pronounce. In the Anglicized
atmosphere near the English
border, some "MacNaught" took to calling themselves "MacKnight,"
which is, in fact, a loose translation based on the ancient meaning of
the Celtic word "nachtan" used to describe a fair-haired and
innocent youth with great potential.
On written documents, however, MacKnight was often spelled phonetically
-- with McKnitt being one of many forms including others such as
McNeight, McNaight and McNeit. All were understood to mean the same
The "McNitt" variant seems to have evolved in the first half
of the 1600s in Ulster Province, Northern Ireland, where MacNaught/MacKnight/McKnitt
sons had gone to seek their fortune on farm land leased to English and
Scottish settlers. The "McNett" name appeared in 18th- and
19th-century America among sons whose fathers once called themselves
McNitts also changed their name to "McNutt"
-- sometimes very early on. "The MacNauchtan Saga" notes that
several grandchildren of Alexander and Sarah McNitt of Palmer, Mass.
permanently adopted the McNutt name. Other McNitts used the McNutt
spelling from time to time, including Captain Alexander McNitt
(Barnard's son by his first wife) who frequently appears in the records
of New York State as Captain Alexander McNutt.
Tracing McNutt genealogies in the United States, however, is complicated
by one fact: McNutt was a common name in Ulster Province and may even
have been used in Scotland during the 1600s as well -- and there were
families who emigrated to America during this period and who are
related to the McNitts only through our common Celtic ancestry.
Some Names & Numbers
How large is the extended McNitt family
today? A search of 1994 U.S. residential telephone directories, reveals
As for McNutts,
there are 3,266 listings. How many of these McNutts descend from
families such as the
McNutt family of Sagus, Mass., which trace their line to Alexander
McNitt (1656-1746) of Palmer, Massachusetts, is unknown.
The actual number of individuals is much larger than these figures,
perhaps by a factor of three or four. Among McNitt families today,
"James" and "Robert" are the most common given
names, followed by "Richard," "John,"
"William" and "David." Curiously, the given name
Alexander used by three crucial immigrant ancestors has fallen out of
favor. Not a single Alexander McNitt was found in the 1994 residential
In terms of geographic distribution, McNitts are most numerous in the
Northeast and Midwest. McNetts are concentrated in the Midwest and
Central states and the largest number of McNutts are in the Southeast,
Central and Midwest regions of the United States.
Three Alexanders and a John
The first descendants of the MacNaughts
of Galloway known to use the name "McNitt" are found in
the tax records of Ulster Province in the mid-1600s, a time when many
families with names derived from MacNaught emigrated to the northern tip
of the Emerald Isle. Early in the century they came to lease fertile
farm land at favorable rates. In the later part of the 1600s they
arrived as refugees, driven from their homes in Galloway by religious
persecution. Whenever possible, they settled together in communities
centered around a Presbyterian church. For some reason, perhaps it was
the familiar and fertile terrain, descendants of Clan MacNaught had an
affinity for Donegal County in an area called the Laggan, or lowlands.
John McNitt, Robert McNitt and Alexander McNitt are listed in the Hearth
Money Roll which dates from about 1666. They lived near Culylee,
Raymocky parish in Donegal County. The Hearth Money Roll -- a list of
family heads liable for a tax levied on the number of hearths in each
home -- also contains the name of a second Robert McNitt who lived in
Aghadacor, Mevagh parish in Donegal County. It is possible, even
probable, that one or more sons, grandsons or nephews of these four
early Ulster-Scots McNitts were among the three immigrant ancestors, all
with the given-name Alexander, who arrived in the American Colonies
between 1720 and 1735, starting with Alexander and Sarah McNitt in
Thirty-five years before these first McNitts arrived, however, John
McKnitt of Ulster Province settled on a 1,000 acre tract called the
Strand in Somerset County, Maryland. Two sons, Robert (b. 1685) and John
(b. 1687) were born there. John later moved to Cecil County, Maryland
and son John McKnitt II acquired the Strand. Other descendants included
John McKnitt III and John McKnitt IV who, according to Cecil County
records, amended his name to John McKnight.
In "The MacNauchtan Saga," V.V. McNitt speculates that
"members of the Maryland McKnitt family may have removed to the
Carolinas and other places in the South, where the surname McKnight is
often encountered." There is no evidence that any of these McKnitts/McKnights
changed their name to McNitt in the Colonies -- although they did use a
remarkable total of 18 surname variants. Still, the Ulster-Scot "McKnitts"
and "McNitts" doubtless share a common ancestor, probably
named McKnight or MacKnight, who lived in Galloway 500 or 600 years ago.
The "New England" Line
The first McNitts known to settle in
Colonial America were Alexander McNitt (1656-1746), his wife Sarah and
son Barnard (ca 1700 - 1773), who arrived by brigantine in Boston after
the long journey from Donegal County in 1720. When Alexander died at age
90, Barnard inherited the family farm in Palmer, Mass. where he was
"town clerk, selectman, ruling elder and mediator." Many of
Barnard's 14 children -- including Alexander, James, John, and Andrew --
served in the Revolutionary War. By some accounts, Barnard's sons
Joseph, Arthur, William and James permanently adopted the surname
The descendants of Alexander and Sarah might be said to comprise the
"New England" branch of the McNitt family, although the New
England designation should not be taken too literally. Within several
generations, McNitt, McNutt and McNett families descending from
Alexander and Sarah had settled in Canada, New York State, Pennsylvania,
Michigan, Ohio and as far west as California.
In the early 1800s several of Alexander's great-grandsons modified the
spelling of their name to "McNett," perhaps to reflect the way
it had come to be pronounced. Keith McNett of San Jose, California.
reports that, "my great-great grandfather Edgar (b. 1833) appears
to have used both McNitt and McNett, but seemed to stick with McNett in
the later years. I don't have any idea why the name transitions, but
would guess because of illiteracy, with the names handed down
verbally." He also offers this explanation: "A long time ago,
I was communicating with a McNett woman in Georgia. She claimed the
legend in her family was the name went from McNitt to McNett because of
teasing of the kids in school regarding 'nits' in their hair! Not
totally sure I believe that one, but..."
The second branch of the McNitt family
was founded in 1722 when Alexander and Jean McNitt of County Donegal and
their three children -- Margaret, Robert
and Jean -- settled in Donegal Township, Pennsylvania, near what is now
Lancaster. Robert's five sons -- Alexander, William, John, Robert and
James -- served in the Revolution and warranted farms in the
Kishacoquillas Valley in the vicinity of Milroy, Pennsylvania (Armagh
Township). The descendants of Alexander and Jean McNitt might be
considered the family's "Pennsylvania" branch.
In contrast to the New England line, it was exceedingly rare for members
of the early generations of this group to leave their family homesteads
in the Appalachians near what is now State College, Pennsylvania. Among
the very few to depart was James McNitt, one of Alexander's five
grandsons, who sold his homestead and made his way to Kentucky where, in
1786, where he was involved in an Indian ambush which is remembered to
this day as the
James Glasgow McNitt (d. 1847), a great-great grandson of Alexander
and Jean, moved his family to a farm near Logansport, Indiana in 1845.
His son, James
David McNitt (1845-1935) authored a short memoir of life in a
two-room log cabin on the American frontier in the 1850s with accounts
of Indians, mad dogs and the prairie fire orphaned him at the age of 11.
The third Alexander, an Ulster Scot who used the name McNutt, settled in
Maryland in 1735 and moved to Virginia in 1744. Alexander McNutt is
generally considered to be the oldest son of the "New England"
Alexander McNitt (1656-1746). Alexander's many descendants include a
founding father of Nova Scotia and a governor of Mississippi.
These, however, were far the only McNitts to arrive in America before
the 19th century began. While researching "The MacNauchtan
Saga," Virgil V. McNitt discovered that "the Archives of
Pennsylvania, the 1790 census roll, and various military and church
records reveal family names not identified closely with the central
line." There was a Matthew McNitt living in Derry Township,
Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania in 1790, an Alexander McNitt residing
in Washington County, Maryland in 1790, and a Francis McNitt in Menallen
Township, Pennsylvania in 1799 -- all with male children. In genealogy,
it seems, the waters often run muddy, when they run at all.
What's more, those looking to trace their branch of McNitt family tree
back to the Scottish Lowlands, or the Scottish Highlands, for that
matter, are destined for disappointment. Virgil V. McNitt -- who
literally wrote the book, not just on the McNitt family but the entire
MacNaughtan Clan -- tried it. During the 1920s he uncovered many
tantalizing clues in Northern Ireland, but no conclusive evidence
linking the McNitts in America to a specific Ulster-Scot family --
although the four McNitts listed on the Hearth
Money Roll in about 1666 are certainly good candidates. The birth,
baptism, or marriage records for these immigrant ancestors from
Donegal County eluded V.V. McNitt and are presumed lost.
Summing up his research, V.V. McNitt
concludes: "New forms of the surname MacNaucht not invented
or used in Scotland began appearing early in Ulster, as a manifestation
of the old urge toward simplified spelling. The name McNaught was
continued, but it was often clipped to McNutt, McNut, Nutt, and McNott.
Especially in the Laggan [the Irish lowlands], and particularly in the
parish of Burt, those whose grandfathers in Scotland who had signed
their names as McKnight, McNaight, and McNeight, were content to sign as
McKnitt or McNitt while the pronounciation remained the same.
"Many of the old parish
registers have long been lost, and it is possible that when whole
congregations moved to America with their ministers the records may have
been carried away by clerks of session. Thus it is impossible to
establish, for example, the home address in Ulster of the Alexander
McNitt who came as a man of sixty-four in 1720 with his wife Sarah and
his presumably youngest son Barnard with his wife, to their new home in
Massachusetts. No remaining parish register in Ulster shows the marriage
of Alexander and Sarah, or the baptism of their son Barnard or any other
of their children. Of course, it is possible that Alexander married and
raised his family in Scotland as a McKnight or McNeight, only to alter
the surname to McNitt on removing to the Laggan late in the seventeenth
century and settling among others who had fancied the name for a while.
"Or it is possible that
Alexander, born in 1656, may have been a son of the Alexander McNitt of
Culylee -- four miles east-northeast of the little town of Letterkenny
-- in Raymocky parish, Raphoe barony, whose name was listed in a Hearth
Money Roll about 1665. The records for Raymocky parish are missing,
which may explain this lack of information. It would not be safe,
however, to assert that the two Alexanders were father and son; later
inquiry might show the Massachusetts-bound Alexander really was the son
of John McNaught of Culfad in Galloway, forfeited for treason in the
Killing Time. Nor is it safe to lean on the surname form as a guide to
judgment: in Massachusetts both Alexander and Barnard where sometimes
called McNutt, and Barnard's son William stamped the name McNutt
indelibly on a long, broad process of descendants in Nova Scotia."
For genealogical purposes, then, the
McNitt family tree starts in Massachusetts in 1720 and Pennsylvania in
1722 -- at least until an enterprising genealogical sleuth mounts a
successful new assault on the Presbyterian parish records of Donegal
County. Even so, thanks to the work of V.V. McNitt and others, we know
much of the family's Scottish heritage dating back more than 1,000
years, before the dawn of recorded Scotch history.
Nechtan -- Evolution of the Surname
The ancient Picts, whose lost language
is at the root of the McNitt name, migrated from Continental Europe in
the area of what is now Austria and the Czech Republic, at about the
time Romulus is said to have founded Rome -- roughly 700 BC.
The Picts were fierce warriors with a penchant for full-body tattoos --
so fierce that the Romans built Hadrian's Wall rather than conquer them.
Pictish kingdoms dominated northern Caledonia (in what is now Scotland)
until they were subsumed by another group of Celts, the invading Scots
tribes of Ireland. Of the Picts, who had ruled Caledonia for perhaps a
millennium, little more was heard following Kenneth MacAlpin's conquest
of the Central Highlands in 846 AD.
By 1000 AD a tribe, or "clann," descending from the Picts --
although now unmistakably Scottish in their speech, customs and religion
-- was well established along the valley of the river Tay in the Central
Highlands north of Edinburgh, living in rough stone cots, tending
sheep and farming what fertile soil could be found.
In Gaelic, "clann" means children -- and while the influence
of church and state was often tenuous for Scots families living in
remote Highland locations such as the Tay valley, the power of the elder
chief over the life, death and loyalty of his Clan was absolute. This
power, along with all livestock, estates and titles, passed from father
to oldest son.
Family feuds were among the ancient many Pict traditions absorbed by the
Scots invaders. To ensure the peace, hostile Pictish tribes would often
"pledge," or exchange, children whose lives would then depend
upon their parents' restraint. Such children were generally chosen from
among the most promising youth, and were called "nechtans" --
or literally, Little Pledges.
At some point, one such youth became known by the name "Nechtan,"
which over the centuries evolved into Nauchtan -- just as MacNauchtan
later became MacNaghten, MacNaughton, MacNaucht, McKnight and,
It was also the custom of Scots tribes to use the patronymic term "mac"
to refer to a male child as the son of his father. Hence, among the
Scots, John's son Robert was known as MacJohn.
At the urging of the Scottish King, Malcom III Canmore, this custom was
largely abandoned in the late 11th century in favor of the English
tradition of fixed family surnames. It is likely that at about the time
of the Norman Conquest in 1066, the oldest son of a tribal chief named
Nauchtan whose Clan inhabited the valley of the river Tay in Scotland's
Central Highlands was the first to use MacNauchtan as a surname in the
Around 1100 AD, when Scottish Clans first took permanent surnames,
members of this tribe designated themselves as MacNauchtan, and were
granted extensive land holdings in the Strathtay, eventually becoming
recognized as the "Thanes of Lochtay," or barons of the Loch
Tay region. Thus, Clan MacNauchtan is itself older than recorded Scots
Several authoritative genealogical studies of early Scotland assert that
the MacNauchtans descend from three Pictish Kings of Caledonia named
Nechtan who ruled at various times between 458 and 730. It was the last
of these Nechtans who during the early 700s converted to Christianity
and made a decision that influences Scottish history to this very day.
According to historian John Prebbles:
"A stranger is said to have brought a parcel
of bones to the house of Nechtan.
Nobody doubted his claim that they were
the true relics of the apostle Andrew,
least of all Nechtan, King of the Picts,
whose recent conversion to Christianity
probably required an act of credulous faith.
The stranger was allowed to build a shrine
for the bones on the coast of Fife,
and Scotland thus acquired its patron saint
and the ultimate site for its first university."
While King Nechtan, and our relationship to him, may be more legend than
fact, it is a fact that in 1164, King Malcolm IV gave the MacNauchtan
Clan control of lands in the Highlands to the west of Strathtay, in
return for aid in controlling the rebellious MacDougalls. This was the
beginning of a movement of the clan chiefs from Strathtay that would
eventually end in Argyll.
In the early 1200s, the MacNauchtan assisted the Scottish King in
driving Viking settlements from the western coast, and were rewarded
with estates extending from the south shore of Loch Awe to the North
shore of Loch Fyne on the Argyll
peninsula -- a region of lush glens, fertile farmland and temperate
Here Alexander III King of the Scots, granted Gilcrist MacNauchtan
extensive landholdings -- including, in 1267, a castle located on Fraoch
Eilean ("heathery isle") in Loch Awe. A parchment dated 1247
and affixed with the seal of Gilcrist MacNauchtan is among the oldest
charters still existing in Scotland. For the next four centuries the
Argyll MacNauchtans were a formidable force, producing many knights,
barons and bishops who played a significant role in the tumultuous
events of the period.
Seal of Gilchrist MacNaghton
as it appears on a land charter
From MacNauchtan to McKnitt
In an era when names were rarely written
-- except perhaps on birth, death, marriage and tax records -- spelling
was a casual affair. Family names were often spelled several different
ways within in a single document.
We shouldn't be too surprised, then, if one John MacNaucht -- possibly
Gilchrist's oldest son -- should drop the "-an" from his name
at about the time he moved from Argyll to Galloway near the English
border where he, too, was granted a royal estate. We might even
sympathize with him, since "-an" was a diminutive suffix, much
like "-ie" is today.
With the Anglicization of Scotland, by 1600 many old Gaelic and Pictish
words had been modified to suit Anglo-Saxon sensibilities, particularly
in border territories such as Galloway. MacNaucht (pronounced MacNawkt)
was especially difficult for English speakers, who often translated the
name as "MacKnight" or "MacNeight." It was also
common practice to abbreviate the patronymic Mac as "M',"
which eventually came to be written as "Mc."
Thus, in the span of a dozen generations, the surname adopted by a son
of Nauchtan during the Middle Ages gradually evolved into a score of
variants including McKnight, McNeight, McNaight, McNeit, McKnitt and
This comment system requires
you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an
account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or
Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these
companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All
comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator
has approved your comment.