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McNitt Family History

A McNitt Family History & Genealogical Archive
Kindly provided by Jim McNitt

A 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.

[Illustration (above): crest from the
coat of arms of MacNauchtan of Argyll]

A McNitt Family History

Immigrant Ancestors

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:

  • Alexander and Sarah McNitt of Donegal, Northern Ireland, who landed at Boston, Massachusetts in 1720 and settled in Palmer, Massachusetts;
  • Alexander 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;
  • Alexander 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 death.

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 thing: MacKnight.

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 McNitt.

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 several McNutt 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 the following:

"McNitt" residential listings -- 481
"McNett" residential listings -- 579

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 telephone directories.

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 Boston, Massachusetts.

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 McNutt.

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 "Pennsylvania" McNitts

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 "McNitt Massacre."

Another Pennsylvanian, 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, eventually, McNitt.

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 modern sense.

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 history.

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 climate.

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
dated 1247.

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 others.

This account was kindly provided by Jim McNitt



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