The Surname Dilemma: McGrew or McGraw?

Actually, the surnames are one and the same in some cases, I’m learning. You have to remember that few knew how to read and write, even their own names. So surnames were spelled phonetically for the most part by someone they’d never met.

McCraw, for example. While it might sound and look like McGraw, it’s actually a derivative of McRae. This family name appeared in Fayette County around 1840 and confuse a lot of researchers. There are two Samuel McGRAW’s in the county records and the assumption is made that they were related. They are not. The McCraw/McRaw family lived west of the New River (our McGraw’s lived east of it) and came into the area that we now know is Raleigh County from northern North Carolina. I ran down this rabbit trail and hope to spare you the same waste of time.

My earliest KNOWN ancestor is Martin McGRAW. He was probably born around 1750, but where I may never know. What I do know is that the first known location for him – the individual I know is my ancestor – is the 1796 Greenbrier County (WV) Tax List. He is listed along with another, Anthony McGraw, whom I’d always believed was his eldest son. The next tax list for the county is 1799 in which the (transcribed) surname appears as Megraw and yet another individual appears as taxable/titheable: John. I listed him in the tree as yet another son.

Why? Because Martin was the ONLY McGraw in Greenbrier County from its beginning. Some researchers mistook the name McGaraugh as “McGraw” but I’ve ascertained to my own satisfaction that McGaraugh is actually McGary, as we’d pronounce it today. Further, the McGaraugh’s disappeared from the tax list about eight years before Martin McGraw and sons appeared in it. And Martin was the only McGraw for several years until his children and grandchildren began to appear in the records.

From the records of Greenbrier, Monroe, Nicholas, Fayette, and Kanawha Counties of West Virginia – still Virginia up until 1863 – I was able to piece together a bigger picture of the family, specifically the names of Martin’s children and their spouses:

  • Anthony (m) Elizabeth “Betsy” Brian / Bryant 1796 Greenbrier 1
  • John (m) Sarah or Sally Anderson 1799 Greenbrier
  • Mary Ann (m) William Wood 1800 Monroe
  • Martin (m) Nancy Wood 1806 Monroe
  • Eleanor or Elender (m) Soloman Nelson 1810 Greenbrier
  • Samuel (m) Elizabeth Wood 1812 Monroe
  • William (m) Lucretia Withrow 1813 Monroe
  • Henry (m) Mary location unknown
  • Thomas (m) Catherine “Caty” Withrow 1820 Nicholas
I bolded two names in the above list: Martin (Jr.) and Thomas. That is because I am descended from these two brothers through my father’s grandparents. So the quest to ascertain, not the surname specifically, but the origin particularly of this family, is doubly important to me AND because my surname is McGREW. But due to autosomal DNA matching, I’ve been able to confirm that every individual above is indeed related to me.
My cousin Fred McGrew took the Family Tree Y-DNA test in order to determine who our ancestors were, McGrew or McGraw. The results bowled us over. Rather than explain it to you, let me summarize: Fred’s Y-DNA matched the McGrews of Pennsylvania but not the McGraw descendants who’ve taken the same test. (You can read the results for comparison here¬†and the analysis here). Bear in mind that the writer of the analysis results has our history somewhat different than what I know to be true but, well, there it is.
The gist is that “my” McGraw’s came from Northern Ireland, County Tyrone or Armagh most likely, or that vicinity. Fred’s Y-DNA matched that of a Thomas McGREW descendant 36/37 as well as revealed a match to descendants of the first McGrew’s in Pennsylvania, Robert & Isabella McGrew.

So if you’re a descendant of Martin & Margaret McGraw, don’t forget to search both surnames as well as the variety of spellings (that I’ve encountered) over the years: Magraw, Megraw, Magrah, McGrue, Magruw, Magrew, Megrew, etc.


1 – yes, I do believe Anthony was married to Betsey in 1796 because their children’s names and ages are provided in the Widow’s Pension file revealing that their eldest child, William, was born about 1797.