New Info on our Gray, Norris, MacKrell, & Dowling Families

Larry Pearce
5/14/10 & 1/12/12

Larry with Emigrant Statue in Port of Londonderry, from which most of our Scots-Irish ancestors sailed

A recent discovery by distant cousin Dan Norris, and his subsequent e-mail to me, has inspired me to compile this report. Dan, a government employee who resides in Virginia, had published extensive research about our Norris family of Northern Ireland on the internet several years ago. To make sense of this article, you should know that Annie Norris Gray (b.1850) was my great-grandmother on my mother Ruth’s (b.1917) side, and Grandma Annie’s grandmother was Mary MacKrell (baptized 1788). We’ll discuss the Dowling name later as it is somewhat more complicated. Dan and I traded information and I wrote an introduction to our Norris family at that time. And so he contacted me again to share an exciting new source. Unfortunately, the domain changed and the site has been sporadic ever since. But we keep trying WWW.MAGHERAGENEALOGY.ORG . To quote Dan:
A researcher obtained Norris baptism records for me several years ago, but he sent no other families’ records. Notice there is a Mary Mackerill listed in Ballinahone [near Armaugh, south of Maghera—pronounced “MA-ha-RAH”-in the Church of Ireland records]. Her parents are listed as well. I believe this Mary Mackrell to be the first wife of Robert Norris (1785-1867)4. I will let you draw your own conclusion!!! Interesting that the Norrises and Mackrells lived so close together in Derry County.

1837 Map of Londonderry County, Northern ireland (click once to enlarge, then another time to see our towns up close in the southeast corner)

I continued to research the database and believe I have uncovered what could be a “nest” of Grays, my mother’s maiden name, and related families that I have been searching for in Ulster. This article is a brief review of what we think we know about the origins of four families in particular with American roots in West Deer Township, Allegheny County, PA: Gray, Norris, Mackrell, and Dowling. While the finding may be speculative, we believe it’s the methodology and correlations with regard to names and locations that are important.

Gray Family

My great-grandfather (X3), James Gray (b.abt. 1780), emigrated from, we believe, Derry County, Northern Ireland, to Western Pennsylvania in the late 18th century. While we can’t be absolutely certain at this time what parish James resided in, we know he sailed as a young lad with the Boyd family from what is today the Port of Londonderry. Going back a century and a half before James’ birth, we find the 1630 Muster Roll from there containing the names of both Joseph Gray, a swordsman, and John Norris, no particular weapon. These men and many others with Pearce and Gray-associated Scots-Irish names would have been prepared to defend the port city and region.

In looking at the Maghera website for our family names and their locations, I found no Grays on the 1791-1814 Rent Rolls. If there were Grays there, perhaps that indicates that they owned their land. The 1835 Ordinance Survey, which was commissioned by London to see which families hadn’t emigrated, lists both a “Doctor” and a James Grey of Ballynacross as “under proprietor” and “farmer.” There is also a reference to a John Grey, who “helped set up a butter market in Maghera.” A further note says, “Now in America.” A little later, the list of 1866 Londonderry County property owners reads as follows:
• John Gray and John Gray, Jr. – both from Maghera
• Samuel Gray – from nearby Castledawson
• Sara Jane Gray – from Garvagh
• William Gray – from Newtownlimavdy

Going back just one generation, the 1831 Census taken in Tamiaght O-Crilly (TOC) and Termoneeny (Ter), Derry County, Northern Ireland, lists the Grays as follows:
Name / Town/ No. in home/ Parish
John/ Boveedy/ 2/ TOC
Samuel/ Boveedy/ 7/ TOC
William/ Drumsara/ 4/ TOC
Andrew / Lurganagoose/ 5/ Ter
Mollie/ Mullagh/ 5/ Ter
Joseph/ Mullagh/ 6/ Ter

As for the church registries, almost all of the Grays are found in Presbyterian parishes. While a handful of our surnames are found in Boveedy, Curran, Kilrea , Swatragh, Tobermore, and Knockloughrim, the majority are listed in Maghera. In the lists of marriages, the first names could be from the family tree or our annual Gray reunion: Robert, Samuel, William, James, Annie, Sarah, Maria, and so on. What strikes me, however, is how young the couples are, ages 17 to 24. Almost all the men are farmers. One funeral in the fall of 1892 stands out; little Lizzie Gray, age 5, of Ballymacilcurr died of what the doctor listed simply as “diahorrea.” In studying a century of various church registrations, I see men and women, sons and daughters being widowed and remarrying, having children baptized, being buried in the churchyard, and some even changing churches. Which ones are we related to? At this point, we can only wonder. Perhaps, in the future, a professional genealogist can answer that question.

Norris Family

The Church of Ireland registries go back much further than the Presbyterian ones. These are just a few of the Norris baptisms that took place, mostly in Swatragh:
Date/ Name / Father / Mother
9/10/1788 – Thomas – John – Martha
8/23/1789 – Elizabeth – James -Mary
6.30/1790 – Elizabeth – James – Martha
3/9/1793 – William – James – Mary
7/26/1808 – William – William – Elizabeth
10/24/1820 – James – James – unavailable

The Presbyterian Church in Swatragh records the marriage of a Matthew Norris in 1828 with the father being Robert. Could this have been our Robert, Jr. from Castledawson? Internet poster Linda Merle on “Scotch-Irish-L Archives” has found support for Robert Norris, Sr. still living there within Swatragh Parish:
According to the 1831 Irish census, he [Robert, Sr.] was living near a James and William Norris, who are probably his brothers. His first wife was named Mary [last name unknown]. She bore him a son, Robert Norris, Jr. in 1784/5. Mary Norris either died in childbirth of shortly thereafter. Robert, Sr. remarried and had several other children.

Perhaps then Catherine Dowling was not Robert, Jr’s mother after all. There is still much confusion surrounding the surnames of the Catherines and the Marys.

In 1845, in Kilrea, a Robert Norris was buried at 81 years of age. This puts his birth in 1764. What is his relation to our Robert, Sr.? The 1911 Census of Ireland lists several Norris families still residing in Swatragh. This census also lists MacKrells in nearby Castledawson. Let’s look at that family now.

MacKrell Family

Public records of Ballymoney in 1796 mark the occupation of a John McCrellis as Flax-grower, but let’s go to the Church of Ireland baptismal registries, most from Ballinahone, very near to the above Norrises. Keeping in mind Grandma Annie Norris’s grandmother Mary MacKrell (baptized in 1788), the wife of Robert, Jr., look at the first entry below. Could this have been our Mary? Also notice the various spellings of MacKrell:
Date/ Name / Father/ Mother
10/5/1788 – Mary Mackerill – Henry – Mary
12/31/1790 – Thomas MacKrel – Nathaniel – Elizabeth
1/25/1791 – Hannah MacKrel – Henry – Mary
6/16/1793 – Nathaniel MacKrel – Nathaniel – Elizabeth
5/16/1800 – Jane Mackerill – Nathaniel – Kitty
8/18 /1811 – John Mackerill – Joseph M. – Elizabeth
8/19/1818 – Robert Mackerell – James- unavailable
3/26/1820 – James Mackerill – Joseph – Margaret
8/4/1822 – Elizabeth MacKrell – Joseph – Margaret

The Church records the burial of a Catherine Mackerill at age 76 in 1883. She would have been born in 1807. Could she have been a relative? Or could this have been the wife of Robert Mackerill of Ballinanone? He married Catherine Gibbins at St. Lurach in 1822. Incidentally, eighteen months later, an Archibald Mackerell of the same village married Jane McClain in the same church. As Dan Norris implied, the coincidences of names and proximities of residences points to a strong correlation to these families in Northern Ireland and our own in America. Read more about our family in “Introduction: MacKrell.” Now, let’s investigate the more mysterious Dowling name.

Dowling Family

First, we believe that one of Robert Norris, Sr’s (b.1760) wive’s name was Catherine Dowling. If she were the mother of Robert, Jr. and if the Scottish naming customs hold, the grandson, our Dowling Norris (b.1823) could have taken her surname in some form. Unfortunately, at the time of this posting, we were unable to locate any Dowlings in or near the Gray, Norris, or MacKrell families of Northern Ireland. There are several possibilities. Could the surname Downing be a variation of our Dowling or vice versa? Dowling has been very difficult to pin down. Downing is more common throughout the British Isles than Dowling, from the courts of Richard the Lionhearted to the contemporary address of the residence of the Prime Minister. Both names refer to dark things, as we’ll see in a minute. Unfortunately, Great-great grandfather Dowling’s name has been misconstrued as “Dauling,” a name that we could not even find a meaning for. Possibly the “a” and the “u” have been run together to resemble “ow.” Even the records of the Bull Creek Cemetery have our Dowling Norris listed as “Dauling.”

We have found that the true Irish Gaelic surname Dowling is more common in the southeast Emerald Isle near Kilkenny. In fact, the original combination of words for the surname, Dubn (dark colored) and Laodh (for calf), is not that different in sound and meaning for the capital city of the Republic, Dublin (meaning “dark pool of water”), which is just east of Kilkenny County. Public records tell us that King James I, in 1609, transplanted several Dowlings from Kilkenny to other southern counties, Limerick and Kerry. Ironically, along with the Dowlings of Kilkenny on one set of immigration records are found four Grays and a MacKerill, but no Norrises. All this in no way diminishes the associations we’re offering from farther north. We’re just wondering where Robert, Sr. might have met his Miss Dowling.

In conclusion, with more and more historical records and registers being digitized to internet databases every day, our research continues at an exciting pace. As we said at the start, our findings here may be rather speculative, but the methodology used and correlations drawn offer an encouraging point of departure for future research. While we all can’t visit the villages of our ancestors in Londonderry County or explore the new Public Records of Northern Ireland (PRONTI) Center in Belfast, we can all contribute by searching the available databases on the internet and sharing our findings with others. That’s what we’ve tried to do here.

13 Responses to New Info on our Gray, Norris, MacKrell, & Dowling Families

  1. Paul McKrell says:

    I’m interested if any MacKrell’s/etc. have done a DNA test.
    Family records tell me that my 2nd great-grandfather was Robert Campbell McKrell, born c. 1860 in Pittsburgh.
    I’ve deduced from numerous sources that his father was John MacKrell, born c. 1826- died 1881 in Pittsburgh. John’s father’s earliest records show him to be James MacKeral, born c. 1790 in Ireland. He is buried in Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, a few blocks from where I live today.
    Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to tie my tree with the other Mackrel’s of Pittsburgh, West Deer (where I coincidentally first lived) or Northern Ireland (where I’ve visited a few times.)
    So, I’ve done DNA on several sites. Has anyone else?
    Paul McKrell on gmail (no space)

    • admin says:

      Hi Paul,
      As you can see from my article, I don’t have much hard information on our family that far back and so finding a foothold has been difficult. Thanks to your leads I’ll try again and let you know what I find, if you’ll please do the same.
      I’ve not taken the time to do any DNA testing, but perhaps someone in the family will see this and be inspired to have it done, then report to this site for all to see.
      Finally, it’s interesting that you mention the grandfather with the middle name Campbell. That’s my grandmother’s maiden name, also from West Deer, i.e. Campbell Road. I wonder if there’s a possible relation there? Click on “Gray” and then “Campbell” under that to see if anything looks familiar.
      Thanks again for your interest,

    • John George Smith says:

      I realize that this is an old post but I am a relative proven by DNA and family documented history of the MacKrell on Pittsburgh and various other cities in PA. My DNA results are public on both Ancestry and 23AndMe.
      As an example this is my 3rd great-grandfather
      James W MacKrell
      BIRTH 1 JANUARY 1799 • County Derry, Ireland
      DEATH 11 JAN 1879 • Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, United
      3rd great-grandfather
      Regards, John

      • admin says:

        Your James may be the son of my Henry & Mary of Ulster. There’s lots of uncertainty when we go back that far, but dates and locations seem to match. Please stay in touch.

  2. Stephen Gray says:

    Gray from Derriauchy N.I.

  3. Cathy says:

    I too have Mackrell family in Maghera. My GGrandfather was John Mackrell, born in Bellaghy in 1874. Settled in Pittsburgh in 1892. I know he had an older brother Thomas and a sister Sarah, but don’t know if they came to the US. My GGGrandparents were Thomas Mackrell and Caroline Bowman. I have searched under many spellings as well, but my father once told me that his Grandfather (John) told him about his surname…”it’s just like the fish”…I am lucky to be traveling to Norther Ireland this summer in hopes to get some answers as well.

    • admin says:

      How nice to hear from you. I still have many questions about the Mackrell and Norris families of Northern Ireland. I do hope you can shed some light on our common ancestors in Maghera upon your return. Thank you very much for sharing.

  4. Hello. My maiden name was Mackrel. My father was Thomas, and his father was Jimmy, I think. They lived in Castledawson, County Derry. Grand-dad owned a local butchershop. Mum, Dad, and family lived in Bells Hill, Castledawson. Any relation to you family in Maghera?

    • admin says:

      Dear Patricia,
      My MacKrell information would go back 200 years, so I can’t confirm very much. Thank you for this marvelous information on your family. It surely sounds like we would be related based on the geographic similarities. Did any of your family come to America? Perhaps a reader can add a connection. Thanks for your interest,

  5. Carol McCrellias says:

    It seems to me I recall having run across a McCrellias or McCrellis Gray in a census record somewhere…perhaps Indiana? and not sure what year. I had wondered what connection there might be to my family. My ancestor, james McCrellis/McCrellias/McCreles, etc., was born ca. 1780 and came to America in Jun 1798, at the time of the Ulster Rebellion.

    • admin says:

      Very interesting. Is that the state of Indiana or Indiana Twp., Allegheny County, PA, or Indiana County, PA? I suppose your “McCrellis” variation is viable, but our records clearly indicate Mac/Mc Krell/ Crell. I’ll keep you in mind as research continues. Thanks for sharing,

  6. Maggie says:

    Henry and Mary, husband and wife, McKrell died in 1810. Are they resulted from Castle Dawson, Derry?

    • admin says:

      I assume that they are because of their connection to our Norris family from there. Where did you get the 1810 date? Regards,
      Larry Pearce (English with an “r.”)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.