I. Collins Origins: Name and Nationality
All material copyright 2000, Michael Collins Dunn

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The Name Collins

Collins was the 30th most common surname in Ireland when a study was made in 1890, yet it is also a common name in Scotland and in England. Ironically, the name today spelled Collins probably has at least three different origins, one or more Irish Gaelic, one Scots Gaelic, and one in Anglo-Saxon. The tendency to change Irish and Scots names to match existing English ones has encouraged the trend for several different original names to turn into Collins. In fact, there is reason to believe that in each language, several words or names of similar sound eventually were blended into the English "Collins". Some also turned to Collings, Collinge, Cullane, and so on, but most could, in some circumstances, become Collins.

In England, the name has the simplest origin, for it simply means "son of Colin" (just as Jones means son of John), and the man's name Colin is itself what linguists call a "double diminutive" of the name Nicholas: a nickname of a nickname. Nicolas was first reduced to "Coll" or something like it, and then the ending -in (also found in changing Robert to Robin) was added.

But since our family tradition points to Scotch-Irish ancestry (although there are some questions about that given the early Tidewater Virginia origin), we might then expect to look to Ulster for the origins of our own family name. Again there are two possibilities: one a Scots origin, and the other purely Irish.

In Ulster most of the families named Collins apparently derive their name from the Scots, as a variation of MacCollin, Gaelic MacCuilinn, from Scots Gaelic cuileann, "holly". (That is the same basic word as in modern Irish, though the Irish name references do not cite it as a source for Irish Collinses.) But in the west of Ulster the pure Irish name O'Coileain or MacCoileain was also Anglicized as Collins.(1)

If our ancestors were in fact Irish rather than Scots (and the "Scotch-Irish" certainly had more intermarriage with Catholic Irish than they like to admit today), then the origin is this O'Coileain or MacCoileain just mentioned, deriving from the Irish word coilleain, "whelp, young hound". The same original Irish name is also Anglicized as Cullane. (Better to be "son of a hound" than an obvious female canine alternative.) The best-known Irish family of the name ruled the baronies of Upper and Lower Connello in Limerick from the 9th to the 12th centuries, and after losing power spread out through many parts of the country, especially in Cork. These southern Irish Collinses include the great 20th century nationalist hero Michael Collins. As mentioned, though, the Ulster name may come from this Irish source or from the Scots name, which is likelier.(2) But since both words appear in some form in both languages, and other words could also become "Collins", it is hard to be dogmatic here.

It is impossible to leave out another possible connection. Anyone who knows Irish epic poetry, or the poems of Yeats, may have hard of Cú Chullain, hero of the Red Branch sagas and the epic hero of Ireland. "Cú Chullain" (pronounced koo-hullin) means the "Hound of Cullain", for reasons of the usual legendary sort, and "Cullain" seems to be one of those Irish forms which gave rise to "Collins". (The "h" after the "c" is an Irish genitive which makes the "c" silent.) So perhaps even the most famous Irish epic hero has a bit of Collins in him?

There is no direct evidence that our Collinses were, in fact, Scotch-Irish, but this is the family tradition from the Ozarks, and surely fits the overall migration pattern. (The "Scotch-Irish" are those Ulster Scots, transplanted from lowland Scotland to Ulster in the 1600s, who came as Protestant "Irish" to the American frontier and made it their own. Andrew Jackson is their most famous example, but they made up most of the American frontiersmen.) Unlike some collateral lines such as the Cowdens, they did not initially settle in traditional Scotch-Irish centers such as Pennsylvania or the Shenandoah Valley; they first appear in the Virginia Tidewater. Many Scots, Irish and Scotch-Irish immigrants came as indentured servants, pledged to work for a few years to pay for their passage, and many of these ended up in the Tidewater. Some later moved to the Scotch-Irish areas of the interior, as the later Collinses did. The location and even the possibility of early immigration does not rule out an Ulster or Scot origin, so there is at this time no reason to doubt the family tradition. Their later settlement pattern -- Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Missouri Ozarks -- is pure Scotch-Irish, and so are most of the intermarried lines later on.

But there are problems. Based on land records, our earliest provable ancestor was in America by at least 1664/65, very early for the Scotch-Irish. While the exact relationship of that first Collins to us is still vague, the land he owned was still owned a century later by our known ancestors, so they were clearly related. The ancestry may go back even to 1635. The earliest Collinses we know of were men of means, owning hundreds of acres which they gained by paying the transportation of people from Britain. They seem to have been the people importing indentured servants, not the servants themselves. Also, the largest number of Scotch-Irish immigrants came only after about 1715, and pure Scots had problems doing business in America (what Scots did best anywhere) before 1707 and the Act of Union with England. There were Scots and Irish in Virginia to be sure, but few and mostly servants. People who owned the kind of land the Collinses owned were almost without exception English, and mostly from the southern counties of England. It may well be that we will learn that our Collinses were English in origin, but that they later so intermarried with Scots and Scotch-Irish that they came to be considered so themselves.

That said, there is some evidence that the area of Virginia where they settled included some Irish settlers. The immediate area where the Collinses lived for several generations in Virginia was known as the Kingsale or Kinsale Swamp. On today's maps it is listed as Kingsale, but early records sometimes spell it that way and sometimes as Kinsale. If it was named Kinsale for the port town of that name in Ireland, it may suggest that some of the early settlers (and the Collinses were among the earliest) were from there. There is an even likelier explanation. Kinsale in Ireland had played a role on the Stuart side during the English Civil War, was seen by the Stuarts as an emblem of loyalty to the Crown against Cromwell, and the swamp might have drawn its name from that, perhaps after the Restoration in 1660. In fact, the first references to the swamp come after the Stuart Restoration. One work on early Virginia settlers says that some early families of Nansemond County were Irish Roman Catholics from County Kerry, and that the number of Irish surnames is greater than that of any other early Virginia Tidewater county.(3) A neighboring family was named Daughtrey, which some branches of that family have suggested originated as Daugherty and was Irish. It could, however, be English or a corruption of a Huguenot or Norman name like Dautrey. The Carrs, who are found near the Collinses in Virginia and North Carolina both, may be Scottish Carrs or Irish Kerrs originally.

The Pursuit of the Earliest Collinses

A little personal background of this research is in order to understand what follows. In the first few months of researching the Collinses I was able to learn the general outlines of the family history back to North Carolina, and soon after coming to Washington in 1965 I had found James Collins' Revolutionary War pension record. But like many other researchers I later encountered, that was as far back as I could go (James Collins was born in 1758) for a long time. He told us he was born in Isle of Wight County, Virginia, and moved to what later became Franklin County, North Carolina before the war, living for a year after the war in Nansemond County, Virginia. Writing to those counties produced little help, though I was assured by Franklin County that there was no will naming James Collins as the heir. That piece of misinformation steered me wrong for many years. Only after the Franklin County will books for the early 19th century were abstracted and published did I discover the will of James Collins written in 1815 and proving, when combined with land records, beyond all question that he was the father of James of the Revolution. It had taken over 20 years for me to get back a single generation from the Revolutionary soldier. Other researchers seem to have independently made the same discovery once the wills were published in abstract.

In the meantime, I had concentrated on filling in the blanks. Not on creating a list of every single descendant, though I may someday try to do that, but of finding every scrap of information about our ancestors, the times and places in which they lived, and wherever possible looking over the land myself.

After several more years of trying to move beyond the earlier James Collins, I found enough land records and a will to convince me, early in 1995, that I had identified the line several more generations, but at first the argument depended on a weight of probabilities and coincidences. Only in September of 1996 did I locate documents which confirmed what I had already grown convinced was the case: the identity of the James Collins who inherited from his father William in Isle of Wight County in 1767 with the James who moved to North Carolina shortly before the Revolution: a deed showing his wife's name as Esther in 1778, the same wife James of North Carolina named in 1815 in his will.

That documentation lets us name his father and, as it happens, his grandfather as well, pushing the line back to my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather (7 greats). But we may be able to go back one or two more generations in outline, for the land records clearly show that men named James and William Collins were living in the same areas -- in part at least, the same land exactly -- as that sold by James and Esther. And we can gather hints of something even earlier. The evidence for all this is presented in great detail in what follows.

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1. . Robert Bell, The Book of Ulster Surnames, Belfast and Saint Paul, 1988, alphabetically under Collins.

2. . See Edward MacLysaght, The Surnames of Ireland, Irish University Press paperback, 1973, under Collins; Captain Patrick Kelly, Irish Family Names, Chicago, 1939, under O'Coileain; and Irish Genealogical Foundation, The Great Families of Ireland, Kansas City, 1981, under O'Cullane.

3. . R. Bennet Bean, The Peopling of Virginia, pp. 84-85.