The Gordian Knot of Relations:  A Who’s Who Among the Early Ancestors

This is a picture of a Gordian Knot. Kind of looks like that ball of Christmas tree lights that Chevy Chase tries to unravel  in the movie, Christmas Vacation. The knot is a metaphor for the family lineage that is found in any American family tree emerging from the early days of Westmoreland County, Virginia in the 1600 and 1700s. As I constructed our family tree I found references to aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws and others that caused me to expand the drawing board upon which our tree was growing. Deeds, baptismal and marriage records lead to more and more branches on a tree. It didn’t take long for the tree to look more like a Kudzu vine in South Alabama, wrapped around itself and choking out any sense of clarity and reason.

Online histories written over the centuries yield greater detail.  Pretty soon, one finds that the great names in American history are not only living in the neighborhood, but someone in their tree is hiding in our bedroom. Wait?! Are those George Washington’s father’s underpants in my Great Aunt’s bedroom?

It has been said that a Gordian Knot puzzle usually has a well concealed ‘key’ hidden within. With wisdom and insight, and divine intervention, a person is supposed to be able to find the ‘key’, the link that allows the chain to easily unravel, and for the truth to be revealed. It is my hope that I can proceed through some of the interesting folks found in the lives of Peter and James Smith without losing you, the reader, in a Gordian Knot from which there is no escape! I would regret it if you were to become like a dog chasing a rabbit into the kudzu, never to be seen again.

Talk About a Gordian Knot Leading to George Washington

I find that Thomas Mottrom’s love life provides one of the more complex entanglements, a web of folks who are difficult to pull apart. There comes a point where you just want to throw your bowl of popcorn up in the air and mutter, “Who cares!” and move on to something else, like a good movie. The Smurfs are coming to our theater in Five Corners. First time it has played here. Got to see it. Papa Smurf is something special. Anyway, back to Mottrom. If I highlight a name it means they are related to us:

After Mary Spencer’s death, he (Thomas Mottrom) married Ursula Bysshe Thompson, the widow of Richard Thompson, who brought three of her own children into the family, Elizabeth, Sarah, and Richard. Sarah. their daughter, married Thomas Willoughby, whose sister, Elizabeth Willoughby, married first, Simon Oversee, second, Major George Colclough [third husband of her sister-in-law’s mother, Ursula (Bysshe) Thompson Mottrom Colclough]. George Colclough died very soon after their marriage and Elizabeth then married Isaac Allerton, Jr., a trustee of the will of Mottrom’s son-in-law Col. Nicholas Spencer. Daughter Ann Mottrom married Richard Wright (1633-1663) and they had three children: Francis Wright, Ann Wright, and Mottrom Wright.  Francis Wright married as his first wife, Ann Washington, the daughter of Colonel John Washington and Ann Pope. Francis Wright and Ann Washington had two children, John Wright and Ann Wright. Daughter Frances Mottrom was married to Col. Nicholas Spencer, Secretary and President of the Council and later acting Governor of the Virginia Colony (1683–1684) and patentee of the land at Mount Vernon with John Washington. The Spencers named one of their children Mottrom Spencer after the Mottrom who got this mess started.  Another son of Frances Mottrom and Nicholas Spencer, William Spencer, returned to the Spencer family parish of Cople, Bedfordshire, England where he served as a member of Parliament. As he stepped on board the ship to leave Virginia, it is rumored that he shouted, “I can’t keep track of who belongs to whom anymore at family reunions! I’m leaving!”

That paragraph alone explains why a lot of so called ‘genealogists’ rank high among the nation’s seriously codependent. And it explains why in-breeding leads to a lot of bad teeth and other related ailments including panacea.  And by the way, the guys I didn’t highlight, are probably related as well. Many of the previous surnames are found in our family tree as cousins.  Thompson and Ursula (and her many last names) are in the direct line of Smith descent.  Just Sayin….


This one is a tad bit easier to follow.  Every once in awhile I find a real stretch in our tree…. a famous American who shows up in the family history looking like a neighbor, a guy down the street who maybe delivered newspapers to the front door as he worked his way through his teen years. And then, as I turn through the records I find that the newspaper boy married a girl with a last name I recognize and before I know it: The guy delivering papers is a cousin. Heres how it works in the case of my favorite all time Supreme Court Chief Justice and the first Chief Justice in our land, John Marshall. If we had knights in our country he would have been knighted. He would be Sir John Marshall, Lord of ‘The Forest’, Baron of Nomini. His plantation was referred to as’The Forest’, back in the day. If we had a Hall of Fame for American Heroes I would put him right next to Packer legend Vince Lombardi. That’s pretty elite company here in Wisconsin.

Peter Smith of Yeocomico (d.1741) and wife Elizabeth had a daughter Martha (b.1710) among their many offspring. Martha married John McClanahan and they had a son, the right Reverend William McClanahan. The Reverend united in marriage with Mary Marshall, the daughter of John Marshall (1700-1752) and Elizabeth Markham (1704-1775). John Marshall and Elizabeth also had a son, Thomas (1730-1802), who marries Mary Randolph Keith and they are the parents of Chief Justice John Marshall (1755-1825). For those of you trying to follow that winding trail…. Mary Marshall is the sister of Thomas Marshall. Thomas is the father of Chief Justice John. That makes Mary the Aunt in this scenario. It also makes Martha Smith a great aunt to the Judge. Martha is our seventh great aunt. Nothing to really brag about, but it does illustrate the point that if you dig deep enough you will find that you are related to just about anybody who walked on this Earth.

Here’s Another One in the Smith Family Tree:


This is the guy my dad refers to in the audiotapes he completed for my sister Shelley.  Dad had heard that Lincoln was somehow a ‘cousin’ in the family tree. I have yet to find the linkage and I have gone backward from Dad, and forward from the ancestors of Lincoln identified in online trees. I suspect there is a link in there somewhere and it will be one of those Kevin Bacon moments:  six steps removed.


There was a time period in this country when women would get all excited if they could find a great grandfather who was involved in the Revolutionary War as a soldier freeing America from the grip of those tyrants, the British. These women wound bundle up their paperwork and forward their applications to the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and once accepted, meet in smug little groups, ride in shiny convertibles in Fourth of July parades and raise money for monuments. Ironically, the stereotypical DAR woman would assume they were somehow descended from the upper crust of Aristocratic America in 1775.  Truth be told, the wealthy sons of the colonies were not drafted into service, but allowed to remain in charge of plantations or businesses that were important to the economy. If they were called into service they could pay another man to take their place in the battalion. The presence of documents online has made it far easier to locate those men who served their country during the Revolutionary War effort. It is interesting to note that if drafted into service, the term of service was usually for no more than three months tour of duty. This allowed the guys an opportunity to return home, work the farm and take care of family. There are more than several in our Smith tree who found their way into the fray that was the American Revolutionary War.

 The Sons of Thomas Smith in South Carolina

Charles (1742-1824), Fleming (1745-1847), Daniel (1748-1811), James (1751-1840) John (1754-1816), Thomas (1752-1784) and Peter (1754-1816) all ended up in the hills on the outskirts of the growing community of Spartanburg, South Carolina. Their names occur on the pages of the communities annals of early pioneers. They are often referred to as the Smith Brothers of Spartanburg. They are mentioned as road commissioners, elected officials, board members, jury members and participants in the civic affairs of the region. Five of these men are also participants in the Revolutionary War effort and have pension numbers provided by federal offices guaranteeing a pension for their services. Those so identified included Fleming (#s30708), Daniel (#18596), Thomas (R9846), John (s14482) and Peter (s38378).

Daniel Smith (One of the five sons of Thomas Smith in the War)

Daniel, the son of Uncle Thomas Smith and Elizabeth Fleming, was born in 1748 Fairfax County, Virginia. He married Elizabeth Reeves in 1770 in Henry County, Virginia. He served in the military in 1776 in Virginia and the Carolinas. His Revolutionary War Pension number was #18596.  He was on the field in the battle of Cowpens in January of 1781 and at the battle of Guilford Courthouse on March 17, 1781.

In 1778, at the time of his father Thomas Smith’s will, Daniel was in South Carolina with his brothers.

In 1780 Daniel received 106 acres from his father-in-law, George Reeves on Butramstown Creek (Book E) in Henry County, Va. Within a year  he acquired another 422 acres on the Roundabout Branch of Buttramtown Creek. In March of 1781 he added another 232 acres on Roundabout Branch of Butramstown Creek. From that point on his land transactions reveal that he sold 50 acres to Charles Smith in 1791. In March of 1803 Daniel deeded 312 acres of the Buttramtown Creek land to “ my sons James, Peter and John.”  In 1810 James and Sarah sold their interest in this land to Peter and John and Rachel sold her lands to Charles. Peter also sold his interest in this land to Charles but the date is not included.

Why my interest in all these land transactions? Follow the money trail.  Transactions tell us when a guy is anticipating retirement or death. Transactions among younger families reveal an intent to change a career path or location on the planet. In this case it appears that Charles is intent on acquiring property and staying put.  By 1810 it appears that James and Peter are selling out and on the move.  They have cousins moving into Kentucky and Indiana.  Will we find the children of Daniel Smith joining up with the offspring of our great grandfather James?

Daniel Smith died in 1811 Henry County, Virginia.

Peter Smith (Son of Thomas and One of his five sons in Carolina)

If you google “Peter Smith first shot battle of cowpens” you will unveil a controversial claim that has been subject to dispute. It has been written that “Being a picket, Peter fired the first shot in the Battle of Cowpens.”  Cowpens was an important battle in those battles leading to the culmination of the war effort. So, there are folks who pencil this event into the profile for their ancestors.  In a Spartanburg Herald article dated January, 1976, then Representative Samuel B. Manning, disputed the Peter Smith claim and pointed to John Savage as the man who, on the orders of Lieutenant Colonel William Farr fired that first shot. This article raised several philosophical thoughts in my addled head:  1) At what point in world history did it become important to note who fired the first shot at each battle, which guy and at whom was he shooting and 2) What dog did Representative Manning have in this fight?  Has war become like Baseball? Is it important to note who threw the first no hitter, or the first left handed shortstop to run down a pitcher in a scramble between first and second base?

Maybe firing the first shot was a huge mistake that shouldn’t have happened. Maybe someone opened Champagne and everyone on the battlefield thought it was every man for himself and fired away.  Isn’t that how the Boston Massacrae started.  Anyway, The Herald author (Manning) does note the first death at the Cowpens battle and gives that honor to an Aaron Smith, son of Ralph Smith. I checked… We don’t have a Ralph Smith in the tree. And why would we?  It was a bit of an odd name to give a child in 1750, there are no Ralphs in the Holy Bible. But then I did get an email from Glenda Rosnowski Smith who told me to look again, “Methuselah is Hebrew for Ralph,” she wrote. No. I’m not buying that either.

I have a few more trysts and knots to add to this chapter at a later date.