Delmarva Peninsula

Delmarva Peninsula

After decades of research I am finally able to write something of substance about the first of the Whittington family to arrive in the colonies, William Whittington. He was among the early Europeans to inhabit the present day Delmarva Peninsula. The peninsula dangles down from New Jersey and Pennsylvania, separating the Atlantic Ocean from Chesapeake Bay. The Peninsula contains the land of three states: Maryland, Virginia and all of Delaware. In the mid 17th century (1650), the Whittingtons were one of the major landowners on the southern tip of the peninsula in present day Virginia. In fact, plat maps and deeds indicate that the Whittingtons, Littletons, Robins and others of our relations lived in the vicinity of the ‘D’ in Delmarva as shown on the map. The Chesapeake Bay separated the peninsula from the early settlements to the west in the James River Valley. That separation, the distance of water between the two, allowed the folks on the peninsula to think of themselves as the Kingdom of Accomacke, a separate entity from that of Virginia. It was wishful thinking and an easy mistake to make. Oliver Cromwell (in 1652) would correct any misgivings the Whittingtons had about being British citizens so far removed from their homeland (England). Before I digress too far into an interesting piece of American history let’s look at our cast of characters.

The immigrant ancestor, Captain William Whittington,  son of a Whittington, is believed to have been born in England “about 1616”. This Captain William died before January 1, 1660 in Northampton Co., VA. Whenever I find the word “about” in the record books, as it relates to a birth, I assume the genealogists are struggling to piece together the life history of a predecessor. I get that. And in the case of our immigrant Whittingtons there are some unresolved issues. In the case of Captain William there are at least four unresolved issues: 1) his birth year, 2) his parent’s names, 3) his first wife’s surname and 4)….. I don’t remember what the fourth issue was right now, but something was just bugging the heck out of me two days ago…. Well, if I remember I will let you know.

We can assume the Captain was born in England in roughly 1621, in Gloucestershire. There were branches of the Whittington extended family living in several locations in Britain. On present day maps, there are seven villages named Whittington in England. This reflects the manner in which the Whittington clan migrated across the face of the British Isle.

We know that William arrived in the colonies as a young man and began a life long development of his plantation in Accomack, VA. Historical documents reveal

“Captain Osborne and Whittington had moved into the Askiminkonson Neck lands of  the Pocomoke and Assateague. The natives complained that the Whittington cattle were trampling their crops.”

Whittington was part land speculator, developer, planter and merchant. He maintained properties in Virginia, Maryland and lands in between. And per the complaints of tribal nations he and his friends, Scarborough and Osborne, usurped lands belonging to the tribes.  An examination of his acquisitions, legal entanglements, community involvement and paternity activities provide a picture of his life.

In a “deposition of Capt Wm Whittington aged 37” secured May 14, 1658, Whittington provides his best guess as to his year of birth. Simple subtraction provides a birth year of 1621. Within one year of the 1658 deposition, Whittington is dead. That is to say he was deceased, passed on, gone to be with his maker. His will, probate November 2, 1659, reveals his heirs: a wife (Elizabeth), an unborn child, a daughter Ursula and a son William.

The Captain married three times. He married first, a woman named Susan prior to 1647. Upon her death he married Mary Rowbotham before 1654. Immigration records indicate that Mary arrived in Virginia in 1653 as “his wife.”  With the death of Mary William then married Elizabeth Weston.  There is some confusion regarding the official records at this point. The last will and testament of a Thomas Shepherd in Virginia, bequeths to William Whittington all of Shepherd’s estates in Virginia and England to his cousin, William Whittington. Shepherd deems Whittington a cousin, by virtue of the fact that William married Shepherd’s blood cousin, Elizabeth Weston.

Elizabeth Weston was pregnant with William’s child at the time of his death. In his will he refers to that unborn child as “the child she carries.” This baby girl was named Elizabeth. The mother, William’s third wife, Elizabeth Weston, then married Capt. William Spencer shortly after our William settled into the earth. Women with young children would not sit for very long waiting for love to come through the door. Sustenance was paramount and marriage was one of the few roads to survival available to a woman and her children in the 17th Century.

We know that Captain William was in Northampton County, Virginia in 1640, where he was a Lieutenant and Captain of the militia and member of the Judicial Court. He was barely 20 at the time but halfway through his life. Immigration records reveal a trip to England in 1642. The purpose of the trip is not known but the expense of the trip was paid by a wealthy land speculator, planter and merchant: William Barnard, Esq. We also know William moved to Somerset County, Maryland after 1650. The reason for that move will be explored in subsequent chapters. It will help if you understand the role Jesus Christ played in the real estate markets of the western world.

In 1652, Whittington became the first Virginian on record to sell a slave from one plantation owner to another plantation owner. Slaves had been brought into the colony as early as 1619 and sold in the slave markets. The use of black slaves did not catch on immediately. With so many white slaves available via indentured servitude there was little need to invest in the trafficking of African human beings in the 1600s. But, Whittington’s transaction, “selling one Negro girle of Ten yeares and with her Issue and Produce  duringe her ( or either of them) for their Life tyme. And their successors forever,” was the first recorded sale of this kind in Virginia. Again, what made this sale unique in 1652, was that one slave owner was selling his property (a slave) to another owner. Chattel. A slave was chattel, no different than a cow or pig, relegated to the fields, shackled when necessary, sleeping in confinement houses just off the barnyard and maintained as good breeding stock as well as labor.

The language regarding this sale is presented here in quotation marks as it derives from the records of the time. The girl was a decade old and the phrase “with her Issue and Produce” refers to a baby she may have or to any babies she may have in the future. The term “And their succesor forever” makes it very clear that the new owner of this “girle of Ten yeares” is entitled to also own any and all of her offspring and future generations of offspring “for their Life tyme.”

Several points should be made here. The age of someone, anyone in the 17th Century, is often vague, be they black or white. Birth records were often lost as Europeans migrated from Europe to the new world, or from the Atlantic coast to the Piedmont and inland plantations. Courthouse fires, acts of war, civil unrest were often the cause of lost paperwork. Nothing cancelled one man’s debt to another faster than a good old fire.

One could only be sure of the age of a slave if the birth was accurately recorded and reported at the time of a sale. Thus, “a girle of Ten yeares” could be a bit older than ‘Ten yeares” and of child bearing years. It was not unusual to bring children into a courtroom for inspection by a judge and jury whose purpose it was to poke and probe prior to establishing a fixed age for a child. This was done for black as well as white children. The role and importance of child labor in the early economy of Colonial America should not be overlooked or underestimated. Establishing an age for a child was important in matters of slave ownership and indentured servitude.

When searching for information regarding William Whittington I came across a number of other poor souls who were in like pursuit of this ancestor and his roots in Europe. Present day Whitingtons, whether they use two or three ‘t’ to spell the surname are not the only folks who are interested in learning about William. Any self respecting Whittington girl, who married, acquired her husband’s last name and the progeny caromed off into the future with a different last name, but the Whittington DNA remained intact. Thus, we find all kinds of present day families tracing their roots back to William Whittington: Stevenson, Brown, Custes, Scarborough, the list goes on. Many of these families are significant names in American history including presidents Wilson and Polk.

Kelly Avant and Winona Pfander, authors of “The Whittington-Brown Family History,” grew so eager to find William’s parents that they speculate that “William was probably related in some way to Andrew Whittington, a first settler of Somerset Co. MD. William may descend from the Whittingtons of County Gloucester and may be related in some way to the early settlers by that name in Talbot and Calvert Counties, MD.”

This is what we do when we seek a link in family history. We look for kinfolk and subject each newcomer to the family tree to similar scrutiny. Can we find Andrew Whittington’s father in England? Did that father have a son William? Were Andrew and William then brothers? Or were they only cousins with common grandparents? Kelly and Winona are kind to us. They are honest in their efforts. They use the words ‘probably’ and ‘may’ to indicate speculation. They are sharing leads that may help us in our own search. I prefer this approach to that of people in Ancestry.com who simply fill in trees with unproven names and dates and represent the info as fact. As a result of such carelessness, mothers are born a century after their sons, fathers have siblings 100 years apart.  A lot of folks cut and paste misinformation into their trees in an effort to complete their search with little regard for accuracy and detail.  I don’t mind spending additional hours laboriously going through reams of evidence as long as I have an endless supply of pop tarts and Scotch. It is important for this family historian to assure my family that this stuff isn’t bogus. I have spent thirty years staring at William Whittington and have little to show for the effort other than intelligent detective work. Well, I haven’t exactly been staring at him, per se. That would be a bit creepy. I have lived a full life. I mean…. It’s not like I am some clustered monk living in a basement with nothing better to do than chase the ghosts of ancestors.

Here is what we know to be historically (somewhat) accurate. Our Captain William Whittington, born c. 1621 married Susan (last name unknown) and had two children: first born daughter Ursula and then son William. Birth dates are not recorded but can be estimated based on wills and land transactions later in their adult life. In October of 1659 Captain William and Elizabeth Weston had Elizabeth Whittington. Unfortunately, as noted earlier, our Captain William was already in his grave at the time of this daughter’s birth.

It is believed by many that Captain William was the son of a Thomas Whittington and Alice Ball. Thomas was born somewhere around 1580 in Gloucestershire, England. He died at Pauntley Manor 10 miles to the northwest of Gloucester in Gloucestershire. The name Alice Ball catches the eye of anyone familiar with the history of George Washington.  The first President descended from members of the Ball family, including his mother, Mary Ball. I have not yet found any data linking our Alice Ball in a direct line to George (and his mother Mary Ball). Alice Ball could easily be George’s great great great aunt of some sort. I really don’t care and I am not too interested in nailing down that detail at this time. I would rather take the next few minutes to grab a pop tart out of the toaster in the kitchen. I can help you find other, more readily available links to George Washington if you want to brag about a connection to the first President. Rest assured, you do share common ancestors with George, but you do not descend from the guy. He had no offspring and was a loving step father to the children of his wife, Martha Custes. She is in the Whittington family tree. I will show you how that works later.

Thomas and Alice Ball Whittington had a knack for producing boys. Our Captain William had seven brothers. The first names of these men are very common names found through out the centuries in British history: Richard, William, James, Guy, Robert, Thomas, Edward and John. Creativity was frowned upon when naming British children. If you think the name ‘Guy’ was unique, you are wrong. It is one of the most overused names in Whittington patrimonial history. These kids filled the pews of Gloucestershire in their youth and were one player short of having a youth league baseball team. A Thomas Whittington arrived in Virginia in 1652 at the expense of a Thomas Greenwood. I have not yet researched any link between Greenwood and the Whittingtons of England.

Captain William was apparently born in Crewkerne, Somerset, England. He went from rural England to the wilderness of Virginia in 1640.  He crossed the Atlantic Ocean, cleared a forest and built a plantation in his short life. These European families were really stepping away from the comfort of home to live in a new and unsettlehd land (Virginia) 400 years ago! Who would do that?  And was an English home really all that comfortable in the early years of the 17th Century? The answer of course is an emphatic “No!”.  Life in England was hell for a variety of reasons, beyond the notorious bad cuisine; which they have since corrected.  Certainly the aristocrats, like the Whittingtons, lived more comfortably than the peasant class, but they faced a variety of travails including persecution and death. We will look at the uncivil events that drove folks, rich and poor, out of Britain as we proceed.

Let’s return to Captain William’s first marriage (Susan) and that son also named William Whittington, whose life began ca. 1650 and lasted 70 years (d. 1720). Let’s call this William, William II, so that we can make sense out the family tree. Our history is about to become discombobulated.