Jefferson's Ancestry

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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For a man of such remarkable curiosity, Jefferson showed relatively little interest in his own origins or family history.[1] "The tradition in my father's family," he wrote in old age, "was that their ancestor came to this country from Wales, and from near the mountain of Snowdon, the highest in Great Britain. I noted once a case from Wales, in the law reports," he continued, "where a person of our name was either plaintiff or defendant; and one of the same name was secretary to the Virginia Company . . . but the first particular information I have of any ancestor was of my grandfather, who lived at the place in Chesterfield called Ozborne's . . ." Of his mother's illustrious family, the Randolphs, he was even more brief, noting only that his mother was the daughter of Isham Randolph, that she had married his father at the age of 19, and that her family could trace their pedigree "far back in England and Scotland, to which," he wrote, "let every one ascribe the faith and merit he chooses."

Apart from his father naming some land on the James River, "Snowden" (confirming the family's oral history tradition), no evidence has yet come to light supporting the family's claim to Welsh origins. A recent study of Caernarfonshire, in the Snowdonia region, during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, makes no reference to any Jeffersons, which suggests they were not members of the county elite or gentry by the time of the outbreak of the English Civil Wars in the 1640s. If the Jeffersons did emigrate from North Wales in the mid-seventeenth century, it is likely they came either from the mercantile middle classes or from yeoman stock.

Another possible lineage has been traced to the Suffolk family of Jeaffresons who developed a wide range of commercial interests in the Leeward Islands during the 17th century. One candidate, Samuel Jeaffreson, born in 1607 at Pettistree, Suffolk, lived on St. Kitts and then Antigua, had three sons, one of whom was named Thomas, and it has been suggested that he is the same man who appears in Henrico County in the 1670s, generally believed to he Jefferson's great-grandfather. From the same family was Col. John Jeaffreson, a merchant of London, who was involved in the affairs of the Virginia Company in the early 1620s as well as schemes to colonise the West Indies. He built up a large fortune on St. Kitts before returning to England in the 1650s a wealthy man, and purchased an estate at Dullingham House in Cambridgeshire. Circumstantial evidence links him to a Thomas Jefferson living in Nevis and then Jamaica around this time, who may have been his son, and who could be the same person who later moved to Henrico. If so, the immediate origins of the Jefferson family were not in Wales, but in eastern England and the West Indies. One other small piece of evidence: it was from the Jeaffresons of Dullingham House that the Virginia Jeffersons subsequently derived their coat of arms. Thomas Jefferson apparently had doubts about his entitlement to use the coat of arms, but did so anyway and attached his own family motto.

Whereas we know little for certain of Jefferson's ancestors on his father's side, there is no such uncertainty about his mother's family, the Randolphs. William Randolph, the immigrant, was born in 1650, the second son of a Warwickshire gentleman. His family supported the king during the English Civil Wars, suffered great losses and were evidently unable to recover their fortunes after the restoration of Charles II. At first sight, then, William might seem to conform to the "distressed cavalier" model, whereby, according to some historians and a good deal of romantic fiction, defeated royalist gentry flocked to the colony to find refuge from the oppressive republican regime in England. Doubtless the family's reversal of fortune was important in prompting William to consider emigrating in 1672, but the decisive influence on his choice of Virginia was his uncle, Henry, who had moved to the colony in 1643 and prospered, attaining wealth and high political office. The ground was well-prepared for William's arrival.

We should keep in mind that settlers from gentry backgrounds, such as William Randolph went to Virginia first and foremost to set themselves up in trade as merchant-planters. They did not go to re-invent an aristocratic order fatally undermined by a revolution and regicide in England, or to claim a gentry status denied to them at home, but like the thousands of merchants, mariners, and petty traders who composed the majority of free immigrants to Virginia, they went to make money from tobacco plantations, merchandizing, and other entrepreneurial activities. Whatever their pretensions to gentility, men such as Henry and William Randolph were first and foremost tobacco merchants. In this, they resembled more closely the burgeoning mercantile classes of London and provincial cities than the landowning squirearchy of English shires.

There was nothing exceptional, then, about the immigrant ancestors of Thomas Jefferson, who arrived in the colony sometime during the 1660s and 1670s. Nothing to suggest their preeminence in the century to come. His great-grandfather, Thomas of Henrico, who lived in the Curles area, was at best only a middling planter, who achieved neither political office nor more than modest wealth, and while William Randolph arrived with excellent connections he had (apparently) little money. Neither were the times auspicious. Randolph's family had been plundered during the wars in England and his own estate in Virginia was ransacked by Nathaniel Bacon's rebels in 1676. Beginning in the 1680s, the colony entered a long period of depressed tobacco prices, and Britain's involvement in the European wars against Louis XIV after 1689 brought rising freight costs and greater risk of losses at sea.

Nevertheless, it was precisely during this period - the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries - that both the Jeffersons and Randolphs laid the foundations of their families' fortunes, and established the platform for the move into the interior. William Randolph, settled at Turkey Island in the early 1680s, near the head of the tidewater on the James River, built up a large estate, and became one of the most influential political leaders of his generation. By the time of his death in 1711, he had established a leading dynasty and was able to bequeath thousands of acres of land to his children. Taking advantage of opportunities in the interior, his sons moved further upriver: Richard settled at Curles Neck, Thomas far beyond the falls at Tuckahoe (the first great plantation on the upper James), and Isham further upriver still. As a young man Isham had gone to sea, become a successful merchant, and lived for many years in London, serving as an agent for Virginia affairs. In 1718 he married Jane Rogers and three years later their daughter, Jane, was baptized at St. Paul's Church, Shadwell. Jane Randolph, Thomas Jefferson's mother, was English by birth and spent her childhood in London surrounded by the busy streets and docklands of the East End, before moving to her father's plantation at Dungeness in the frontier county of Goochland.

During the 1730s and 1780s the Randolphs and Jeffersons were followed into the Piedmont by neighbors and kin - the Carters, Cockes, Eppeses, and Pages - who formed a closely-knit community along or near to the Rivanna, bound together by family ties and common interests. Jefferson's grandfather, Thomas, settled at Osborne's just above the Curles, and early acquired a share of fifteen hundred acres upriver at Fine Creek, in what would later become Goochland County. The grant may have been for speculative purposes or for his sons' benefit, because it was here that Peter Jefferson moved in the early 1730s and lived for ten years, staking out claims to lands along the Rivanna, including Shadwell where he moved in 1741.

Both families, therefore, played prominent roles in the movement of settlers from the peninsula upriver along the James into the fertile river valleys of the Piedmont. In time, Piedmont society would take on more and more of the characteristics of tidewater society, becoming an extension of older settled areas in the east. But to appreciate the impact of the rapid and far-reaching changes taking place in the colony during this period, and to speculate about their possible influence on the mind of the young Thomas Jefferson, a broader perspective is necessary.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the enormity of the changes that transformed Virginia society during the half-century before the Revolution. Whereas white settlement down to the end of the seventeenth century was confined to the tidewater, the great surge of movement that took place after the 1720s opened up thousands of square miles in the Piedmont, Southside, and Valley for settlement. It was a land bonanza the likes of which had never been seen in Virginia, not even during the great expansion of the mid-seventeenth century, and it was led not by hordes of poor landless families fleeing over-populated counties of the coastal area but, as far as the Piedmont and Southside were concerned, by younger sons of tidewater gentry who saw the potential of the vast unimproved and (to their eyes) uninhabited lands to the west. With their links to the county courts and to the government in Williamsburg, they were ideally placed to take advantage of opportunities for land speculation, Indian trade, and acquisition of large estates inland. They became local rulers and leading planters of the rapidly multiplying counties that stretched 300 miles along both sides of the Blue Ridge Mountains and up to 200 miles west of the fall-line, more than doubling the land given over to tobacco husbandry in a couple of generations. They were joined by tens of thousands of English, Ulster Irish, Scots, German, and French Huguenot settlers, who flooded into the region following the James, Rappahannock, and Roanoke rivers inland, or who trekked down the Great Wagon Road in great numbers from New York, Pennsylvania, and the Delaware region. Most of those who entered the colony from the north either moved on into the Carolina and Georgia backcountry or settled in the Valley, but some crossed the Blue Ridge and began populating the Piedmont from the west, about the same time as Virginia settlers arrived from the east. Cultural and ethnic differences were further reinforced by the arrival of thousands of slaves from West Africa and West Central Africa, primarily from the Bight of Biafra and Angola. So great was the influx of slaves from the older settled regions of the tidewater, from Africa, and the West Indies that within two generations "the center of gravity of Virginia's slave system shifted from the tidewater to the Piedmont." By the time Jefferson published his Notes on the State of Virginia in 1784 between a third and a half of the total population of most Piedmont counties was enslaved.

What should be emphasized is not only the scale of the movement but also its rapidity. Settlers had been trickling into the region since the turn of the eighteenth century, but it was not until the early 1720s that the first two Piedmont counties, Spotsylvania and Brunswick, were organized by the Assembly. Within fifty years, some two hundred thousand settlers and slaves moved beyond the falls to set up plantations and farms in the rolling hills of the Piedmont and rich lands of the Valley, transforming Virginia's social and political complexion.

What does this expansive history of the peopling of Virginia down to the Revolution tell us about Jefferson? First, he was acutely aware of the rapid changes taking place around him. He grew up in the 1740s and 1750s at a time when the pace of change was quickening. He took pride in the fact that his father was one of the earliest settlers in the Piedmont region and a founding magistrate of Albemarle County in 1744. Peter Jefferson was an accomplished surveyor and with his friend Joshua Fry undertook several expeditions to the west. Together they drew up the most detailed map of Virginia of the mid-18th century, published in 1751, which gave expression both to newly-settled lands of the interior and to the vast unclaimed territories on the other side of the Alleghenies. They, with Thomas Walker, James Maury, and Thomas Meriwether, formed the Loyal Company in 1749 and received a patent for eight hundred thousand acres along the southern border of Virginia (now southeastern Kentucky ). A few years later, the Company planned an expedition to the Pacific Ocean, but the scheme was abandoned owing to the outbreak of the French-Indian War. Thomas Jefferson, shortly after the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, attempted to put the plan into effect once again when he wrote to George Rogers Clark (brother of William Clark) about the importance of searching the country between the Mississippi and California. His thirst for knowledge of uncharted lands to the west, his lasting fascination with geography, cartography, and the art of surveying must have been profoundly influenced by his father and, perhaps to a lesser extent, by James Maury, who taught the young Jefferson just before he left home for the College of William and Mary in 1760. Eventually, he would oversee a successful exploration of the continent west of the Mississippi in the spectacular achievements of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

His writings and politics reflect his continuing interest in the west, in the territorial expansion of the new republic, in the effects of population growth, immigration, the slave trade, and spread of slavery. But arguably, the most important legacies of his upbringing in Piedmont Virginia was his belief in local government as the surest means of establishing and maintaining law and order, and his conviction that a society of independent small holders (farmers and planters who owned and worked their land and who participated in local government) was the basis of democracy. "We have an immensity of land courting the industry of the husbandman," he wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia, and then, more famously: "Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue."

It is perhaps not stressed enough that the enormous flow of people into the interior and the tripling of the land area of Virginia within two generations was achieved with little social disruption. County organization and gentry leadership, as established in the tidewater, was extended successfully to the new lands of the Piedmont, Southside, and Valley, thereby ushering in the orderly creation of new communities and avoiding a potentially chaotic land rush. The expansion of settlement was controlled and given shape by the county courts and gentlemen justices of the peace, who ruled over a society of independent smallholders, who themselves played an important role in running their own affairs. This was Jefferson's ideal, and he had seen it unfold before his eyes in his own county of Albemarle, and elsewhere in Virginia during the second half of the century.

The origins of Jefferson's ancestors might be uncertain, but there can be no doubt that within a couple of generations the family had risen from the humble rank of a middling planter to the county elite, and within another to the very pinnacle of society. Their spectacular rise in fortune was the result of hard work, advantageous marriage, and sheer good luck, but it was Jefferson's peculiar genius to translate what he had seen occurring around him in Virginia into a political that would transcend his own origins and experiences and become a founding principle of the new republican order: a political philosophy that remains as vibrant and influential today as it did in his time.

Footnotes

  1. This article is based on James Horn, "Beyond the Falls: The Peopling of Jefferson's Virginia", Monticello Keepsake, November 5, 1999.