First Families of Virginia

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View of the main facade, Stratford Hall, Westmoreland County, ancestral home of the Lee family of Virginia. Along with the Byrds, the Carters, the Washingtons, and other so-called FFVs, the Lee family was at the core of Virginia's aristocracy for centuries.

First Families of Virginia (FFV) were those families in Colonial Virginia who were socially prominent and wealthy, but not necessarily the earliest settlers.[1] They originated with colonists from England who primarily settled at Jamestown, Williamsburg, and along the James River and other navigable waters in Virginia during the 17th century. As there was a propensity to marry within their narrow social scope for many generations, many descendants bear surnames which became common in the growing colony.

The American Revolution cut ties with Britain but did not cut traditions. While some Tory First Family members remained loyal to Britain and saw their fortunes decline after the Revolution, others were Whigs who not only supported but led the Revolution.[2] They flourished until the time of the Civil War, when they lost their slaves and much of their wealth. However they kept their traditions and much of their political power. Fishwick says that by the 1950s, "the Oldtime Aristocracy has not given up, or sunk into decadence as the Southern novelists suggest." They adopted modern technology and co-opted rich "Yankees" into their upper class rural horse-farm society.[3]

English heritage, second sons[edit]

Mann Page II of Rosewell, called one of the finest homes in colonial America and built of brick imported from England.

The original English colonists considered members of the First Families of Virginia migrated to the Colony of Virginia. This migration took place from the settlement of Jamestown through the English Civil War and English Interregnum period (1642–1660), after the first thanksgiving in Virginia (1619) held by Captain John Woodlief. Some royalists left England on the accession to power of Oliver Cromwell and his Parliament. Because most of Virginia's leading families recognized Charles II as King following the execution of Charles I in 1649, Charles II reputedly called Virginia his "Old Dominion" – a nickname that endures today. The affinity of many early supposedly aristocratic Virginia settlers for the Crown led to the term "distressed Cavaliers", often applied to the Virginia oligarchy. Some Cavaliers who served under King Charles I fled to Virginia. Thus it came to be that FFVs often refer to Virginia as "Cavalier Country". These men were offered rewards of land, etc., by King Charles II but they had settled in Virginia and so remained in Virginia.

Most of such early settlers in Virginia were so-called "Second Sons". Primogeniture favored the first sons' inheriting lands and titles in England. Tidewater Virginia evolved in a society descended from second or third sons of English gentry who inherited land grants or land in Virginia. They formed part of what became the southern elite in America.

In some cases, longstanding ties between families of the English gentry simply transplanted themselves to the new colony. In one case, for instance, ancestral ties between the Spencer family of Bedfordshire and the Washington family meant that it was a Spencer who secured the land grant on which the Washingtons would later build their Mount Vernon home. These sorts of ties were common in the early colony, as families shuttled back and forth between England and Virginia, maintaining their connections with the mother country and with each other.

The reins of power in colonial Virginia were held by a thin network of increasingly interrelated families. "As early as 1660 every seat on the ruling Council of Virginia was held by members of five interrelated families," writes British historian John Keegan, "and as late as 1775 every council member was descended from one of the 1660 councillors."[4]

The ties among Virginia families were based on intermarriage. In a pre-Revolutionary War economy based largely on the possession of tobacco plantations, the ownership of that land was tightly controlled, and often passed between families of corresponding social rank. The Virginia economy, predicated on the institution of slavery and not on mercantile pursuits, meant that the gentry could keep tight rein on the levers of power, which passed in somewhat orderly fashion from family to family. (In the more modern mercantile economy of the north, social mobility became more prominent, and the power of the elite was muted by the forces of the market economy.)


Pocahontas by Simon de Passe

Many of the First Families of Virginia can also trace their ancestry to a young Native American named Pocahontas (1596–1617). She was the youngest daughter of Nonoma Winanuske Matatiske and Chief Powhatan, founder of the Powhatan Confederacy. She was educated among the English of Virginia and when given the opportunity to return to her family she declined and accepted an offer of marriage from planter John Rolfe who had fallen in love with her. Rolfe had become prominent and wealthy as the first to successfully develop an export cash crop for the Colony with new varieties of tobacco. Their only child, Thomas Rolfe, was born in 1615, and his offspring married into other elite families. Pocahontas was much celebrated in London where she was welcomed with great ceremony at the Royal Court and although she died young, she became legendary as the first Indian from Virginia to become Christian, marry an Englishman, and have a child from such a marriage. She was an important symbol of friendly Indian-English relations of the Jamestown colony and, by virtue of many fictional accounts of the mythology of early American history.[5][6]

Organizing the FFV[edit]

In 1887 Virginia Governor Wyndham Robertson authored the first history of Pocahontas and her descendants, delineating the ancestry of the Native American woman as it spread among FFV families such as the Bollings, Whittles, Blands, Skipwiths, Flemings, Catletts, Gays, Jordans, Randolphs, Tazewells, and many others.[7] The intermarriages between these families meant that many shared the same names, sometimes just in different order—as in the case of Lt. Col. Powhatan Bolling Whittle of the 38th Virginia Infantry, Confederate States Army, the uncle of Matoaka Whittle Sims.[8]

In the early 20th century there was a surge of interest in Virginia traditions and heritage, In 1907, the Jamestown Exposition was held near Norfolk to celebrate the tricentennial of the arrival of the first English colonists and the founding of Jamestown. Preservation Virginia, formerly known as the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, founded in Williamsburg in 1889, emphasized patriotism in the name of Virginia's 18th-century Founding Fathers.[9]

Listing (partial) of family names[edit]

Some family names include:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap aq ar as at au av aw ax ay az Tyler, Lyon Gardiner, ed. (April 1915). "The F. F. V.'s of Virginia". William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine (Richmond, Virginia: Whittet & Shepperson) 23 (4): 277. Retrieved February 11, 2011. 
  2. ^ Kevin R. C. Gutzman, Virginia's American Revolution: From Dominion to Republic, 1776-1840 (2007)
  3. ^ Fishwick, (1959)
  4. ^ The American Civil War, p. 334, John Keegan, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2009
  5. ^ Camilla Townsend, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma (2007)
  6. ^ F. W. Gleach, Powhatan's world and colonial Virginia (1997)
  7. ^ Pocahontas, alias Matoaka, and Her Descendants, Wyndham Robertson, Richmond VA: J. W. Randolph & English, 1887
  8. ^ Lt. Col. Powhattan Bolling Whittle
  9. ^ James M. Lindgren, "Virginia Needs Living Heroes": Historic Preservation in the Progressive Era," Public Historian, Jan 1991, Vol. 13 Issue 1, pp 9–24
  10. ^ Fischer, David Hackett (1991) [1989]. "The South of England to Virginia: Distressed Cavaliers and Indentured Servants, 1642–75". Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 219–220. ISBN 9780195069051. "Another unlikely 'FFV' was the wayward Pilgrim Isaac Allerton, a London tailor's son who emigrated in the Mayflower to Plymouth Colony and resettled in Virginia, ca. 1655, where he married into Berkeley's ruling elite." 
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap aq ar as at au av aw ax ay az ba bb bc "Questions and Answers". Notes and Queries (Manchester, New Hampshire: S. C. & L. M Gould) VI (2): 244–245. February 1989. 
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Purvis, Thomas L. (1997) [1995]. "First families of Virginia". A Dictionary of American History. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers. p. 136. ISBN 9781577180999. "Among the most prominent of these lineages are those of the Bland, Braxton, Byrd, Carter, Corbin, Fitzhugh, Harrison, Lee, Ludwell, Nelson, Randolph, Washington, and Wormley families." 
  13. ^ Virginia Immigrants and Adventurers: A Biographical Dictionary, 1607-1635
  14. ^ "Colonial Families of the United States of America - Part I." Colonial Families of the United States of America - Part I. Almanach De Saxe Gotha, n.d. Web. 02 Oct. 2013.
  15. ^ Cite error: The named reference Lynch was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  16. ^ Scadding, Henry (1987) [1873]. "Biographies". In Armstrong, Frederick H. Toronto of Old. Toronto, Canada: J. Kirk Howard/Dundern Press Limited. p. 376. ISBN 9781550020274. "The Robinsons were one of the first families of Virginia where they settled about 1670, before becoming one of the first families of Upper Canada." 
  17. ^ Reese, William Emmet. The Settle-Suttle Family. Palm Beach, FL: Fisher, 1974.

Further reading[edit]

Notes on sources[edit]

External links[edit]