January 2001
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A. Denny Ellerman

(Reprinted from "Gentry Family Gazette and Genealogy", vol iii, #17, p.55-65 (Dec 1982), published by Richard H. Gentry, McLean, Virginia)

Abstract: The difficulty in finding deeds or other references to the first three generations of Gentrys in Virginia explains the lack of accounts of these generations in "The Gentry Family in America". Ellerman proposes that Nicholas and Samuel Gentry were the only Gentrys to reach America in the 17th century, and Nicholas was the only one of the two to remain in the colonies.

Probably the most difficult task in establishing the genealogy of the Gentry family in America is determining the connections among the first three generations in America. These generations span the one hundred years between the arrival of the presumed brothers, Nicholas and Samuel, before 1684, and the American Revolution. The records for these first three generations are found with few exceptions in Virginia, since the migrations of the family to the states to the south and west occurred at the time of or after the Revolution. Unfortunately, the records for this period, and in particular for some of the counties in which the Gentry family settles, are sparse. Few of those which do exist establish definitive relationships among the Gentrys who are cited.

This period was the most difficult one for Richard Gentry in his path-breaking "The Gentry Family in America" (hereafter cited as GFA), which remains the point of departure for all genealogical research on the Gentry family on this side of the Atlantic. Except for the second Nicholas Gentry (hereafter, Nicholas-II to distinguish the son from the immigrant father, Nicholas-I), Richard Gentry was unable to make any other second and third generation connections. This is obvious in the second part of the book where the many Gentry family groups who cannot be connected to Nicholas-I or Nicholas-II Gentry are listed. In fact, "The Gentry Family in America" is really an account of the descendants of Nicholas-II Gentry with considerable information concerning what are assumed to be collateral branches of the family.

The present-day researcher has far more to work with than did Richard Gentry more than seventy years ago. In the intervening years, many more of the county records of colonial Virginia have been published and indexed, so that it is no longer as necessary for the researcher to proceed laboriously page by page through the original books looking for the occasional reference to a Gentry. A splendid example is the recent publication of the early Louisa County records by Rosalie Edith Davis. Many of the references which had been found by early researchers, and which are cited in GFA, can now be placed in context by more extensive documentation which permits a more complete and continuous picture of a particular individual

Despite these advantages, the modern researcher is still not likely to be able to make the definitive connections that would satisfy good research standards. Although one can always hope that a document will turn up sooner or later that will permit definitive relationships to be established, it must be recognized that the state of late seventeenth and early eighteenth century records is such that few such documents can be anticipated. Instead, the delineation of relationships within the first three generations of Gentrys will have to proceed by means of inference based on what scraps of information are available. Such a procedure is not dissimilar to methods of scientific inquiry where laboratory experiment is not possible, notably with respect to social phenomena, and where statistical inference provides the rules for separating meaningful insight from intriguing speculation.

The present article is an attempt at applying this procedure to what is probably the irremediably incomplete documentation on the early Gentrys. It is an attempt at organizing the available data in a way that is eighty percent accurate where the present, and perhaps permanent, incompleteness of the data does not permit the drawing of definitive conclusions. In so doing, working hypotheses are developed to serve three purposes: 1) To organize the available data to tell a plausible and hopefully accurate story; 2) To guide further research for the definitive documentation which would prove or disprove the working hypotheses; and 3) To provide the stimulus for the piecing together of other scraps of information or for different readings of the circumstances prevailing at the time and place that will lead to the elaboration of alternative hypotheses that organize the extant data in a more meaningful fashion.

The Immigrant First Generation
Two hypotheses are advanced here. These are, first, that Nicholas and Samuel Gentry were the only Gentrys to emigrate to Virginia in the colonial period, and second, that only Nicholas survived or remained in the colony. The first hypothesis has been more or less assumed by most researchers based on family tradition related in GFA. The second hypothesis has long been suspected and has been given additional support by the recent publication of a land patent that has perhaps escaped the notice of many researchers on the Gentry family. Both hypotheses are very helpful in bringing some order to the second generation which is the subject of the next section to follow.

Working Hypothesis #I
The only Gentrys to emigrate to America in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries were Nicholas and Samuel who, by family tradition, were brothers.

The earliest known record of a Gentry in America is the 1684 patent for 300 acres in the vicinity of Totopotomoy's Creek in New Kent County (later Hanover County) by Samuel Gentry. The entry in the patent book is cited in full below with the original spelling and punctuation. The citation comes from Nell Marion Nugent's "Cavaliers and Pioneers: Abstracts of Virginia Land Patents and Grants. Vol. II (1666-1695)", page 282.

"Samuell Gentrey, 300 acs., New Kent Co.; S. side of York River; Betw. brs. of same and brs. of Tottapottamoys Cr., 21 Oct 1684, p. 405 (of Patent Book 7). Adj. Col. John Page, Esqr.; Edward Houchin and Nicholas Gentrey. Trans. of 6 pers; John Morris, Francis Middleton, Hen. Tully, Elizabeth Ody, Mor. Gardner, 2."

Aside from the obvious information concerning date and location, this patent contains two items of great interest. The first is the reference to Nicholas Gentry who is an adjacent landowner. The fact that Samuel would take out land adjacent toa person of the same surname must be considered a strong indication of some family connection between the two. The assumption that the two were brothers is based on family tradition as discussed on pages 14-15 of GFA.

The second item of note in this patent is that Samuel was granted the 300 acres for transporting 6 persons to the colony. This is completely in keeping with the headright system by which 50 acres were granted for every person brought into the colony. [Edit. note: a coming article will delve into the headright and indentured worker system in more detail.] It is not clear whether Samuei Gentry was one of the six persons for whom headrights were claimed. Five names are listed, leaving room for Samuel to be the sixth; however, there is a curious "2" listed after the last name suggesting that the sixth person could be an unnamed dependent of Mor(ris?) Gardner. There is no other reference in the land patent records to Samuel Gentry as either transporting himself or being transported by another. This could be explained by speculation advanced by Richard Gentry in GFA, that Nicholas and Samuel were British soldiers brought over to quell Bacon's Rebellion and later released to settle in Virginia. If so, Samuel was presumably able to accumulate the money as a soldier, or after discharge, to pay for the transportation of others to the colony, or to buy someone else's headrights.

In this regard, another land patent is of interest in indicating that Nicholas Gentry was transported to the colony by someone else, and not as a British soldier. The following citation is taken from Nugent's Vol. 1II (1695-1732), p. 39, where Patent Book 9 is copied.

"George Alves granted 1014 acres in New Kent Co., St. Peters Perish, on both sides of Totopotomoys Creek, 24 Apr 1700, p. 268, for transportation of [21 persons, among whom is to be found Nicholas Gentry, George Alves and an Alice Alves]."

The Alves family will be found adjacent to the Gentrys not only on Totopotomoy's Creek, but also at a later settlement further upriver in Hanover County. Since Nicholas Gentry was in Virginia as early as 1684, this grant to George Alves was obviously made long after the actual transportation had been made, as was not infrequently the case. Alternatively, this particular patent may have been a reconfirmation of an earlier grant for which no record is now (and perhaps then) available. In any case, this entry suggests that Nicholas did not come over as a British soldier but as dependent in some manner, perhaps as an indentured worker, of a George Alves or unknown person from whom George bought Nicholas' headright..

It should be further noted that there is no record of a land grant to Nioholas Gentry, similar to the one for Samuel Gentry. Presumably, Nicholas purchased land on Totopotomoy's Creek or was granted it after his arrival in the colony. The land transfer records of New Kent County could provide invaluable information on Nicholas Gentry, but those records were destroyed.

In view of the above, it ought to be questioned whether Nicholas and Samuel were British soldiers brought over to quell Bacon's Rebellion. This bit of family tradition may be more post-revolutionary embroidery on the family's undoubtedly English origins than fact. If the patents cited above are to be believed, Nicholas Gentry certainly was not brought over as soldier and the patent for Samuel Gentry suggests a man of more means than what would have been likely for British soldiers in the late seventeenth century. A further consideration is that New Kent County was a hot-bed of pro-Bacon sentiment during Bacon's Rebellion and one wonders whether it would have been the place a couple of ex-Redcoats would have chosen to settle.

The records cited above provide the basis for assuming that both Samuel and Nicholas were immigrants. In the 1680s, there were still few native-born. The only adult Gentrys found in the early Virginia records before 1709 are Samuel and Nicholas. Others are found after 1709, a full generation after the original seating on Totopotomoy's Creek; but those references are easily related to Nicholas Gentry in a manner that makes it most likely that they are his descendants.

Working Hypothesis #2
Of the two related Gentry immigrants, only Nicholas survived or remained in America, so that all the Gentrys of colonial Virginia and their progeny descend from Nicholas Gentry only.

The vestry book of St. Peter's Parish, New Kent County, Virginia, which was transcribed by C. G. Chamberlayne, contains the following entries on pages 357-358 relating to the baptisms of:

Peter, son of Samuel Gentry on April 10, 1687;
Elizabeth, daughter of Nicholas Gentry an August 29, 1689;
Nicholas, son of Nicholas Gentry on May 30, 1697; and
Mable, daughter of Nicholas Gentry on December 13, 1702.

Both immigrants clearly had children in Virginia and it could be supposed that the many Gentrys who cannot be definitely related to the Nicholas-II are descended either from Peter or from other sons of Samuel and Nicholas-I who did not get entered into the St. Peter's Parish Vestry Book.

There are however two circumstances which suggest that the immigrant Samuel Gentry and his son Peter either died or did not stay in colonial Virginia. The first of these is the complete absence of any mention of either this Samuel Gentry or of Peter Gentry in the existing records of this period. (A later Samuel Gentry who is a member of the second generation starts showing up in the records in the 1720s and can be traced through at least the 1760s.) Of course, the records for this period are not many, particularly for New Kent County, where the Gentry family first settled. Nevertheless, a continuous skein of evidence attests to the presence of Nicholas Gentry from 1684 through 1709, and always in the vicinity of Totopotomoy's Creek. This skein of evidence consists of the following items:

This undoubtedly incomplete record is nevertheless convincing in demonstrating that Nicholas Gentry was alive and did remain in New Kent County at what must be presumed to have been the first home of the Gentry family in America in the vicinity of Totopotomoy's Creek. (This part of the county later became Hanover County which it remains to this day.) With the exception of the entry dated 1687 concerning the baptism of Samuel's son, Peter, there is no record of Samuel Gentry. It could have easily happened that Samuel and his family moved to another county; however, the quit rent rolls of 1704 which gave the first comprehensive listing of landowners in colonial Virginia list only one Gentry, Nicholas, the owner of 250 acres in New Kent County. (See "The Quit Rents of Virginia, 1704", compiled by Annie Laurie Wright Smith, p. 35.) And, to this writer's knowledge, no record of either the first Samuel or the son Peter has been found in any other county records of this period. The verdict of Richard Gentry, "No other trace or record of this Peter or any other child of Samuel Gentry has ever been found," (GFA, p. 15) appears as sound in 1982 as it was in 1909.

The second circumstance supporting the hypothesis that Samuel Gentry and his descendants did not survive or remain in Virginia is a recently published record of a later patent concerning the 300 acres originally granted to Samuel Gentry. The patent, an extract of which is quoted in full below, can be found on page 107 of Nugent's recently published Volume III concerning patents issued between 1695 and 1732.

"David Holt, 300 acs. New Kent Co., S. side of York River, bet. brs. of Sd. River and and brs. of Totopotomoys Creek, 2 May 1706, p. 728 (of Patent Book 9). Adj. Col John Page, Esqr., land of Edward Hawkins and Nicho, Gentry. Granted Samuell Gentry, 21 Oct. 1684, who deeded same to David Crawford, Grandfather of said David Holt, 5 Jan. 1685,who by deed of gift, dated 28 May 1686, conveyed to said David Holt, then and still a minor, the land is granted by order, etc."

This,entry is a good example of the benefits to be derived from a good index for no one would have thought to look under David Holt for information about Samuel or Nicholas Gentry and few researchers would have the time or patience to read through every word of the patent records for a reference to a Gentry. This entry in the patent books was not an original grant but a confirmation of the current owner's possession by merit of earlier purchase from the original patentee.

It is clearly indicated here that Samuel Gentry did not long own the 300 acres he took out in 1684. Indeed the question can be raised whether he ever even "seated" himself on the grant. What appears to be the case is that soon after acquiring the land, which was his right for transporting six persons to the colony, he sold it to another who stayed.

Samuel Gentry's possession of the patented land was little more than a year (5 Jan 1685 is 5 Jan 1686 by the new calendar adopted in the 1740s which moved the change in year from April 1 to January 1). That allows for the possibility of having put in a crop for one growing season in 1685; but, if so, Samuel Gentry did not continue. He obviously was still living in St. Peter's Parish for a year or more after he sold the 300 acres since Peter was baptised on April 10, 1687. Thereafter, there is no further record.

Premature death certainly cannot be ruled out for both Samuel and Peter; however, return to England must be viewed as equally probably, expecially since Samuel seems to have been a person of sufficient means to transport six persons to the colony in the first instance. Whatever the sum received from David Crawford for the 300 acres, the absence of further record of Samuel Gentry in colonial Virginia argues against the supposition that Samuel bought land elsewhere and stayed on in the colony.

All that we can assert for sure is that Samuel Gentry, who was quite probably related to Nicholas Gentry, had arrived in the colony by October 1684, that he was still there in April 1687, and that in this period of time he converted his headrights to land, sold the land little more than a year later, and fathered a son. The baptismal entry makes it clear that Peter was legitimate and from that circumstance we can also strongly infer that Samuel had taken a wife in the colony since there is no indication of a wife among those for whom head-rights were claimed with the 1684 patent.

Coming Issues
The manner in which the political, religious, and cultural climate of 17th and 18th century Virginia affects our knowledge of the early Gentrys, including the "headright" and "indentured worker" systems and the lack of land records, will be briefly summarized. In addition, we will describe St. Peter's Parish and St. Paul's Parish in which the early Gentrys resided, and their related records.

Following issues will cover in considerable detail in turn: the evidence for the make-up of the family of Nicholas-I; what we know of Nicholas' sons, Joseph-II and Samuel-II; and the documentary evidence for the brief description of Nicholas-II found in "The Gentry Family in America".

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