The Real 'Thomas Wingfield of York River' Dilemma

Abigail Ann Young

Copyright © 2002 by Abigail Ann Young

North Americans who can trace their roots back to one of the Wingfield families of colonial Virginia have for many years sought a link between the colonial Wingfields and the English landed family of Wingfield. A consensus seems to have emerged among genealogists working on the Wingfield lines, which bears closer examination in light of new evidence emerging from an unexpected source. In a 1952 article in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, J.G. Herndon1 was apparently the first to posit in print that the connection was through one Thomas Wingfield of York River, Virginia, mentioned in an entry in Lord Powerscourt's antiquarian history of the Wingfield family.2 Lord Powerscourt listed Thomas of York River as a son of John Wingfield, Esq., York herald in the College of Arms, and his wife, Mary. Lord Powerscourt's information also stated that Thomas of York River had died unmarried.

By identifying this Thomas with the Thomas Wingfield who paid quit rent in New Kent County in 1704 and is mentioned in both the parish register and vestry book of St Peter's Church, New Kent County, between 1691 and 1720,3 Dr Herndon not only connected the English landed family with colonial Virginia (as Lord Powerscourt had also done), he also connected it with a man who both had married and fathered three daughters in the colony: Ruth, Mary, and Elizabeth. He then went on to hypothesise that, in addition, Thomas Wingfield was the father of four sons: Thomas, John, Robert, and Owen. Three of those men (Thomas and John, later of Hanover County, and Robert, later of Louisa County) were the documented progenitors of many descendants. Subsequent genealogists have elaborated upon this picture by further identifying Thomas Wingfield of York River with the Thomas Wingfield for whose transportation (along with 7 others) Joseph Style received a grant of land on the Mattapony River in October 1680.4

How secure is this series of identifications? What is the historical evidence to back it up? Sadly, there does not seem to be much evidence at all. Lord Powerscourt cited no source in referring to Thomas Wingfield, the son of the York herald, as 'of York River'. Dr Herndon offered no documentary evidence to bolster his claims and subsequent genealogists have offered no more than quotes from Herndon or arguments derived from the same assumptions. What can we say for sure about Thomas Wingfield?

First, let us look at Thomas Wingfield (b.1664), a member of the Tickencote branch of the Wingfield family. His parentage is witnessed by the parish register of St Benet's, Paul's Wharf, which states that Thomas, son of John and Mary Wingfield, herald, was baptised on 29 March 1664.5 Unfortunately, this entry and the mentions in Lord Powerscourt's family history are the only undisputed references to this man. More can be said about his father. John Wingfield was born c.1619 in Tickencote, Rutlandshire, a younger son of Sir John Wingfield of Tickencote (d.1631) and his wife Frances (nee Cromwell).6 He was educated in the law but does not seem to pursued law as a career. After he married Mary Owen, daughter and heiress to George Owen (d.1665), he came into the orbit of the St George family, a major force in the College of Arms for two generations. His new father-in-law was a member of the College (Rouge Croix pursuivant, later York herald), and a brother-in-law of Sir Henry St George (1581-1644; Norroy king of arms, later Garter king at arms). During the Civil Wars, most of the St George connection went from apparent royalists to apparent parliamentarians, thus retaining or temporarily increasing their status within the College. George Owen was no exception: despite adherence to the king's party in the early 1640s, he deserted to the parliamentary side in 1646 and was not only confirmed as York herald but later intruded as Clarenceux king at arms c.1658. Owen was able to obtain advancement for son-in-law John Wingfield as well: although John had served with the royal army from 1641 to 1648, he was nominated to be Richmond herald by Richard Cromwell, Oliver's son, in 1657. At the Restoration, Owen was forced to revert to the post of York herald and John Wingfield, who had never actually become Richmond herald, was created Portcullis pursuivant. Three years later, in 1663, Owen resigned in John Wingfield's favour and John became York herald in 1664. Neither this office nor his post as collector of customs at Berwick nor Mary's inheritance in 1665 were sufficient to support John and his family. In 1670 he was seeking to farm out his post at Berwick because he had not sufficient income to support his wife and nine children. In 1674 he sold his office as York herald to Francis Devenish, a cousin by marriage of his wife and another member of the St George coterie. It is not known for what sum he made the sale, but it cannot have been sufficient for his needs or his debts, because he died in King's Bench prison in Southwark (where debtors were confined) in December 1678. He was buried in St George's, Southwark, the parish nearest the prison and a traditional burial place for those who died there.7

We have far more references to Thomas Wingfield (d.1720) of New Kent County. His own death in December 1720, his wife Mary's death in January 1714 (possibly 1714/15), and the baptisms of their daughters in October 1691 (Ruth), February 1699/1700 (Mary), and July 1702 (Elizabeth) are all recorded in the parish register, as we have seen. Between 1695 and 1701, he was paid in tobacco (most transactions recorded in the vestry book were collected or paid out in tobacco) for caring for illegitimate children that were the responsibility of the parish (as would be the case if the father could not be identified and charged with a child's upkeep). He paid quit rent to the crown in 1704 for 150 acres of land in New Kent County. He also appears in a militia muster dated 4 July 1702 as a member of the New Kent County militia.8 In none of these mentions is he ever given the honorific 'Mr' or described as a gentleman (although other men are so referred to), something which requires explanation if he were in fact the same man as Thomas Wingfield (b.1664), son of the York herald John Wingfield.

What about Dr Herndon's hypothesis that Thomas of York River, having come to New Kent County, was the father of John and Thomas Wingfield of Hanover County, Robert Wingfield of Louisa County, and Owen Wingfield? There is nothing in the New Kent County records to connect the Thomas Wingfield of New Kent County with John or Thomas Wingfield of Hanover County; no references to that John or that Thomas have been found in New Kent records at all. A Robert Wingfield is mentioned in the parish records of St Peter's, New Kent County in connection with the 1721 death of a Moses Stegall9; he may be the same person as the Robert Wingfield whose will was proven in Louisa County in 1769 but we cannot be sure. But the register does not connect him with Thomas or Mary Wingfield. Owen Wingfield is named in a baptismal record of 23 September 1719 as the son of Mary Wingfield10: this cannot be Thomas's wife, Mary, whose 1714 death is recorded elsewhere in the register. Could Owen be the son of Thomas Wingfield by a second wife, coincidentally also named Mary, as Dr Herndon posits? The fact that Thomas was still living at that time makes it extremely unlikely, because of the entry's wording: it is unusual for a child's mother only to be named in an Anglican baptismal register of this period. The two most likely explanations when it does happen are that the child was illegitimate and its father's identity unknown or that the mother had become the head of a household because of the death of her husband and subsequently given birth to a posthumous child. So Owen could be Thomas' illegitimate grandson, son of his daughter Mary, or the posthumous son of an otherwise unknown Wingfield man. Since there is no other evidence to suggest that the child was illegitimate (for example, provision for his upkeep is not mentioned in the vestry book), the latter possibility seems more likely.

Where does the Thomas Wingfield who appears in a list of 'headrights' (as the transportees to Virginia as well as the set amount of land their transporters received in turn were called) in a 1680 land patent fall? It is hard to say. If he were the same man as the son of the herald, he came to Virginia quite young, before his sixteenth birthday. Given John Wingfield's apparent failures in life, however, it seems plausible that family members or friends, unwilling to do more to rescue the father from penury and imprisonment, may have been willing to help the son to an apprenticeship or indentured service on a tobacco plantation, where he might learn skills that would make a fresh start in Virginia possible. Whether or not he was the same man as the herald's son, if he were the same man as the farmer of New Kent County, he made a success of life in the colonies, being assessed for 150 acres of land in 1704. In any case, the Thomas of the 1680 patent appears to be a key element in making the connection between the other two Thomas Wingfields plausible, because of the area in which the patent granted land. Let us look at the patent more closely.

In 1680, Joseph Style received a patent for 430 acres of land in New Kent County, in the colony of Virginia, on the north side of the Mattapony River, a branch of York River. The land was described as adjacent to that of Mrs Morris, Richard Davis, and Robert Jones and as 'down Tomoricord Swamp'. It had formerly been granted to one William Herndon (18 February 1673/4), but then been deserted by him and was now regranted. One of the eight persons for whose transportation Style received this land was a Thomas Wingfield. The previous grant, made on the same day and recorded on the same page, was also to Style and a partner (Joshua Story), for 200 acres, also on the north side of the Mattapony River in New Kent County, adjacent to the land of Mr John 'Bruch' 'by Axoll's Swamp'. This land had previously been surveyed but never patented by the surveyor -- Style and Story claimed it for the transportation of four persons.11

It looks very much as though Style, with Story as a junior partner, filed his transportation claim with these two specific unclaimed, likely adjoining, tracts of land in view. This fits in with contemporary observations about the headright system. Designed to ensure that emigrants able to pay passage for themselves and their families and servants would receive sufficient land for their support on arrival, the system was in practice allowing entrepreneurs (especially ship captains or those working in partnership with them) to acquire large tracts of land relatively cheaply:

"The Method settled by the king from the first seating of that Country," Henry Hartwell, James Blair, and Edward Chilton wrote in 1697, "was to allot 50 Acres of Land to every one that should adventure into that Country; which, if it had been punctually observed, would have been a lasting Encouragement to Adventurers, till the Country had come to be well peopled." The three authors complained to the Board of Trade, however, that the headright system had been abused. Although the distribution of the king's land ought to have benefited newcomers, the system tended to add available land to the holdings of already established planters rather than give it to the immigrants upon whom the rights to land were based. The county courts were generous with certificates to patent land. When the master of a ship "made oath that he had imported himself and so many Seamen and Passengers at divers Times into the Country, and that he never elsewhere made Use of those Rights; he had presently an Order granted him for so many Rights, (i.e., so many Times 50 Acres of Land) and these Rights he would sell and dispose of for a small Matter.... The Masters likewise that bought the Servants so imported would at another Court make Oath that they bought so many Persons that had ventur'd themselves into the Country, and upon this so many Rights were order'd them: So that still the Land went away, and the Adventurers [i.e., immigrants] themselves, who remain'd in the Country, for whom it was originally designed, had the least Share."12

Transporters did not always make an immediate claim, so a person may have arrived long before he or she is named in a patent. And, as the board of trade report pointed out (see quotation above), some people were claimed more than once, by different transporters, and it is impossible to determine whether those claims represent claims for different trips or are examples of the type of fraud described above. So we are not entitled to deduce from this that Thomas Wingfield was a new arrival in Virginia in 1680, when Style applied for and received this patent. Nor unfortunately are we entitled to assume that he resided as a tenant or servant on the land that Style received for his transportation: although some 'headrights' were transported by family members or masters to live on and work the land to which they were thus entitled, many were not.13 In this case, since the land had been surveyed or patented earlier and then its legal title allowed to fall into abeyance, it is possible that other tenants already occupied the land in 1680.

Since the possible connection between the two Thomas Wingfields cannot be proven one way or another from the land patent given to Style, the evidence remains inconclusive. Questions remain unanswered no matter which theory is adopted. It is in this context that the Wingfield Family Society initiated a DNA project to test the hypothesis that the descendants of John and Thomas Wingfield of Hanover County and Robert Wingfield of Louisa County were also descendants of the English gentry family. Since there is no-one who can be proven by documentary evidence to be a descendant of Thomas Wingfield of York River, there can be no 'control' in this experiment against which to compare the results for the descendants of John and Thomas of Hanover County and Robert of Louisa County. But if it could be shown to be the case that those three men were likely to be members of the English gentry family, that would be an important piece of evidence in the puzzle and tend to bolster the theory that Thomas of York River was the link between those men and that family.

This is only possible to do because of a peculiar property of the Y-chromosome, carried by all men, and only by men: it tends to undergo mutation very slowly over time. Thus, once the genetic pattern belonging to the male members of a family, called a haplotype, has been established, the DNA of other men of the same surname and thought to be male-line descendants of the same family line can be compared with it. The closeness of the match will determine the likelihood of a relationship and suggest its nature, that is, suggest how close in time the men are to their most recent common ancestor (MRCA). The testing of male Wingfields is still underway, but the preliminary results are suggestive and surprising.14

In the first round of testing, a documented descendant of Sir John Wingfield (d.1631), the father of John the York herald, was compared with one descendant each of Thomas and John Wingfield of Hanover County at 12 loci on the Y-chromosome. This test showed that the descendant of Thomas and the descendant of John matched one another at all 12 points but differed from the descendant of Sir John at two of the 12 points. That suggests that Thomas and John had a fairly recent common male-line ancestor. However it also suggests that their descendants and that of Sir John do not share as recent a common ancestor. Testing has also been done to compare the DNA of two documented descendants of Robert Wingfield of Louisa County with the same descendant of Sir John at 14 loci on the Y-chromosome. It shows, as would be expected, that the descendants of Robert match one another at all 14 loci; it also shows that they differ from the descendant of Sir John at one locus only.

Greater refinement was introduced by a comparison between (among others) two descendants of different branches of the English Wingfields and six descendants of the three colonial Wingfields. The two descendants of English branches were a descendant of Lewis Wingfield (fl. 1525) of the Powerscourt branch and the same descendant of Sir John of Tickencote as was tested earlier. These men differed from one another at three loci in the 23-locus test (at DYS385a and at DYS 389i and DYS389ii (which counts as a single-step mutation due to the relationship between those two loci). When you consider that the most recent common ancestor of Lewis and Sir John was the grandfather of the former and the great-great-great-great-grandfather of the latter, it is not surprising to find two single-step mutations between their descendants.

What is really surprising is the comparison between the descendants of the three colonial ancestors and the other two. The six descendants tested were: three descendants of Robert Wingfield (one previously untested, two that were included in the earlier testing), one previously-tested descendant of Thomas Wingfield, and two descendants of John Wingfield, one previously tested and one not. Five of these men match one another at all 23 loci tested, suggesting that all three colonial ancestors share a fairly recent common ancestor. The previously-untested descendant of John differs at two loci (DYS 392 and Y-GATA-C4) from the other 5. However, the genealogy tree provided by the Wingfield Family Society in discussions on the Genealogy-DNA discussion list shows that this man is descended from John of Hanover Co by Thomas Wingfield of Walnut Shade and the other, previously tested descendant of John is through Charles Wingfield of Albemarle Co. Interestingly (as I shall discuss at greater length in a subsequent essay), Charles' descent from John Wingfield is amply documented, whereas Thomas' descent from John has been inferred in the absence of documentation. So, since it is possible, and even more likely in light of these DNA results, that a line descended from Thomas of Walnut Shade is not descended from John of Hanover Co, I will discuss only the remaining five men below.

These five men, descendants of all three colonial ancestors, differed from the descendant of Sir John of Tickencote at two loci (DYS 389i and DYS389ii, indicating a single-step mutation), suggesting that the descendents of the three colonial ancestors are not as closely related to the descendant of Sir John as they are to one another. Again, it is not possible to state with certainty what the relationship between those colonial ancestors and Sir John was. These five also differ from the descendant of Lewis of Powerscourt at one locus only (DYS 385a), indicating another single-step mutation, suggesting also that they are not as closely related to the descendant of Lewis as they are to one another.14

What is the answer to this conundrum? While the three colonial ancestors are likely to have been closely related to one another, a test of this kind cannot establish with certainty who their most recent common male-line ancestor was. The inter-relationships among the branches of the English family need to be clarified -- do the differences between Lewis' descendant and Sir John's descendant point to different sub-types within the Wingfields? And if we are looking for a single 'missing link' between the English Wingfields and the colonial Wingfields, which branch of the Wingfield family should we be looking in? Clearly it is essential to carry on the testing and collect and collate further results, especially on the different branches of the English family. We may not be looking for a single missing link at all: the relationships binding the colonial branches to the English tree may be far more complex than any one imagined before.


1 John Goodwin Herndon, "Thomas Wingfield (1670-1720) of York River, VA, His Ancestry and some of his Virginia and Georgia Descendants", Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 60.2 (April 1952), 305-23.

2 Merwyn Edward [Wingfield], Seventh Viscount Powerscourt, Muniments of the Ancient Saxon Family of Wingfield (London (privately printed), 1894), pp 10, 83.

3 Annie Laurie Wright Smith (comp), The Quit Rents of Virginia, 1704 (Richmond, 1957; rpt Baltimore 1975; reproduced on Family Archive CD #503 (Genealogical Records: Colonial Virginia Records, 1600s-1700s)) 99; The Parish Register of St Peter's New Kent County, Va. from 1680 to 1787 (Baltimore, 1904), 42-4, 72; and C.G. Chamberlayne (ed), The Vestry Book and Register of St Peter's Parish, New Kent and James City Counties, Virginia, 1684-1786 (Richmond, 1937), quoted in Herndon, "Thomas Wingfield (1670-1720) of York River, VA" p 306.

4 See, for example, Jocelyn Wingfield, "Where Thomas Wingfield Lived on Arrival, 1680", The Wingfield Family Society Newsletter 8.1 (Winter 1994).

5 W.A. Littledale (ed), The Registers of St Bene't and St Peter, Paul's Wharf, London, Publications of the Harleian Society, Register Series, vols 38-41 (1909-12), vol 38, p 36.

6 John's father, Sir John, was the first Wingfield to hold the manor of Tickencote by right. His grandfather, also called John (d.1626), had held it by courtesy, but his grandmother, Elizabeth (nee Gresham), was the heiress. The grandfather (d.1626) was a younger son of Robert Wingfield of Upton, Northamptonshire, himself a cadet of the Wingfields of Letheringham, Suffolk.

7 Walter H Godfrey, The College of Arms ... with a Complete List of the Officers of Arms, Prepared by the late H. Stanford, London, F.S.A., Norfolk Herald Extraordinary (London, 1673), 50-1, 55-6, 88-9, 113, 187-8; The Victoria History of the Counties of England: Rutland vol 2 p 276; James Wright, History and Antiquities of the County of Rutland (London, 1684; rpt Wakefield, Yorks, 1973) p 124; Calendar of State Papers: Domestic Charles II 1663-4, p 108 and 1670, p 633.

8 PRO: CO 5/1312/2, quoted in Lloyd D. Bockstruck (ed), Virginia's Colonial Soldiers (Baltimore, 1988; reproduced on Family Archive CD #503 (Genealogical Records: Colonial Virginia Records, 1600s-1700s)) p 217.

9 Parish Register of St Peter's, p 69.

10 Parish Register of St Peter's, p 107.

11 Cavaliers and Pioneers: Abstracts of Virginia Land Patents and Grants, vol 2: 1666-1695, abstracted by Nell Marion Nugent and indexed by Claudia B Grundman (Richmond 1979), p 215.

12 Cavaliers and Pioneers, vol 2, p viii, quoting Henry Hartwell, James Blair, and Edward Chilton, The Present State of Virginia, and the College, ed. Hunter Dickinson Farish (Williamsburg, 1940), 16 and 17.

13 See Cavaliers and Pioneers: Abstracts of Virginia Land Patents and Grants, vol 1: 1623-1666, abstracted and indexed by Nell Marion Nugent, introduction by Robert Armistead Stewart (Richmond, 1937; rpt Baltimore, 1979), pp xxiv-xxvi, and Charles E Drake, "Virginia Headrights: Genealogical Content and Usage", Virginia Genealogical Quarterly 20.2 (April-June 1982), 50-52.

14 The best explanations of DNA testing and its relevance for genealogy are to be found on the WorldWideWeb, as part of pages that report research results. Good examples are to be found on the Mumma genealogy site,, or the Blair Genealogy page, which includes a section entitled "DNA 101: Y-Chromosome Testing".

15 The results of the Wingfield Family Y-Chromosome DNA Project are being reported on the WorldWideWeb as they become available. The URL for the results page is The data summarised above come from the 20 November 2002 update to that page, the most recent available at the time of writing.

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Abigail Ann Young, October 2002