Archive:Pre-American Ancestries

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Jacobus, Donald Lines, "Pre-American Ancestries: John Whitney of Watertown, Mass.," The American Genealogist, vol. 10 (1933-1934), pp. 84-88.

© The American Genealogist, 1934. Posted with permission from David L. Greene, editor and publisher. The American Genealogist is published quarterly by David L. Greene, P.O. Box 398, Demorest, GA 30535-0398. Subscriptions are US$25.00 per year, US$48.00 for two years, and US$70.00 for three years.


[Published by permission of Mrs. Horatio Ford of South Euclid, Ohio, on whose behalf this study was made. All rights of republication in any form are reserved by Mrs. Ford.]

The Ancestry of John Whitney, a handsome volume published by Henry Melville, A.M., LL.B., in 1896 (DeVinne Press, New York), is the basis for the statement that John Whitney of Watertown, Mass., was a great-grandson of Sir Robert Whitney of Whitney. Since then, it has been repeated, with elaboration of the galaxies of royal personages which bedizzen the ancestral heaven of the Whitneys of Whitney, in many other publications: most recently, in Families Directly Descended from All the Royal Families in Europe and Mayflower Descendants, by Mrs. Elizabeth M. Leach Rixford (East Highgate, Vt., 1932), and in the April 1933 number of Americana--Illustrated. It is understood that several societies in which eligibility depends on descent from royal or baronial families have long accepted this Whitney line.

Mr. Melville's book contains much genuine evidence, and the reader is likely to be favorably impressed. In making a critical analysis of the evidence, we shall accept it at face value, on the assumption that the underlying evidence is all accurately reported. So far as possible, we checked the statements made and found no inaccuracies except in some of the royal descents.

John Whitney came to New England in 1635, and the shipping list states the ages of himself, his wife Ellen, and five children. The names of John and his wife and two eldest sons are the same as those of a family which had some children baptized at Isleworth, about nine miles from London. The ages as stated in the ship list do not agree very closely with the baptisms at Isleworth. Despite this, Mr. Melville's conclusion that John of Watertown, Mass., was identical with John Whitney of Isleworth has much in its favor. It is known positively that the age of the emigrant John was grossly understated in the shipping list, because John's age at death is stated in the Watertown records. The names of the wife and children in the shipping list do not differ from the Isleworth baptisms by more than two years. The shipping officials were often careless.

The next step is to identify John Whitney of Isleworth with the John who was baptized on 20 July 1592 in Westminster Parish, London, the son of Thomas Whitney and Mary Bray who were married at Westminster on 12 May 1583. Mr. Melville also makes a strong case for this identification, the chief evidence being the records of the guild of Merchant Tailors. Thomas was called "gentleman" in some records. The social standing of John Whitney of Watertown was good; he was frequently called "Mr." in contemporary records, held important town offices, and apparently had better than an average education.

Thomas and Mary (Bray) Whitney had nine children baptized at Westminster, and the burials of five of them are recorded there. The burial of Margaret, daughter of Thomas, is recorded at Isleworth, and if the record relates to the daughter of our Thomas of Westminster, it shows a connection of this Whitney family with Isleworth before John settled there. Apparently, only three children of Thomas survived: John (1592), Francis (1599-1643), and Robert (1605-1662). When Mr. Thomas Whitney died in 1637, administration on his estate was granted to his sons Francis and Robert. The name of the son John was not mentioned. While unfortunate, that fact does not invalidate the belief that he was still living and had come to New England.

We therefore accept, at least tentatively, the conclusions reached by Mr. Melville identifying John Whitney of Watertown as son of Thomas Whitney of Westminster, though the proof is less positive than could be wished. We now reach the crucial point in the pedigree. Mr. Melville reprinted certain Harleian manuscript pedigrees in the British Museum to prove that Thomas of Westminster was son of Robert, the third son of Sir Robert Whitney of Whitney.

One of these pedigrees is to be seen in the Visitation of Gloucestershire, 1623, published by the Harleian Society. It states that Robert, son of Sir Robert Whitney, married Elizabeth daughter of Morgan ap Gwillims, and had four sons, Nicholas, William, Thomas, and Richard, and two daughters, Margaret and Anne. It does not identify the son Thomas as being of Westminster. Mr. Melville's book does not produce the will or probate action on the estate of Robert (third son of Sir Robert); nor extracts from parish registers concerning this Robert and his children; nor any contemporary documents whatever regarding this family. In view of the well-known defects often occurring in these Harleian copies of Visitation pedigrees, and the absence of identification of this Robert's son Thomas with our Thomas of Westminster, this generation must be viewed as a very weak link in the chain of descent.

Just how weak it is, we learn when we check the dates. Sir Robert Whitney was a minor when his father died in 1541, and became the ward of Sir James Baskerville, whose daughter he married. Their eldest son, Sir James Whitney, died in 1587 aged 43, and consequently was born about 1544. From these known dates, we can safely set Sir Robert's date of birth as about 1522, and his marriage about 1543, dates which harmonize well with what is know of the early part of the pedigree back of Sir Robert.

Sir Robert's eldest son, Sir James, as we have shown, was born about 1544. The date of birth of the second son, Eustace, is not stated, but he did not marry very early in life and his children were born in the 1590's. On the assumption that Sir Robert's three surviving sons were born at fairly short intervals, and that they were the three eldest children, born before any of the daughters and without the intervening births of any children who may have died in infancy, it will be seen that the birth of the third son, Robert, cannot well be placed earlier than 1547. This is the earliest possible date; the probabilities would favor a somewhat later date.

Our Thomas of Westminster (father of John) was married in May 1583. We do not know his age; but supposing that he was a son of Robert of Gloucestershire and that he came from the provinces to London to make his fortune, we can hardly assume that he married under the age of twenty. On that assumption, his birth cannot be placed later than 1563. At that date Robert, third son of Sir Robert, as we have shown, could not possibly have been more than sixteen years old. Consequently, the alleged line of descent as given in the Melville volume, necessitates making a man who could not have been born later than 1563 (and was probably born a few years earlier) the son of a man who could not have been born earlier than 1547 (and was probably born a few years later).

In addition to squeezing the chronological possibilities until they shriek, this necessitates the assumption that Thomas was the eldest son of Robert, although he was assigned the third position on the Gloucestershire pedigree. Too many improbabilities are involved to justify acceptance of this line of descent by anyone who cares for a reasonable degree of proof. The only positive evidence in favor of it is a pedigree in the British Museum (Harleian Ms. 1442, f. 67), by which one John Whitney in 1676 claimed to be the heir male of the Whitneys of Whitney.

This John stated that he was son of Robert of Westminster, son of Thomas of Westminster, son of Robert, third son of Sir Robert of Whitney. That made him a nephew of our John of Watertown, if we are right in accepting the conclusion that John of Watertown was son of Thomas of Westminster. Either that conclusion is incorrect, or else the claim made by the later London John was fraudulent, for in 1676 the heir male would have been the eldest son of John of Watertown, since John was the eldest son of Thomas while the father of the London claimant was a younger son. This does not speak well for the trustworthy character of the pedigree put forward by the claimant; and at best it was merely a claim, unsupported by any evidence, and unless so supported without legal standing. Aside from this equivocal pedigree, the Melville book offers no evidence for identifying Thomas of Westminster with Thomas the son of Robert. The only legitimate conclusion is that the alleged line of descent from Sir Robert Whitney is unproved and, in view of the chronological difficulties, so highly improbable as scarcely to merit acceptance by serious students of genealogy.

The Melville book indicates that there were Whitneys in Isleworth at an earlier date than John's settlement there, and perhaps the ancestry of Thomas should be sought in that region. Sir James Whitney, eldest son of Sir Robert, died unmarried in 1587 and left a will which fills nine pages in Mr. Melville's book. He entailed the lands to the heirs male of nine different Whitneys, beginning with his brother Eustace and two uncles, without making any mention of his brother Robert, the third son of Sir Robert, whom apparently he intended to cut off. The entail was as follows: 1. Brother Eustace. 2. Uncle George Whitney. 3. Uncle William Whitney. 4. Thomas Whitney of Clyro. 5. Thomas Whitney of Castleton. 6. Richard Whitney, brother of the last. 7. James Whitney of Clifford. 8. Francis Whitney of London. 9. Eustace Whitney of Clifford. In default of male heirs of all of these, the estates were to go to Queen Elizabeth and her successors.

The estates actually went to the brother Eustace, and eventually to the granddaughters of Eustace. It is interesting that one of the residuary heirs named in the entail (the eighth) was Francis Whitney of London, for Thomas of Westminster named a son Francis. There is just a possibility that this was the line of Thomas of Westminster, and that the grandson of Thomas when he made his claim in 1676 had heard of the entail and know that Thomas was one of the remote contingent heirs. In that event, the claim may have been made in good faith; but in ignorance of the exact line of descent. Thomas was erroneously identified with the son of Robert (third son of Sir Robert), the one branch of the family which, ironically enough, had no claim whatever under the entail.

Copyright © 1999, 2006 The Whitney Research Group.

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