Critical Thinking In Genealogy: In Search of the English Ancestors of Thomas “The Immigrant” Futrell

Critical thinking in genealogy is important. When it comes to it, critical thinking and having a robust genealogy research strategy are essential skills in tackling an ancient ancestral family line. Both skills were applied to some ancient Futrell lines in my ancestry.

It’s fair to say that some of my ancestral families have given me grey hairs when it comes to my research. My South Carolina Yeldell cousin line is one example. I joke with my Genealogy Adventures co-host and cousin, Donya Williams, that her Yeldells are like the Magikoopas of Super Mario fame: they pop up out of nowhere, then disappear just as suddenly, to only magically materialize in an entirely new place. That is if you can even find them again. Her Yeldells are the masters and mistresses of disappearing.

I have a new family that is every bit as challenging: the Futrell family of Northampton and Halifax Counties in North Carolina. I swear my beard is a bit greyer after months of digging into this part of my ancestry.

My connection to the Futrells comes via my 3x great-grandfather, Bug Futrell of Rich Square, Northampton County, North Carolina. An enslaved mulatto born to an unknown enslaved mother, DNA segmentation and triangulation has identified the enslaver, Jason Futrell, as Bug Futrell’s father.

While part of the team began research work to identify Bug’s mother, I began researching my newfound white Futrell ancestors and family.

This is where my pain began.

The first research hurdle was the family’s surname. There are a mind-bending number of spelling variations for this family: Futrall, Fewterell, Fewtrell, Futrill, and Fewterill…just to name a few.

The second hurdle had to do with the sheer volume of Shadrack/Shadrach, David, Littleberry (Berry), John, Elizabeth, Charity, Sarah, and Mary Futrells there were in any given generation. With so many ancestral family members bearing the same name within their respective generations, it should come as no surprise people have been merged/conflated together or swapped for one another. Online lineages, including a few lineage books, are a mess.

Another hurdle was the sheer volume of Futrell men dying prematurely young. If you were a Futrell male and made it to your 45th birthday, a victory lap was in order. I am not kidding. It’s no coincidence that these men died intestate, or without a Will.

When researching enslaved family members kept within an enslaving family, Wills are fundamental to understanding how the enslaved, and their enslaved descendants, were passed among family members. Knowing this is how you can find descendants of the enslaved in the 1870 Federal Census or the 1866 and 1868 recordings of  Freedmen and Freedwomen (a kind of census for freed enslaved people). In my family at least, that last generation of my enslaved ancestors were either living in the land of their last enslaver-family member. Or they were living on land they either bought or were given from their last enslaver-family member.

Without Wills, tracing the movements of the enslaved through subsequent generations of an enslaving family becomes nigh on impossible. There is an additional probate record left to consult if no Will exists: an estate inventory. Estate inventories are exactly what they sound like: a thorough list of every possession a deceased person owned…even down to buttons, bibles, pots, and pans. And, of course, enslaved people. Private inventories were drawn up regardless of whether a person died intestate or not.

Ancestry didn’t yield very many results when it came to Futrell probate records. Even a deep dive into Ancestry’s North Carolina Wills and Probate database yielded only a handful of Wills, and no estate inventories. I swear a dozen or so grey hairs sprouted at this point.

A fellow genealogist on Facebook reminded me about FamilySearch. I’ll admit I don’t use FamilySearch as often as I used to. It’s simply a habit I fell out of for no explicable reason. That is set to change.  I found every single estate inventory I needed using its North Carolina Probate Files, 1663-1979 via

Two examples of Futrell family estate inventories follow below:

“North Carolina Estate Files, 1663-1979,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 20 November 2015), Northampton County > F > Futrell, Sampson (1811) > image 1 of 67; State Archives, Raleigh.
“North Carolina Estate Files, 1663-1979,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 20 November 2015), Northampton County > F > Futrell, Littleberry (1849) > image 1 of 53; State Archives, Raleigh.

These critical records enabled me to add enslaved people to their respective enslavers, and then start the task of tracing them and their descendants to the time of Emancipation. This research phase is still ongoing.

I was also able to build the white Futrell family tree from the same probate records. For the first time, I didn’t have to wonder if Futrell  Male A really had 18 children, as many online trees stated. Instead, I could see Futrell Male A only had 8 kids. Then it was a matter of finding his children’s probate records for the names of their children, and so on.

Building a family tree almost exclusively from estate inventories was a first for me. I’ve achieved something similar using Wills and obituaries – but never via estate inventories, guardianship papers, and probate administration records.

After two months, I had a workable, mostly accurate, Futrell tree:


My line ended with one Thomas Futrell/Fewterell (1659, England – 1693, Surry, Virginia). Thomas was the first of my Futrell line to land in the Virginia colony.


It was time to research Thomas in order to pick up his trail back in England. While I knew lineage books and family trees were riddled with errors, I consulted them for possible parents to research. The vast majority claimed that John (Johannes) Fewterell of Shropshire, England was the man I was seeking.

It didn’t take me long to uncover why that claim was being made. See the English lineage given below:


This is a tricky lineage book to use. Typically, British lineage books give a year reference for people based on a given year of a monarch’s reign. An example would be: Person B born 29 Elizabeth I – which equates to the 29th year of Elizabeth I’s reign. There are handy online calculators that will turn that reference into an actual year. Albion University has a great one: 

However, you will quickly notice the lineage above doesn’t provide year indicators. So we really have no idea when the people given in the Fewterell lineage above lived.

Take a look at the individuals in the same above who are enclosed within the red box. The Thomas that you see? He is given as being the same man as my ancestor, Thomas “The Immigrant” Futrell. The problem is, this is impossible. My ancestor Thomas is believed to have been born between 1640 at the earliest, and 1660 at the latest. Yet, you can see a footnote about a man who married into the family in the image above. That footnote clearly references a generation of the family in the 1550s. 

Something wasn’t adding up in terms of the timeframe. My Thomas was born at least two generations after the people cited at the generational level than the Thomas Fewterell given in my red box.

I had my answer within five minutes:


This is the same family group as the one given in the previous lineage image within the red box. This time, however, the years of their baptisms were given. The Thomas Fewterell so many have claimed to be Thomas “The Immigrant” Futrell was born in 1558. Now, my Thomas may descend from the 1558 Thomas. My Thomas might be his grandson. However, the Thomas given in the images above has been difficult to research solely online.

Add to this the Fewterell family had large branches of the family in Warwickshire and Gloucestershire, as well as smaller branches in Somerset and Devon. There is nothing to say that my ancestor Thomas even came from Shropshire. Do I believe he is related to the Shropshire family? Yes, in some way, shape or form. Is he a direct descendant of the Shropshire Fewterells? The jury is out. The old adage is true: only time (and careful!) research will tell.

For now, I know who he isn’t in terms of his ancestry that has been given online. Knowing who he isn’t is as useful in figuring out who he actually was. It narrows the field of research. It also keeps you searching for the correct connection between an ancestor and his or her rightful family. You never know what you’ll find along the way 😉.

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5 thoughts on “Critical Thinking In Genealogy: In Search of the English Ancestors of Thomas “The Immigrant” Futrell

  1. Hey I know a Thomas Jason Futrell in nc.. He was adopted.. In nc.. Probably related..

  2. Hello. I live in Virginia but my grandmother is the distance relative of Futrell from North Hampton and South Hampton County. Her name was Ida Jane Britt the daughter of John Clayton Britt. From my understanding All my great fathers were slave owners who slept with their slaves. So in North Carolina we have a black and white set of children who have same father….

  3. I am also a Futrell. According to my Uncle, my cousin Nathaniel Futrell was the youngest drummer boy, aged 7, in the American Revolutionary War.

  4. Any luck on finding the futrell family? I’m also looking into my roots in the futrell side. My grandpa was a futrell and I think I’ve found a few of my great granfathers Graves close but that’s in Illinois. It gets fuzzy once I track to Trigg and Calloway counties in Kentucky.

  5. Any luck on finding the futrell family? I’m also looking into my roots in the futrell side. My grandpa was a futrell and I think I’ve found a few of my great granfathers Graves close but that’s in Illinois. It gets fuzzy once I track to Trigg and Calloway counties in Kentucky.

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