If I have learned one thing researching my ancient English American ancestry in the British-held American colonies, it is this: Do your own research. Time and time again I have found that English-descended American genealogists tend to claim ancestry from famous men who bore the same name as an ancestor or the easiest-to-find man who bore the same name as a colonial immigrant ancestor. I have found that more often than not these claims are incorrect.
Few of my ancestors’ genealogies are as contentious as my 10x great-grandfather, Colonel Thomas Pettus, born abt 1598 in England (either London or the County of Norfolk depending on who you want to believe). His lineage has sparked fierce debates among American genealogists for two centuries. One of the problems is the sheer volume of Thomases in the Pettus family. It is incredibly easy to get them confused. Some of them have not been researched. Others have been incredibly difficult to research for one reason or another.
Then there is the debate about whether he married Ka Oke “Jane” Powhatan, a daughter of Matoake (better known as Pocahontas) and her first husband, Kocoum. While there is a European-descended researcher group who have challenged the marriage between Ka Oke and Thomas Pettus, 3 different Virginian Native American tribes have not only claimed this lineage down the ages, it verges on the sacred among them. I’m going to admit a bias toward the Native Americans’ claim. Who would have better knowledge of their Native American history than Native Americans? This has also been supported by Bill Deyo, the tribal historian of the Patawomeck tribe. He is a man who knows the history of his people during the early colonial history of Virginia.
Putting that contentious Jane Powhatan issue to one side, the next question that surrounds Thomas Pettus is straightforward: who were his parents?
One camp claims his parents were William Pettus, Mayor of Norwich, England) and his wife Mary Gleane. A second camp claims his parents were Thomas Pettus, another Mayor of Norwich, and his wife, Christian Dethick. Neither, I’m afraid, is correct.
So let’s start from the beginning.
When it comes to tracing my ancestors back in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, I use a handful of trusted and reliable sources:
The Harlean Society’s series of Visitations of series of English antiquarian lineage and pedigree books (available on Google Books;
Coleman’s General Index of Printed Pedigrees (available on Google Books);
British county antiquarian pedigree books (available on Google Books);
The History of [British] Parliament via http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1660-1690/member/pettus-sir-john-1613-85 ;
Burke’s Peerage via www.burkespeerage.com; and
Burke’s A genealogical history of the dormant, abeyant, forfeited, and extinct peerages of the British empire via https://archive.org/details/agenealogicalhi00burkgoog; and
Scottish and Irish equivalents for the above.
These resources have stood the test of time. They have been poured over, argued over, vetted, and reviewed since their respective publication dates. Just as with Native American history and ancestry, who is going to know their own historic lineages and pedigrees better than the English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish?
As you can see from the pedigree above, a Pettus family debate has occurred among British genealogists. You can see where the name John has been scratched out, and the name Thomas has been added. There are still discussions about whether this man was named John or Thomas. The majority view is that his name was Thomas. That, however, may not be correct. The only way to resolve this issue is by reviewing the original birth and christening registries where this Pettus was born. I mean, if the English are sure who this Pettus man was…what makes Americans think they do?
A quick glance at this tree can see why the name Thomas can easily cause confusion. There were a number of them. And, of course, there are precious few dates provided in this pedigree. Years of birth have to be estimated and then cross-referenced with additional heraldic, county-level, or British Parliamentary records.
I needed to know who was born around 1598 in the pedigree above. Sir Augustine Pettus became my anchor. His life was well documented. He was born around 1582. His father, Sir John, whose life was also well documented, was born around 1550. With these two estimated years of birth established, my 10x great-grandfather Thomas Pettus would have been a generational contemporary of Sir Augustine Pettus.
Augustine did indeed have a brother named Thomas, known as “Thomas of Lincoln’s Inn” in London. This Thomas was quickly ruled out:
There were additional college and Lincoln’s Inn records. However, that seems like a bit of overkill. Suffice to say that my 10x great-grandfather Thomas Pettus was not the same man as the son of Sir John Pettus – whose son never left England.
So if my Thomas wasn’t the son of Sir John, who were his parents?
I can easily rule out Thomas Pettus, Mayor of Norwich, and his wife Christian. If anything, this couple might be my Thomas’s grandparents. It’s impossible for them to be his parents. Mayor Thomas and Christian did have a son named Thomas. Very little is known about him. This man is of interest for the sole reason that he was born at the right generational level and time frame to possibly be the father of my 10x great grandfather’s father. Possibly. This would make Mayor Thomas my ancestor’s uncle, and Sir Augustine would be his first cousin.
The Thomas born to Mayor Thomas Pettus and Christian Dethick remains my strongest lead. This branch of the Norwich family married into the Rolfe, King, and Dabney families in Norfolk, England…just like Col. Thomas Pettus and Ka Oke Jane Powhatan’s descendants did in Virginia. Why break with a family tradition of marrying cousins? Marriage patterns in the old world and new world can sometimes be a research clue.
There was also the names Col Thomas Pettus and Ka Oke used for some of their children:
Three names leap out: Christian, Augustine, and Cecily…three traditional and long-standing names used within the Norwich Pettus family. Specifically speaking, these names were regularly used within this family. I’m discounting the name of their son Thomas for now. You would expect at least one of their sons to carry this name. Like marriage patterns, family naming conventions can also provide ancestral clues.
There is one wrinkle in confirming that my Thomas was the same man as the son of the Thomas who was the son of Mayor Thomas Pettus and Christian Dethick. There was another Thomas born around the same time and living in the same place who was a contender for the Thomas born to Mayor Thomas and Christine. Until I can distinguish between these two conflicting Thomases, I won’t know for certain. This is why it is crucial to find and document each and every Thomas Pettus who was born in Norwich or London in the time frame I am researching.
What I believe is that Col. Thomas Pettus does have a connection to the Norwich family group in some way, shape, or form.
I’ve mentioned so many Thomases, I am really reluctant to mention any others. However, there is one more. Mayor Thomas and Christian had a son named William, who married Mary Gleane. They too had a son named Thomas, born in 1610. This Thomas was fairly well documented. He arrived in the colony of Virginia around the same time as Col. Thomas Pettus. However, William and Mary’s son settled in a different part of Virginia. Looking at colonial records, you can see both men at the same time. My Colonel Thomas eventually settled in Littletown, James City, Virginia. The son of William Pettus and Mary settled in New Kent, Virginia. Simply put, they are not the same man.
If all of these Thomases are giving you a headache? Be me. I have to keep them all straight in my head. And, hopefully, you can see why this lineage has caused all manner of conflict and confusion. It’s a puzzle I will solve.
Naturally, towards the end of this phase of research, I found a site whose findings echoes what I have found independently. While I haven’t verified all of the information it contains, so far, our research is in tandem. With the usual caveats, it’s an interesting site to review: The Pettus-Pocahontas Connection via “Southern-Style A Downhome Perspective on All Things Southern”: http://www.southern-style.com/Pettus.htm
There is also: Misinformation on the Pettus Family via https://pettusheritage.wordpress.com/2016/11/07/misinformation-on-the-pettus-family/
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