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The Burgess Family

The Burgess Family in Henry County, Virginia

First Generation

John Burgess and Mary Weaver were married in Kingston Parish in Gloucester County 12 June 1764. Births of five children to them were recorded in the Parish from 1765 through 1774. John and Mary were probably born about 1735, and were both still alive in 1805 when John wrote his will shortly before his death.

In 1771 the new rector of Kingston Parish, the Rev. Thomas Feilde, described his new home. "I am now writing in my own House, adjoining to which I have a Plantation of 500 Acres of Land upon a beautiful River & not far from the great Bay of Chesapeak which is indeed the Boundary of my Parish on one Side. The County hereabout is the most Populous in Virginia there being considerably above 2000 Souls in this Parish." Perhaps this 'crowding' had put pressure on land values, contributing to the family's relocation to Henry County.

Henry County was an area with rich, level land along the rivers, and was still lightly populated. Beginning in the 1740s settlers heading for the Carolinas from Philadelphia passed through the area. A little later the Wilderness Trail which took settlers west ran through the western part of the county. Early settlers reflected the wide variety of people who traveled these roads, including Germans, Welsh, Scots-Irish, English and African. Fort Trial, the most southerly of a chain of forts built in 1756 during the French and Indian war to protect the frontier, was located on the Smith River.

In 1774, only 3 years before the county was formed in 1777, a visitor to the area found that fear of attack by the local Native Americans had driven the inhabitants to seek refuge at Fort Trial. "There were several large plantations on the rich low grounds of Leatherwood and Beaver creeks deserted, not a single inhabitant to be seen. The cattle and horses, etc., were wandering about their masters' habitations conveying the most mournful melancholy and dismal ideas that can be easily conceived."

John Burgess was in Henry County in 1781, when he witnessed a deed. By 1784 the family was settled enough to be subject to personal property taxes. Their oldest son Davis, then 19 years old, is listed along with John, although this is contrary to the usual practice of only naming the head of the household. In the first year they had 1 horse and 6 cattle. Over the next years they usually owned 2 horses, and the number of cattle slowly increased. These modest resources supported the large family.

In 1806, just before his death, John was taxed for 3 horses and 4 slaves. His will, written at this time, left $1 to Davis and his sister Elizabeth Hewlett. It was usual for children who had been given their inheritance when they set up their own households to be left only a symbolic inheritance. He left 10 pounds each to 3 Hewletts who were almost certainly his grandchildren by Elizabeth. His unmarried daughter Mary, aged 36, was left a horse and saddle, a cow and calf, a feather bed and 'furniture' (mattress, bedding, curtains, etc. that went with a bedframe); and that she could live at home as long as she remained single. This was probably similar to the settlement Elizabeth received when she married. As daughters, neither inherited land. His wife Mary held the rest of his property and land until her death; and then it went to John jr. This pattern, of a younger son remaining on the homestead and then inheriting it, was typical.

Second Generation - John Burgess

Of John and Mary's sons only Davis and his younger brother, John Burgess jr., born in 1771 appear consistently in Henry Co. records. John continued to live with his parents until their father's death, and inherited the homestead. As his father aged, it seems he took over management of the plantation, and it is at this time that John sr. was taxed for a little more livestock and a few slaves.

John Burgess, appears in tax tolls and census records from 1807 through 1836. He is designate sr. when a younger John Burgess begins to appear after Davis Burgess' death. I haven't found many details of his life, but this seems to be partly because of confusion between him and his nephew, Davis' son John. He accumulated more property than Davis did, having inherited the homestead.

Second Generation - Davis Burgess

In 1788 Davis was no longer living with his father. He appears on the tax rolls himself in the year he married, 1794. Young men, even when independent, don't seem to have been taxed until they established a household by getting property and a wife. He, like his father, held only a small number of livestock. Neither owned any slaves until after 1800. In some years one of them would have an extra man in the household (each white male over 16 would be counted). Perhaps this was a farm hand. Other than that, they were self-sufficient.

By this time tobacco was well established as the economic basis of Henry County, and slavery was ever more important. However, the plantations still tended to be small, usually held by yeoman farmers like the Burgesses. Besides their cash crop of tobacco they provided for most of their own needs. Both in 1782, the first year for which property tax rolls are preserved, and in 1800 about 1/3 of the households held slaves, and only a minority of these held more than 4 (about 1/3 in 1782, 1/4 in 1800).

Davis Burgess and his wife Lucy Pace had 10 children. They were able to settle property on their children as they left home to establish their own households. He died in 1828 and his will reflects in some detail his property. Very atypical for the time, his widow Lucy did not remarry. And she ran her own household for more than 20 of the 32 years she survived him. She died in 1860, when she was 86.

When he wrote his will, Davis detailed and valued what he had already given to his heirs, as well valuing items being bequeathed to them. Cash and extra property would be divided to equalize their portions; and after her death, his wife Lucy's portion was to also be divided. (Since she lived 32 years, there would be a considerable delay). One slave, a "Negro man", Tilden, and the service of two free black apprentices were left to Lucy, but another slave Lise and her child Major were to be sold for the cash along with his tobacco. Polly, his wife, was required to support their "unfortunate" son William, and Milly and Nancy as long as they remained unmarried.

Davis' and Lucy's children named in his will included

  1. Elizabeth (Burgess) Hefflefinger, c1795-1868 had previously received property worth $30, probably upon her marriage in 1815.
  2. John Burgess III, born 1800 had previously received a horse and was left $200 in land and a bed (It is puzzling that he did not receive a portion earlier if he married in 1825.)
  3. Hewlett Davis Burgess, jr, born about 1801 was not named in his father's will as "Davis," but it appears he is the same as "Hewlett" named there. Hewlett had previously been given a bed, livestock, plus $200 worth of land and so seems to have already married. By that name he was never listed in personal property tax rolls, nor was he counted as a titheable living with his father. Davis was married in 1823 and appears in Henry Co. Property Tax rolls before and after his father's death. He is listed as "H. Davis Burgess" in 1827 and 1830, supporting this identity of Hewlett with Davis.
  4. Milly Burgess, born about 1802, was unmarried and was left a bed and furnishings for it.
  5. Nancy Burgess, born about 1803, was unmarried and was left a bed and furnishings for it.
  6. Thomas, born about 1804, had previously received a horse and was left $200 in land and a bed. He was unmarried at this time.
  7. William Burgess, born about 1805, was named as a dependent, the "unfortunate" son whose mother was directed to continue to maintain him.
  8. Sally (Burgess) Harrison, born about 1807 had previously received property worth $43. The settlement of her mother's estate decades later shows she was married to Leander Harrison, and that they no longer lived in Virginia in 1860.
  9. Polly (Burgess) Potts, born about 1808 had previous received a bed worth $14. She married about 1827. Her smaller portion may have been because she and her new husband immediately left for the west, and were unable to take livestock with them. No Potts are found in Henry Co. records. Her husband may have been Henry Potts. Henry and Polly Potts are found in Arkansas in 1850.

The Wilderness Trail brought strangers through the Henry County and apparently carried Polly away. If she is the Polly mentioned above she bore her first 2 children in Missouri, her third in Kentucky before ending up in Arkansas, where the rest were born. Her second child, born the year after Davis Burgess' death, was named Davis. Her surviving sons all relocated to Texas after the Civil War, and she died there.

John Burgess' site includes a transcription of this will, and his father's and brother John Burgess's will on the Burgess Deed and Will Records of Henry County page.

Second Generation, not Third Generation — Which John Burgess married Polly Weaver?

Polly Weaver married John Burgess on 22 October 1825. They had 2 young daughters when John wrote his will on 4 January, 1830. John died in on 10 October 1836 and the house was burned to control the spread of the disease. Polly quickly remarried, marrying Othneil Minter, a Baptist minister (and farmer) on 12 June 1937. He had married her to John. He was an 60 year old widower with a few remaining young children. Polly raised them along with her own surviving daughter and son, John Henry Burgess. She was 40, and they did not have children together. Their marriage lasted 11 years until Othniel's death.

Until recently I accepted unquestioningly the work done by other family genealogists that indicated that John Burgess was the son of Davis, who was about 25 at the time of the marriage, and not his uncle, who was 54. I have now rejected this. An essay presenting my reasons is here A few observations which I did not incorporate into that argument are listed below.

  1. Aunt Cherie's account: Polly (Weaver) Burgess great-grand daughter Cherie Burgess Shindell wrote an account of her early life on the family plantation in Henry County, including some account of the family.
    • She says that "the house and all of its contents were burned, including all family records and heirlooms." The older John inherited the original homestead when his mother died, as stipulated in his father's will. He would have had "all family records and heirlooms", but it is unlikely that his nephew John III would have much of that kind of property.
    • "He was reported to have left his widow well provided for." 100 acres and no slaves, which John III would have left, would not have provided well for her.
  2. Davis Burgess will: In 1828 when Davis wrote his will he indicates he has already given "advancements" on his estate to each of his married daughters and to his son Hewlett, who had also already received 100 acres of land. Thomas and John were treated very similarly. They had both already received a horse, and were each bequeathed 100 acres and a featherbed and furniture. It suggests that John and Thomas had not married yet, which doesn't fit with Mary Weaver and John Burgess' marriage in 1825.
  3. John Burgess' will: As I have looked at the wills from this period, most were written when the testator was on his deathbed. Men who wrote a will earlier usually had a substantial estate and specific concerns for it's management and disbursement, and they were usually older and established. In 1830 when Polly's husband John wrote his will, John Burgess senior was 59, the father of 2 young daughters by a young second (?) wife. John Burgess junior was 30, and had no slaves, and no horses, just the 100 acres of land he had inherited from bis father; and a wife and 1 daughter. Men of his age and situation usually did not bother to write a will at all, much less in advance.
  4. Federal Census records: In the 1820 census records, John Burgess has a female over 45 in his household; and owned 12 slaves. In 1830 John Burgis Sr. has a female 30-40 and 2 females under 5 in his household, and 17 slaves. He seems to have been left a widower and remarried a woman young enough to bear children. John Burgis Jun. also appears in the 1830 census and has a female 20-30 and 1 female under 5. Either man's household is close enough that they might be the husband of Polly Weaver, but Sr. is a little better match.

Third Generation

John and Polly's son John Henry Burgess received college education in the law, but apparently rebelled against it and became a farmer, like his ancestors. He did not rebuild his father's house. His plantation of about 200 acres, Regulus, was on Burgess Creek.

In 1860 John Henry's household included his mother, Mary Minter, his second wife Elizabeth and their first daughter; and a free black 12 year old boy, John Cousins. He owned 14 slaves: 3 couples, a 22 year old female; and children; and he rented another female and her 2 children. This plantation matches neatly the typical "middle class" Henry Co. plantation described by Judith Hill in her 1925 History of Henry County- a farm of 100-500 acres, having its own craftsmen, still, and sometimes a store. John Henry had a mill and a smith; and after the War his wife ran a Post Office from the home.

John Henry enlisted in the Confederate Infantry in 1861, but served less than 8 months. He was released to be justice of the peace at home. This literally required him, on his own, to maintain peace by arresting deserters and dissidents. When this term expired (probably after 2 years), he reenlisted in the Cavalry, spending the end of the war guarding Petersburg. His second wife died in 1866 and he remarried for a third and last time in 1868 to Mary Dalton Foster. She raised their 10 children, her 2 step-daughters, and the child of one of the step-daughters..

John Henry was an avid Primitive Baptist. He was instrumental in founding a church, serving as preacher until it grew large enough to support a professional minister. His obituary makes particular mention of his dedication to and financial support of his church. Cherie attributed his "fanaticism" to his war experiences, however his Baptist roots went deep. His parents were married by a Primitive Baptist preacher. And he was raised from age 5 to 16 in this preacher's house, after his widowed mother married Othniel Minter.

Starting in the late 1700s there were waves of religious fervour that continued through the 19th c. called the 'Great Awakening.' This led to new ideas and revitalization in many denominations, which inevitably caused the more traditional to try to preserve the original, 'primitive' doctrines. The Primitive Baptists emphasized strict interpretation of Scripture and resisted innovations such as missionary efforts and Sunday Schools. Their preachers were usually local men without formal seminary training whose charisma inspired them, and whose deep knowledge of Scripture helped lead them to personal salvation. Each church was independent. Even in 2009, a Google search revealeds 10 Primitive Baptist or Progressive Primitive Baptist churches in Ridgeway, Virginia.

In 1910 John Henry passed his land to John A. Burgess, the only son who was a farmer, with conditions reminiscent of the wills of his grandfather John and Uncle Davis. John Abe and his wife agreed to live with, care for and support his parents as long as they lived; and his unmarried sisters were free to live at home until they married. John Henry died in 1914, and John Abe sold the property in 1918. Today the land is rocky and uncultivated, exhausted by tobacco farming. It has recently been developed as a public park. Farming was certainly difficult by the time John Abe gave up farming.

Mary, John Henry's widow, lived for 29 years after his death, dying in 1943 at age 99.

One More Generation

John's five sons followed a variety of occupations — salesmen, a coal miner, merchants, electicians. His daughters were educated, unlike his sons, becoming teachers and nurses. Two went west as homesteaders (or so it is said). None of this generation remained permanently in Henry County.

Women and blacks are hard to learn about during these years, unnamed in official records, rarely holding property or status. This family had many strong, long-lived women. Mary Davis, Lucy Pace, Polly Weaver and Mary Foster lived lives in Henry Co. that are hard for modern people to imagine, doing all the household work with only the help of growing daughters and perhaps a young servant, or old-maid relative. They lived on isolated farms, raised large numbers of children, but often engaging in business as well. Lucy ran a plantation on her own for decades, and Mary, John Henry's wife, was a post-mistress on top of running a very large household. Their daughters left the farm and had much smaller families, most holding professional jobs for part of their lives. Their son Robert Lee's marriage to an middle aged, divorced, professional woman, who insisted on preserving her independence and own property in the 1930s seems surprising, but less so in light of the strong women in his life.

© 2009 Footie Lund, rev. 2010