Whitfields have been documenting our family history for hundreds of years, mostly in very impressive fashion. Nathan Bryan Whitfield (1799-1868), General Robert Campbell Martin (1813-1881), William Alexander Whitfield (1817-1904), and Bryan Watkins Whitfield (1828-1908) all kept extensive notes on the family and passed them down through the generations. Emma Morehead Whitfield acknowledged that their work formed the basis of important sections of her two volume compilation, “Whitfield, Bryan, Smith, and Related Families.” These distinguished individuals recounted various stories about our family that they carefully labeled merely as "traditions," but in some more recent writings have sometimes been cited as fact. The purpose of this page is to investigate these traditions and try to separate fact from fiction.
Whitfields have been searching for our first family immigrant for generations. So far, we haven't found him. Matthew, captain of the ship, Prosperous, is mentioned in "Whitfield, Bryan, Smith," but always as just one of a number of possibilities. Indeed, Emma Morehead Whitfield specifically stated "to date we are forced to admit defeat" in identifying our first Whitfield immigrant. Even if this Matthew is the one, the likelihood of linking him to William Whitfield I, the first in our line that we are certain of, is infinitesimally remote. No contemporary source has been found to link him to our line. Applying the wisdom of Occam's Razor (i.e., the simplest answer is most often correct), the better candidates were probably indentured servants, as historians have determined that 85% of immigrants to America in the 17th century came here by indenturing themselves to someone else who paid their passage. "Whitfield, Bryan, Smith" identified several possibilities.
VERDICT: TOTALLY UNPROVEN AND LIKELY UNPROVABLE
Various Whitfield family histories have listed one of these as the parents of William Whitfield I and there is circumstantial evidence for each. They all lived in the Nansemond County/Isle of Wight County area of southside Virginia. It was from this area that most people came from who immigrated to Bertie Precinct in North Carolina around this time. The apparent age ranges of each could be made to work, although in the case of Matthew and Ann, they could just as easily have been William's grandparents. All three also shared some common neighbors with whom they interacted (the Bruce, Campbell, and Purcell families) which suggests at least some common relationship among them. And lastly, William I named his first son William and his second Matthew, although these were common names at the time. Beyond these things, however, there is no direct proof that any of them were the parents of William I. Deed books, tax records, court minutes, wills, and estate records are often good sources to identify a parental relationship. Unfortunately, both Nansemond and Isle of Wight Counties have suffered extensive records losses, particularly from the 1600s and 1700s, so we may never know.
VERDICT: SOME SORT OF RELATIONSHIP SEEMS LIKELY BUT IDENTIFYING THE PARENTS SEEMS IMPROBABLE
Bryan Watkins Whitfield (1828-1908), a respected surgeon with a long and distinguished career amassed a great deal of information over the years about our family. In one of his journals, he wrote: "William Whitfield came from England early in the 18th century and settled in the County of Nansemond, Virginia, near Suffolk. He married Elizabeth Goodman about 1713 in Gates County, North Carolina, near the Virginia line. He afterwards settled in Bertie County, North Carolina." This passage has been repeated almost verbatim in various publications. Dr. Theodore Whitfield (1834-1894), a Baptist minister and father of Emma Morehead Whitfield was another family historian who referred in correspondence to William I as "our ancestor who came from England. Neither Bryan Watkins nor Theodore cited his source for this information. Two William Whitfields arrived in Virginia from England during the 1600s, one in 1636 and the other in 1671. Both would have been too old to have settled in North Carolina in 1715 and started a family. There is, however, a reference to one George Alves in December 1714 receiving a land grant in New Kent County, Virginia, southeast of Richmond. He received this grant for bringing 97 new settlers into the colony under what was known as the "headright system." Two of those 97 individuals were Wm. Whitfield and Eliza. Whitfield, side by side.
VERDICT: HEADRIGHT SYSTEM ENTRY IS INTRIGUING, BUT THE TRADITION IS UNPROVEN
The evidence on this issue is conflicting. Emma Morehead Whitfield presented the story as fact in her “Whitfield, Bryan, Smith” book. She did not cite her source, but she did mention earlier in the book that she had access to the notes of Bryan Watkins Whitfield (1828-1908). These notes were passed to her nephew, Theodore Marshall Whitfield, who edited and published her book after her death. I was fortunate enough to meet with Theodore at his home in Westminster, Maryland, and he allowed me to examine his papers, including the notes of Bryan Watkins Whitfield. Among those papers was the following note: “While moving…to join his son William who lived at Rockford, Lenoir County, No. Ca. on the north bank of Neuse, [William] and his wife Elizabeth were murdered by Indians. This account of the murder was given me by Mrs. Lucy Wooton, a daughter of Needham Whitfield and Lucy Hatch, and sister of Sally, who married Benjamin Hatch—signed B.W.W.)” Lucy was the great granddaughter of William Whitfield I. The notes do not say where Lucy heard this account. Perhaps it came from her father, Needham, grandson of William I, or perhaps it came from one of the many other relatives that lived near her in Wayne County. There is also circumstantial evidence that the story could be true. About the time William II and Rachel left for Rockford, William and Elizabeth sold the last of the property they owned in Bertie. Obviously, they needed a place to live after that. The problem with this line of thinking is that the story does not have them leaving to join their son until 1773, thirty years later. There are other problems with Lucy’s story. Although we do not know the birth year of William I, surely it was no later than 1697, as that would have made him 18 years old when his first child, William II, was born. It also would have made him at least 76 when he and Elizabeth decided to leave Bertie County and travel overland to Rockford. Additionally, by 1740 roving bands of marauding Indians in eastern North Carolina were a thing of the past. War, disease, and starvation had decimated the Indian population, especially the Tuscaroras, who have traditionally been identified as the tribe that killed William and Elizabeth. In 1770, the white and black population of North Carolina was almost 200,000. By contrast, the Tuscaroras had been isolated on a reservation for many years, and only 104 remained, mostly women and children and old men. They were hardly in a position to create much pandemonium. There is also evidence that William I died long before the alleged attempt to move to Rockford. On February 9, 1743, Elizabeth appeared before the Bertie County Court of Please and Quarter Sessions receiving a Scifa(a writ) from the court. It was extremely unusual for a married woman to appear in court without her husband (but not a widow). Lastly, a deed of sale between Reuben Powell and Brian Hare on August 2, 1754, refers to a property bordering the land being sold as formerly belonging to “the late William Whitfield.” If William I was dead in 1754, he certainly wasn’t traveling to Rockford 19 years later.
VERDICT: INCONCLUSIVE BUT SOMEWHAT UNLIKELY
The idea that William Whitfield II was actually William JOSHUA Whitfield seems to be a relatively new postulation, but you'll find it with any google search, particularly but by no means exclusively on Ancestry.com. We have reviewed hundreds of original documents for William and there is not even one that includes the middle name, Joshua. These include land records, tax records, court records, census records, minutes of the governor's council, North Carolina colonial legislative documents, slave records, his last will and testament, estate inventory, and other estate records. He was referred to in these records variously (depending on the date) as William Whitfield, William Whitfield Junior, William Whitfield Senior, Captain William Whitfield, Colonel William Whitfield, or William Whitfield Esquire. The assertion that William served in the 6th Virginia Regiment during the Revolution also makes little sense. The Revolution took place from 1775 to 1783 and there are plenty of original records placing William at his home in North Carolina. It seems incongruous, to say the least, that he would serve as a captain anywhere near the time he served on Governor Caswell's Council of State for North Carolina from 1779 to 1780. Moreover, had he wanted to serve as an active-duty soldier, there were plenty of local units he could have joined, including the county militia in which he had served in the 1750s, rather than traveling to Virginia to join the fight there. Lastly, to put it in even greater perspective, William was 60 years old when the Revolution began and 68 when it concluded. Much more than today, this age was considered quite elderly in the 18th century. The average age of men serving in Continental and militia units was between 18 and 25. By further contrast, George Washington was 43 when the Revolution began. There may well have been a Captain William Joshua Whitfield in the 6th Virginia Regiment, but it was not our William Whitfield.
VERDICT: ALMOST CERTAINLY FICTION
Volume 1 of the Whitfield, Bryan, Smith book states that:
When England and the colonies came to the parting of the ways William Whitfield must have been sorely perplexed, for he was not ready either to submit blindly to England or to run headlong into revolution. His espousal of the patriot cause apparently was not prompt enough to suit some of his compatriots, for on March 6, 1775, William Whitfield and sundry others who had refused to sign the association of the Continental Congress appeared before the Safety Committee sitting at Wilmington, N. C. Their explanations, if any, did not satisfy the Committee and it adopted a correction resolution:
"Resolved, and agreed, That we will have no trade, commerce, dealing or intercourse whatsoever with the above mentioned persons or any others connected with them, or with any other person or persons who shall hereafter violate the said association or refuse to subscribe thereto; but will hold them as unworthy of the rights of freemen and as inimical to the liberties of their country and we recommend it to the people of this Colony in particular, and to the Americans in general, to pursue the same conduct."
Handbills of the same were ordered printed for general distribution. March 13 the Committee announced that some of those who had refused to sign and so had provoked the above resolution had since signed. Included in this number was William Whitfield.
This claim excerpted from the Whitfield, Bryan, Smith book has been repeated many times in various other publications. To address whether it is true or not requires an understanding of the organization of the various Committees of Safety in North Carolina. The Continental Congress authorized a network of committees of Safety in 1774 and early 1775 throughout the various colonies to enforce the Continental Association banning all trade with Great Britain. In North Carolina, these committees were organized in a hierarchy as follows:
Top Level: Provincial Council
Second Level: 6 districts
Third Level: 18 Counties and 4 Towns
The Committee of Safety for Wilmington was a third-level town committee with jurisdiction only over the town itself. The minutes for the committee for 1774-1776 have been preserved and reprinted and show it to be probably the most active of all of the North Carolina committees of safety. These minutes also show that the committee was devoted almost exclusively to events occurring within the town limits of Wilmington. On occasion, they joined with committees of some of the surrounding counties and issued joint resolutions. It was a rare occasion, though, when the Wilmington committee ventured into the business of other parts of North Carolina, and it was usually just to print handbills renouncing activities in another county. The minutes have been preserved and reprinted, including here:
The quoted passage from the Wilmington Committee of Safety in the Whitfield, Bryan, Smith book is incomplete. The portion omitted from the book reads as follows:
Doctor Thomas Cobham, Messrs. Jno. McDonnel, Jno. Walker, jr., John Slingsby, Thomas Orr, Jno. Cruden, Wm. Mactier, and Wm. McLeod, merchants, Wm. Whitfield, planter, and Kenneth McKenzie, and Dougal McNight, Tailors, all of the Town of Wilmington, appeared before the committee, and having refused or declined under various pretences, to sign the association of the Continental Congress: Resolved and agreed……….
William Whitfield II was not of the town of Wilmington. He was a resident of Dobbs County, eighty-one miles away. And as a resident of Dobbs County, our William was not under the jurisdiction of the Committee of Safety for Wilmington. More than that, by 1775 there were actually several individuals named William Whitfield living in North Carolina, one of whom the omitted passage above clearly describes as “of the town of Wilmington” (there was another in Pitt County).
William Whitfield of Wilmington (not our William) is also discussed in a document dated September 23, 1776, that is from the New Hanover County Wills and Estate Papers 1663-1978, but is now deposited with the State of Archives of North Carolina in Raleigh. (Wilmington is in New Hanover County.) The document was handwritten by a Mr. George Moore and is entitled, Memorandum of what passed between me and Mr. William Whitfield in his last illness. In brief, it describes how this William Whitfield, who was close to death, summoned Mr. Moore to his bedside to assist in arranging some of his final affairs. The original document is available on the UPLOADED DOCUMENTS page of this website under the file name WILLIAM WHITFIELD OF WILMINGTON, along with a typed transcription.
VERDICT: ALMOST CERTAINLY FICTION
This postcard-sized item purports to show a photograph of William Whitfield II and also provides a brief biography of his life. It can be found on various websites. Hard copies are also floating around. Photography was invented in the 19th century, and the earliest surviving photographs date to the mid- 1820s and were taken in France by Nicephore Niepce. William Whitfield died 30 years earlier.
VERDICT: ABSOLUTELY FICTION
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