Nansemond Murphreys & The Queen Connection

We can make quite a strong case that Daniel Murphree is descended from a Murphrey in Nansemond County, though exactly how remains mysterious.

Murphrees in Early Nansemond County

To briefly review records mentioned on the previous page, we know that a  John Murfrey was settled in Nansemond County by 1680.   In that year John Murfrey patented a 160-acre tract in the lower parish “near the said Murfreys now dwelling house”. 1  100 acres of the parcel were part of a 1637 patent to Mathew Adkinson “which after severall sales & surrenders is now the right of the said John Murfrye” and the other 60 acres was due for transportation of John Murfrey himself.   The patent boundaries included the glebe land, Brown’s Branch and Shoemaker’s Branch, the Nansemond River, and the lands of Col. Edward Streater.   When the glebe land was patented two years later by churchwardens Israel Sheppard and John Grimes, it was described as adjoining “John Murfrey” and one corner was “near the said Murfrey his dwelling house”. 2   Together with a 1680 patent to Ann Hood which also mentions John Murfrey’s land, we can locate his parcel very accurately just west of the present-day city of Portsmouth.   Unfortunately, Nansemond records are non-existent so we have no idea how long he may have been living there by 1680.

Five years later a John Murfrey Junr. , apparently his son, patented 650 acres in the upper parish of Nansemond County in right of his wife Susanna, orphan of Thomas Francis, near the head of Dumpling Island Creek (now called Indian Creek). 3   Although he was called “Junior” he must have been married for some time, as the land was part of a patent granted thirty years earlier in 1655 to Elizabeth, Ann, and Susanna Francis, the orphans of Thomas Francis. 4   This land was located in the general area where Route 125 and Route 337 meet just north of a line connecting the cities of Portsmouth and Suffolk.    Ten years later in 1695, as plain John Murfrey (no “Junr.”), he received 80 acres adjoining that patent.5  Despite its location in the Upper parish, the land was actually quite close to the earlier John Murfrey patent in the Lower parish.  (The town of Suffolk, oddly enough, was not in Suffolk (the lower) parish but in the Upper parish.)

The 1704 Quit Rents for Nansemond County show only a James Murphree (a name mis-transcribed in some publications as Murphice) with rents due on 160 acres — could that be the 160 acres granted to John Murphree in 1680? 6

In 1711 John and Benjamin Goodwin patented a tract in Nansemond County which adjoined the lands of  John Yeates and Daniel Murfrey.7  Since the county’s records were burned in 1866, we do not know when or how Daniel Murfrey acquired that land.   However, because John Yeates received his patent at about the same time, we can locate the land on Knott’s Creek just west of the present-day city of Portsmouth and within a mile or two of the land that John Murfrey Junior had patented.   It is entirely possible that Daniel Murfrey was occupying the same land.   Whether this was the same Daniel Murfrey claimed as a headright in 1665 is anyone’s guess.   It seems unlikely, as no such person was listed as a landowner among the 1704 quit rents.    Whoever Daniel Murfrey was, he must have acquired the land after 1704.  I note that he could well have been “our” Daniel Murphree if he were a very young man or an underage orphan in 1711.

The Queen Connection

One reason to seriously consider that possibility is a fortuitously preserved Nansemond County will that was stored outside the county, apparently as evidence in a chancery court case.   On 19 June 1769 John Queen of Suffolk parish in Nansemond County wrote a will that was proved two months later, in which he mentions his wife Mary Queen and “the child she is now supposed to be pregnant with”, Priscilla the daughter of Abraham and Isabel Avis, James Edwards, William Shepherd Roberts the son of William Shepherd and Lydia Roberts, and Levi, Solomon, and Moses Murphee the “sons of my bro. Daniel Murphee”.   Executors were William Sheppard and Solomon Sheppard Jr. 8   This would be a truly striking coincidence if it does not refer to our Daniel Murphree, though why only his middle sons (all of whom were minors at the time) are named is unknown.  The meaning of “brother” is also unclear – the term could have been used in the sense of a brother-in-law or a half-brother, but 1769 was a bit late in history for the term to be used in a more general sense.

In another striking coincidence the widow Mary Queen remarried to Thomas Knott, moved to Chatham County, North Carolina where Daniel Murphree’s family lived, and was widowed once again in 1779.   Although the will itself is lost, the Chatham County wills index contains an entry for the will of Thomas Knott (or Knoot) probated in November 1779 with legatees Mary Knott and John Queen.  On 9 August 1790 Mary Knott  deeded three slaves that had been “devised to her by John Queen, deceased, of the Co. of Nancymon Virginia” to John Queen “the surviving son of John Queen, deceased.” 9    John Queen was presumably the child she was pregnant with in June 1769 who must just now have turned 21.  The three witnesses to the deed were all neighbors of the Daniel Murphree family:  William Hatley, James Powell, and Benjamin Caudle.  Curiously, though, there are no deeds to or from anyone named Queen or Knott in Chatham County.

Several years later in 1797 John Queen employed James Buxton of Nansemond County to collect what was due to him from the estate of his father that might have been included in the estate of the executor William Sheppard.   A partially destroyed document passed down through the Queen family appears to be a bond dated 19 December 1797 from James Buxton to John Queen of [___ham?] County, North Carolina in which Buxton binds himself to

“…either by suit or other means receive or ____ estate of Wm. Sheppard who was exec’r. of the [father?]  ____ ____ of John Queen dec’d the legacy given to him or his mother or any part of the estate which was _____  John Queen dec’d. (The legacy to Priscillar Avice excepted) _____ pay unto the said John Queen his heirs _____ the same on demand after the expenses & cash or ___ business which the sd. Buxton may have to pay before ____ the above obligation will be void or else to remain ____ [Signed] James Buxton”10

The timing of this is curious, for William Sheppard had been dead for 18 years.  The Suffolk parish vestry book tells us that in November 1779 Elventon Knott was elected to the vestry as a replacement for William Sheppard, deceased. 11  The Nansemond tax records, which begin in 1782, show his widow Lydia Sheppard taxed on his estate that year.  She would continue to be taxed as head of household for the next twenty years.

This attempt to recover whatever remained of the 27-year old estate of John Queen Sr. among the belongings of a man long dead himself probably went nowhere and may have led to a second chancery suit.  Unfortunately, the Nansemond chancery court records no longer survive.

James Buxton had earlier been a vestryman of Suffolk parish and, along with both William and Solomon Sheppard Jr., had been a trustee of the Yeates Free School in Nansemond.    He had remained in Nansemond, appearing in state censuses and on tax lists through at least 1800, the last year checked.

Who were the people named in the John Queen will?

Among the few surviving Nansemond County records is a vestry book for Suffolk parish with somewhat sparse entries covering the last 35 years of its existence, 1749-1784.  12   John Queen appears in it twice, being briefly mentioned in a 1764 processioning record and a 1765 vestry accounting.

Except for the Murphrees, all the names in John Queen’s will appear in the Suffolk parish vestry book.

Abraham Avis was recorded several times from 1749 through 1759 (and his wife “Ezabell” appears in 1759 as well) after which he apparently moved to North Carolina.  Probably the same Abraham Avis later appears several miles to the south on the 1781 Bertie County, North Carolina tax list, the state census for Bertie taken in February 1787, and in the Bertie 1790 census.   He was apparently the son of William Avis of the Western Branch of the Elizabeth River (the part of Norfolk County adjoining Nansemond), who left a will dated 22 February 1752 and proved 16 April 1752 naming sons John, Thomas, and Abraham and daughters Sarah (Harris) and Mary.13  His brother Thomas Avis was also in Bertie County by 1768 when he appears on a tax list.

The executors, William Sheppard (?-1779) and Solomon Sheppard Jr. (?-1794)14 were brothers.  Both were sons of Solomon Sheppard Sr. (?-c1776) who was a vestryman and churchwarden for Suffolk parish in 1769 when John Queen wrote his will.  15   A few years later both William Shepherd and Solomon Shepherd Jr. were elected vestrymen themselves.    Both executors were dead by the time James Buxton undertook to recover whatever remained of John Queen Jr.’s legacy.

William Sheppard Roberts was the illegitimate son of William Sheppard and Lydia Roberts, born before their marriage.16  That they later married is proven by the 1789 Chowan County, North Carolina will of Mary Roberts Bonner who mentions “my sister Lydia Sheppard”.17   He was apparently a minor in 1769.

The land tax records of Nansemond County (retained by the state and thus saved from destruction), which begin in 1782, show no one named Queen or Knott.   Lydia Sheppard was taxed from 1782 until 1802 when her estate was taxed.  William Sheppard Roberts also appears among the taxables during the same period.

James Edwards appears in vestry records from 1759 through 1779, and as head of household in the early state censuses.   There was also an established Knott family into which the widow Mary Queen apparently remarried.  But there are no Murphees or Murphrees because Daniel Murphree had left for North Carolina before the vestry records begin.

The state censuses of Virginia, fortuitously preserved for Nansemond County, were taken several times.  The first censuses were supposed to be taken in October of 1782 and1783.  The 1784 and 1785 censuses were actually a single census supposed to be taken in May 1785.   All are preserved for Nansemond and, in each case, in the list of Nathaniel Bruxton we find the names Solomon Sheppard, Lydia Sheppard, William Roberts, James Edwards, and James Bruxton.

How — or whether — these people were related to John Queen is not at all clear.   Other than the fact that they lived in Suffolk parish, there is not nearly enough information to even hazard a guess.  It is curious, however, that he appeared to single out individual children of couples who clearly had larger families — William Roberts, Priscilla Avis, the three Murphree children.  One wonders if he might have been one of the schoolteachers at the lower parish school founded by John Yeates.

There had been a Knott family in Nansemond from almost its earliest settlement into which the widow Mary Queen apparently remarried.  One member of the family was Elventon Knott, who was elected to the Suffolk parish vestry to replace William Sheppard in 1779 but who died and was himself replaced in 1781.  He was a Nansemond militia officer who served as a Captain in the Virginia State Line and was killed by Tories in 1781.18   It is possible that Mary was his second wife and widow.  The pension file mentions only that he left one child, a daughter (perhaps by a prior marriage) who was by then deceased herself; her children had applied for the pension.    The only other male Knott in the area at the time was James Knott, who was last mentioned in the vestry records in 1771 and who may have removed to North Carolina.  Apart from an apparent widow named Catherine Knott, there were no references to Knotts after that year.  There were no Knotts taxed in Nansemond in 1782 or thereafter.

How was John Queen related to Daniel Murphree?

The will calls Daniel Murphree a brother.  If we take that literally, there are a limited number of possibilities:

  • The two men had the same mother.   This is an obvious possibility, though it is not without a dilemma.  We can logically infer from John Queen’s will that he had no children other than the one with which his wife was pregnant.   That, together with the absence of any records before 1764, suggests a relatively young man.   I also note that John Queen Sr. chose two relatively young men as his executors — one married only a few months and the other as yet unmarried — perhaps an indication of his own relative youth.  We don’t know Daniel Murphree’s age, but we do know that he was having children by the early 1740s.   That he and Queen were having children almost thirty years apart suggests a substantial age difference that would far exceed the range of childbearing years available to women in the mid-1700s.   I note that this implies that the mother would have first married a Murphree and then a Queen.  It is also worth pointing out that “stepbrother” had not yet entered the language, so that there was no clear distinction made between relationships of whole blood and half blood.
  • The two men had the same father (making them brothers of the half-blood in the only other way possible.)   This is a possibility worth considering if one of them were illegitimate.   Both by law and custom illegitimate children (who were filius nullias) assumed the surname of the mother, regardless of whether they were recognized by the father.  Queen and Murphree could even have been children of the same parents if one was born before the marriage and one after.
  • John Queen was married to a sister of Daniel Murphree.  (The other way around seems unlikely because  John Queen identified the parents of two other children in his will and hardly seems likely to have failed to mention his own sister.)
  • They were not literally brothers but were kinsmen of some other degree.  While this might have been plausible a century or more earlier, by 1769 the language had evolved to the point that “brother” was rarely, if ever, used in any sense other than the ones above.   It also seems significant that the only such relationship among the legatees was Daniel Murphree.

 Why name the middle sons?

Levi, Solomon, and Moses Murphree were the middle sons of Daniel Murphree, born in the same sequence as they were named in the will.   All three were minors at the time of John Queen’s will – we estimate they were aged about 16, 12, and 9 when John Queen wrote his will in mid-1769.   Daniel Murphree’s four older sons were all over 21, or very nearly so, by 1769.   We don’t know the nature of the legacies, but I can think of reasons why adult children might be omitted.   (Suppose, for instance, that the legacies were schoolbooks.)   Note that the other legatees, William Sheppard Roberts and Priscilla Avis, were surely also minors.

Daniel Murphree’s youngest son David was ignored.   We don’t know exactly when David was born,  so it is possible that he was born late enough that Queen was unaware of his existence.    (We don’t know precisely when David was born, although most estimates would place it in the late 1760s.    A birth late in 1768 or 1769, which is not contradicted by any record we have of him, would neatly explain the omission from Queen’s will.)

  1. Virginia Patent Book  7, p37. []
  2. Virginia Patent Book 7, page 196. []
  3. Virginia Patent Book 7, page 455. []
  4. Virginia Patent Book 5, page 464. []
  5. Virginia Patent Book 8, page 442. []
  6. Land patents were technically long-term rentals from the Crown, on which an annual rent was due.  These rents were routinely ignored and collection efforts were generally unsuccessful.  Only the 1704 list of rents due survives. []
  7. Virginia Patent Book 10, p28. []
  8. William Armstrong Crozier, ed., Williamsburg Wills ( Southern Book Co., reprint 1954),  p47.  Also in Crozier’s 1906 publication “Virginia County Records,” Volume III.  This is an abstract of a will left behind in Williamsburg when the capital was moved to Richmond in 1780.  Williamsburg had been the site of a Chancery Court in which were deposited wills, depositions, and other documents that were evidence in chancery cases.  This will was among those documents.  As far as I know, it has not been read in the original form. []
  9. Chatham County Record of Estates 1782-1799, Volume 1,  p7a. []
  10. A photocopy of the document is preserved online at http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~donegaleire/JQletter.html. []
  11. He was alive on 6 April 1779 but was replaced at a meeting on 3 November 1779. []
  12. William Lindsay  Hopkins, Suffolk Parish Vestry Book 1749-1784, Nansemond County, Virginia (Iberian Publishing Company, 1988). []
  13. Norfolk County Will Book I, p245.  Abstracted in Brief Abstracts of  Norfolk County, Virginia Wills, 1710-1753, Charles Fleming McIntosh (The Colonial Dames Of America In The State of Virginia, 1922). []
  14. Solomon Sheppard Jr. married Elizabeth O’Sheal by bond dated January 1769 in neighboring Norfolk County and after her death in 1789 he married her cousin Ann Boush.  He was dead by late 1794 when his widow began placing newspaper notices of a planned sale of his slaves. []
  15. He resigned his position on the vestry in 1775.  He either died or left the area in 1775, for his son Solomon Shepherd abruptly ceases to be called “Junior” beginning with a vestry meeting on 5 December 1775.   It is possible that he was the same Solomon Shepherd who was a delegate to the North Carolina provincial Congress in late 1775 from nearby Carteret County.  He was appointed a militia Lt. Colonel in 1776 and served again in the Provincial Congress that year. []
  16. A child born to an unmarried couple would carry the surname of the mother. Illegitimacy was established at birth and even the subsequent marriage of the couple would not change his status or his name. []
  17. The North Carolina Historical and Genealogical Register, Volume I (1901), p519:  abstract of the will of Mary Bonner of Chowan County, North Carolina naming her brother Jonathon Roberts and sister Lydia Shepherd.    See also Volume II (1901), p459. []
  18. See Rejected Pension File #VAS1107. []