Genealogy by Discrimination: A Little Known Research Strategy

The word “discrimination” has always been a word of questionable utility. It is an explosive word and generates a nervous response in almost everybody. So how can I recommend genealogy by discrimination?

Did I ever tell you that I have a whole shelf of dictionaries and thesauri? I do, for a reason. I am a genealogist and I recognize word power in understanding records and their legal base. And in the interest of clarity for this discussion, I looked up the word “discrimination.”

The first definition is prejudice, bias, treat unfairly, chauvinism. This is often the reason that persons are mentioned in the records in the first place–negatively identified and often treated with disdain.

The second definition however, is distinguish, differentiate, discerning, tell the difference. The second definition are the positive qualities and, in my opinion, part of the really important elements of evidence.

Our biggest challenge in genealogy is identity.

You sort and compare. You describe with dates and places and relationships and matches in repeated patterns. In Virginia ancestry, linking identity from one place to another is often where the difficulty lies–is the person on the ship and the person listed as an early settler the same person, who 50 years later dies in a county far away from where the ship landed?

Recall that Virginia received thousands of settlers who died before they could migrate somewhere else. And proving the same identity is a challenge. It prompted William Thorndale, a Virginia genealogy scholar, to conclude that less than 5% of those who settled in Virginia could be linked to an ancestral home in England. He now spends his whole research time studying these early settlers to prove their identity and link them to their origins.

Discrimination is Genealogy Evidence:

The Loudon County VA Tithables for 1749 include some significant evidence of identity:

Awbrey, Thos Vestryman

Awbrey, Hen 1 Papist

Ashford, Jno 1 Papist

Ashford, Mich Papist

Ashford, Wil Papist

Anderson, Jas Presbyterian

Booth, Jno Quaker

Brown, Hen Quaker

Brown, Wm Quaker

Brown, Jno Quaker

Bryan, Phil Papist

Bivin, Ja Papist

Barnet, Jno Quaker

Beasley, Wm Anabaptist

Barry, Wido 1 a Papist

An officer in the Church of England, 7 Papists (Roman Catholics), 1 Presbyterian, 5 Quakers, and 1 Anabaptist (Protestant who refused to swear an oath). Others in the list (not named here) are members of the established Church of England.

These designations are discriminatory–distinguishing among those named in the list. They alert the taxman how much tax to collect from non-Church of England residents: Papists always paid double in times of peace and triple or four-times the rate in war time. Protestant non-Conformists were charged at the need of the parish–and almost always below the Roman Catholics.

In 1749, it was against the law to be Roman Catholic. The Acts of Toleration protected Protestant non-Conformists–they were not illegal; they were “at will” for many events and functions in their daily lives. If the parish needed more money to operate their local government functions, these residents could be double-taxed.

Knowing the Ashfords were Roman Catholic, tips you off–to document these ancestors, you need to search a different set of records. Subject to the Penal Laws, they will not own land, vote in local or state elections, hold religious meetings (called conventicles) in their own homes with more than 6 adults present, nor travel farther than 6 miles in any direction from their homes without permission.

The Ashfords will appear in lists at each court session, on “police” registers for any infraction of the law, and on special rate lists–for they could also be taxed at will when the treasury needed a boost. They often serve in the local and state military units and may even be recruited by English or Irish regiments–where their movements were unlimited.

And now you know in which church records to find them. And you know why they do not appear in several key record categories! The Ashfords did not move, they did not die, the law was applied and enforced on them for the government.

These legal limitations were removed when the new Virginia constitution was approved in the early 1780’s–many years earlier than in England, who emancipated the Catholics in 1829. Until then, be sure you search the court records—all of the categories of court records and at all levels of jurisdiction so that you don’t miss or overlook entries that apply to your family members.

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