The Search for your Virginia Ancestors’ Buried Past

Most of you know that I run the Genealogy Library Center, Inc.–a non-profit genealogy library for manuscript collections and books that might otherwise be thrown away. And I with various volunteers, work at the library on most Fridays processing the collections we have already received. (See

Last Friday, I spent some time processing the printed books in an anonymous donation of 223 volumes. And found a gem:

James B. Lynch, Jr. The Custis Chronicles: The Years of Migration. 1992. Available from Picton Press, PO Box 1111, Camden ME 04843. This is the first of two volumes proposed by Lynch, who is a descendant of the Custis ancestors he describes in fascinating detail. Let me quote a few sentences from his introduction:

To restore this neglected family to its rightful place in the history of colonial Virginia, and of 17th and 18th century Europe, has been the principal motive of the two-volume study intended by the author. If that place is to be regarded by the reader as acceptable as well as rightful, however, it must be sustained by persuasive facts…

The archives of London, Gloucester, Dublin, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Bruges, Virginia, and Barbados have yeilded, hitherto unpublished, (and in the case of Bruges, previously undiscovered) data concerning Custis activities in these areas.

Indeed, the early Custises have proved to be one of the more mobile and cosmopolitan of those English-speaking families whose movements can be traced in Europe and America between 1600 and 1800. Restlessly they migrated from country to country within the Old World and the New. Tracking them in their odysseys has always been exciting, often disappointing, and sometimes bewildering. Vanished records now and then have added another emotional overlay: frustration.

Lynch tracks these migrations thoroughly, identifying contacts and relatives along the way. He allows us to see the family members through the actual documents he found in these archives. And transcribed in 22 Appendixes.

(Remember, that I read the introductory pages first, followed by Appendixes, Footnotes, Bibliography, and Index next–long before I start the text. In this way I learn the purpose of the author, genealogy opportunities and challenges encountered during the course of his research, and how he resolved conflicts in his data.)

A restless mobility, then is characteristic of the Custis family beginnings. It may well have been inherited from their Cliffe ancestors, whose surname they abandoned at some point during the late years of Queen Elizabeth. Those forebears, appearing first in Yorkshire not long after the conquest, spread over a period of about three hundred years in a north-east to south-east arc from Yorkshire to London to Gloucestershire to Devon.

This transition from Cliffe to Custis, incidentally, is an historical problem which, although conscientiously and methodically addressed in these pages, may never be fully explicable…

Whatever the genetic legacy inherited by founder Edmund Cliffe alias Custis I from these Cliffe forbears, he was probably none the worse for it. On the whole, Edmund and his descendants of the 17th and 18th centuries produced their own distinctive traits. Among these an inclination to be in the right place at the right time: the Netherlands for those who stayed in Europe, and America for those who left.

Perhaps I can shed some light on these two research challenges:

  1. Restless mobility. The Custis family was a mercantile family with a family business which Lynch calls “the Custis Company.” They maintained business offices in London, Gloucester, Dublin, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Bruges, Barbados, and Virginia. There is a distinct possibility that the Custis family begins in Scotland–an early example of what we later designate as Anglo-Scottish. Restless mobility is a core characteristic of merchant families–they go where the business and thus, the money are. Restless mobility is also a core characteristic of the Anglo-Scots.
  2. Edmund Cliffe alias Custis I. In this time period, when the English nation is shifting its allegiance from their Roman Catholic origins to a newly-established Protestant polity, families converted slowly. In this setting, “alias” was a means of protecting the lives and property of unconverted families. Their Protestant relatives, sitting in Parliament and in the King’s councils, established buried legalities. Cliffe is the original Catholic family name. Custis is the newly accepted surname by which the family becomes known in legal records. Justice is blind. She can only see the last surname. It represents the surname carried by Edmund Cliffe’s nearest Protestant kinsmen who would inherit whatever was due to Edmund in the normal course of events.

I ran headlong into this peculiar naming pattern with the Whitfields of Northumberland county. Their legal name was Whitfield alias Blackett. Learning this important designation opened the way into many additional records I would never have thought to search otherwise.

James B. Lynch’s history of his Custis family is full of these interesting and provocative genealogical research opportunities to learn more. And to find more about the buried past of your Virginia ancestors. I highly recommend his book for your Spring reading list. It heads my list. Your favorite Virginia genealogist, Arlene Eakle.

PS  Been working on my Income Tax for several days.  Developed a way to record what happens as the year goes along, so that next time it will be done as I approach tax time.  And where other years I have said I would do it–this year I did.  So I have Jan, Feb, and Mar 2008 also done.  Just did not leave me time to write a Virginia blog episode.   I figured you could benefit from the checklist of taxes which I did last episode.  AE

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    2 Responses to The Search for your Virginia Ancestors’ Buried Past

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      I’m trying to figure out how to receive your blog but am not having much luck! Can you assist me? Thank you.

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