Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER I In the Beginning

JUST when the first Jefferson came over to Virginia from his ancestral home in the British Isles it is difficult to say. Thomas Jefferson himself never knew nor, it seems, did he very much care. It is true that when he contemplated marriage and a family of his own, interest stirred somewhat in him. He went so far as to commission his agent, Thomas Adams, who was about to sail to England, to "search the Herald's office for the arms of my family. I have what I have been told were the family arms. but on what authority I know not. It is possible there may be none. If so, I would with your assistance become a purchaser, having Sterne's word for it that a coat of arms may be purchased as cheap as any other coat."1

Adams, no doubt, fully appreciated the mixture of earnestness and jest, for he brought back neither the true Jeffersonian arms nor a purchased substitute; and Jefferson continued at infrequent intervals to use the putative seal in his possession until, in later years, he shifted to another of his own contriving, bearing the eminently satisfactory motto: REBELLION TO TYRANTS IS OBEDIENCE TO GOD.

The only other time Jefferson saw fit to ponder on genealogy was in old age when he wrote his memoirs. Then he set down the family tradition that their paternal ancestor had come to the New World from Wales, near Snowdon mountain, though in what year or even decade no one knew. Jefferson had also come across the family name in a Welsh case cited in the law reports, and had noted it in the records as belonging to the secretary to the Virginia Company; but he frankly admitted that his own particular knowledge went back no further than to his grandfather.2

Today we know something more of Jefferson's ancestry than he did, and can push definite knowledge back at least to his great-grandfather. Beyond that, however, all is conjecture. The Welsh habitation of his forebears has never been documented, and the records of the Virginia Company disclose no Jefferson as its secretary.

Nevertheless, three Jeffersons do appear in the earliest accounts of the Colony, two of them bearing the same given name, John, and the third anonymously described as "Mr."

"Mr." Jefferson was evidently a man of some consequence, for he represented "Flouer dieu Hundred" in the first legislative assembly in the New World when it met at Jamestown in 1619.3 Inasmuch as Flower de Hundred was on that same stretch of the James River where the first known Jefferson later appeared on the scene, there is a possibility that the two were related;

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