William Clopton 1655-1732

thats gggggggreat grandfather to you

One of my seventh great grandfathers was named William Clopton. He was born in Eastwood, Essex County, England in 1655 to Rev. Robert Clopton and Mary Sutcliffe. A preacher’s kid, the Clopton Chronicles suggests that he left home first for London, to escape the Puritan atmosphere of home, and then on across to Virginia.

In Virginia, about 1680, he married a widow, Ann Booth Dennett whose father was Dr. Robert Booth, an early resident of Jamestown. In her book, Jamestown Brides, Jennifer Potter describes how marrying a wealthy widow was desirable to the “planters” arriving in Virginia from England because they came with their late husband’s wealth. They generally got snapped up before the maidens.  

Ann and William had five children; Anne, Elizabeth, Robert, William and Walter. Ann’s first husband, Thomas Dennett left a will that names four children that Ann had with him; Anne, John, Sarah and Elinor – it’s kind of weird to me that those don’t aren’t mentioned again in any Clopton records. Was eschewing her Dennett children part of the marriage bargain? I guess supporting four children would put a dent in whatever wealth she brought to their alliance. Did those kids stay around but not get mentioned because they weren’t bloodline Cloptons? Did they stay with their father’s side of the family? Does that reflect badly on William? On Ann? On the Dennetts? Whose decision was it?

William and Ann lived in New Kent County, in St. Peter’s Parish. William was a vestry man at St. Peter’s Church and served as the clerk of the Vestry for many years until he begged off due to debility. He was appointed “surveior of the highwayes” and authorized to collect “tithables” from people to defray the cost of the work. He also collected the tithes for the church – apportioned at one time as 84 pounds of tobacco from each head of household – I think tobacco was commonly used as currency. The church budgets list various costs, including paying parishioners to keep people who could not provide for themselves, like “ancient” people, the sick and lame, or “a Bastard child” and it’s mother.

William Clopton enslaved people, I assume to grow tobacco and work in the house. The St. Peter’s Parish Register, records births, deaths and marriages. Many enslaved babies are included with a first name, their birthdates and baptism dates like this list:

Nane, negro of Wm. Clopton born 29 April, 1704

Jno, negro of Wm. Clopton baptized June 25, 1710

—-bin, negro of Wm. Clopton born June 6, 1706

——, negro of Wm. Clopton born May 8th, 1707

——, negro of Wm. Clopton born May 30th, 1713

——, negro of Wm. Clopton ———–

(Of course this Wm. Clopton is also in the right time frame to be his son, William Clopton.)

There are two main farms that were owned by this part of the Clopton family. The original Clopton home place, which at some point came to be a plantation called Callowell, was west of Crump’s Mill, which is on the southern branch of Black Creek. According to Malcolm Harris there were remains of a stone and brick cellar in the 1970s. Apparently there is a large cemetery there but the stones are hard or impossible to read. Here is a real estate ad from 1857:

The other property associated with this immediate family was called Roslyn. It was farther west and near the border of Hanover County. In the mid 1800s it was the site of a mission church called St. James, established there by St. Peters Parish. The St. Peter’s Parish website describes it as being between present day Orapax Farms (Dispatch Road) and the Chickahominy River. There are large ancient oak trees but no buildings. In Old New Kent County, Harris describes it as having been half a mile east of where Cattail swamp comes off Black Creek. My excellent Google Maps skills show these two do coincide.

William and Co., for a few generations, (I’m mostly following the descendency of his oldest son Robert, my sixth ggggggreat grandfather) kept buying up more land and the 1850 census shows that the ante bellum Cloptons living at Roslyn, or “Clopton Estates,” owned about 4,000 acres. William Clopton, the immigrant, died about 1732 and is buried with Ann Dennett Booth in the churchyard of St. Peter’s. 

Here finally is my punchline: You know the Clopton men were not out there hoeing and harvesting 4,000 acres, or even the 400 they held at Roslyn. Marx said that workers create all wealth. Would that wealth have been created without the Clopton bosses, bossing it into being? What kind of twisted koan is that?  If William Clopton and his descendants had not been so determined to keep giving everyone in the neighborhood the same couple of names, over and over and over, it would be more possible to determine which ones enslaved how many people. But I think it is fair to lump all those Williams and Roberts who lived in the same decades together and say that as a group they owned the people whose names I shared here. According to the 1850 Slave Schedules the Cloptons in New Kent County enslaved 42 people, and one of those owners was a four year old boy. In 1860 it was 29. I figure that represents the people enslaved at Roslyn and Callowell.

Sources:

  • Jamestown Brides; The Story of Englands “Maids for Virginia,” by Jennifer Potter 2019
  • Old New Kent County (Virginia); Some Account of Some of the Planters, Plantations, Places, by Malcolm Harris 1977
  • The Clopton Chronicles, a Project of the Clopton Family Genealogical Society. rootsweb.com
  • The Vestry Book and Register of St. Peter’s Parish, New Kent and James City Counties, Virginia, 1684-1786.  Richmond, Virginia Library Board, 1937.

Being Sold Down the River Was a Real Thing

St. Peters Church. This is also the home church of Martha Custis and site of her wedding to George Washington.
visitnewkent.com

A really nice thing about genealogy is that I can call my obsessive behavior research.

Fun Fact: When a baby was born in St. Peter’s Parish, where the Cloptons had their Virginia foothold, it was recorded in the church registry with the name of it’s parents. Congratulations! When an enslaved baby was born or baptized it was also documented in the church register but with the name of it’s owner, not it’s parents. For example, entries for my eighth great grandfather, one of the Roberts: “Margaret, daughter of Rob. Clopton born ye 8th day of April 1717,” is recorded right next to “Hannah, a negro girl of Robert Clopton Born Febry ye 5th, 1717.” A ways farther on is “Robt son of Robt & Mary Clopton born July 28 bapd 7ber 1st 1728.” I’d also like to point out that I saw the names “Xtopher” and “Epaphroditus” while flipping through this church register. Thought you ought to know.

Short Lecture: By 1760 40% of the population in the Tidewater area was made up of enslaved Africans who worked while the planters honed their aristocratic lifestyles. If I’m understanding correctly (thanks to reading some fine books*), within a couple decades the tobacco fields wore out and at the same time migration moved into the Deep South where the big money was in cotton. Growing cotton was extremely profitable if you scaled up to big-ass plantations with free labor. This cotton boom created a corresponding demand for enslaved people who provided the free labor. Tidewater folks were looking to get out of tobacco anyway and it made financial sense to sell huge numbers of people to be literally herded south and west; literally “sold down the river.”

Working Hypothesis: This supports the idea that my fine Clopton tobacco barons faltered financially, sold the people they enslaved, and went west to invest in something new. Through the 1700’s my direct grandfathers were paying personal property taxes on their enslaved people, their horses, cattle, mules, land and buildings. (Seriously. Usually the enslaved people were listed by sex and age group, pretty much like the livestock. Sometimes they had their first names listed. In 1784 John Clopton, probably one of mine, owned Landon, Harry, Dolstra and Dick.) By the 1800s it seems like my string of Williams, Roberts and Johns had decamped to Kentucky.

*American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, by Colin Woodard, and The Half Has Never Been Told, by Edward E. Baptist

American Descendants of Slave Owners

*prologue: yrmama’s daughter, Serena Williams said, “But yrmama I thought you were just going to write about candidates.” yrmama shrugged and answered, “well everything is connected to everything so it will all come around.”

Half of my children were born in Iowa and are descendants of humans who enslaved other humans for over a hundred years. Seriously, yrmama’s people got on that stick immediately. I think the first direct-line ancestor of mine who was part of all that came to Virginia in 1713. William Clopton. From there he and his pals just went nuts enslaving people, buying land, marrying each other and spreading their plantations across the south. It looks to me like it was the youngest sons in those generations (who probably inherited less) who gradually moved westward and took their slaves along. A lot of times it might have been illegal to buy and sell slaves in a particular state, but if they brought their own along when they moved it was just fine. So they did! Case in point, my great great great grandfather, David, listed 18 slaves on the 1820 Virginia census. Then his little family moved west, through Kentucky to Illinois. By 1830 the family had zero slaves and had figured out how to farm for their own damn selves. Some of David’s siblings kept people in bondage all the way to the bitter end in 1865.

This legacy gave me undeniable privilege because no matter what, poor white people have fewer obstacles and more unearned power than poor people of color. It gave my immediate family just enough of a leg up to be aloof, intellectual poor people. I think the harm done to my ancestor’s souls by all those generations of mistreating people, prospering while their unpaid workers built everything and cleaned everything and did the farm work was ultimately completely crushing. It trickles down too, into a mushy, ever widening and very, very slowly diluting delta of unhappiness and resentment.

My compulsion to document this part of my destructive family tree is like picking at a scab. I want to see what’s under there because I know it’s not good. My therapist gently suggested that if I continue doing genealogy I consider looking for where the streams of love and spiritual goodness run. Easy for her to say. I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for, except maybe more explanation and documentation of those festering undercurrents of dysfunction and unhappiness. I kind of want to see the deluge that isn’t coming through the dike because I’ve got my thumb stuck in it. I want to see it evaporating because I’ve stopped it up good.