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

I took a DNA test turns out I am 100% yrmama

Wikipedia

In 1989 yrmama lived in St. Louis and someone left a message on her answering machine about doing genealogical research on the Clopton family in that area. As a heedless youth, she didn’t call him back, but she sure would now. In those olden days people had to do things like call all the Cloptons in the St. Louis phone book to find anything out. I did know from working with school field trip groups in my job at the science museum that there was a Clopton school somewhere nearby, which was surprising, and that all the teachers and students were black, also surprising. I thought Clopton meant Iowa and we all know that is likely to mean white. Then I did other things for about thirty years.

It turns out that there are a whole lot of Cloptons who don’t live in Iowa and who are not white. My father was Edwin Clopton, as was his father who went by Bill. From there on back is a long string of Williams, Johns, and Roberts and Davids. Most of them were named William and I’m not even kidding. Maybe that’s why Grandpa was Bill. Going backwards there are five generations in Iowa, a couple in Hart County, Kentucky, then Virginia. Virginia tobacco plantations all the way back to Jamestown in the early 1600’s.

I’m now obsessively compiling information about my enslaving Clopton forebears and the folks they enslaved. Thank you, internet. I’m not sure exactly why, but I want to know which ancestor in my direct paternal line was the last to own slaves. I believe it had to either be John Robert Clopton (1760-1830), or his son David Clopton (1794-1865). Both of them were born in tobaccoplatationland, New Kent County, Virginia and moved westward during their lives. John Robert settled in Hart County, Kentucky, a slave state, but with a different flavor, I think. Young David moved on from Kentucky into Missouri, into Iowa about 1850, and then retired and died back across the Mason Dixon line in Missouri. One of David’s sons, Robert Clopton (1823-1865?) even fought for the North in the Civil War and died in combat in southern Illinois. That’s quite an expanse of reality for David although I don’t know what he thought of any of it.

So David. John Robert. Which of you pulled the plug? I want to know why. Why did you give up that evil gravy train? Was it economics? Was it downward mobility? Did the overwhelming westward ho mood inspire you to liquidate and put all your capital in expansionist adventure? Did you suddenly turn into an abolitionist? What the heck were you thinking? Did you have any idea that the next five+ generations of your lineage would pat the too-inquisitive on their tow heads and say, “we don’t talk about that”?

The Pose

Dorothy, my maternal grandmother, knew what to do when someone was taking her picture. This was not due to the Gladwellian 10,000 hours of practice put in by modern girls, but because her uncle was a professional photographer. There are lovely portraits of her from the time she could stand where she’s popping out some version of this: face the camera, line your left heel up with the instep of your right foot, tip your head just a hair towards the outstretched toe, then find an arm position and facial expression to match the occasion. Here, that being some boy about to give her a corsage. The bob! The shoes! The gorgeous dresses they got to wear in the 1920s!

This mirror selfie approximation of the pose took about 30 tries and I’m not even kidding. It’s the best I could do. Grandmother’s foot trick is subtle, brilliant and surprisingly hard to not over play. Turns out the rest of it requires standing up very straight and then relaxing your shoulders and neck so that your head just sits there. Who knew. Today’s fashion statement involves second hand, black Old Navy jeans, the same brown belt I wear every day, a scoop-neck Patagonia t shirt and a DIY cardigan. If you have a tightly knit sweater you are tired of, or that makes you sweat too much, you can find a pair of scissors, slice it up the front and voila; a cardigan. No, it does not unravel into a big mess. I’ve committed this wanton act of creativity many times and your should too.