Deep Virginia Roots

sunshine-fog-trees-1Tracing this family’s history in North America is like following a path from a well-lit meadow into an increasingly dense and dark forest. At the beginning, the path is wide and well-groomed, with occasional side trails paved in sturdy stone splitting off to Alsace, Hungary, and Ireland. A little ways further along there are rough but distinct pathways branching off to Germany, France, northern Ireland, and England. The main path keeps going deeper into the forest, but starts to splinter into dozens of poorly defined trails all of which eventually run into a colonial Virginia fog bank where not only does the researcher lose visibility, but the 17th century walking surface itself dissolves into nothing but air and vapor. Thus the cloud of unknown and possibly unknowable 17th-century family history in tidewater Virginia.

While flailing around in the mist occasionally a foot will locate a firm hold, providing a solid if tenuous path to follow both backward and forward. Usually this is the result of finding a well-known and well-documented individual. Such is the case with Abraham Wood, one of the progenitors of the Thompson family.

Abraham Wood was only 5 years old when he arrived in the Virginia colony in 1620 on the ship “Margaret and John” after the vessel and its passengers survived a 2-on-1 attack by Spanish warships in the Caribbean. At this time the survival of the Virginia colony was still in question, and immigration was all that kept disease, Indian attacks, and other ills from reducing the British population in the Chesapeake Bay to zero. But in these difficult times, Wood managed to survive, prosper, and become one of the leading citizens of the colony.

Key to Wood’s success was his appointment in 1646 as commander of Fort Henry at the falls of the Appomatox River where the city of Petersburg, Virginia is today. The fort marked the treaty boundary between Native American tribes and the English colonists following the Second Anglo-Powhatan War, and was the most southwestward outpost of the English in Virginia. Here, at the edge of navigable tidal rivers was the furthest the colony’s settlement expanded during most of the 1600’s. Beyond was terra incognita, where English settlers did not go.

Fort Henry was also one of the few places where trade between Europeans and interior Native American tribes could take place. While that trade was small throughout most of the century, Wood owned land by the fort, operated a trading post, and came to profit through his landholdings, political leadership, and dominance of this point of exchange.

Wood was also an explorer. Before Daniel Boone could wander Kentucky or Lewis and Clarke could travel to the Pacific Ocean, the English first had to find their way off those narrow strips of land they settled along the Chesapeake Bay. It was Wood’s initiative, with the support and occasional collaboration of Virginia governor William Berkeley, that led Virginians to begin exploring westward and southward. In 1650, Wood co-led with Edward Bland the first expedition to explore the Carolina region south and west of the Roanoke River. Later in the 1670’s he anticipated the role of Thomas Jefferson by sponsoring expeditions that sought routes over the mountains to the Pacific Ocean (at the time, Europeans thought the Pacific was just on the other side of the Appalachian Mountains). While unsuccessful at finding the western ocean these explorations did bring English explorers into the Ohio River Valley for the first time. In fact, the original name explorers gave the New River was the “Wood River” for Abraham. Gabriel Arthur, one of Wood’s agents, remained with an interior Indian tribe (likely the Cherokee) for 10 months and traveled with them all the way to the Gulf of Mexico and the southern coast of what is now South Carolina.

Wood became a close friend and supporter of royal Governor Berkeley, and served on the Governor’s Council from 1657-1671. He had earlier been a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses representing first Henrico County from 1644-1646 and then Charles City County from 1652-1656. He was appointed Colonel in the county militia in 1655 and later Major General, but lost the position in 1676, apparently because of political fallout from Bacon’s Rebellion.

By 1676 Abraham Wood had also retired from the trading business, and turned his responsibilities at the fort and trading post over to his son-in-law Peter Jones. Wood had “transported” Peter to Virginia in 1638, at a time when bringing new colonists from Europe entitled the transporter to grants of land. The frontier trading hub became known widely as “Peter Jones Trading Post” or “Peter Jones Trading Station.” Decades later in 1733, Colonel William Byrd II established a new city in the same location named for the trading post and its original owner. Thus, the city of Petersburg is named for an ancestor of the Thompson family.  Ruins of the trading post structures are still preserved downtown.

Peter Jones Trading Station

Ruins of Peter Jones Trading Station in downtown Petersburg, Virginia

A good source on Abraham Wood and his history is Alan Vance Briceland’s book Westward from Virginia: The Exploration of the Virginia-Carolina Frontier 1650-1710. Wood is portrayed as the most important figure in the earliest frontier exploration. The last paragraph of the epilogue sums up Briceland’s view:

Berkeley and Wood’s explorers failed in their search for a viable route to the South Sea. Governor Berkeley was forced to leave Virginia to answer charges raised by the followers of Nathaniel Bacon and died soon after his arrival in England. Although historians have generally treated him unsympathetically, it was Berkeley’s determination that sent Englishmen beyond the Appalachian Mountains, preparing the way for the opening of the frontier. Like Berkeley, John Lederer was driven from Virginia in disgrace, returning to Europe and to obscurity. James Needham had met death in the wilderness, mourned only by a few friends. Edward Bland died shortly after completing his journey, his name and exploits soon forgotten except among his own family. Thomas Batts, Robert Fallam, and Gabriel Arthur were quickly assimilated back into the Virginia population, disappearing from view [note: all of these men except Lederer traveled under Wood’s direction]. Of the great pioneers of the first frontier, only Abraham Wood achieved any prominence and recognition for his efforts. Wood alone lived long enough to realize the importance of what he and the others had done in the years from 1650-1675. They had opened a continent, taken its dimensions, invited others to follow, and set the English nation on the road of western expansion.


Genealogical Notes

Genealogists and historians seem split on whether Peter Jones’ wife Margaret was Abraham Wood’s daughter or step-daughter. Peter, Margaret, and their family were certainly treated as the closest family by Wood; not only did he turn over his political and business interests to Peter, but his will named the Jones children as his heirs along with a daughter Mary.

The next member of the Thompson family in this line is Mary Jones, the daughter of Peter and his wife Margaret, who married Joshua Wynne. Joshua was the son of Robert Wynne, one of early Virginia’s most prominent landowners and politicians who served as the Speaker of Virginia House of Burgesses during the years from 1662-1674. Robert and Joshua both have interesting histories, and a later post will tell their story.

There are good primary source documents that show the descent of Mary Elizabeth Harris, the wife of William Harrison Thompson, from Mary Jones and Joshua Wynne which will be posted here as time allows.

Here are two first-hand narratives covering events discussed above:

  • Discovery of New Brittaine. Edward Bland’s description of the journey he and Abraham Wood made in 1650.
  • Voyage of Anthony Chester. A fellow passenger on the “Margaret and John” described in detail the fight with the Spanish warships that preceded Abraham Wood’s childhood arrival in Virginia.
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