© 2014, Alex Colvin
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It is strenuously believed by some modern-day descendants of the Colvins of this study that their ethnic heritage traces to a Scottish ancestry. For reasons unsupported by historical and other empirical evidence, these descendants believe that certain slivers of anecdotal evidence is sufficient to support their claim. For example, one Ohio-based Colvin of this belief hoped to convince me of his Colvin Scottish heritage because some of his Colvin relatives attended a specific Baptist church, or because when bagpipes were played in the presence of another Colvin of his line, that person became teary eyed. Another of his ancestors, he insisted, was clearly of Scottish decent because of his excessive ear hair and his burly chest. Yes, you heard that correctly. Most significantly, the claimant insisted, the surname Colvin traces, (etymologically-speaking,) to the Lowland Scots of yore. Facts enough for him, these observable yet disconnected shards of evidence, to be convincing.
The physical characteristics point of his argument I won’t concede simply because such traits being exclusively hung onto those of a Scottish heritage are too naïve to be taken seriously. It’s worth noting, for example, that excessive ear hair is actually a medical phenomenon shared by many elderly males. Moreover, large chests are routinely found among races which live at high altitudes, itself an evolutionary adaptation which allows for more oxygen (larger lung capacity,) in oxygen-poor environments. Think of the Sherpa of Tibet of Mt. Everest fame, for example, a race of native people who have been inhabiting the Tibetan plateau for over 3,000 years. Neither will I concede that only a Scotsman can feel especially moved by the sound of bagpipes. This is not an uncommon response by many, particularly when certain tunes are played. The Scottish do not have a monopoly on being deeply affected by music, although their musical heritage is certainly rich and well established in America.
Which brings us to what may be a better approach to understanding the Colvin ethnicity in Colonial Piedmont, from which all branches originally grew — including the Ohio branch begining in the early 19th century. To do this we’ll need to examine three aspects of their heritage: the etymology of the Colvin name, their long-practiced religious heritage, and finally, an overlooked linguistic heritage, known as the Piedmont Dialect, a particular language feature still clearly discernable among contemporary Colvins of this line living in the Piedmont.
We’ll start with the etymology. Two often-cited authorities used to explain the surname Colvin etymologically are Mark Antony Lower’s “Patronymica Britannica,” published in London in 1860 and George F. Black’s “The surnames of Scotland: their origin, meaning and history” published in New York in 1946. Aside from these works being nearly a century apart in age, they differ also in that they focus on two different regions. Lower’s work focus on the etymologies of surnames of the entire United Kingdom, (England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales) while Black’s work focused on names which trace specifically to Scotland. In either case, both present problems. We’ll start with Patronymica Britannica which shows that the Colvin name first turned up in the 11th Century as the name of a Devonshire Tenant-in-Chief, who supposedly held his lands during the reign of Edward the Confessor who ruled over England during those dark, medieval days, when it was a collection of fiefdoms and whose reign predates its first true king, William the Conqueror of 1066 fame.
Unfortunately, there are virtually no references to who this Colvin was. But there are hints in Lower’s reference that those Colvin lands do appear listed in the historically significant and unprecedented Doomsday Book, that mammoth survey done by the incoming monarch William, who wanted to know just how much there was of what he‘d just conquered. In that book, there are lots of shires and places and landholder names listed which one can readily see in the full online versions of it –such as the one available via England’s own National Archives website. Devonshire is there (the historical name for modern-day Devon,) but no Colvin is listed. Egads! Worst perhaps for those who think Colvin is a Scottish Lowland name, Devon, it turns out is one of England’s western-most counties. It is nowhere near Scotland, although historically, it was home to a Celtic language. This is something of a geographical problem if you want to count yourself among Scottish Lowlander descendants. And this is the oldest reference known. Next, let’s jump forward a few centuries to examine the entry by Dr. George F. Black, in his “Surnames of Scotland,” — the next oldest reference – wherein he notes a John Colvin found in 1680 in the parish of Bothkenner, in Sterling(shire) Scotland. This entry, at least puts it geographically closer to the region from whence it allegedly came. Sort of. Stirlingshire straddles Scotland’s well-known Highland-Lowland border. This is, again, not good news if you want to insist on a Lowland Scottish heritage, because you’d somehow have to find a way to genealogically link him and his male descendants – if any –to the earliest known Colvins in the colonial Piedmont, Virginia region who have thus far been traced only to the mid-18th century. Good luck.
This geographical and chronological cleavage, however, helps to underscore the untidiness of claiming the Colvin surname is of Scottish Lowland origin. But here’s more to consider: the Scottish Lowlanders historically mixed more with the English, (they did border northern England, after all,)  than with their Highlander neighbors whom they detested and who’s chieftains held vast lands farmed by their peasant, Gaelic-speaking tenants who wore tartan kilts, played bagpipes, and were part of a clan system. The Lowlanders – with their own language – the “scots,” — observed none of these cultural habits and were more allied with the English.  There is also the matter of the deeply-held animosity between the Highland peasantry and their own clan leaders exacerbated during what became known as the Highland Clearances of the late 18th through the late 19th centuries.
Much has been written on the subject regarding how Highland clan culture was decimated over the course of several phases involving sheep, land confiscations, outright evictions of entire families or in other cases, entire villages, where homes were sometimes set ablaze to force residents off their hereditary lands. A decimation undertaken, moreover, by their own chieftains. Further, historians note how writers like Sir Walter Scott helped to sanitize this tragic chapter in Scottish history by idealizing the Highlander Scotts in the service of the emerging tourist trade, even though 19th century sympathetic newspaper accounts would later call the clearances an “extermination policy.”  Writers like Scott nevertheless helped to usher in a romantic image of the Highlander Scots, which in turn helped craft a cultural mythology among tourists. Thus it is the propagated mythology of the Scotsman most latter-day Americans know and European tour guides help promote today, even as the real bitterness that existed then and still does between the two cultures bubbles just beneath the surface. Echos of that friction can be clearly found simmering amid Highlanders and Lowlanders at Internet sites like Debate.org, where the topic, “Lowlands of Scotland should apologize for the Highland Clearances,” incites a lively discussion with plenty of finger-pointing and blame to go around.
Nevertheless, while historians agree that the Highlanders suffered enormously, remnants of their culture managed to survive as they immigrated in great numbers overseas, particularly to British Canada and to British North America where they settled in large numbers in the deep south, particularly in North Carolina. The Lowlanders, meanwhile, tended to remain in their native homelands where they assimilated with the English and, in many cases, took up trades. However, those Lowlanders who did immigrate, broadly speaking, followed the earlier pattern already establish back in their native lands, by dispersing into the countryside, or settling sporadically in the British North American cities. This was a different pattern from Highlander immigrants, who tended to settle in their new lands on their hereditary pattern of clustering, clan-like.
This settlement pattern is significant if we are to understand the Scottish in Virginia which, if we assume the Colvins were of Lowland Scottish descent, it should follow that they adhered to the settlement pattern already mentioned. The trouble is showing it, as there are few authoritative sources on this subject. Instead there exists much in the way of amateur literature which mistakenly lump together Scottish migration patterns in British North America over several centuries as if Ulster Scot, (sometimes called Scots-Irish) Lowland Scots, and Highland Scots were all the same ethnicity. They were not, and as both Dr. Krossa and Bethune show clearly, both their settlement patterns and social affinities, in their native regions and later –particularly in North Carolina — were demonstrably different from one another. One certified genealogist, Myra Vanderpool Gormley, tried to articulate the differences in these populations and migration patterns in her 2000 article, “Migration Patterns of Our Scottish Ancestors” for the popular genealogy periodical, Genealogy Magazine (Vol. 4, No. 1) when she wrote in part:
By the 1760s emigration from the Highland of Scotland increased and the reason often given was the raising of rents in their homeland. [See: The Highland Clearance noted earlier.]
At the time of the American Revolution most Scottish colonists, especially the Highlanders, were loyalists. Afterward many of them left the United States, to settle in Canada or return to Scotland.
After the Revolution, most Scots immigrated to Canada rather than the United States. However, many of them later came to America from Canada. A total of 478,224 Scots entered the United States between 1852 and 1910 according to official figures.
Most Scots settled in the Southern and Middle Atlantic states in the 17th and 18th centuries. The men who were transported as rebels or as criminals were sent mainly to Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas.
Gormley’s observations not only underscore the distinct settlement patterns already noted by Bethune, but they also highlight how most Scottish Highlanders were Loyalists during the American Revolution. And clearly, as the Revolutionary military records of the male members of this Colvin line make clear, every male who could carry a musket at the time in Culpeper County, did so to take up arms against the British. Fortunately, other scholars have taken up the question of why and where these Scottish British loyalists in Virginia were located, such as Dr. Charles Grimes, a professor with George Mason University’s Department of Geography and GeoInformation Science. Dr. Grimes’s published works include the website, “Geography of Virginia”. At his website, on the page, The Revolutionary War in Virginia, he rhetorically asks his visitors:
“Why Were the Loyal Virginians Concentrated Where They Were?” He replies:
The Scottish traders in Norfolk were economically linked to the mercantile system of England. So long as the colonies were economically dependent upon the mother country, and the Royal Navy enforced the Navigation Acts and prevented direct shipment of Virginia-grown tobacco to French and Dutch ports, the Scots in Norfolk would make money as middlemen. They did not have a monopoly on shipping Virginia tobacco to Glasgow and other British ports, but only the large planters could maintain a direct relationship in England with a banker/buyer for their goods.
The Scots recognized that an independent Virginia (perhaps allied with other colonies, perhaps not…) would allow greater competition and cut deeply into their profits. You don’t have to sunbscribe [sic]to Marxist theory to recognize that the economic interests shaped political loyalties.
The westerners were largely self-sufficient, and their economic ties to England were minimal. Transportation costs across the Piedmont and the Blue Ridge made it uneconomic to grow tobacco or other cash crops. All the profits would be eaten up by the shipping costs, for those farmers located more than a few miles from the navigable rivers leading to a Chesapeake Bay port.
Carefully note the two important distinctions being made. One is made directly; the other, by implication. Firstly, these loyalists who occupied the Tidewater region (Norfolk) were Scottish and secondly, they appear to have been of a mercantile class, not subsistence farmers. Those are substantially different geographic and occupational characteristics than those documented by the Colvin colonists in the Piedmont region. In other words, inland farmers had no economic incentive compelling enough to drive them to become Loyalists. But what if we want to determine whether those Tidewater Scots were Highlander or Lowlander – just in case there’s a Colvin among them, even though those in the Piedmont have been fully accounted for. In that case, we have only to look at the so called “Scottish” culture being celebrated centuries later by members of “The Scottish Society of Tidewater,” Virginia, as evidence. The club clearly promotes Highlander culture with its encouragement of the use of kilts, clans, tartans, as well as offerings of classes in Gaelic. So, no Lowlander Colvins there – if you subscribe to the Lowlander Colvin name idea.
Thus it seems clear from the available empirical evidence that the Colvins of this line do not display any of the demographic characteristics already well documented by historians which would give rise to a reasonable belief that they are of a Scottish heritage. At least not among those Colvins already traced in extant records to the 18th century in the Piedmont, Virginia region. And ethnicity is not re-born when someone migrates, which is how the Colvins from the Piedmont got to Ohio. Their ethnicity went where they went. As to their fore-bearers’ heritage, that remains entirely a matter of speculation until better findings become available. But there are hints at what it might be, that’s assuming what the Colvin descendants were practicing in the 18th century was a hereditary tradition. That also is in evidence in Culpeper County which is where the earliest records have thus far been traced. A separate branch of this line grew, extended first to Fauquier, then eventually extended to Ohio. We’ll examine that next.
Most historians agree that Presbyterianism was the religion of choice among most of Virginia’s 18th century Scottish population., particularly among the so-called Ulster-Scots who were filling up the Shenandoah Valley region although, like Baptist, it too was considered a “dissenting” religion. Conversely, the extant records thus far examined to date make it clear the Piedmont region Colvins, very early on were Baptist. But this is also clear during the same period by inference because certain records are conspicuously absent. Among the earliest of the extant records in Virginia’s colonial period, comes in the form of the names of two Colvin males of this line, Daniel Colvin (1737-1790) and his son, Mason Colvin, (1764-1834) whose signature facsimiles appear on the now famous, “Ten Thousand Names” petition. This record is significant in helping to determine their religious bent because it was a petition spearheaded by Baptists ministers in 1776 and signed by thousands of Virginia’s Baptists. Certainly other “dissenting” congregations joined in, but Baptists were by far its majority signatories. The object of the document was to appeal to the Virginia General Assembly to put a halt to the endless harassments and bullying their congregants and ministers had endured under the monopoly of the Anglican church. Many had been jailed, beaten, their churches burned, their preachers assaulted; their services disrupted by Anglican hoodlums. Many petitions had proceeded this one; others would follow. But this was the watershed one.
Daniel and Mason’s relationship is established by the affidavit of Peter Trippett, who served with both men three years later in the winter of 1779 during what has become known as Clark’s Conquest. Trippett was deposed on 3 May 1834. His purpose was to provide proof that Daniel had served in the Revolution, because at that time, Daniel was applying for his Bounty lands, (the government’s lure of compensation for service at a time when it was essentially too broke to offer monetary pay.) But in his deposition, the 80-year-old Trippett noted also that both Daniel and his son had served together during their secret Revolutionary expedition, named both men, and went on to explain how he thought it “a rare circumstance improper [in] his mind,” that the two served side-by-side. So there’s clear evidence that not only were these early Colvins fighting the British, they were also Baptist.
Additional evidence comes not so many years later, in the early1790s, where one finds marriage bonds among these same early Colvins, but no marriage returns. Why? Anglican clerks were under no obligation to record marriages in their registries provided by them from dissident ministers, although the bond money paid to the county clerks for a licence was still required.
This was certainly the case for Elizabeth Colvin, (1775-1826) a daughter of Charles Colvin of Fauquier  who married Elias Duncan on December 21st 1792 in Fauquier County, Virginia. One readily finds the marriage bond (a type of colonial surety,) among extant records, but, like many marriages in that year’s listings, there is no return from the minister, indicating the exact marriage date. The same is true of Elizabeth’s brother, William Colvin, (1767- ?) who was not only married twice in Fauquier – in 1788, then again in 1797, each time by a Baptist minister – but who, by 1804, can also be found listed among the a membership rolls of neighboring Stafford County’s Chapawamsic Baptist Church, itself a Baptist spin off from a congregation in Fauquier, although the membership rolls consulted for Chapawamsic indicate he was received in that church “without letter.” He had relocated from Fauquier to Stafford County in 1799. This was likewise the case with William’s brother, Richard Colvin (1762-1826) for whom William served as witness on the $150.00 marriage bond on September 3, 1793 in order that he might marry Lydia George, the underage daughter of Benjamin George. No minister’s return was ever recorded.
Perhaps more importantly however, is the fact that Robert Nordin and Thomas White, two ministers from England, are usually credited with helping to germinate the Baptist faith in Virginia in 1710. Moreover, Fauquier’s Broad Run Church is considered by historians Virginia’s first congregation of so-called “Regular” Baptists — founded 1762. Chapawamsic, of which William was a member, was in fact, a spin off of this church. — itself part of a branch of the Baptist faith begun earlier in Pennsylvania, and a member of a larger network of such churches which comprised the confederation known as the Philadelphia Baptist Association, founded in that city three years earlier in 1707.  But who were these Pennsylvania Baptists and where were they from? One Colonial history scholar from Rowan University answers that question by tracing the history of Virginia Baptists to their Pennsylvania roots and then their European origins. In her “Bodies of Belief : Baptist Community in Early America,” Dr. Janet Lindmann writes, “The British Baptists who settled Penn’s colony in the 1680s immigrated from England, Ireland, and Wales. Both Regular and General Baptists, they came from a century-long tradition of religious dissent and political radicalism.” 
If there were Scottish involved in the founding of these early Pennsylvania Baptist churches or later in their Piedmont, Virginia strains, historians have somehow managed to overlook them. Moreover, if we remember that that 11th century Colvin, identified in Patronymica Britannica as being a Tenant in Chief in Devonshire, coupled with what is known regarding the Baptist founding in Virginia, it seems reasonable to suppose the Colvins of the Piedmont with which this blog concerns itself, were of an English ethnicity. However, there is another characteristic unique to modern-day descendants of this same line which makes this proposition seem even more likely: The Piedmont Dialect.
Generally speaking, the Piedmont Dialect falls within a much broader series of dialects known collectively as Southern American English (SAE) and is a distinct American sound found among various population inhabiting that wide swath of states within the southern region, excluding Florida and certain parts of extreme Southwest Texas. Within the SAE region, linguists have been able to identify at least three sub-regions with their own distinct family of sub-dialects: Atlantic, Midland and Highland, and Gulf of Mexico. The Piedmont Dialect falls within the Atlantic dialectic bounds and appears to be among the oldest of Southern dialects and is distinct from what is called the Coastal Southern Dialect or Tidewater Dialect, another member of the Atlantic dialect family. Their regional sounds differ substantially due to a combination of geography and linguistic heritage from what is known as the Midland and Highland dialect (a.k.a. Highland Southern,) which is found in areas most heavily settled by Ulster and Highland Scotts such as the Appalachia Mountain region. What linguists also know is that The Piedmont Dialect traces to southern England. Modern examples are extant, although the distinctness is beginning to fade. However, many Colvins retain their Piedmont accents, including those contemporary Colvins of this line living in Fauquier, Roanoke, and Richmond. On a personal note, I can attest to the distinct Virginian accent of my paternal grandmother, Mary Francis Morgan, (1899-1982) who was raised on her father’s Stafford County, farm but who, by the 1960s was living in Washington, D.C. I can still hear her asking me to “go to the sto-a” for her but never the “store.” The r-dropping is one of the most distinct linguistic features of the Piedmont dialect.
Given the continuity of the Colvin linguistic heritage and its unique geographic occurrence, coupled with what is known regarding the etymology of the Colvin name, as well as what is known regarding the demographics which shaped Scottish colonial settlement in Virginia as well as the history of Baptists in Virginia and the Colvin religious affinity with them, the evidence seems to strongly suggest that the Colvins of this study descend from an English progenitor. A progenitor moreover, who is currently unknown, yet many of whose descendants still engaged in a Baptist religious adherence now more than 10-generations later. Their modern-day Virginia relatives, meanwhile, still speak with a distinct accent, known only to a specific region, itself a modulated form of its original English sound, many living on hereditary lands where their ancestors once farmed centuries ago. Combined these social and linguistic features seem to strongly suggest the true Colvin ethnicity.