The Colvins of Colonial Fauquier and Culpeper Counties, Virginia and their descendants.

Last revised: September 2, 2016

            The accurate genealogical record of the descendants of Charles Colvin, who appears to head a family line rooted deeply in Colonial Virginia agrarian history does not exists in a single volume nor is its narrative sufficiently compelling enough to rise to the level of significant American history.  But it is significant in that it forms the chronology of events and stories of a family history which begins when Virginia was still an English colony and her people very much the subjects of an English crown. It plays out, as many genealogies do, quietly in the background of more seminal historical events, going entirely unnoticed and eclipsed by those events, even as members of this family are contributing to and being effected by those events. Thus, the overall objective and thesis of this study has been, and remains, the discovery and accurate recording of this old, embedded family and its beginnings in America and to follow its various lines of descent wherever they lead.

I began this research task in 1997, ceased for hiatus, then began again in earnest in the spring of 2005 with the notion that it would be both quantitative and biographical. To that end, I have tried to adopt strict proof standards, and take as my controlling hypothesis the proposition that, given sufficient documented evidence, a reliable and accurate genealogy can be produced of the Colvins of Colonial Fauquier and Culpeper Counties, Virginia and their descendants.  To that end as well, to aid my research I have read enormous amounts of academic journal writings on subjects ranging from Virginia laws affecting single women and real property to overviews of the economic realities of miscegenation in various southern states. In addition to these readings has been the consumption of an equal number of monographs on relevant topics by respected scholars — the most recent being Dr. John A. Ragosta’s Wellspring of Liberty (Oxford U. Press, 2010) — to both gain a deeper understanding of the topics themselves, but more particularly to gain insight into the historical fabric through which the Colvins of my study were interwoven, as clearly indicated by the voluminous records their lives generated.  To date, the records thus far collected comprise the working database of the Colvin Study and reflect events of over 2,700 individuals who can be definitively linked to each other in this Colvin family which spans a winding course of over two and a half centuries.

Consequently, ten generations worth of digitized primary records and over 15 years of researching can result in some interesting statistics. For example, every letter in the English alphabet can be represented in this line, from Adeline Pridmore Colvin (1907-1980) to Zacharia Taylor Colvin (1849-1943).  Among those born Colvin, (of those thus far accounted for,) some 500 retained their surname Colvin until death, passing it along to their progeny. Geographically, although the line unequivocally began on America’s eastern shores in Virginia’s Piedmont in the 18th century, by the beginning of the 21st century, it was clearly bi-coastal with direct and collateral descendants found not only in California but in, Arizona, Michigan, Ohio, Florida, and even Texas. Many of these Colvin branches have their own long histories, bundled up with the states’ histories themselves, many pioneers during their nation’s westward expansion period. Yet, like numerous never-ending streams which flow across landscapes from some great unknown primary source, these trailing branches and those who people them, account for only a small fraction of the Colvins of this line in the U.S.  Thus, like some great ancient oak whose true roots are not yet known and whose newest branches grow farther with each passing year, these Colvins continue to spread far and wide.

Methodological approach: striking a balance.

            While the composition of a genealogy is a worthy ambition, how the information is evaluated and presented are both significant. Although this study approaches the analysis of data using the Historical Method, it’s worth noting that the recitation of bare facts about a familial line strung out page upon page makes for dull reading. Indeed, such recitations become unbearable if they fail to place those vital statistical facts within the fuller richness of the historical context in which they occur. Thus, the constant aim of the Colvin Study is to provide not just data and a careful analysis of that data, but context.  It is not satisfying enough to know that Charles and his kin existed in Culpeper and Fauquier in the 18th  century and that he himself appears on a Fauquier County tax roll named as an overseer; it is also pertinent to know that those Culpeper Colvin’s names also appear on petitions to their colonial assemblies pleading that something be done about the abuses against Baptists at a time when the Anglican church held heavy sway throughout Virginia; it is likewise useful to know that Charles appears on Culpeper County draft lists and that men like him who ended up on such lists were typically from the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.

Unfortunately, this approach of combining genealogy with regional and general history runs counter to somewhat recent developments in genealogy which may be described as a kind of separatist movement which insists that genealogy is a unique field of history entitled to its own set of research rules and even source citation styles. These genealogy “separatists” likewise insist there exists an uneasy relationship between genealogists and historical scholarship. (These separatists may be surprised to learn that genealogy is, in fact, not a sub-field of History at all. See: A Brief History of U.S. Genealogy.)  Nevertheless, they claim, historians generally tend to look upon genealogists as historian wannabes, unworthy and unpracticed, incapable of true historical scholarship. The numerous volumes of poorly-researched family histories lining the shelves of genealogy libraries certain adds credence to this notion; however, such volumes are really a reflection of the poor academic and research training of the authors rather than grist used by historians to grind up genealogists. In fact, contrary to this mistaken notion, there is clearly contrary evidence that historians do value genealogy and have published works in that vein.

Consider, for example, two works of recent scholarship, offered as important monographs in American history, and in one specific case, a text which has become required reading in a senior-level university course.

Firstly, there’s “Ordinary Courage,” (2013, Wiley-Blackwell,) the edited Revolutionary War memoir of Joseph Plumb Martin, edited by Martin’s living descendant, Dr. James Kirby Martin, a military historian at the University of Houston.  Then there is “Olden Times Revisited: W. L. Clayton’s Pen Pictures” (1982, Univ. Press of Miss.) edited by Dr. Minrose Gwin, who is both a professor of English at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a direct descendant of the subject’s father.

Clearly, these historians do not disdain genealogy. Both of their monographs contribute meaningfully to their respective fields, even as they are clearly drawing upon their genealogical link to the subject. This perceptible interrelation between fields of research demonstrates convincingly how genealogy and historical scholarship can intersect in peacefully co-existence. I hope the Colvin Study will ultimately follow this model. 

Findings Summary:  January 2014

             Charles Colvin is first found in Colonial Virginia tax records as the tithable of William Waller, in the Fauquier County 1766 personal property tax lists recorded by Gilson Foote, a local tax commissioner.  The clear implication of this record is that Charles was working and likely living on the Waller plantation, quite possibly as Waller’s overseer of his 400-acres farm. The Foote list shows that Waller owned three slaves named Isaac, Backus, and John.

An additional entry above in the same Foote list, showed a “Wallers Estate,” which claims a “Wm. Tippet” as a tithable along with eight additional slaves named James, Joe, Cyrus, Hannerboy, Winney, Phillis, Lettice, and Dye, that estate also consists of 400 acres.  If the separate entries represent two separate farms this would bring Waller’s number of slaves to eleven and tithables to thirteen. The term “estate” found in colonial tax records typically indicates that the landowner is deceased and that the property is now held by an heir or assign.

Given that early Fauquier tax records have not survived in sequential order; it is not possible to determine by analysis exactly when Charles became Waller’s tithable. By Virginia law, in 1766, males aged 16-18 were tithable on their personal property, (typically their horse,) but always their slaves. However, since Waller was paying Charles’s share of his tithes, it is reasonable to assume, Charles was likely an employee of Waller.  There is also reason to believe, Charles may have been Waller’s apprentice in the trade of farming, which would go far in explaining the absence of any documents indicating Charles natural birth in Virginia or America. What is clear is that Charles Colvin was unique in the Fauquier area. Among the other Colvin lines examined for comparison, no other individual with this surname existed in Fauquier at this time. What can be said is that by 1783, Charles was an overseer for one and perhaps more of the considerable estates belonging to James Hunter, then considered one of the largest slaveholders in the Piedmont with estates in Fauquier, Stafford, and Culpeper Counties, in addition to his well-known Hunter’s Forge (a.k.a. Hunter’s Iron Works,) whose reputation as Virginia’s largest manufacture of arms and iron goods for the Continental Army are well documented.  That year, in the tax rolls of commissioner, French Struthers of Culpeper County, for example, Charles is listed as overseer for the Hunter estate in charge of 22 named slaves of both genders and 20 “young negros” even as he is listed as a taxpayer in Fauquier with “13 horses” and “4 cattle” This is also the year, Charles and his wife sold their their 167-acreas of land in Culpeper County and relocated to Fauquier.  The tax records coupled with his migration pattern strongly suggests his relocation from Culpeper to Fauquier was occupational.

Several members of a Colvin line did exist in nearby Culpeper County; in what way Charles was related to this line is yet unclear, although there is clear evidence that he was related. In addition, various documents examined make it clear that among those Colvins, several of its male members served in the Revolutionary War. Thus, distinguishing what I’ve come to refer to as the Culpeper Colvins from those belonging properly to the Fauquier and Stafford lines was aided greatly by Revolutionary pension records.

The same cannot be said of Colvin males found in the area of Kentucky where William and Raleigh (2 tithables of Charles in Fauquier,) were known to have migrated to Mason County. However, there also is found, a William Colvin in nearby Pendleton County – a Colvin male frequently mistaken for the tithable of Charles Colvin of Fauquier of the same name. Additional research traced the Pendleton William to his progenitor, Vincent Colvin, of Fallowfield Township, Yohogania County, Pennsylvania (as it was then known.) Of Vincent, good extant biographical data is available in resources such as in Crumrine Boyd’s History of Washington County, Pennsylvania. (H.L. Everts & Co., 1882). A similar case of mistaken identity arises with a William Colvin of Indiana who, though the same heir of Vincent and who died in Indiana ca. 1826, is typically found in compilations being confused with William, tithable of Charles Colvin of Fauquier County. Key evidence used to sort them out came in the form of Kentucky tax records, where Vincent Colvin is found paying the personal property taxes of William.

As to Charles’ descendants, the current body of evidence shows he was the likely the father of at least one son and three daughters, possibly more, who were, from the colonial period, until the Civil War, slave-owners, landholding and landowning farmers and farm laborers on large and small farms by trade and by tradition. This agrarian tradition continues, though by far fewer numbers, into the 21st century among his Virginia descendants. Especially noteworthy is the fact that, in more than one case, modern-day Virginia descendants of this line not only remain occupants and owners of homes and lands within or near their ancestral boundaries, but in one exceptional case, in very recent years, legal step have been taken to preserve the heritage of the land for posterity against encroaching development.

In terms of their contributions during the Colonial period to politics, religion, the arts, literature, or to the military, those activities have been slowly coming to light.  For example, it now appears that most of the Colvin Culpeper men served in the Revolution in the Virginia Line at various times during numerous tours of duty from its begining through to its conclusion during the later Southern campaigns in Yorktown, based upon pension records, bounty land warrant records, and the 1781 Culpeper County draft class lists which, in the case of Culpeper County, are unusually extant. On those class lists, four Colvin men from Culpeper are found: Mason Colvin, (Class 9,) John Colvin (Class 10,) Charles Colvin (Class 11,) and Benjamin Colvin (Class 52.)  The regiments in which they served, their tours, and many other details of their wartime activities for Benjamin, John, and Mason Colvin, for example, can be determined from their pension and bounty land records. These same records have also been useful in establishing the sibling relationships between four of several Culpeper men — except for Charles.  Likewise, his Revolutionary wartime service remains elusive, although there is little doubt that he served.  Further, the fact that Charles appears on the Culpeper class list at all helps to further strengthen the link to his Culpeper relatives.

The military activities of the males of this line continued unbroken into the 2nd generation where Charles B. Colvin (a son of Charles Colvin) can be found among War of 1812 pension records. Likewise, the 3rd generation of males of this line are found enlisting as privates mustering with their respective Confederate or Union companies in the Civil War; in Virginia, for example, a few served Company A, 4th Virginia Cavalry — of which one was imprisoned as a POW at the Old Capital Prison in Washington, D.C. for no less than two years. At least three were Confederate spies of which one died in his duty while another lived to have his eye-witness narrative published in 1919. On the Union side, two males from this line served from Ohio defending a Tennessee Union rail line, and returned home safely. The military enlistments among the males of this line continued unbroken with each succeeding generation. In the late 20th century, as the U.S. military began allowing women to serve, there, too, one finds Colvin females from this same line. Yet, it is likely, few modern-day members of this Colvin line know of this centuries-old family tradition which reaches back to the founding of their country.


Migratory patterns:

           Geographically, many of the early Virginia members of this line remained steadfastly loyal to their native Piedmont, Virginia region despite land exhaustion, war, disease, death, economic hardships, or the magnetic draw of the land acts which sent many to newly opening states and hostile Indian territories. Not even the five-year encampment by Union soldiers in Stafford County — which all but devastated it — dissuaded them. Nor, for example, in Fauquier County was William Colvin, (5th eldest son of Charles’ tithe, Richard Colvin,) tempted to leave despite Union soldiers having decimated his 227-acre farm. Instead, he eventually filed a claim with the Southern Claims Commission for over $1,200.00 worth of damage (equal to $30,000 in 2006 dollars.) Like many southern farmers who suffered a similar fate, his claim was unapologetically rejected.

But the loyal Virginia members of this line are only part of the story. Others did leave.

Minor movements.

          Of Charles’ tithes, three left Fauquier. One remained behind; the only member of this line to do so. Not even Charles appears to have stayed — if he ever lived there at all; he died in 1811, in Pendleton County, Kentucky.

The first minor migrations appear to have been initiated by Charles Colvin, Jr., Charles’ son who, in 1796, relocated to adjacent Stafford County. There is some early evidence indicating he relocated thereafter to Kentucky where he established his line, however, the analysis remains ongoing.

His initial move was followed, by, William Colvin who, in 1800, released his lease (executed in 1895) with Thomas J. Bullitt. Some preliminary data suggests he followed Charles to Kentucky; however, findings also remain under investigation.

John Colvin, the youngest of Charles’ tithes, first established his household in 1804 in Fauquier then, by 1809, removed, to Stafford. John, however, never left Stafford and appears to have died there in 1828, leaving a widow, Mary, a son, George, as well as other apparent heirs to continue his line.

Raleigh Holley, husband of Mary Colvin, a young female associated with Charles who first established his household in Fauquier in 1785, next moved by 1807 to Stafford where he remained through 1820, establishing his line.

Charles, the progenitor, tax and land records show, held eighty acres of land in Fauquier in the Fairfax Proprietary from at least 1777 — six years before he sold his Culpeper acreage — until 1802. That year, he (and several Colvins and their spouses by proxy,) sold those eighty acres to Fauquier resident, John Peters. The quit rent rolls of the Fairfax Proprietary do not discern how Charles originally held the eighty acres, but his yearly payment on it to the proprietary agent was in tobacco, although the amount is not given in the rolls. And this would not have been possible without a crop with which to pay the yearly “quit” fee. Thus, clearly, he was in the area prior to 1777. Nevertheless, even if he leased his land, period customs allowed even a leaseholder to convey land as if he owned it outright.  A review of land records, from the Brock Collection of the Virginia State Library, do not revealed a lease nor deed of sale in Charles’s case. This may be because those records are themselves incomplete, or for some other reason.  It is worth noting, nevertheless, that at the time of the Proprietary’s reign, their land transactions were considered private matters and not subject to county redecoration statutes making identifying how Charles held his eighty acres imprecise. But the timing gives further weight to the idea that it was predicated on his occupation as a local overseer.

Like his tithes, Charles re-established himself in adjacent Stafford County where, by 1807, he is found as head of household again. He appears to have remained in Stafford until ca. 1810 where he appears to have relocated to Pendleton County, Kentucky where, records indicate, he had purchased land in 1799 and built a home. It is here, he is believed to have died in 1811 as evidenced by the probate of his will.

Richard Colvin is the tithe of Charles who never left Fauquier, being the only member of the line to remain loyal to Fauquier. He remained in Fauquier where he died ca. 1826 and is buried, where he left a sizable estate comprised of some 1,500 acres, twenty-four slaves, and several heirs to be cared for by his widow, Lydia. There is ample documented evidence to show it was Richard’s heirs who populated neighboring Prince William County with its line of Colvins whose numerous descendants live there today. 

Farther movements.

       Elizabeth Colvin appears to be the first member of this line to leave Virginia. One of Charles three daughters, she married in Fauquier in 1792 then relocated with her husband, Elias Duncan, very quickly thereafter to Kentucky where they can be found in decades-worth of tax, land, and census records; in the 1820s, for example, Elias, not surprisingly, purchased land according to deeds.

Raleigh Colvin, relocated by 1799, first to Stafford where he remained through 1802. Some data suggests he remained in Stafford until 1805 then permanently removed to Kentucky where he remained with his wife “Agnes” through his early 70s establishing his line there. This data, however, is also undergoing further analysis.  

Westward movements.

             George Colvin, (believed to be a son of John, the youngest tithe of Charles,) had the distinction of being the first of this line to go West by way of Menallan township, Fayette County, Pennsylvania. From there (after a brief stay, and fathering a daughter,) he removed to Monroe County, Ohio where he died; he established his Colvin line there, purchasing eighty acres of farmland in two separate townships according to land patent and other records. One of George’s sons – Roseberry Colvin — served in the Civil War as a Union infantryman. Scores of modern-day Ohio Colvins have been traced via this study directly to George.

Marriage patterns.

            Overall, none of the marriages from this line suggest an unusual or exceptional pattern. Like many early families, the daughters and sons of neighbors, as well as friends became Colvins-in-law and visa-versa. Two of Charles Colvin Sr.’s tithes, William and Richard, married two of the daughters of Benjamin George: Anna and Lydia. Anna George was Wm. Colvin’s 1st wife. He married 2nd to Elizabeth Robbins. There is an exception to this otherwise marital ordinariness: the marriage of Alethea Preston, a mulatto, to James W. Colvin, a son of Richard Colvin. While today mix-race marriages are commonplace, in James’ day (their marriage is estimated ca. 1850-1860) such a marriage would have been not merely scandalous, but illegal, effectively costing a cleric his licensure if caught performing such a ceremony in antebellum Virginia.

According to the records thus far examined, geography and age appear to be the most consistent factor in determining who married whom when. In an era of four-legged horse-power, for example, romantic involvements leading to matrimony were typically conducted close to home. Long distance relationships certainly occurred when one’s spouse or “beau” went off to war or on some other necessary excursion, but courtship was typically close to home.  Census records, in particular, make it clear, that in almost all cases, the pair often began as neighbors. The most outstanding pattern then is in the lack of anything unusual overall. The females and males tended to marry at the typical age: 18-25, and begin their families soon thereafter. In a few cases, such as Nancy Colvin, (daughter of John,) and her daughter, Mary, heirs were sired without benefit of marriage; this situation however does not appear to have imposed a hardship, nor a social stigma. In no cases, for example, were records involving any Colvin female of this line found among bastardy or other similar court documents where one might expect to find evidence of moral indiscretion. 

Research Challenges.

            Tying the loose end of the various members of this line together into a single heritage and ultimately to a single, documentable American progenitor presents its own set of challenges.  Firstly, there is the gap in available source material in early records owing to numerous causes, (courthouse fires at various times, etc.) Then there is the dearth of biographical material on the early Colvins. There are no known extant diaries or family papers or bibles, (there is an exception of a single hand-written letter by an early 19th century descendant of this line, Robert Colvin, who was also the local Postmaster in his rural neighborhood known as Colvin’s Tavern,) and only occasionally does one find them mentioned in early Virginia newspapers.[1] This changes later, as newspapers became more widespread and when obituaries become more commonplace.  In addition, there are the well-intended but mostly incorrect later-day Colvin-related family histories which must be sifted for hints and clues but which are themselves always an unfortunate reminder of why my research is relevant.  In many cases, sources are poorly cited or poorly used. The same lack of sources also effects well-meaning but convoluted “indexes” which purport to document entire periods of certain events in a certain county or region. Some of these indexes are published via vanity presses or with online genealogy clubs who spend no time whatever vetting source citations nor concerning themselves with whether the content is based on original research in primary sources or simply a regurgitation of other material elsewhere. Predictably, the results often included numerous misspellings of the name Colvin, and inaccurate data attributed to them, which one does not find in original records. An example is Myron E. Lyman’s “War of 1812 Veterans buried in Virginia” located online among Virginia GenWeb archived compilations which has Richard Colvin (1762-1825) married to a Leah M. Williams (wrong marriage) as well as serving in the War of 1812 despite the fact that there exist no actual service records for him!  Had Mr. Lyman done his homework, and looked at the actual marriage bonds, he would have discovered that Richard married Lydia George on September 3, 1793, in Fauquier but that she was a few years’ underage, which is why her father, Benjamin George, was “much obliged” to the clerk, (or so he said in his note of consent,) for letting them have a marriage license. Lydia and Richard’s headstones are side by side in the old Catlett Colvin Cemetery in Fauquier County, erected there by their children. Richard died in 1825; Lydia outlived him by thirty years dying eventually of Typhoid fever in 1855 owing to rather unsanitary sewage disposal habits prevalent throughout the south at the time. As for the misspelling of the surname, Lyman did get that right; but many do not which is further evidence of how seldom original records are consulted. In fact, to date, I have never seen the surname Colvin misspelled in original records, but invariably this is often the case in transcriptions and among the numerous generations of later copies they inspire.

The ultimate challenge of course is finding the time to devote to a research project of this scope.  There is never enough of it. I suspect there never will be. Since returning to pursue my BA in History, in 2011, the work of the Colvin Study is left to summers and semester breaks.


            Over the years I have been greatly aided by the very knowledgeable staff at the Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research in whose voluminous microfilm collections I have spent many a happy hour and whose staff have kindly tolerated my endless questions with patient guidance and assistance. Likewise, I have been contacted and aided by innumerable living direct descendants who have heard of my efforts through the genealogical grapevine or have sought out this blog and made important evidentiary contributions both with knowledge and primary documents.  I have likewise exchanged wonderful emails with members of collateral lines as well as with those who believe, based on their own research they “may” be related.  All of them have contributed importantly in some way, either by providing compelling evidence or by spurring me on in one research direction or another always resulting in tracking down answers. Thus, I am deeply grateful for all their assistance but whose names are too numerous to cite. Suffice to say, I remain indebted.   You know who you are and I thank you and welcome your emails and letters.


[1] A recent discovery of the estate inventory of Charles Colvin’s  shows there was a family Bible listed by appraisers among his possessions in 1810. The appraisal was requested as part of the probate procedure in the May Court session by his son and executor, Charles B.Colvin. The resulting inventory was presented the next month at the June court.  The Bible’s current whereabouts, if it survived, is unknown. See Pendleton County, Kentucky Order Book B:244 . (May Court, 1810) See also Order Book B:266-268 (June Court, 1810).