John Clay(e) (Abt. 1595?-Abt. 1655?)

…An address to the Jamestowne Society, May 6, 1995 by the late Robert Young Clay, (4 September 1936-6 May 2010), renowned Clay researcher and speaker, Archivist for the Library of Virginia, and artist.[i]

I have the honor today to introduce you to my immigrant ancestor, John Clay. Like so many of our early Virginia ancestors, he was of precious little consequence in the Virginia of his time. He is not known to have held any governmental or ecclesiastical post and the small military honor ascribed to him by later generations cannot now be documented. He is not an ancestor through whom one can trace to early kings and ancient gods. Indeed, he is not known to have any provable ancestors. His greatest, one might say only, claim to fame is simply that he got here early – 1612 or 13, that he survived despite frightening odds and that it is possible to prove descent from him. He is therefore a qualifier for membership in the Order of First Families of Virginia, the Jamestown Society, the Descendants of Ancient Planters, and perhaps other such organizations. His descendants are legion, in fact so vast as to fail to think of themselves as one family. They have spread out from Jordan’s Journey on the south bank of James River in what is now Prince George County to all corners of this nation and have contributed their worth, or lack of it, to every facet of American life.

It is an axiom of genealogical research that nothing is ever more boring than someone else’s ancestors. I do not wish to bore those of you who do not descend from John Clay, I simply ask that you accept this talk in the spirit in which it is intended — not as a prideful account of my ancestor but as a warning to all researchers, using John Clay as an example. By trying to separate fact from fiction concerning John’s life, I would hope to encourage all of you to be very careful in your research and to be very skeptical of all claims concerning our early Virginia ancestors. We now have spent over three hundred years (388) imagining, misreading, misinterpreting, embroidering and simply lying about the founders of our early families. The product of those three hundred years of ancestral enhancement is often far from being either genealogical or historical truth.I cannot warn too strongly against gullibly accepting the claims of past researchers.

Let’s begin with a short biographical sketch of John Clay, including many of the claims that have been made about him.

He is said to have been Captain John Thomas Clay, an English Grenadier in the King’s service who arrived in Virginia in 1613 aboard the boat “Treasurer.”  He was the son of wealthy parents who entrusted him to the care of Sir Walter Raleigh and who furnished him with the handsome endowment or legacy of £10,000. Based on research said to have been done by Miss Margaret Clay of Washington, working in the “Museum of London” and the College of Arms, it is claimed that John Clay’s father was Sir John Clay, Coal Baron of Wales, who was knighted by Elizabeth I. His father was John Clay of Gloucester, the son of John Clay who was the son of Sir John Clay who had been knighted by Edward IV following the battle of Tewkesbury in 1471. John, the Virginia immigrant, is said to have married his first wife Ann, surname unknown, in England before he sailed for Virginia and to have brought her here in 1623, after he had prepared “a comfortable home.” Their four children were Francis Clay, resident of Northumberland and later Westmoreland Counties; William Clay, who lived at Weynoke in Charles City County north of the river; Thomas Clay of Lawnes Creek in Surry County and Charles Clay, later of Henrico Southside. To this list, John Bennet Boddie added as a fifth son, John Clay of Isle of Wight County.

Now – Please forget what I have just said because almost everything in this sketch appears to be pure fiction: Let’s examine the origin of these claims.   —He was first called Captain in Mary Rogers Clay’s genealogy, the Clay Family, published by the Filson Club in Louisville in 1899.

  —He is first called a Grenadier in the King’s service in the so-called “Green Clay Manuscript,” which is undated but which appears from internal evidence to have been written after 1844.

  —His name was simply John Clay – not John Thomas Clay. The middle name was added by a researcher in this century when he transcribed the signature by mark of a John Clay of Isle of Wight County, written “John I Clay”, as “John T Clay.” He decided the misread letter must stand for Thomas and that it was the signature of John Clay the Immigrant, thereby creating John Thomas Clay. The “I” of course was merely an old form of “J” – his mark for John. Middle names were then almost unknown, but for the occasional “alias” double name, which almost always indicated bastardy.

  —He did indeed arrive, by his own testimony, on the “Treasurer” in February, 1613 – more about that later – but the claim that he had anything to do with Sir Walter Raleigh cannot be substantiated and that he brought with him £10,000, a story first put forward by Porter Clay, is absurd. Porter was a brother of Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky. He was a talented cabinet maker, a memorable Baptist preacher but a rather poor historian.

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