John Clay (c1595-c1655)

…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.

  —The four generations of English ancestors assigned to John appear to be pure fiction. No John Clay can be documented as having been knighted by Elizabeth I. There is no known title “Coal Baron of Wales” or Baron Cole – and baron in the 19th Century sense of robber baron was not then used despite the fact that Wales is indeed full of coal. No John Clay can be documented as having been knighted by Edward IV after the Battle of Tewkesbury and the intervening generations between the two knights are filled with two John Clays who cannot be identified. Miss Margaret Clay of Washington is unknown. There is no “Museum of History” in London and the British Museum has not disclosed such records, if that was the “museum” being referred to. Private research is not allowed in the College of Arms, research there being limited to contractual research performed by officers and officials of the college, and they have no record of the claimed pedigree. The truth is quite simple. Absolutely nothing is known of John Clay before he began his trip to Virginia.

  —Mary Rogers Clay’s claim that John married his wife Ann before coming to Virginia cannot be confirmed and a wait of ten years before importation seems rather improbable.

  —The four sons assigned to John are based on a list of Clays sent to Mary Rogers Clay by the Rev. Phillip Southall of Amelia, who appears to have done much of the Virginia research towards Mrs. Clay’s genealogy. She misunderstood that Mr. Southall had merely sent her a list of early Virginia Clays, thinking he had furnished a list of the sons of the Immigrant. After the publication of Mrs. Clay’s genealogy, Mr. Southall published a disclaimer in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. Only William and Charles can be proven to be sons of John. Mr. Boddie’s placement of John Clay of Isle of Wight County as a son was first challenged by Minnie Gathright Cook. Mrs. Cook was an extremely fine genealogist who could and did mount formidable attacks against anyone who published what she considered to be genealogical nonsense. In a letter to James Branch Cabell in 1951, Mrs. Cook said that Mr. Boddie “now accepts my version.”

Let’s now look at the few facts about John Clay that can be documented.

  —He appears in the Muster of 21 January 1624/5 as a resident of Jordan’s Journey, south of James River in Charles City County. He states that he arrived in the “Treasurer” in February 1613, that his wife Ann arrived in the “Ann” in August 1623 and that his servant William Nicholls, ages 26, arrived in the “Dutie” in May 1619. He had as provisions, 30 bushels of corn, 1 hundred-weight of fish (or 1 hundred fish, the record is not clear), 2 lbs powder, 20 lbs shot, 3 pieces, meaning guns, 1 armour, 1 stele coat, 2 neat cattle, 1 swine, 10 poultry and 1 house. 

—In 1635, he patented 1200 acres on Ward’s Creek in what is now Prince George County, 100 acres due him as an “Ancient Planter” and 1100 acres for the transportation of twenty-two persons. The names of the headrights are not listed indicating that the patent was a renewal of an earlier patent of unknown date. He also had other lands south of the river and at least one tract near Westover on the north side of the river.

—Researchers seem now agreed that his marriage to Ann likely took place here rather than in England. She is assumed to be the mother of John’s son William. At somelater date, John married a second wife, Elizabeth, whose surname is also unknown, who was the mother of Charles. After John Clay’s death, Elizabeth his widow married a close neighbour, Captain John Wall, and after Wall’s death, she married John Tate. That Elizabeth was the mother of Charles Clay is proven by a deed of gift of two ewe lambs from Captain Wall to his “sonne in law Charles Clay,” 3 October 1660. Elizabeth Clay Wall is the subject of several depositions in 1662 when she was involved in a brawl with an Indian servant who hit her, bit her and tried to force her head into an “oven then red hot & ready for bread to be set therein.” Our early ancestors were such a gentle lot!

—John Clay died at an unknown date. From the manner in which his property passed to his heir-at-law William Clay, it would appear that he died intestate. William lived north of the river and several records concerning him have survived in the Charles City County and Virginia Land Office records. His widow Emlin Clay was executrix of William’s will, no copy of which is known to have survived. There is no indication that they had children.

—It would appear from the few extant records that John Clay the immigrant had but one son who left issue, Charles Clay, who later moved into what is now Chesterfield County. He married Hannah Wilson, daughter of John Wilson, Sr., an Indian Trader who lived on the north side of the Appomattox River near the present Petersburg. Charles was also involved in the Indian trade as were several of his sons.

It seems unlikely that the few records that have survived will furnish further information about John Clay’s life. Unless new records are found one can only re-examine and re-appraise those that are known to exist. Have they been correctly used and interpreted? Has every scrap of data been thoroughly understood?  —The Muster of 1624/5 provides by far the most information about John and it also documents his arrival in Virginia.

  —The earliest known Clay family Bible record dates from the last years of the 18th century, but it contains as its earliest entry the birth of Henry Clay, a great-grandson of the immigrant, on 3 September 1711.

  —The earliest genealogical compilation on the family is the so-called “Green Clay Manuscript,” which was owned by General Green Clay of Richmond, Kentucky. Green, a great-great grandson of John the Immigrant was born in what is now Powhatan County in 1757 and he is said to have had a keen interest in the history of his family from an early date. Whatever his family interest and knowledge may have been, the manuscript, which contains a chart and several pages of notes, appears to have been made up after 1844. It chiefly concerns the Green family and the Clay line as traced therein contains claims that can easily be proven incorrect.  

—The records of the Virginia Land Office contain almost all that is known of John’s land dealings and proof of the descent of his land after his death. The earliest extant Charles City County records, dating from 1655, contain some few references to John’s family.

—The most intriguing records that have bearing on John’s life concern the boat on which he traveled when he came to Virginia and in these records there may well be room for further study. 

The “Treasurer” appears to have been owned by Samuel Argall and Sir Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick. Argall was later to become deputy governor of Virginia under Lord De La Ware and still later to have become Sir Samuel. He was from East Sutton, Kent and was brother to Elizabeth Argall Filmer, wife of Sir Edward Filmer and mother of Major Henry Filmer immigrant to Virginia. Elizabeth Argall Filmer was the great-great grandmother of William, Lucy, and Martha Green who were later to marry into the Clay family with such astounding genetic results. The “Treasurer” was not an ordinary immigrant boat. It was an armored man-of-war and sailed from England 23 July 1612 under command of Samuel Argall who held a royal warrant to remove French settlers from those areas claimed by Virginia. It carried sixty or sixty-two soldiers and a few settlers. Likely, with the strong but unprovable military tradition attached to John Clay, he was one of those soldiers.

After a crossing of about seven weeks “fifty leagues north of the Azores,” they “Fell with the Coast of Virginia, in the Latitude of fortie degrees” on September 12. The City of Philadelphia lies at 40° latitude. Virginia, please remember, was a bit larger than now! On the 17th of September, the “Treasurer” arrived at Point Comfort and proceeded to Jamestown Island where it stayed for a short time while the men repaired a damaged boat or boats found there and in pursuing the Indians with Sir Thomas Dale in an attempt to obtain corn. About the beginning of November 1612, the “Treasurer” took Sir Thomas Gates to Smith’s Island to investigate the possibility of establishing settlers there. They returned to Point Comfort and on the 1st of December again left in search of corn. They returned after a successful voyage, arriving in Jamestown on the 1st of January and then going to Point Comfort where they arrived the 1st of February 1612.

Please remember that John Clay said he arrived in Virginia in February 1613. Did he actually arrive in September 1612, and remain with the ship until February 1613? Was that the end of his enlistment and did he provide the 1613 date because he then became a settler?[ii]

The answer will likely never be known. Interestingly, it was this same boat, The Treasurer, that in 1613, captured Pocahontas and brought her a prisoner to Jamestown and in the Spring of 1616 took her and several other Indians to London. It was also the ship that escorted the Dutch vessel that was long thought to have brought the first Negroes to Virginia and even later the Treasurer was accused of various acts of piracy against the Spanish. John Clay may well have been a very dull character, but the boat on which he arrived in Virginia had a very colourful career.

John Clay, like so many other early Virginia immigrants awaits his discovery by a fuller and more understanding examination of English records which are only beginning to be used for the great genealogical treasures they contain. We have made attempts at extracting historical data therefrom but very little has been done from a genealogical standpoint. With ignorance and naiveté so great that I am almost embarrassed to admit doing so, I tried to locate John Clay in London. After two or three days of reading wills in the Public Record Office in Chancery Land, I gave up. The probates were in Latin and many of the wills might as well have been in Greek. It was colder and damper inside the Public Record Office than outside and the charms of London’s churches, museums, gardens and pubs called. I found many John Clays – none of whom could be identified as John Clay the Ancient Planter of Virginia.

It may well be that John’s true ancestry and the names of his wives will never be known. If the problem is solved success will depend on the discovery of now unknown early Charles City County records and/or on a much more intensive and knowledgeable search of English sources than has yet been undertaken.

The Clays are by no means alone in their need of such research. Many, many other Virginia families cannot be traced back across the Atlantic.

Why could there not be a fund established to finance good solid and thorough genealogical work in England, perhaps administered by one of the societies concerned with early 17th Century Virginians – a fund supported jointly by these groups and by other interested contributors. While such research is almost prohibitively expensive for an individual because of the great amount of research time required, a common assault on the problem by many contributors might well produce results. By whatever method, the work is badly in need of being done.

I would encourage all of you to search more diligently for the facts concerning your Virginia family founders and to take great care in what you claim about them. Be absolutely certain of the records you use and of your interpretation of them. If your research is not done with meticulous care, you will merely add to the body of genealogical fantasy with which they are already surrounded. Please view them honestly and help by your good research to present a true genealogical and historical picture of their lives – a view that they so richly deserve.

[i] In addition to giving the speech to the Jamestowne Society, Bob Clay delivered the speech to the Clay Family Society around 2000. I received a copy of the speech on 5 Nov 2008 from the late Bill LaBach of Kentucky. Any errors are mine. – PLDunford 

[ii]To understand the chronology. The calendar used in England and her colonies until 1752 was the Julian Calendar, which, among other things, had the year beginning on March 1. Therefore, events occurring in November, December, January and February 1612 occurred in the order listed.  The year 1613 began on March 1. There is a sixteen month time span between the first arrival at Point Comfort in September 1612 and the date given by John Claye as his arrival in the colony of February 1613.  The Gregorian Calendar, in use today, was developed well before 1752, with its January 1 new year, but was instituted gradually and sporadically throughout the western world. Thus, modern researchers sometimes use the “double dating” from January to March (e.g., the February 1612 date here would be 1 January 1612/13) to help people understand that the date would fall in different years, depending on the calendar used (Julian, “Old Style” or “OS” and Gregorian, “New Style” or “NS”).  It is easier to just indicate that date as 1 January 1612 OS, if necessary.  – PLDunford, Tucson, Arizona, 2016

A guide to the Robert Young Clay Papers, 1789-2010 (bulk 1920-2007) Clay, Robert Young, Papers, 1789-2010 (bulk 1920-2007) 45033 (

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