John Phips or Phipps: Two of Them, or Just One?

A couple posts back, a certain John Phips of Wilkes County, North Carolina, whose wife’s name was Elender, was mentioned as a likely brother of Samuel Phips, Jr. who died in 1854 in Ashe County, North Carolina. Prior to the 1800 census, Samuel appears in Wilkes County records.

John Mullins, in his 1982 book The Phipps Family of N.C. and Va. devoted only a page to this John. Mullins assumed that John Phips of Wilkes County, who was married to Elender, must have been the same person as the John Phipps, with wife Eleanor, who appeared earlier in Guilford County, North Carolina.

That may or may not be justified. The family tree which was constructed for the then-groundbreaking book was based on what then an unquestioned assumption, that being that the 7 men who were the focus of the book were brothers.

By extension, since they were assumed to be brothers, it was evidently believed that anything pertaining to one, in terms of origins and certainly in terms of parentage, must pertain to all. Since the John of Wilkes County was clearly associated with Samuel Phips (Samuel witnessed a 1790 deed from John and his wife Elender), this association referred to in the deed must, according to that reason, be indicative of their relationship as brothers, and since others who were assumed to be brothers were in Guilford County, the John in Guilford County had to be the John in Wilkes County.

If that was the reasoning, however, that’s merely a matter of reading information into the record that isn’t actually there. But it was another era. Readily accessible records were scarce. Researchers had to start somewhere.

Mullins asserted that John Phipps was “b ca 1750 died, place and time unknown, mar Eleanor/Elender,” followed by a blank for her last name. In fact, however, we don’t know that Eleanor and Elender were the same person, nor has any information surfaced, apparently, that would indicate that they were the same person except  that both names appear as married to a John in the same general area.

Mullins further asserted that “John was born probably in Orange County, North Carolina, lived there untill [sic] about 1779, then to Wilkes County, North Carolina.” How do we know that this is true? We don’t. It was evidently based, again, on the assumption that a John was brother to a Samuel.

It seems to have been a matter of Greek syllogistic reasoning: One of those assumed to be brothers, Aaron, was in Guilford County. A John also showed up in Guilford County. Samuel was in Wilkes and then Ashe County, but the name John also showed up in Wilkes County, in association with Samuel.

Certainly if the 7 were really brothers, then it would seem likely that Aaron, John (with the assumption being it was one John), and Samuel would all have been brothers. The problem with this, is that it’s a playing card castle based on an assumption, that assumption being that these men were, indeed, brothers. Take the assumption away, and it might be possible for the whole castle to come crashing down.

Let’s look at the evidence presented in the book, one facet at a time.

First, Mullins says that John was born about 1750. Why, and based on what? Presumably based on guesstimates derived from association with the others who were assumed to be brothers, and with a certain Joseph, who Mullins assumed to be the father of all the “brothers.” In fact, we don’t really know when this individual was born, nor do we know that the John who married Eleanor was the John who married Elender.

Second, he refers to John’s wife as “Eleanor/Elender.” Again, we don’t know that this was, indeed, the case. Quite possibly it is accurate, but we just don’t know. Frequently during the period, women were referred to by two or more similar names. The wife of Isaiah, son of Samuel Jr. of Ashe County, appears in records as both Eve and Edy. The wife of Benjamin of Grayson County, Virginia, who served in the Revolution, appears as both Jean and Jane.

Whether this was a similar situation with regard to Eleanor and Elender, however, we don’t know. Known records, at this point, are too scant to tell for sure.

Third, Mullins says that John was born “probably in Orange County, North Carolina.” This was evidently used as a sort of stock statement, applied to all the so-called “brothers” based on an assumption of common origins. The reasons get a bit complex and have been discussed in past posts. Suffice it to say at this point, however, that there’s no real evidence that any of these men were born in Orange County, and we certainly can’t say that just on the basis of an assumption of relationships as brothers.

In fact, in 1750 Orange County didn’t even exist, so how could he have been born there? Orange County wasn’t created until 1752.

Mullins assumed that this John was the one who signed a 1772 petition as a Guilford County resident concerned about mill dams on Deep River. The presence of the dams ended the lucrative nature of fishing in the river.

He cites this record and one other Guilford County record, that being a 1779 deed. In 1779, according to his abstract, John Phipps and wife Eleanor of Guilford County sold 250 acres on the waters of Alamance Creek to George Coble.

Then he jumps to Wilkes County to cite 4 records, beginning with the appearance of a John Fipps in the 1782 tax list. One of the records he cites calls John Fipps a planter and refers to his wife as Elender. Is this a justified leap?

In reference to the last Wilkes County record he cites, which is a 1790 deed, he claims that “This deed was witnessed by his brother Samuel Phipps.” Well, it is witnessed by a Samuel Phipps, but there is absolutely no record to indicate that they were brothers. None at all.

Nor is there any indication of why, if Samuel and this John(s) were brothers, John would have been in Guilford County in the 1770s, supposedly with siblings, with apparently no evidence of Samuel in sight. In fact, Samuel doesn’t seem to show up in known records at all until 1781, when he shows up with Samuel, Sr. – not Joseph Sr. – in Montgomery County, Virginia.

One could say that the reason he didn’t show up in records earlier, however, was simply because he wasn’t of age. Samuel Phips, Jr. was born about 1760 to 1763, according to Samuel’s own somewhat wavering testimony. This would mean that he wouldn’t be expected to show up in records as an adult until about 1780 to 1783.

But then, this Samuel Sr. doesn’t show up either. He doesn’t show up in Guilford County earlier, and certainly not in Orange County. A James, believed to be another brother, shows up in Guilford County, but not evidently not prior to 1810.

On the other hand, Benjamin, born about 1761-1762 and traditionally treated as a “brother,” was in Montgomery County, Virginia in the 1770s, according to his own testimony. And Aaron, also treated as a “brother,” may have been in Wilkes County, since someone called Aaron or Aron Phelpes appears there in 1787. If so, though, then he quickly retreated to Guilford County, where he appears from 1800 on. The older Isaiah, also claimed to be a “brother,” appears in Grayson County, Virginia, adjacent to Ashe County, North Carolina, by 1798.

Much evidence suggests that these men were related, or least that relationships among them existed, but who exactly they were and how exactly they were related is another matter entirely.

Some factors that especially seem to throw a wrench into the works, as far as the “7 brothers” theory (more like a hypothesis, actually) is concerned include but are not limited to the following:

  • Samuel of Ashe County, treated by Mullins as son of “Joseph Sr.,” appears in 1781 as a younger Samuel with a Samuel Sr.
  • Members of Samuel’s family seem to have been related to the family of John Fips who died in 1768 in Charlotte County, Virginia, with no evidence of a migration of that John’s descendants through Orange County, North Carolina.
  • The “7 brothers” concept doesn’t seem to account for others in the immediate vicinity who were also named Phipps or Phips or Fipps or the like and who actually appear, in some cases, perhaps more likely to have been brothers than the so-called “7 brothers.”
  • The Joseph Sr. idea in general, even as mentioned by Mullins, has but little support, and none at all in the sense of his being a father for all 7 men. Mullins does appear to have identified an older Joseph, but it isn’t clear who he was.
  • The family story that the 7 brothers idea seems derived from contains issues, and may have been a product of a late attempt to create a pedigree, instead of a relayed early oral tradition.

Going back over Mullins’ assertions about this supposed Joseph Sr. is rendered a bit difficult by his references to Joseph Jr. and Joseph Sr. without it being immediately obvious whether these suffixes are present in the original records. We should go back and consult the original records.

The Orange County, North Carolina designation as a blanket designation for all 7 of the men presumed to be brothers does not appear to be justified at all, especially considering that the county did not even exist as such when all 7 are claimed to have been born.

The Orange County designation has been copied and recopied, ad nauseum, for 33 years. This designation seems to be based on two records, one being a 1762 land grant to a John Phipps – someone of that name – in Orange County, the other being the Regulator petition. Again, the assumption was that since all 7 men were “obviously” brothers, and since this was Mullins’ earliest known record, that provided a presumed place of birth for all of them.

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