One quirky facet of mostly unsourced Phipps genealogy of the Wilkes/Ashe Counties, North Carolina and Montgomery/Grayson Counties, Virginia area, as it has been passed on, is the presence of some odd nicknames. Those nicknames, or at least some of them, may have been based in fact and may have source attestation. As passed from one genealogist to another, however, they are rarely if ever tied to any identifiable source, not even a secondary source.
Two of the oddest of these nicknames have been attached to sons (or supposed sons) of Samuel Phips or Fips or Phipps of Montgomery (VA), then Wilkes (NC), then Ashe (NC), all of course near the VA/NC line. These nicknames are sons Benjamin, supposedly called “Big Ben,” and George, supposedly called “Devilish George.”
Then there supposedly was a “Little Ben,” who is said to have been a son of Benjamin Phips or Phipps and his wife Jean or Jane Hash. This Benjamin (“Little Ben”) is supposed to have been born in 1803 in Grayson County, Virginia.
These nicknames have so passed into genealogical folklore that they have been frequently dutifully copies into online pedigrees or “trees,” accepted as unquestioned fact, but generally, if not always, without any documentary support being posted. The nicknames have even been posted online as though they’re a part of the person’s actual name, as in “Benjamin Little Ben Phipps” and the like.
One problem with such nicknames in families in general, not just this family, is that nicknames are sometimes misapplied to the wrong individual or the wrong generation. The same is often true with middle names where the only available documents provide just a middle initial.
Was “Little Ben” really born in 1803 in Grayson County, Virginia, a son of an older Benjamin who served in the Revolutionary War? The older Benjamin appeared in Grayson County on 24 September 1832 and testified about how the Tories captured him about 1779 or 1780, while he was living “in Montgomery County Virginia, now Grayson County Va.”
Could the “Little Ben” appellation have come, instead, from an earlier tradition, but where the nickname was misapplied on the basis of a mistaken genealogy?
If the Revolutionary War soldier Benjamin’s son Benjamin wasn’t born until 1803 and was known as “Little Ben,” then we have an issue in explaining a 1786 Montgomery County, Virginia road order.
Note that the Benjamin who served in the Revolution referred to the part of Grayson County in which he was living as having been Montgomery County about 1779 or 1780. A Montgomery County road order dated 28 February 1786 appointed a road overseer and described in rough terms the path that the road took.
The older Benjamin who served in the Revolutionary War was captured by Tories while living at the house of Capt. John Cox in Montgomery, later Grayson, County, Virginia. This road in the 1786 road order, which started at “the great Spur” (whatever that was), then passed by the home of another Cox – James Cox.
Then it traveled from “Medow” (Meadow) Creek to the home of “Little Benjamin Phipps.” Then it climbed Iron Mountain before making its way to “the Washington Line,” presumably the line with Washington County.
Here we seem to have another “Little Ben,” referred to in the text as “Little Benjamin Phipps.” The problem, however, is that the “Little Ben” genealogists refer to would not have been an adult until roughly around 35 or more years after this road order.
Were there two “Little Bens,” or has the nickname been misapplied? And if the “Little Benjamin Phipps” of the 1786 road order was old enough to be listed in this record in that year, then he must have been born roughly sometime around the mid-1760s or earlier, so who was he?
An immediate guess was that he would have been the same Benjamin who served in the Revolutionary War, since he was born in 1761 or 1762. If so, then unless there was some completely different reason for the nickname (such as comparison to another older Benjamin who was in the area but not his father), then can we assume that it is most likely that the father of this Benjamin was another Benjamin?
The traditional view among genealogists has been that the Benjamin who served in the Revolution was “probably” (but posted countless times as incontrovertible fact) a son of a faceless Joseph Phipps. That is as suggested in 1982 by researcher John Mullins.
There has been very little evidence of any such Joseph Phipps, however, no proof that he was the father of this Benjamin, and certainly no evidence (or possibility, apparently) that the wife of this shadowy figure could have been the apparently fabricated Mary Romal or Mary Fields or Mary Fields Romal.
Sometimes when two men, one older and one younger, appear in 18th century (1700s) records with the same name, the older is called senior and the younger is called junior. Most of the time, evidently, they were father and son, but not always. One would assume that a similar scenario would have given rise to the “Big Ben”/”Little Ben” designations. Even there, one would think that the most likely scenario was that of a father and son relationship.
We have no proof that Samuel Phips (also Fips and Phipps, about 1760-1763 to 1854) and Benjamin Phips (also Phipps, 1761 or 1762 to 1838) were brothers. We certainly have no proof that they were sons of any Joseph Phips or Phipps.
So, we have a record referring to this Samuel and distinguishing him from another Samuel called “Sr.” (making the first, of course, by extension, “Jr.”) And, it appears, we also have a record which refers to this Benjamin as “Little Benjamin.”
As a result, could the following be the case?
- Samuel Phips, born about 1760 to 1763, resided Montgomery Co., VA, Wilkes Co., NC, Ashe Co., NC, SON OF SAMUEL SR.
- Benjamin Phips, born 1761 or 1762, resided Montgomery Co., VA, Grayson Co., VA, SON OF BENJAMIN SR.
If so, then who could this Benjamin Sr. have been? Could he possibly have been the Benjamin Phipps “of North Carolina” who deeded land in Hampshire County, Virginia in 1760 to Samuel Pritchard? Note that, not far away, Isaiah Phipps of Granville County, North Carolina wrote a will in that same year – 1760 – in which he referred to land he owned in Hampshire County, Virginia.
Those records suggest that a Benjamin Phipps was SOMEWHERE in North Carolina in 1760, and that he had connections to Hampshire County, Virginia. He had to have been born at least as far back as, roughly, around 1740, the appropriate age to have been Benjamin Sr.
We don’t know what part of North Carolina he was in, but it was not far away that another Phipps with Hampshire County, Virginia connections wrote a will in 1760, that being Isaiah. That suggests a likelihood that this Benjamin might have been in the same general area. Could it be that this older Benjamin could have been somewhere in the Montgomery or Grayson or Granville vicinity, and that he could have fathered the Benjamin who served in the Revolutionary War – hence “Little Benjamin Phipps”?
And – and this is venturing onto shaky ground, since the above is not proven – could it be, then, that Benjamin and Samuel were not only not brothers, but that they were not even that closely related, if related at all? Could it be that Benjamin’s line came out of Hampshire County, in extreme northern Virginia, and Samuel’s out of southeast Virginia?
For more information:
- Pension Application of Benjamin Phipps (Phips) W5539 (Southern Campaign Revolution Pension Statements (pdf)
- Spillman, et al., ed., Montgomery County Road Orders 1777-1806, p. 32 (pdf)
- Virginia Military Records, p. 236 (note listings for “Sammuwill Phips” and “Sammuell Phips Sen.”; the “George Recees” as transcribed on the same page was presumably Samuel Jr.’s father in law George Reaves or Reeves)