Of Mulattos and Mariners

America is a country which has always been obsessed with racial labeling, and which currently attempts to eradicate the past effects of racial labeling by using more racial labeling. Various family lines in America calling themselves Phipps, Phips, Fips, Phyppes, and the like have been regarded as either strictly black or strictly white, with some claiming a bit of Native American ancestry as well, but have things always been that simply defined?

A well known book by Pulitzer Prize winning author Daniel J. Scharfstein is The Invisible Line, subtitled “Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White.” A theme explored in this book is the successful attempt of some families to reinvent themselves, as their self-labeling has shifted from that of people of color to that of being defined as “white.” One white man discussed in the book had a hard time with blacks – until he discovered that he had close black ancestry.

At one time, according to recent scholars, black/white intermarriages were very common in Virginia – until laws were passed to forbid such unions. In the mountains of parts of northwest North Carolina, it would appear that racial lines were often blurred, with oftentimes, today, no “records” left to define the matter, just collections of vague and sometimes offhanded family legends.

The Phipps – however spelled – family were known to be associated with slave trading (and, in some cases, perhaps even slave stealing and reselling), as was the closely associated Rives (Reeves) family. Witness Benjamin and William Rives, for example, who in the 1780s were making money bringing slaves from South Carolina into Brunswick County, Virginia, that location which has been so closely associated with the early Phipps family.

Matthew Phripp, also Phipp/Phips/Fipps was a Norfolk sea captain and a close associate of Col. Robert Tucker, and Tucker was also a mariner, a major slaveholder, and heavily involved with the Caribbean trade. These are factors which have entered into the Phips or Phipps family saga over and over.

John “Phripp” of Norfolk was actively bringing slaves into Norfolk and Williamsburg, Virginia from the Caribbean, specifically Barbados, Jamaica, and Anguilla. John Fips of Charlotte County, Virginia has been discussed as a slave overseer. All these individuals have been discussed in past posts.

Over and over, countless times, we’ve seen these elements: Mariners and sea captains. Caribbean trade. Slave trade. This has been the case in Virginia. Even in England, various family members were in world news because of their stance for or against slavery, or because of their firsthand familiarity with the slave trade. Again and again, such family members have demonstrated connections to the Caribbean. Connections to mariner and sea captain professions. Connections to the slave trade. Connections to Virginia.

Is there any possibility in all this that at least one Phipps (however spelled) family branch, somewhere, was “mulatto” and eventually reinvented itself as a white family? We’ve discussed James Phipps, governor of a “slave castle” in what is now Ghana. He was a white man so infatuated with his black wife that he adopted much of her native culture. The book Rose: A Woman of Colour refers to an undefined relationship between William Phipps, a white man of Hawkins County, Tennessee, and a certain Jenny or “Jinn” who had been a slave.

Consider the 1753 will of James Phipps of St. Kitts in the Caribbean. What might have ensued if his descendants attempted to integrate themselves into Virginia society? And even if they did not, how many other similar scenarios might have occurred regarding the Phips, Phipps, Fips, etc, family?

James Phipps’s will is dated 26 February 1753. In it, as abstracted in Caribbeana, he names the following:

  • his “reputed natural son” Charles Phipps, who was “begotten of Mary Pickett”
  • his “reputed natural mulatto son” James Phipps, son of a negro woman named Parthenia
  • his “reputed natural mulatto son” Thomas Phipps
  • his “reputed natural mulatto son” William Phipps
  • Parthenia, mother of his 3 mulatto sons, who he set free, along with her 3 sons
  • his brothers Constantine Phipps and Edward Phipps
  • his nephew “Fra.” (Francis?} Phipps
  • his niece and goddaughter Henrietta Phipps, daughter of his brother Edward Phipps

The names Constantine and Francis recur, of course, in the Reading, Berkshire Phipps family. In fact, Pownoll William Phipps identifies this James as a son of a man he refers to as “Captain Phipps,” a son of Captain James Phipps and his wife Susanna (Clarke) Phipps. This Capt. James was, in turn, a son of Francis Phipps and Anne (Sharpe) of Reading, who we’ve discussed extensively in the past. Francis died in 1668.

Francis, as we’ve discussed in the past, appears to have lived something of a double life, if the published pedigrees are correct. That’s because he wasn’t just associated with Reading in Berkshire. He came to have direct connection with the Caribbean. This is exemplified in his 2nd marriage, according to those pedigrees.

Francis Phipps of Reading, Berkshire, England first married Anne Sharpe. One of their children was Anna or Ann, who married a George Reeves (there were several of that name) who died in Virginia. This alone hints at possibilities of other direct Virginia connections. Another child was Constantine Phipps (there were several of that name as well). A later Constantine had direct connections with Virginia and North Carolina.

After Anne Sharpe, the first wife of Francis Phipps, died in 1660, Francis remarried to Sarah, the widow of Col. John Jeaffreson, a London merchant who was associated with the Virginia Company. It was the Virginia Company which was responsible for bringing John Phips, the surveyor immigrant, to Jamestown, Virginia in 1621.

This Jeaffreson family was very heavily involved in the Caribbean and Caribbean trade. It also appears probable that the family ties into the Jefferson family of Virginia from which Thomas Jefferson sprang, with a Jefferson reputedly coming from the Caribbean into Virginia.

Thomas Jefferson was evidently a friend of Francis Eppes, who we’ve encountered a time or two in Phipps research, with the Eppes (Epps) family having been closely associated with the Reeves/Rives etc. family which directly ties into the Phips/Phipps family, and with Samuel Phips of Ashe County, North Carolina being a son in law of a George Reeves who was an Eppes or Epps heir in Virginia.

There are multiple reasons why the Phips/Phipps family in Virginia and North Carolina has been extraordinarily hard to research. There have been at least hints of at least a strong possibility of one or more of the following, involving at least one or more branches of the family. Any or all of these could have accounted for difficulty in research:

  • Escape from England as the result of a fight ending in death
  • Escape from Virginia into North Carolina as the result of some sort of undefined issue
  • Possible eventual illegal activities, including possibly stealing and reselling slaves and/or horses
  • Possible mixed race identity

Plus the following:

  • An unusually prevalent tendency toward mobility, coupled with involvement in multiple locations at once
  • Frequent location shifts involving the American coast, the Caribbean, and England
  • A heavy concentration of mariners sea captains, plus some surveyors, with both professions (especially the first) tending to result in extreme mobility, between or among colonies and (in the case of the first) even continents
  • A perhaps unusually strong tendency toward the use of multiple surname variants, with some radical differences
  • Decades of unfounded and even false genealogical claims regarding this family and associated families, with some of those claims still being widely promulgated today

While, so far, no definitive document has been found which puts it all together, this blog has detailed countless documents and associations which suggest certain patterns. In some cases, what we’ve seen may have been simply the result of coincidences and happenstance associations. At some point, however, so many “coincidences” occur that the laws of probability would seem to suggest actual, authentic patterns. Those patterns would seem to suggest an extremely high likelihood of the following:

  • A connection of some kind between the “Phips” family of Ashe County, North Carolina and the “Fips,” “Phips,” “Phipps,” etc. family of southeast Virginia which appears to have descended from the immigrant surveyor John “Phips” and/or relatives of his
  • Connections to the Caribbean and to the family of Francis Phipps or Phips of Reading, Berkshire, England
  • Likelihood of some sort of at least distant connection or connections between or among the family of the New England “Sir” William Phips, Francis Phipps of Reading, Berkshire (and his family in the Caribbean), the family of Joseph Phipps, the Pennsylvania Quaker immigrant, and what appears to have been the prevalent (or perhaps only) Phips family in southeast Virginia
  • Connections to the Rives or Reaves or Reeves family of England and Virginia, with connections from that family to the Phips or Phipps family in both England and Virginia
  • Connections which associate Francis Phipps of Reading, Berkshire with both the “Jeaffreson” family of both London and the Caribbean and indirectly with the Reeves family, and with the “Jeaffreson” family in the Caribbean evidently connecting with the “Jefferson” family in Virginia which connects directly with the Eppes/Epps family which directly connects back to the Reeves or Reaves or Rives family which connects with the Phipps or Phips family

These specific relationships have been found time and time again. Certain associated family surnames have kept reappearing over and over – and without looking for them. The proverbial “snowball in hell” would stand a far better chance, it would seem, than for just simply, as one example, the Phipps to Jeaffreson to Reeves to Epps to Phipps relationship, as mentioned above, to just “happen.”

Every evidence seems to suggest a sometimes high society – and sometimes VERY high society – family which at some point, for whatever reason, became stigmatized to some extent, or which became lessened in the public eye for some reason.

That is absolutely consistent with family traits we’ve seen over and over again in connection with various “Phips” or “Phipps” public figures: a tendency to rise to the pinnacle of society, only to be then dashed down because of coming afoul of some higher official, or running afoul of the public at large. That, in turn, seems consistent with the seemingly countless news accounts we’ve cited which refers to various 19th century Phips or Phipps incidents of temper as related by the news media.

This has not just been the case with the person Americans love to refer to as “Sir” William Phips, but with regard to at least several other Phips or Phipps individuals who have been in the public eye. The Constantine Phipps who was Lord Chancellor of Ireland is one of several who come to mind. That Constantine was the brother of the Ann who married a George Reeves who died in Virginia, while Ann died in England.

There were others as well who we’ve detailed in the pages of this blog who rose to power, then became hated by nobility or Parliament, or by the public. One big factor seems to have been what various individuals not even known to each other have dubbed the “Phipps temper.” Certainly “Sir” was known for it. Constantine had his obstinate streak. It likely empowered the “warrior-like” characteristics of the family when they took on the “Phibbs” surname variant in Ireland.

Again, as noted multiple times in past posts, a certain family legend comes to mind. The late Jesse Phipps, standing in a remote field in the Ozarks before he died, said that the “old timers” had always said that the immigrant Phipps came to American because he got in a fight with some “big wheel,” as he put it, in England and killed him. If so, it would seem to have been yet another evidence of that Phipps temper. Another instance of someone associating with high society, and yet butting heads.

Of all British-American-based families, they have to be the most – or at least one of the most – enigmatic and challenging to research, but also one of the most interesting, if not THE most interesting.

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