Where and When Did John Phips, Virginia Immigrant Surveyor, Die?

A number of posts have discussed John Phips, the early Virginia immigrant who came to Jamestown as a young man in 1621. He was part of the small surveyor team put together by William Clayborne (or Claiborne, etc.) which consisted of Claiborne, John Phips, William Harris, and William Morris. But when and where did he die?

One factor which has made tracking him down difficult is the presence later than 1621 of multiple individuals named John Phips. At least one post a long time ago was based on the assumption that the surveyor John must have died by 1657. That was because an Elizabeth Harris surfaces in nearby Surry County in 1657 with a son named John Phips, who was an orphan and who was bound out. The immigrant himself, apparently, showed up in Surry County records along with William Harris.

The assumption was that this Elizabeth was the wife of the surveyor John and that she must have remarried to a Harris – perhaps the immigrant’s work partner William Harris – after the immigrant died. Subsequent research, however, suggested that this was not likely to have been the case.

And in addition, the immigrant was very young when he arrived in 1621. He was only 19. If he died by 1657, he would only have been about 55.

Could he, instead, have been the John Phips who left a 1679 estate in nearby York County? Today, York County is home to the touristy recreated Yorktown, and it shares a border with James City County, the location of Jamestown.

A listing in the Library of Virginia website refers to an inventory for the estate of John Phipps (as spelled) in York County as dated 1679. The listings are not entirely clear, however. The listing refers to an inventory of the estate ordered 18 November 1679 and received or recorded (“rec.”) 24 November 1679. That part is clear enough. But then the listing refers to an inventory dated 22 January 1679, months before the inventory was “ordered.”

The online Colonial Williamsburg Digital Library refers to the estate of John Phipps, with an excerpt (at least) dated 22 January 1679. The inventory was produced by Thomas Wooten and appraised by Sam (presumably with a period as an abbreviation of Samuel) and Robt Curtis. The inventory refers to the following items:

  • An iron pot
  • 1 shot mold (used for producing ammunition)
  • Some other “trumpery”
  • 1 sow

Trumpery has been defined as referring to articles which may appear showy or attractive, but which are of little value or usefulness. One can almost sense the disdain, as a man of probably high society in early Virginia chose the word “trumpery” to refer to some of these items. If they were even less noteworthy than an iron pot and a shot mold, then they must of been of little consequence indeed.

If this record pertains to the immigrant surveyor, he would have been about 77 when he died, and the location is close to Jamestown. If this was a completely inventory, however, it appears to be an awfully small collection of items for a man who had been in the position of surveyor, a highly lucrative profession for the time.

Is this a complete record, however? Again, the Library of Virginia listing seems to prefer to perhaps an additional inventory later in the year. Could it even have been that he knew he was dying, and that he had given away possessions to offspring? Is there an additional inventory later in the year, as suggested by the index as a possibility, which might list land and more substantial property?

Samuel Toplady appears to have been a York County attorney. Robert Curtis is said to have been a prominent part of York County society. Thomas Wooten also appears to have been at least reasonably prominent and to have had dealings with Jamestown/James City.

Perhaps the additional record(s) indexed by the Library of Virginia would shed some light on this.


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