Happy Independence Day! I am very proud to say that quite a few of my ancestors were involved in the Revolutionary War in some capacity. Some served in local militias, others in the Continental Line, and others gave money and other possessions. While none of them signed the Declaration of Independence, one did sign a Declaration of Independence!
William Shelton Sr., my 7th great grandfather, was born in Henrico County, Virginia, but by the 1740s, he was living in Albemarle County, Virginia. He married twice and had children with both of his wives, including my ancestor, William Shelton, Jr. He died in 1789 and left a will diving his estate.
He was a little old to serve as a soldier in the Revolutionary War, but he found another way to serve. On 21 April 1779, William, along with other male members of Albemarle County signed the Albemarle County Declaration of Independence. It reads:
We whos names are hereunto subscribed do swear that we renounce & refuse all Allegiance to George the third King of Great Britain, his heirs & successors & that I will be faithfull & bear True Allegiance to the commonwealth of Virginia as a free & independent state, & that I will not at any do or cause to be done any matter or thing that will be prejudicial or injurious to the freedom & independence thereof as declared by congress & also that I will discover & make known to some one justice of the peace for the said state all treasons or traitorous conspiracies which I know or hereafter shall know to be formed against this or any of the united states of America So help me God
William Shelton signed his name, which indicates he was literate.
I am proud of all of my patriot ancestors, but it was especially fun to find an ancestor who signed a Declaration of Independence!
This ancestor, Reverend William Swift, is one of my favorites because I have been able to conduct so much original research on his life and family. After spending so much time with William (even visiting England for research and to see places associated with his life), I feel as though I know him fairly well! Or as well as I possibly can without actually meeting him.
William’s life was a quite interesting one, even though it was short. He sadly only lived to be 39 years old. His grandfather and father were both gentlemen of some means from southern England. William was the middle son, and as such, he did not inherit the leases held by his father. Instead, he was slated for a career. At the age of 15, he was sent to London to attend the Merchant Taylors School. It was a famous public school that by the early 18th century was competitive to enter as it almost guaranteed the pupils would attend a university after their training was complete. William was one of the 33 fortunate boys to matriculate on 7 March 1710/11 under the guidance of Headmaster Thomas Parsell. As William was not from London, he boarded at the school while it was in session.
After finishing school, he was accepted to Emmanuel College at Cambridge University as a sizar on 16 June 1714. This meant that he was essentially a scholarship student. He likely assisted wealthier students in some way or performed other jobs around the college as a way to pay for his education. William studied divinity, and he graduated with a BA in 1718.
He received his deacons order on 8 June 1718 from Bishop Francis Atterbury, a Jacobite who openly supported Bonnie Prince Charlie over the Hanoverian rulers. Atterbury later examined William for his ordination on 5 December 1719.
William passed his examination, and 15 days later, he was ordained a priest by Bishop John Robinson at the newly rebuilt St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
William accepted a curate position in Kent, which he held for several years until he accepted a ministerial role on the island of Bermuda as the rector of the Southampton, Sandys, Warwick, and Paget parishes. After living in Cambridge and London for many years, Bermuda would prove to be a huge challenge for William. On 8 May 1722, he received the King’s bounty of 20 pounds for his appointment in Bermuda. Two months later, on 6 July 1722, he married Dinah Hodgkins at the St. Dunstans in the West Church in London. William and Dinah likely sailed for Bermuda soon after their marriage. William and Dinah traveled 3,447 miles to Bermuda.
William and Dinah were first mentioned in public records in Bermuda on 7 January 1723/4, where it was recorded that he was paid for his services in the parish of Southampton. In September of 1726, it was recorded in the minutes that William had still not taken the oath of allegiance to King George I, and on 2 April 1728, he was allowed to carry a pistol to the Devonshire Church.
Living conditions were not very good on the island, and William was being paid very little. He and Dianh became unhappy with their situation after just four years in Bermuda. To make matters more difficult, William and Dinah’s oldest children, William and Thomas, were both born in Bermuda. Sometime in 1726, William requested to be transferred to a new parish somewhere other than Bermuda. The Bishop of London, Edmund Gibson, granted his request, and he was supposed to wait in Bermuda until his replacement arrived. But by May 1728, William was no longer willing to wait, and he and his young family sailed from Bermuda to Virginia. This was a journey of 759 miles.
His arrival in Virginia was reported by Governor William Gooch to Bishop Gibson in a letter written on May 26, 1728 from Williamsburg:
“The last week came in hither the Revd: Mr: Wm Swift from Bermudas: He shew’d me his orders, and a Letter from your Lordship…Upon which I told him that I was sorry to find he had not complied with your Lordship Instructions. He is much esteem’d by Those that are acquainted with him, and appears from the little knowledge I have of him, to be a Gentleman very deserving. I must confess from the general Character of that Place (Bermuda), where all sorts of Provisions are very scarce, and consequently dear, and the allowance to Ministers but small, how he could stay there so long as he did, which he said was wholly owing to your Lordship’s letter, that abated both my wonder & resentment, especially as he had a Family to provide for. I hope therefore your Lordship will not blame me, if to relieve a man from such circumstances, I immediately sent him to a Parish in this Country St. Martin’s in Hanover County, where I am confident he will be very easie, and faithfully discharge his duty in the care of souls.”
Reverend James Blair, the minister of the James City Parish in Williamsburg and founder and president of William and Mary College, also wrote to Bishop Gibson of William’s arrival and character:
“Williamsburgh in Virginia, June 8, 1728
There is lately come into this Colony from Bermudas a Clergyman, who seems to promiss well. He has a wife and three children, I have a good character of him from some Gentleman that knew him in that Country. He gives a good description of the … straits to which he was reduced in it. His name is William Swift. His deacons orders are June. 8. 1718. from the late Bp of Rochester and his Presbyters orders Dec. 20. 1719 from Bp John Robinson. I find by a letter of your Lordship to him about two years ago, you was acquainted with his design of removing out of that Countrey; but but he had not then your Lops positive permission. I thought it my duty to acquaint your Lop of this.”
William and his family settled into the new parish, which had just been created that year in Hanover County. Throughout 1728 and 1729, William also ministered at the King William Parish in Goochland County, where he purchased 2000 acres of land in 1730. A few years later, he purchased an additional 800 acres, and sold off a few smaller portions.
Sadly, William did not enjoy his life in Virginia for very long. William died between 1 April 1734, his final land transaction date, and 11 August 1734, when his death was reported to the Bishop of London. Reverend James Blair wrote:
We have lately lost two Ministers, the first Mr Swift, who came some years ago from Bermuda with a wife and several children, whom he has left in very poor circumstances.”
Although William died when he was still young, he traveled an impressive 4,206 miles, from London to Bermuda to Virginia during his life, plus travel between his home town and London, and Cambridge and his home town, and his travels throughout Virginia. He and his wife died very far away from the places of their births, and due to the struggles they endured during their marriage, I wonder if they thought traveling so far from home was worth it in the end.
While looking at my family tree, I found some ancestors who only lived into their 20s and 30s, some who made it to middle age, and others who lived past 90. I was very surprised how many of my direct ancestors lived past 80, particularly the female ancestors.
I would like to highlight my two most long-lived ancestors that I have found in my family tree: Ann Cochran Dixon, who died at the age of 93/94 and George Christian, who died at the age of 101.
Ann Cochran Dixon
Ann was born to George and Nancy (Henry) Cochran in 1763, most likely in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Two dates have surfaced for Ann’s birthday: April 9, 1763 and August 16, 1763. Her death notice in the local newspaper reported her birth date as April 1763, and her tombstone further specified April 9, 1763. Her granddaughter wrote her obituary, in which she gave Ann’s birth date as August 16, 1763. Although the exact day cannot be determined, all records agree that the year was 1763. Following the death of her mother in 1769, Ann was sent to live with her uncle Reverend John Roan and aunt Anne (Cochran) Roan in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. When her uncle died in 1775, Ann returned to her father in Chester County.
Most of Ann’s immediate male relatives served in the Revolutionary War. Ann’s brother John and father George both served in the militia and as artificers, Ann’s uncle Stephen served as a militia captain and in the Pennsylvania Assembly, and her uncle Dr. John Cochran more notably served as the Surgeon General of the Continental Army and was a close friend of General George Washington. Ann had the opportunity to meet and socialize with Martha Washington during the Valley Forge encampment, who she met through her uncle, Dr. John Cochran.
Ann married Sankey Dixon in 1788 outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Sankey was the son of John and Arabella (Murray) Dixon of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He enlisted in the Continental Army as early as 1776 and served until he was discharged as a lieutenant on June 3, 1783. He was present for many of the famous encampments and battles of the war, including Valley Forge and the surrender at Yorktown.
The Dixons left Pennsylvania sometime between 1790 and 1792 and settled in the Shenandoah Valley. By 1807, they were living in Knox County, Tennessee. Ann gave birth to seven children – John, Matthew Lyle, Robert, Nancy Henry, Isabella, Mary Roan, and Margaret Ingles – and five survived to adulthood. Sadly, Sankey died in 1814, leaving Ann a widow. In 1822, Ann and her youngest daughter moved to Winchester, Tennessee to live with Matthew.
Ann began to make appearances in contemporary public records during the later part of her life. In 1839 she successfully applied for and obtained a Revolutionary War widow’s pension of $320 a year. Ann gradually became financially independent after receiving her pension for several years, and in 1844 she was able to purchase in her name a house and lot in Winchester. She furnished part of the house with her personal furniture, which included her bed and bedstead, a half dozen chairs, her clothes press, and her clock. She wrote a will before her death and left everything she owned to her daughter Margaret.
Ann led an exciting life and lived to an impressive 93 years (or 94, depending on her birth date). She outlived her husband, all of her children, and many of her grandchildren.
George was born in 1769, the son of Colonel Gilbert Christian and Margaret (Anderson) Christian. Gilbert was a well-known frontiersman, soldier, and local official who was instrumental in the formation of the State of Franklin and a good friend of John Sevier, the first Governor of Tennessee. George served as a soldier in some of the Indian campaigns in the early 1790s under the command of his father-in-law to be, Captain William McCormick. In 1803, he married Elizabeth McCormick in Knox County, Tennessee.
By 1808, he and his family had settled in Overton County, Tennessee. He purchased land and participated in the development of the county. While living in Overton County, he wrote a series of letters to Lyman Draper about the early formation of the state of Tennessee, the conflicts with the Indians, and his family history. George wrote his will in 1867, and died on April 3, 1870 in Overton County at the age of 101.
Ann and George are connected in some interesting ways:
They are both my 5th great-grandparents, Ann on my Dad’s side and George on my Mom’s side.
They were both born in the 1760s.
They had immediate family members who served in the Revolutionary War.
They lived in East Tennessee during the same time period. Ann lived in Knox County, Tennessee as early as 1807, if not before then, until 1822. George’s family lived in the same area around the same time period. His father, Gilbert, was buried in Knoxville in 1793, and George married his wife, Elizabeth McCormick, in Knox County in 1803.
They had family members who were involved in Tennessee politics. George’s father was very involved in the State of Franklin, and Ann’s cousin by marriage was Archibald Roane, second Governor of Tennessee.
Finally, both Ann and George migrated farther west into Tennessee, Ann to Franklin County in 1822 and George to Overton County by 1808.
While I have no proof that they ever met, it is fascinating to think that those two had so much in common, including myself!