By Chuck Courtney – ©2016

There are many descendants of Robert Courtney who was born around 1690 and who died in 1751 in Onslow County, North Carolina Colony. The question that has haunted genealogists for years has been “who was the father of this Robert Courtney?” Many descendants have him listed as John Courtney, the son of Robert Courtney, known as the “Emigrant.” John was supposedly born in 1670 along the banks of the Mattaponi River, in King and Queen County, Virginia. His father, Robert Courtney was a Baptist minister (as was John) and was born in England around 1640 and who drowned in the Mattaponi River in 1680.

Many genealogists have taken the above lineage as gospel and it has been filed with the Church of Latter Day Saints in Salt Lake City where other researchers assume that the line from Robert to John to Robert is true. In fact, a couple of researchers have extended the line several generations back to England, either Branton in Northumberland or the town of Braunton on the northern coast of Devonshire near Barnstaple. This writer has seen no solid research affirming this lineage, although it is interesting to speculate, especially the Braunton connection, since it is in the same part of England renowned for the Courtenay family (in fact, the family owned several estates around Braunton) and very close to southern Wales, which, as we shall see, may have a connection with our Robert Courtney of Onslow County.

How did the common assumption that Robert the Emigrant was the grandfather of Robert of Onslow County come about? It comes from a History of King and Queen County, Virginia by Alfred Bagby, published in 1908. This is the main source which records Robert the Emigrant and his three sons, including John, the Baptist minister. Since many records were lost in a fire at the courthouse in King and Queen County (quite frequent in colonial times), the only account is from this history which was relayed by later descendants of this Robert who first came to America.

Before we accept this account, however, let’s take a look at Bagby’s history. To do so, let’s reprint the part of interest:


We compile the following, drawing largely from memoranda made by Major Alfred R. Courtney, C. S. A., of Richmond. Among the names mentioned traditionally of residents on the north side of the York and Mattapony Rivers about 1680, is that of Robert Courtney. He was apparently an English emigrant. Readers of history will recall the name Courtenay as having been prominent in England: the names are doubtless the same. Robert (1), the emigrant, had three sons, Philip, Thomas, and John. Philip, whom we mark (2) indicating that he was a son of (1), had one son, Captain Robert Courtney (3), married Campbell. His children were William P. (4), Franklin (4), Elizabeth (4), married John Bagby; Priscilla (4), married William Campbell, Sr.; Martha (4), married Haynes.

Captain Robert Courtney was a man of mark. He was captain at Norfolk during the War of 1812, first sheriff of his county, and afterwards for years presiding justice of the court. He was a man of commanding mien, fearless, outspoken, and had the unbounded confidence of his people. He was called Robert, Sr., to distinguish him from another Robert, and died in 1852. He married a daughter of Captain Whittaker Campbell (probably of the Revolutionary army), of King and Queen.

The two other sons of Robert (1), Thomas and John, became Baptist ministers. Rev. Thomas (2) had six sons and two daughters; one daughter married Taylor of Richmond, the other married Osgood. The sons were Philip (3), John (3) of New Kent, William (3), Thomas (3), Robert (3), and Nathaniel (3) who migrated west.

Rev. John (2), born 1844, died 1824, was pastor of the First Church of Richmond, Va. He was greatly honored in his pastorate, being a compeer of "Parsons" Blair and Buchanan. Though not a brilliant preacher, his discourses were powerful and won many to the faith. Both himself and his brother Thomas labored in their early days in King William.

Robert (3) - son of Thomas (2) - married Sarah Campbell, was father of a large family: Joseph Campbell (4) James Whittaker (4), Robert Mortimer (4), Martha Elizabeth (4), married Captain Smith; Lawrence Straughan (4), Thomas Lysander (4), Giles Croghan (4), Martha Lewis (4), married Patterson; Major Alfred R. (4), married Shelton. Robert (3) was in the War of 1812-'14.

The Courtney family has migrated in every direction and is represented in nearly every State in the Union. (The two Misses Campbell here mentioned as having married Robert Courtney, Sr., and Robert, Jr., were daughters of Captain Whittaker Campbell, near Bruington Church; he was probably a soldier of the Revolution.)

Another branch is as follows: William C. (Shad) Courtney was uncle to James W. Courtney of Plymouth. His sons were Conway, William, James, Thomas, and Isaac. Thomas, son of Shad, had sons: John Robert, Constantine D., Augustus A., Thomas L., Bird S., James W.; daughters: Mollie B., Willie, married Richardson; Rosie, married Shepherd.”

Now, let’s take a closer look and dissect the above:

Next, let’s turn our attention to the obituary of Major Alfred Ransom Courtney from whom Bagby gathered much of his information on the Courtney family. Major Courtney, a Confederate artillery commander of much renown, died at age 81 on November 3, 1914, in Richmond, Virginia (the Richmond newspaper reprinted the obituary from the local Bar Association journal). Although the obituary covers the military and public service career of the Major in great detail, the following is the pertinent part of our query (pardon the errors in the original copy):



It affords the Editor-in Chief much gratification to be able to publish in the Register the tribute paid to Richmond Bar to this venerable and beloved lawyer; for Major Courthey was his warm personal friend and in one of the great fraternal orders both served as Grand Masters and were constantly thrown to-gether. Few men had more lovable traits and few men were more belloved. The resolutions are follows –

In the death of Alfred Ranson Courtney the Bar of this city has been bereft of one of its most venerable, beloved and able members. His death marks, probably, the passing of the last of our members who came to the Bard preceding the commence-ment of the Civil War.

He was born in King and Queen County, Virginia, on November 17, 1833, of ancestors distinguitned for industry, economy and morality. His grandfather on his maternal side was’ Captain Whitaker Camp bell, who ser ved as an officer in the war of the Revolution. His great-grand ather on his paternal side was Robert Courtney, the emigrant, who came to America from England in 1620 settled on the north side of the York or Mattaponi River and acquired large landed estate in that section of the Colony. His grandfather Thomas Courtney, was the brother of the Rev. John Courtney who served for many years as the pastor of the First Baptis Church of this city, and who was scarcely less distinguished in the religious life of the city than his compeers, Parson Blair and Buchanan. His father married Sarah Campbell and removed from King and Queen County to Henrico County, where he reared a family of ten children. They were Joseph C, James W., Robert M., Martha Elizabeth (who married Captain Smith), Lawrence S., Thomas L., Giles C, Maria L., (who married R. A. Patterson, late of this city), and Alfred Ranson. He married in the year 18--, Miss Lucy P. Shelton, of Henrico County, which union continued to about ten years ago. S bsequently Mrs. William B. Courtney (nee Wade) of this city who survives him. Of neither marriage was there any issue.”

Besides the typos, bad spellings, and poor grammar, what do we learn from this obituary by the Richmond, Virginia, Bar Association?

To start, for the most part, it parallels Bagby’s genealogy of the Robert the Emigrant family. It has Robert as the great-grandfather of the Major when; in fact, Robert would most likely be his great, great-grandfather. It also states that Robert was born in 1620 – not 1640. And, it states that Robert the Emigrant had a considerable estate, much more like a planter than a Baptist minister.

The obituary also has Thomas, Robert’s son, as the grandfather, and Rev. John as the brother to Thomas. There appears to be a generation missing since it plainly states that Rev. John was the Baptist preacher in the Richmond church during the Revolutionary War. It also states that Parson Blair and Buchanan were his “compeers.” Both Blair and Buchanan were early ministers to the Richmond Baptist Church in the later part of the 18th century – again raising questions as to whether there is a missing generation.

Finally, of particular note is the statement that even though married twice, Major Courtney did not have children. This is interesting since many family trees for a myriad of Courtneys have Major Alfred Courtney as a patriarch linking them to Robert the Emigrant.

With these questions in mind, then who was the father of Robert Courtney of Onslow County? Unfortunately, colonial records for both King and Queen County, and the original county of New Kent have vanished because of fires or war. The record in Virginia is hard to find for the existence of Robert the Emigrant, Rev. John, or his believed son Robert.

But, there is another colony where some records hint at the possible father of our Robert of Onslow. That colony is Delaware and its three counties of Kent, Sussex, and, especially, New Castle. Again, unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to research the part of New Castle County in which our Robert lived – “the Wedge,” that part of Delaware that borders Pennsylvania and Maryland. It is a semicircle that extends north of Wilmington and was part of the original survey between William Penn’s Colony and his later lower charges, the three counties of Delaware Colony. Why is it so difficult to research? It is because early settlers may record land records in Delaware, get married in Pennsylvania, or sue their neighbors in Maryland. And, to complicate matters more, the Colony of New Jersey was just across the river and sometimes early settlers of New Castle are found in court records in New Jersey. Still, the County of New Castle and the other two counties deserve great attention because of early Courtney settlers mentioned in the historical record.

Let’s first talk about a John Courtney of Kent County, Delaware. Remember the above John (3) of “New” Kent mentioned by Bagby? In this part of Delaware, a John Courtney settled with his family. He is recorded as owning land in Kent County by the “Pennsylvania Archives, Second Series,” edited by John Linn and Dr. Richard Egle in 1890. This compilation of records indicates that John Courtney bought 600 acres in Kent County on March 22, 1683. This land was located in Murderkill Hundred, along the Murderkill River. Murderkill Hundred was created in 1682 and was one of the original hundreds in the Delaware Colony. John Courtney is also mentioned as a witness to court proceedings and land transactions in Kent County throughout the 1680s as can be found in the History of Delaware, 1609-1888, by Thomas Scharf, published in 1888. By 1693, John Courtney owns 100 acres in Dover Hundred (Kent Co. Delaware Tax Assments for the year 1693). Additional land transactions and rent rolls are found in Colonial Delaware Records, 1681-1713, by Bruce Bendler in 2000. References to a John Courtney can also be in found in an article in the Pennsylvania Genealogical Society publication by Charles W. Lord, Jr., entitled “Early Marriages, Births, and Deaths from Kent County, Delaware, Deed Books,” published by Penn State University in 1919. In this work, the births of John’s children are recorded: George, born 1676; Joshuan, b. 1678; John, b. 1680; Nathaniell, b. 1683; Daniell, b. 1686; and Thomas, b. 1690. Also mentioned is his widow Mary remarrying on May 9, 1695 to a Walter Price. According to his will (a copy of which the author has) it states that John died in 1693 leaving property to Mary and his children. There is no mention of a Robert Courtney as being one of his sons.

In addition to John Courtney settling the wilds of Delaware in the late 1600s, there is another Courtney mentioned in the historical record – Robert Courtney of New Castle County. Jack Curtis writes about this Robert Courtney as being the possible father of our Robert in his “Curtis' Lingering Shadows and Circle of Related Families,” 1993. He recites land records purchased by a Robert and Elizabeth Courtney in 1687 and shows that where they are located is very close to our Robert’s first farm in the “Wedge” of Delaware. Mr. Curtis gets his information from Delaware court records – land and probate. “James Claypoole gave a deed to Elizabeth Courtney bearing date ye 6th December 1687 for 150 acres on “White Clay Creek frm a certain patent & lott assigned to James Claypoole – 25th March 1676.” Curtis' Lingering Shadows and Circle of Related Families,” 1993.

The actual reprinted court records actually reads as follows:

James Claypoole acknowledged a Deed of enfeofment ffor the above menconed Pattent & Lott of Ground wch. he bought of John Moll: to Elisabeth Courtry as by the Deed beareing date ye 6th of november 1687.Records of the Court of New Castle, p. 165-166 C. 496.

There are three things interesting about this entry. First, the enfeofment, or enfeoffment, was a means of transferring land usually to an indentured servant. The definition of enfeoffment is:

1. (property law) to invest (a person) with possession of a freehold estate in land. 2. (in feudal society) to take (someone) into vassalage by giving a fee or fief in return for certain services.”

Perhaps both Elizabeth and Robert were indentured servants in an earlier life and this is why Elizabeth received title to the first 150 acres. Or, this symbolic conveyance of land could be no more than outright purchase of the land with an obligation to William Penn as Governor of the Colony. Secondly, the land was transferred to a woman, somewhat unusual in this period of time, but not unheard, especially since Quakers and Baptist were more-opened minded about women owning property in those days. And, finally, the agent is James Claypoole who was William Penn’s chief land agent in his colony. Claypoole appears in many transactions in the early history of the colony.

A second entry in the Court records concerns the above mentioned Robert.

Jonas Arskin acknowledged a Deed of enfeofment for two hundred acres of Land Scituat on White Clay Creek to Robert Courtry and Samll Hickman as by ye Deed beareing date ye 9th of December 1687 Records of Court of New Castle, p. 166 C. 497.

Looking at both entries into the Court records, observations can be made that: there is a link between Robert Courtney and Elizabeth Courtney, most likely husband and wife (although their marriage records have not been found) since both bought land on White Clay Creek; and, White Clay Creek is very close to Christiana Creek where our Robert from Onslow, a “yeoman,” bought land from a Edward Gibbs (250 acres) in August 8, 1724, and on February 15, 1725 (150 acres), implying that he was most likely a son of Robert and Elizabeth Courtney.

Robert Sr. from New Castle also appears in the tax rolls of New Castle County in 1687. In Taxables in New Castle constablery in 1687, Robert appears in the tax listings of the north side of "Duck Creek Hundred." Noted in the rolls is a statement that Duck Creek Hundred At this time (1687) the territory of Hoere-Kil, or Whore Kill, was very sparsely settled and was not districted.” Although Duck Creek Hundred was one of the original hundreds and located in Kent County, this area was later redrawn and reassigned to New Castle County. Most likely, he was paying taxes on the land purchased earlier that year, although this tax assessment would have been very late since he did not purchase the land until December of 1687. Could he have owned other lands in Kent County? This is interesting considering John Courtney of Kent County.

Finally, Robert Sr. from New Castle appears in the census of New Castle County in 1693 (Dorothy Saunders’ History of the Courtenay Family). Another interesting fact – many genealogists list the birth year of Robert of Onslow as 1693 and in New Castle County, perhaps confusing the two Roberts.

From here, the record for Robert and Elizabeth disappears – to date. The hunt for these two continues and hopefully more about their family and origin will be known. There is a Mary Courtney who was married in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (again in the Wedge) in 1703. Was this Robert’s and Elizabeth’s daughter and the sister to Robert of Onslow? Only further research will tell.

And, that brings us back to who was the father of Robert of Onslow? It is time for hypothesis, speculations, and wild guesses. Let’s spread a few.

Could Robert’s father actually have been John Courtney, the Baptist minister? Kent County, Delaware, is very close to King and Queen County in Virginia. It would be logical that this Courtney family moved to the Delaware Colony so as not to be persecuted by the Church of England since they were Baptists. Delaware, like Pennsylvania, was a haven for many different Protestant sects.

And, after all, there was a strong connection between Robert of Onslow’s family and the early Baptists of the colonies. For starters, they frequently settled close to the Welsh Baptists in the early 1700s. First their lands in Delaware and Maryland were close to the Welsh Baptist Tract (of course, located in the Wedge) granted by William Penn in 1703. Later they moved to North Carolina where many Welsh had settled around the Onslow County region. Then our Courtney family moved to the Welsh lands along the Pee Dee River in South Carolina in the 1760s. Courtneys were the first Baptist ministers in Spanish West Florida later to become the state of Mississippi. This writer’s family had strong Baptist connections through the many generations down to even today.

And, what about the Welsh connection? Exam the early settlers, “gentlemen,” who founded Roanoke colony in North Carolina. One of the colonists was a Rhys (Rice) Courtney. Rhys is a Welsh name. Fortunately Rhys was one of the lucky ones who was rescued by Sir Francis Drake before the disappearance of the Roanoke Colony and so lived to tell about it.

Baptists…Welsh…there are connections.

Could the John Courtney of Kent County have been the John Courtney the Baptist minister? And, was this John Courtney the father of Robert Courtney, disregarding the time problems with Bagby’s history? Was this John the son of Reverend Thomas – John of New Kent as mentioned in Bagby? Was Robert of New Castle a son of Reverend Thomas as mentioned in Bagby? Or, was this John Courtney a brother to Robert who moved northward to settle? If Robert of New Castle was his son, he could still not be mentioned in his will because he was already grown with his own family. And, if he was his brother then he would not be mentioned in John Courtney of Kent’s will at all.

Another theory, Robert of New Castle was not the descendant of the line that Bagby writes about in his history. This Robert (and possibly even John) could be another family altogether who settled not Virginia but Delaware. They could have arrived with William Penn and been Quakers. Baptists and Quakers held similar beliefs in those days.

One has now hit the brick wall for Robert of Onslow County. Was his father really the John the Baptist minister from Virginia and the son of Robert the Emigrant? Time discrepancies in Bagby suggest not. John of Kent was perhaps Robert of New Castle’s father which is why Robert of Onslow named two sons John and Jonathan and another Robert – a colonial tradition to name children after fathers and grandfathers. Or, John of Kent was perhaps Robert of New Castle’s brother. Was perhaps this Robert another child of Robert the Emigrant – an older sibling to John the Baptist minister?

Only more historical research and the maturing science of DNA genealogy can one day answer this haunting question as to who Robert of Onslow’s parents and grandparents were and where in England, most likely, did they originate (DNA has recently shown that there is a strong relationship with the Stephen Peatey family from Dorset, England branching off sometime between the 1400s and 1600s). Or, is it Wales?

A major step in resolving this question would be for the descendants of the other two supposed brothers of John the Baptist minister (Thomas and Phillip) have DNA tests to see if they share the CTS4188 SNP that the many descendants of Robert of Onslow have in their DNA. Perhaps, one day, we will all be linked, and the question of Robert the Emigrant be resolved.