Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The first Gentrys in the USA

Here is a little history about the first Gentrys in the United States of America.

Probably the most difficult task in establishing the genealogy of the Gentry family in America is determining the connections among the first three generations in America. These generations span the one hundred years between the arrival of the presumed brothers, Nicholas and Samuel, before 1684, and the American Revolution. The records for these first three generations are found with few exceptions in Virginia, since the migrations of the family to the states to the south and west occurred at the time of or after the Revolution. Unfortunately, the records for this period, and in particular for some of the counties in which the Gentry family settles, are sparse. Few of those which do exist establish definitive relationships among the Gentrys who are cited.

This period was the most difficult one for Richard Gentry in his path-breaking "The Gentry Family in America" (hereafter cited as GFA), which remains the point of departure for all genealogical research on the Gentry family on this side of the Atlantic. Except for the second Nicholas Gentry (hereafter, Nicholas-II to distinguish the son from the immigrant father, Nicholas-I), Richard Gentry was unable to make any other second and third generation connections. This is obvious in the second part of the book where the many Gentry family groups who cannot be connected to Nicholas-I or Nicholas-II Gentry are listed. In fact, "The Gentry Family in America" is really an account of the descendants of Nicholas-II Gentry with considerable information concerning what are assumed to be collateral branches of the family.

The present-day researcher has far more to work with than did Richard Gentry more than seventy years ago. In the intervening years, many more of the county records of colonial Virginia have been published and indexed, so that it is no longer as necessary for the researcher to proceed laboriously page by page through the original books looking for the occasional reference to a Gentry. A splendid example is the recent publication of the early Louisa County records by Rosalie Edith Davis. Many of the references which had been found by early researchers, and which are cited in GFA, can now be placed in context by more extensive documentation which permits a more complete and continuous picture of a particular individual.

Despite these advantages, the modern researcher is still not likely to be able to make the definitive connections that would satisfy good research standards. Although one can always hope that a document will turn up sooner or later that will permit definitive relationships to be established, it must be recognized that the state of late seventeenth and early eighteenth century records is such that few such documents can be anticipated. Instead, the delineation of relationships within the first three generations of Gentrys will have to proceed by means of inference based on what scraps of information are available. Such a procedure is not dissimilar to methods of scientific inquiry where laboratory experiment is not possible, notably with respect to social phenomena, and where statistical inference provides the rules for separating meaningful insight from intriguing speculation.

The present article is an attempt at applying this procedure to what is probably the irremediably incomplete documentation on the early Gentrys. It is an attempt at organizing the available data in a way that is eighty percent accurate where the present, and perhaps permanent, incompleteness of the data does not permit the drawing of definitive conclusions. In so doing, working hypotheses are developed to serve three purposes: 1) To organize the available data to tell a plausible and hopefully accurate story; 2) To guide further research for the definitive documentation which would prove or disprove the working hypotheses; and 3) To provide the stimulus for the piecing together of other scraps of information or for different readings of the circumstances prevailing at the time and place that will lead to the elaboration of alternative hypotheses that organize the extant data in a more meaningful fashion. 

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