For this week’s challenge, I decided to take a look at members of my family who were members of the Virginia House of Burgesses during the colonial era. After spending some time culling and sorting – and discarding more than a few uncles and cousins of my direct ancestors who had served in this capacity – I have identified three direct ancestors who were members of this body.
First, let me tell you about the Virginia House of Burgesses. It was created in 1619 as the elected representative part of the Virginia General Assembly, and it is recognized as the oldest continuous law-making body in the Western Hemisphere. In 1642, the General Assembly split into two houses, and from 1642-1776, the House of Burgesses sat alongside the royally-appointed colonial governor and the super-house Council of State. The 12-man Council, which (unlike the House of Burgesses) was appointed by the King, served as an advisory body to the Virginia Royal Governor and as the highest judicial body in the colony. When the Virginia colony declared its independence from Great Britain in 1776, the House of Burgesses became the House of Delegates.
I was surprised that I could identify only three direct ancestors who served in this body. Many of my early ancestors in Virginia held various local positions that could have set them up for selection as a Burgess, but in most of the families it was their brothers or cousins who were Burgesses, and not my ancestors themselves.
So here’s what I know about my three direct ancestors who were members of Virginia’s colonial House of Burgesses.
Thomas Ligon (1623-1675)
My paternal 10th great-grandfather Thomas Ligon (1623-1675) was born in Walsgrave-on-Sowe in Warwickshire, England. (note: the name is spelled several different ways. I’m going to use “Ligon.”). The Ligon family’s roots are further west in England, in the Malvern Hills south of Birmingham. This explains the name that Thomas gave to his new home in Virginia. For any American Civil War buffs among you, you may recognize Malvern Hill as the site of the 1862 Battle of Malvern Hill, one of the Seven Days Battles during the Peninsula Campaign during which Union General McClellan’s Army was unable reach their target, Richmond.
Thomas Ligon came to Virginia in 1642 to join his cousin William Berkeley, who had just been named the royal governor of Virginia. Thomas was just 16 at the time, but he knew that as the grandson of a second son of a wealthy and prestigious Malvern family, he had little chance of inheriting titles, land, or fortune.
In 1644, Thomas survived an attack by local native Americans, fighting off the attackers and killing seven of them. This Virginia Historical Society displays the gun that he used, with Ligon still carved in the stock.
He represented the city of Jamestown in the House of Burgesses from 1656 to his death in 1675. At the same time, he served as a justice for Charles City County, a militia colonel, and a county surveyor.
He married Mary Harris in 1648 and they had seven children, including my 9th great-grandfather William Ligon.
I connect to Thomas through my Ellefritz family line.
- NOTE: I was able to visit the Ligon family home city of Malvern when Tim and I took a trip to England in September of 2022.
Thomas Harris (1586-1649)
If this name sounds familiar, it’s because I just mentioned it when I was talking about Thomas Ligon. Thomas Harris was the father of Mary, who married Thomas Ligon.
Thomas Harris’s story is different from Thomas Ligon’s story in almost every way. Harris arrived in Virginia aboard the ship Prosperous in May 1611 with a group brought by Sir Thomas Dale to establish a settlement in Henricus, about 45 miles west of Jamestown on the James River near what is now Richmond. On 18 Nov 1618, Harris was granted 100 acres at a place called Neck of Land and is listed in the 1624 Muster at Charles City as age 38 with his first wife Adria (I’m not sure of her last name), age 23.
Thomas and Adria had married in 1623/24 and at the time of the Muster, they were living on Thomas’s property in “the Curles” of the James River. Their daughter Mary was born in 1626, and they had a second child, William, in 1629. Adria died in 1635. Thomas Harris served as a Burgess for his property at “The Curles” in 1624 and again for Henrico in 1640 and 1647-48. Their son William also served in the House of Burgesses (I don’t count William as a direct House of Burgesses ancestor because I am descended from his sister Mary).
Christopher Stokes (1600-1648)
My 10th great-grandfather Christopher Stokes came to Virginia with his wife and son in 1622 aboard the James. They lived in York County (about 15 miles from Jamestown) where he served as a Burgess in 1629-1630. They came to Virginia as “headright” of London merchant (and Puritan) Edward Bennett, who later joined the Puritan migration, going first to Amsterdam in 1627. This system allocated 50 acres of land per person to the sponsor of the immigrants. Many speculators in London built up their landholdings in colonial Virginia by sponsoring hundreds of immigrants and then claiming the “headrights” for each of them.
While still in London, Bennett invested in the Virginia Company of London. In 1621, he acquired a plantation in Isle of Wight County; this patent was contingent on his settling 200 people in the colony. Christopher Stokes and his family were among these settlers.
Shortly after their arrival in Virginia, the event labeled “The Indian Massacre of 1622)” occurred and 53 settlers on Bennet’s plantation were killed. The Stokes family survived this encounter and apparently thrived in the colony. By 1635, land records show that Christopher owned land in Elizabeth City. Christopher and Mary had 10 children, including my 9th great-grandfather William Stokes, the child who had accompanied them to Virginia in 1622. I also connect to this ancestor through my Ellefritz family line.
The Virginia House of Burgesses became the House of Delegates in 1775, when Virginia declared its independence from Britain and wrote a new Constitution.