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John Holmes article published

22 May 2017

Finally, Denwood Nathan Stacy Holmes’s article, ‘“The Black Sheep of Some Good Family”: The Essex Ancestry of John Holmes, Gentleman, Messenger of the Plymouth Court’ has been published in the Spring 2017 New England Historical and Genealogical Register. I’m not a member of NEHGS and haven’t seen the actual published article, but I’ve seen various drafts including a recent one presumably very similar if not identical to it. I’ve been awaiting this article since December 2014 when Denwood sent me a draft after I contacted him about his post at which sketches the arguments he makes more thoroughly in the new article.

Up until the more recent drafts the article was a good deal longer; NEHGS lately decided they wanted him to split it into two. So there’s a good deal more information about John’s Essex ancestry still to be published. More importantly, I think, there’s additional evidence connecting John of Plymouth with Thomas of Colchester. It seems incongruous to me that they didn’t want that in the first article, but that was their decision.

I’ve withheld discussion of Denwood’s findings in any detail while awaiting publication, and now I guess I’ll still not write about some of it until the second part appears eventually. But to give you the gist of it:

John of Plymouth arrived there by 1632, but after 1629. His son John is documented; Nathaniel is not identified in the records as his son but has generally been believed to be (and yDNA of descendants of both sons match.) Likewise the Sara Holmes who died in 1650 is believed to be John’s wife. John was Messenger of the Plymouth Court, a position whose duties included that of jailkeeper. He’s referred to as “Mister” and “gentleman” and was better off financially than the majority of the Plymouth colonists, but he apparently had a drinking problem and was the plaintiff in a couple of what now would be called nuisance lawsuits, leading to speculation he was “the black sheep of some good family”. But which family was unknown.

Mackenzie in 1912 asserted John was the son of a Thomas Holmes from Colchester, but didn’t offer any evidence. There was indeed a Thomas Holmes, maltster, from Colchester whose son John was baptized in 1603, but was this the same John? The only known connection between John of Plymouth and the town of Colchester was that he had an indentured servant from there. Thomas also was a “Mister” or “gentleman”, indicating elevated social status, and he was keeper of the Essex county gaol in Colchester Castle, an intriguing similarity, but not conclusive.

Then a few years ago Denwood found the will, dated 1652, of Susan Morton, daughter of Thomas and widow of Tobias Moreton. Her principal legatee was Thomas son of her brother John Holmes, but she also mentions two other sons of John: John and Nathaniel. John is a common enough name, of course, especially among sons of men named John, but the biblical name Nathaniel was uncommon at the time — and principally used in Puritan-leaning families of which Thomas the maltster’s seems to have been one.

Tobias Moreton’s will was written in 1629 and witnessed by both Thomas and John Holmes. This is the last evidence of John in England — meshing pretty well with the timing of the first appearance of John in Plymouth. The year before, the birth of John son of John and Sarah Holmes — another name match — was recorded; Thomas son of John was enrolled in Colchester School in 1641, but it appears by then he was being raised by his aunt Susan.

As for John’s black sheep status, that seems amply confirmed. In Thomas’s will his modest bequest appears to have been added as an afterthought, and Susan’s will has this juicy stipulation:

And my mind and will is that my said nephew Thomas Holmes shall yearly pay out of the premises to his father, my brother John Holmes during his natural life, the sum of five pounds of lawful money of England to be paid to him half yearly by equal portions, viz. at Michaelmas and at the our Lady Day each year, or within twenty days next after either of the aforesaid times. And if the said John Holmes my brother shall any way sue, molest, or trouble my said nephew his son, for any matter or thing whatsoever touching or concerning my estates other than for the non due payment of his yearly legacy aforementioned, then my mind and will is that the said John my brother shall be deprived of all benefit of this my will.

Whatever John did or failed to do to antagonize his sister is unknown, but it must have been serious. Serious enough to send him and his wife to America, leaving their son behind? Maybe.

So, comparing John of Plymouth and John of Colchester: Names of two sons match. Names of wives match (but see below). One was a jailkeeper and the other was son of one. Both were “gentlemen”. Both had Puritan connections. Both had Colchester connections. One disappeared from England shortly before the other appeared in America. Both seemed to be “black sheep”. If that’s not enough, as I said, wait for the second article for more evidence the two were the same.

Denwood mentions a couple of interesting possibilities in his article: First, though young Thomas’s mother was “Sarah” and John of Plymouth’s wife was “Sara”, were they the same woman? There was a gap of about eight years between the births of Thomas in Colchester and John in Plymouth, maybe accounted for by John’s marrying twice. There’s also the question of where John was when he died. There’s no record of his death or burial. He was last mentioned (as living) in Plymouth in 1651, and perhaps the wording of Susan’s will suggests he was back in England in 1652.



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  1. Brandon permalink

    Love the timing! I just recently got back into digging through the family tree, I am here in Buckfield Maine where my decsendants of Nathaniel son of John Holmes settled. We are all over Oxford County here with a strong concentration in Buckfield/Oxford area that dates back to 1836 when Jonathan Holmes (Nathaniel’s Great Grandson) I am the 4th Generation to be raised in this house. I reached out to Denwood today, I hope to hear back soon!

    Brandon E Holmes

    • Carroll Nichols Holmes permalink

      I currently live in Androscoggin County, Maine, in Mechanic Falls. This is about five miles from Oxford. I am a descendant of Jabez Holmes of Middle-town, MA. His father was Nathaniel who was the great grandson of John he Messenger. I am interested in meeting other Holmes descendants in my area. I am visiting my children in Alaska right now but I will be back in Maine in August. you can reach me in Maine at 712-4209.

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