Heraldry in the United States of America

by Dom William Wilfrid Bayne Coat of Arms no 55, July 1963
Arms of Van Renssalaers and Washington

The “Founding Fathers” of the American republic having at first considered the establishment of a college of arms, in the end rejected the idea as inconsistent with the ideals of the new government. And so the bearing of arms which had been brought to the colonies with the other traditional usages of the mother country was set adrift to shift for itself. In the reaction against monarchical ideas and the trappings of privilege, heraldry suffered a temporary eclipse, and in this period of neglect the heraldic traditions of some undoubtedly armigerous families were either obscured, or altogether lost.

One example will serve to illustrate the trend of the time. A scion of the family of Blount, of Sodington, a distressed royalist, brought to his new home a family heirloom, a metal plate engraved with the ancestral arms. In a fit of “republican” zeal he destroyed this relic. Fortunately for his descendants a member of the family had made a sketch of the arms. The appetite for social distinction has no doubt something to do with the revival of interest in heraldry. For better or worse the coat of arms has come to be regarded as a mark of social distinction, and has about it something of the glamour that attaches to titles of nobility. In spite of equalitarian theories the average American has a respect for these things.

For lack of any official sanction and control of the use of arms, heraldry in the USA presents a somewhat confused picture. The arms actually in use may be classified roughly into the following categories: 1, arms borne traditionally since colonial times; 2, arms arbitrarily assumed (for the most part institutional); 3, arms brought in by more recent armigerous immigrants; 4, arms granted to individual Americans by a foreign college of arms; 5, arms that have been ignorantly pirated.

[The remainder of this article is a consideration of some notable early colonial armigerous gentry- Ed]   Among those who for various reasons sought refuge in the new world a considerable proportion were scions of the old county families. Particularly true was this of the emigrants to Virginia. Among the so-called “Pilgrim Fathers”, however, Miles Standish alone, who had been engaged to organise military protection against the Indians, could with some hesitation be said to qualify as a gentleman in the sense in which at that time the term was understood. Many names  from among those which appear on the passenger list of the “Mayflower”, are found at a later date associated with armorial bearings. Whether these arms were obtained by grant or merely pirated I would not know. With John Winthrop, himself the bearer of recently granted arms came, in 1630, to found the Massachusetts Bay colony, puritans of authentic armigerous antecedents. The arms of some of these appear in the rolls of arms compiled by the Committee of Heraldry of the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

To all of the colonies came persons of “quality”, usually younger sons of county families, some of whom had taken temporarily to trade. With them they brought the traditions and customs of their class, among these traditions frequently that of an ancestral coat of arms. Land was easily obtained by men of their social position  and they readily established themselves in a manner of life not unlike that lived by their kinsmen in the mother country.

In the Dutch colony of New Netherland many of the “patroons”, or large landowners, were of genuine armigerous descent. As in Virginia the landowning gentry soon came to be recognised as a distinct ruling class. Among the armigerous families of the Hudson Valley may be mentioned, to name some of the more prominent, the Van Rensselaers, the Stuyvesants, the Van Cortlandts, and the Schuylers. The Van Rensselaers bore Gules, a cross moline argent, quartering the arms of Pasraet, Wenckom, and Ter Beke.

Governor Peter Stuyvesant bore Gules, a stag courant proper, on a chief argent a greyhound chasing a hare both also proper. The family of Roosa, descended from Aldert Heymans Roosa (1621-1679), who came from Guelderland in 1660, and was one of the founders of the town of Wiltwynck, on the Hudson, renamed Kingston by the English in 1664, bear the canting coat; Or, three roses gules. In 1664 New Netherland was captured by the expedition sent from England under the command of Colonel Nicholls. Some of the officers in this little army elected to remain in the colony now renamed New York. Among these was Captain Daniel Brodhead of a Yorkshire family one branch of which was seated at Monk-Bretton. He bore Argent, a lion rampant (proper ?), in chief two eagles displayed gules.

Perhaps the greatest number of armigerous immigrants settled in Virginia, which during the troubled times of the Civil Wars, was a favourite refuge for “distressed royalists”. Nowhere in the colonies was the social structure so faithful a copy of that of the mother country as in this region. At the top of the social hierarchy stood the Royal Governor, or his representative; in the King’s Council, in which representatives of the leading families sat, by what practically amounted to hereditary right, was duplicated in miniature the House of Lords; and in the House of Burgesses to which for the most part only men of substance were elected, the House of Commons.

During “the season” the landed families took up temporary residence in their town houses in Williamsburg, where the centre of social activity was the Governor’s residence, referred to locally as “the Palace”. In old Bruton Church the Governor worshipped in a canopied pew, and sat to hear the sermon in a chair of state sometimes embellished with a representation of his arms. The government of colonial Virginia was unblushingly aristocratic and the members of the ruling oligarchy lived on their vast estates in surroundings of elegance made possible by the traffic that plied back and forth between the nearby tidewater rivers and the ports of the mother country, bearing abroad hogsheads of tobacco and returning laden with luxuries. From the ruling aristocracy of Colonial Virginia came a large percentage of the statesmen who towards the end of the eighteenth century guided the destinies of the young American republic.

The history of “Virginia heraldica” begins at Jamestown, founded in 1607. The settlement was abandoned later and the government moved inland to Williamsburg, because the site of the original capital was found to be unhealthy. Amid the ruins of the church built at Jamestown there is an heraldic relic which is perhaps unique in North America. This is a gravestone on which there still remain the depressions which once held the effigy in brass of a man in armour and a shield of arms.

Among the names of armigerous families that established themselves in Virginia during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a few only can be mentioned here. Besides such familiar names as Washington, Lee, Fairfax, Randolph and Carter, others a little less prominent have left their mark upon the annals of “The Old Dominion”. Such are Cary, Armistead, Isham, Jenings, Skipwith, Chicheley, Grymes, Nicholas, and Bland. Descriptions of the arms brought by these and other emigrants to Virginia, as well as those brought to the other colonies, are given in such compendia as Crozier’s Virginia Heraldica, and General Armory, Vermont’s America Heraldica, Matthews’s American Armoury and Blue Book, and Bolton’s American Armory.

In the new world during the colonial period customs long established in the mother country continued to be followed. Arms were engraved on seal rings which were used for the practical purpose of authenticating documents; were carved on gravestones and altar tombs; were used to embellish family plate and coach panels. Bolton gives many examples of these various uses. With the passing of the colonial period most of these customs fell gradually into disuse and in time the ancestral coat of arms came to be regarded more or less in the light of a family heirloom.

To give a complete and detailed account of all the prominent families of colonial Virginia, and descriptions of the arms that are ascribed to them would be to venture beyond the scope of this article. A few names will have to suffice. The arms of the Washingtons, Argent, two bars gules, in chief three mullets of the second, is no doubt familiar to all students of heraldry.  John Washington (1627-1677), a grandson of Lawrence Washington, of Sulgrave Manor, in Northamptonshire, came to Virginia in 1659, and settled at Bridges Creek, in Westmoreland County. He married Ann, daughter of Col. Nathaniel Pope, of “The Cliffs”, in the same county. The Popes, who came from Bristol, bore, Or, two chevrons gules, on a canton azure a mullet of the first. It has been suggested that the “Stars and Stripes” of the national flag owe their inspiration to the arms of the “Father of his Country”, but this has never been proved.



Arms of the Carter, Lee and Randolph families

The arms of the Lees are engraved on a chalice once owned by a son of the immigrant ancestor. Here they appear as, (Gules), a fess chequy (or and azure) between eight billets (argent). Richard Lee (c. 1613-1664), a grandson of John Lee, of Coton Hall, Shropshire, came to Virginia in 1640. According to Burke the fess in the arms of the Lees of Coton Hall was “componee”. The “fess chequy” that appears engraved on the chalice just mentioned may be a case of differencing, or it may be simply an error on the part of the engraver.

It has been said of William Randolph and John Carter that between them they share the distinction of being the progenitors of more distinguished Americans than any other two Patriarchs of colonial times. To his credit the former can claim such men as Peyton Randolph, President of the Continental Congress of 1775, Edmund Randolph, Governor of Virginia, and one of the framers of the Federal Constitution, Sir John Randolph, Attorney General of Virginia, who received the honour of Knighthood for eminent services to the Crown, and the brilliant but eccentric John Randolph, of “Roanoke”. William Randolph, the immigrant ancestor (1651-1711), grandson of William Randolph, of Little-Houghton, Northamptonshire, and nephew of the poet, Thomas Randolph (1605-1635), came to Virginia c. 1673, and settled at “Turkey Island”. He married Mary, daughter of Capt. Henry Isham, a grandson of Sir Euseby Isham, of Pitchley, Northamptonshire (arms: Gules, three piles wavy or, a fess of the second; from a seal at Henrico, Virginia). William Randolph bore, Gules, on a cross or five mullets of the first. An impression of his seal, attached to a document, dated 1698, bearing these arms, is preserved at the Henrico Court House, Virginia.

John Carter, who is described as “a distressed royalist”, came to Virginia, c. 1649, and acquired lands in Upper Norfolk (now Nansemond) County. In 1654 he removed to Lancaster County and established his residence at “Corotoman”, near the mouth of the Rappahannock River. Three miles inland he built Christ Church, which his son Robert later rebuilt on a more pretentious scale. According to the pedigree which appears in the 1939 edition of Burke’s Landed Gentry, he was a younger son of Robert Carter, of Garston, in Hertfordshire (died 1636). John Carter’s royalist sympathies are attested by the fact that he was removed from his seat in the King’s Council at Jamestown, and threatened with imprisonment, for showing discontent with the government set up after the execution of King Charles I. He was restored to his position in the Council at the Restoration in 1660, by Governor Sir William Berkeley. Among the descendants of John Carter may be mentioned three signers of the Declaration of Independence, Gen. Thomas Nelson, Governor of Virginia, Carter Braxton and Benjamin Harrison; two Presidents of the United States, William Henry and Benjamin Harrison; Robert Carter Nicholas, Treasurer of Virginia, and leader of the Bar in Williamsburg, and his sons, Col. George Nicholas, one of the framers of the State Constitution of Kentucky, and the Hon. Wilson Cary Nicholas, Governor of Virginia. General Robert E. Lee was descended from both John Carter and William Randolph.

The arms of the Carters are carved on the handsome baroque altar tomb of John Carter’s son, Col. Robert Carter (1663-1732), at Christ Church, Corotoman, and engraved on the family plate preserved at “Shirley”. These arms are, Argent, a chevron between three Catherine wheels vert. Robert Carter, known to history and legend as “King Carter”, on account of his princely possessions and his prominence in the affairs of the colony, was President of the King’s Council, and as such acting Governor of Virginia. According to his obituary which appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine, in London, in November 1732, he left an estate of over 300,000 acres of land, and about 1,000 slaves.

Robert Carter’s mother was Sarah, daughter of Gabriel Ludlow of Dinton and Baycliffe, County Wilts, a lawyer who was called to the Bar in 1620, and elected a Bencher in 1637. Gabriel Ludlow’s younger brothers, Roger and George, both emigrated to the new world, Roger became Governor of Connecticut, and George, a Member of the King’s Council in Virginia. Three of Sarah Ludlow’s brothers came to Virginia. The arms of the Ludlows, whose pedigree begins with William Ludlow of Hill-Deverill, Wilts, butler to King Henry IV, are, Argent, a chevron between three martens’ heads sable. These arms appear on one of the eighteenth century tombs at Christ Church, impaled with those of the Carters. Gabriel Ludlow’s grandfather, George Ludlow of Hill-Deverill, married Edith, daughter of Sir Andrews, Baron Windsor of Stanwell, by Elizabeth Blount, a grand-daughter of Sir Walter Blount, K.G., Baron Mountjoy.

arms of the Cary and Carroll families

The Carys of Virginia stem from a cadet branch of the Carys of Devon. Miles Cary (1622-1667), a royalist, came from Bristol to Virginia in 1645, and settled in Warwick County. In 1665 he was given a seat in the King’s Council. Among his antecedents, in Bristol, were two Mayors of that city, William Cary (1492-1572), and his grandson, William Cary (1550-1633). His mother, Alice, was the daughter of another Mayor of Bristol, Henry Hobson. The arms which appear on the tomb of Miles Cary, in Warwick county, Argent, on a bend three roses of the field, were confirmed to his nephew, John Cary of London (with appropriate differences), in 1699, Lord Hunsdon, and Cary of Torre Abbey Devon, testifying that the Carys of Bristol were their kinsmen. In far away Virginia the descendants of Miles Cary continued to use the arms which their Bristol forebears had borne “time out of mind”, undifferenced. These arms appear on the seal of Sir John de Cary, of Cockington, Baron of the Exchequer under King Richard II. The Bristol Carys are represented today by the family of Cary-Elwes.

Of the Nicholas family it has been said that: “When the State (of Virginia) needed sane and courageous leaders it looked to the Nicholas family; and the harvest thereof was abundant”. This family has indeed an extraordinary record of public service. The immigrant ancestor, Dr. George Nicholas, came to Virginia c. 1700, and settled at Williamsburg, where he became one of the vestrymen of Bruton Church. He acquired lands in Albemarle County, and shortly after 1721, married Elizabeth, eldest daughter of Robert Carter, of Corotoman. His arms are given by Brock in his Virginia and Virginians (I, 121), as Azure, a chevron engrailed between three owls or. These arms are found on the seal of John Nicholas, of Roundway, County Wilts, attached to a document dated 1387. In Virginia they may be seen carved on a mantel at “Redlands”, in Albemarle County, the home of a descendant.

To the neighbouring colony of Maryland, named in honour of Queen Henrietta Maria, by the founder, Lord Baltimore, came a number of armigerous families both Catholic and Protestant. The best known of these, next to the family of the founder himself, is the Carroll family. The immigrant founder of this family, Charles Carroll (died 1728), a son of Daniel Carroll, of “Litterlouna”, King’s County, Ireland, came to Maryland to seek freedom of conscience in matters of religion, in 1688. His grandson, Charles Carroll, of “Carrollton”, was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The Carrolls bore, Argent, two lions combatant gules supporting a sword of the first hilt and pommel or. These arms appear on the bookplate of the emigrant, “Charles Carroll of ye Inner Temple, Esq.”.

Among the less well known emigrants to Maryland was Col. George Gale, who settled in Somerset County, on the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay, and was one of the founders of the town of Princess Anne. On his gravestone at Tusculum Plantation, near Princess Anne, are carved the arms granted to his father, John Gale, of Whitehaven, County Cumberland, in 1712, Argent, on a fess between three saltires azure, an anchor between two lions’ heads erased or. These arms are a variant of those of the Gales of Yorkshire, of which family the Gales of Whitehaven were a cadet branch.