Kentucky Clay: Eleven Generations of a Southern Dynasty

Kentucky Clay: Eleven Generations of a Southern Dynasty

by Katherine R. Bateman

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Eleven generations of a founding American family are examined in this sweeping history that traces the Clays of Kentucky, a true Southern dynasty. The Clays of Virginia and the Cecils of Maryland were second sons of the English aristocracy who gambled on the New World. Some of the most well-known members of this clan include Henry Clay, who ran for president


Eleven generations of a founding American family are examined in this sweeping history that traces the Clays of Kentucky, a true Southern dynasty. The Clays of Virginia and the Cecils of Maryland were second sons of the English aristocracy who gambled on the New World. Some of the most well-known members of this clan include Henry Clay, who ran for president against James K. Polk; his cousin, Cassius Marcellus Clay, prominent abolitionist and Lincoln’s advisor against slavery; and the matriarch Kizzie Clay, who buried the family silver and escaped by flatboat to avoid marauding Union soldiers. The history of the early colonial period in America—from the time of their arrival in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1613 and St. Mary’s, Maryland, in 1634 through the trek across Virginia to the Appalachian Mountains, their eventual intermarriage in 1800, and their move across the mountains to Kentucky—comes to life through this well-researched family saga that heralds the adventures and accomplishments of the men in the family, as well as reveals the stories and nontraditional roles of the strong, selfish, and headstrong women.

Editorial Reviews

Blue Ridge Country
A rich narrative.
The Decatur Daily
A most readable family history.
Beautifully printed and well-illustrated.
What's Happening-Highland Park
[Bateman's] story is highly perceptive and feels like a genuine rendering of a personal mythology.
Southern Seasons
Sweeping . . . well-researched.

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Kentucky Clay

Eleven Generations of a Southern Dynasty

By Katherine Bateman

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2009 Katherine Bateman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-56976-273-8


The Ancient Planter

Although I cannot prove it, I am convinced that John Thomas Claye — the first of my ancestors to come over from England — had brown eyes. This may sound odd, even inconsequential to families who over time have looked into the eyes of relatives that reflect rainbow hues: blue, green, violet, or that luscious yellow that turns to key lime in certain lights. It is not odd, however, to me. My conviction that John Thomas Claye had brown eyes has substance behind it.

All of us, all of the Clays and Cecils — the mothers, the fathers, the sisters, the brothers, the grandparents, the babies — are brown-eyed. Photographs show our dark chocolate eyes for the seven generations that cameras have existed to capture them. Histories of the early settlers of Virginia and Kentucky go even further back. One author speaks of my eighteenth-century relatives not just in terms of their Revolutionary War service or their careers in law and politics but also discusses in surprisingly lush language the family's dark brunette looks. A husband writes love letters to "my black-eyed baby." Oral tradition describes "black eyes flashing."

Consequently, I think that when John Thomas Claye sailed into the Chesapeake Bay in February 1613 he gazed at his new Virginia homeland through irises of brown. I think his dark eyes darkened further when he stepped off the ship Treasurer onto the wharf built just months before on the James River side of the fledgling Jamestown colony. They darkened in stunned disbelief as he walked through the palisade and took in the handful of crude shelters, the deep mud, and the lethargic shamble of the Jamestown colonists who, like him, had invested as land speculators in "The Tresorer and Companie of Adventurers and Planters of the Citty of London for the Firste Colonie in Virginia."

Imagining John Thomas's brown eyes as he stares in confused shock at the skeletal colonists — the ones who felt lucky to have survived "the starving years" of 1609 to 1611 — helps me feel that I am in that rain-drenched Jamestown winter with him. I stand beside him as he surveys the bleak and dreary settlement he has come to: the two rows of timber and mud houses, the disheveled storehouses within the fort's triangular form shaped by precariously leaning palisades. I stand there as he contrasts the noisy vibrancy of London — the home he had left just weeks before — with the sluggish stillness of this exhausted place. I want to comfort this twenty-six-year-old relative of mine as he wonders if the Treasurer has docked too soon, as he tells himself this must not be the Jamestown he was promised, the place he has invested in, the place where he plans to buy land, make a home, start a family.

Yes, I want to comfort him. I want to touch his arm. I want to say to John Thomas, "Look at me. Look at my brown eyes. I am one of yours. Eleven generations of your family know your story. Your story and all those like yours taught us what we can do, who we can be. We know that so many of you faced this awful place alone and that you did not give up, you did not go back to the safety, the familiarity of England. Through your stories we know we are capable of taking risks, capable of starting over; we know we are capable of change. We owe the first step in family fearlessness to you. So many of us are here to affirm that the decision each of you made was a positive one, not just for you but for all of us in your bloodlines."

According to the family story, John Thomas Claye came to Virginia in 1613 for one reason only: to amass land. He made that trip across the Atlantic on the ship Treasurer in the dangerous gray winter seas to replace the land he would have inherited if he had not been born the second son of Sir John Thomas Claye and Mary Carleton Claye, if England's laws of primogeniture had not determined that his older brother, William, would get everything. To match the family landholdings was a tall order. The Clayes were well established in England. John Thomas's father was a Welsh coal baron knighted by Elizabeth I, and his mother was the daughter of Sir William Carlton, the "Chief Cock-matcher and Servant to the Hawks" for Henry VIII.

At first, John Thomas had not considered buying stock in "The Tresorer and Companie of Adventurers and Planters of the Citty of London for the Firste Colonie in Virginia" or sailing to Jamestown. For one thing, he had not reached his majority in 1606 when the "Virginia Company" put out its first call for adventurers to participate "in purse or in person" in the land investment venture. And then ships filled with additional adventurers and supplies for the fledgling colony began to return to London with more than logs and furs. The ships also returned with stories. Hard-to-believe stories. Stories the board members of the Virginia Company tried to hide, with little success, from the public. Potential stockholders clustered in London's business district and conferred over what they had heard from the captains and crew of the ships returning from Virginia. In spring 1608, only thirty-six of the first one hundred fifty adventurers survived the first year in the new colony. Could this be true? In 1610, of the five hundred settlers in the colony in 1608 — most healthy new adventurers — only sixty were still alive. And, nearly unspeakably, those sixty may have survived only because they were willing to eat their own dead. Unthinkable.

At first, John Thomas Claye was not tempted to join the sons of English nobility in the Virginia Company venture: at first, the second sons who trickled into the fledgling colony and, later, the "distressed cavaliers" who flooded into Virginia in the 1640s following their land losses in the English Civil War. John Thomas was not interested in Jamestown until 1612. That spring, news of an amazing new strain of tobacco reached London, tobacco planted in Virginia from Spanish seeds acquired in the West Indies by John Rolfe, an early Virginia Company adventurer and future husband of Pocahontas. This tobacco was so wondrous that descriptions of its luscious leaves — their resistance to disease, their richness of flavor — reached London before the first hogshead filled with the precious commodity left Virginia a year or more later. The news of this fine new cash crop was all it took to rekindle interest in the Virginia colony and to pique John Thomas's interest.

The Virginia Company seized the moment. On March 12, 1612, the stock company rewrote its charter to extend the boundaries of the Virginia settlements one hundred miles west to allow for large tobacco plantations. Flyers to entice new investors passed from hand to hand. Pay your own way: get a grant of one hundred acres of river-rich plantation land. Private men's clubs were full of the talk of this amazing new tobacco, of the land that could be had, the money that could be made in the new world.

So in 1612, while the hubbub raged about Virginia's new cash crop, John Thomas Claye, now twenty-six and still single, thought about the land in England lost to birth order. As I imagine it, he considered the thousands of acres of available land in Virginia. He pictured the family's land in mountainous Monmouth, Wales. He tried to imagine the flat but fertile marshland described by those who had returned from Virginia. He mulled his future over and over, looking this way and that at the idea of emigrating to Virginia. And finally he came to the conclusion that the only way to have the life he wanted was to join the swell of second sons sailing to Virginia. He joined forces with the Virginia Company, purchased a fare on the ship Treasurer, and sailed to Virginia "in purse" and "in person" to amass land as a planter.

The first decision John Thomas Claye made after arriving in wet, dreary Jamestown set a precedent for generations of our family. John Thomas decided to move away from the more established settlements in the colony. For his initial grant of one hundred acres he chose a site near present-day Hopewell on the south side of the James River, about twenty miles west of Jamestown in newly laid out Charles City County. The land — taken from the Appomattocs in the winter of 1611-12 — was fertile. It was so fertile, in fact, that it was named the "new Bermuda" after the lush soil of the Bermuda Islands. Further, it was near choice transportation routes. To the north of John Thomas's patent was the James River. To his west the wide mouth of the Appomattox River flowed into the James, commingled with the many fingers of Swift Creek. Further, there were large tracts of land in Charles City County, space for bigger plantations. John Thomas plantedhis first crop of tobacco in spring 1613 and began to acquire land near his plantation.

Life was not easy. Although, according to the muster records, two of John Thomas's shipmates from the Treasurer — Christopher Safford and Henry Williams — settled near him, it was a lonely time. In 1616, three years after John Thomas made his claim, John Rolfe sent a formal letter to the Virginia Company entitled "A True Relation of the State of Virginia." In it he spoke to the plight of planters like John Thomas and asked for financial rewards and enticements for the colony:

The number of Officers and Laborers are 205. The Farmers 81. besides 65 woemen and children in every place some, which in all amounteth to 351 persons: a small number to advaunce so greate a worke.

Rolfe's plea for help struck a responsive chord in England. That year, 1616, the Virginia Company decided to expand its rewards to colonizers by speeding up the receipt of land grants. Any planter who had come to Virginia before 1616 — "the ancient planters" — would receive one hundred acres effective 1619 as long as they, like John Thomas, had been in Virginia for three years. Further, for each person whose fare was paid to the Company by an adventurer, the transporter would receive fifty additional acres.

The new land rewards worked in John Thomas's favor. In May 1619 John Thomas paid for the passage of his servant William Nicholls to come over on the ship Dutie. Over the next thirteen years he paid the passages of twenty-one additional adventurers and planters — some of whom most likely worked off their debt to John Thomas on his plantations. In 1635 John Thomas received a patent on eleven hundred acres, which gave him the right to land that lay adjacent to his original one-hundred-acre grant — acreage that now stretched between Ward's Creek and Bailey's Creek on the south side of the James River just below the mouth of the Appomattox River. By the time he died he owned thousands of acres of plantation land on both sides of the James River.

John Thomas Claye's journey to Virginia was part of each Clay child's history. We knew his story. We knew him by his double first name, John Thomas. We knew that at some point he left that strange "e" off the end of his name. And we knew that our cousin Green Clay — who wrote down a record of the Clay family in the nineteenth century — called John Thomas "the English Grenadier." We also knew that in April 1623 he brought over Ann Nichols on the ship Ann. According to the family saga, John Thomas had married Ann Nichols sometime before he made his decision to go to Virginia. Others who have researched the Clays suggest they married later. There is no documentation to prove either account. All we know is that in 1624 Ann was in Virginia and claimed to have arrived on the ship Ann the year before.

In 1624 a census was taken of the Virginia colony inhabitants. At that time John Thomas Claye and Ann Nichols Claye lived in Jordans Journey Charles Cittie. On January 21, 1624, when the census taker reached their plantation, John Thomas and Ann Nichols had one servant — William Nicholls — thirty bushels of corn, one hundred fish, two cows, one pig, ten chickens, various armaments, and one house. But the census record of John's fish and chickens was not important to the family version of John Thomas's story. Nor in John Thomas's story were there imaginings of a first makeshift dwelling, of a later log cabin, of a final home with outbuildings for curing tobacco, for livestock, for storage. What was important to the chroniclers of the family saga was this: John Thomas Claye came to Virginia to replace land lost to English laws, and he met his goal. He purchased land, sold land, and purchased more. He received land grants and formed land partnerships. John Thomas Claye came here land poor and died land rich.

Each of the young Clay listeners attached images to John Thomas's tale. Mine were as I described in the beginning. As I learned about Jamestown in grade school I pictured John Thomas's arrival in that dank, muddy place called a colony. I sensed his start of apprehension as he looked out across the wharf toward the hovels serving as homes. I saw his dark eyes widen as he stared at the starving, lumbering wraiths who inhabited this ring of Dante's hell. I was certain he questioned his decision to leave England, certain that he wondered if he had made a terrible mistake. I was convinced that he asked himself if he had the will to do what he had set out to do.

John Thomas Claye's story ended well. He had his land. He fathered a family who would follow his lead — children and grandchildren and their children and grandchildren who would survey land and move west and south and west again toward the dangerous edges of this country's expansion, toward larger landholdings, toward long, languorous vistas, toward fresh but fearsome new starts. John Thomas died at age sixty-eight in 1655, and because primogeniture did not cross the Atlantic with the second sons of nobility, each of his children — sons all — inherited a land stake of his own with enough left over to pass down.

And what of the women in John Thomas's life? He had married twice. Ann Nichols, his first wife, had only a walk-on part in his story — a marriage date, a muster record, three sons: William, Francis, and Thomas. I had thought little about Ann Nichols Claye before I made the decision to delve into the family history. In my research I discovered that Ann had arrived in Virginia at a treacherous time.

On March 22, 1622, Opechancanough, Pocahontas's uncle, out of frustration that the English were in Virginia to stay, staged synchronized, surprise early morning attacks on settlements up and down the James River. Three hundred forty-seven settlers were shot or hacked to death in their homes and fields. John Thomas Claye and William Nicholls were among the few who survived the raids. Less than a year later — while a consortium of Indian tribes were desperately trying to drive the English into the Chesapeake Bay — Ann Nichols boarded the ship Ann for Virginia.

Why did John Thomas ask Ann to come to Virginia during that unsettled period? By summer 1622, news of the "great Massacre" had reached London and was circulating around England. Recruitment was difficult. But Ann Nichols came on. Did John Thomas think that moving to the fortress at Jordan's Journey — where the surviving settlers of the plantations in the Bermuda Hundred had been directed to converge — made it safe? There is no way to know the answer, yet Ann Nichols did survive the years of unrest in the 1620s. She died sometime before 1645, some twenty years after her arrival in Virginia. There are few family stories about John Thomas and Ann Nichols's three boys, born during those early, difficult colonizing years. John Thomas's youngest son, Charles Clay, the child of his marriage to his second wife, Elizabeth, however, did hold importance to the family. He was our direct lineal relative and the great-great-great-grandfather of Henry Clay, the Kentucky statesman and presidential contender and one of the family's great prides.


The Chyrurgien and the Rebel

Charles Clay had only two reference points in the family saga: he was John Thomas Claye's youngest child, and he fought in Bacon's Rebellion — a fact that amused and confused me as a child since I heard the stories in word pictures. I wanted to know more about Charles than those two meager crumbs of information. I wanted him to come alive for me. I had stood in my imagination with his father when he faced desolate Jamestown. I wanted to stand beside Charles for at least a moment of his life. So I headed to Chicago's Newberry Library — a noted research center for early American history.

First I researched Charles Clay's birth. The family's genealogy chart said Charles was born in 1638 and was the child of Ann Nichols. Neither of these facts fit with the documents I uncovered in Virginia's court records. Finally, I found a deposition that Charles gave on October 2, 1682, where he stated that he was "about 37 years old." That meant he was born in 1645. Ann Nichols had died by then. His mother had to be John Thomas's second wife, Elizabeth, whose maiden name remains a mystery.

Corroboration for Elizabeth as Charles Clay's birth mother came from a surprising source: Elizabeth's second husband. Following John Thomas's death in 1655, Elizabeth married her neighbor, John Wall, who in 1629 had patented land adjacent to property owned by John Thomas on the mouth of Ward's Creek. On October 3, 1660, John Wall recorded a deeded gift of two ewes made to Charles, "his sonne-in-law" — seventeenth-century usage for stepson. That cinched it. Elizabeth Wall, formerly Elizabeth Claye, was Charles Clay's mother. She — not Ann Nichols — was my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother.


Excerpted from Kentucky Clay by Katherine Bateman. Copyright © 2009 Katherine Bateman. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are saying about this

Nancy Horan
With wit and candor, Bateman reveals her lifelong struggle to avoid the disturbing patterns of [her family's colorful] legacy, while mining the emotional gifts passed on to her. (Nancy Horan, author, Loving Frank)
Jean B. Lee
With storytelling skill, historical research, and a questioning imagination, Katherine Bateman follows her family's odyssey in America since the seventeenth century. (Jean B. Lee, professor of history, University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Ronne Hartfield
This riveting book is at once a journey into centuries of the American past and a deeply personal family saga, coupling the author's meticulous historical research with her passionate curiosity and vivid imagination. (Ronne Hartfield, author, Another Way Home: The Tangled Roots of Race in One Chicago Family)

Meet the Author

Katherine Bateman is the author of The Young Investor. She is a former professor of art history at both Berea College in Kentucky and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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