[Originally written about 1988 - with notes in red written in 2009]

By Dennis J Yancey

Further Thoughts concerning the Origin of the Family

Characteristics of the Earliest Yanceys

A Comparitive Analysis of the Various Theories as to Yancey  Origin

Families Associated with the Early Yanceys of America

Early Yanceys of America

NOTE:  IN 2013 - DNA tests proved that there is no direct common PATERNAL
 connection between The Yancey and the
Nanney family.  However it should be noted
that some other connection could still exist between these two families.  Research is ongoing.
further info on DNA testing

After over a century of family research, by a wide variety of Yancey researchers,  the origin of the Yancey family and the Yancey name itself, for the most part, still lie in obscurity. The history of the Yancey family has been traced back to the early 1700's to the colony of Virginia where branches of the family were living in the counties of New Kent, Hanover, Louisa, Spotsylvania and Culpeper. Where did these families come from? When and how did they immigrate to America? How did the name itself originate? These are questions that have eluded Yancey researchers for decades, most of the answers to which still lie undiscovered. What follows is not the discussion of any recent major discovery concerning the origin of the family, but a general summary of the various theories and traditions concerning the history of the family as well as some rather general information concerning life in Virginia during the 17th century. This is given to help the reader develop some general insight as to who our early Yancey ancestors were, and what life may have been like for them in the early Virginia Colony.

It has been stated that no Yancey family has ever been able to trace its lineage from America into the Old World (see note* at the bottom of this report). Researchers scouring through the record's of Europe find no evidence for the name having existed there. For these two reasons, and others, Onomatologists (those who study the origin of names) have had quite a hard time even theorizing the origin of the Yancey family. One noted Onomatologist states that the surname is related to the French name "l'Anglais or Langley" a name given various families in France which literally meant "Englishman". Another researcher states that the name is the Anglicized spelling of the Dutch name "Jantje" which means "Little John". Both of these theories, and various others that have been proposed, seem to lack any serious foundation on real evidence and unless evidence is found to help substantiate these claims they should not be taken too seriously. The most credible evidence, although not documented with primary sources and far from being conclusive, we obtain from early records of the family and from tradition and lore that has been handed down from generation to generation in the Yancey family to the present time.

The dominant family tradition that has been perpetuated through many generations (popularized by published reports of the 20th Century) can be found in most branches of the family is the story of four or five Welsh brothers who supposedly came from the Old World in 1642 with Sir William Berkeley (Colonial Governor of Virginia) and settled along the James River in Virginia. According to some versions of Yancey lore their surname was originally to have been "Nanney", descending from a well-known royal family of Wales by the name whose estate was located in Merionethshire County. Some claimed that the name was is to have been corrupted or changed to Yancey upon arrival in Virginia. There are various stories (often conflicting) concerning these Nanney/Yancey brothers. Some say that they were associated with  Sir William Berkeley; yet other stories say that they were stowaways. As to their fate - some say a few of the brothers were killed during Indian attacks on the colonists. Based on more current research the validity of  many aspects of these stories appears very questionable. There seems to be no evidence to believe the Berkeley connection - and it seems the story of the four or five brothers is very doubtful. There is no indication of any of them being killed by Indians.   But by any means, by 1704, a Charles Yancey, found living in King William County, was the only Yancey found listed on the Quit Rent Rolls of Virginia. (The Rent Rolls of 1704, were in essence, a census of Virginia land owners - or "freeholders" as they were called.)

The very first known reference discovered to the Yancey/Nanney connection is found in a letter written in 1805 by one Samuel Shepherd of Virginia who's mother-in-law was a Yancey. The letter reads as follows:  

My Dear Brother Robert:

Since I last saw you, my wife has been very ill in the house of her cousin Charles Yancey. Every attention was paid to her, before I reached her side, and she was delivered of a fine boy before my coming. The boy even now resembles that old Welsh stock. Charles Yancey says he must play astrologer and prepare the horoscope of the lad . . . While visiting Charles Yancey's home, during the convalescence of my wife, we discussed old Welsh stock. He tells me Mr. William Evans of Cumberland County says he is Welsh, and descended from some outlandish prince of that country. Mr. Evans who is a broadly cultivated man, says he does not believe the Yancey name is correct, that it was Nanney and got amended in transportation across the Atlantic. Charles Yancey had heard something of this kind from his folks, and my wife has an old arms of the family, that Mr. Evans says belongs to the Nanney family. He says he has seen it in his father's books.


In the early 1930's one member of the Yancey family hired a Welsh Genealogist by the name of Mr. O. E. Ruck to do research on the Nanney family of Wales to see if he could verify the Yancey/Nanney connection. Due to the lack of surnames in early Wales, few families of Welsh descent have been able to trace their lineage back for any extended number of generations. The Nanney family, on the other hand, being a well known Welsh family of royal blood, trace their lineage all the way back to the 12th century to an ancestor named Bleddyn, who became the ruler of a small kingdom in North Central Wales called "Powys". His son, named Cadwgan, struck out into the wild mountains near the coast northwest of Powys and founded his own estate near the present day town of Dolgellau, in what was until recently Merionethshire County.

He named his estate "Nannau" and the structure he built was called by many of his time "the stateliest house in all North Wales". It should be noted here that, as was stated, surnames in Wales did not exist as a common thing until the late 1500's and early 1600's and it was not until about this time that members of the family took a variant form of the name of their estate as their family name. The first in the Nanney clan to use the surname, it would seem, was one Grufydd Nanney. His son Huw Nanney Hen, being one of the more famous members of the family, built the Nanney estate up to a point of grandeur and it became the envy of the entire county. Many of the Yancey family have traveled abroad in search of the Nanney estate. The few, lucky enough to locate it, discovered a three story house of Georgian style set amid the Merionethshire mountains overlooking a natural deer park. The estate was, until recent times, in possession of members of the Nanney family - the last of the family to own the estate being of the name of Vaughn. Over the years, various Yanceys visited the estate and met with the Vaughns of Merionethshire, questioning the family concerning the Nanney/Yancey theory. The Vaughns, although not possessing any evidence of the sort, did seem to consider the account of the Yancey/Nanney brothers a possibility. The Nanney estate today, unfortunately, is no longer in possession of the family. Due to various unfortunate circumstances the estate was sold by the family to a development corporation and who knows what fate has in store for the property that for so long was in the possession of the Nanney family.

Returning to the research of Mr. Ruck, through work done by him, and investigations done by various others on the subject, it was ascertained that the Nanney Coat of Arms was indeed, nearly identical to a coat of arms held by various members of the Yancey family - the arms bearing a blue lion rampant facing left on a gold shield. The main difference between the two being the inclusion of the motto "Ne Touchez Pas Le Chat Sans Avoir Le Gant" (Touch Not The Cat Without The Glove) with the Yancey coat of arms. It should be noted, however, that there are various versions of both the Nanney and Yancey arms, some being quite different from others. This, it would seem, is probably a result of the fact that arms were often changed from one generation to the next.

Although no hard evidence was discovered by the Welsh genealogist Ruck, linking the Yanceys of America to the Nanneys of Wales, it was considered,  by many early on, a valid possibility that the Yanceys could, indeed, have descended from the Nanneys of Wales. This theory is far from conclusive but assuming that it was true, how did the name-change from NANNEY to YANCEY occur. As one researcher states the name-change is somewhat "hard to swallow". How can one account for this drastic corruption in the spelling of the name? There are a handful of possibilities. One thing that should be kept in mind is that the Welsh were not very particular as to their surnames. As was stated, surnames in Wales did not even come into common use until the early 17th century. Although the name change seems quite drastic and unrealistic to many of us today, the theoretical name-change, drastic as it may be, whether intentional or not, is probably not as unlikely as some of us seem to think. It was not that uncommon for persons of this time period to adopt new or different surnames especially upon coming to America. Another possibility, although less likely, is that an early Yancey ancestor married into the Nanney family and instead of taking the paternal Nanney name as their own, they took their mother's name instead. One should not consider this to be too extremely out of the ordinary - as something of the sort did, in fact, happen to a member of the Wynn family who married into the family and took upon himself the Nanney name instead of his own. But, as has been stated, the name Yancey/Yancy does not exist in extant European records. Chances are much more great that the name was changed (intentionally or otherwise) from one generation to the next, from whatever the original name was to the current spelling of YANCEY. The significance of the name Yancey is uncertain. Whether it was adopted from some special origin - such as a certain place name, title, object etc.; whether the name was simply invented; or whether it was a corruption of some existing European surname is uncertain. (There are various names which did exist in Europe which could have easily been corrupted into our present spelling of the name Yancey including Jancy, Jauncey, Chauncey, DeLancey, Yantzi and various others) But, contrary to what various researchers have stated, the name does not seem to have evolved over a number of generations (such as from Nanney to Nancy to Yancey; or from De Hauncey to Hancey to Yancey). There are only two variations of the spelling of the name in America: YANCEY & YANCY; and among the early members of the family, Y-A-N-C-E-Y was by far the most common spelling. Compared to other colonial families the consistency of the spelling among the early family is rather uncommon and would indicate, as has been stated, that the name was probably radically changed or corrupted, for whatever reason, from one generation to the next and Y-A-N-C-E-Y abruptly became the accepted spelling of the name by the early family in America.

How reasonable is it to assume that the Yanceys do indeed descend from the Nanneys of Wales? Before this question is answered, it should be noted that members of the Nanney family of Wales did, in fact, immigrate to America during the 17th century. One Robert Nanney, grandson of the previously mentioned Huw Nanney Hen, crossed the sea in 1635 in a ship named the "Increase" and settled in Massachusetts. In the late 1700's various of his descendants settled in Virginia and North Carolina, and today several families across the United States carry this as their surname (although the name in Wales, it would seem, has completely died out). There is also a record of one Hugh Nanney found living in Virginia in 1689 in the James River area. His exact connection with the Nanney family of Wales or to the Robert Nanney of Massachusetts is uncertain (although, in view of the name, some relationship would seem certain). Any close connection, if it existed, between members of the Yancey family and these members of the Nanney family who immigrated to America has not, as of yet, been discovered.

All the independently collected evidence: The early letter referring to the Yancey/Nanney connection, the similarity in the coat of arms, the tradition of the Welsh brothers being such a common tradition in even distant branches of the family, would seem to indicate that there may have been a close relationship between the Yancey family of America and the Nanney family of Wales. Information concerning the Nanney/Yancey connection even seems to have been passed down to members of the Nanney family now living in America. One member of the Nanney family of Virginia in the 1980's stated:


"From my youth I have always heard that the names were the same (my father was quite old when I was born and he had retained many of the old legends handed down mouth-ear) and I ran into the same information once when inquiring at South Hill, Virginia about the Nanneys . . . The people there . . . mentioned the Nanneys and the Yanceys in one breath and shrugged when questioned about it, saying 'They are the same family - kissing cousins' "


All the collected information seems to point to some kind of connection between the Yancey and Nanney families. But, whether the Yanceys of America are of a direct paternal descent from the Nanneys of Wales has yet to be documented and due to the lack of evidence, one should not totally rule out the possibility that the Yanceys do not descend from the Welsh family after all. Other possibilities include a theory that the name was originally Jancey/Jauncey (a name which did exist in Wales and England at the time) and may have been corrupted to YANCEY upon arrival of the family in America. If the name was drastically changed from one generation to the next the original name could have been most anything.

Various scholars have stated that the Yancey name itself is of French linguistic origin and another theory that has been passed on by various researchers is that the Yanceys were French Huguenots and came to America seeking religious freedom. (The Huguenots were French Protestants, persecuted for their belief in the teachings of Calvin) Although the Yanceys were associated with various families of Huguenot origin (such as the Dumas, Dabney and Mullins families) there is little, if any, evidence to be found indicating that the Yanceys themselves were Huguenots. In fact there would seem to be quite a bit of evidence indicating that they were not part of the Huguenot movement, but rather, strong members of the Protestant Episcopal Church. (The Protestant Episcopal Church - "The Established Church of Virginia" - was essentially the Church of England in America). One of the early Yanceys of Virginia was one Robert Yancey - who became a Protestant Episcopal minister after traveling to England where he was ordained by the Bishop of London. He returned to Virginia to become the rector of Trinity Parish in Louisa County and was highly respected by all in the family. The Crawford family, who were intimately associated with the early Yanceys and may have come over to America at the same time, were also closely associated with the the Protestant Episcopal Church. It was the established and official church of the colony, Virginia was not only divided into political divisions (counties), but also into ecclesiastical units (parishes). The officers of the parish were styled vestrymen; twelve men elected by the freeholders of the parish. The early records of the parishes of St Paul's in New Kent, St Martin's in Louisa, St Peter's in Culpeper and various others Episcopal parishes indicate that the Yanceys were closely associated with, and members of, the "Established Church of Virginia" as were the majority of early colonial Virginians. In fact one early Yancey in his will (not leaving any descendants as heirs), under certain conditions, bequeathed his property to the county to be to be used to school the poor children of the area. This was made under the condition, however, that only those children with parents of the Protestant Episcopal faith could attend. There would definitely seem to exist among the early members of the family an allegiance to the Anglican Church and a link to the countries of England and Wales. This was the case among the majority of early Virginians who before the revolution considered themselves Englishmen. The majority of those who came to Virginia in the 1640's when tradition has it that the Yanceys came, did not come over to seek religious freedom, but for economic and political reasons. The main immigrations of Huguenots to Virginia did not occur until after 1685 when Louis XIV of France repealed the Edict of Nantes and thousands fled to America. One of the main concentration of Huguenot settlement in the colony of Virginia was at Manakin Town in Henrico County and there seems be little evidence of the Yancey family ever settling there. Dissenters from the established church in Virginia had been persecuted throughout the 17th century and it was not until 1689, that King William decreed the Edict of Toleration granting certain rights to protestants, and persecution of dissenters became less common as the Act of Toleration became official Virginia law in 1699. Although the Yanceys seem to have been quite a religiously devout family there is no evidence that they came to America for religious motives or were ever under any religious persecution.

Concerning the fact that the name Yancey is purported to be of French origin - although the name itself would "appear" to be linguistically French, one should not automatically assume that the early Yanceys were, themselves, French. One cannot safely assume anything solely from the spelling of the name. There are various English family names of a similar spelling structure of no French origin. The French motto found on various renditions of the Yancey coat of arms is one of the few indications that suggest that the origin of the Yancey family may have had some French influence.


 By Dennis J Yancey
19341 NW 61 Ave
Miami FL 33015

Our knowledge concerning those of the Yancey family who are to have immigrated to Virginia sometime in the 17th century is pretty well non-existent. Many colonial records were destroyed or lost and no family records seem to have survived to the present time. In view of the fact that we know nothing of these 17th century Yanceys, included here is a general summary of what life may have been like for the average colonial immigrant at this early date.


During the early 17th century England was plagued with weak and unfavorable economic conditions. Wages were low, unemployment high, and commodities scarce. The laws of primogeniture, markedly influencing life in England, provided that the eldest child in a family was to receive, under normal circumstances, the entire estate of his father, the majority of his parents possessions, and often exclusively inherit the social rank of his father. Many a younger son, finding himself with little material property and upon viewing the desperate economic situation of the country, looked anxiously for a means to better his economic and social position. Upon hearing the often exaggerated stories of a new unsettled land "of milk and honey", where land was up for the taking and a fortune could be made, and upon discovering that the law allotted to every settler fifty acres of land for each member of his family he brought to the new land, many a man of humble means sacrificed all he had for a chance to seek his fortune and begin a new life in America.

The bleak economic conditions in England, however, were not the only cause of immigration to America during the 17th century. In 1642 civil war broke out in England - dividing the country between King Charles I and his supporters (known as Royalists or Cavaliers) and Parliament, with Oliver Cromwell as its leader. The English Puritans (known as "Roundheads"), being a dominant faction of the parliament , were a powerful force against the Crown. As Cromwell gained more and more control of the government, the Royalists came under much persecution. Charles I was beheaded in 1649 and Cromwell's army marched throughout England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales harassing and persecuting the Royalists. The Nanneys of Merionethshire being supporters of the Crown, were not excluded from the widespread persecution and oppression by Cromwell's forces and the great Nanney Estate was destroyed by Cromwell's Army in the 1650's (the estate was later rebuilt by the family). Many of the Cavaliers sought refuge in America where Royalist persecution did not exist on the scale it did in England. Various of these Cavaliers became part of what was to be called the "TideWater Aristocracy" which ruled Virginia during the second half of the 17th century.

Still others, came to Virginia, seeking the opportunity to worship as they desired. Throughout the 17th century members of various religious movements, including such sects as the Puritans, as well as Presbyterians, Baptists, Huguenots and Quakers arrived in the colony seeking conditions where they might find freedom of worship. But Virginia, in contrast to many other American colonies - who had become havens for pilgrims seeking religious liberty; seems to have been, rather, a colony - a majority of whose inhabitants had come as a result of the economic and political conditions in Europe. They were men and women seeking a better life for them and theirs in this new land.


The voyage to America was by no means easy and the actual trip across the ocean was probably the worst of it. The journey across the great Atlantic took an average of two to three months - a dreadfully long journey for the adventurous immigrants in view of the poor conditions. The ships were generally crowded and cleanliness, hygiene, and decent and sufficient living quarters, it would seem, were luxuries not afforded many of the voyagers bound for America. Hunger, thirst, boredom, depression, anxiety, fear, sickness and, all too commonly, death were a number of the many unpleasant experiences witnessed by these early America-bound immigrants. The gross uncleanliness and generally unwholesome conditions aboard the crowded vessels resulted in the outbreak of epidemic diseases. The great epidemics of measles, small pox and other contagious diseases, which at times spread throughout the colonies taking many victims, were often the result of the disease being originated on these contaminated and unwholesome vessels.


As we all know Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492. However, it was nearly a century later, in 1584, that Queen Elizabeth gave Sir Walter Raleigh permission to establish British colonies in America. Raleigh sent expeditions to America in hopes of fulfilling the queen's desires in forming the overseas colonies. His various attempts to establish a permanent British colony in North America failed; but it was he who gave the area the name of Virginia (in memory of the Virgin Queen).

In 1606 King James I, in hopes of colonizing the New World, chartered the Virginia Company of London (known at times as the London Company). And the next year, in 1607, a company of 105 adventurers set sail for the New World in the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery. They landed at Cape Henry at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay after spending nearly four months at sea. Many of these adventurers came to the Americas seeking treasures of gold and silver, and although not finding it, it is they who we credit with establishing the first permanent English settlement in America. The adventurers had traveled up one of the rivers near the Chesapeake Bay to establish this settlement. Both the river (The James) and the settlement (Jamestown) were named in honor of the king. This early group of Jamestown colonists was led by the now familiar Captain John Smith. The stories of Pocahontas and John Rolfe, that many of us are familiar with, are stories that originated from this early English settlement. Many of these first colonists tragically died, however, in the severe winters and also due to Indian attacks and disease. But when the adventurers ceased looking for the treasures of gold and silver which they had come to discover and settled down and started to till and farm the land, they began to prosper. With the introduction of women to the colony in 1619, family life became commonplace in the colony, helping create an environment under which the small settlement, even though suffering many setbacks at the beginning, would in time grow and prosper.

In 1619 the first representative legislature of Virginia was created, the House of Burgesses. George Yeardley was elected Colonial Governor and he met with the newly created legislative body to establish the laws of the infant colony. The combined body of the House of Burgesses and the Governor and his aids was called the General Assembly.

In 1624 the Virginia Company, by royal decree, came to the end of its existence. King James I revoked the Company's charter and pronounced Virginia a Royal Colony - claiming control of the colony himself and appointing various successive governors to rule the overseas colony. Governor Yeardley was succeeded by various other governors who were often not well liked by the general colonial population. In 1642, Sir william Berkeley (living in England at the time) was named Governor of the American Colony and he sailed to America early that year. Governor Berkeley, in contrast to previous governors, was generally well liked by the colonists and served until 1652 at which time he was forced to surrender the colony to Oliver Cromwell who had overthrown King Charles I during the English Civil War - which had broken out the same year that Berkeley had set sail for America.

From 1652 until 1660 - when Cromwell died, England had little governing control over the colony and the General Assembly of Virginia was, under most circumstances, left to govern the colony themselves. But the majority of the Virginia colonists were Royalists (in favor of the Crown) and were pleased when Charles II gained control of the government and became King. Berkeley was reappointed Governor of Virginia in 1660. The majority of the colonists, however, were not pleased with Berkeley's rule during this second term and it resulted in widespread discontent among the population. It was during this second term of Berkeley that the heads of various prosperous families of the colony rose to positions in the House of Burgesses and Virginia became ruled by a very small group of affluent and wealthy families known as the "Tidewater Aristocracy". The widespread discontent among the colonists resulted in what was to be known as Bacon's Rebellion. In 1676, after the colony had experienced various skirmishes and problems with the natives and after Berkeley had failed to take quick action in repelling an Indian attack, the colonists chose Nathaniel Bacon to lead an attack on the Indians. Bacon later lead a rebel group to Jamestown where he captured and set fire to the settlement. As a result of this rebellion Berkeley lost control of the government and leadership was taken over by Bacon. This rebellion was short-lived however, as Bacon died the same year from "lice and flux". Berkeley immediately regained governing control and all those who had taken part in the rebellion were made to answer to their acts of insurrection. Berkeley, however, was soon called back to England, to answer for his treatment of the colonists. After sailing back to England, he became sick and passed away while there. Various royal governors succeeded Berkeley as rulers of the colony, but the Tidewater Aristocracy never lost much of their grip on the political and economic control of the colony and maintained their eliteness throughout the 1600's.


The main concentrations of early settlers of Colonial Virginia were to be found along the great rivers of Eastern Virginia. Along the Eastern Coast of Virginia four great rivers empty into the Atlantic - from South to North: The James, the York, the Rappahannock and the Potomac. Between these rivers are three stretches of land. This area from the eastern shores, west to what was called the "fall line" (which bordered the fertile inner plateau known as the Piedmont) was known as the "Tidewater". Thus the terms "Tidewater Virginia" and "Tidewater Aristocracy". The constant washing of the soil from the fertile Piedmont region down to the Tidewater area made it a very productive farm area. It was in this area that our first ancestors came. No one seems to know exactly where the first Yancey brothers settled when they arrived in America, but by the early 18th century the two main concentrations of Yanceys seem to have been in Hanover County, North of the James River and in that area, along the Rappahannock, that in 1748 became Culpeper County.


The early immigrants to Virginia came to a colony totally dominated by a three-tiered class-system. At the top of this social strata was the ruling Aristocracy. These wealthy land owners were characterized by their large plantations (and thus their need for labor to work the fields). It was from this upper class that the members of the governing body - the House of Burgesses were chosen.

The large Yeomanry class, the common small independent farmers or "planters" as they were called, constituted the middle class. They were by far the most numerous but lacked the political and economic power held by the aristocracy. Many had been merchants or craftsman in the Old World and had come to America seeking their fortune. At the bottom of the class system were the indentured servants and slaves. Field labor, being in such high demand by the large tobacco plantation owners of the colony, many a wealthy planter would pay the passage of an immigrant if they would be bound by contract to work a period of four to seven years - during which period they would not earn wages, but in return for their labor would be given food, clothing, and shelter. Many, in the Old World, desperate to leave the bleak conditions of Europe, took advantage of this opportunity, in hopes that after the period of their indenture they would be able to secure a better life in the colonies. In view of the expense and temporariness of the indentured labor the wealthy planters soon turned to a cheaper and more permanent source of labor - black slaves - and thus began the slave trade which dominated the latter part of the 17th century.

One should not suppose, however, that the then-existing social class system was something that the European immigrant found himself locked into. After the term of his indenture a servant was free from his contract and was usually given the means to improve his social and economic status. The humble yeoman could, with hard work and ingenuity, significantly improve his social and economic standing for him and his descendants - and many a humble but hard working yeoman, grew to a respected and prominent position among his fellow planters. Contrary to claims made by some, that the majority of the families making up the Virginia Aristocracy were descendants of wealthy English families of noble lineage, various families of modest means, as the result of hard work, sacrifice and probably a little luck, developed into prosperous, powerful, wealthy families of the Aristocracy in Virginia. But even the members of the powerful Tidewater Aristocracy were not totally immune to changes in their social position in the class system. Governor Berkeley, himself after meeting much resistance from the yeoman class in his second term (resulting in Bacon's rebellion), lost governing control of the colony and returned to England where he died. The one class, however, that had been brought to America by force and who did find themselves stuck at the bottom of the class system with little hope for betterment of their conditions, were the African slaves. Sadly they seemed to have been locked into a social status from which they would not escape from until the 19th century.

Thus Virginia at the time the Yanceys are to have come over was distinctly divided into three social classes: the ruling Aristocracy, the large middle class yeomanry, and the indentured servants and slaves. Due to the lack of any reference to the Yancey family among the extant 17th Century Virginia records and due to the modest landholdings of the very first documented Yanceys in America - it seems most probable that the earliest members of the family were part of the large Yeoman middle class before working their way up the social and economic ladder to positions of prominence and affluence, as respected plantation owners, that many of them were in 18th and 19th century Virginia.


Although America, was indeed a land of opportunity, it was not a land without many hardships and dangers. The winters were often severe and many of the very early immigrants suffered greatly through the cold seasons. The colonists, not being able to readily preserve food stuffs, cured or smoked meats and pickled various types of vegetables. They also stored certain types of vegetables and fruits in cool dry cellars. But during the winters many colonists lived mainly on a diet of meat and bread.

Indians were a constant threat to the colonists and small parties of white settlers were often ambushed by the natives and many a time the Indians would plunder and destroy the crops of the seemingly helpless planters. Two years after the supposed arrival of the Yanceys in 1642 the second great Indian massacre in Virginia occurred and hundred of colonists were slaughtered at the hands of the Indians. Due to the fact that the early European settlers were often taking over what had previously been Indian hunting ground, throughout the colonial period conflicts between the Indians and the colonists occurred, and over time, many skirmishes resulting in battles, or Indian Wars, broke out between the two conflicting groups. Indians were by no means the only danger, however.

Epidemic diseases often ran rampant among the settlers. Yellow fever, small pox, measles and even the bubonic plague were diseases feared by the settlers. Infant mortality was high among the colonists and there were few trained doctors for those needing medical attention. All too often, a young wife would die when complications occurred during childbirth.


What was life like for the yeoman planter on his small farm? The average middle class planter usually owned between 50 and 500 acres of land, usually only part of which was under cultivation at one time (this compares to several thousands of acres held by some of the wealthy aristocrats). The relatively modest common Virginia Yeoman was without doubt, however, the envy of the farmers in Europe, as, at least in view of the land and livestock he could easily acquire, he compared to many a wealthy squire of England.

Although possibly clothed in beggar rags, the yeoman planter, under normal conditions, had no reason to feel the pangs of hunger. Even the poorest planter, was usually bestowed with various head of cattle which were quite plentiful in the colony. The cattle not only supplied the families with beef, but with milk from which could be made butter and cheese. They also supplied leather from which could be made shoes and leggings. Often, even more common than beef, was pork. Swine were quite plentiful, and the planter often marked them and let them loose to forage in the forest and feed upon the roots and acorns. Poultry was also exceedingly numerous and in the lakes, rivers, and forests the colonial hunter could bring down all manner of fowl, including turkey, duck, geese, and quail.

Various varieties of fruits and vegetables were much more common than many would suppose. The gardens, planted each year, supplied the families with vegetables such as carrots, turnips, onions, potatoes and more. With time various planters developed orchards producing apples, pears, cherries, apricots and peaches and many other fruits. Thus, not only did many planters have large stores of fresh fruit but a source for making cider and brandy which was much cheaper than the imported liquors. From the forest, lakes and shores the families could gather berries and nuts of all sort. They could also catch fish, oysters and clams. Wild honey could even be secured from swarms of bees in the woods.

The domiciles of the yeoman planters were quite modest but comfortable and neat. Timber being plentiful the majority of the houses were made of wood. The houses built by the very first settlers were often crude log cabins but with time these log houses of the colonists evolved into small framed cottages, many having a chimney at each end. The planter's furniture was usually fashioned with his own hands. It was quite customary for tables, chairs, beds and other pieces of furniture to be hand manufactured by the majority of the colonists who did not have the means to import these items from England. Even household utensils might be made upon the farm. Fuel for heating the small cabins and cottages was never in short supply, as the planter had only to take his axe and walk a short distance to supply himself with needed firewood.

The yeoman planter became a jack-of-all-trades. The Yeoman usually built his own house with tools that he had often made with his own hands. He planted, nurtured, and harvested his crops and became an adept agriculturist and an astute businessmen when it came time to sell or trade his harvested crops. He became skillful in raising and taking care of the needs of the livestock. He was often a hard working gardener and many a colonist learned to distill his own brandy and liquor from the fruit that his orchard produced. Providing for his family, he became a proficient hunter, fisherman, and at times an explorer. It was also often required of him to be a defender of his family and the colony, often serving in the militia in skirmishes against the Indians. He even at times had to function as a lawyer and often a physician and veterinarian.


The Virginia planter usually reserved a portion of his land for the planting of wheat and maize which were used by him to make bread. Maize being so cheap and easy to grow, cornbread became a mainstay not only for the planter, but for the servants and slaves. But since its introduction to the Virginia colony, however, tobacco was without doubt the cash crop of the Virginia plantation owners. It became so popular that it is said that the plant was even grown in the streets of Jamestown.

Tobacco was first introduced into the colony in 1612 by John Rolfe. It was found to be well suited to the Virginia soil, a crop which needed little care, and most importantly it brought a handsome return. The colonists soon discovered that only two basic things were needed to grow the plant on a large scale: land and labor. Land, was the least of worries, as even the poorest farmer with an axe and a lot of hard work could transform a wooded area into a fertile farm that in England would have been considered a wealthy estate. Labor, on the other hand, was a scarcity , especially during the first half of the 17th century. The wealthy plantation owners, not finding a good source of labor here in America, turned to their mother country for the answer. As a result of the high demand for labor on the large colonial plantations, streams of indentured servants flowed freely to America during the 17th century. The indentured servant would promise four to seven years of hard field labor; in return, the plantation owner would pay his passage to the colony and supply him with food, clothes and shelter. But, at the close of the agreed term the servant was free from his contract and was usually supplied with means to eventually become an independent farmer and the plantation owner was forced to acquire another indentured servant. The humble yeoman was not usually able to secure the luxury of this imported labor; but due to its expense and due to the fact that it was a resource that continually had to be renewed by the large wealthy plantation owners, the hardworking yeoman could still fare pretty well against the larger plantation owners.

But the wealthy plantation owners soon turned from the expensive acquisition of indentured servants to a cheaper and more permanent source of labor. The first blacks were brought to America in 1619 by Dutch traders as indentured servants. During the first half of the 17th century the number of black slaves was quite minimal. In 1649 when Virginia was growing quite rapidly, and the white population numbered near 15,000, there were but 300 negroes in the colony (about 2 percent of the population). But throughout the late 17th and early 18th century the negro population had grown so fast that in 1730 there were nearly 30,000 blacks (about 25% of the population). With the large influx of black slaves imported from Africa during this time period by the wealthy Aristocratic plantation owners, the common yeoman faced a serious crisis. The introduction of this "cheap labor" would reduce the cost of production for those who could afford it and lower the price of tobacco. Could the humble yeoman with only his own hands and tools, compete with the large plantation owners with their slave labor? The yeoman class in Virginia seemed doomed. It seemed that the wealthy plantation owners would only get wealthier and the small humble yeoman farmers would be forced into poverty. In desperation it seemed that there were few options for the small yeoman planter. He could continue farming, as he always had, and with time find himself forced into the depths of poverty, he could leave the colony and seek his fortune elsewhere, or he could, with much hard work and a little luck, possibly earn enough money to buy a slave or two himself. Sadly, as it may be in retrospect, it seems (at least in part) that it was through this acquisition by the small yeoman planter of a few negro slaves that the large middle class were able to save themselves.

Black slaves from Africa became one of the few groups of people who came to the colonies unwillingly and became locked into a social position beyond their control. As a result of their importation, the colony became transformed from a land dominated by the large Yeoman middle class, characterized by their hard work, self respect and independence, into a land of large tobacco plantations - a land of slaves and slave-holders. It became a way of life - one that completely dominated the South until the great crisis of the Civil War which split the great nation in two. The little evidence we have suggests that the earliest Yanceys were probably among these middle class yeoman planters, many of whom, after a number of generations and due to the social changes of the time, were able to become large and prosperous plantation owners. By the 18th century the majority of Yanceys found living in Virginia and North Carolina owned slaves and many members of the Yancey families grew to positions of economic and social prominence. This, however, is not to say that they grew to these positions of prominence solely through the families acquisition of slaves. Research indicates that the early members of the family were very hard working, ingenious, learned men. Many of the early Yanceys actively served in their local government and militia, many became educators, ministers, doctors, lawyers, congressmen, and the like. And it would seem that the majority of them arrived at these respected social positions independent of the fact that they owned slaves. It would also seem that various members of the early Yancey family seem to have developed a degree of affluence and prominence among the colonists, at least in part, from marrying into wealthy families (such as the Kavanaughs of Culpeper County). But in total fairness, historians do seem to be correct when they state that, as a whole, the large yeoman middle class seems to have survived the 17th century due to their acquisition of a few black slaves. By the arrival of the 18th century the majority of the plantation owners had a small number of slaves and with some hard work and ingenuity could with reasonable confidence expect to improve their economic and social position.

The question of slavery was, and is, a delicate subject. Different members of the Yancey family were later to be found on both sides of the Great Civil War which was, at least in part, initiated over the question of slavery. There is evidence, however, even in view of the fact that the majority of early Yanceys owned black slaves, that many of them considered the institution of slavery "less than just". As one very prominent member of the Yancey family of Virginia, a plantation owner himself, wrote in 1835:

"I consider slavery an evil of great magnitude, yet I am not in favor of abolition -- very far from it. No remedy for the evil has presented itself to my mind, but would produce a greater evil to society, than a continuance of servitude in the mild and humane form in which it exists. Slavery was introduced in this country by the sordid policy of the British Government, for which we of the present generation cannot be held accountable; but we are accountable for a just discharge of our duties as masters, in extending to them mild humane treatment, with due regard to their morals. Abolition can never be forced by the clamor of fanatics, which can only make the situation of slaves less tolerable and delay the process of public opinion, in devising some plan for commencing a system of abolition, which commence when it may, must take its origin in some of the slave-holding states."

It goes without question that tobacco growing, slavery, and plantation life in general, were three aspects of life that affected every Virginian whether he was a plantation owner possessing slaves or not.


Virginia in the colonial period was linked to England by government, commerce, religion, education, dress and most all aspects of daily life. But despite all these bonds with the mother country, the colonist was slowly, but inevitably becoming more an American, and less an Englishman. It was life on the Virginia plantation, unfamiliar to the average Englishman, which shaped the daily life of the Virginian and set him apart from the English people. Even though this was the case, however, most Virginians still considered themselves Englishman and it was not until the conflict of the Revolutionary War that our ancestors, as well as the majority of other Americans, declared their independence from England and the thirteen loosely bound colonies became The United States of America.

*Note:  For many years it was reported that all Yanceys had a common descent and could not be traced to the Old World. Just for the record, though - it should be clarified that there are some rare few Yancey families that are totally unconnected/unrelated to the Yanceys of Virginia and in some cases these Yanceys have been able to trace back to the Old World. Such families make up probably less than 1% of Yanceys across America.  They are of origins totally different then the mainstream 99%.  Click here for more details.