Which John Estes died in 1771?

David Powell © April, 2003

This article was previously published in Estes Trails, 2003, Vol. XXI, No.2, pp3-6

In 1771, John Estes of Louisa Co, VA wrote a will that was probated latter that same year. This John has traditionally been identified as John Estes, born circa 1700, the son of Abraham Estes (1647-1720). But is this identification correct? Recent research indicates that this will is not that of Abraham's son. Rather, it appears to be the will of John's son, John Estes, Jr. (ie: Abraham's grandson). However, questions still remain, including when and where John Estes, Sr. died. He was a wealthy man who owned large amounts of land in several Virginian counties. One would thus expect to find either either a will or estate settlement.

For the sake of clarity, I will use several shorthand notations to refer to the three generations of Johns who are mentioned in this article: "John (c.1700)" refers to the son of Abraham; "John (d.1771)" is the John who died in 1771 in Louisa Co.; and "John (ex)" is the John Estes mentioned as executor in the 1771 will.

I will first address why it is that the 1771 will cannot be that of John (c.1700), son of Abraham.

Citations to this will are normally to an abstract, of which the following example is typical:

"Louisa WB 2 p.127 Will of John Estis Dated 25 Oct 1771 Recorded 9 Dec 1771
Children: Abraham, John, Molley, Barbary, Sarah. To son Abraham remainder of my plantation on North East Creek with house where I now live. Part of land to be sold to pay debts. 100 acres conveyed to my friend, Clifton Allen, as bargained and sold to him.
Exors. son John, wife Ursula.
Signed John Estes.
Wit: Thos. Johnson, Samuel Meek, Elizabeth Rose".[1]
The identity of the John to whom Ursula is married is is not exactly obvious here. Is she the wife of John, the decedent, or is she the wife of John, her co-executor? Most genealogies have assumed she was the wife of John, Jr., her co-executor.

An examination of the original will establishes that this assumption is incorrect. The original will reads, in relevant part, as follows:

"to my beloved wife Ursula, the remainder of my estate .... to raise my four youngest children." [9]
The will goes to provide for John's children, Abraham, Molley, Sarah and Barbara, all of whom are minors when John wrote the will.[9] Their minority is an important point, to which I will return. Presumably, son John (ex) received his inheritance prior to the writing of the will and was 'of age'. According to Garmon Estes, John and Ursula married prior to 1764 and had children John, Abraham, Barbara (born 7/5/1764, Botetourt Co, VA), Mary (born 20/2/1767) and Sarah.[2] There may have been others who did not survive infancy.[10] Further, the marriage records for Barbara and Mary clearly indicate that they were the daughters of John and Ursula (as distinct from being from a previous marriage of John's).[3] Thus, the marriage of John and Ursula must have occurred no later than 1764. If we assume that the John named as an executor was also Ursula's son, then John the ececutor must have been at least 21 years old when John, Sr. wrote the 1771 will (in Virginia 21yo was the legal age unless the father was deceased or the son a land owner, in which case it was 16). Thus, John the executor (son of John, Sr. and Ursula) must have been born no later than 1750. If John was in fact Ursula's son, the marriage of John and Ursula can be pushed back to the late 1740's.

Given the birth of Mary in 1767, we can reasonably assume that Ursula was in her mid 40's, or younger, that is, Ursula and John were almost certainly married after 1740. Since Ursula died in 1803, it's doubtful she was born much before 1720, if not later.

Thus John and Ursula were married by 1764, if not considerably earlier.

John Sr, born circa 1700, the son of Abraham and Barbara Estes, has been variously cited as being married to Elizabeth and Nutty. 'Nutty' appears to be a pet name. That John was married to Nutty/Elizabeth has previously been well established by others.[4]

In 1765 John and Nutty Estes appear in a deed when they sell 105 acres of land to Anthony Thomson on 12 August 1765 [8]. This is from a microfilm of the original, not an abstract. Unless Nutty/Elizabeth was the same person as Ursula, then this indicates that the John who died 1771 was not the husband of Nutty/Elizabeth.

Could the two be the same woman? I very much doubt this. Nutty/Elizabeth has been cited as being the first wife of John (c.1700) and the mother of his children. Since John had son's born in the 1720's, if not earlier,[13] it can be presumed that his wife was born before 1705. Ursula was the daughter of Thomas Johnson, who's will was written and executed in 1798.[5] Unless Thomas lived to an amazingly ripe age of 120 or so, it is extremely unlikely that Ursula was born before 1730. Consequently, she could not have been the mother of the children of John Estes (c.1700) - all of whom are thought to have been born before 1740.[10]

There is more evidence that bears on this issue. In the 1771 will John makes provision for the raising of his minor children and named amongst them is his son, Abraham.[9] However John (c.1700) & 'Nutty' appear to have been the parents of another Abraham Estes, born 1731 or earlier and who appears in Orange Co, VA (formed from Louisa) in the 1750's.[6] This Abraham was still alive in 1773 (when he appears in Augusta Co, VA).[7] It's not proven that this Abraham was the son of John and Nutty, however he was not the son of any of John's siblings.

In additional to the 'concrete' evidence, there is also several pieces of circumstantial evidence. As has been stated before, John Sr (c.1700) was a wealthy man, owning considerable property in Louisa and Halifax Counties and possibly beyond.[13] In earlier years he was sufficiently wealthy to have bred racehorses and construct his own racetrack,[11] thought this was surely not a source of income at the time. The reverse in fact. The 1771 will, in contrast, gives little indication of being for a wealthy man. It mentions just a single plantation, part of which having to be sold to pay debts.[9] John Sr did, of course, deed considerable property to his sons, but would he have almost impoverished himself by the time of his death?

Another piece of circumstantial evidence is that the John named as an executor of the 1771 will signed his name with an 'X' (and did likewise in subsequent deeds associated with the execution of the will). That is, he was illiterate. John Estes Sr (c.1700) and his known sons were, as far as is known, all literate - including John Jr.[12] I should qualify that to say that I have not found an example of any of his sons signing their names with anything other than their signature. This includes John Jr, Elisha, Robert and Micajah. This is not surprising for the sons of a wealthy man. This indicates that the John mentioned as executor in the 1771 will was not the son of John Sr. (c.1700) since the former was illiterate.[9]

What is the solution to all of this? I suspect many have already jumped to the obvious conclusion. John Jr, that is, the son of John (c.1700), also had a son named John, who for the sake of clarity I will call John Estes III. According to the research of Garmon Estes, John Jr was born before 1726 (he appears on a deed with his father in the mid 1740's)[12] and had a son named John.[2] Given John II's date of birth it is quite feasible for him to have had his first son by 1750 - which means by 1771 that son would have been legally an adult (ie: over 18) and so able to act an an executor of his father's will.

It seems clear to me then that the John Estes who died 1771, Louisa Co, Virginia, leaving a wife Ursula, adult son John and minor children Abraham, Molley, Barbary and Sarah was actually John Estes II.

This leaves the question as to when and where John Estes Sr died and what happened to his property. The probate and will records for Louisa Co, where John Sr spent most of his life, are mostly intact from 1742 (when the county formed) on. If John Sr died after 1742 (when Louisa was created), then there would most likely be a will or estate administration for him in Louisa County given his substantial land ownership (under old English law if one owned land in a county, there *had* to be either a will or a probate). Since the 1771 will has been shown to not be that of John Sr, this leaves something of a mystery.

In 1730 John Sr bought 100A of land in Hanover Co, in 1735/1736 he aquired a further 1,160A of land, again in Hanover (present day Louisa), adjacent to North East Creek,[17]  the site of the plantation mentioned in the 1771 will.[1,9] Between 1736 and 1771 there is only one recorded sale by John and that was the sale of 105A in 1765.[8] At the time of the 1771 will, the family estate consisted of 665A, apparently in the same location as the 1735/1736 patent (the description of the location is the same in both cases).

There are several possible solutions to this. John Sr may have completely disposed of his estate before he died leaving nothing for probate - however the only deed for disposal of his property is for just 105A.[8] Alternatively John Sr may have died while Louisa was still Hanover (most early Hanover records have been lost) - however Louisa was formed in 1742 and it is known for certain that John Sr was alive in 1748.[11] Finally, there is the possibility that the John who died in 1771 was John Sr, however the evidence against this seems insurmountable.

Where did the missing 1,155A go? The most likely solution, in my view, is that John Sr disposed of all but the remaining 665A prior to the formation of Louisa in 1742. That is, the disposal of the missing 500A was made between 1736 and 1742. Since most of the records for Hanover from this time have been lost this scenario cannot be proven or disproven. None of John Sr's children were adult when Louisa County was formed, thus the problem reduces to the question of how the John who died in 1771 came into possession of the remaining 665A of land that was originally owned by John Sr. No Louisa deed, will or estate admin has been found to document this transfer. One can only assume that this record has also been lost.

The other question that remains is just when and where John Sr. died. And to date that remains unknown. John Sr. was alive and living in Louisa Co as recently as 1765.[8] In 1763 John Sr acquired 1150 acres of land in Halifax Co, VA.[15] In 1770 that same tract was granted to George Boyd after having been resumed because "John Estes, and Micajah Estes, Moses Estes and Elisha Estes in whom the right of said land is since become vested have failed to pay quit rents.[15] Micajah, Moses and Elisha were sons of John Sr (c.1700).[13] The wording seems to suggests that John Sr had died prior to 1770 and ownership transferred to the abovenamed sons who, unable to pay the quit rent, lost the land.

Evidence for tax lists etc indicate that John remained in Louisa Co from its formation until at least 1765.[10] John Jr, in contrast, seems to have travelled considerably. Up to 1750 John was in Louisa Co. By 1758 he was in Halifax Co with several of his brothers living on land owned by his father, John Sr. Whilst some of John's brothers remained in Halifax for decades, John soon moved on and next appears in Botecourt Co in 1764.[2] John then moves back to Louisa Co in the late 1760's.

It seems likely to me that John Sr died sometime between 1765 (when he appears in a deed with his wife) and the late 1760's when John Jr returned to Louisa Co. Was John Jr's return to Louisa the due to his father's death? It was not uncommon for property to be deeded to a son, but the father continued to live on the property, with the son taking physical possession only after the death of his father. Certainly the tax lists for the late 1760's and early 1770's indicate that there was only one John Estes living in Louisa Co.[14] John Sr's original grant was on North East Creek,[16] in the south of present day Louisa Co, the same location of the "remainder of my plantation" mentioned in the 1771 will.[1,9] So it seems likely that John Sr died in the mid to late 1760's. That leaves the question of where he died.

As a postscript, it appears that the John Estes who died in 1771 was in some trouble in the last years of his life. Shortly after his last child, Mary, was born in 1767, she was living in the household of Thomas Johnson.[3] This was probably the Thomas Johnson who was Ursula's father.[5] The co-executor of John's will, his son John Estes III, appears in the 1771 tithe list as also living with Thomas Johnson.[14] John III would have been at least 21 in 1771 so would have appeared in the tithe lists of previous years, though not by name since he would have been a minor of tithable age (16-21yo). John (d.1771) appears in the 1769, 1770 and 1771 tithe lists with only one tithable - thus his son, John III, was not living with him.[14] Was John III living with Thomas Johnson prior to 1771? It seems likely. One is then left to ponder why John and Ursula placed at least two of their children into the care of Ursula's parents. With John dying in 1771 in his 40's, one is tempted to suspect that John suffered poor health for some years prior to his death.

I would like to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of Robin Rankin in ferreting out some of the important sources for this article, most especially for the original of the 1771 will, the wording of which inspired the article, and also for expert legal advice on the legalese of the 1700's. The blame for the conclusions above rests with me, however.

[1] "Abstracts of Louisa County Virginia Will Books: 1743-1801", Nancy Chappelear & Kate Hatch.
[2] "Micajah Estes of Halifax County Virginia Went west to Hawkins County Tennessee: A New Dimension", Garmon Estes. Estes Trails, 1993, 13.1 (fall), pp.9-15. Original source for details on John's children not cited in article.
[3] Extracts from original Louisa Co, VA marriage records from J. Quintus Massie of the Louisa Co, VA, Historical Society. Forwarded by Joe Giles, JoeWGiles@aol.com. See also "Estes marriages of Louisa Co, VA", Helen Deveny, Estes Trails, 1995, 14.1 (Aug), p.4.
[4] For example see "The English Ancestry of the American Estes", Niel Gunson. Estes Trails, 1992, 12.3 (spring), pp.2-16.
[5] Will of Thomas Johnson, Louisa Co, VA Will Book 4, p.40. From J. Quintus Massie of the Louisa Co, VA, Historical Society.
[6] Extracts from "Magazine of Virginia Genealogy", Vol,32.2, p.162, Vol,32.4, p.330. Estes Trails, 2000, 18.1, pp.5-6; submitted by Lorraine Cates.
[7] "Chronicles of the Scotch-Irish Settlement in Virginia, 1745-1800: Extracted from the Original Court Records of Augusta County", Lyman Chalkley. http://www.genealogy.com/ifa/co_cd513.html.
[8] Louisa Co Deed Book C 1/2, p.105.
[9] Louisa Co, VA Will Book 2, p.127.
[10] See "Descendents of Abraham Estes", David Powell, for details and sources. http://www.triode.net.au/~dragon/estes.html.
[11] "Louisa County Road Orders: 1742-1748", Nathaniel Mason Pawlett. Reprinted in Louisa County Historical Magazine, Vol.6, No's, 1&2. Information from  J. Quintus Massie of the Louisa Co, VA, Historical Society.
[12] For example: Louisa Co, VA Deed Book A:281. John Sr, John Jr & Micajah Estes sign as witnesses. This indicates John Jr. was literate, yet the John Estes who was executor of the 1771 will was illiterate.
[13] "John, Micajah, Elisha, Robert & James Estes", Garmon Estes; Estes Trails, 2000, 18.4, pp.7-11. "A relook at John, Micajah and Elisha Estes of Halifax Co, VA", Garmon Estes; Estes Trails, 1990, 10.1, pp.9-10. "Children & Grandchildren of Abraham Estes", Garmon Estes; Estes Trails, 1998, 16.4, pp.5-7.
[14] Louisa Co, VA Order Book 1776-1772, p.38 (Trinity Parish tithe lists, 1767-1771). Abstracted in: "Louisa County Records you Probably Never Saw", John C. Bell, 1982; and "Louisa County, VA Tithables & Census 1743-1785", Rosalie Edith Davis, 1981.
[15] Halifax Co, VA Patent Book 33:698 (1763), ibid, 39:120 (1770). Cited in "Cavaliers & Pioneers", Nell Marion Nugent.
[16] Hanover Court Records 5:8; Louisa Patent Book 20:565.
[16] Hanover Court Records pp.5-8; Louisa Patent Book 20:565.
[17] Hanover Court Records pp.5-8; Virginia Patent Book 17:44; "Cavaliers & Pioneers", Vol.4, p.105, Nell Marion Nugent.

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