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Overheard in GenForum: Thomas Walker — 1649 — Virginia
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

November 08, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: My ancestor, Thomas Walker arrived in Virginia in 1649 on a ship captained by Ralph Wormeley. I can't find the name of the ship. Can anyone help? -- Bwhite

A: Since the United States didn't track the arrival of passengers prior to 1820, you won't find pre-1820 passenger lists in a central location. If you were to compare passenger lists from 1820 with those from 1920, you would find that more information was required of those entering the country in 1920. So, the immigrant experience has changed over the years as new needs arrived.

While passenger lists existed before 1820, finding them requires that you approach the search from a variety of angles. You cannot just go to the National Archives and pull out a roll of microfilm — instead you must turn your attention to other resources.

Pre-1820 passenger lists are not housed in a single repository.

Understanding Headrights

Thomas Walker and his wife were transported under the headright system. This was a method of encouraging colonization by rewarding people for either transporting themselves or others to the new colony. States that participated included Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. In Virginia, where Thomas Walker and his wife settled, the headright that was paid was fifty acres per person.

The headright of fifty acres that was given in Virginia began in 1618 and continued until 1725. While it continued for more than a hundred years, this system was not without its abuses. The headright was assigned to the person paying the passage. For an indentured servant, that meant the servant didn't get the headright, but the person who funded the servant's trip. This broad interpretation of the headright made abuse of the system possible. For instance, sailors often claimed a headright on themselves each time they sailed into Virginia only to turn around and sell that headright.

The headrights are often found within the land patents. Early land records for Virginia were dispersed through patents. The land-patent books should be consulted whenever you are working on a colonial family. However, because of the abuses in the headright it is important to be careful in the use and reliance of these records.

For more information on headrights, you may want to read one or both of the following articles:

  • Currier-Briggs, Noel. "Headrights and Pitfalls" Virginia Genealogist 23 (1979), 45-56.
  • Slatten, Richard. "Interpreting Headrights in Colonial Virginia Patents: Uses and Abuses."National Genealogical Society Quarterly 75 (September 1987), 169-79.

Finding Thomas

Because Thomas immigrated before 1820, the odds of finding him on a passenger list diminishes greatly. Ruling out traditional passenger lists, the best you can hope for is some published list of immigrants. This may or may not mention the ship that transported he and his wife.

One resource that should always be consulted when working on a pre-1820 immigrant is Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, 1500s-1900s. This is an index to immigrants as they have been found in published resources. Each entry lists the individual, some identifying information and the source from which the entry came. This resource is a part of the International and Passenger Records Collection subscription.

Through this resource, you will discover the published resources that have information on Thomas and his arrival in the American colonies. One such resource is Early Virginia Immigrants, 1623-1666 by George Cabell Greer and published in 1978 by Genealogical Publishing Company. This book is one of the many included in a subscription to Genealogy Library and may also be available through your local library.

Other Alternatives

While it is natural to want to aim for immigrantion records or passenger lists, you should consider that the information you are seeking may be found in a history of some sort. A Walker family history may share this tidbit with you, or perhaps a county history that includes a section on the early pioneers or colonists. (Collections of Virginia family histories can be found in Genealogy Library or at the local library.)

Finding these resources may require that you spend some time with a library card catalog. It may require that you create a list of published histories and then begin to go through them, eliminating them as you go.

In Conclusion

As with all aspects of the genealogical process, there is no guarantee that you will ever find the name of the ship that brought Thomas to the New World. Such information was not recorded at that time and the information currently available has been compiled from many different resources. By checking into many different types of resources, you increase your odds of finding the information if it does exist — good luck!

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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