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Bumbry (Bunbury) of Virginia

The Herrman Map of Virginia and Maryland, a detailed, four-sheet map of the Chesapeake Bay region by Prague-born cartographer Augustine Herrman, was published in 1673.

Thomas Bunbury was the eldest grandson of Sir Henry Bunbury of Stanney and the elder brother of Benjamin Bunbury of Killerig.

Born in 1634, he went to North America as an indentured servant in 1660 and became a tobacco farmer in Virginia. His great-grandson Dick founded the Bunberry, or Bumbrey, family, from whom sprang Grace Bumbry, one of the leading mezzo-sopranos of her generation.

The family also connect to Abraham Lincoln’s assassin AND Ronald Reagan’s near assassin.


Thomas Bunbury – Indentured Servant


Born on 21 October 1634, Thomas Bunbury was the eldest son of Thomas Bunbury, gent, son of Sir Henry Bunbury, and his second wife, Eleanor Birkenhead, or Birkhead. We do not know what Thomas did during the 1640s and 1650s but, according to official records, he arrived in the English colony of Virginia as an indentured servant in 1660. In return for ships passage, the 26-year-old served as a servant to Tobias Horton of Lancaster County for seven years.

Thomas Bunbury may have been among the huge numbers of Royalists who were still in shock that their monarch had been murdered and had no interest in staying in a republic where such things were deemed acceptable. Virginia, where he headed, was staunchly royalist by inclination. That said, his exodus in the year of Charles II’s Restoration may indicate that he was, au contraire, in the Cromwellian camp and left for the Americas when he realised the Republic had fallen.

Why else would Thomas Bunbury, the grandson of an English baronet, go out to the Americas as an indentured servant? The price of passage to America at this time was £5, a hefty fee for many but was it really beyond Thomas’s reach? Indentured servitude placed him on the lower rungs of the social ladder. Seven years was also quite a long term, relatively speaking; most people his age seem to have got away with signing up to five years.

If the contract he signed with Tobias Horton was a typical indenture, they would have both signed the paper and then ripped it in two, taking away half each; the two halves would fit together like teeth, hence the word ‘indenture’. It may be that Mr Horton “bought” Thomas when he arrived in America and that Thomas was hitherto indentured to a merchant broker. In any case, either Horton or the broker would have not only paid for Thomas’s passage across the Atlantic but also provided him with a limited amount of clothing, food and so forth, and probably spruced him up with a haircut and a wash upon arrival and then, perhaps, he was off-loaded as if he were a cow or a sheep, or an enslaved African in the decades and centuries to come.


Thoughts on 17th Century Trans-Atlantic Emigration


Thomas was by no means unusual in being an Englishman heading to the New World in the 17th century. In fact, over 400,000 English emigrated during that time period, a staggering figure given that England’s population was only 3 million at the start of the 17th century and not much more than 4 million by the end of it. In comparison, England dispatched twice as many emigrants to the Americas as Spain, the next biggest exporter of people, and a massive forty times more than France, which was also ostensibly an Atlantic superpower at this time. (This overwhelming weight of English against French would have major repercussions when France and England went to war in the colonies in the 1750s. It was also relevant that as well as being the capital city, London was a major port at this time.

The high rate of immigration from England continued until the end of the 17th century when, following the Glorious Revolution, religious persecution calmed down. There was also, by then, a growing belief that for England to prosper, they would need a large working-class population and so the incentives to stay increased.)

The reasons for so many English emigrants were manifold. The push from England tended to be stronger than the pulll from the Americas. For one, England was a horrible place to live in the 17th century, arguably the worst period in its history and many believed God had simply abandoned England to the devil. The civil war was particularly unpleasant, and

The 17th century was also a time of widespread destitution as the economy slowly transformed itself from feudalism to a cash economy, and real wages actually plummeted amid the religious and civil wars, and the endless plagues. As such, desperate people were more than willing to listen to those promoting the Americas as the answer to their prayers, not least the representatives of ship-owners eager to ensure their holds carried valuable passage-paying human cargo westwards before they gathered up goods in the Americas to bring back to Blighty.

They were certainly open to the idea of a land of opportunity across the ocean. America was still very much a land of mystery; it was not yet 80 years since Thomas Harriot, Raleigh and co. went to Virginia. Many reckoned it might just be a bunch of large islands sprawling along the way to China, rather than another continent, although it was becoming rapidly apparent that this “vast and unmeasured” territory was much bigger than Europe. Aside from there being so little knowledge of what was actually there, prospective emigrants were also told, or read, a good deal of untrustworthy information – about food being so plentiful it would literally fall into their mouths, about a land in which there was no class system.

We don’t know how long it took Thomas to get to America. Such a trip was massively dependent on the winds. If he was lucky it took a month. If the weather was bad, it might have been four months. Chances are it was somewhere in between, maybe 9 to 10 weeks. Few of his fellow passengers would have had a specific destination in mind, beyond heading to the Caribbean or reaching a colony like New England or Virginia or Newfoundland. Most would never have been on a boat before. Many of them had probably never seen the sea and almost none of them could swim. As such, the concept of being confined on this vessel crossing unknown seas for an indefinite length of time must have been somewhat terrifying. Furthermore, given the unpredictable length of the journey, provisioning such ships was also total guesswork.

Again, one can only imagine the sense of trepidation, expectation, hope, swirling through Thomas’s mind as he arrived in the Americas. His fate now rested on the kindness of the gentleman who purchased him.


Tobias Horton (d. c. 1668)


Tobias Horton was a wealthy planter, surveyor and businessman born circa 1600. Horton himself may have been transported to America as early as 28 May 1638 by Sarah Cloyden, a widow who claimed Headright land on Virginia’s Isle of Weight County. He owned large tracts of land in Lancaster called “Wetherby’s Land” located on Corotoman and Haddaway Creeks. Haddaway Creek was named after Rowland Haddaway, who explored the area in January 1659 along with Thomas Gaskin Abraham Moore, discovering a number of Indian cabins on the land.

Tobias also owned land on the banks of Fleets Bay around Corotoman Creek. The Indian town of Wiccomoco was located on the southside of Corotoman. Horton bought 1,400 acres from Francis Morrison, which was originally owned by John Taylor I. The name of Horton’s first wife is unknown but in 1652 he married Elizabeth Taylor, widow of John Taylor, with whom he founded a dynasty.

On 10 October 1654 Tobias and Elizabeth Horton hired Hugh Brent and Teague Floyne to make an inventory of the late John Taylor’s estate. It included ‘3 old Bibles and 70 other books’ and they valued his estate as £9,590 of tobacco. On 1 July 1659, Tobias paid John Taylor’s debt, £6,173. It seems Thomas Bunbury arrived the following year. On 12 November 1662, Teague Carrell (surely an Irishman!?) bound himself to Horton to pay £8,000 of tobacco at £1,500 a year, for which Tobias sold him 100 acres of land between Tabbs and Nutypoyson Creeks. Elizabeth, wife of Tobias, asked her son-in-law Uriah Angell to acknowledge the sale. They clearly had a benevolent streak for, at the Lancaster County court on 15 May 1663, Elizabeth requested that cattle which belonged to John Taylor be given to his orphans. Tobias Horton died circa 1668, leaving four sons and three daughters.

Less than 10% of those who went to America as indentured servants lived to see out their actual contract. Disease, starvation and attacks by unfriendly natives put paid to many dreams. This was a world without apothecaries, taverns or groceries. If you wanted a house to live in, you would have to build it! And yet, for many, there was still more hope in this New World than there was in England. Life expectancy was much lower in Virginia than it was in New England. That said, the attitude towards the English from native Americans varied widely from community to community. In 1622, the Powhatan Indians rose up at Jamestown and murdered a quarter of all English settlers in Virginia. There was another massacre in 1644, sixteen years before Thomas Bunbury arrived. On the other hand, the Algonquins were perfectly pleasant to Henry Norwood while the prospects of starvation were quickly reduced across the colonies with the introduction of better road networks to connect remoter areas to transport and food supply lines.

The Move to King George County


Having completed his seven-year service in 1667/8, Thomas Bunbury moved to the frontier area of St. Paul’s Parish, Stafford, now in King George County. He purchased lands here and gradually transformed it into a prosperous tobacco plantation, aided by both enslaved workers and indentured labourers.  In less than 10 years, his successes permitted his family to enter the ranks of the local planter ruling class, and he received an appointment as the sheriff of lower Stafford County.

Thomas Bunbury died about 1680, leaving behind a number of sons and daughters who became prominent in the social, religious, and political life of Colonial King George County. [1]


The Bumbreys of Virginia


Thomas Bunbury was the founder of the Bunbury or Bumbrey family in Virginia. One of his great-grandchildren was responsible for the attachment of the surname to one of the largest and oldest black families in the United States today. Thomas married Mary (?) Bankes and had a son, William Bunbury, born about 1670.

William in turn married Frances Mason and had a son Thomas Bunbury (1698-1779) and daughter Dulcibella Bunbury (1695-1863), who married Enoch Berry.  [2]  Thomas’s grandson, John Bunbury (c. 1762 – 1791), was a substantial tobacco planter with farm and lands in the vicinity of Owens Post Office.



Dick Bunberry (c. 1780-1849)

A Bunbury Connection to Lincoln’s Assassins? The present two-story, five-bay house at Cleydael, also known as Quarter Neck, near Weedonville, King George County, Virginia, was built in 1859. It was the summer residence of Dr Richard H Stuart, where Dick Bumbery had worked. Shortly after he killed Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, John Wilkes Booth and his accomplice David Herold arrived at Cleydael seeking refuge. Stuart declined them a bed but sent them to a cabin on his property, that of William Lucas, a free black. William Lucas may have been a connection of Ellen Douglas Bumbrey (né Lucas), daughter of Robert Lucas and sister (or half-sister) of Miles. Ellen was born in Caroline County Virginia in the late 1800’s. Her mother was allegedly Native American and her father, who raised her, was black. With thanks to Kim McManus.

In about 1780, John fathered mulatto child named Richard “Dick”Bumbrey or Bunberry by an enslaved female whose name and identity is unknown. When John died in 1791, Dick was not sold along with the other estate slaves. Instead, he was given ‘special consideration and willed to his own half-brother, Thomas Bunbury.

Dick remained enslaved by his brother for 15 years until 1806, during which time he received instruction in blacksmithing and general farming. Although enslaved, Dick acquired the skills of reading and writing, and his brother allowed him the freedom to work for other local planters. By this means, Dick saved $400 with which he purchased his own emancipation in 1806.

Dr Richard Stuart, owner of the Cleydael estate where Dick Bunbury worked.

Al Bumbry, the 1973 American League Rookie of the Year.

Dick was the founder of the black Bumbrey families of eastern Virginia. Unlike his half-brother and other white Bumbrey relatives whose family lines died out, or later moved to the richer and newer farming lands of Piedmont Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, and Mississippi, Dick remained in King George County where he accumulated capital and property as a skilled tradesman, working on the Stuart family’s Cleydael estate near Weedonville and Gambo Creek. Dr Richard H. Stuart, King George County’s wealthiest resident, helped write Dick’s will in 1840.

It is believed that Dick Bunberry married one of Dr Stuart’s enslaved workers but could not emancipate her. Nonetheless, he did succeed in purchasing the freedom, one by one, of all eight of his children – five sons and three daughters. The U.S. Census records of 1820 show all eight children living with their father on his small farm in the vicinity of present-day Little Ark Baptist Church. On Dick’s death in 1849, his will distributed lands, clothing, and money to his 8 children, and from these children sprang the Bumbrey family, as well as other interrelated families of King George, Westmoreland, Fredericksburg, and Washington D.C. [3]

Dick’s descendants include Grace Bumbry (1937-2023), the celebrated soprano, and the Virginia-born Major League baseball player Al Bumbry, aka Alonza Benjamin Bumbrey (born 12 April 1947) who was 1973’s American Rookie of the Year. As outfielder, he played for the Baltimore Orioles and San Diego Padres from 1972 through 1985, and went on to be an All-Star and World Series champion. To give Al a biblical-style lineage, he is the son of Leroy Bumbry, Sr who is the son of Thomas Bumbrey who is the son of John Bumbry who is the son of Thomas Bumbrey who is the son of Richard “Dick” Bumbrey, the first know mixed race Bunbury/Bumbry of King George County, Virginia.

Also of note is Lena Bumbrey Burnett, mother to Judge Arthur Burnett, Sr., the magistrate on duty when John Hinkley attempted to assassinate President Reagan. Judge Burnett’s son, Dr Arthur Burnett, a renowned surgeon and Patrick C. Walsh Professor of Urology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. He was also part of the research team that developed Viagra.

Another family who intermarried with the Bumbreys was the Fraziers who also started out in King George, Virginia, either as ex-slaves or free blacks who were part of a Frazier household. They were certainly free long before the Revolutionary War. The branch that remained in King George intermarried with the Bumbrey’s, as well as families connected to them such as the Srcanage’s, Pryor’s, and Evan’s. [4]


Grace Bumbry (1937-2023), Soprano


The soprano Grace Bumbrey. You can listen to her giving it socks in Carmen by clicking here.

Born in St. Louis on 4 January 1937, the American opera singer Grace Bumbry was considered one of the leading, if controversial, mezzo-sopranos of her generation. She was born into a family of modest means, descended from Thomas Bunbury through a branch that moved from Virginia to St Louis, Missouri, in 1839.

In a BBC radio interview, she recalled that her father was a railroad porter and her mother a housewife. She graduated from the prestigious Charles Sumner High School, the first black high school west of the Mississippi. She first won a radio competition at age 17, singing Verdi’s demanding aria  O don fatale‘ (from Don Carlo). One of the prizes she won was a scholarship to the local music conservatory; however, as the institution was segregated, it would not accept a black student. Embarrassed, the radio station arranged for her to study at Boston University. She later transferred to Northwestern University, where she met the German soprano Lotte Lehmann, with whom she later studied at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California, and who became her mentor in her early career.

In 1958, she was a joint winner of the Metropolitan Opera auditions with soprano Martina Arroyo; later that year, she made her recital debut in Paris. Bumbry made her operatic debut in 1960 when she sang ‘Amneris‘ at the Paris Opéra; that same year she joined the Basel Opera. She gained international renown when she was cast by Wieland Wagner (Richard Wagner’s grandson) as Venus at Bayreuth in 1961, the first black singer to appear there. The cast also included Victoria de los Angeles as Elisabeth and Wolfgang Windgassen as Tannhäuser. Conservative Germans were appalled, and the ensuing furore made her a cause célèbre internationally. She was subsequently invited by Jacqueline Kennedy to sing at the White House. Having begun her operatic career on such a high note, hers was a rare one in which she never sang small or comprimario roles.

Grace Bumbry made her Royal Opera House, Covent Garden debut in 1963; her La Scala debut in 1964; and her Metropolitan Opera debut as Princess Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlo in 1965. In 1964 Bumbry appeared for the first time as a soprano, singing Verdi’s Lady Macbeth in her debut at the Vienna State Opera. In 1966 she appeared as Carmen in a celebrated production by Herbert von Karajan in Salzburg, opposite Jon Vickers.

In the 1970s she began taking on more soprano roles, including Strauss’s Salome at Covent Garden, and Tosca at the Met; and more unusual roles, such as Janácek’s Jenufa (in Italian) at La Scala in 1974 (with Magda Olivero as the Kostelnicka), Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-bleue in Paris in 1975, and Sélika in Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine at Covent Garden in 1978 (opposite Plácido Domingo as Vasco). Like many in her generation, she aspired to emulate Maria Callas and undertook many dramatic soprano roles associated with the Greek diva, such as Norma, Medea, Abigaille and Gioconda. She first sang Norma in 1977 in Martina Franca, Italy; the following year, she sang both Norma and Adalgisa in the same production at Covent Garden: first as the younger priestess opposite Montserrrat Caballé as Norma; later, as Norma, with Josephine Veasey as Adalgisa.

Other noted soprano roles included: Santuzza, Cassandre, Chimène (in Le Cid), Elisabeth (in Tannhäuser), Elvira (in Ernani), Leonora (in both Il Trovatore and La Forza del Destino), Aida, Turandot and Bess. Other major mezzo-soprano roles in her repertory included: Dalila, Didon (in Les Troyens), Massenet’s Hérodiade, Laura, Adalgisa, Ulrica, Azucena, Orfeo, Poppea and Baba the Turk. In 1991, at the opening of the new Bastille Opera, she appeared as Cassandre, with Shirley Verrett as Didon. Due to a strike at the opera, Verrett was unable to perform at the re-scheduled last performance (this is recounted in Verrett’s autobiography), and Bumbry sang both Cassandre and Didon in the same evening.

In the 1990s, she also founded and toured with her Grace Bumbry Black Musical Heritage Ensemble, a group devoted to preserving and performing traditional Negro spirituals. Her last operatic appearance was as Klytämnestra in Richard Strauss’s Elektra in Lyon in 1997. She has since devoted herself to teaching and judging international competitions; and to the concert stage, giving a series of recitals in 2001 and 2002 in honour of her teacher, Lotte Lehmann, in Paris (Théâtre du Châtelet), London (Wigmore Hall) and New York (Alice Tully Hall). A DVD of the Paris recital was later issued by TDK.

Of her recorded legacy, her mezzo period included at least two Carmens and two Amneris, Venus (with Anja Silja as Elisabeth, at the 1962 Bayreuth Festival), Eboli and Orfeo. There are no commercially released complete studio opera recordings with her in a soprano role, but there are live performances of Le Cid, Jenufa and Norma, in addition to some commercial compilations that include arias in the soprano repertoire. Interestingly enough, some of these were recorded in her “mezzo” period, in the 1960s (including excerpts of La Forza del Destino in German, with Bumbry as Leonora and Nicolai Gedda as Alvaro).

She was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame. Among other honours, she was bestowed the UNESCO Award, the Distinguished Alumna Award from the Academy of Music of the West, Italy’s Premio Giuseppe Verdi, and was named Commandeur des Arts et Lettres by the French government.

She died on 7 May 2023.


The Benbury Family


At this point it is also worth musing upon one of the more vocal opponents of British rule in North America, namely Thomas Benbury (1736-1793), Speaker of the House of Commons in North Carolina from 1778-1782, and again from April-October 1784. Thomas was appointed federal collector of customs for the Port of Edenton by Washington in 1789. See here. He was born 28 November 1736 at Edenton, Chowan Co., North Carolina, a son of William (d. 22 Jan 1799) and Jean Benbury. His grandfather William Benbury was born in England in 1663 and was one of twelve men who attended the first vestry meeting of St Paul’s Parish, Edenton, North Carolina, in the winter of 1701. William was later a constable of the Albemarle. His plantation at Benbury Hall was later called Athol.

I would not rule out the possibility that these were close kinsmen of the Bunburys, bearing in mind that my ancestor Benjamin Bunbury settled in Ireland in the 1660s and his brother Thomas Bunbury moved to Virginia at much the same time. It could be totally different branches, but William and Thomas were very much Bunbury family names. Thomas Benbury served as an officer in the American Revolution, as well as a member of the provincial congress. In May 1776, he served upon a committee of the newly formed state reviewing the activity of insurgents (i.e. Patriots or Loyalists). He signed the test on 19 June 1776. By his wife Thamer Howcott (daughter of Nathaniel and Sarah Howcott), he had two sons, Samuel Benbury and Richard Benbury (1765-1807). [5]




With thanks to the late Peter Bunbury (who first informed me of this branch in October 2006), Kim McManus (née Bumbrey), Angela Brandon, Nathaniel Crowell, Roger Nowlan, Jeff Bumbrey and others.





[1] The source of the information on Thomas going to America and working for Tobias Horton is from RootsWeb.Com – the World Connect Project : Greg & Debbie Morse’s Genealogy. They attribute the history of the Bumbrey family of King George County, Virginia to Jeff Bumbrey, the son of Rev. George and Mrs. Carrie Bumbrey. Unfortunately there is no response from the email address linked to this website. It is possible to follow Thomas and his descendants through the Stafford County Records, and also those of King George County. Of note is his granddaughter named Dulcibella, born in 1795, in King George County, Virginia.

[2] On 15 October 1726, Thomas Bunbury (b. 1703) married Sarah Broadburn in King George County, Virginia. A detailed account of his descendents is available online at Angelfire.

[3] Dick Bumbrey’s will was dated September 1840 and proved on 7 June 1849. It is found in King George County Will Book 4, page 29. Dick’s daughters – Maria, Susan, and Martha Bumbrey – disappear from official records after his death of their father. However, Dick also names the children of his daughter Maria Bumbrey in his will.

[4] With thanks to Nathaniel Crowell, who descends from the Fraziers. In November 2022, I was contacted by Alexis Johnson of Stafford County, Virginia, whose paternal grandparents were Pryor. The Pryors were another free black family in King George who intermarried with the Fraziers, Johnsons and Bumbreys.

[5] With thanks to Roger Nowlan for alerting me to this.