Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

Random Quote
Random Date



The Bunburys of Virginia


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 subsequently migrated to North America and became one of the great tobacco barons of Virginia. His great-grandson, Richard "Dick" Bunbury founded the Bumbrey family, from whom was sprung Grace Bumbry, considered one of the leading mezzo-sopranos of her generation

Thomas Bunbury & Margaret Wilcocks

Thomas's father, Thomas Bunbury, was Sir Henry's son by his second wife, Martha Norris. Born in May 1606, the elder Thomas appears to have been just 14 years old when, on 2nd May 1620, he married Margaret Wilcocks, daughter of William Willcocks (sometimes Wilcox). (1) Margaret bore Thomas a son and four daughters before her death in October 1632 at the age of 37. (2)

Thomas Bunbury & Eleanor Birkenhead

In early 1634, Thomas Bunbury married secondly Eleanor Birkenhead, or Birkhead. Born on November 29th 1605, she was the fifth daughter of Henry Birkenhead of Huxley and Backford. Birkenhead seems to have been MP for Cheshire during the Commonwealth, indicating that he was favourable to Cromwell. He was also presumably father or at least a very close relative to the Henry Birkenhead (1617-1697), known as the Founder of the Oxford Chair of Poetry. There is mention of a Thomas Bunbury of Baliol College, D.D., who succeeded Dr. Joseph Denison in the vicarage of St.Mary's Church in Reading. However, he was driven out of Reading by the Presbyterians when that town came under their possession. Thomas fled to Oxford for protection, and was given a license under the public seal of the university to preach the word of God throughout England. There's a book called 'Henry Birkhead, Founder of the Oxford Chair of Poetry: Poetry and the Redemption of History' (Studies in British Literature) by Joan H. Pittock on Amazon that may explain more. Eleanor's sister Bridget Birkenhead married John Chetwode who was, I believe, a pal of Jonathan Swift, while another sister Mary Birkenhead married William Downes of Shrigley and Worth.

The Children of Thomas & Eleanor Birkenhead

Thomas and Eleanor had four sons and six daughters. Their first son, Thomas, was born on 21st October 1634 and subsequently made his career as a tobacco baron in Virginia where he became ancestor to the Bumbreys, one of the largest and oldest black families in the United States today. In 1636, Eleanor produced triplets, christened George, Susan and Alice, although all three died soon after birth. (3) Next was John Bunbury born 1637 who also died shortly after birth. Their eldest surviving daughter, Dulcibella, was born in 1638 and died aged 48 on 5th July 1686. Her will was proved by her only surviving sister, Diana, widow of Richard Bunbury. (4) Dulcibella left her signet ring to her brother Benjamin Bunbury, later of Killerig, ancestor of the Bunbury family in Ireland. He was the elder twin of his brother Joseph, who would stay in England. According to Ormerod, the twins were baptised at Stanney on 13th September 1642. The youngest child, Diana, was born on 23rd September 1644 and married her first cousin Richard Bunbury. (5)

Thomas Bunbury - The Tobacco Baron of Virginia

In October 2006, Peter Bunbury emailed me to advise upon a new forbear to consider. Born in 1634, Thomas Bunbury was the son of Thomas Bunbury by his second wife, Eleanor. According to the official records, he arrived in 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.


It has always struck me as a little odd that Thomas Bunbury, the grandson of an English baronet, should go out to the Americas as an indentured servant, which places him on the lower rungs of the social ladder. The price of passage to America at this time was £5, a hefty fee for many but was it really beyond Thomas’s reach? Seven years was also quite a long term relatively speaking to sign up to being a veritable slave; 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 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 sold as if he were a cow or a sheep, or an Africa slave in the decades and centuries to come.

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 also 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 in its history and many believed God had simply abandoned England to the devil. The civil war had been particularly unpleasant and 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.

There was 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, particularly 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 still thought it might just be a bunch of large islands on the way to China 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 of them 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.


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 was a wealthy Suffolk-born planter, surveyor and businessman born circa 1600. (6) Horton may have been transported to America as early as May 28th 1638 by Sarah Cloyden, 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.] Toby Horton, as he was also called, 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 October 10th 1654 Tobias and Elizabeth 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 July 1, 1659 Tobias Horton paid John Taylor's debt, £6,173. It seems Thomas Bunbury arrived the following year. On November 12th 1662, Teague Carrell 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 May 15th 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.

In April 2021 I was contacted by Krista Luttrell, whose ancestor Samuel Angell is thought to have been a son of Robert Angell and grandson of Uriah Angell and Mary Horton, daughter of Tobias Horton. Samuel, a merchant, left Virginia for Portland, Maine, where he married and settled. He is said to have died at sea, caught in a hurricane or storm off the Carolinas.

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 there for many people down 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.

Having completed his seven year service in 1667/8, Thomas Bunbury then 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 slaves 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. (7)

The Bumbreys of Virginia

Thomas Bunbury was the founder of the family name 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 (born c. 1703) and daughter Dulcibella Bunbury (born c. 1705). (8) Thomas's grandson, John Bunbury (c. 1762 - 1791), was a substantial tobacco planter with farm and lands in the vicinity of Owens Post Office.

image title


The present two-story, five bay house at Cleydael, also known
as Quarter Neck, was built in 1859, and served as the summer
residence for Dr. Richard H. Stuart. Shortly after he killed
Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, John Wilkes Booth and his
accomplice David Herold arrived at Cleydael seeking a place to
stay. 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 (nee 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 thaks to Kim McManus.

DICK BUNBERRY (c. 1780-1849)

In about 1780, John became father to a mulatto child named Richard "Dick"Bumbrey or Bunberry by one of his female slaves. Her 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 his brother's slave for 15 years until 1806, during which time he received instruction in blacksmithing and general farming. Although a slave, 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.

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 Richard Bunberry's will in 1840.

It is believed that Dick Bunberry married one of Dr. Stuart's slaves’s 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. (9)

Dick's descendants include Grace Bumbry, the celebrated soprano, and Al Bumbry, the former Major League baseball player from Virginia who was 1973's American Rookie of the Year. 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. An account of the Bumbrey family reunion in 2001 can be found here.

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, Arthur Burnett, Jr.is a reknown surgeon and urologist at John Hopkins in Baltimore, MD. He was also part of the research team that developed Viagra.

Another family who intermarried with the Bumbreys was the Frazier's 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. (With thanks to Nathaniel Crowell, who descends from the Fraziers).


Grace Bumbry the Soprano

The following is taken from the Wikipedia website.

Born in St. Louis in 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.

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 1990's, 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 honor 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, there's much from her mezzo period, including 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 has been inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame. Among other honors, she was bestowed the UNESCO Award, the Distinguised 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.


With thanks to Peter Bunbury, Kim Bumbrey, Angela Brandon and others.


[1]. Ormerod's History of Cheshire (now available on CD) gives Margaret Wilcocks as the first wife of Thomas Bunbury.

[2]. Reference from the Monuments in Stoke Church courtesy of Peter Bunbury.

[3]. Their deaths are recorded in to Sir Henry Noel Bunbury's pedigree.

[4]. There is a memorial in Stoke Church, Cheshire which reads:- 'Here lyeth the body of Dulcibella Bunbury eldest daughter to Thomas Bunbury of Stanney, Gent by Eleanor his second wife who was fifth daughter to Henry Berkenhead of Backford Esq: She died the 5th July MDCLXXXVI (1686) aged XLVIII years (48)'. The Will of Dulcibella Bunbury, which names a large number of relations and friends, was dated 13th June 1686 and proved at Chester by her sister Diana, the widow of Richard Bunbury, on the 28th August following. She desires to be buried 'at Stoke in the chancell as nigh to my father as possible. I cann & doe hereby humbly request Sir Henry Bunbury that he be pleased to let me lye there & not doubting that he will grant my desire herein I leave unto my cozen [first cousin twice removed] Henry Bunbury his sonn and heire one eleven shillings piece of old gold'.

[5]. Diana Bunbury is also buried in Stoke Church.

[6]. One curious element though is that by 1660, Cromwell was dead and Charles II looked sure to return to the throne. So why would Thomas Bunbury and Horton decide to bail out then?

[7]. 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.

[8]. On 15th 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.

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. He was born 28 November 1736 at Edenton, Chowan Co., North Carolina, a son of William (d. 22 Jan 1799) and Jean Benbury. His father was apparently also William Benbury born in England in 1663. (See http://midurafamily.org/bembry/?page_id=321). 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. what we now call "Loyalists").[1] He signed the test on June 19, 1776. By his wife Thamer Howcott (daughter of Nathaniel and Sarah Howcott), he had two sons, Samuel Benbury and Richard Benbury (1765-1807). With thanks to Roger Nowlan for alerting me to this.

[9]. Dick Bumbrey's will is dated September 1840 and proved June 7, 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.