Peter Rowlett (ca. 1639-1702)

Notes by Russell J. Rowlett, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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The earliest definite Rowlett ancestor is PETER ROWLETT (ca. 1639-1701/02), who first appears in Charles City County court records dated October 1661 through February 1666. Abstracts of these records were published by Beverly Fleet as Virginia Colonial Records, vol.12. The originals can be examined in microfilm or photocopy at the Virginia State Library in Richmond.

Peter lived in the Shirley Hundred community on the James River in the western part of the county, where Shirley Plantation was later built. In his first court appearance (October 1661), Peter was ordered to pay John Jacob, "surgeon," 750 lb of tobacco "for physical means and administrations." Two years later (October 8, 1663), when he was called to testify in a suit by Robert Lucy against Ferdinand Aston, he began by stating that he was "aged about 24 years." This places his birth in 1639, more or less. (The suit is interesting. It seems that Aston owed Lucy some money and could not pay, so he challenged Lucy to a foot race, "double or quit." And Aston won, as Peter and several others testified. Then Lucy regretted accepting the dare, so he sued to enforce payment. The court refused to accept the challenge as binding and ordered Aston to pay up, 250 pounds of tobacco.)

Later that same month (October 23, 1663), Peter was paid the bounty for killing a wolf.

In December 1664, Peter was involved in a major case concerning the sinking of a sloop belonging to magistrate John Holmwood. Peter was the overseer when the sloop was loaded with tobacco. Something didn't seem right about the vessel, and when Peter came back late at night to check on it he found it sunk at its berth. The court ruled that the ship was unseaworthy, and Peter was not at fault in his loading of it.

In June 1665, the court was called on to resolve a dispute between Peter and a local planter named Daniel Llewellen. Llewellen had employed Peter as an overseer in the fields, which entitled Peter to a share of the crop. But the two men disagreed over the term of Peter's employment and the amount of the payment. The justices ordered Llewellen to pay Peter the 5 bushels and 1 peck of wheat "due for threshing," which Llewellen had been withholding, but they also ordered Peter to work an additional 18 days for Llewellen.

In February 1666, the court ordered Peter's indentured servant John Higgins, who had "run away six months and there being much charge and labor to recover him," to serve Peter for two more years.

This was Peter's last appearance in Charles City County records, suggesting that he moved from Shirley not too long thereafter. It appears that he moved across the James River into what is now Chesterfield County, but was then part of Henrico County.

We lose track of Peter for a decade, because the oldest surviving court record in Henrico is a book of Deeds and Wills for 1677-92. On December 2, 1678, John Worsham of Henrico recorded a deed of 100 acres of land to his brother Charles, the land being "in Bristol Parish on Appomattox River, bounded by Peter Rowlett." The Appomattox flows into the James less than three miles downstream from Shirley, and the land in question seems to be several miles up the Appomattox.

We are very lucky to have available a Tithable List for Henrico County dated June 2, 1679 (this list was published in the William and Mary Quarterly, first series, vol. 24). A tithable list is a census of adult males available (at least in principle) for service in the militia. Tithable lists were supposed to be compiled every year in every county in colonial Virginia. Unfortunately, they were not considered to be permanent legal records and only a handful of them survive.

In the 1679 tithable list, a Peter Rowlett appears with a "3" beside his name. This means there were a total of three "tithable" males in the household. Before sending the list to Jamestown, the court clerk noted at the bottom of the document that "Peter Rowlett, Sen'r," having died later in June, is to be subtracted from the total. A reasonable interpretation of this is that the elder Peter Rowlett, who died in 1679, was the father of the Peter born in 1639, and that the younger Peter, the one we're following, inherited his father's land in June 1679.

There is circumstantial evidence that the Peter Rowlett of subsequent Henrico records is the same as the one found in the earlier Charles City records: we have Peter Rowlett's testimony on August 2, 1687, that he was then "about 50" years old. This is in reasonable agreement with our earlier estimate of 1639 for his birth.

Peter appeared in court records quite frequently as a witness or juror. In October 1682, for example, he is recorded as a creditor of Charles Featherstone, deceased. In February 1684, there is mention of an Indian slave, aged 11 years, owned by Peter.

On the same day he stated his age, in August 1687, Peter recorded a deed in which he purchased 200 acres of land from Philip Jones, a large landowner of the neighborhood. The land is described as being on Old Town Creek at the mouth of the Great Branch. In modern terms, this is west of Colonial Heights and about a mile north of Ettrick in southernmost Chesterfield County.

Peter's inability to precisely reckon ages caught up with him in 1689, when he was fined for failing to report his son Peter, Jr., as a tithable. Since male children became tithable at age 16, this places his son's birth in or around 1673.

Also in 1689, Peter was called to jury duty for a civil case attracting much attention in the community. Hugh Ligon had sued "Mr. Gilbert Platt and Mary his wife for scandalous words spoken by the said Mary." Mary Platt, recently remarried, was the widow of Joseph Tanner and mother of Mary Tanner Ligon, who was in turn the widow of Hugh's brother William Ligon, who had just died. So it was a family quarrel gone public. We don't know what Mary Platt said, but the jury found for Hugh Ligon. About 20 years later, Mary Ligon's daughter was to marry Peter Rowlett's son.

In late 1690, Allison Clarke, one of Peter's neighbors, sued him for £4 Clarke said he won from Peter in a game of "putt," a popular card game of the time. Clarke was a deputy sheriff, so he simply arrested Peter and hauled him in to court. The judge threw the case out on account of Clarke's obvious conflict of interest. Clarke then arranged for his boss, Sheriff William Farrar, to bring Peter to court so that the case could be heard. The court concluded that the two men did not have a legally binding agreement, so Peter got off without paying. This case, Clarke v. Rowlett, established a precedent in Virginia law that gambling debts are not enforceable in the absence of a written contract.

The next year tragedy struck Peter's family. On July 16, 1691, a coroner's inquest held at Peter's house found that his daughter Martha had died that day "by being dragged by a horse."

Later in 1691, Peter was fined for failing to appear as ordered for work improving the roads in his neighborhood. More than likely this was a continuation of Peter's feud with Deputy Clarke, who had scheduled the work session. Peter told the court he had been away hunting, and said he had sent a servant in his place. The court accepted this in part, dismissing the misdemeanor criminal charge but retaining the civil penalty.

In February 1692, the county court noted that there was due to Peter Rowlett 450 acres of land. Settlers could claim 50 acres for each person whose passage to the colony they had supported, and Peter could list nine persons he had brought over. None of them had the Rowlett surname or any obvious connection to the family, so most likely they were servants whose indentures Peter had purchased when they arrived. There is no record of any land grant to Peter resulting directly from this, but in 1704 his son Peter, Jr., did receive a land grant of 200 acres that might have settled this account in part.

On May 16, 1692, the court fined Peter Rowlett for swearing. It does not record what he said or who he said it to.

On April 20, 1697, a Peter Rowlett witnessed the will of his neighbor Godfrey Ragsdale. A number of genealogists have speculated Peter was married to one of Ragsdale's daughters. This seems very unlikely, because the given name Godfrey is unknown in the Rowlett family, then or later.

Although the community certainly seems well settled at this point, it was still close to the frontier. In April of 1699 there were rumors of an Indian attack. The county court doubted these reports but decided to hold a public hearing. Peter Rowlett was one of a long list of inhabitants invited "to appear at ye Court house of this County upon Friday next being the 20th of this instant Aprill that farther Enquiry may be made whether any of them are fearfull or apprehensive of the Indian commonly called ye Emporer of Piscattoway of Architake & his Indians doeing of any mischief &c." Presumably the meeting was held, and there was no attack.

Peter Rowlett made his will on December 4, 1701, and his son Peter, Jr., recorded it as executor in Henrico County Court on February 2, 1702. He left his younger son William the land he had bought in 1789 from Philip Jones. He left his granddaughters Mary and Anne various items, including a bed, pillow, and rug for each. He specified that the balance of his estate should be divided between his three surviving children, Peter, William, and Mary. There was no land left to the older son, so probably Peter, Jr., had already received the land passed down from his grandfather in 1679.

The will is difficult to read, and perhaps for this reason it is missing from Benjamain Weisiger's abstracts of the early Henrico County records. My son and I made the following transcription from a photocopy of the original in the Library of Virginia (Henrico County Deeds, Etc., 1697-1704, page 263).

In the name of God Amen I Peter Rowlett being weak in body but of sound and perfect mind and memory praised be God do make and ordain this my last will & testament hereby revoking all former wills by me made humbly commiting my soul into the hands of almighty God its Creator hopeing through the wounds of my alone saviour and redeemer Jesus Christ to have remission of my sins and a joyfull resurrection at the last day and my body to the Earth in Jesus Christ and for my worldly Estate I give and dispose of as followeth. I give unto my son Wm Rowlett his heirs and assigns for ever two hundred Acres of Land lying on the old Town Creek in Henrico wch I purchased of Philip Jones. Item I give unto my grandchild Mary Rowlett one Chest of Drawers and one Feather bedd and Pillow one rugg two [??] and two pairs of [??]. I give unto my grandchild Anne Rowlett One [??] bed and Bolster and Pillow one Rugg two [??] and two prs of [??].

All the rest of my Estate whatsoever I give after my debts and funerall Expenses be paid and Defraid I give and bequeath unto my Children Peter Wm and Mary to be equally shared and Divided amongst them and Lastly I make and Ordaine my sonn Peter Executor of this my Last will in wittness whereof I have hereunto putt my hand and Seals this fourth day of December Anno Domini 1701.

Peter Rowlett
his marke

Subscribed & Declared in presence of

Elizabeth R[??]
Nich. Dison
William Kennon

Henrico County Feby ye 2. 1702
Proved in Court by ye oath of the subscribed witnesses

Latest revision April 5, 2003