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The Origins of William Phelps

By Margaret P. Swanson(1)

Many Phelps researchers have relied on the book The Phelps Family of America and Their English Ancestors (available at a 25% discount) as the basis for concluding that their original ancestor in England was either William or George Phelps of Tewkesbury. While a valuable research tool, the book is wrong about the origin of William and George.

Great Migration Begins\
The ship Mary and John arrived in the New World in late May or early June, 1630.

Robert Charles Anderson in his book The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England 1620-1633 (available in hardbound or CD-ROM) shows that William Phelps of Massachusetts and Connecticut is not the William Phelps of Tewkesbury records, but more likely from Crewkerne .

The first Phelps immigrant of interest is Richard Phelps, origin and date of immigration unknown, who is mentioned in only two records. The earliest is in Dorchester, MA, 1633, and mentions his fence as a boundary. The second entry is a fine for drunkenness in 1635-36. Anderson states that no evidence exists for the hypothesis that Richard had a relationship to William Phelps or George Phelps who also lived in Dorchester. Indeed he states the possibility that each incident refers to a different individual. [In 1637, Dorchester was renamed Windsor.]

Why William Phelps of Windsor is not from Tewkesbury

Ever since the book, The Phelps Family of America and Their English Ancestors, (available at a 25% discount) was published by Andrew T. Servin & Oliver Seymour Phelps, many have gone along with their conclusion that the Phelps family originated in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, England. William Phelps of Windsor, Conn., died on 14 July 1672 at age 72, according to the authors, which would place his birth at about 1600. When they found a William Phelps baptised on 19 Aug. 1599, in Tewkesbury, with a son, Richard, baptised there, 26 Dec. 1619, they believed they had found William Phelps of Windsor. They could not find the baptism of George Phelps there, supposedly his brother, nor could they find any other children after 1619. They speculated the family moved south about 1620, possibly to Porlock, Somerset.

In The American Genealogist, Vol. 58 (Oct. 1982), Myrtle Steven Hyde questions the Phelps genealogy authors' claim that the emigrants William and George Phelps came from Tewkesbury. William's son, William Jr. was mentioned in a disposition taken, 29 May 1677, as being about three score years of age. (Ancient History of Windsor, Vol. 2 p. 564). This would place his birth at about 1617, which would push back his father's birth to 1590-1595. Hyde acknowledges the 1599 baptism of the William Phelps of Tewkesbury could be the emigrant, if his son, William Jr.'s age was incorrect in the 1677 document, but there were undoubtedly other William Phelpses born in other parishes that could fit as well or better. The Phelps genealogy authors called the emigrant George Phelps a brother of William, but there is no record of George in Tewkesbury. Hyde says they were probably brothers, but she could find no supporting evidence. Hyde also found Phelps entries in the Crewkerne records including the burial of a Mary, "wife of William Phelps" on 13 August 1626. William married Ann Dover three months and one day later. Finally, when Hyde could not find a death for Ann (Dover) Phelps, nor a marriage record for William Phelps and Mary Dover, she concluded that the latter never existed. She surmised that the names of the first two wives, Mary and Ann somehow became Mary Dover. (Spear Vol. 19 p. 123-124)

The alleged parents of the emigrants were William and Dorothy Phelps of Tewkesbury. The father died in 1611 without a will. His widow Dorothy wrote her will on 16 June 1612 and it was held from probate until 5 May 1617 (PCC 51 Weldon). In her will she named her daughters, Dorothy, Frances and Mary and son, William, but no sons Thomas or George. She also listed brothers-in-law, Nicholas and Edward Phelps. This Edward Phelps prepared his will in 1636, then of Tewkesbury, and the will was proved 1 July 1637, (PCC 104 Goare). Edward appointed as an overseer William Phelps, undoubtedly his nephew, and certainly not the William Phelps living far away in New England. The only child of William's found in Tewkesbury was Richard, baptised 26 Dec. 1519.

Since the 1982 The American Genealogist article, new discoveries in the parish records of Somerset indicate that the emigrant William Phelps was in the area as early as 1618. There are Phelps baptismal records in Phillimore's printed indexes of Crewkerne, in the Somerset Record Office in Taunton, and in the Somerset Interntational Genealogocial Research records that appear to list the children of William Phelps of Windsor, Conn.

In addition, family researcher Robin Bush established that William Phelps was a clothier at Crewkerne (vol. 25, p. 50-51) and he found some Phelps entries in the parish of Merriott which immediately adjoins Crewkerne to the north-east. There was a small-scale cloth industry recorded at Merriott between about 1575 and 1697 (Victoria History of Somerset, vol. iv, p. 57), which would make the place ideal for the origin of William. No one seems to have considered the town of Marriot before because the parish registers dod not survive before 1646. There are, however, a few earlier Bishop's Transcripts and a series of manor court books of the late 16th and early 17th century (sadly incomplete). Although these abstracts do not provide proof positive of the origins of the Phelps emigrants, the forenames of William and Richard both occur in the records. (Speer, Search for the Passengers on the Mary & John 1630, Vol. 26, p. 54)

Robin Bush also found that Willliam Phelps in Engand had a business deal with Benjamin Bale, Sr. of Crewkerne. The Crewkerne Grammar School accounts (DD/CSG 3/1) included a useful reference to William Phelps. In the accounts for the year ending 9 April 1627 an item was included that William Phelps, 'clothier', was to hold Chubbes tenement for nine years from All Saints last (1 Nov. 1626) for the rent of 8 pounds, paid quarterly, reserving all trees to the feoffees. Under the year ending 5 April 1630 was entered an agreement by which Thomas & Benjamin, sons of Mr. James Bale, were to take over the unexpired term which William Phelps held in Chubs tenement, confirming that it was around that time that he presumably left for New England. (Spear, Vol. 25, p. 50-51)

Perhaps the most important conclusion to come from this Great Migration Study is recognition by a consensus of recognized genealogical scholars that William Phelps of Massachusetts and Connecticut is not the William Phelps of Tewkesbury records. Their conclusions reinforce those reached through the research done by Burt Spear and The Mary and John Clearing House which some have refused to accept.

Several family genealogies were listed in the key to titles used in more than one biographical sketch. Where a title is used in only one sketch, the full bibliographic entry was contained in the sketch. The Phelps Family in America by Oliver Seymore Phelps and Andrew T. Servin was not identified as a source. This is only one more indication that any statement it contains needs careful verification from records which were not available to the authors one hundred years ago. Certainly errors it contains should not be perpetuated when those errors are identified and supported with evidence from primary sources.

^ (1) Swanson, Margaret P., "Phelps Entries in The Great Migration Begins," Phelps Connections newsletter. Volume 6, No. 1, Winter 1997, Page 409. Margaret P. Swanson Margaret Phelps Swanson is co-founder with Nancy Pennington of the Phelps Connections, the former family genealogy association, no longer in operation. Permission is granted to copy or reproduce information in "Phelps Connection" by any means with the following restriction:
  1. All sources must be fully acknowledged.
  2. Reproductions from this issue not to be sold for profit.
  3. If any article is reprinted or edited, please send a copy before publication to either PC Newsletter Editor or PC Genealogist for proofreading. Also send a copy of article after it is published to the same PC officer.
  4. A copy of these restrictions accompany each article copied.
^ (2) New England Phelps Y-DNA Research on Descendants of New England Phelps.