Thursday, July 8, 2010

Family History

In Memory Of, 2007

Still more history. True, I think, most of it. The only people who know for sure are long gone.

We Bonneys came out of the primordial ooze in Northeastern England. I don’t know if my ancestors headed for the “New World” in search of opportunity, for adventure or just to get away from the sheriff. Whatever the case, two Bonney brothers were among the early Virginia settlers, trading the marshy Broads of England for the marshy broads of the American coastal colonies; more specifically, Knott’s Island, a low barrier stretch of land that straddles what is now the Virginia/North Carolina border and is barely high enough above the water level to have any presence at all.

Over the years, Bonneys moved up into what was then Princess Anne County, Virginia, where they stayed for most of the next three centuries, marrying among the Ives, Ayers, Waterfields and Whitehursts. Bonney names dot various eighteenth and nineteenth century church rolls and cemeteries.

I’ve never paid too much attention to the genealogical history of this clan. During the buildup to the 400th anniversary of the landing of the first permanent English settlers in 2007, there was a move to encourage “old Virginia Beach” families to hold multi-generational reunions. When I asked one of the officious volunteers what constituted an “old Virginia Beach family,” I was told not to worry. “Bonneys have been around forever.”

Like dirt, I figured, because that’s about as much respect as genealogy got in our family. There’s a road named for us, but it’s a pretty ragtag stretch. My father used to joke that there were some good families stories. But if there were, they went to his grave with him.

Back in the early 1970s, my aunt decided to get serious about tracing the Bonney family tree. She didn’t get very far before she was stopped by her inability to get any information about a certain male Bonney who was known to have been in Richmond, Virginia, during the years of the Civil War when Richmond was the capital of the southern states known as the “Confederacy.” None of the Confederate records included any mention of this missing Bonney.

My aunt was finally reduced to going to see great grandma Bonney, knowing full well that she would get nothing but grief for wasting time on the family tree. And that’s exactly what happened. But after my great grandmother calmed down, she allowed as how she had indeed known of the man my aunt was trying to find. In the late 1870s, she was just a small child living down the road from the Bonneys and the man my aunt was trying to trace was a grizzled war veteran, the kind of scary old person parents tell their children to avoid. When my aunt chronicled all the places she’d gone looking for record of this man, my grandmother answered dryly:

“You didn’t find him because you were looking in the wrong place. You should have been looking in the Yankee records. He fought for the Union [the North]. He was in Richmond, but only because he was arrested as a traitor to the Southern cause and sat out the war in a Confederate prison. Those years in Libbie Hill Prison nearly killed him.”

So much for honor in history.


  1. Wow! Quite a story. Joe just told me yesterday, in his own family history, that he learned one of his distant relatives was the person who was asked to select the Unknown Soldier at Arlington! I think genealogy is fascinating...everyone truly does have a story.

  2. Great story, Chris! I was wondering if there was any connection to Bonney Road. I wore out a set of tires on that road when I was dating my first wife in 1970-71. Also spent a lot of time on Knotts island, especially during duck season.

  3. With the PA Whitehursts in my background who knows, we might be cousins.

    Charles Gardner