John Sanders - A 'Notorious Actor'

John Sanders Of Virginia And His Descendants
by Gary Sanders1

The Sanders family in America, writes Barbara Clark Smith2, "started out among the ranks of the discontent." John Sanders, the progenitor of the Nansemond County line, ran afoul of the Virginia authorities during Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, and the following sentence was pronounced at his trial:

"John Sanders3 being a notorious actor in the late rebellion, and by the governour's proclamation of pardon being exempted, butt upon his humble petition and submission to the governour, he was pleased to grant him the benefit of his proclamation of pardon; but for that the said Sanders hath been very active in the late rebellion, the court have thought fitt and doe order that he be fined two thousand pounds of tobacco and caske to the countrie, to go towards the satisfaction of the souldiers, to be paid next yeare."3

After the pardon and an apparent restoration of his standing with the government, he was granted, along with Richard Thomas and Jonathan Robinson, a tract of l650 acres of land near Queen Grave Swamp along the county borders of Nansemond and Isle of Wight. The children of John Sanders are not firmly established, but a 1744 land deed in Isle of Wight County clearly states that he had at least four sons. Another deed, filed long after John's death, names Richard Sanders and William Sanders as two of the sons:

"VAIOWDE2 p. 39, Robert Sanders of Onslow Precinct on the New River in New York (North Carolina?), to THOMAS SANDERS of Nansemond County, 300 acres in both Isle of Wight and Nansemond Counties adjoining Swamp, adjoining the late ROBERT SANDERS, son of THOMAS SANDERS SR, and the present THOMAS SANDERS (being part of 1600 acres of land of JONATHAN ROBBINSON, RICHARD THOMAS, and JOHN SANDERS patented on 23 Apr 1681. The said SANDERS will 200 acres of the land to his sons WILLIAM AND RICHARD SANDERS and the said WILLIAM granted part of the land to his brother RICHARD SANDERS, who are now party to this deed. At some time, PHOEBE CURLE, wife of WILLIAM CURLE, Gent. late of Nansemond County and formerly the wife of JOHN SANDERS first named, did grant to JOHN SANDERS, son of the aforesaid RICHARD SANDERS and brother of RICHARD SANDERS 100 acres being the other part of the land mentioned in the aforesaid patent) dated 30 Apr 1733, W: LAWRENCE WOLFERSTON, HENRY COPELAND, and DORCAS (X) COPELAND."4

In addition to the identity of two of the sons, this deed provides us with the name of John's wife, Phoebe, and states that she later married William Curle. Though Phoebe's maiden name is unknown, there is speculation it may have been Thomas. Phoebe was still living in 1706 because she transferred land in that year to one of her grandchildren. The noted genealogist John Bennett Boddie5 provides the identity of another son of John Sanders of Nansemond:

"John Sanders II, who patented land on Oct. 20, 1689, as before stated, definitely seems to be the son of John Sanders I, for his children inherited the Queen Grave land. On April 20, 1694, John Sanders and Robert Roberts of Nansemond patented 7 1/2 in right of their wives Sarah and Mary upon eastward side of King's Creek. (G.B. 8-380).

John Sanders' wife, Sarah, was a daughter of Major Thomas Davis, for in the patent granted to Richard and John Sanders on August 20, 1687, for 360 acres, it was stated that 300 acres were formerly granted Thomas Davis the 10th of August 1644, and for 50 for the transportation of one person (G.B. 8-p.10). (17thC, 447, 449) (c.P.156). A further connection with Thomas Davis will be mentioned later.

John Sanders II died between 1704 and 1712 when his son Robert was deeded some of the Queen Grave land. John Sanders may have died before Oct. 27, 1712, when his son Robert Sanders was deeded part of the Queen Grave land."

Boddie was somewhat hampered in his investigation of John Sanders of Nansemond because most of the Nansemond records were destroyed in fires and the fragmentary nature of the surviving evidence is exceedingly ambiguous. Boddie suggested that the John Sanders of the 1681 land grant may have been the same person as the John Sanders who was married to Susannah Ravenett and who owned land in Waswick County in 1669, but Boddie was probably unaware of the 1733 deed that names John's wife as Phoebe. No one knows what happened to the descendants, if any, of the John Sanders who married Susannah Ravenett, and Boddie says only that he "died in Warwick or Nansemond where records were destroyed and his children are not definitely known." It is certainly possible, though probably unlikely, that John Sanders of Waswick and John Sanders of Nansemond are the same individual and that he married Susannah first, then Phoebe, but this would mean that John Sanders II was probably a half brother to Richard and William. This scenario appears unlikely because of the disposition of the 1681 land grant after the death of John Sanders I.

Of the three known sons of John Sanders I of Nansemond, Richard's descendants have the most extensive and reliable documentation in land and probate records of North Carolina. Boddie identified William, the son of John of Nansemond, with the William Sanders who married Mary Hall in a Quaker ceremony in Nansemond September 4, 1682. Boddie was probably right about this identification, but the names of the children of William and Mary are not revealed in any contemporary document, though it appears very possible that Abraham Sanders who built the Newbold-White house in Perquimans County, North Carolina and Joel Sanders who died in Georgia in 1782 were his descendants. Many of the Nansemond Sanders were Quakers. James Davis, the brother of Sarah Davis, wife of John Sanders II, married Margaret Jordan, and the Jordans were one of the most prominent Quaker families in the county. Though there is a wealth of genealogical material association with the other Sanders lines, this article deals mainly with the descendants of John Sanders II.

As previously mentioned, John Sanders II died by 1712 and his son Robert Sanders ended up with much of the Queen Grave land. Robert made a will in 1731 in Isle of Wight and because he died unmarried, he divided the estate among his brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews. In the will, he refers to nieces and nephews as cousins, but "cousin," of course, meant close kinsman in those days.

According to Boddie, the will establishes the following four children of John Sanders II and Sarah:
1. Francis, who had sons named Francis and John.
2. Thomas, who had died by 1731 but who had children named Thomas, Robert, Elizabeth, and Richard.
3. A daughter who married John Winborne with a granddaughter named Phoebe.
4. Robert Sanders.

One of the witnesses to the will of Robert Sanders was a John Thomas. Researcher Frances Cullom Harper remarked in an e-mail to me that Robert Sanders seemed to be particularly close to the Thomas family, and I have already noted that there is some speculation that Robert's grandmother may have been a Thomas. John Sanders I acquired the original land grant in 1681 with Richard Thomas, who may have been a relative. Boddie mentions a John Thomas who deeded land in 1719 to Thomas Day in Isle of Wight County and then moved to North Carolina. The following deed suggests that the original land grant of 1681 was a family affair involving the Sanders and Thomas families rather than a business arrangement: "On October 12, 1712 Elizabeth Thomas of Isle of Wight sold to Robert Sanders of the U.P. of Nansemond for 1800 lbs. tbco. 137 acres given to said Elizabeth by will of her deceased father Richard Thomas, dated April 8, 1687, part of a dividend of 550 acres divided between her brothers and sisters, from a patent of 1650 acres granted to Jonathan Robinson, Richard Thomas and John Sanders April 3, 1681." The Thomas-Sanders relationship is important for establishing the connection between the Sanders of Nansemond and those of Chowan County, North Carolina.

Here is the excerpt that Boddie gives from the will of Robert Sanders:

"To cousin Robert Sanders, Son of Thomas Saunders, dec., [actually, Robert was his nephew, not his cousin, but I believe this usage was common then] the dwelling plantation where I live north side of Queen Grave Swamp and for want of heirs to cousin Francis Saunders, son of Francis Saunders; to cousin Eliz. Saunders, dau. of Thomas Sanders decd. rem. of land, if she died, to her brother Thomas Saunders; to cousin Richard Saunders, ton of Thomas Saunders, 170 acres adj. where I live, if he died without heirs to John Saunders, son to Francis Saunders; to cousin Thomas Saunders son to Thomas Saunders 208 acres. To cousin Francis Saunders, oval table; to cousin Robert Saunders, son of Thomas Saunders, decd., all rem. est John Winborn and Robert Saunders exrs. (signed, Sanders ) Poro.27 Dec 1731 Richard Thomas, Jno. Thomas, Lawn Wolferston. (W. &D. 431"

From Roberts Sanders' will and Boddie's research we know that the Sanders family and in particular the descendants of John Sanders II and Sarah Davis were close to the Thomas family. We know that that John Sanders II and Sarah Davis had a son named Francis and that Francis had sons named Francis and John. We know that a John Thomas was one of the witnesses and Boddie provides the information that a John Thomas who lived in the first decades of the 18th century moved from Isle of Wight to North Carolina.

Some researchers have suggested that Francis, the son of John Sanders II, had a middle name of Abraham and that he was the same person as the Abraham Sanders who died in 1751 in Perquimans County, North Carolina, but the 1731 will mentions only the given name of Francis, and the Abraham Sanders who lived in Perquimans was already in the county by 1716 because he was married in a Quaker ceremony in that year. The Francis of the will may be the Francis Sanders who was listed in the Virginia Quit Rent Rolls of 1704 for Isle of Wight. If this is Francis, the son of John II, then he must have been at least 21 at that time. On the other hand, the Francis listed on the rent rolls of 1704 could have been the same person as the Francis Sanders who is listed as owning land in 1665, but the Francis of the 1665 land record is more likely either another son or a brother of John Sanders I. The year 1676 has been given by several researchers as the year of birth of Francis, son of John II, but I am not sure how they arrived at that figure. If this date is true, Francis would have been in his early fifties by the time of Robert Sanders' will.

The will was written in 1731 in Isle of Wight. The Sanders properties were on the border of Nansemond and Isle of Wight, and some of the land was close to the border line with North Carolina which was not settled until 1729, therefore some members of the family were probably living in North Carolina at the time the border was settled, though the land was originally deeded in Virginia.


(1)    This article quoted from Gary Sanders excellent website. (Visit his site for more information on the early Sanders).

(2)    Barbara Clark Smith is Curator of Social History at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Her quotes used with permission.

(3) John Sanders was the first of our ancestors to arrive in America. See the following Links pertaining to John Sanders and his family:
Sanders Of Nansemond County, Va.
Land Grant
More Sanders family documentation
John Sanders Ancestry and Descendants

(4)    Original document spelling retained

(5)    John Bennett Boddie and Mrs. John Bennett Boddie, Historical Southern Families, Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, Maryland. May be available from www.appletons.com (Volume VI covers Sanders in Nansemond).