Michael Cooley's Genetic Genealogy Blog
6 December 2022

The Problem with the Wiveliscombe (Somersetshire) Bennetts

Both English and Jamestown records inform that Governor Richard Bennett (c1608-1675) of Virginia was born at Wiveliscombe, Somerset, England in about 1608.1 There are four baptismal records for him, all in 1609. Take your pick.

Wiveliscombe was a small village. Nonetheless, the records for that era are excellent. For the most part, the Bennett population for the town are linked through those documents. At least one will, that of Richard's grandfather Robert Bennett, is extant. We can be confident that Richard's father was Thomas Bennett (1570-1616), son of Robert Bennett (c1533-1603), the son of John Bennett Sr (1508-1564+). Although some Bennett individuals are not yet tied to the others, there appears to be no serious doubt or suspicion about what has been uncovered to date. Indeed, no contradictory evidence has presented itself. It's what lay beyond the patriarch, John Bennett (died in Wiveliscombe in 1564), that is doubted despite a number of spurious, unsourced claims. No record proves John's parents, not in Wiveliscombe at least. The other part of this genealogical conundrum is that a number of early Virginia Bennett families have made claims to the lineage but without clear documentary evidence. However, there's a readily available shortcut that can cut through the fog. This brief article explores the Y chromosome. With a sufficient number of tests, we can sort out the various Bennett lineages, including that of the Governor. Although the field of genetic genealogy has accumulated more than twenty years of experience and data sets, the genetic research for this family is very much in its infancy. But first, a brief biographical outline for Richard and his family.

The History

Edward Bennett, Richard's uncle, was the son of a Wiveliscombe tanner. Nothing is known about Robert's tannery but we can safely assume he did well. Neither the business nor Robert's properties are mentioned in his will. However, a total of £199 and 18 shillings were bequeathed to his children and servants in an amount that would be worth more than £27,560 today.2 That translates to more than $32,700 in U.S. dollars. Not a great wealth but not bad. Of this, Edward, Robert's youngest child, inherited about $8,000 in today's money. Whether that sum was sufficient to put Edward in business, we don't know. Still, whatever the means, he grew to be a wealthy merchant, a prominent member of the Puritan community, the owner of a small fleet of merchant vessels, and an investor in the Virginia Company. In 1622, he financed the transportation to Virginia Colony of 120 individuals, including his brother Richard, for the establishment of Bennett's Plantation just outside of Jamestown. Robert Jr, the manager of Edward's Virginia estate, was dead by 1623, possibly as the result of an Indian uprising that killed a third of the colony's white population. Edward then sent his brother Richard as a replacement, but he died in 1626. Finally, Edward himself made the journey in 1628 with his 20 year-old nephew, Richard Bennett, in tow.3 He spent the next year training the young man after which he returned to London where he raised his family.4 No will has been found for him and his date of death is unknown. (He is referred to as deceased in a 1651 document.) Edward is mentioned in his father-in-law's will along with his older brother, John Bennett, who had married another of Jasper Bourne's daughters.5 The connection to Mr. Bourne likely would have been a boost to the Bennetts' social status as Bourne's uncle, Gilbert Bourne, was the Bishop of Bath and Wells, and the President of the Marches of Wales. His great-uncle, Sir John Bourne, was Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth I.6

The young Richard Bennett had a remarkable career. He wed the widow of Captain John Utie who, in 1635, had been a major participant in a successful coup against the royal governor, John Harvey. The instigators, along with Utie, were arrested two years later and sent to London for trial, arriving before the end of May. Charges were soon dismissed but Utie was dead by the following July, under what circumstances we don't know. His personal goods were returned to his wife in Virginia during that month.7 The former Mrs. Mary Ann Utie had three children by Utie and another three by Bennett. Among her progeny are found a sizable handful of famous American patriots, making Mary Ann a true Founding Mother.8

Richard and Mary Ann had one son, Richard Bennett Jr. The young man died during a trip to England leaving a wife, Henrietta Maria Neale, and two children, Susannah Maria Bennett and Richard Bennett III. Like many Atlantic travelers in the day, he made provisions in a will before leaving. (Incidentally, Richard left property to his cousin, John Langley, a clue to his mother's maiden name although once botched by bad genealogy.)9 This last of the Richard Bennetts, the inheritor of his grandfather's vast estates, as well as that left by his father, grew to become the richest man in Colonial America of his day. But he had no children, his wealth distributed to a large number of relatives by means of a 20-page will of 1749. With his death, the Governor's male lineage became extinct.

Revolt in Virginia against the crown occurred again during the English Civil Wars. Like Mary Ann's first husband, Richard was a chief instigator and, with the support of Oliver Cromwell, was elected Governor of Virginia in 1652. There's too much material to present for the intervening years but Bennett managed to anger Cromwell by angering Lord Baltimore of whom Cromwell was attempting to appease. In fact, Bennett was a responsible party for the Battle of the Severn, the last battle of the English Civil War and the only one fought on American soil. The problem was that it occurred on Baltimore's turf in Maryland. (Bennett believed Virginia had claims to the province.) He was summoned to England, begged pardon of Lord Baltimore, and was relieved from his governorship by Cromwell. However, he returned to Virginia and continued an active career in politics, the military, and business until his death in 1675.

The Genealogical Mysteries

Researchers first need to contend with the narrative that Bennett was related to the Earl of Arlington, Henry Bennet (1618-1685). Perhaps he was, but not a single piece of evidence for it has surfaced. Furthermore, those uneducated on the matter regularly suggest Richard was directly descended from Arlington's cousin, Lord Henry Bennet who later became the Earl of Tankerville. These tree climbers are so set on the matter that Richard's grandfather, the tanner Robert Bennett, is regularly dubbed the 1st Earl of Tankerville. In fact, the Earldom of Tankerville wasn't bestowed onto the other Bennet family until 1714, long after Richard's own death. Again, we can't be sure whether the Wiveliscombe Bennetts were related, even distantly, to these aristocratic Bennets, but all claims put forward to date are easily debunked. Nevertheless, a yet-to-be-found paper trail probably doesn't matter that much. The Y chromosome just might come to the rescue.

After several years trying to contact the administrator of the Bennett DNA Project at FTDNA.com, I finally received a response earlier this year. After several exchanges she agreed to forward an inquiry to the members of two groups that looked promising. The responses I received finally allowed for the creation of our own, if presently modest, DNA Project by June. We have several Big Y results but lack one very critical item: a sample from a descendant of a fully-verified Wiveliscombe Bennett.

Digging for the Y

Although a great many of Richard and Mary Ann's progeny are extant, the governor's Y chromosome became extinct in 1749 with the death of his grandson, presenting researchers with a genetic and genealogical dead end. However, because of the nature of Y-DNA inheritance, the living male descendants of Richard's own brothers, uncles, and male cousins carry a copy of the very same Y chromosome. The search continues but, so far, well-proven members of the Wiveliscombe clan have yet to be found. But we now have a three-pronged attack, the first being through the Governor's cousinships. The second prong is to approach the family of the 10th Earl of Tankerville, the Arlington lineage having become extinct at the death of the first Earl in 1685.10 But the research needs to be considerably further along and justified before even attempting to contact the family. Still, a response is unlikely because Y-DNA testing has brought a number of Lords to court over the genetics matter. The claim is that the claimant would have been the rightful heir had the present Lord had not had illegitimacy in his lineage.11 Successfully approaching the Tankervilles is not likely, at least until U.K. passes laws needed to protect the presently-seated Lords. In the meantime, the third prong is open to us — to test our two claimant lineages to the Wiveliscombe Bennetts. It's a great place to start.

Each alphanumeric item is a marker known as a SNP. There are thousands not shown. The boxed SNPs are the most recently identified having matching testers. Additional markers will be noted as matches are found.

Because the Y-DNA passes whole from father to all sons, the markers can be examined directly from a descendant's sample. It's all there, and that makes the Y chromosome an archive, a map, that leads the researcher back thousands, even hundreds of thousands years into the past. Admittedly, that's well beyond the genealogical time frame and makes it the domain of archaeological and population genetics. But the Y can readily close the gap between our births through to much of the later medieval period, assuming the relevant genealogies (or exhumed dad bodies) exist. With some open-minded research, modern genetic analyses can lead us to genealogies and records never before suspected to being relevant. For example, a fellow named John Wood died as a young man in Ohio before 1830. The Y-DNA for his descendants point directly to an early 17th-century Massachusetts family. After only a few months of DNA testing, researchers are within one or two generations to linking John to his birth family, thereby acquiring a lineage that will take his descendants through the Pilgrim era and on to their home in England. This was not expected.12

Without getting into detail, our two Bennett groups, each claiming descent from Wiveliscombe, are paternally separated by about 5,000 years. Sometime within that time frame, a specific man was the first born with a Y-DNA marker known scientifically as R1b-L151, possibly in Central Asia. His descendants moved into Western Europe and, today, chiefly occupy a crescent of land stretching from the British Isles, through Western France, and into Northern Spain. The upshot of this is that these are two distinct Bennett families. They can't both be descendants of Robert the Tanner. And we have a third Virginia Bennett family, also of yet another Y-DNA haplogroup, and I suspect others will eventually emerge. And that's fine. We don't yet know our target Y-DNA haplogroup or whether it's even targetable. Any one of the these three families could be a match.

The Wide Atlantic

Not only did passengers risk life and limb to cross the ocean in the 17th century, genealogies rarely make the trip. Indeed, it's monumentally difficult for researchers to hop across the pond for the colonial era. Fully-documented records exist for only a relatively small number immigrants, and these tend to be persons of note, such as is the case with the Governor and his uncle, the wealthy merchant. Unfortunately, researchers tend to glum onto these historic or semi-historic figures and try to hitch a reverse ride back to the Old World. Those genealogies are most often woefully weak yet continue to proliferate the internet. And they've been so long enshrined in family lore and mythology that only scientific evidence, à la the Y chromosome, will break the delirium.

To be certain, I'd be disappointed if I were to learn that a connection I've long known about, and even helped to foster, was proved wrong. The fact, however, is that being wrong can be a highly instructive and satisfying experience. (Being right isn't much more than a ego boost.) And that's what we're doing here — finding just where we're the mistakes occurred and letting the new data direct our research toward the correct pathway. As illustrated in the Wood example, above, having more test results will likely direct us to records and lineages previously not considered. We stand to learn not only the deep origins of Governor Bennett but of the ancestors of those who participate in the project — if not back to Wiveliscombe then elsewhere. Skipping stones across the Atlantic Ocean may still be within reach.


1. Recorded at the Public Record Office, High Court of the Admiralty (HCA), in the case of Ewers against Watts, on 12 February 1657, Bennett testified, "I, Richard Bennett, an inhabitant of Virginia but at present living in London, born at Wilscombe in the county of Somerset, aged 49 years or thereabouts...". "Wilscombe" was a commonly shortened name for Wiveliscombe. ¶ John Bennett Boddie, in Seventeenth Century Isle of Wight County Virginia, quoted from the Virginia Magazine (Vol 30, page 360),1: "At a Court James City 29 March 1628, Richard Bennet, aged 20 years, sworne and examined, sayth that Captain Preen or his assignes received satisfaction of Mr. Edward Bennett for the passage of two men in ye Hopewell, 1623 to be delivered to Virginia."

2. "Currency Converter: 1270-2017", The British National Archives, Web: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency-converter/. A deep dive into Somerset records is needed to determine Robert Bennett's property and business worth.

3. Both men first appear in Virginia records in 1628. Edward was a burgess seated in the Virginia General Assembly for that year. For Richard, see item two in footnote 1. Richard was seated to the same post in 1629.

4. John Frederick Dorman, Adventurers of Purse and Person (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2004), 229. The abstracted records can be found online at familysearch.org and elsewhere.

5. Rev Frederick Brown, "Jasper Bourne," Abstracts of Somersetshire Wills, Etc., 5th Series (1890), 77.

6. Frederic Thomas Colby, D.D., The Visitations of the County of Somerset in the Year 1623 (London: Mitchell and Hughes, 1876), 13.

7. Dorman, 3:432.

8. Mary Ann Utie Bennett's descendants include Richard Bland (1710-1776), a delegate to the Continental Congress and cousin of Thomas Jefferson; Major-General Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee (1756-1818), a Virginian Congressman and Governor; Judge Theodorick Bland (1776-1846), an attorney, statesman, and Chancellor of Maryland; John Randolph (1773-1833), a minister to Russia, a Virginian Congressman and Senator; General Robert E Lee (1807-1870) of Confederate fame; and Roger Atkinson Pryor (1828-1919), a Virginian newspaper editor and politician.

9. Maryland Historical Magazine I (Baltimore: 1906), 73-74. "And to my Cousin John Langley I give four hundred acres of Land called the ffolly Lying on the North Side of Turner Creek in Sassafras River."

10. Arthur Collins, "Bennet, Earl of Tankerville", The Peerage of England III (London: 1758), 363-369.

11. David Jenkins, "Will DNA Testing Dismantle the Aristocracy?", Tatler, 25 October 2016, Web: https://www.tatler.com/gallery/peerage-titles-legal-ruling-dna.