Chapter III

John Coombes, of

A voyage from England to Virginia was nothing to boast about in early Colonial times. It required anywhere from eight to twelve weeks. The passenger had to be a hardy and a robust individual to stand it. Ships were never certain of the speed they were making, nor were they certain even of their latitude and longitude. As a result, they made hilarious errors in navigation. It is doubtful if they were acquainted with the true course of the Gulf Stream. Frequently they got several degrees off their course. Living conditions on them were almost unbearable; there were no "aboves" or "belows" (decks), but usually a hold, covered over by a sort of upper deck. The motley array of voyagers were crowded into the hold, or bottom of the ship.

Woodward, in his A New American History (copyright, Rinehart & Company, New York), speaks of the conditions: "The hold was partly filled with sand ballast to keep the ship steady. The sand made a floor. On the ballast a fire was built; the chimney ran up through the deck. Around the fireplace there was a clutter of pots and pans; the passengers did their own cooking, such as it was, and the place was continually full of smoke. For the necessary functions of nature, buckets were provided. At certain hours the passengers brought their buckets on deck and emptied them over the side.

"There was of course no privacy. The hold was merely a large room, as long and as wide as the ship. It was dark as pitch except for a few swinging lanterns. The food was atrocious; it had to be. Fruits and vegetables could not be kept, so the standard diet was mouldy bread, alive with weevils, and salt meat which was always maggoty and sometimes rotten.

"Our forefathers were a hardy folk, or all of them would have died on the way. Many of those who embarked on these voyages did die. The officers and crew lived in crowded quarters in deckhouses.


The hold was the abiding place of the passengers; besides, it contained all the supplies and the passengers' belongings. In it there was seldom a headroom of more than five feet. Dwarfs and children could walk upright; everybody else had to stoop." It is estimated that out of each new immigration an average of one half of its members lost their lives the first season.

One of these flimsy boats, the "Marigold" by name, set out from an English port in March, 1619. One Captain Lane was her skipper. On May 20, at high tide, she put in at James City [Co, VA], on what is now a small island on the lower James River, cast anchor and "tied up to the wharf". Her "passenger list" included respectable English citizens, officials of the Virginia Company, bond - or indentured servants, adventurers, "redemptioners," convicts, and what-not. Off the gangplank walked one John Comes, or Coombes, and was immediately turned over to Governor Sir George Yeardley (who had just come over), "to the Company's use."

We know little about John and his antecedents, except that he was a son of John, Merchant of London, and that he had at least one brother, Archdale, born in December, 1606. He was probably one of the younger sons of the family, and, as such, was cut off from any share in the paternal estate, due to the pernicious law of entail. Thus, like the scions of many other well to do families similarly disinherited, he had embarked for the New World. The fact that John bound himself out to the Company (for a specified period of time) carries no stigma with it, nor does it indicate in any way that he was of low caste; and menial servitude is not necessarily implied as we know the term. John merely agreed to "serve" the Company, by contract. A number of immigrants of his status, and their descendants became members of the Virginia House of Burgesses.* (1)

From the list of early Combses already mentioned, it is likely that young John Coombes was assigned to the Treasurer's plantation [Virginia Colony]. That was the most important plantation, or borough, in 1619; in fact in the early years of the Colony the Treasurer was a sort of governor. Each settlement, or borough was called a plantation; later, a congregation, hundred, or city, till about 1631. Then, parish, county, precinct, and after 1634, county. When John came, there were eleven plantations, extending up and down the James [River], a distance of about hundred miles. The population of the Colony was two to four thousand.


* The term "indentured servant" needs to be cleared up, once and for all, in order to bring solace to the troubled minds of many descendants of those early pioneers. In his The Peopling of Virginia, Mr. Bean offers as good an explanation as any:

"Who were these indentured servants? Of the forty-four Burgesses who sat in the Assembly of 1629, seven were listed as servants; among thirty-nine Assemblymen in 1632, six appeared as servants. In 1652 eight or nine were brought over by others, and by 1662 the Burgesses were said to be composed for the most part of men who came over to Virginia as servants. Many of them were adventurers, youths of good families, who came to improve their circumstances in the new country; some were the younger sons of the nobility, many were persons of culture, and on rare occasions, people of wealth. All persons who had positions that paid wages or salaries were called indentured servants. Persons of gentle blood became indentured to lawyers or physicians in order to acquire a knowledge of those professions. Tutors were often indentured, and occasionally gentlemen of large estates, and bankrupts."

John Coombes served out the term of his indenture in 1625. After that date, he passes out of the records of Jamestown. He is presumed to have married Margaret shortly after 1625. Before continuing with the possible whereabouts of John after this date, it is now time to mention another family tradition, one which may help to establish John as our Colonial ancestor. In the Dickey Diary John S. Combs, of Perry County, Kentucky, says to Rev. J.J. Dickey (1898): "I have often heard my father and mother and my uncles say that the Combses came from Jamestown." John S. was a grandson of Nicholas ("Danger Nick") Combs, who was born around 1736. Old "Danger" lived to be more than a hundred years old, and was born only about sixty-one years after John of Jamestown is supposed to have died. John S. was nineteen when his grandfather died, and his brother, Andrew was thirty-two. Certainly, a tradition can last that long. (2)

It now becomes necessary to track John Coombes down, hounding him to his very grave. To accomplish this most interesting story of detection, we must consider certain things that were transpiring after 1630, also, to follow another family, the Underwoods, along with the movements of the Combses. The plantation at Jamestown was in a bad way; it never had been a great success, and was destined to peter out completely. By 1630 things had come to such a sorry pass that Thomas Combe, a stockholder in the Company, came over from


London to Jamestown that same year, along with Sir Richard Berkeley, to urge settlers to go out and do more colonizing. Also, the Jamestown plantation folks had been held west of the York River (a short distance from Jamestown) until 1630, by the constant menace of Powhatan and his hostile Indians. Now they could move out toward the east and northeast, and gradually up the tidewater country. Settlers were offered various inducements, and land could be had for almost nothing.

A number of families are known to have left the lower James [River] and elsewhere, going to Isle of Wight County (formed in 1637), Elizabeth City, York, Gloucester, and old Lancaster [VA]. These counties, except Lancaster, were formed in the 1630's. The family of William Underwood was living in Isle of Wight before the 1640's, along with Combses; the Underwoods then moved over to York, and were there in the 1640's. It was a numerous family, and one of them, Maj. William Underwood, finally moved to Lancaster. As we shall see, his widow married Archda1e Combs. Elizabeth City is a very small county, adjoining York, another small county. One John Combs takes up land on Tabb's Creek, Lancaster County, in 1669. He had probably gone there via Isle of Wight and Elizabeth City. Color is lent to the assumption when we remember that one of his friends, or acquaintances, Capt. Nathaniel Basse, who made the affidavit for him (1625), lived in Isle of Wight; also that a John Combs (a presumed son of Jamestown John) shows up in Isle of Wight in 1672, 1679, and in 1681. Elizabeth City County is just across the James, opposite Pagan Bay, where Capt. Basse's plantation was situated. Perhaps of the family of Isle of Wight John is the John Combs who patents (1728-1732) 400 acres near Fergasson's (Ferguson's ?) Land, in the extreme northern part of the same county, and a few miles above Pagan Bay. It is significant that Richard was in Elizabeth City in 1635, and that Abraham was there in 1621. (3)

Tabb's Creek (not known by that name these days) flows into Fleet's Bay. The patent is dated September 20, 1669, and describes the land as lying on the head of the creek, " near Abia Benson's land." (Let us keep in mind that Combses, Underwoods, Butlers all lived at first on the lower James, then in York and Elizabeth City, then up in Lancaster, from which county Old Rappahannock was formed. Archdale Combs' wife was one of those same Butlers. And so, we have the Underwoods, and Abraham, John and Archdale Combs up in old Lancaster). (4)


An inventory of John Combs' estate was made in Middlesex [Co, VA], in 1675. Had he moved across the river from Lancaster? It must be frankly admitted that two John Combses were living around the mouth of the Rappahannock [River] at this time, and it seems that both were living in the present Middlesex County. The identity of the one that patented on Tabb's Creek, over in Lancaster, is not certain. In the Tabb's Creek patent the name is spelled "Come", since the s was rarely written or pronounced in those days. An inventory of John Combe's estate was made in "Middlesex," in 1669; this is apparently not our John, although he lived in Middlesex. (Middlesex was not formed until 1673.). Mention has already been made of the Isle of Wight John of 1679; he is also mentioned in 1672. In 1681 he is listed three times, in land and tobacco transactions with Edmond Palmer. The last two dates are a little late for the original Jamestown John, who was probably father of this John. Archdale Combs, living in Old Rappahannock (Caroline), is connected with an inventory in Middlesex in 1675, the year of John's death. It is not certain as to whose inventory that is. It seems pretty certain, then, that Archdale's father was John of Jamestown. Since John had a brother Archdale, and an uncle of the same name, the contention is strengthened. John probably had other children besides Archdale. I suggest the following:

John, Isle of Wight, 1672, 1679, 1681

William, in Gloucester, 1667

Thus passes John Combs, who lived first where English domination of the United States began; later near Yorktown [York Co, VA], where it ended, and finally no great distance from where Pocahontas saved the life of Capt. John Smyth, and where Bacon's Rebellion terminated. (5)

Seekers after family data as set forth on grave stones in the old graveyards or cemeteries, hesitate before exploring such things in the Tidewater [VA] country; and, in fact, elsewhere. If your enthusiasm lures you on, you will in most cases be disappointed. Except in churchyards, barren plots of ground, here a crude mound, there a sunken place, will greet you. Untended, weed-and shrub-ridden, they are desolate places. In many cases not a stone left; as Judge Embrey sagely remarked to me, the good Christians have long since stolen them, for cornerstones of houses, etc. But even though these burial places have been stripped of everything but the soil which covers the


remains of our Colonial ancestors, they have not been desecrated by cultivation.

"Some mute, ingolorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood." [sic]

But if you descend from some more or less prominent family, your search may not be futile; you will then often find something, in a few private cemeteries, or on the glebe contiguous to some old church. In the old graveyard on the hill just back of the courthouse at Hazard, [Perry Co] Kentucky, the "Combs capital," not one stone is left. It is probably the oldest graveyard on the upper Kentucky River, going back to around 1800, and the burial place of Gen. Elijah Combs, first pioneer and founder of Hazard! The good public-spirited citizens of Perry County have not yet seen fit to pay homage to the old pioneer by erecting a shaft in his memory in the public square.