The nuclear family as it exists today is an artificial invention, as I write about in my first book on education. Throughout human history, we have, as higher-order primates, lived in extended family units. In ancient Europe, it was not uncommon to find ten, twelve, or more individuals residing in a single domicile.
Many of us today live in families that are compartmentalized, some by geography, some by personality, some by idiosyncratic circumstances; however, more often than not, we are divided by the very recent (in terms of history) idea of nuclear family. One of the threads that ties these now-fractured family units together, even in today's world where physical distance is increasingly less distant, is our surname.
Once society developed to the point that families lived long enough to establish many generations in one place, families sometimes became clans, political entities in and of themselves, and these great clans divided further into septs, small groups within a larger family. It was at this point in Roman history that the Empire began to use family names as a form of address and to identify their family legacies and influences. However, when the Empire fell, along with so much of its technology and social advancement, surnames in Europe vanished.
The reintroduction of surnames would come not from the love of family, but from the need for power.
In the late 11th century, William the Conqueror led his armies from the heart of the northwest of modern France, rich with the blood of the Vikings, which for almost 200 years prior had come to settle and build in the region, giving rise to the land of the Nordmen, later called "Normandy," giving rise to William's title, the Duke of Normandy. William marched his forces into a vacuum of power created in England by the death of Edward the Confessor, who died without an heir. In 1066, William assembled a massive fleet of ships and an army unlike those since Roman times. Many of those recruited into service were not honored first-born sons, who traditionally inherited the lands, titles, and power of their fathers under a tradition called primogeniture. Rather, many of William's recruited men were second- and third-born sons. who under primogeniture stood to inherit very little in their own right. However, in the service of William, they were promised their own distinct land holdings and titles, not dependent upon their traditionally-preferred elder brothers. In this ancient world, land was power, and a title was a key to unlock doors to success, so these conditions for independent advancement were especially appealing.
Bringing a prefabricated wooden castle, William established a foothold fortress at Pevensey in Sussex, located in the south of England a mere 133 miles from the future seat of the great Ryves line. A month later, William marched into Hastings to challenge Harold Godwinson, master of the Sussex domain. The Battle of Hastings was a closely-contested and narrowly-won battle, but ultimately saw Godwinson killed and the Saxons forced to retreat, leaving William to move forward and begin his attempt at dominating England.
As William had promised, he elevated to nobility those second- and third-born children who had fought for him. These un-traditional new nobles came to be known as the Norman Lords, whenever there was a title to give. One must remember that the English lords, the Anglo-Saxons, were strong and independent noblemen who had forces of their own, and could swear allegiance to whomever they chose. When an Anglo-Saxon Lord pledged his allegiance to William and served him well, he retained his holdings. However, when one died without an heir, or resisted the new Norman order, he was replaced with a Norman Lord. As such, because all men eventually die, the Norse and French blood of Normandy overtook the old purely Anglo-Saxon aristocracy. What we today know as "England" is a fusion of the old Anglo-Saxon order and the new Norman order. As part of this new order, it is thought, family names once more became essential. Most primarily, one who was an otherwise unknown son could identify with his father by identifying his castle of origin, his hometown or geography of origin, or the name by which his father had been known.
Indeed, the tradition of a "maiden name" - the daughter's surname being that of her patrilineal line, coming from her father - was likely an attempt to ensure that records of marriage could tie both promised blood and treasure of the wife to the newly-married lord. Family association was tied to generational power and wealth, and so understanding the strength of any given bloodline was somewhat akin to a line of credit today, and so worth documenting carefully.
By creating a system of nomenclature that ensured all of the children of a particular father were tied in name to that father, associations were easier to track, and therefore control. In order to maintain organization and understand generational relationships, to track family movements and their corresponding wealth and force, and to appropriately tax the holdings of family land regardless of how a family came to hold that land, it is thought that surnames returned once more to the Western world.
Origin of Reeves
Many Reeves remember the story we were told as children that our name comes from the word "sheriff." It is true that even prior to the Norman Invasion, England had been governed by a very sophisticated system. The lands had been divided into roughly-equal shires, governed by a shire reeve, or sheriff, a position created by the Anglo-Saxons in roughly the 7th century. These shires were somewhat analogous to our modern-day American counties. While it is logical that one would see the term and see our last name and assume a relation, it is unlikely that this is the true origin of our name.
This is not to say that some Reeves were not people of public service. Indeed, there are a conspicuous number of Reeves who have served in government and public service in the United States.
As you've read, the Normans came to modern England from what is today France. It is known that even today there is a region in modern Aquitaine known as du Rives, or "of the riverbank." This is also the name of a great merchant family there. It is the opinion of several researchers - among them Barry Reeves and Paul Reeves, whose opinion I share - that the modern Reeves all must universally descend from the Ryves of Dorset, England, who were Norman aristocrats, whose origins are in this Midi-Pyrénées region of Languedoc. It appears that between 1347 and 1390, the name "Du Ryves" shifted rapidly to "Ryves," the "du" often disappearing entirely within a generation.
Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, a microhistorian of repute, authored the work Montaillou, village occitan, which tells of the small village of Montaillou. The story-like work is based upon the records of Jacques Fournier who later became Pope Benedict XII. When Fournier came to The Vatican, he brought his work with him, and to this day, these remarkable documents from the late 13th century are preserved.
The ruined Cathar castle of Montaillou near modern-day Ariège
Phillipe Chanaron authored the work Rives & Reaumont - Au Moyen Age, which outlines the feudalistic house of De Rives from 1020 to approximately 1308 - which cites the 1318 to 1325 existence of a Rives family in Montaillou - describing that family's governance of portions of the south of France, west of their origins in Languedoc, in and around Lot-et-Garonne.
Through chance or fate, to whichever you subscribe, a critical snapshot of the most ancient of Reeves family is preserved in the story of Fabrice Rives, a wine seller in the village, and his daughters Alazaïs and Grazide.
This snapshot provides, in my view, a compelling piece of evidence that the Reeves origins are in France, and that the name "Reeves" is actually derived - as so many surnames are - from our geographic area of origin: "of the riverbank."
It is important to remember when discussing the spelling of surnames that the act of naming people predates general literacy. The notion of spelling was, for a very long time, simply a relative artform.
Phonetically, the IPA expression of our name's original pronunciation is [riv], or "reev." The French spelling of this was Rives, with the last "S" being silent. The spelling is incidental to the fact that the name was pronounced [riv]. After the family crossed the channel to England, the "ee" sound was expressed (as was common) with the vowel "Y." This changed the spelling of the name to Ryves, still pronounced "reev."
This spelling was relatively consistent until the late 18th century. When the Ryves came to the Colonies of America, many changed the spelling to "Rives," probably out of simplicity if nothing else. It was at this point with the convergence of so many cultures in the early "melting pot" of America that people who had no common frame of reference began to pronounce the spellings they read.
Rives was pronounced (as we can easily imagine) "reevz" instead of "reev" by some, and by still others "raiv" or "raives." It was at this point that the double-E likely appeared, and the "S" became the divider between Reeves and Reeve.
Those who wished to retain the spelling and the tradition of the "S" final consonant - and this is the case for many later immigrants particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries - would often opt for "Reeves," whereas those more concerned with pronunciation would opt for "Reeve." The truth of the matter is that Reeves and Reeve families, along with those who successfully preserved Ryves and even Rives, are generally part of the same ancient family.
In the final equation, there are those who believe we are "sheriffs," and those who believe we are "of the riverbank." There is little in the way of disproving the former, but to those who spend so much time immersed in the earliest known annals of our family history, the evidence that mounts is compelling. Even today, the Rives papers produced in southwestern France are the finest quality, and the number of Ryves and Reeves families that still bear the greyhound and live along shorelines is, if not scientific, the basis of a strong "feeling" that our surname origin is, literally, immersed in the waters of time.
North and South, Holds and Hamptons
There are two primary branches of the Reeves family in the United States today, and they appear to primarily derive from two individuals, both likely named Thomas. There are conflicting reports about some of this information, but I here propose what I think is the best synthesis the Reeves genealogy community has come up with to date.
Thomas Reeve I (possibly Thomas James Reeve) was born about 1611 in Caldecote, Northampton in England, and on 25 May 1635, set sail aboard the ship "Matthew" for St. Christopher's in what today is Bermuda. Dissatisfied with the conditions there, he came north to Chowan Precinct, North Carolina and Surry County, Virginia, where some Reeves and their relations prospected and settled. Thomas, some twenty years later (around 1652) continued north to Southold on Long Island. This Thomas - the one without the "S" and who hailed from Northampton, is the Progenitor of the Southern Reeves.
The Southern Reeves can directly trace their lineage to aristocracy. Indeed, many members of the Southern branch can trace their lines to those who were expelled from England during the Cromwellian uprising and English Civil War, resulting in additional flights across the Atlantic to the Carolinas and Virginia. Until approximately 2007, I believed that I was a member of this line, having found what seemed like definitive evidence to support that position.
However, with challenging handwriting and being a younger genealogist, I had conflated two separate individuals. I had confused Franklin J. Reeves (my great-great-great-grandfather), son of Lyman Reeves and descendant of the Northern Reeves, with Franklin J. Reeves, son of Simeon W. Reeves, a descendant of the Southern Reeves.
It was a heart-breaking and seriously challenging moment for me as a genealogist. In an instant, thanks to beautifully-preserved research and definitive evidence provided by my late grandmother, Carol Ann Fisher Reeves, I had the truth, and it didn't match what I thought I knew. I was not aristocratic. I did not have a coat of arms. The Greyhound that represented the Reeves, that persists to this day as a symbol of our larger family, was not truly mine.
However, genealogy is the search for the truth of our own people, and my grandmother's family records set me on a path to discover, explore, and help celebrate the rich history of my true branch, the Northern Reeves.
Thomas Reeves I was born about 1620 in Southampton in England, and on 16 May 1638, set sail aboard the ship "Bevis" for Southampton on Long Island in "Newengland." This family would settle extensively in this area, with branches heading west into the northern United States in future generations, including the branch described in the next section, my branch, the Upstate New York Reeves. This Thomas - the one with the "S" and who hailed from Southampton, is the Progenitor of the Northern Reeves.
Here are the journeys of the two lines: Thomas from Northampton, who went South, and Thomas from Southampton, who went North. It is important to note that these are genetically distinct branches; there is no evidence of a recent common ancestor between them.
While certainly future generations would move throughout the Colonies and eventually throughout the United States - the Southern branch with strongholds in the Carolinas, Virginia, Alabama, and Texas; the Northern branch with strongholds in New York and Michigan - most lines can trace back in one way or another to one of these two lines.
The Northern Reeves were not wealthy aristocrats. We came here literally in bondage, servants who sold themselves for passage, and who became farmers in the new world, but we did well enough on Long Island for the next century and a half.
The story of Stephen's son James is my family's story.
But we wouldn't have been here if our family hadn't come to Upstate New York from Long Island, and that is the story of James's younger brother, Elias, the Long Island Company, and the Reeves, Foster, Hopkins, & Sanford Expedition of 1792.
The Reeves, Foster, Hopkins, & Sanford Expedition
In 1788, Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham and their Company associates made a bid to purchase six million acres of what is now Western New York from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. This contract involved paying $1,000,000 to Massachusetts, which would compensate that State for the land and for the pre-emptive right of the Company to buy the title of the land from the Iroquois Confederacy for $5000. This tract of land is colloquially known as the "Phelps and Gorham Purchase."
About the same time, a band of eleven Southampton (then "South Hampton"), Long Island associates formed their own Company to secure lands of their own for their families, and in the early Spring of 1790, Elias Reeves (my fifth great grand-uncle) and Joel Foster traveled west through the wilderness to prospect for a new fertile place for a community of their families. They travelled through Pennsylvania to Fort Pitt (now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), where they encountered acquaintance and distant Long Island relative Luke Foster. Now a trio, they forged into the wilderness of what is today West Virginia and Ohio, down to Fort Washington (now Cincinnati, Ohio), and purchased land on what then was known as the Turkey Bottoms. Luke Foster stayed behind and began constructing the new forest outpost, while Reeves and Joel Foster returned to Long Island.
The Reeves narrowly missed being Yinzers and were on their way to being Bengals fans, but it was not to be.
Upon returning to Southampton, Elias Reeves found two visiting friends: his uncle William Hopkins (son of Stephen Hopkins, signatory to the Declaration of Independence) and Abraham Foster. Hopkins had been a member of another company (the "Leasee Company," about sixty men strong) exploring lands to the east of the Phelps and Gorham Purchase up toward New England. Hopkins urged the younger Reeves and Foster to reconsider moving their people west to Turkey Bottoms. He spoke of the successes of the New England colonies, and the importance and potential of a community of like-ideal and principled citizens, and prevailed successfully upon the two men to band with fellows to explore a northern route instead of settling along the Ohio river.
Reeves and Hopkins would go north, beyond the so-called "Military Tract" which is today the area around Onondaga County, New York, and explore the wilderness further up the Hudson River. Simultaneously, Joel Foster and Abraham Foster, and Luther Sanford would explore westward along the New York-Pennsylvania boundary, and this latter band set out in June of 1791. As anyone from this region could today imagine, the Pennsylvania border explorers found the country "mountainous and forbidding." Abandoning ideas of pressing further, they arrived at a settlement called Lindleytown (today Lindley, New York, on the border between Pennsylvania and New York), and erected mills, leaving Reeves and Hopkins to explore, hoping for greater success.
The initial Reeves exploration mission left Long Island on 20 August 1791, equipped with "rifles and knapsacks," and navigated northward by the Hudson River to Albany. (The Reeves were able sailors by all accounts; James E. Reeves, Elias's cousin, and my fifth great-grandfather, who was a sailor in the Revolution.) From Albany, Reeves and Hopkins went west, following the Iroquois trails (at great peril, at times) to the then brand-new settlement of Geneva, New York, which had been erected on what was once the significant Seneca village of Kanadaseaga. The British had fortified Kanadaseaga against the French during the "French and Indian War," and later against the Americans during the Revolution. The outpost was destroyed by the Sullivan Expedition of 1779, leaving ruins that were, starting in 1787, rebuilt by the victorious Americans into Geneva.
Reeves and Foster pushed further, encouraged by the thriving communities here amid the "well-watered valleys," the "height and strength of the trees," and the "depth and richness of the soil." They came to what was then called Town Number 12, the area that today includes Newark, New York and its surrounding communities. Declaring this land "luxuriant" compared to Southampton, they resolved to settle and made a Pre-Emption Mark of their names, "Reeves" and "Foster" on maple and oak trees near Ganargua Creek.
Their place secured, they set south to Lindleytown (now a town just outside Corning, New York) to retrieve the Fosters and Sanford, and the five of them together drew up and signed their bond on 19 September 1791.
This instrument of writing witnesseth, that Wm. Hopkins of the State of New Jersey, Elias Reeves, Joel Foster, Abraham Foster, and Luther Sanford, all of the State of New York, do agree and bind themselves, severally, each to the other, under the penalty of fifty pounds, to abide by and make good any purchase of land which Elias Reeves and Abraham Foster shall make of Oliver Phelps, Esq., or any other person, within twenty days from the date hereof. The proportion of land, which each of us shall have is to be concluded among ourselves hereafter. In witness of all of which, we have hereunto set our hands and seals, in Ontario County, State of New York, this ninth day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and ninety-one.
Hopkins, Joel Foster, and Sanford returned to Southampton, while Elias Reeves and Abraham Foster returned back to Town Number 12. On the way, they stopped at the house of a Mr. Crittenden, who resided in "the old castle" at Geneva. Crittenden gave Reeves and Foster a peck of apples that had been grown from the fruit of an old Iroquois orchard that had been gifted to General John Swift, who would in just a few short years found the city of Palmyra. Reeves and Foster kept the apples for the precious, ancient-growth seeds, and upon land amid the tall maples of Town Number 12, in a beautiful, tall-timbered plot of land in what is today East Palmyra, they planted these apple seeds in perfect conditions, beginning their farming enterprise.
The orchard was the first fruiting orchard west of Geneva. This tall-timbered hill and its surrounding perfect fields would come to be called Maple Bluff, and is the ancestral farm home of the Reeves family of Upstate New York, farmed by Elias's nephew Lyman Reeves (my fourth great-grandfather), and his son, and his son after him, and his son after that, down through generations of Reeves, where those maples and apples still grow today.
The time had come to solemnize their settlement, and so Reeves and Foster met with none other than Oliver Phelps himself in Canandaigua, and paid £sd100 (one hundred New York pounds in Continental Currency) as a downpayment on 5,500 acres to be purchased for £sd1,100.
The timing could not have been better. Phelps and Gorham were in arrears, unable to make their payments to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but the Long Island Company had cold, hard cash from their having pooled their communal resources for this enterprise. Reeves and Foster knew that Swift could not financially fulfill his obligations, nor could Phelps and Gorham, and so they parlayed directly with the great Purchasers and secured a genuine title directly from General Swift.
They had been wildly successful. The Reeves ancestral stomping grounds in what is today southern Wayne County, New York, was secure. Victorious, the five returned to Southampton to gather their belongings to bring to their newly-acquired land in Town Number 12, and settle the Long Island Purchase.
During the Winter of 1791, their carpentry skills were invested in the crafting of their sail boat. Joel Foster built the boat itself, and Cyrus Foster (a blacksmith relative of the Fosters) forged the nails. They launched the boat on Heady (Heddy) Creek just outside Southampton. They celebrated the Sabbath together, and on the morning Monday, April 4, 1792, the five Southampton pioneers - Elias Reeves, Abraham and Joel Foster, William Hopkins, and Luther Sanford - set out by boat on Heady Creek to journey the 500 miles northwest, one last time.
The journey was arduous, laden with their belongings. They sailed through the Long Island Sound west, then probably through the East and Harlem Rivers to the mighty Hudson. North, they sailed the Hudson to the great establishment of Albany, which would in just a few more years become the capital of New York. With great effort, they removed the boat from the Hudson and physically carried it sixteen miles to the Schenectady settlement, where they put in at the Mohawk River. Using "setting poles," the Company pushed their way up the Mohawk to abandoned Fort Stanwix and the settlement of Rome.
At the end of the Mohawk, they had a comparably-easy mile overland carry to Wood Creek, which took their bold little boat to Oneida Lake. How many Reeves have looked upon, swam in, and sailed across Oneida Lake, in this same fashion, so many years later?
At the western end, Oneida Lake empties into the Oneida tributary of the Oswego River, and then into the Seneca River, through to the Clyde River, and ever-thinning into Mud Creek, and Sawmill Creek, and then the Ganargua Creek, bringing them to their new home. The journey took, stunningly enough, only twenty-eight days. The author of this site has recreated the journey using the information available on the expedition, displayed below.
Where the Company landed, the Fosters built their home, later owned by Hiram Foster, and the families began to come to join their pioneering husbands and fathers: the Clarks, the Posts, the Howells, the Jaggers, the Culvers, the Jessups, and many more. The youngest was Joel Foster's son, Harvey, who was only eleven months old. A great many of these settlers came by none other than the very same little boat, which journeyed back and forth many more times, so well-built and solid she was, and after all was settled and the Southampton families relocated, she was still sturdy. It was conveyed to Seneca Lake, and became a pleasure boat for the Long Island families.
The pioneers divided the 5,500 acres of the Long Island Purchase into tracts for each family, and drew up lots.
Luther Sanford settled on 450 acres and married Jennie Robinson. He stayed an accomplished carpenter, and built the first frame barn around what is today the town of Marion.
William Hopkins, older than his younger compatriots, survived until 17 July 1793, when he and his wife both quietly passed away on the same day, their mission accomplished.
Joel and Abraham Foster together erected the first saw mill in the region, much as they had back at Lindleytown, and they taught their kin Jedediah so well that Jed built the first two-story house in town.
And Elias Reeves, pioneer of the expedition, became the town's weaver, and married Eunice Howell, the first man to marry in Palmyra. He commissioned Canandaigua minister Reverend Condit with a five dollar gold piece, and married his sweetheart on 27 October 1793 in what was right then and there established as the East Palmyra Presbyterian Church. Elias's father Dr. Stephen Reeves, who had come up from Southampton, was named elder, Elias served as Trustee, and Elias tapped his brother - James E. Reeves, my fifth great-grandfather - to be clerk of the church. These three Reeves men established the community of East Palmyra around the church, and are each buried there today.
Elias Reeves passed away on 4 June 1843 at the age of 80.
Major Source: Eaton, Horace. (1857.) The Early History of Palmyra: A Thanksgiving Sermon, Delivered at Palmyra, NY.
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