The Robertson Genealogy Exchange

Thoughts on Sarah Foster Kelley's
Scotch-Irish Origins of General James Robertson

by Tom Robertson

[Note: I found this critique among the many items Tom sent to me over the years, and the file is dated 25 September 2003. I see no evidence that he published this version anywhere, and in many cases, he recycled the ideas he expressed here in other venues. Regardless, this piece appears to me to stand on its own, and it is my belief that it deserves separate publication. Tom may have chosen not to publish it due to Mrs. Kelley's death in July 2002; I do not know for certain. Since it was clear to me that it was in draft form, I have taken the liberty of adding footnotes where I thought it appropriate (the orignal article had none), and checking for typos and such. As it was untitled, I have supplied that as well. Any additional comments not in the original will be set apart and italicized in order to remove doubt as to their origin. -- Charles Oliver]

One comes to Sarah Foster Kelley’s Scotch-Irish Origins of General James Robertson full of hope and with the expectation that at last the author some have styled the premier Robertson researcher has found documentary evidence to link General Robertson to an Old World family. The book’s central premise, and the promise of its promotional brochure, is that John Robertson of Guay, Perthshire, Scotland, a dispossessed Lord of the Realm who was tried and convicted of treason in 1716, was General Robertson's grandfather. John Robertson of Guay[1], she writes, escaped the executioner and fled to Belfast, County Antrim, Ireland, where he married Ann Elizabeth Randolph and fathered two sons, John Randolph and Charles, both of whom emigrated from Ireland to America through Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, about 1735. The latter remained in or near Philadelphia, and John Randolph Robertson moved to Brunswick County, Virginia, where he married Mary Gower and fathered James Robertson who "from the family cradle ... was ordained by Almighty God to be the Advance Guard of Civilization in pushing westward from the colonies and extending the boundaries of early America."

Before making such an unbounded leap of faith, most genealogists require substantial proof of the validity of their conclusions, but for Mrs. Kelley (who explored the extant records of Belfast and its vicinity through her research assistant, Jean Agnew of the Ulster Historical Foundation, and found nothing of substance to support the lineage) the absence of objective proof presents no barrier. She offers her readers a confusing jumble of names and dates gleaned for the most part from published sources two or more times removed from primary documentation and, in the case of Lavinia Swain, to whose manuscripts and letters Mrs. Kelley turns again and again for proof of her assertions, six generations removed from the principal about whom she supposedly gave testimony.

The author writes in her Foreword, "Even though numerous people have speculated on various lineages ..., no one has had much success in proving any kinship outside the John Randolph Robertson family or any ties back into Scotland." This is true for the present volume as well, since no one has yet proved that "John Randolph Robertson" even existed, much less that he was General Robertson's father. One may be absolutely certain that "the authorities having knowledge on the ancestors of General James Robertson" as Mrs. Kelley writes, "his own children" never mentioned John Randolph Robertson in the Draper letters or in any other communication known to Robertson family historians, and it was only after Mrs. Charles Fairfax Henley named him in an 1898 article about Colonel Charles Robertson that some of General Robertson's descendants, including Lavinia Swain, one of General Robertson's great-granddaughters, claimed him as their own. Mrs. Henley wrote that Charles Robertson's descent from the "Barons of Strowan" was proved by "the 'coat of arms' preserved in this family."

Lavinia Swain named John Randolph Robertson's parents, in 1902, as John Robertson and Ann Eliza Randolph, at the same time claiming relationships to Patrick Henry and the Virginia Randolphs, and she applied a variant of Mrs. Henley's coat-of-arms story to General Robertson and his family, adding that the man who married Eliza Randolph "was a bitter enemy of England" and a political exile whose lands had been seized by the Crown, an idea she apparently gleaned from Mrs. Henley, who wrote of John Randolph Robertson,

His immediate predecessors, becoming strict Presbyterian covenanters, had joined the parliamentary and Cromwellian armies, in dethroning Charles I of "Great Britain," thereby losing their estates, upon the restoration of Charles II, to the sceptre; hence the Robertsons sought their fortunes in ... America.

One cannot fault these early genealogists for working with the few resources they had, but one should understand that there was never any question of documentary proof because the documents to support these stories, and the lineage itself, simply did not exist; and it should also be clear that the stories were not the product of family legend passed from generation to generation but that they came into being in a single lifespan through the efforts of two individuals. At any rate, Colonel William Curry Harlee, the author of the best of the earlier works on General Robertson and his family, disowned the entire lineage when he wrote,

It is regretted that Mrs. Henley did not inform us how she learned that the middle name of the John Robertson, who married Mary Gower, was Randolph, and that he was born about 1712 in Scotland and married in 1739. ... It is not believed that he had a middle name, Randolph, nor that he was born in Scotland, nor that the dates of his birth and marriage are known, nor that Charles was his first son...

Like Mrs. Kelley, Colonel Harlee believed John and Charles Robertson's origins lay in Northern Ireland and that the two men immigrated to America through Philadelphia, Pennsylvainia, an idea first expressed in the letters Felix Robertson and Lavinia Craighead sent Lyman Draper in the mid-1800s. In an unforseen way, Mrs. Kelley seriously challenges this hypothesis when she writes,

Although Dr. Felix Robertson and his sister ... reported to Lyman Draper ... that their grandfather, John Robertson, and their grand uncle, Charles Robertson, came to America through ... Philadelphia, no such record has been found. Port entry records have been checked for Philadelphia by the Pennsylvania Historical Society, but no documentation could be located for the brothers, John and Charles Robertson.

Given the apparent thoroughness of Jean Agnew's research and that there is no other record -- parish register, marriage contract, deed, court minute, census entry, will, probate, burial, or subscription record -- on the other side of the Atlantic to indicate that John and Charles Robertson had any relationship whatsoever to John Robertson of Guay or to Ann Elizabeth Randolph, it would seem to most that the evidence argues for a relationship on this side of the ocean, but the inference Mrs. Kelley draws from her agent's negative search is that she has successfully proved the relationships as she defined them.

The key items of evidence that Mrs. Kelley offers as proof of the relationship between John Randolph Randolph Robertson and John Robertson of Guay are (1) Lavinia Swain's 1902 assertion that he was "a bitter enemy of England" and a political exile whose lands had been seized by the Crown; (2) her 1902 retelling of Mrs. Henley coat-of-arms story; (3) a 1912 variation of the coat-of-arms story told by her niece in which General Robertson gave his daughter, Charlotte, a little, gold dagger with the Robertson crest engraved in the hilt and surrounded by pearls; and (4) Lavinia Swain's 1914 assertion that John Randolph Robertson's father was born in Perthshire, Scotland.

These four assertions, Mrs. Kelley believes, prove that "James Robertson descended from Irish Princes and Scottish kings, and was a lineal descendant of the House of Lude, one of the ancient branches of the Clan Donnachaidh dating back to 1358."

One might expect that family treasures like the coat-of-arms and the little, gold dagger that could potentially lead to the restoration of the family lands and title would be closely guarded and that the passage of these proofs of noble ancestry would be recorded from generation to generation so there would be no question of their provenance, but the little gold dagger inlaid with pearls disappeared from its rosewood box long before the informant who first reported it was born; the coat-of-arms was lost during the American Civil War, and the will for John Robertson of Johnston County, North Carolina, General Robertson's father, mentions neither a small, gold dagger nor a chieftain's coat-of-arms. A 1772 account of his moveable goods names the following items:

... one side of Leather, one bason, two Jointers, Stocks and Irons, two plow hoes, one Slay, one pair Money Scails, one melting Ladle, one flesh forks, one spit, one Steel Trap, one candle stick, one pepper box, one Linnen Wheal, some Juniper Timber, one Bushell & Eighteen ears of Corn, one pair Iron Wedges, one piece of Iron called a logger head, one Chissel, ...a Weavers Loom, two stumps of Awls, a Stump of Case Knife, [and] two small pieces of Juniper Timber ...

but no Struan chieftain's coat-of-arms and no small, gold dagger inlaid with pearls.

This discrepancy is illustrative of the split that has arisen over the past fourteen years between the early, mythological lineage for James Robertson and the numerous primary documents that now disprove it, and the real failure of Scotch-Irish Origins of General James Robertson is the author's refusal to acknowledge that this schism even exists.

A progression from possibility to probablility to reasonable certainty never occurred with the John Randolph Robertson lineage because there was never any evidence, other than the vague assertions of Draper letters, to support it. The failure of the Philadelphia Historical Society and the Ulster Historical Foundation to find anything further seems to indicate that the lineage will never be more than an unprovable theory, and, given the body of evidence that supports General Robertson's link to Israel Roberson of Granville County[2], the author's negative search seems to move that lineage one step closer to reasonable certainty.

End Notes:

Publication information (taken from the listing at Amazon.com; unverified):
Scotch-Irish Origins of General James Robertson by Sarah Foster Kelley (College Grove, Tennesee: E. S. Kelley; 2000); 130 pages; ISBN-10: 0961596023; ISBN-13: 978-0961596026

  1. This lineage is disproved by the Testament Dative of John Robertson the Elder, of Guay, and the Eik thereto; and by the Testament Dative of his son, John Robertson the Younger, who predeceased him. These documents prove that the senior John Robertson (who would be, in the Kelley theory, synonymous with the father of "John Randolph Robertson") was married to Isobel Rattray, not "Ann Elizabeth Randolph"; and that his son, John (who would, according to the lineage proposed by Mrs. Kelley, be "John Randolph Robertson"), was married to Janet Cameron, not Mary Gower, and died in Scotland, never having emigrated to America.

  2. Further information on this proposed ancestry can be found in Tom's published "The Robertsons of Tennessee: Myth and Reality" [note: this is a PDF file] and the three-part follow-up article, "The Robertsons of Tennessee Revisited" [note: this link is to part one].

Last updated: Wednesday, June 1, 2011

All original material Copyright © 2011 The Estate of Tom Robertson. All rights reserved including those of electronic transmission and reproduction of the material in any format.


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