Seeking Humphrey…..

              The millennium had not long passed when I received an enquiry, as a professional genealogist, to search for the origins of one character. This was an unusual request because family historians tend to be like vacuum cleaners sweeping up all those who have passed before them. Their interest is in multiple personalities, not a single figure.

              Accompanying this request was irrefutable evidence Humphrey had been born in 1615 and immigrated to the new colony Virginia on the ‘America’ in 1635. At 20 years old he had agreed to an Indenture binding him in service for 7 years. His full name was Humphrey Belt and he was born in England.

              My initial reaction was the population might have been slightly less than 5% in 1615 than it is today, but that still left something between five and six million people in England alone. This assumed he was actually born in England and not the other kingdom, principality and settlement which formed the rest of the British Isles.

              The most pressing need was to get some indication of origin, no matter how tenuous, to narrow down the area of research. This was achieved by the Institute of Heraldry Genealogical Research at Canterbury, England. I commissioned a geographic name map in 2000, a process they were then pioneering, for the name of Belt and also Crag(g)(e)(s), the surname of the lady, (Margery) Mary, Humphrey reputedly married prior to 1649.

              The map was formulated from the records of the Church of Latter Day Saints which they had been archiving from Bishops’ Transcripts, Parish Records and donations from interested family genealogists, amateur and professionals, for some fifty years. It could only be a general guide but did show the Belt name as being well known in Yorkshire, scattered across Co. Durham, a smattering across the southern counties including London. Crag(g)(e)(s) produced a surprise in that it was utterly unique to a small area of Co. Durham in the 17th century.

              It seemed most likely Humphrey’s origins were in the north of England, but how did he come to sail on a vessel from Gravesend, then a major port a few miles from central London used for immigration to the New World? How was it his transportation as an indentured servant, who may have been literate (he certainly was later), was financed by the Captain, William Clarke who in recognition of his delivery to Virginia, together with eight others, was granted on 29th September 1636, 450 acres of land in Henrico County, Virginia on the Appomattox River? How did he know the Captain to make such an arrangement?

              Further research produced the two knights of York, William and Robert. They were knighted at different times and had enormous influence on business and trade in York and the surrounding area for several decades, including the years Humphrey lived in England 1615-1635. They also had huge and extended families with members in London. I was able to ascertain they were involved in the wool trade through the Baltic Exchange and were fined for tobacco smuggling which indicates they were receiving cargoes from the New World. Obviously they would have contacts in this business, one of which could well be Captain Clarke. This, though, could not be proved and had to be anecdotal. Unfortunately, due to the paucity of facts about Humphrey’s life, almost everything is within this standard of proof.

              Whilst work continued to understand the set of circumstances which led to Humphrey leaving England which might shed light on his origins, Bishop’s Transcripts, Parish Records, Tax Returns and all the usual public records were searched for any sign of a Humphrey Belt. These included following up ‘sightings’ in London, Cheshire, North and South Wales, Somerset, Avon, Suffolk, Co. Durham and Yorkshire and also Scotland of which there were many fanciful tales. Not every Parish Record was examined in England and Wales, but those that were now number in the hundreds.

              Religion was another avenue and the Society of Friends, the Quakers, the history of the Sojourners, Pilgrims et al was examined, to no avail. We know Humphrey had close associations with people known to be Puritans and may have been one himself; his son John, in Maryland, was married in a Quaker ceremony and held Society of Friends meetings at his home. However, there is no proof Humphrey brought his religious convictions or affialiations with him from England.

              Searching for (Margery), Crag(g)(e)(s) also proved abortive. All that is known for certain about the lady is she came from England. Humphrey received a grant of 220 acres of land on the 8th June 1654 at Linhaven Parish of Lower Norfolk, Virginia for ‘importing’ Margery/Mary and four men. No marriage record is extant but according to a County Notebook, Humphrey married Margery (Mary) Cragges before October 1 1649 because he was given land for his wife. Obviously there has to be a query on the lady because of the length of time before Margery (Mary) arrived and the second land grant of 220 acres five years later. Perhaps administrative and legal delays were the norm then. Of the marriage there were either two or three children produced who survived childhood. His wife was dead, or had disappeared, by the time Humphrey and the children emigrated from Virginia to Maryland in 1663.

              The move from Virginia combined with entries in court records, held at The Guildhall, London for the Virginia Colony, for an action involving John Belt led to much speculation as to whether Humphrey and his family had visited England when leaving Virginia before settling later in Maryland. Land grants were made to Humphrey in Maryland. This created the question of what constituted an Immigrant. One of the Belt family members lives in Washington and has access to some of the finest libraries in the world. The object became to prove ‘The Colonies’ as they were referred to as a legal entity in Britain in the New World, were run and managed by people who perceived the States as independent countries rather than as part as a federation as they were clearly seen in London. As such they would have their own administrative treatment of immigration. E. Belt was able to prove conclusively any person entering the state of Maryland from another place, in this instance Virginia was treated in exactly the same manner as someone arriving from across the world.

              It is true Maryland was a special case insofar as Charles I granted a Charter to Cecil, the second Lord Baltimore in 1632 giving him all the land, islands and water within certain boundaries. The north, east, south and west boundaries were all matters of controversy for the next 250 years, but the Baltimore’s had autonomy to change the rules to suit the exigencies of any situation. The original annual rent for Maryland was two Indian arrows per year and one fifth of all gold and silver ores found; beyond this there were no other obligations.

              In political terms this meant Maryland long before the War of Independence already saw itself as independent with a separate legal jurisdiction. A legal position sanctioned by the Crown. Presumably this had considerable influence on other States as their particular jurisdiction was established. Hitherto this important aspect as an ingredient of the discontent leading to the War of Independence 1785-1782 appears to have been overlooked.

              Be that as it may, it appeared Humphrey probably travelled by ship from the Jamestown area to Maryland and received the land benefits of doing so for himself and his children. Coupled with the sale of his property in Virginia, he was clearly becoming a man of substance.

              When I was first approached to join the search for Humphrey by Walter E. Belt Junior of Texas, Internet genealogy was in its infancy. Walter had a family ‘Team’ of about five people and he coupled his request with the plea I try to find his ancestor before he reached the age of eighty years. Walter’s about midway to being ninety now, but he has been, and is, the inspiration behind one of the most remarkable collaborations of the century so far; one that could never have happened without the invention of the Internet.

              Over the years, the Belt Team and Belt Campus as we came to call it has become a byword for genealogical scholarship of the highest standard. I ceased to act in a professional capacity many years ago having become an ‘Honorary Belt’ and as the membership of the known family grew across the world. There are now members in the United States, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. As people have joined the group so their information has become part of the story. Amazingly, many of the canards about Humphrey’s origins which we laid to rest years ago still crop up in their histories and to counter this direction is given to the website which will update anyone on the current status and details of family members of the Belt family tree.

              There have been several Belt family projects, but the latest is undoubtedly the most exciting and this is a DNA map. The intention is to try and pinpoint the direct line from Humphrey Belt, especially by comparing it with that of anyone who is a direct male descendent from Sir Robert Belt of York. By isolating the different groups it is hoped we can get closer to the place of origin for this most elusive of ancestors. This project is being managed by J. D. Belt who lives in New Zealand, email address contactbutton through Family Tree DNA
              We need a male Belt with a proven family descent from Sir Robert to take a free DNA test and any information about the Belt family earlier than Sir Robert would be very welcome indeed. If you are the man we are looking for contact JD and he will arrange to pay for your DNA test. Any family members who read this and want more information will also find a warm welcome on ‘Campus’. There is only one golden rule; all information is freely shared, whether about family history or general research useful to all historians.

              If Humphrey’s origins are never found it will certainly be a disappointment to his descendents but this will never detract from the inspiration he has provided for a family to come together again across the world and centuries enjoying this quest for enduring friendship and knowledge.

Global Rights: Dione M. Coumbe LL.B (Hons.) Feb. 2008