Thomas Norcliffe Jones (1800 – 1867)

Thomas Norcliffe Jones Gravestone

Thomas Gravestone at Shockoe Cemetery

Thomas Norcliffe Jones (1800 – 1867)
The Welsh immigrated to America in relatively small numbers as compared to the Irish and Scots, Germans and Dutch, but they did migrate. The largest majority of Welsh immigrants arriving in the United States in the 19th century came through Utica, New York, Pittsburg Pennsylvania, and in later waves to Nevada and Utah. There was absolutely nothing in Richmond, Virginia in the era just after the War of 1812 to lure an “average” Welshman. Upon further consideration, there were more than a few things working against Richmond, as compared with places like New York, Philadelphia, or Boston.

For instance; Richmond, even in those first decades following the Revolution, was already beginning to feel “antebellum”. The city was small and isolated compared to her aforementioned northern kin. In her isolation she was already taking on that aura of southern self-superiority; a pretense to a uniquely southern version of aristocracy that in later decades she’d become so (in)famous for.

Richmond – unlike New York, Philadelphia, and Boston – was no longer a city of immigrants. While it seems almost absurd to a European today to consider a heritage of three or four generations “old”, Richmond (and the whole state of Virginia for that matter), took considerable pride in her “Old Dominion” lineage. Her “old” families could claim their residency in Virginia going back to the seventeenth century. For them that was something quite distinctive. By the 1820’s anyone arriving in Richmond with an accent was permanently labeled an “immigrant” (even if his accent was “Boston Brogue”). He and his progeny were doomed to dwell on the outskirts of the clannish “Old Virginia” community.

Richmond had no industry to speak of in those early days. Its only vitality was as a port town situated on the James River. Like every other place of any significance in the world, its location was predestined by an accident of geography; the James River crosses a fault line creating a series of treacherous rapids in the river. In 1607 Captain Christopher Newport and his band of explorers disembarked their canoes at the cataract of the James near the area of what is now Richmond in the place then known as “Shokoe”. They found a large and bustling town already there; a central capital of the Powhatan Confederacy. Captain Newport and his companions made themselves at home, helping themselves to the Indians food and hospitality. A few years later, after many of the Indians had been killed off by violence and disease, white colonists from Jamestown built log cabins on the banks of the James at Shokoe and carved out small farms and early tobacco plantations.

The rapids that Newport encountered in 1607 form a natural barrier to traffic moving downriver to the Chesapeake Bay and traffic moving upriver toward the inland areas of central Virginia. It’s a choke point that created a perfect trade zone, first for the Powhatan nation, and later for the white colonists. By 1820 Richmond was home base to warehouse owners and shipping interests who thrived on traffic and supplies going in both directions. The town became a center of commerce between massive tobacco and cotton plantations to the west and the big-city buyers in the northeast of the United States and abroad. In the year 1832, not long after Thomas arrived, the total population of Richmond and its outlying neighborhoods was 28,798 persons; including 13,474 whites, 12,279 slaves, and 3049 free blacks.[2] The population breakdown is striking; almost half the population of this city exists in lifelong, perpetual bondage, with no opportunity for self-determination whatsoever.

A large and profitable part of Richmond’s’ commerce involved slaving and slaves; some imported directly from Africa, some from holding zones in the Caribbean Islands, some “bred” as a unique sort of “cash crop” on breeding plantations in Virginia. Shockoe Bottom, the oldest part of town, served as Richmond’s slave market; the busiest one north of New Orleans. It’s estimated that just between 1830 and 1840, more than 10,000 slaves per year (100,000) were sold or traded from the market at Shockoe to work on plantations in inland Virginia, or sent into the Deep South to work in cotton, rice, and sugar.  Shockoe Bottom also has the notorious distinction as hosting the burial ground for thousands of enslaved Africans, including an untold number who died in holding at the market while awaiting their sorrowful fate. [3]

Today we look upon this period in American history as if was nothing more than a terrible nightmare to be shaken off and forgotten. The reality is harder to swallow. America’s origins are hard and brutal. The place itself was so remote and isolated from the rest of the so-called civilized world, that it gradually evolved its own unique systems and rationalized ethics in order to deal with and overcome insurmountable challenges; slavery was one of those systems.

Slavery went on unchecked for as long as it did because the south was considered a social and cultural backwater that didn’t really matter to the rest of the United States – except as a location for the extraction of natural resources and commodities in order to feed (as cheaply as possible) the growing demands from political and financial centers in the northeast of the United States, and abroad.

In that one respect the American South was exactly like Wales.

If Wales was a backwater as compared to the rest of Europe, then this place “Virginia” was cast off the far edge of the Universe. When Thomas Norcliffe disembarked at Shockoe, he stepped into a world that was so far removed from his concept of civilization that it may as well have been another planet.

He left a nation that was decimated by industrial pollution, with cities crowded cheek by jowl with overpopulation. Virginia was still relatively pristine and thinly populated, as its native population had been exterminated by violence and disease one hundred years earlier. He left a nation that was struggling with the concept of libertarianism, demanding civil rights, and organizing the first effective labor movements. Richmond was the capital of a slave-based economy that conversely claimed to be the origin of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the birthplace of Democracy.

The duality of the place must have struck him as almost schizophrenic. He had to have marveled at the yawning gulf of disparity between the privileged upper class aristocrats and the lower class “poor whites”, as compared to the Africans (who were as debased and miserable as anything he ever could have imagined in his worst nightmares.) He had to have asked himself what kind of madmen ran the place!

What did he think? We can’t ever really know. His initial impression of the social order and civic morality of the society must have been shocking – if not absolutely horrifying.

There are so many questions that we cannot know the answers to. What we do know is that Thomas Norcliffe Jones applied for citizenship in the United States in 1840 and won it in 1843 after renouncing all allegiance to “…any foreign princes, potentates, and… particularly to Queen Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland…” I know that in his application he indicated that his trade was that of a stone mason; which is an absolute fabrication. (If he was a stone mason, then Merthyr Tydfill was also a “paradise”!)

I know that he married a widow named Margaret Dickey (maiden named White), and they had two children together; my great-great-grandfather William Ellis Jones, and a daughter named Mary who died in childhood. I know that Thomas Norcliffe died in 1867 and is buried at Shockoe Cemetery in Richmond; just steps from where he would have first disembarked the vessel that carried him inland from his month-long Atlantic Crossing from Wales.

Here’s what little I think I know about Thomas Norcliffe Jones. According to my grandfather, William Ellis Jones (who was his great-great-grandson), he left his Methodist affiliations behind him in Wales and joined the Presbyterian Church in Richmond; a more conservative union than the laissez faire southern Methodists (who were an altogether different breed than their fiery Welsh cousins.) He was a pious Christian and staunchly orthodox in terms of his religious views, though somewhat inexplicably we know for certain fact that he was also a slaveholder – a situation that would have appalled his relations in Wales.

Beyond these spare details, there’s not much else to do but speculate about his motivations and aspirations in coming to Virginia.

If he was, like so many other immigrants who came to America, trying to escape something, the following are a few things that I’ve contrived as likely possibilities:

  • His brother William’s fame and the shadow he felt it cast upon him, or…
  • His brothers (both William and John Ellis) radicalism and incessant agitating and obsession with politics, or…
  •  The political and social climate in Wales, which – at the point of his departure from the country – was on the constant brink of violent revolt.

We know he wasn’t escaping poverty or unemployment. His family was well-off, owned property and printing firms all over Wales. Any number of them would have put him in a good situation with a future if he’d wanted that.

We know that Thomas Norcliffe was not ambitious. He wasn’t a dreamer seeking fame and fortune. After arriving in Richmond he kept a simple shop in a neighborhood north of the main city where he sold dry goods, cloth, and hardware. He wasn’t active in the community; not a Mason or a member of any of the large variety of societies that thrived in Richmond’s very energetic social landscape. He was a member of the Presbyterian Union, but he departed from its staunch Puritanical views where it suited him. He educated his son as he had been educated; in the classical study of Latin and Greek, mathematics, and classic literature. He bought a good deal of land all around the growing city, and over time consolidated his holdings until he was well-off financially, situating himself firmly into the upper “middle class” of Richmond’s economically divided population. He was a “have” among a majority population of “have nots”.

He brought slaves into his household to serve the family, despite everything he’d been exposed to in Wales (a nation which leaned toward a more literal definition of the concepts of freedom and liberty than the one actually practiced in the United States.)

As a father to his son William, he was dedicated. As a Virginian he staked no substantial claim. As a Richmonder, all that is left of him is his gravestone in what is now a very bad part of that very troubled city.

If my reader detects that I am harsh in judgment against the character of my ancestor, he is correct. I find it incomprehensible that a man with his background could arrive in a new country in the 19th century and settle on the conclusion that it was alright to own slaves. He knew better. Unlike the vast majority of “old” Virginians (of whom I am descended on my maternal side), he was, by birth and association, deeply inculcated into a more progressive and morally leveled philosophy.  They (the old Virginians) had an excuse; they’d never known anything different over the course of four or five generations. Their logic and morality was selective and skewed, but at least they could fall back on the position of “tradition” as a final refuge.

Thomas Norcliffe Jones knew better. He’d seen the desperation of workers in the coal fields, the misery of child labor at the iron foundries at Merthyr. He’d seen the oppression and the degradation of his own people under the boot of aristocratic “masters”. He saw firsthand the unrest and revolts fomenting in Wales as a result of brutal disenfranchisement of an increasingly more disaffected population. Still he allowed himself to settle into the role of slave-owner. His decision; as a Welshman, as an educated man, as a Bible-thumping Presbyterian, is a complete mystery to me. If there was any real morality that the pious Thomas Norcliffe Jones faithfully adhered to, it was the morality of expediency and convenience.

Thomas Norcliffe was in my opinion, a hypocrite of epic proportions who sold out everything his family had struggled toward, for the convenience of not having to clean up his own messes, do his own laundry, or cook his own food. The greater evil is that he participated in (supported!) a practice that systematically dismantled the lives and hopes of half the population and inevitably lead to the fracturing of the Union – socially, economically, politically, spiritually, and civilly.

The greatest evil of all is that he raised his only son to believe in that corrupt and doomed system so passionately that his son was willing to risk his life to preserve it.

Thomas Norcliffe landed in Richmond at least ten years before his next closest cousins, Richard Evan Jones and Lewis Evan Jones, made their journey across the Atlantic. We know that there was some contact between the relocated families in America, and we have to presume that there was contact between Thomas and his family in Wales. However, with thousands of miles, oceans and vast unsettled landscapes separating him from his relatives in every direction, communication was difficult and maintaining real, meaningful relationships was impossible.

Thomas Norcliffe was cast away from everything and everyone familiar. His immigration to Virginia marks the first and most permanent breach between the blood relations of this family in centuries, maybe the first in a thousand years.

It’s at this point of irrevocable physical and psychological breach that the struggle for the American way of life begins.

 No Time for Romance
Given what we know of Thomas Norcliffe Jones, I feel safe in assuming he was not a romantic. Which is a shame, given that he was well-educated, young and handsome in a city that was – if you could glance past the slave markets and avoid the gallows at the courthouse square – one of the most beautiful, enchanting, romantic little towns in the western hemisphere.

Even as early as 1820, when Thomas Norcliffe would first have been resident there, the city’s many grand homes, all different but equally lavishly furnished with every manner of fine thing, each one complimented by lush, rambling gardens, were a testament to Richmond’s extravagant wealth and gentle, neo-aristocratic tastes. Her public buildings were rambling stone marvels, designed by the most eminent architects of the day. They were built to a style and scale whose sole purpose was to inspire awe in the heart of anyone who passed through their halls. The city’s streets were paved with brick and granite cobbles, and her walkways were lined with majestic trees forming broad shaded canopies under which happy, well-to-do people promenaded from neighbor to neighbor, taking part in Richmond’s greatest industry – socializing.

The place simply oozed with a certain sort of dilatorius confidence. She wasn’t in a rush to accomplish anything at all. She didn’t need to; she was beautiful and rich and charming. In those grand old days of the American South, what more could any handsome young man with a few coins in his pocket ask for?

But Thomas Norcliffe Jones was not a romantic, and the city of Richmond, with all her pretty pretensions and coquettish charms, didn’t impress him. He had serious things on his mind. He was a serious man.

Like his father, David Ellis Jones, Thomas didn’t determine to marry until he was financially established. When he did choose a wife it was a practical matter. Instead of choosing a local Richmond belle, he selected a girl from sturdy Irish heritage. It’s likely that neither of them were particularly romantic, as she was probably close to 30 years old when they married. Her name was Margaret White, and she was born in Ballymena, in the parish of Racavan, in Ireland in 1806. Before Margaret left Ireland for Virginia, she’d probably seen enough of famine, plague, violence, and destitution to fill a hundred novels. Her choice to leave Ireland isn’t hard to fathom – it was an escape. That is the story of the Irish in America. It’s a consistent one from Boston and New York, to New Orleans, and even to the remote northern “suburbs” of Richmond, Virginia. The Irish were the epitome of an oppressed people fleeing to a new country in order to find the simplest things; work and bread. Despite it all they kept their humor and made the most of the immigrant experience. In many respects America’s contemporary character has taken more from the adaptable and indomitable spirit of the Irish than it has from its more stoic, rigid English ancestors.

That said, Margaret was originally from at least a little bit of English blood – and a protestant. (I know this because Thomas, with his fire and brimstone, reformed church views would have been deeply anti-Catholic.) Somewhere way, way back in her line was a father of good old, reformed church, English stock who had been imported to Ireland by the likes of Sir Walter Raleigh or his brother Humphrey Gilbert. This would have been during the early waves of brutal subordination of the “Savage Celts” and English colonization of that rebellious and difficult island, whose unhappy result is only in our lifetime starting to find reconciliation.

Thomas and Margaret had that much in common; a disdain for the British. They were both immigrants in a town that wasn’t particularly fond of foreigners. Beyond that, it’s impossible to know what the attraction between them was, but it probably had as much to do with expediency and convenience as anything else.

Given her age, Margaret’s late marriage to Thomas Norcliffe Jones was certainly a fortunate match. I think perhaps that it was at least as fortunate for Thomas as it was for Margaret.

Primary Source: The Baby Book | William Ellis Jones Jr. Family History, By William Ellis Jones, Jr. (1936)

2] American Almanac and Repository of Useful Knowledge for the Year 1832, Boston | Gray and Bowen

3] Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality – The Significance of Shockoe Bottom


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