In Search of the Origins of Daniel Murphree

Daniel Murphree may have been an immigrant, perhaps from Ireland.  We know there were many other Irish who immigrated into North Carolina prior to the Revolution.   However, that doesn’t explain why we first find him in an area heavily populated with native-born Americans and relatively few immigrants.  The fact that the Bertie County area of North Carolina was settled mainly by Virginians forces us to consider the possibility that he may have been a second-generation American, descended from some earlier immigrant to Virginia or some other colony.

In fact, that is a distinct possibility.

Variations on the Surname

The spellings we know today — Murphy and Murphree — were relatively uncommon in the first hundred years of Virginia records.   The Virginia colonial patent books show an impressive number of immigrants whose names are rendered as diversely as Merfree, Morfrey, Murfrey, Murfrye and even Murferry in addition to the more obvious Murfree and Murphree.   Early county records also render the surname mainly as Murfrey, Murfery, Murfree, and Murfry and rarely as Murphree.  To my consternation, I also found numerous cases where the same person appears in records with the name spelled both with and without the “r” that distinguishes Murphry from Murphy.   In the Isle of Wight records cited below, for instance, Murfrey was on several occasions rendered as Murfy or Murphy.

A Few Early Virginians

One of the earliest of the name was Edward Murfrey who, with a partner named Thomas Vaughn, patented a large tract in York (later Westmoreland) County in 1643.   An Edward Murferry, likely the same person, was claimed as a headright in a 1649 patent for land in York County.   However by 1649 Edward Murfrey, like many immigrants of the time, had died without heirs and his land descended to his partner Vaughn. Even earlier, a James Merfee was a headright for a 1637 patent in New Norfolk County.  And a James Morfrey was claimed as a headright in a 1658 patent for land in New Kent County.  Within a generation or two the numbers of these immigrants increased significantly.  By the early 1700s the patent books contain the names of several persons named Murfrey, MurphryMurphrey and similar variants on the name.

Narrowing the Search by Geography

Let’s narrow our focus to Murphrees in the counties on the south side of the James River which were prime suppliers of the early population of northeastern North Carolina — especially the counties of Lower Norfolk, Nansemond, and Isle of Wight.   (Nansemond County, now defunct and largely replaced by the city of Suffolk, originally lay between Lower Norfolk and Isle of Wight.) In 1700 these counties bordered North Carolina above what was then Chowan and Bertie.   In fact, the border between Nansemond and Isle of Wight (the part that later became Southampton County) was about 25 miles north-northeast of where we first find Daniel Murphree in 1743.    An obvious migration path into Bertie County at that time would have been down the Blackwater (or the Nottoway) into the Chowan River, then just a few miles west to the Cashie River and Wahton Swamp.

Murphree Immigrants South of the James

The earliest of these is one “Danll. Murfery” — a name that commands immediate interest — who was one of 14 headrights claimed by John Marshall in a 1665 patent for land in Isle of Wight County, Virginia.1   That is, of course, much too early to be  our man, but the similarity of names is intriguing.   Unfortunately, the deed records for Isle of Wight are missing for nearly another twenty-five years, and essentially all the court records of the time are also lost.  Thus it is no surprise that we can find no further mention of Daniel Murfery in Isle of Wight records.

John Murfrey was settled in Nansemond County by 1680.  In that year John Murfrey patented land adjacent to land he already owned and on which his “dwelling house” stood, for transportation of himself.2  His land is mentioned in at a subsequent patent, which helps us to place it as just west of the present-day city of Portsmouth.   Unfortunately, Nansemond records are non-existent so we have no idea how long he may have been living there by 1680.    Five years later a John Murfrey Junr. , apparently his son, patented 650 acres in Nansemond County in right of his wife Susanna, orphan of Thomas Francis.3   Ten years later in 1695, as plain John Murfrey (no “Junr.”), he received 80 acres adjoining that patent.4

In 1711 John and Benjamin Goodwin patented a tract in Nansemond County which adjoined the lands of  John Yeates and Daniel Murfrey.5  Since the county’s records were burned in 1866, we do not know when or how Daniel Murfrey acquired that land.  John Yeates received his own patent at the same time, but his grant mentioned only a Lewis Powell as an adjoining landowner.   We can locate the land on Knott’s Creek just west of the present-day city of Portsmouth and within walking distance of the land that John Murfrey  had  patented back in 1680.   Whether this was the same Daniel Murfrey claimed as a headright in 1665 is anyone’s guess.   It seems unlikely, as no such person was listed as a landowner among the 1704 quit rents.    Whoever Daniel Murfrey was, he must have acquired the land after 1704.

Finally, an Alexander Murfrey was living in adjacent Lower Norfolk County in 1691 when a patent to Hugh Campbell mentioned him as an adjoining landowner.6  He was still a landowner there as late as the 1704 Quit Rents. The only other Murphree in the 1704 Quit Rents for Virginia was a Wm. Marfry in Isle of Wight (more on him in a moment).  Whether the aforementioned Murphrees died or left the area by 1704, or whether they were simply omitted from the list, is unknown.

The Search (Continued)

A highly plausible theory is that Daniel Murphree was descended from a Murphree of Nansemond County.  This is explored in the next page:   Nansemond Murfreys and the Queen Connection

Another alternative, that I think is less likely, is that he was related in some way to a Murfrey family in Isle of Wight County.



  1. Virginia Patent Book 5, p252. []
  2. Virginia Patent Book  7, p37. []
  3. Virginia Patent Book 7, p455. []
  4. Virginia Patent Book 8, p442. []
  5. Virginia Patent Book 10, p28. []
  6. Virginia Patent Book 9, p200. []