Early Witts in America

There are no records at all of anyone named “Witt” in Virginia prior to the appearance of John Witt of Charles City County.

Whitts Turn Out to be Whites

However, there are a number of early records of persons named “Whitt”, who have been assumed to be “Witts” by some genealogists.  Upon inspection, these persons invariably turn out to be named “White”. Some examples:

  • The Jamestown muster of February 1623/4 contains no one named White but four persons named Whitt.  One of them, William “Whitt” of Elizabeth Cittie is listed as William “White” in the muster of February 1624/5 as having died in September 1624. Two of the others were recorded as “White” in the muster of February 1624/5.1  “Jereme Whitt” became “Jeremy White” and “Edmund Whitt” became “Edward White”.   Both men were listed in James City in both musters. (Edward White is listed in 1625 as having arrived in the colony in 1620, proving that he was the same person as “Edmund Whitt”.)2  Of the fourth man there is no sign in the muster a year later in 1625.
  • John “Whitt” of Stafford County, Virginia received a patent in 1670 but a later record of that patent calls him John “White”.3
  • Nicholas White of 17th century Accomack County, Virginia occasionally appears in records as “Whitt”, and once with both spellings in the same record.   His will, in fact, makes a bequest to his uncle Samuel “Whitt” in England and was signed as Nicholas “Whitte”.4   (A similar situation exists with a Lewis White of Accomack, whose name was occasionally spelled “Whitt”.)
  • In late 17th century Jamaica, New York both William White and Peter White are frequently referred to as “Whitt” and even signed their own names on occasion as “Whitt”.5

Prior to the late 17th century the spelling of one’s surname was widely regarded as flexible.  Sir Walter Raleigh, for example, spelled his own name more than a dozen different ways (but never once as “Raleigh”).   By the turn of the 18th century spellings were becoming more uniform, but records as late as the early and mid 17th century are rife with examples of remarkably casual, and sometimes imaginative, spellings of surnames.   It appears to be the case that most occurrences of “Whitt” were simply an alternative spelling of “White”, while “Witt” was a different surname altogether.

By the mid-18th century, when two of the sons of John Witt adopted the name “Whitt”, spelling had become a bit more important as an identifier, although as the brothers illustrated there was no legal barrier to adoption of whatever spelling one favored.

First Witt in America Settled in Massachusetts

The earliest known “Witt” in America is a John Witt who was in Massachusetts by the 1640s, perhaps earlier. It’s interesting that descendants of that family believe that John Witt was an Englishman of Dutch Heritage. (That is, that family has no legends of French origin.)   This John Witt died in 1675 leaving a will naming children with the distinctly English names of John, Thomas, Ann, Elizabeth, Sarah, Mary, and Martha.6   During the genealogy craze of the late 1800s and early 1900s, some members of this family changed their name to DeWitt in the belief that their ancestor was descended from a Dutch family of that name.

  1. “Jereme Whitt” and Edmund Whitt” were listed among the living at James Cittie in the muster of 16 February 1623/4. A year later in the muster of 2 February 1624/5 the names at James Cittie included “Jeremy White” and “Edward White”. Since the 1625 muster listed Edward White as arriving in 1620 he must have been the same person as “Edmund Whitt”. Likewise with Jeremy White. []
  2. The Original Lists of Persons of Quality, John Camden Hotten, p233. Also listed in Ship Passenger Lists, the South (1538-1825). Carl Boyer 3rd, ed., p53. []
  3. See separate page. []
  4. Virginia Colonial Abstracts, Vol. 1, p90 for the will, other pages for other records as “White”. []
  5. Historical Miscellany, Charles T. Gritman, Vol. 2 (“Records of the Town of Jamaica, Long Island”), p763, 800, 819, 820, 837, 869, etc. []
  6. See New England Families, Genealogical and Memorial (1913), William Richard Cutter, ed., Vol.3, pp1156-1158 for an interesting discussion of this family. []