25. The True Parentage of Ralph Lewis, of Darby Township, Chester (now Delaware) County, Pennsylvania

The material below is treated at greater length, with full references, in the Omnibus Ancestry (available for download at Lulu).

In 1683 Ralph Lewis emigrated from Wales to Pennsylvania. He took with him a Certificate of Removal from the Friends’ (Quaker) Men’s Meeting for Cardiff and Treverig, co. Glamorgan, stating that he was leaving with John ap Bevan (John Bevan). Shortly before, while in Wales, Ralph had purchased Pennsylvania land from John, at which time he was described as a resident of “Illan”; i.e., Eglwysilan parish. The removal certificate was signed by a man named Thomas Prichard, among others [1,2].

Footpath and Stream Near Eglwysilan

By 1691 Ralph had settled in Darby (now Upper Darby) township, then in Chester county but now part of Delaware county, Pennsylvania. He appeared in the records of the Quaker meeting in Haverford township, (now) Delaware county, and owned land there and in the townships of Upper Darby and Lower Merion (now in Montgomery county). His will was made in 1712 when he was still a resident of (Upper) Darby, and he died that same year. Ralph left many descendants through his large family of 9 children, 8 of whom lived to married adulthood [1,2].

The Contribution of Thomas Allen Glenn

The identity of Ralph Lewis’ parents has long tantalized genealogists, not least because of his known place of origin and his association with John Bevan, a Pennsylvania Quaker of known royal descent [3]. In the late 19th century, the genealogist Thomas Allen Glenn took up this problem, initially concluding that Ralph’s father was another Ralph Lewis, whose 1683 will indicated he was of Llanishen, co. Glamorgan [4]. Glenn’s rationale was unexplained, but because the will did not name sons, was probably based on nothing more than the testator’s name and the proximity of Llanishen to Eglwysilan.

More importantly to the possibility of royal descent, however, Glenn concluded that the immigrant Ralph’s mother was a Prichard:

She must have been Ann Prichard, as Thomas Prichard is called Uncle, by William [Lewis] in letter to Ralph, and for a number of minor reasons all of which make me consider this as proved and beyond question. [4]

It is through a Prichard connection that John Bevan has a traceable royal descent. He was the son of Evan John, of Treverig, co. Glamorgan, and his wife Jane Prichard, the sister of Ann and Thomas Prichard. The Prichards were the children of Richard ab Evan, of Collenna, co. Glamorgan, and his wife Catharine Bassett [1,2,4]. Then, by tracing a number of additional generations, they are found to be descendants of Edward III, King of England [1,2,3].

In subsequent years Glenn changed his mind about the father of Ralph Lewis. In 1913, as part of a much larger work, he published a brief account of the family in which he stated that there was “evidence amounting almost to a certainty” that Ralph Lewis of Pennsylvania was the son of one David Lewis, of Eglwysilan [5]. To my knowledge, however, Glenn never reported the nature of that evidence.

The Publication of Withers-Davis Ancestry

Leading up to the publication of the Withers-Davis Ancestry in 1998, which included a treatment of the Lewis family, I was intensely concerned with acquiring whatever evidence was to be had on the subject of Ralph Lewis’ ancestry. For a time I maintained a round-robin mail discussion among Lewis researchers that unearthed a number of publications and manuscripts.

In retrospect, the most important document found in this discovery process was the letter alluded to by Glenn. It was found transcribed in three different sources, two in unpublished form (one manuscript and one typescript) and one in published typeset form. The letter was written in 1684 “from Ilan” by William Lewis to his “Dear Brother” Ralph Lewis. It mentioned “thy t[w]o sisters” and that “Thy Brother David doth Remember himselfe to thee” [6].

The critical passage that Glenn had noticed was transcribed most clearly by the highly-regarded local historian and genealogist Gilbert Cope, working from a photograph of the original, and had been published in 1887 [6]:

Remember me to my Loveing frind John ab Evan, for his Chilldren were Sike and now they are well. youre unkel thomas prichard were ded and mary william. [6,8]

Based on this letter and a number of other records, including (a) a substantial list of associations of Ralph Lewis with John Bevan, and (b) evidence that Thomas Prichard had married an heiress, I concluded that Ralph was a blood nephew of Thomas, and accordingly that Glenn was right in concluding that his mother was Thomas’ sister [2]. Furthermore, because previous pedigrees of the Prichard family named only one sister whose marriage was not given:

It is likely that her given name was Anne, although this seems somewhat less certain in that it is unclear whether the known list of siblings … is exhaustive in nature. [2]

The question of Ralph’s father, however, seemed even less certain given that Glenn had not named his sources or even stated the basis of his opinion that his father was named David. After equivocating on how best to represent this situation, I named his father as David, citing Glenn as the source, but noted that:

… evidence that the father was David Lewis is weaker than evidence that the mother was a sister of Thomas Prichard. [2]

The volume then traced the extensive noble and royal ancestry of the Prichard family.

Residual Doubt

I was reasonably certain that a sister of Thomas Prichard was the mother of Ralph Lewis, but a small residual doubt remained in my mind following publication. It was triggered by the ordering of the statements in the critical paragraph of the William Lewis letter. Specifically, “Remember me to my Loveing frind John ab Evan” preceded “youre unkel thomas prichard were ded”. There seemed to me a small possibility that when William used the term “youre unkel”, he was addressing himself to John ab Evan (John Bevan). Bevan, of course, was indeed the nephew of Thomas Prichard, his mother Jane having been Thomas’ sister.

To be sure, taking this alternate interpretation would involve accepting some syntactic gymnastics within the paragraph. Between the statements “Remember me to my Loveing frind John ab Evan” and “youre unkel thomas prichard were ded” was inserted the wording “his Chilldren were Sike and now they are well”, so if a change occurred in mid-paragraph in who was being addressed, the transition between “his Children” and “youre unkel” was jarring. Although the alternate interpretation was judged unlikely, it nevertheless remained within the realm of possibility.

The True Father of Ralph Lewis

While preparing to publish the Omnibus Ancestry, I revisited the issue of Ralph Lewis’ parentage, concentrating my efforts on wills. Initial searches using the Lewis surname were fruitless, replicating Glenn’s unsuccessful search.

But then I hit on the possibility that Lewis may not have been a true surname as Glenn had assumed, but rather a patronymic, a name based on the name of his father. In 17th-century Wales, a process was underway in which patronymics were being converted to permanent surnames. Thus the Prichards derived their permanent surname from “ap Richard” (i.e., “son of Richard”, as borne by the children of Richard ab Evan). But the process had just begun. In some families it would not be completed until the 19th century [7]. I reasoned, therefore, that Ralph Lewis might have been the son of a man with Lewis as given name rather than surname.

So it was that I found the true father of Ralph Lewis. In his will, Lewis William named, among other sons, Raulph Lewis, David Lewis, and William Lewis — all known from the 1684 letter. Two daughters Gwenllian Lewis and Elizabeth Lewis were also named — the 1684 letter, of course, mentioning to Ralph “thy t[w]o sisters”. The final proof of identity was the naming by Lewis of “Mary William my wife”. As William Lewis had indicated in his 1684 letter, “youre unkel thomas prichard were ded and mary william” [1]. Without a doubt, Lewis William was the father of Ralph Lewis of Darby township.

The True Mother of Ralph Lewis

How William Lewis chose to convey news of the death of Mary William is of central importance to this story. He didn’t lead off his letter by saying “our dear mother is dead”. Indeed, Mary’s death was almost an afterthought, inserted as a postscript at the end of a letter that began by describing the good health of Ralph Lewis’ brothers and sisters and their families. Even John Bevan’s children and uncle Thomas Prichard’s death received priority over poor Mary William.

Because no son would announce the death of his mother so offhandedly, there can be very little question that Mary was the stepmother, not mother, of both William and Ralph. As their stepmother, it could well be the case that neither brother felt a strong emotional attachment to her, particularly if she had married their father relatively late in life and he had long been deceased when the letter was written.

But Mary William’s mention at the end of the critical paragraph has another, rather profound implication. Because she had a relationship by marriage to Ralph Lewis, but none at all to John Bevan, her naming indicates that the entirety of the paragraph was addressed to Ralph. If syntactic gymnastics are required to assume a shift of address from Ralph to John Bevan, as suggested above, then the shift back to Ralph within a single sentence (“youre unkel thomas prichard were ded and mary william”) is simply impossible. Thus by William Lewis’ own testimony, Thomas Prichard had to have been Ralph Lewis’ uncle. Glenn was right in this.

But what was the given name of Ralph’s Prichard mother? As mentioned, Glenn and I had both assumed that her name was Anne, because she was the only Prichard sister in existing pedigrees whose marriage was not given.

Here, once again, Welsh wills proved to have something to say. The father of the family, Richard ab Evan, made his will naming among other relatives his daughters Anne, Katherin, Marie, and Flourance Prichard [1]. Because Anne was still alive in 1671/2, while Lewis William died previously, she obviously could not have been Lewis’ first wife. But the letter carries a further implication, because the previously-mentioned pedigrees naming the children of Richard ab Evan did not include daughters named Katherin or Flourance [1,2]. Neither of those could have been Lewis’ first wife for the same reason that Anne could not have been. But their existence raises the possibility that Richard ab Evan had one or more daughters, deceased and not named in the will, who also did not appear in the pedigrees.

That is how I prefer to leave it, with the mother of Ralph Lewis a Prichard of unknown given name, but certainly one of the daughters of Richard ab Evan and his wife Catharine Basset. Assuming that she was a daughter not yet identified, Ralph Lewis and John Bevan were first cousins.

Nevertheless, there is another intriguing possibility worth noting. As mentioned, John Bevan was the son of Evan John and his wife Jane Prichard. The dates of death of both parents are unknown. It is possible, therefore, that Jane was widowed by the death of Evan John, and married as her second husband Lewis William. In other words, Ralph Lewis may have been John Bevan’s half brother through a shared mother. That would certainly account for the known close associations between Ralph and John [2].

This speculative raw material, unfortunately, must be left to future workings of The Genealogist’s Craft. Until then descendants of Ralph Lewis may claim descent from King Edward III through his unknown Prichard mother.  That descent, and many others of Ralph Lewis, are given in the Omnibus Ancestry (available for download at Lulu).


[1] Boles, D.B. (2016). The Omnibus Ancestry: 589 Documented American and European Lines, 2nd ed. Available for download through Lulu.

[2] Boles, D.B., & Boles, H.W. (1998). Withers-Davis Ancestry. Decorah, Iowa: The Anundsen Publishing Co. Available for order from Bolesbooks.

[3] Richardson, D. (2011). Plantagenet Ancestry. Salt Lake City, Utah: private print.

[4] Glenn, T.A. (1899). Lewis. Typescript, Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania.

[5] Glenn, T.A. (1913). Welsh Founders of Pennsylvania. Oxford: Fox, Jones and Co.

[6] Cope, G. (1887). Genealogy of the Sharpless Family. Philadelphia: Dando Printing and Publishing Co.

[7] Rowlands, S. (1994). The surnames of Wales. In J. Rowlands (Ed.), Welsh Family History: A Guide to Research. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., pp. 57-72.

[8] The original letter, Cope indicated, had been in the possession of a Dr. George Smith, of Upper Darby, whose widow was a descendant of Ralph Lewis. Its present whereabouts is unknown, assuming it is extant at all.

Picture attribution:

Image Copyright Gareth James. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic Licence. To view a copy of this licence, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, Cali



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