Friday, March 14, 2014

Another Vance of the Past: Gilbert Vance, fl.1630-1641

Was a man named Gilbert Vance in counties Cavan and Fermanagh one of the first Scottish Vance immigrants into Ireland?

In the early 1600s the British started a massive immigration program of Scottish and other Protestant settlers into the north of Ireland in what would become known as the Plantation of Ulster.  The large Protestant landlords were required to keep the names of the able-bodied settlers that they could assemble to fight if the need arose, and these "Muster Rolls" have survived for 1630.

In that year Sir Francis Hamilton, a Scottish knight and baronet, listed Gilbert Vance among his men in the Barony of Tulknock (Tullyhunco) in County Cavan, near its border with County Fermanagh.  While the men on these lists were mostly of Scottish origins, nothing is really known of Gilbert's background except that his "sword and musket" were available to fight in the Protestant cause.  

Ireland's counties, showing Fermanagh (now in Northern Ireland)
and Cavan (now in the Republic of Ireland)

Then in 1641 the local Catholic populations rebelled and a short bloody uprising followed.  Sir Francis Hamilton and his men were forced to flee, and only regained their barony in the 1660s.  

In the years after 1641, the British government collected witness testimonies from (mainly Protestant) locals documenting the loss of goods and alleged crimes committed by the rebels.  These "1641 Depositions" have also survived and have recently been digitized by Trinity College in Dublin and are available on their website here.  

A Gilbert Vance is mentioned in two separate depositions describing the same event in 1641.  While there is no proof that it is the same Gilbert Vance as the one from the 1630 Muster Rolls, the events described in the depositions took place in County Fermanagh less than 30 miles from the Barony of Tullyhunco, and it is certainly likely that an able-bodied Protestant man of arms would have been a focus for the rebels' rage.  

The deposition of Thomas Wenslowe was given in January of 1644, and he tells that in 1641,
one Rory MacBrign McShane Maguire of Ramone in the County of Fermanagh...& his souldjers about the begining of December 1641 at a place nere Cordiller in the same County slew & wickedly murthered by hanging them to death one Gilbert Vance of Portoran (gentleman) a Scotchman: Michell Belfore of the same (gentleman) another Scotchman Edward mc Bright of the same (gentleman).

"Portoran" (now Portora) is very near Enniskillen in County Fermanagh, not far from the border with Cavan. If it is the same Gilbert, maybe he moved north between 1630 and 1641, or did he perhaps escape to Enniskillen when the fighting started, only to fall victim to it there?    

Gilbert Vance's name in one of the 1641 Depositions
(certainly not easy to decipher, but all of the transcriptions are consistent!)

Another deposition, that of George Adwick in August of 1643, recalls only that
about January next after the Rebellion there was hanged at the Lord Magwires bridge in Fermanagh one John Fairbour & his 3 sonns and their wyves & children And about the same tyme there was hanged one Gilbert Vance & three more with him. And 220 Cowes were taken from them though they had and shewed Captain Rory Magwires protection which murthers & outrages were Committed by the Rebels.

These events were unfortunately not unusual, it is said that hundreds of settlers were hanged, drowned, and otherwise killed by the rebels in the uprising, and the event was used to justify brutal retaliations for years afterwards.  Gilbert's fate was sad, but certainly not unusual for the times.  

17th century books had fanciful illustrations of the horrors of the 1641 Rebellion.
How accurate the depositions were is anyone's guess,
but at least two mentioned Gilbert Vance.

No records of Gilbert's family have survived, so whether he left siblings or descendants is unknown.  But he would have been of the same generation as the Rev. John Vans/Vance who moved to Kilmacrenan and while both may have been Scottish, there is no indication that they were related.  

Is Gilbert possibly another separate Vance immigrant from Scotland to Ireland, who started a line of Vance men from one of the other Irish DNA lines besides Group 1 (R1b-L21/L193+)?  

We may never know for sure, but we can't discount the possibility.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Vances of the Past: Ezekiel Vance (Part 2)

Another installment in the soldier life of Ezekiel Vance!  Check Vances of the Past: Ezekiel Vance (Part 1) for the first story and the source of these reports.  

Again, this was during the Irish Rebellion of 1798, when Irishmen fought on both the rebel and the British sides of the conflict.  Ezekiel Vance was a young Irish soldier on the Loyalist (British) side who distinguished himself in the Battle of Antrim.  After the battle, however, he seems to have caused some trouble...
On an early day after the battle [of Antrim], twenty-two men were arrested at the insistence of Lord Massereene, colonel of the local cavalry force.  His Lordship is said to have been a somewhat eccentric man, who sometimes gave orders without fully considering their gravity.  The only offense the twenty-two men were known to have committed was that of not making any demonstration on the side of loyalty.  They had simply remained neutral.  For this they were arrested, and committed to one of the cells still existing beneath the western end of the Court-house. 
After the men were imprisoned, the question arose in Lord Massareene’s mind as to what should be done with them.  This was soon decided.  They should be at once shot; that would end the difficulty.  Accordingly his Lordship requested Sergeant McCaughan to dispatch them in the manner indicated, to which McCaughan replied “Yes, my Lord, we will bring them out and shoot them.”  Ezekiel Vance, being present, opposed such an order, and at once exclaimed, “No, my Lord, that would be murder!”  Lord Massareene, realizing the truth of the remark, proceeded no further with the matter, but immediately walked away, and the lives of the men were spared.  McCaughan afterwards reproached Vance, notwithstanding the fact that he was a Yeoman [on the British side], with being always on the side of the Insurgents [the rebels]. 
The names of only four of the twenty-two men are now remembered – Silas and James Steen, and Richard and William Barklie.  While confined within their cells, the poor fellows heard the order given for them to be shot.  All subsequently manifested much gratitude to Ezekiel Vance for having remonstrated with Lord Massareene, whereby their lives were saved.
...His [Ezekiel Vance’s] subsequent life was uneventful, and was spent in peaceful occupations.  He enjoyed the confidence and esteem of his fellow-townsmen, and died universally respected when eighty-two years of age (Authority – Mrs. Graham Shannon, of Antrim, daughter of Ezekiel Vance).

In the years immediately after 1798 smaller rebel armies in Ireland continued to fight and it was not until 1803 that the last rebel forces surrendered.   Many stories of brutal retaliations and heavy-handed tactics survived on both sides after the conflict, and the continuing hostilities caused waves that obviously have lasted well into modern times. Ireland's history might have been more peaceful if there had been more Ezekiel Vances around in 1798!   

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Vances of the Past: Ezekiel Vance (Part 1)

Ezekiel Vance and the Battle of Antrim, 1798

Every now and then I like to highlight the story of a past Vance who became famous (or notorious!), even though we may not know for certain whose ancestors they might be.  One example of this is a man named Ezekiel Vance, whose exploits were published in the Ulster Journal of Archeology in 1895 (Vol 1, pp 134-135).  

Vinegar Hill, Battle of Ballynahinch, Irish Rebellion of 1798
detail of painting by Thomas Robinson

The scene is Ireland in 1798, in the midst of the rebellion sparked by the United Irishmen against the British.  Like many conflicts in Ireland, Irishmen fought on both sides, especially in Ulster where many sided with the British.   

Ezekiel Vance was apparently born of a Quaker family and fought in the Battle of Antrim on the side of the Loyalists against the rebels.   Years later his daughter told his story to the Ulster Journal of Archaeology:
A name that is mentioned in connection with several striking incidents which occurred in connection with the Battle of Antrim is that of Ezekiel Vance… 
It was necessarily a trying time.  The streets were filled with smoke; bullets were flying in all directions; while men, whose faces were perfectly black through having to bite off the ends of their cartridges, rushed wildly hither and thither… Finding the Insurgents [rebels] were persistently pressing forward notwithstanding the determined efforts of the Yeomen [Loyalists] and dragoons to check their onward progress, and believing that the Military outside the town were under an impression that the Loyalists had been overpowered, an idea occurred to Vance as to the feasibility of making some sign from the top of the Castle that might be taken as an indication that an energetic movement on the part of the Military might yet succeed.  He left the wall, therefore, and hurried in the direction of the Castle, seizing as he went the cloak of a young woman named Abigail O’Neill, with the intention of carrying it to the roof and waving it to and fro there.
But Abigail did not relish the unceremonious interference with her garment, and so warmly remonstrated [argued]; when Ezekiel Vance bade her hold her tongue, for she would be in eternity in ten minutes – a remark that seemed probable of realization when made, and which reconciled the young woman to her loss.
He then rushed into the hall of the Castle, where he saw a man named Clarke lying wounded and writhing in agony, pleading for help.  Vance could, however, only bind up the injured part with a pocket-handkerchief, and then made his way to the roof, where, with the aid of a pike or longstaff, he waved the red cloak as a signal to the Military.
The incident appeared to be understood, and so he rushed from the Castle roof, noticed as he passed that the wounded man in the hall was dead, crossed the river, the water being low from drought, ran, still bearing aloft the cloak, met the Military, and conducted them into the town. 
It has been maintained by many that but for this feat, and the consequent arrival of the Military, the Insurgents would have secured possession of the town and would have held it for a time at least.  But after the arrival of Military aid the Insurgent ranks soon began to waver, then to break and fly – many being killed as they went – in all directions; through backyards and gardens and across the river; but not until upwards of 300 men lay dead or dying on the streets of Antrim.
Martial law still remaining in force after the battle, Ezekiel Vance had to take his turn with others at parade duty at the various entrances to the town, and also at the Castle, during which time the large room of the Market House served as guard-room, sleeping-room, and store-room combined (Authority – Mrs. Graham Shannon, of Antrim, daughter of Ezekiel Vance)

To hear his daughter tell it, Ezekiel was quite the brave soldier.  Another story of Ezekiel Vance in my next post!

Friday, December 13, 2013

King Robert the Bruce, a Vance Ancestor?

Many researchers into the Irish Vance family lines have documented their connection through the Vans of Barnbarroch back to Robert the Bruce, who reigned as King of Scotland from 1306 to 1329 and defeated the English at Bannockburn in 1314, securing for a time Scottish independence from England.  This connection is real - Robert the Bruce IS an ancestor of the Vans of Barnbarroch, and by extension of any Vances who descend from them.  

To be honest, having royal ancestors from 700 years ago is pretty common; our family trees all have around thirty million branches by that point and even though the same people will show up on different branches as families marry into each other multiple times, the odds are still very high for all of us that nobles and royals are hiding somewhere in those leaves.  And Robert the Bruce certainly has plenty of descendants; he married twice and had five children plus another six acknowledged illegitimate children... so it's very likely that a sizable percentage of people today with Scottish ancestry are descended from him!  But not everyone can document their exact line of descent.

In fact, Robert the Bruce is a Vance ancestor multiple times, because his descendants included the Kennedy family who were aligned with the early Vans of Barnbarroch and intermarried with them several times.  The first three connections are shown in the picture below, but there are probably also many later connections from other Vans family spouses who were also descendants of Robert the Bruce through other lines.

Jumping ahead to the 21st century, the Vances of DNA Group 1 probably have the best claim to this ancestry, since their group includes the current Laird of Barnbarroch.  But who knows?  None of us Vances today (to my knowledge) can reliably document our exact tree back this far, so it's a possibility still for most of us.   For now, the best we can say is that if you have reason to believe that your family tree goes back to any of the Vans family of Barnbarroch, then you also have reason to believe that King Robert the Bruce is your ancestor through the family connections shown here.

The early connections from Robert the Bruce to the Vans of Barnbarroch.
From these connections anyone who traces their ancestry to the Vans of Barnbarroch
is also a descendant of King Robert the Bruce.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

What's New at the VFA?

The November 2013 Newsletter

The VFA's November newsletter is out!  Members who enjoy stories of notable Vances will find a biography of US author Jack Vance (pictured) and a history of the Vance knights who ruled the area around Vance, Belgium for 700 years.   There is also a summary of the VFA's biannual reunion this past summer in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and a recap of the Allen County Library's Genealogy Center and its resources.

Big changes have also been added to the Vance Family Association's website at and are reviewed in the November newsletter.  The website now includes an Archives section with new resources for members like:

  • Newsletters - fifteen of the VFA's newsletters from the past 30 years have been added already with more to come (by the way, if you aren't already aware, the VFA has indexed all the past newsletters, and indexes by topic and by Vance ancestor are already available at  
  • Book Titles - to contain a growing list of books on Vances and Vance history, with titles, tables of contents, the V and W entries found in the index, and where copies of the book can be found either online or available via inter-library loan, and 
  • Historians' Research, where digitized copies of the VFA's other archives will be posted.

There are also Newsletter Forums and DNA Project Forums set up for members to post corrections or questions on past newsletters and discuss items relating to genetic genealogy and the Vance DNA surname project.

If you're a VFA member already, don't forget to sign up for a user name and password to check out these new online resources.  And if you're not a member, look over the options at and see if we have one that fits your budget.  For as little as $15 a year, you can avail yourself of all the resources of the VFA, get the quarterly newsletter, and support our goal of helping Vance researchers across the globe at the same time.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Spread of the Vance Surname

I was introduced recently to a Facebook group about surname distribution mapping - the use of census and other data to plot the geographic distribution of a surname.  While it's fun for anyone who loves maps, it can also be useful in genealogy to understand the origins and spread of a surname.

A first note:  the maps shown in this post are taken from various websites (as attributed in the captions) which allow limited use for personal or professional genealogy use.   It is our aim to respect these sources' copyrights and we would ask you not to copy these pictures without understanding and respecting the original allowed uses as well.

So where to start?  Our page A Short History of the Vance Surname describes the known and conjectured origins of "Vance" as a last name.  While there are a few possible derivations, sources at least agree that "Vance" as a modern surname appeared first in Ulster in Ireland in the 17th century; best documented first in Donegal county in Kilmacrenan and around Donegal town.  

Anyone doing Irish research knows that data before 1901 is hard to come by; but from census substitutes and Balbirnie's book in 1860, the VFA can document more than 150 Vance heads of households between the early 1600s and 1860.  The growth in Vance families looks like this:
Earliest spread of the Irish Vances
(Source:  author)

But I suspect that the data above under-counts the later Vances in Antrim and Down counties in the east of Ulster, since by the time of Griffith's Valuation (1847-1864) those counties rivaled Donegal in number of Vance families.  The Irish Times has a good Vance distribution map from Griffith's Valuation.

The Vance name in the 1800s

By the mid-1800s of course Vance had begun to spread to other countries in the waves of Irish emigration, most notably to the US and Australia.  While I don't have early distribution maps for Australia, maps for the 1840 and 1920 US censuses show "Vance" was well-established in the middle Atlantic states and spreading:

Back in the UK. a surname distribution map for the late 1800's shows that "Vance" was centered in it's expected lowland Scotland origins, but had also spread to England as well:
And now into the 1900's, the 1901 Irish census still shows the same patterns as earlier data:  a decidedly Ulster bias and a Donegal/Antrim/Down county concentration:

The Vance surname Today

The surname "Vance" around the world today according to 2000-2005 data from the website Public Profiler, is found mainly in the US (182 FPM, or frequency per million people), Australia (61 FPM), Ireland (55 FPM), Canada (40 FPM). the UK (36 FPM), and New Zealand (20 FPM):
Worldwide distribution of "Vance" today
(Source:  Public Profiler World Names)
Within its major countries, here are the surname distributions for 2000-2005:
North America - distribution of "Vance" today
(Source:  Public Profiler World Names)
UK and Ireland - distribution of "Vance" today
(Source:  Public Profiler World Names)
Australia - distribution of "Vance" today
(Source:  Public Profiler World Names)
So what does all this show, apart from the obvious conclusion that there IS such a thing as too many maps?  One conclusion is that while the Vance name has grown more numerous in the former British colonies, its distribution in Ireland and Scotland even today still greatly reflects its origins in lowland Scotland and Ulster.  In the US, it also seems to indicate that "Vance" has spread slowly south over time although it is still heavily concentrated in areas originally colonized by the Scots-Irish.   Of course, this data doesn't distinguish other sources for the "Vance" surname like the known Wentz immigrant families whose surnames were changed to Vance in their new US home.  

Data at this "macro" level may not help genealogists who have a good family tree already documented, but it CAN help suggest focus areas for people who don't know where their ancestors emigrated from.   Do these maps suggest anything about your research?  Or do you have any other distribution maps to add to the set?  

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Bewcastle Cross - a Vaux/Vance Legend

In a little churchyard in Bewcastle in Cumberland, England, there stands one of the largest Anglo-Saxon high crosses in the British Isles.  Its connection to Vaux/Vance history has been debated for centuries, but the story of the debate still merits a place in the legends of our family surname.

The Bewcastle Cross
(picture source:  Wikimedia)

High crosses are Christian crosses intricately carved out of stone in the early medieval period as the Anglo-Saxon and Norse communities across England, Scotland and Ireland were being converted to Christianity.   Some crosses were erected at churches and monasteries, others at major cross-roads or meeting-places.  Many still stand, but Bewcastle has one of the largest and best studied.

The Bewcastle Cross is missing its head (often high crosses were topped by a Celtic cross) so only the shaft remains, standing 14 ½ feet tall in its original location.  While the rich detail of the carvings remain clear, the inscriptions are worn by time and weather and the age and origins of the Cross have been fiercely debated for centuries.

The earliest mention of the Bewcastle Cross in print is in 1607 by a man named Nicholas Roscarrock who was writing to the British historian William Camden.  Earlier editions of Camden’s works had not mentioned the Cross, and Roscarrock said (in updated English)  “If you have any occasion to speak of the Cross of Bewcastle, I have assured myself that the inscription on one side is Hubert de Vaux; [and] that the chequy coat of arms is above that on the same side.”

Arms of the de Vaux
barons of Gilsland
Hubert de Vaux had been granted the Barony of Gilsland (in northern Cumberland) by King Henry II in 1158.  This de Vaux family (see A Short History of the Vance Surname) is thought to be one origin of the Irish Vances.   And the original coat of arms of the de Vaux was a check pattern (“chequy”, in heraldic terms) of either gold and red or silver and red (see What is the Vance Coat of Arms?).

Camden may have investigated further, for his next editions include the passage “In the church-yard is a cross…neatly wrought, and having an inscription, but the letters too much consumed by time to be legible.  But the cross itself being chequered like the arms of the family of Vaux makes it probable that it was their work”.

So for the next century or two the de Vaux barons of Gilsland were given credit for erecting the Bewcastle Cross.

Much of the Cross’s carvings are clear – there is a figure of John the Baptist, holding the Lamb of God and walking on the desert hills.  Below him is Christ himself as King and law-giver, and a third figure is thought to be St. John the Evangelist.   There is a sundial on its surface that has been called “by far the earliest English sundial to survive”, divided into the four “tides” which governed the working day in medieval times.  But with their faded lettering, the inscriptions have been reinterpreted many times.

Four Sides of the Cross
(note check pattern on far left)
(picture source:  Gentleman's Magazine
ca. 1790)
Later examinations of the Cross from 1685 through 1794 concluded the inscriptions were Saxon runes which suggested that the Cross was much older than the 12th century.    Those scholars also noted the possible connection between the checkered Cross and the de Vaux coat of arms, but they stopped short of drawing any definite conclusions.  Then in the early 1800s an antiquary named Henry Howard reversed the theory and suggested that the de Vaux had themselves adopted the chequy pattern for their arms in honor of the Bewcastle Cross.   But no other evidence was found to support this.

The de Vaux association was further weakened in studies in the 1850s by John Maughan, the rector of Bewcastle, who noted that checkered patterns were common in medieval illuminated texts and artwork as far back as Egyptian, Gallic, and Roman cultures.

Maughan also had a fierce academic rivalry with a scholar named Daniel Henry Haigh over the Bewcastle Cross and through the 1850s they both published several conflicting interpretations of the cross’s inscriptions and origins.  By this time the de Vaux connection with the cross was dismissed by both as unlikely.  Maughan in particular became somewhat obsessed with his subject and apparently around 1856 even painted his interpretation of the runic letters directly on the Cross!   When he was censured by the Society of Antiquaries for this act of graffiti, Maughan indignantly fired back that he was only trying to make the letters clearer, not deface them, and that he could not even “conceive how such a puerile idea can have found a lodgment in the cranium of the antiquated patriarchs of such a renowned Society.”

The current prevailing theory is that the Cross is from the late 7th or early 8th century and possibly commemorates King Alchfrith of Deira, who around 664 made an unsuccessful bid for control of the entire area, and his wife Cyneburh.  It is speculated that Alchfrith lived in exile after 664, died in Bewcastle (his mother was a local princess) and that the memorial was organized by his half-sister Abbess Aelfflaed of Witby (d. 714).  Others though look to a slightly later date in the reign of King Eadberht (737-758).

Could the shaft’s design be the origin of the de Vaux coat of arms, as Henry Howard proposed?  Possible, but doubtful.   Firstly, there is no reason that a Saxon cross would be important to the Normans or any evidence that it was.  Hubert de Vaux’s seat of power in Gilsland was over 10 miles away at  Castlesteads near Irthington, and there is no sign that he paid much attention to Bewcastle.  Secondly, in 1158 there were already other English de Vaux knights as far away as Norfolk and while heraldry was only just being formalized, all the de Vaux nobility adopted some variation of the chequy pattern.  That certainly argues that they were a common family and while Hubert as baron of Gilsland was an important de Vaux family member, the idea that he convinced them all to adopt a pattern from a remote part of his barony suggests an unlikely level of coordination for the Middle Ages.   It is still possible, but the more likely conclusion is that the de Vaux family had already settled on a common pattern before Hubert moved to Gilsland.

The Cross still stands in its churchyard today, drawing tourists and scholars alike.  The controversy over its origins has settled down but is by no means settled.  Its association with the Norman de Vaux may be in doubt, but if you get a chance to visit Bewcastle, you can stand as people have done for hundreds of years and draw your own conclusions.  Just don’t draw them with paint.  


Bewcastle Cross, Wikipedia (website),

Cook, Albert Stanburrough.  Some Accounts of the Bewcastle Cross between the years 1607 and 1861.   New York, Henry Holt & Co, 1914.    Google eBook at