Revised Post & Apology: What Does the Name Brodnax Mean?

This revision is necessary to correct and apologize for a mistake I made in the original post. At best, it was merely boneheaded. At worst, it was unthinkingly racist.

The text of the original post follows. I will point out the problem when I get to it. I have also abandoned the clumsy Brodnax/Broadnax duplication. They are the same name with different spellings.

As for the question posed in the title: “What does the name Brodnax Mean?” 

I haven’t found anything definitive online. However, a reader posted a comment suggesting it is a derivation of “broad ax,” which makes sense. Wikipedia defines a broad ax as “a large axe with a broad blade, once used as a weapon and also used for hewing timber.”

Google responds to a question about the name’s meaning  with links to commercial or genealogy websites. Google also offers a link to “Names.org,” which invites you to define what Brodnax means to you.

In a more constructive vein, Wikipedia has this to say (I added the links and one name to Wikipedia’s list):

“Broadnax is a surname. Notable people with the surname include:

Here is where I went off the rails in the original post: “If you are genetically related to a Brodnax/Broadnax, these men[1]are probably your relatives (assuming they are also genetic Brodnaxes). It is possible that every genetic Brodnax in this country descends from a family that emigrated to Virginia in the 17thcentury.”

Let’s talk about “genetically related,” using another surname to illustrate. In the Willis DNA project, there are a number of genetically distinct Willis families whose Y-DNA doesn’t even remotely match each other. If they ever shared a common ancestor, it was thousands of years ago. They aren’t “genetically related” in any meaningful sense, i.e., within a genealogical timeframe. Nonetheless, a group of Willis men whose Y-DNA matches are all “genetic Willises” if they trace back to any Willis ancestor. That is so even if they don’t match other Willis lines. (I am ignoring possible NPE issues here for the sake of simplicity).[2]

Why are there genetically distinct families who share a common surname? The explanation has to do with the origin of surnames themselves. When given names became inadequate to distinguish among men (yes, I mean “men,” not “people”), men acquired surnames based on, among other things, occupations. That gave us families named Cooper, Smith, Miller, and Forrester, for example. Perhaps it also gave us Brodnax, for men who hewed timber (possibly also forresters). Other men had a surname based on his father’s name, such as Davidson, Johnson, and Williamson, or shortened versions such as Wilson, Wills, or Willis. There are also toponymic names based on where one lived, such as a name ending in field, brook, or wood. Finally, in the feudal system of late antiquity and most of the middle ages, many serfs wound up with the name of the lord they served.

Serving a common master, or having a common profession, doesn’t imply a genetic relationship, of course. The bottom line is there is no reason to believe that everyone who shares a surname also shares a common ancestor. 

Back to my own error. Keep in mind that some Brodnax researchers believe that all Caucasian Brodnaxes in this country are descended from the Brodnax family of Kent described later in this post. 

Now click on the links for the seven people in the above list. Five of them are African-American. If they descend from enslaved persons, it is possible that the first free people in each one’s family adopted the surname of his or her former “owner.” Somehow, I forgot that was often the case, if not the norm. There is no more reason to believe that those five African-American Brodnaxes were related to each other than there is to believe that everyone named Willis is related to each other. Likewise, there is no reason to think the Brodnaxes in that list are all descended from a Caucasian Brodnax in Kent.

Nor is there any reason to question whether they are all genetic Brodnaxes. If each of them descends from an ancestor named Brodnax, he is a genetic Brodnax (again, ignoring a possible NPE issue). He just might not genetically match other men named Brodnax.

I am not certain how I fell into these stupid mistakes. What I evidently did was take the Caucasian Brodnax assumption – the likelihood that we are all descended from the Kent family – and apply it to five African-Americans. This effectively makes the parochial and essentially racist assumption that the Caucasian experience applies to everyone. Incredibly, I managed to make that assumption while entirely forgetting the way many formerly enslaved people acquired a surname. 

When some old white lady says that the given name “Ta-Nahesi” (for example) is a “strange” name, what she really means is that it isn’t a typically Caucasian name. Her statement is racist because she is assuming that Caucasian names are normal

That’s a perfect analogy to what I did in my original Brodnax post, so I apologize. Especially to a new third cousin, a charming woman descended from enslaved people. She and I are related through a Brodnax, and we found each other through DNA testing.

So … go take an autosomal DNA test and find out how connected we all are. That is still good advice. You will meet some nice people.

Back to the original post. It originally contained (1) a brief history of the early Brodnax line from Kent, England to colonial Virginia, (2) information about the most authoritative compiled genealogy on the family, and (3) a bit about my own Brodnaxes. Because this has now become so long, I will make the second and third items a separate post. Besides which, I have a number of other pictures I need to share.

Brodnax history[3]

Just to be clear: this is Caucasian Brodnax history, largely unchanged from the original post except to correct errors.

The family can be traced to a Robert Brodnax who was born in the early 1400s in Kent, England.[4]Circa 1590, the family acquired land in Kent that had formerly been in the possession of Canterbury Benedictines. The estate on that land is called Godmersham Park. It still remains in private ownership, although it is no longer owned by a Brodnax.[5]

In 1727, a Thomas Brodnax who was then in possession of Godmersham changed his surname to May in order to inherit an estate from a relative named Thomas May. The name change required an act of Parliament. In 1738, an additional inheritance further enriched Thomas Brodnax-May. It required that he change his surname to Knight – again needing Parliament’s permission.

As a result, some wag in Parliament suggested passing a bill to allow Thomas “to change his name to anything he pleases.”[6]Two name changes evidently sufficed: Thomas Brodnax-May-Knight died in 1781. Godmersham passed to his son Thomas, presumably Thomas Knight. In 1794, the estate passed from Thomas Knight’s widow to Edward Austen, brother of novelist Jane Austen. Edward Austen also took the surname Knight. Jane Austen often visited and wrote at Godmersham, which is surely the best part of the Brodnax story in Kent.

The estate is impressive. Here is an image of the “house” (mansion?).

Godmersham Park, Kent, England

 

The colonial part of the story begins with Major John Brodnax (1608-1657), a descendant of the original Robert of Kent. He was a Royalist Cavalier during the English Civil Wars. Since the Parliamentarians (“Roundheads”) prevailed, Major John fled to the colonies, either to escape Cromwell’s ax or because he was exiled. He died in York County, Virginia. The William & Mary Quarterly published an inventory of his estate, which included three pair of gloves, five broadcloth suits, three periwigs, one rapier and belt, ribbon, slippers, cuffs, et al.[7]The wardrobe apparently identifies him as a Cavalier, as does his heritage – try to imagine a Brodnax from Godmersham as anything but a Royalist – and the fact that his family remained behind in London. 

William and Mary Quarterly and Virginia Magazine of History and Biography have both published Major John’s will, either in its entirety or abstracted.[8]The will evidently mentions his wife Dorothy, eldest son Thomas, who “lives in ye Golden Griffin with Mr. Thomas Turges in Fenchurch St.,” son John “living with Mr. Joseph King at the Golden Sonne in Gracious St.” (now Gracechurch St.), youngest sons William and Robert, and daughter Elizabeth, to whom he bequeathed his“Bible-booke and my Eare ring with a Dyamant in itt.”

A 1676 suit in chancery styled Brodnax v. Gibbonproves that Major John was a son of Thomas Brodnax and his wife Elizabeth Taylor of Godmersham (descendants of the first Robert of Kent). It also proves Major John was the grandfather of the next Brodnax immigrants to Virginia.

They were John and William Brodnax, sons of Robert of Holborn. John (1668 – 1719) was a goldsmith, like his father. He lived in Williamsburg and left a will naming three sons and two daughters. The will directed that two sons be sent home to England and “bound out to such trades as my executors” see fit. According to the Virginia Magazine, “it is not believed that John Brodnax has any descendants to-day [1916] in Virginia.”[9]

William I, also a son of Robert of Holborn, settled in Jamestown. He married Rebecca Champion, widow of Edward Travis. It is possible, perhaps likely, that William Brodnax I and Rebecca Champion Travis are the ancestors of all Caucasian Brodnaxes in the U.S., including two presidents.[10]

William I brought with him from England his father’s Bible and paintings of his parents. There are also extant portraits of William I and his wife Rebecca, as well as their son William II, daughter Rebecca Elizabeth Brodnax, and son Edward Brodnax. There are eight Brodnax portraits in all, now in the possession of the Richmond Museum of Fine Arts. Several of them are terrible portraiture, even to an untrained eye. Here are images of the Brodnax family portraits:

William Brodnax I of Godmersham Park and Jamestown Island, VA

Rebecca Champion, widow of Edward Travis, wife of William Brodnax I of Jamestown

William Brodnax II, son of William and Rebecca Champion Travis

Edward Brodnax, son of William Brodnax I and Rebecca Champion Travis Brodnax

Elizabeth Rebecca Brodnax, daughter of William Brodnax I and Rebecca Champion Travis Brodnax

Robert Brodnax of Holborn, London, father of William Brodnax I

Wife of Robert Brodnax, goldsmith of Holborn, London

William Brodnax, son of William Brodnax II and Ann Hall Brodnax

Rebecca Champion Travis Brodnax was surely more attractive than her portrait suggests. She and William I were buried in the Travis burying grounds on Jamestown Island. Their tombstones are gone, but a marker and large slab for two John Champions, presumably Rebecca’s kin, remains. There is also a marker and tombstone for Edward Travis, first husband of Rebecca Champion Travis Brodnax. Here are some pictures I took in the Travis graveyard: 

Marker on grave of two men named John Champion

Champions’ tombstone

Marker, grave of Edward Travis, first husband of Rebecca Champion Travis Brodnax

Edward Travis tombstone

Oops! A picture of an attractive silver-haired dude slipped in here somehow …

Whew! That’s more than enough for this installment. I will promptly re-post the information about how to find the definitive Brodnax book, as well as some information about my own Brodnax family.

See you on down the road.

Robin


[1]I can’t find any notable women named Brodnax, although one of the men in the list was transgender, female-to-male.

[2]This discussion ignores non-paternal events” such as adoptions. Here is a provocative discussion of  that topic by my friend Roberta Estes.

[3]This history is taken from facts in Mildred Seab Ezell’s book, Brodnax: The Beginning (1995),  a UK website about English parks, the William and Mary Quarterly, Series I, Vol. XXVII 181, and The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography,Vol. 24, No. 4 (Oct. 1916) 417.

[4]According to the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, a pedigree of the Brodnax family may be found in Berry’s Visitation of Kent. I haven’t looked at either that august tome, Berry’s Kentish Genealogy, or Burke’s Peerage, so I have no helpful citations.

[5]Godmersham Park.

[6]I cannot find a citation, although I am certain about my memory. If a member of Parliament didn’t say that, someone should have.

[7]William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. XXVII, Series I, at 181. The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography published a slightly different list. My notes aren’t entirely clear, but I may have viewed the original and come up with a third interpretation.

[8]The published versions differ in some respects, and I haven’t seen the original will.

[9]Id. Mildred Ezell said that John Brodnax’s eldest son, Robert, lived and died in Pennsylvania. I haven’t seen any information about him. 

[10]Several sources say that William and Rebecca Champion Travis Brodnax were the ancestors of Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush. See, e.g., this website.