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Early Rockwell lines

There are three Rockwell families with deep roots in colonial Connecticut. Descendants refer to these families by the name of their founding patriarch: the William, John, and Josiah lines.

William Rockwell, first of the name in America, arrived in Massachusetts in 1630 aboard the Mary and John, a ship bringing primarily English West Country settlers. They settled the town of Dorchester, and William served as a deacon of its first church. In 1635-36, some of the settlers migrated to the Connecticut River valley and founded the town of Windsor, one of the first three towns in what became the separate colony of Connecticut. William was apparently not in the first contingent of settlers at Windsor, but he is found there as a landowner by 1640, the year in which he died.

John Rockwell appeared in Stamford, Connecticut, in December of 1641, receiving a lot in its second land distribution. He married ca. 1654 Elizabeth Weed, daughter of Jonas and Mary Weed, who were among the founders of Stamford earlier in 1641. The Rockwells relocated ca. 1669 to Rye, New York, which had been founded as an outpost of Connecticut. John died there early in 1673, and Elizabeth died in 1676. His three sons settled in Norwalk, Connecticut, and gave rise to a large clan in the various towns of Fairfield County, including Ridgefield, Wilton, and Danbury.

John has been supposed to be that John baptized on 22 July, 1621, at Fitzhead, co. Somerset, England, a son of John Rockwell, Jr. (b. 5 July 1588, Fitzhead), who immigrated in 1635 to New England on the ship Hopewell and soon settled at Windsor, Conn., along with his brother William. This older John and his wife Wilmot [Cade] both died in 1662 at Windsor.

Josiah Rockwell appears in the 1650s, first at New London, then at the frontier settlement of Norwich, New London Co., CT. He was killed by Indians in January 1676, during King Philip's War. His descendants lived in New London County and in diverse other points to which they migrated, including northern Pennsylvania, upstate New York, Vermont, and Cornwallis, Nova Scotia.

A question among Rockwell genealogists has been: what relationship exists between these three families? William's birthplace in the village of Fitzhead, Somerset, England, is well-established. As stated above, John of Stamford could be a son of William's brother John. Josiah might be the son of another brother, Richard, whose family in England has not yet been found. According to the will of Honor Rockwell, mother of William and John of Windsor, she left a legacy to each of her (unnamed) grandchildren in New England, children of her sons William, John, and Richard. This suggests that at least one of Richard's children came to America, possibly in the care of William or John of Windsor.

A new tool offers answers: DNA analysis

Documentation is lacking in the historical record to definitively tie John of Stamford or Josiah of Norwich to William's family. However, a new approach to the problem comes to us from the world of molecular biology: DNA analysis. There is a type of DNA found in the Y chromosome, which is passed from father to son, unchanged over the generations. If two men have a test which compares their Y-chromosome DNA, and they match, this means that their paternal lines meet in some male ancestor. This new tool made the news in 1998-99 when it was used in the case of the descendants of Sally Hemmings, Thomas Jefferson's slave, to demonstrate a Jeffersonian ancestry.

Applying this method to the Rockwell question, a close match between a direct-male-line descendant of John of Stamford and William of Windsor would prove that those two share a common male ancestor. The simplest solution is for the common ancestor to be John of Fitzhead, husband of Honor and father of William and John of Windsor. But it isn't absolute proof that John of Stamford is the son of John of Fitzhead; he could instead be a son of another brother, Richard; or the common ancestor could be a few generations in the past, making him a cousin. Likewise for Josiah.

The Rockwell Family Foundation decided to sponsor a DNA test to see whether there is indeed a link between the three families. A slate of 33 volunteers was assembled and sent on March 15, 2002, to Relative Genetics, the DNA lab which has been hired to do the DNA analysis. A few late volunteers also applied and got into the pool, while a couple dropped out. The samples represent various lines, and the results should clear up several longstanding questions in Rockwell genealogy:

1) The relationship, if any, between the three old Connecticut lines descending from William of Windsor, John of Stamford, and Josiah of Norwich, as discussed above.

2) The paternal DNA pattern, or "fingerprint," for Simmons Rockwell, whose father has not yet been identified. As an adoptee into the John line in the 1770s, Simmons should display a distinct pattern. If descendants researching his origins come up with candidate families for his paternal origins, they may locate suitable descendants with whom to compare DNA samples.

3) The DNA pattern for Robert Rockwell/Rockhold of 17th century Virginia and Maryland. One theory is that he may be related to the Fitzhead Rockwells. A match with the William line would confirm this. On the other hand, the Virginia records that call him a Rockwell may have been simple clerical errors while he referred to himself as Rockhold all along. Nonetheless, some of his descendants have "resumed" the Rockwell surname. The results will provide clues on this question.

4) The ancestry of James Rockwell of Scioto County, Ohio. Numerous descendants have believed that he was a son of Ebenezer and Lucy (Barber) Rockwell of Windsor, Conn., on the William line. But H. Earl Close lays out a good circumstantial case, in The Family of Linnie Fay Rockwell (3rd ed., 1999), that he was a son of Jonathan and Hannah (Bennett) Rockwell, on the John line. The samples from two of James' descendants ought to finger the more likely hypothesis.

5) The paternity of that John Rockwell who lived in Butternuts, Otsego Co., NY, married Lucy Covey, and was buried in 1847 at Nimmondsburg, Chenango Town and County, NY. His headstone indicates he was born in 1803, so some researchers and descendants think he was the son of Simmons Rockwell (see 2 above), who had a son John born in 1803 in Roxbury, Delaware Co., NY. Simmons' step-sister Mary (Rockwell) Bedient, and step-cousin Uriah Rockwell lived at Butternuts, which could explain this John's introduction to the area. Alternatively, the numerous land records which show transactions between John of Butternuts and Uriah and family suggest that he could be a son of Uriah. He even purchased land in Steuben County, to which Uriah and sons moved in the 1830s, though John later sold it and stayed in Butternuts. Simmons or Uriah? Again, the DNA evidence may point to the more likely hypothesis.

6) A DNA fingerprint for Thomas Rockwell of Medina County, Ohio, and Wabash County, Indiana. Descendant Janis Townsend has been working on this case for years, investigating conflicting indications that Thomas came from (a) Pennsylvania, (b) Massachusetts, (c) Maryland, or (d) Scotland. Thomas' pattern could match any of the old lines, including Robert's; or it may show no relationship, bolstering the possibility of a more recent immigration of his line, for example from Scotland.

7) The background of Asa Rockwell, who came from Maryland to western Pennsylvania in the early 19th century. Such a migration pattern suggests Asa could be of the Robert line, but a tradition among some descendants has Asa immigrating to America around the time of the Revolution (some say just before, some say around 1787). Again, what will the DNA evidence suggest?

DNA analysis takes Rockwell genealogy far from its early days in the 19th century, when writers were likely to suggest that William of Windsor was the progenitor of all the Rockwells in America, simply because he was the first of the name to arrive. That's one old myth which had already been disproven by genealogical evidence. Even now, there are indications of some newer lines arising in the 19th century due to recent immigrants and legal name changes. The DNA results will flesh out how many older lines were already here around 1800. --March 27, 2002.

The results

The report on the Rockwell DNA project, performed by Relative Genetics, arrived on July 16, 2002. With a sample of 34 participants, we had a good pool for comparing the different lines, and some of our questions were answered quite clearly. Other results raise new questions even as they shed light on our previous ones. Here in brief are the results addressing the above objectives:

1. The three Connecticut lines are definitely related. Many of them have identical samples, whether they came from William, Josiah, or John. This means that the "Fitzhead hypothesis" that suggests that John of Stamford is a son of John of Windsor, and that Josiah is a son of Richard, is entirely plausible. It is NOT the only possibility, however. John of Stamford, could just as easily be the son of Richard and a brother of Josiah. Or they could be cousins of William. But the common ancestor cannot be too much further back, or we'd expect more variation in the samples. Only further documentation, such as finding Richard's family in England (he apparently lived away from Fitzhead) would answer whether he had sons named Josiah or John. But whatever the exact connection, John and Josiah probably came from Fitzhead or the immediate vicinity. Our theory that they came over with John of Windsor in 1635 is a reasonable explanation to how they got to Connecticut.

2. The fingerprint for Simmons was established by the test, and was the biggest surprise of all: he matched the other three families! This suggests that he was a Rockwell by birth, well before his mother married a Rockwell. And because he grew up in Fairfield County, we can assume that he was of the John line, and in particular the Joseph branch, which settled in the area where Simmons lived as a child.

3. Descendants of Robert showed a completely different pattern from the "Fitzhead fingerprint" set by the Connecticut lines. Therefore, we may conclude that he was not one of the sons of Richard. If he was a Rockwell in England, his family would be unrelated and from somewhere else, merely sharing a surname as many Smiths do. More likely, he was always Rockhold, or some cognate of it, and the Virginia sources that called him Rockwell were simple clerical errors.

4. James of Scioto Co., Ohio, definitely displays the Fitzhead fingerprint. His two samples also display a particular mutation that is shared by other samples, all of whom descend from Jonathan, son of John of Stamford. This suggests that James was a John-line descendant, as H. Earl Close argues. This is not absolute proof-a William descendant could have had the same mutation in an independent event-but the John hypothesis is more likely.

5. The case of John of Butternuts remains unresolved. We were counting on Simmons displaying a distinctive fingerprint, but that didn't happen. Indeed, he is probably a close cousin of Uriah, the other contestant for John's father, and the two lines may be indistinguishable. Further samples from descendants of Uriah and his immediate ancestors back to Joseph son of John of Stamford are needed to look for further mutations that might distinguish Uriah from Simmons. If they still match Simmons, then no amount of DNA testing will answer this question.

6. Three samples from the line of Thomas of Medina Co., Ohio, all matched each other-and the two Robert samples. This means that Thomas and his immediate ancestors probably came from Pennsylvania and Maryland, with Robert Rockhold as their immigrant ancestor.

7. Similarly, the two Asa Rockwell samples matched the Thomas and Robert samples. Asa is thus another branch of the Robert Rockhold family. Asa and Thomas exemplify the occasional name-changes to Rockwell that we have heard happened in some Rockhold families.

You can view the results for yourself: here are tables showing the genotypes of the 34 samples, showing the values at each locus or tested section of the Y chromosome. Sample i.d. codes are along the top, the tested loci along the left.

See also the haplocation chart, a diagram that shows how closely related the different sample donors appear to be, strictly from the DNA data. The letters representing the samples come from the i.d. code as found in the tables. On another page, I present further details on interpreting the results, esp. the haplocation diagram

As a result of this DNA project, Rockwells now have a new tool at their disposal. If a researcher with a qualified candidate in his or her immediate family has come up against a brick wall, a DNA test will point the way to either Connecticut or Maryland. It won't necessarily distinguish among the Connecticut lines, as some of them are identical to this day. But if the sample displays certain mutations which have been documented by previous donors, such as with the descendants of Jonathan, then one may receive a real clue as to what part of Connecticut their line came from. The more samples are added to the pool of DNA knowledge, the more complete the picture will become, and the more distinctive different lines of the family may become. I am hoping that those interested in the big picture of Rockwell genealogy might be willing to contribute further samples to the pool, even if they already know their line--or think they do.

For there were a few cases in which the DNA evidence ruled out the possibility of their presumed pedigrees being true. Neither the Fitzhead nor the Rockhold pattern is found in their sample; or in one case there was enough in common to say the line probably has a common ancestor to the Connecticut immigrants-but a few generations before them. This is always a danger, and some would rather not know if their pedigree is wrong. But true lovers of genealogy subscribe to the credo, "You can choose your friends but not your ancestors," and will affirm that "a known ancestor is a good ancestor."

Future tests: how YOU can participate

Now that the core of a Rockwell genetic database is in place, further tests on Rockwell samples can be added to fill out the picture. The more samples we have in the pool, the more potential of finding mutations which distinguish individual branches, and the more likely is it that someone seeking to connect their untraced Rockwell branch will locate a general line to which their branch belongs.

The price for doing the DNA test, as set by Relative Genetics, is $225 per sample, or, for groups of five or more, $195 per sample. I will continue to serve as coordinator for future tests. If you are interested in having a test done for yourself or a qualifying (direct-line male) relative, I invite you to contact me, and I will add your name to a list of volunteers, so that we can do it in batches at the lower rate. (As of Sept. 18, 2002, we have 3 volunteers for the next round.) You can also volunteer to be a sponsor for another donor, whether closely related to you or not. Then we can offer to cover the cost for someone who might not otherwise participate, who represents a particular line in whom we are interested.

A brief list of historical Rockwells whose lines we'd like samples for:

For more information, contact me at:

Access the official report from Relative Genetics

Return to DNA Project home page

Return to the Rockwell Family Foundation web page