29 July 2017

Will the Real Matthew Woodruff Please Stand Up? (part 1 of 2)

There has been much speculation about the origin of Matthew Woodruff of Farmington, Connecticut, my Woodruff immigrant ancestor.  Although no solid proof has been found, there is strength in the circumstantial evidence that points to his origins in Cambridge, England.

Legend has it (by way of several published genealogies which have translated to many, many online family trees) that Matthew and his wife Hannah were in Boston circa 1639 and then in Farmington by 1640 or 1641.  There is no evidence to back this up.  In fact, there is no mention of Matthew Woodruff in the exhaustive Great Migration project, which provides comprehensive sketches on all New England immigrants from 1620 through 1635 and a comprehensive index of all New England immigrants from 1636 through 1640. [i]

In her 1963 Woodruff Genealogy, Susan Woodruff Abbott states “Although it has been said that [Matthew] came from Hartford to Farmington in 1640-41, written evidence seems to be entirely lacking.” [ii]

From Susan Woodruff Abbott's book.

According to Abbott, the first written record of Matthew Woodruff in the colonies is dated June 1643 when he was defendant in a lawsuit in Hartford.  She states that he next appears in written records when he purchased land in Farmington ten years later in 1653. [iii]  This is supported by probate records indicating that he was “an owner of land” between 1648 and 1657” [iv]

The following year, on 2 April 1654, “Hannah Woodruff, the wife of Matthew Woodruff, and her daughter Hannah Woodruff, aged about 5 ½ years, and Elizabeth Woodruff, about the age of 2 years 5 months,” joined the church in Farmington. [v]

A record from 16 May 1658 provides the ages of Matthew and Hannah Woodruff’s two eldest children: “the Children of Hannah Woodruff were baptized”, John age “15 years and upward, and Matthew in the 12th years of his life” [vi]

Matthew Woodruff's house identified to the left of the Church.
source: http://carrieandrewsfamilytree.blogspot.com 
This last record indicates that Matthew and Hannah were married by 1642, since their oldest son, John, was born by 1643, to be 15 years old in 1658.  John was likely born in Hartford or in nearby Farmington, since Matthew is named as a defendant in the lawsuit in Hartford the same year as his son’s projected birth, 1643.  Any lawsuit brought about in Farmington would have been heard in nearby Hartford.  As shown above, ten years later, Matthew purchases land in Farmington and the following year his wife enters the church there.

Abbott’s assertions and research from 1963 are supported by my own research, conducted mostly in 2013.  In the intervening fifty years, no new records have been found to place Matthew and Hannah Woodruff earlier or elsewhere in Connecticut.

If Matthew married by 1642 and was party to a lawsuit the following year, he was probably at least 21 years old in 1642, and, since this was his first marriage, probably no older than 30, given the marriage trends during the time period.  This gives Matthew a birth year between 1612 and 1621.

So, given the probable birth range, how do we set about finding him in England?

A False Track – no link to nobility

From my great-great-grandfather Frederick Orr Woodruff’s published Genealogy from 1925:

My great-great grandfather
Frederick Orr Woodruff, 1901
"Sometime in 1910 a party called on me stating that his name was Norris Woodruff, that he was from England and naturally well acquainted with the Woodruff Families there, that he was a descendant of the Woodruffs of Wooley [sic], England, and for a consideration would give out details that would establish a direct connection between the Woodruffs of England and the Woodruffs of the United States.  Naturally I was interested and agreed to pay his price for said information . . . " [vii]

This information asserted that Matthew of Farmington was the son of Sir David Woodruff and Lettice Duncombe of Poyle, England, Matthew being their eldest child, born in 1612.  This was an impressive link, as that family is well documented and can be traced to Roger Bigod, one of the Magna Carta barons, and well beyond.  Sir David’s family originated in Woolley, West Yorkshire, but had sold their land the manor house and moved from there to the London area some generations earlier.

Frederick Woodruff states further, that he directed Norris Woodruff to George N. Mackenzie who was preparing to publish Volume III of the Colonial Families of the United States of America, and who subsequently included this connection in that book.

The result is that the descent from Sir David Woodruff is now widely accepted and published on family trees online and elsewhere.

The difficulty is that there is no record to support a son named Matthew from Sir David Woodruff and Lettice Duncombe.  To further quote Frederick Woodruff:

"After [Colonial Families] was published . . . [I] entered into correspondence with several genealogists in London: after considerable research by them and considerable financial cost to me, they reported as far as they could learn, Sir David Woodruff of Poyle, England, had no son by the name of Matthew.  They did, however, report five [other] sons . . . it is my sincere belief that this party who styled himself as Norris Woodruff and sold the information to Mr. Mackenzie and myself was an imposter." [viii]

All Saints, built in the 11th Century in
Cambridge & torn down in the mid 19th Century
Even though the birth date of 1612 met the outer limits of our target birth year range, we find that there is no record to match the claim.  We are left with the mystery of Matthew’s origins still unresolved.

The Cambridge connection

In the latter years of the 20th century, as 16th and 17th century English records increasingly began to be scanned onto microfiche and transcribed into abstracts, it became somewhat easier to quickly review individual parish records.  One record that was scanned and transcribed was the birth of one Mathue Woodroofe, baptized on 28 July 1616 in the All Saints parish in Cambridge.  Ever since the publication of this birth record among Woodruff researchers, there has been conjecture that this could be the birth record of the immigrant Matthew Woodruff.  This birth year would fit our range: he would have turned 26 in 1642, the year by which we know he had married Hannah.

2007 Cambridge research

In May 2007 I spent a few weeks in England visiting various cousins and friends – and I had the opportunity to spend a few hours at the Cambridgeshire Archives in Cambridge.  I viewed and copied the microfiche of the original record of Matthew’s birth, listed as “Mathue Woodroofe __ son of Mathue Woodroofe baptized Julio xxviii” on the 1616 page in the All Saints parish records.

Matthew Woodruff's birth record.

In reviewing the abstracts for All Saints, I found the following records, with names corrected to contemporary spelling [ix]:

Matthew Woodruff married Margaret Sander 12 April 1591
Grace Woodruff, daughter of Matthew, baptized 9 August 1590
Edward Woodruff, son of Matthew, baptized 18 Jun 1592
Margaret Woodruff, daughter of Matthew, baptized 26 Dec 1593
Elizabeth Woodruff, daughter of Matthew, baptized 14 Dec 1595
Annis Woodruff, daughter of Matthew, baptized 19 Feb 1597/8
Dorothy Woodruff, daughter of Matthew, baptized 13 Jan 1599/1600
Jone Woodruff, daughter of Matthew, baptized 4 July 1602
Infant, son of Matthew, buried 21 Apr 1604
Meldred Woodruff, son of Matthew, baptized 24 Feb 1604/5
Meldred Woodruff, died 5 July 1605
Ann Woodruff, daughter of Matthew, baptized 24 Aug 1606
George Woodruff, son of Matthew, baptized 8 Jan 1608/9
John Woodruff, son of Matthew, baptized 23 June 1611
Grace Woodruff, daughter of Matthew, baptized 30 January 1613/4
Matthew Woodruff, son of Matthew, baptized 28 July 1616

I also found these records:

1592: 21 July, burial: Woodruff _______ of Fulbourn
1596: 16 January, burial: Mother Woodruff
1639: 20 September, burial Edward Woodruff

The records would indicate that Matthew was the 14th and last child to be born to Matthew and Margaret (Sander) Woodruff.  I found no birth record for Matthew Senior, nor for his wife.  My biggest dilemma, however, was that these records still did not tie Matthew’s birth record to our Matthew of Farmington.

I had just a few hours in Cambridge and that was the extent of my research that day.

2011 SOG research

On a subsequent visit to England in 2011, I attended a New England Historic and Genealogical Society (NEHGS) seminar at the Society of Genealogists (SOG) in London to learn more about researching ancestry in Great Britain.

On September 28, 2011 during that visit, I had the opportunity to consult with Geoff Swinfield (http://researchlondon.info/) who is a well-regarded genealogy expert and researcher in England.  I posed him the question: how can I either connect Matthew from Cambridge to Matthew of Farmington or eliminate him from contention as my immigrant ancestor?

The decidedly modern SOG in London
source: http://www.sog.org.uk/]
Geoff helped me research the name Matthew Woodruff in the records throughout the 17th century in England – we looked for life events for Matthew, particularly in the Cambridge area: marriage, death, will, litigation, etc.  There were no life events for Matthew Woodruff listed past his birth in 1616.  There were also no birth records for other Matthews located elsewhere in England.  The single burial record for Matthew Woodruff was tied to Matthew’s father Matthew, in 1632.

The concern with this research is that English records are not compiled and available in a single online, or other, source.  Many records still exist at the parish level only, so our search was not complete by any means.  But we did exhaust those resources available to us at the SOG that day.

Geoffrey told me that he would feel comfortable making the connection from Matthew of Cambridge to Matthew of Farmington as a strong probability.  He based this on two factors: first, there were no birth records located for any other Matthew Woodruff in England who would match the age of the immigrant, therefore there were no other contenders; second, there was no death record for him, nor any other life events for him in England, leading one to conclude that he could have immigrated.  It would, clearly, be subject to future verification as more parish records became more readily available.

The next step, then, would be to look at parishes nearby to All Saints, Cambridge, where additional family records might be found that had not yet been made more broadly available.  In particular, if no further life events were found for Matthew in neighboring parishes, this would support the supposition that he removed to another location.

This would have to be the work of a future visit, however.

This future research has already been completed

Then, in an interesting coincidence, the following day, September 29, 2011, I received an email from Leonard Lee Woodruff of Rockwell City, Iowa, whose DNA had just come up as a match to mine on FamilyTreeDNA.com.  He offered the results of research he had commissioned into the origins of Matthew Woodruff of Cambridge and asked if I had any definitive proof that he might be our common ancestor, Matthew of Farmington.

I replied with the results of my consultation with Geoffrey Swinfield on the previous day and Leonard subsequently sent me copies of the research he had commissioned.

To be continued…

Woolley Hall, Wakefield, West Yorkshire, built in 1635 to replace the original manor house long after the Woodruffs had left.  Source: http://www.wakefield.gov.uk/Pages/News/PR8503.aspx
[i] The Great Migration Directory, by Robert Charles Anderson, FASG, New England Genealogical and Historic Society, Boston, MA, 2015
[ii] Woodruff Genealogy: Descendants of Matthew Woodruff of Farmington, Connecticut, compiled by Susan Woodruff Abbott, The Harty Press, New Haven, CT, 1963, p 1
[iii] Abbott, p 1
[iv] Digest of the Early Connecticut Probate Records. (Online database, americanancestors.org, New England Historic and Genealogical Society, 2006), (A Digest of the Early Connecticut Probate Records, by Charles W. Manwaring, R.S. Peck & Co. Printers, Hartford, CT, 1904.), p 86
[v] “Records of Farmington in Connecticut”, Nathaniel Goodwin, New England Historic and Genealogical Register, 11:323-4
[vi] Goodwin, NEHGR 11:326
[vii] Woodruff Genealogy: Matthew Woodruff of Farmington, Conn. 1640-1, by George N. Mackenzie, George S. Stewart and Frederick Orr Woodruff, published 1925, p 1

[viii] Mackenzie, Stewart & Woodruff, pp 1-2
[ix] All records immediately following are from abstracts of the All Saints Parish Records, located at the Cambridgeshire Archives in Cambridge, England


  1. Hello Daniel,I have just read your account of the research on Matthew Woodruff.I'm very impressed,must have been interesting to be in England.I'm also descended from Matthew.I've been to his home back in the 80's when my children were young.My woodruff's moved to Washinton Co.N.Y.then in 1810 to Andover N.Y.My grandfathers are Josephs finally John and Abigail Curtis woodruff.There aretwo Woodruff from Susan's book buried here in Toledo.Elijah born 1802 and Chauncey born almost the same period.Both were prominent in this community.Jeff

    1. Belated Reply, Jeff - I'm glad you found this of interest! I have another lead (interestingly, supplied recently by Leonard Woodruff who I mentioned above) that may pan out with a little more information. I'll post it if it does prove to be of interest!

  2. Daniel -- I appreciate your excellent Woodruff ancestry blog. I am another of the zillions of descendants of Matthew Woodruff of Farmington. I found the following on freereg-uk.org and thought that it might be of interest: marriage of Mathew "Woothroof" (?) to Amye Barnie, 7 Dec 1600 at St. Margaret's, Lyng, Norfolk. There is no record of the christenings of any children of this couple in Lyng, nor of any burials. Accordingly, my assumption would be that they moved away shortly after the marriage. Free Reg. has no other record of anyone named Matthew Woodruff (with variants) having children anywhere in England & Wales for the entire period pre-1630 (aside from Cambridge, of course). Amy Barny had been chr. at Lyng 20 Aug 1567, so she would have not been able to have children after about 1617. The marriage date falls in a gap between the first six children of Matthew Woodruff and the last eight. On the other hand, one transcriber (on Family Search) claims that the 1604 buried record of one of Mathew's unnamed child gives the mother's name as "Marget," If this has been transcribed correctly , it wwould preclude Margaret's having died and Mathew having taken a second over in Norfolk 1600.

    1. Hi Barry, thanks for the great note! I appreciate you sharing this new "Matthew" sighting in the records. As you say, it's not likely he could be in our line, so one more circumstantial indication that we've got the right one. The surname "Woodruff" was pretty common in England, since it was assigned to people who lived on patches of land where the woodruff plant grew (at least according to some sources!), so we're very likely to find more Matthew Woodruff mentions all over England as more records are digitized. Thanks, and stay in touch!

  3. nice read Daniel. seems like the Woodruff line went way back in Connecticut. Me most likely a descendent I've search as far back I could back to my Great Great Grandfather Orson S. Woodruff born 1847. I will continue my research.