Discovering the Ancestors
of John May (1760-1813)
Fred T. May
The origin of the ancestors of John May, who entered the Big
Sandy Valley with his family in
1800, has been an unsolved mystery to Twentieth Century May genealogists.
This brief essay
of discoveries concerning the May family reveals the answer to
With the help of my wife and daughter, I am actively working
on the publication of a complete
genealogy to relate the story of the May family line from 1540
to 1813, the year John May
died. [The Shoemaker's
Children was published in September 1998, the 250th anniversary
of the arrival of the family in America. Extensive information
concering the family in the Rheinland Palatinate and in America
was found after this essay was written, and is documented in
In 1929 the first publication of a history of the May ancestors
was written in Topeka, Kansas
by Homer Eiler, a descendent of John and Sarah May.
Eiler had only a vague idea of his
May ancestors coming to America "about 1725, sooner or later."
He assumes they "landed, no
doubt, at Baltimore and took up their residence in Maryland,
then later in Virginia."He
isn't able to distinguish his ancestor John May from a number
of others who resided in Virginia
prior to the Revolution. Eiler employed genealogists to do research
in a dozen counties in
Virginia and Maryland seeking a marriage record. He found that
John was living in North
Carolina in the 1790s but didn't know when he arrived in that
remote frontier region.
Eiler determined that in 1800 John and Sarah moved to Shelby
Creek in Floyd (now Pike)
County, Kentucky from North Carolina (actually Tennessee after
1796). He states that John
died in 1810, which is close to the actual date of 1813. He also
refers to a picture, taken on the
May farm on Shelby Creek "about four miles above its mouth
into the Big Sandy River,"
of the graves of John and Sarah.
Eiler makes reference to a list of John's children in an 1815
Floyd County deed. He speculates
that the older children, including his ancestor, John May, Jr.,
may have been born in Virginia,
and the others in North Carolina. From the age inscribed on John,
Jr.'s. tombstone, Eiler
determines that the oldest May son was born in 1780.
Based on documents relating to an 1845 Declaration by John's
wife Sarah, Tress May Francis
proves that, after he completed his service in the Revolutionary
War, John May met Sarah Jane
Phillips in Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia), and that
within a year they were married.
She cites documents proving that John had at least two
May uncles, Daniel and Leonard. The
name of a Francis May, apparently another close relative, (actually
a brother of Daniel and
Leonard), was also found in Martinsburg deeds that were recorded
after Daniel's death.
Mrs. Francis traces the move of John's family to North Carolina
in 1789, and their move to
Shelby Creek in 1800. In 1956 she documented her work in an unpublished
book. In the
ensuing forty years little progress has been made to determine
more about John's ancestors.
Traditions Regarding John May's Ancestors
Homer Eiler assumed his May line was related to Dorothy May,
wife of William Bradford who
arrived on the American shore on the Mayflower. In his history
of the family he cites no records
showing the continuation of the line to John May of Eastern Kentucky
In her book Mrs. Francis speaks of two branches of the May
family: "The Plymouth or New
England Branch" and the "Southern or Virginia Branch."
She mentions a John May, the
immigrant ancestor of the Northern Branch, who landed at Plymouth
in 1640. The May
descendants in Eastern Kentucky are said to be from the Southern
Branch that was established
in 1740 at Bristol Parish, Virginia by John May, a clerk of the
Vestry. However, she states,
"no one has been able to find any definite records that
connect the line to entry into this
country or to any of the early established lines."
Though she again cites no records, Mrs. Francis repeats a
family tradition that "three brothers,
John, Leonard and Thomas (some say James) came to America in
early colonial times,
landed at Baltimore, Maryland, and finally settled in different
parts of the South, mainly
Virginia." She says that [she thinks] John (1760-1813) is
a son of one of these three brothers.
In 1967, Mrs. Howard W. Woodruff wrote a brief history of
the John May Jr. line of the
descendants of John and Sarah May.
She credits Col. Andrew Jackson May, a grandson of
John May, with having "the earliest record of this branch
of the May family." According
to Col. May, "John, Leonard and Thomas May immigrated to
Maryland from Germany in
colonial days." Mrs. Woodruff observes that this account
of a German ancestry doesn't agree
with Eiler's assumption that the Mays are of English descent.
Col. May relates that Thomas May finally settled in Buckingham
Co., Virginia. He ends his
brief summary of the early generations of the May family saying,
"John May, son of the above
John May, was born near Baltimore, and married Sarah, daughter
of Thomas Phillips."
The migration of the young family of John and Sarah is traced
by Col. May from "Maryland to
North Carolina, thence to Tennessee, thence to Kentucky, where
he settled in the year
Looking for a German Connection
Citing ship records of the port of Philadelphia, a few May genealogists
have more recently
pointed out the possibility that John May is of German descent.
Mrs. Jo Ann Whitson Cuddy of
Bristol, Tennessee has tried to rally the plodding researchers
to "put our collective heads
together and see if we can come up with some answers, probabilities,
possibilities or even
clues." She proposed the hypothesis that the three brothers
who came to America in colonial
days might have been "Johann, Frantz and Leonard."
As food for thought on the subject,
she distributed a summary of miscellaneous facts about Eighteenth
Century Mays in Virginia,
Maryland and Pennsylvania.
In March of this year, my wife Darlene decided to show some
interest in my May genealogy
avocation and accompanied me to the Genealogy Library at the
Texas State Archives. Her
opinion of my years of dedication to the work of collecting information
on - and now writing
about - the May family has compelled her to repeatedly say that
I need to trace the Mays
across the ocean. The standard question has been, "Are you
still stuck in Martinsburg?" We
began searching for a connection to the earliest Mays we knew
about - Daniel, Leonard and
Francis. Jo Ann's suggestions brought focus to the German versions
of these names.
The first breakthrough in the search occurred when Darlene
found a listing under the Meÿ family
name in a book by Don Yoder.
Yoder included a partial list - that has survived in the Bavarian
State Archives - of emigrants who left the [former] Duchy of
Zweibrüecken in the Palatinate
during the period from 1728 to 1749. Noted in the book is a brief
account of the migration of a
Meÿ family to America. The Meÿ family members who left
the small village of Niederhausen on
the Nahe River in 1748 were: three brothers, Leonhardt, Daniel,
and Frantz Peter; three sisters,
Maria Elisabetha, Anna Margaretha, and (possibly)
Anna Maria [Lorentz]; and their sixty-two
year old mother, Maria Catharina. Records of the ship Edinburgh
show that they sailed from
Rotterdam, Holland via Portsmouth, England and, on September
5, 1748, arrived in
The second breakthrough came from a book entitled "Birth
and Baptismal Register - First
Reformed Church - Lancaster, Pennsylvania." These records
include the birth and infant
baptism records of the first American-born children of the May
brothers. On January 6, 1760
John May, son of Francis (Frantz) Peter and Ann Maria May and
the future patriarch of the
May family in the Big Sandy Valley, was born.
The German connection is made.
1. Eiler, Homer. Director, Kansas
Historical Society. Our Ancestors - A Record of May,
Hanson, Pollard and
Philips Families, private printing,
James S. Dancy, Grenola, Kansas, 1929.
2. Francis, Tress May. May Genealogy. Southern
Branch with Biographical Sketches: 1776-1956.
Unpublished, filed at Kentucky Historical
Society, Frankfort, Ky. 1956.
3. Woodruff, Mrs. Howard W. John May, Sr.
and Sarah Jane Phillips May. 1760 - 1967,
Unpublished, Independence, Missouri.
4. Harman, John Newton, Sr. Annals of Tazewell
County, Va., Vol. II:420.
5. Yoder, Don, editor. Pennsylvania German
Immigrants 1709-1786, Lists Consolidated from Yearbooks
The Pennsylvania German Folklore Society,
Genealogical Publishing Co., Baltimore, 1980.
In 1998 I discovered - through
a few letters that were preserved - that Homer Eiler, Tress May
Francis and Mrs. Howard W. Woodruff and a few other May genealogists
had corresponded in the period from about 1930 to the mid-1950s,
so they were aware of each others research on the family.