Saturday, 4 January 2014

Out Of Their Trees - Virgil Thomson

As part of my celebration of music in 2013 I’ll be following on from my look at Benjamin Britten’s ancestry last November and look at the family trees of other lgbt musicians and singers to see if their musical talents were inherited - and at what skeletons or saints they have in their family closets. I’ll begin with the American composer Virgil Thomson (1896-1989).

Virgil Thomson certainly didn’t get his musical talents from his father Quincy Alfred Thomson. Quincy was tone deaf. There’s not much to suggest music ran in his father’s family either. The Thomson’s were Scottish in origin. The first definite recorded member of the family was Samuel Thomson (1691-1753), who emigrated from the Scottish Lowlands (via Wales) in 1717 to become a planter in Virginia Colony. Some researchers have traced Samuel’s ancestry back a further 3 generations, but I’d prefer more proof before I agree with them.

The above-mentioned Samuel Thomson, it is said, was an Anabaptist. This was a faith which advocated simplicity and rejection of luxury. They were also against church hierarchy, making them unpopular with both Catholic and Protestant authorities. Because of this, the Anabaptists were persecuted in the 16th and 17th centuries. As with some other persecuted religious groups (such as the Mayflower Pilgrims) the Anabaptists sought refuge in the New World.

Samuel’s son William was a Captain in the Virginia state regiment during the War of Independence, and his grandson was called Asa Thomson. Their wives were, respectively, Anne Rodes and Diana Quarles. I’ll come back to these ladies later.

Even if there’s only circumstantial evidence that Samuel Thomson was Anabaptist, it is certain that his great-grandson (the son of Asa Thomson) was a Baptist preacher. His name was Robert Yancey Thomson and he married in 1826. His wife was the daughter of a Baptist minister, Rev. Peyton Nowlin, whose grandfather was an immigrant from Ireland. Virgil Thomson was Robert’s great-grandson.

Looking at Virgil’s maternal line of descent there’s also no real evidence of a musical strain to the family, though it shows a similar mix of English, Scottish and Irish colonial ancestry as his father’s. In fact, it goes all the way back to the first colonial settlement of Jamestown.

Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in American, founded in 1607. Capt. Thomas Graves, Virgil’s direct ancestor, came to Jamestown in the Second Supply convoy in 1608. He founded an estate about 10 miles from the main settlement and was one of the burgesses in American’s first Representative Legislative Assembly. Five generations later Thomas’s descendant John Graves junior (1737-1825) moved the family home from Virginia to Kentucky. The Graves line continues down to Mary Eliza Graves, who married Benjamin Watts Gaines, and was Virgil Thomson’s grandmother. Benjamin himself also descended from John Graves junior – his grandmother was John’s daughter.

And now let’s return to the wives of Asa and Capt. William Thomson. Both wives come from colonial families with well documented ancestries.

Diana Quarles, the wife of Asa Thomson, belonged to a prominent settler family, and the couple were not only ancestors of Virgil Thomson but also one of the Hollywood Greats, Steve McQueen. The Quarles have distinguished ancestry going back to bad King John of Magna Carta and Robin Hood fame.

The other wife I mentioned, the wife of Capt. William Thomson, was Anne Rodes. She, too, belonged to a distinguished settler family. Her grandfather was almost certainly the emigrant Charles Rodes. Only circumstantial evidence links them, but several of the most respected American and British genealogists accept the link with 99% certainty.

Charles Rodes came from Sturton-le-Steeple in Nottinghamshire, a village right in the heart of Mayflower Pilgrim country just a few miles from where I originally come from. Charles inherited his estate through his grandmother who was the daughter of Sir George Lascelles. Charles’s grandfather was Sir Francis Rodes (1588-1645) of Barlborough Hall in neighbouring Derbyshire. Through his mother Frances (née Constable) Sir Francis has several lines of descent from several kings of England and Scotland, and shares ancestry with myself – Virgil Thomson (through Constable and Rodes) and myself (through Constable, Monckton, Appleyard and Scupham) are direct descendants of King Henry II of England.


  1. Hello,
    I am Virginia (Thomson) Baldwin, great-granddaughter of Col. Pike and Elizabeth (Goodwin) Thomson, and 2nd cousin to the late Steve McQueen. My questions is how did you determine we were related to kings of Scotland? My research has us related to several kings of England, and to Charlemagne but no connection to the kings of Scotland. Perhaps you can enlighten me?

    Thank you.

  2. Good to hear from you. Both of Col. Pike Thomson's paternal grandparents, Asa Thomson and Diana Quarles Thomson, have royal ancestry from Scotland. Through the Rodes family Asa is descended from King Edward III of England. In turn, King Edward, and Diana Quarles Thomson (through the Mallory family), descend from King John of England. King John was great-grandson of King Henry II of England and his wife Princess Matilda, daughter of King Malcolm III Canmore of the Scots. I hope this helps.