Researching the Ancestry of the Famous Five


By Glynn Burrows


ON BIG BLEND RADIO: Glynn Burrows discusses his family history research on America’s Famous Five. Watch here in the YouTube player or download the podcast on Acast.

Although, in England, The Famous Five” will bring to mind the books by Enid Blyton, for this article I am looking at the ancestry of America’s Famous Five: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman. Well, that’s how it started out at any rate. It has morphed into looking at how we are often told things with nothing to back up those “facts”.

My first thought, when this subject was suggested to me, was obviously the thought that one of them must have Norfolk roots, so that was what got me delving deeper.

I will start with Benjamin Franklin, as he was the first name I looked at. There are thousands of entries for the Franklin family tree online and they all mention Benjamin’s mother, who was Abiah Folger. Her ancestry is the side which I looked at because it was written, on most of the websites, that her father, Peter, came from Norwich, which is my local city.

Peter Folger is supposed to have emigrated in the 1630s and, although most websites say that he came from Norwich, I didn’t see one which gives a source of that piece of information and many say that there is little known about him before he emigrated, although they continue to tell us that he came from Norwich.

This is a common thing seen in family histories. One site says one thing and then every other site publishes that information without any research or investigation, just citing the other website as the source of that information. It doesn’t take long for a “fact” written by someone to become the truth and be taken as such by everyone without any investigation.

So, I decided to look into this and see what I could find out about Peter Folger. Was he actually from Norwich?

What do we know? It is pretty well documented that Peter Folger arrived around 1635 and settled in Watertown. He learned to speak the native language, was a teacher, and was a Baptist Minister. He married in 1644 and died in 1690.

It is said that his father was John Folger Jun and Maribah (nee Gibbs) and his father was a widower when he came over.

I looked in all the Norfolk indexes I could find online, and I couldn’t find a marriage between a John Folger and a Maribah Gibbs. I checked for a burial of a Maribah Folger before 1636 and could not find one.

I looked for the baptism of Peter Folger around 1617, but again, no luck.

The sources which appear to have been used for most of the information relating to the Folger family, are a series of letters, which are in The Founders’ Archives. These letters are part of a fantastic collection of documents, many of which date back to the C17th, assembled by The Founding Fathers and many others, to shed light on the formation of the country.

These Folger letters mainly date from the middle of the C18th, so are over a century after the emigrants, but they tell of a Folger family in Norfolk, corresponding with Franklin about his ancestry, so there is, in all probability, a connection with that family.

In my research, I found that there was a family in the Diss area of Norfolk which could have been connected, but I have not located a Peter baptised there in the years around 1617. There was also a Gibbs family in that area, at the same time and I have seen mention of a will of John Gibbs, dated 1609, in which he mentioned his daughter, “Merraba Folger”, so that needs following up. (The will isn’t online, so that will require a trip to the local record office.)

So, Benjamin Franklin’s mother’s family did probably come from Norfolk, but it will require a lot of research to check all the information, as few writers have added sources to back up their findings, making it almost impossible to check.

Looking at the Franklin family themselves, they do appear to be well-researched, and their origins are said to have been in Acton, Northamptonshire.

Of the other four, John Adams’ family is said to have originated in Braintree and that is quite likely as, when they came over to America, they settled in a place which they called Braintree.

Robert Livingston has ancestors from Ancrum in Scotland and again, his family history appears, on the face of it, to be agreed by scholars.

Roger Sherman is another one with Essex origins according to all of the indexes I have consulted, and the early family appears to have been in the East Bergholt and Dedham area of the county. (This is a very interesting area, as it is where, in the C18th, John Constable did a lot of his painting.)

Thomas Jefferson is one of the five who has a lot of debate about his origins. His mother’s family appears to be well-researched and documented, but his paternal line is less so. The Jefferson family would be a great project for another day…………….

So, reading biographies online are a good way to find out basic information about people, but, if you want to find out more about the subjects, carry out a lot of your own research. During my internet trawls it soon became obvious that many websites were just “copy-paste” and there were very few showing sites that showed any original work.

There are a lot of online depositories which now make their collections available, so, if there are references and sources mentioned in books or on websites, they can often be checked, but, for many of the “facts” there are no sources mentioned, so it is impossible to check the original documents.

Although this was supposed to be an article about The Founding Fathers, it has turned out to be a cautionary tale for any historian. The lesson, as we all know, is to check the original records (and don’t believe what you read on the internet).

Glynn provides customized, private tours and also helps his clients trace their English family history. Past guests have visited and experienced stately houses and gardens, castles and churches, ruins and villages, birding and wildlife, World War II airfields, and general area taster tours too. Accommodations can be in all types of establishment, from character buildings such as windmills, thatched cottages and castles, self-catering or five star luxury –  just say what you want and it can be arranged. Nothing is too much trouble for Glynn! Visit

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Glynn provides customized, private tours and also helps his clients trace their English family history.

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