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The Lanhams of Maryland and the District of Columbia

Controversies in Lanham Genealogy

By Dr. Howard G. Lanham

Topic Three:

Who was the wife of John Lanham, the immigrant?

It was Tobacco not Cotton that was King in Southern Maryland

The first white settlers in Maryland arrived March 25, 1634 at St. Clement's Island in what is now St. Mary’s County, Maryland. Tobacco was the principle “cash crop” in colonial Maryland and settlers were busy clearing land for tobacco cultivation. As settlements grew they spread north up the Chesapeake Bay and also up the Potomac River. Since tobacco is a bulk crop and transporting it from inland locations was difficult, most transportation was by water and settlers hugged the tidewater rather closely. There were also Indian settlements along the Potomac that served for a time to discourage movement in that direction. The southernmost Maryland county on the western shore is St. Mary’s. Next up the Potomac from St. Mary’s is Charles County, established in 1658. North of Charles is Prince George’s County, established in 1696 from portions of Charles and Calvert Counties. The man who established the Lanham family in southern Maryland was John Lanham, who immigrated in 1678 as an indentured servant.(1) He served out his term of indenture and once a free of his obligation acquired a tract of land called Oxmontown in 1694, located in what was at the time northern Charles County, but fell within the bounds of what would become the new county of Prince George’s in 1696.(2)

Many individuals have posted Lanham lineages on the Internet and some have published books on Lanham genealogy. We know from period deeds what the wife of John Lanham, the immigrant, was named Dorothy. This is because during the period a wife was required to renounce her dower rights to land when it was sold or otherwise transferred. (3) I have never been able to find any period record that categorically states the maiden name of Dorothy, wife of John Lanham. However, you will find that many Lanham lineages available of the Internet and elsewhere give her the name “Dorothy Burch” or “Dorothy Shaw.” Many older lineages fail to list a surname for her and my mentor and lifelong Lanham researcher, Paul Trueman Lanham, was unaware of any evidence for her maiden name. More recently an article written by the professional genealogical researcher Robert Barnes titled “The Lanham Family and its Descendents” failed to list a maiden name for Dorothy.(4) It appears that he was unable to find adequate documentation of a surname for her to make a claim in that is a well-researched study.

Over a decade ago I became aware of the claim that her maiden name was “Dorothy Burch.” This claim appeared in some unreferenced Internet lineages and also in Oran Stroud Lanham’s book Our Lanham History and Related Families (1984). Oran Lanham writes, “He (John Lanham) married Dorothy Burch in 1689.”(5) He does not give a source for this information and unfortunately has now passed away and cannot tell us how he came by this. I am uncertain how the claim first became established and by whom. The name Burch is an old Maryland name but I was unable to find any material linking people named Burch with John Lanham during a session of research I did at the Maryland Archives on this question. At this point in time, I would love to see information on the specific source of the Burch claim, but until that emerges I tend to feel that there is a lack of necessary evidence to accept it as creditable.

The more recent claim for the name “Dorothy Shaw” is better documented but is based on circumstantial evidence. The case is put forth by Shirley Middleton Moller, a well respected genealogist whose material can be seen at:

Moller's material

The claim is based on a 1711 agreement between Ralph Shaw, Sr. and Edward Marlow, Sr. of Prince George's County. (6) In this agreement Shaw turns over most of his possessions to Marlow (also appears as Marloe) in exchange for room and board for the remainder of his natural life and that of this wife. This must have been the 18th Century version of Social Security and the result of Shaw reaching the age at which he was unable to continue working the land. In the agreement Shaw exempted grain then growing in his fields and provided that it would be divided between John Lanham and Edward Marlow and also that Lanham would receive two cows and calves and that Marlow would have rights to the labor of one negro and child. At no point in the document is there a statement as to the relationship between the various parties but it does appear that Shaw is trying to equitably divide his assets between Edward Marlow and John Lanham, given that Marlow has accepted the additional burden of supporting Shaw. The assumption here is that Shaw’s motivation in picking these men is likely to be that both men were married to his daughters, but to date I have not seen a direct statement of that as fact. Shaw appeared to continue to hold the title to his own land even after this agreement. He also appears to have had male children of his own.

Ralph Shaw was transported to Maryland in 1663.(7) He acquired property in Charles Co., Maryland called Mobberly and New Exchange.(8) Ralph Shaw, Sr. appears in many different Charles County Court records as a party to various law suits, including one case against a neighbor over property lines. (9) These kinds of suits were not uncommon in 17th Century Maryland and resulted from the nature of the economy, the general lack of cash money, the need to barter and to borrow against future harvests. He also appears as a witness to various categories of other documents; such as wills and deeds. These records serve to establish him as a person living in the region and being located in an area settled prior to that settled by John Lanham’s generation. That is exactly where you could predict John Lanham’s father-in-law might have lived. The theory that Dorothy’s maiden name was Shaw and that she was the daughter of Ralph Shaw, Sr. would seem to have a stronger basis in facts than the yet totally unsubstantiated and unexplained claim that she was Dorothy Burch.

I would not be surprised to find that there are additional facts that I have not bought out and would invite any readers to contribute them. We genealogist do not always do a good job of documenting our sources of information and the bases of our assumptions and conclusions. The failure to do this creates all kinds of problems for those who come after us, even if we are certain of those conclusions ourselves. How many times in our own research have we discovered that we barked up a wrong tree? I will be the first to admit that I have committed these kinds of errors myself. This controversy should serve as an object lesson for us all: document, document and document!

  1. Maryland Archives, Maryland Patents Charles County: Patent No. 438 30 Oct. 1694, BB(3):168.
  2. Jourdan, Elsie Greenup, Land Records of Prince George’s Co., Maryland 1710-1717, (Westminster, MD: Family Line, 1990) p. 71.
  3. Prince George’s Co. Land Records: F: 18 (22 Sep 1717), M:410 (3 May 1729)
  4. Barnes, Robert “The Lanham Family and its Descendents”, Maryland Genealogical Society Bulletin, Winter 1997, 38(1): 12.
  5. Lanham, Oran Stroud Our Lanham History and Related Families, (Dorthan, AL: Privately Printed 1984), p. 27.
  6. Charles County, MD Land Records, Liber C (2): 223.
  7. Skordas, Gust , John M. Brewer, and Arthur Trader, The early settlers of Maryland: an index to names of immigrants (Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Company , 1968), p. 414.
  8. Charles County Hundred Rent Rolls Name Index 1642-1753.
  9. These are too numerous to cite but can be found by searching Ralph Shaw’s name at: Maryland Archives On-Line

General Introduction to Site
List of Lanham Genealogical Controveries Discussed