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Ask a Genealogist: What is Person of Quality?

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Question:

Is there a definition of what constituted a "person of quality" in the 17th-18th century? Would a yeoman be considered of quality? Did it vary from place to place?

Answer:

Reply from Lindsay Fulton, NEHGS Genealogist

If you are referring to John Camden Hotten’s The original lists of persons of quality: emigrants, religious exiles, political rebels, serving men sold for a term of years, apprentices, children stolen, maidens pressed, and others who went from Great Britain to the American plantations, 1600-1700, the author defines “persons of quality” in his introduction. According to the author, the passengers identified in his compilation were comprised of, “men of position at home, with wealth,” and also of men who were, “comparatively obscure men - men of little means.” He further explains that the unifying quality of these men was their character, “possessed of hearts and consciences of too honest a nature to permit them quietly to submit to the tolerance which was forced upon them at home.” In other words the emigrants, religious exiles, political rebels, serving men sold for a term of years, apprentices, children stolen, maidens pressed, and others from Great Britain listed in the compilation, were considered by the author to be “persons of quality.”


However, if you were concerned with the definition of a yeoman, a comprehensive definition can be found in A to Zax: a comprehensive dictionary for genealogists and historians. The author, Barbara Jean Evans, lists several definitions: “1. an experienced man capable of keeping account of supplies and costs; 2. A farmer who tills his own small acreage; 3. A person who can be counted on to work diligently and effectively; 4. A clerk or writer in the navy.”

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