Emma was a popular woman’s name in England from the time of the Norman Conquest and it gave rise to several surnames. In the Yorkshire Poll Tax of 1379, for example, there were numerous families with the byname Emmeson and at least one of these appears to have become hereditary in the southeastern part of the West Riding, Yorkshire. John Emmeson and Cecelia his wife were then living at Rawcliffe.
By circa 1540 the name was spelled Emson and it was prominent in Rawcliffe and other townships belonging to the vast and ancient parish of Snaith. Between 1576 and 1584 William Emson was involved in the purchase of a cottage in Hook and various dwelling-houses in Goole, Rawcliffe, and Reedness. In some cases he was called Emson, in others Empson; the latter spelling was by this time more prevalent.
A variety of documents offer glimpses of the family’s ramification in the area. Early 17th-century wills describe Edward Empson of Hook as “gentleman” (1618) and John Empson of Goole as “yeoman” (1645). The Hearth Tax of 1666 shows that both Anthony and Richard Empson of Goole possessed houses with four fireplaces. Thomas Empson of Cowick had several children between 1602 and 1614.
Although the genealogical links between these and other local Empson families have not all been traced, the probability is that they were all related, for they were resident in the same parish and the surname was rare or unknown elsewhere in the Riding. The references are, therefore, loosely linked paragraphs in the story of Charles Empson, a Snaith farmer who sought permission to emigrate to America in 1710.
Charles Empson’s petition survives among the Quarter Sessions Rolls at Wakefield and it contains some fascinating insights into his motives for wanting to leave. In it he describes himself as having been “a great farmer of £300 per annum,” who “commonly kept seven plowes goeing, makeing it his Business to improve Lands of littell valew.” He had been successful in this effort, and having also an estate of his own had been able to live “in a flourishing condition and great plenty.” An unfortunate run of bad luck had then obliged him to sell his effects and pay the creditors. In his own words he had “suffered great Losses bouth by fire and great inundations of water, which Broke in upon him.” These losses amounted to over £2,000.
Charles Empson had a wife and eight children, most of them still small and unable to work for their living, and it was probably economic necessity which persuaded him to seek a passage to Pennsylvania, where he had “many able friends and near Relations.” In his petition he asked the Justices of Peace to grant him assistance “by sertificate of his Losses, in hopes thereby to procure some Reliefe towards the transporting his family,” but their response did not please him. They offered to provide him with a certificate allowing him to “pass quietly through the Kingdom,” a necessary piece of documentation at a time when many travelers risked arrest on the highways because of the Act of Settlement. This was not enough for Empson and in a note appended to th order, in his own hand, he wrote that what he really wanted was evidence of his losses, which would “procure a permit to go passage free in part.” Almost querulously he added “I need no sertificate to go quatly.”
This is the extent of the information now available on the English origins of Charles Empson. Perhaps American readers of the NEXUS have more information on later migrations of Charles Empson to Pennsylvania and beyond.
Dr. Redmonds, Director of the “Family History for Americans” course at the College of Ripon and York St. John in England, is known for his work on surname origins and Yorkshire local history. Beginning with this issue, he will author a regular column in the NEXUS, concerning English origins and migrations.