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  • Are There Two Kinds of Thayers?

    Philip S. Thayer

    Published Date : June 1985
    [Philip S. Thayer is a descendant of bothe Richard1 and Thomas1 Thayer, with other lines from six Mayflower passengers, three immigrants with royal lines, and a Salem witch.]

    The origin of the Thayer family in America and the origin of the name may be more closely related than any speculations known to the writer have brought out.  It is now generally agreed that the Thayers of Massachusetts (Braintree and Taunton) are ancestral to most if not all the known Thayers in this country, and are descendants of the brothers Richard and Thomas (of Braintree, and thence Mendon), and their (presumed) nephew, Nathaniel of Taunton.  This is well demonstrated in the work of Waldo C. Sprague, available at the Society in manuscript and partially on microfilm.  The possible relationship between the brothers and Nathaniel is strengthened by the recent report that the wife of John Briggs of Taunton was Agnes Thayer, believed to be a sister of Richard and Thomas (Richardson, 1983).  A fifth possible immigrant is John Tayer of Bloody Point, Maine, in 1635, believed (Noyes, et al, 1976) to be “a brother of Cicely Thayer of Thornbury.”  No evidence is given for this statement, nor is John credited with any descendants.

    All of the Thayers just mentioned were born in Thornbury, Gloucestershire.  Their birth records in the parish registers there were first reported by Faxon and Whorf (1906).  The complete marriage records of Thornbury have also been published (Phillimore, 1909).  Luis and Thomas Thayer Ojeda (of the Chilean branch of the family) subsequently studied the Thornbury parish records in considerable detail.  Thayer Ojeda (1907) published a table of surnames from these records, showing variants in spelling from 1550 to 1650 and comparing them to other “Thayer” families in other Gloucestershire towns, including Brockworth, Hucclecote, Churchdown and others.  Ojeda thought these families were somehow related, although there are no lines of descent known.  However, he did not remark upon the fact that in his own table, the Thornbury Thayers never had an “h” in their name (370 entries), it always being Tawyer, Tayer, or some variant thereof.  On the other hand, the other Thayers always had an “h” in their name (228 entries), e.g., Thayer, Thaier, Theire, etc.  The period covered is obviously longer than the tenure of the idiosyncratic parish minister sometimes invoked to explain such data.

    If one consults the multitudinous books on the origins of English surnames, two quite different derivations of “Thayer” and “Tawyer” are found.  For example, the distinction is made in Bardsley (1980), which. however, lays the groundwork for another sort of confusion:

    Tawer, Tawyer-Occup. ‘the tawyer’ (lit. tawer, the y is instrusive as in Sawyer), one who dressed skins. 'Tewynge of Lethyr': Prompt. Parv. Professor Skeat (s.v. taw, tew) quotes Wyclifs use of tawer for a leather-dresser, where a later version has 'couriour', i.e. currier. A.S. tawian, to prepare, and he cites several examples of the use as a surname, one in 1273. (op.cit.,739).

    Thayer-?Bapt. ‘the son of Theodoric’ (?) from the OF, popular nick. Thierry or Theirre (V. Terry).  Thayer is, I presume, a modern English modification of the surname.  But while it rarely exists in England, it is a familiar entry in American directories.  I have no actual proof for my conjecture, but I strongly believe I shall be found to be correct.” (op.cit.,743).

    Bardsley apparently did not know of the Thornbury/Braintree origin of most of the Thayers “in American directories.”

    A second source, Harrison (1918), essentially agrees on Tawyer, but offers a slightly different derivation for Thayer:

    “Thayer (A.-Er.-Teut.) represents an O. Frank cognate, Thiadher (A.D. 799) of A.-Sax. Theodhere = National Army....

    The first derivation in both Bardsley and Harrison would clearly apply to the Thornbury family.  It is anyone’s guess as to how long before 1608 any one of them was really a “tawyer.”  The date of 1608 is chosen because in that year the “census” of the Able Men of Gloucestershire (publ. 1902) identified each of the “Tayers” of Thornbury as a shoemaker.

    The second origin might very well apply to the Thayers of Brockworth, etc., and those in London and Essex (below).

    If these two names are indeed separate in origin, then it would seem likely that the families are separate in their origns.  If that is so, other speculations become moot: why did the Thornbury family “omit” the “h”? (not if they never had it!) - are the Thayers of Thornbury origin entitled to the use of a coat-of-arms? Not if theyre of a separate more humble origin than whomever may have been so entitled.

    The last question is, of course, a delicate one since for probably a century or more various Thayers have wanted to believe, and then have wound up believing, that they were entitled to a coat of arms.  The arms and crest presently used by most such hopefuls is described as follows:

    Arms - Per pale ermine and gules, three talbots’ heads erased counterchanged.

    Crest-A talbot’s head.


    A search through many books of heraldry, both American and English, shows no early use of this device except in the 1633-5 Visitation of London (1883).  In that book, and in the related 1633-8 Visitation of Essex (1888), we find the descendants for four generations of John Thayer of Much Badow, Essex, all of them in Essex or London, and all of them Thayers with an “h”.  It has apparently been hypothesized that some member(s) of this family leap-frogged to Gloucestershire before 1550 or so, dropped their “h” and took up the career of shoemaking.  The most recent example of this, in Thayer (1983), even has them coming from Germany “circa 1495,” citing Thayer Ojeda (1907) (which appears to the present author to have no such statement).

    On the other hand, the Tayers and Thayers of Gloucestershire received short shrift at the hands of the heralds.  Only one is mentioned in the 1623 Visitation of Gloucestershire (1885), Edward Tayer of Oldbury (near Thornbury), and he is dismissed as “no gent.”

    Another question, to which the answer would appear to be “no,” is did any of the Brockworth or London Thayers ever emigrate to America? There appears to be no evidence for this in New England, but some such might be found in the southern colonies.

    We are left with at least one real question - why did the Tayers who came to the Bay Colony add the “h”? To answer this, one might remember that Richard’ and his son Richard2, in particular, were men of some pretensions and litigiousness. A plausible hypothesis is that they were aware of the other Thayer family and hoped that some of its prestige might rub off on them if they adopted its spelling. Word of this may never have gotten back to Thornbury - there is a 1720 plaque on the wall of the Thornbury church dedicated to “John Tayer,” seen by the author on a visit there in 1970.

    It is usual in genealogy to explain away differences in the spellings of proper names as being due to various trivial causes: idiosyncracy, family argument, assimilation, and even illiteracy. The evidence in the present case suggests that differences in the origins of now apparently identical names may have greater genealogical significance.


    Bardsley, C.W. A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames. London, 1901. Reprint ed., Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1980.

    Bysshe, F. A Visitation of the County of Essex, 1663-1668. Ed. by J. J. Howard. London: Mitchel and Hughes, 1888.

    Chitty, H. and I. Phillipot. The Visitation of the County of Gloucester taken in the year 1623. Ed. by J. Maclean and W.C. Heane. London: Harleian Society, 1885.

    Faxon, W. and E.H. Whorf. “Tayer (Thayer) Family Entries in the Parish Registers of Thornbury, Gloucestershire, England,” Register, 60 (1906) :281-88.

    Harrison, H. Surnames of the United Kingdom. London: Morland, 1918.

    Noyes, S., C.T. Libby, and W.G. Davis. Genealogical Dictionary of Maine and New Hampshire. Portland, 1928-39. Reprint ed., Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1976.

    Phillimore, W. P. W. Gloucestershire Parish Registers. Marriages, Vol. xv. London: Phillimore, 1909.

    Richardson, D. “The English Origins of John Briggs of Taunton, Mass.” The American Genealogist, 59 (1983):175-79.

    St. George, H. The Visitation of London, 1633, 1634 and 1635. Ed. by J..J. Howard. London: Harleian Society, 1883.

    Smith, John (comp). The Names and Surnames of all the Able and Sufficient Men in Body fit for His Majesty ‘s Service in the Wars, within the County of Gloucester, August 1608. London: Sotheran, 1902.

    Sprague, W.C. Thayer Family Genealogies. Wollaston, Mass., 1949-50. Manuscript at the Society.

    Thayer, R.A. Thayer Family and Dill Family. Pub, by the author, 1983.

    Thayer Ojeda, Tomas. The Thayer Family of Thornbury. [Santiago de Chile?]: Imprenta Moderna, 1907.

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