Boddie’s works are essential reading on local history

Published 12:56 am Wednesday, May 27, 2020

short rows headerGov. Ralph Northam’s stay-at-home order, following shortly after retirement as a weekly newspaper editor, has left me with more spare time than I am accustomed to having. Filling that time with somewhat useful pursuits has, in turn, led me to clean the shop, prune the crepe myrtles and azaleas, mow the ditch bank and tackle some other long-neglected projects.


And still, there has been time to spare, and that’s led me to pick some reference books off the shelf and delve a bit deeper into them.

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I started With John Bennett Boddie’s “Colonial Surry.” That delightful little paperback — 163 pages of narrative and another 85 pages of appendices — has had a place on the reference shelf for years, and was occasionally used to help me write a column or story about that county’s history. Actually sitting down and reading it, however, offered far more fascinating glimpses of Surry’s origins.

Having waded through that and been enthralled with Bennett’s detailed reporting, particularly of Surry’s very earliest settlers and the next generation’s involvement in Bacon’s Rebellion, I turned to his earlier, and more extensive, work, “Seventeenth Century Isle of Wight County Virginia.” This one also has had a place on the shelf and had been used far more frequently than the Surry book. As I read a bit more of the Isle of Wight work, though, I began to wonder about the author.

Any genealogist could have told me that here was a prominent figure in that rather tedious field of endeavor, but I’d never thought much about who he was. I’m now beginning to understand just how great a debt Isle of Wight County owes to this lawyer, whose family history led him to undertake a remarkable second career as a genealogist and historian.

John Bennett Boddie was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1880. He must have had quite an independent streak, for he enlisted in the Army during the Spanish-American War only to be discharged when it was discovered he was under age. He enlisted again to serve in World War I as a lieutenant and then captain in the U.S. Army Air Service. After the war, he became an assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago.

While practicing law, he became interested in genealogy and began a prolific writing career. Before he died in 1965, he had published 30 books. In addition to the Isle of Wight and Surry histories, they include the 23-volume “Historical Southern Families.”

Boddie’s interest in the south shore of the James River is understandable. The index of names in “Seventeenth Century Isle of Wight” includes more than 450 references to a Bennett and 500-plus references to a Boddie. John Bennett Boddie had no trouble staking claim on Isle of Wight’s earliest history.

He was particularly fascinated with Bacon’s Rebellion and the quite different involvement in that ill-fated uprising by Surry and Isle of Wight residents. He also understood the significant role of both counties in the early religious history of America. Though he didn’t make a separate study of either topic, his insight into both add depth to our understanding, particularly of early religious dissent.

When Boddie’s Isle of Wight history was published in 1938, a copy of it was immediately donated to the Smithfield Library, which back then was known as the Benjamin P. Chapman Memorial Library and was operated by a volunteer board of directors. A note in The Smithfield Times on April 28 of that year quoted Dr. E.G. Swem, librarian of the College of William and Mary, who called Boddie’s work an “excellent source material for the study of Colonial Virginia.”

It was and still is, and John Boddie deserves accolades from each generation that cares about local history.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is