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The 17th Century Abbreviation 'Jo.'

[March 5, 1999]

When I began to look into Meacham genealogy, one of the first things that puzzled me was the oft-cited name on the passenger list of the Paule, which sailed from London to Virginia in 1635. "Jo. Machem,18" was supposed to be the original ancestor of the southern line of Meachams. Someone interpreted his first name as "Joshua," and thus was born the myth of "Joshua the elder" as ancestor to all southern Meachams.

After some search I managed to find a copy of the Paule passenger list, and immediately sensed that something was wrong here. Twelve out of the 97 male passengers (one in eight) had a forename given as Jo. Certainly this could not be Joshua, and had to be a common forename such as Joseph or John. As there was another Virginia document dated 1652 citing the importation of "John Michem", it seemed likely to me that the abbreviation Jo. stood for John. However, there were several strange aspects: Why abbreviate a four-letter name? Why Jo. instead of Jn.? And why were some passengers names written in full as "John" on the same list that had 12 instances of Jo.?

The first indication that the abbreviation had to be John came from statistics. Almost simultaneously, I found online a large database of passenger lists for the 1630s, and the 1704 Virginia Rent Rolls. I downloaded 2500 names of passengers from London to Virginia or Barbados, and compared the occurrence of forenames with the 5500 names on the Rent Rolls. It was quite clear immediately that the abbreviation could only be John. From the passenger lists, the percentage of Jo. is 15% and John 6% -- exactly the same frequency (21%) as occurs for John on the 1704 Rolls. In the latter document there is no doubt since the only abbreviations used were Jno. and Jon. (3-letter abbreviations of a 4-letter word!) There are only six Joshuas among the 1630s passengers, and only eight on the 1704 rolls; rarer still on the rolls are Jonah (1), Joel(2) and Josiah (2); even Joseph is fairly low at 120 or 2.25%. The other main first names in 1704 are William 12.6%, Thomas 12%, Richard 5%, Robert 5% and James 4.3%.

I then obtained the book Early Virginia Immigrants and looked up the Paule passengers with forename Jo. For the following there is a corresponding John listed in the book, with a different spelling if any given in brackets:

Not found were Courtney and Coxshedd. Jones and Richardson are common names with many entries and one would expect to find several Johns among them; the other surnames have only a few entries and the John is almost certainly the Paule passenger. There are no Joshuas among these surname entries, and only three in the entire book of 25,000 names!

This seemed fairly convincing to me, but to confirm the abbreviation I asked three people in England who had done work on early documents. Two assured me that Jo. was always John, but a third wrote:

"From my reasonably extensive experience I have only ever seen 'Jo' as an abbreviation for Joseph (also rarely Jos). John has always been abbreviated to 'Jn', and in older documents sometimes to 'Jhn' (short for the Latin Johannis). If the scribe was being extra-correct, then he would write the second letter as a superscript. I have only ever seen the less common names of Joshua & Josiah written out in full."

I was by this stage firmly convinced that the abbreviation stood for John, and thought that in the case above it might be necessary to carry a little coal to Newcastle. But I was surprised by what came next. A post on Meacham Family Forum late last year informed readers that in 1995 Walker Meacham of Kentucky hired (!) an archivist at the Somerset Records Office and one of the questions Walker posed was on the Jo. abbreviation. The archivist wrote:

"On looking through Hotten's Original Lists... [of immigrants to America 1600-1700] I noticed that the abbreviation Jo. occurs frequently but the names Joseph and Joshua do not appear to be given in full. The name John is however. Presumably then Jo. Machem was a Joseph or a Joshua."

I thought this rather surprising, to put it mildly, that someone who worked in a public records office would make such a statement, incorrect in my view, based on casual observation rather than his own experience with 17th century documents.

At this point I resolved to get to the bottom of the matter. Going back to the passenger lists, I found a total of 254 occurences of Jo. out of 1700 passengers to Virginia. Eliminating 90 surnames too common to give definitive evidence, I looked up the remaining 164 in Early Virginia Immigrants and found 78 as John. These were relatively uncommon surnames such as Abby, Archer, Aris, Averie, Babington, Baddam, Bagbie, Baggley, etc. There were no Joshuas, Joels or Josiahs among these 78 surnames; there was one Joseph.

The case was certainly strong, but it would not be proved until I found one concrete example of an individual listed as Jo. who could be identified beyond doubt as John. This turned out to be easier than expected. I had seen Jo. used in a document (a rare list of arriving passengers) of the Virginia Colony, and it occurred in the official preamble:

[from: Records of the Virginia Company. Smyth of Nibley Papers, Smith 34. Document in New York Public Library]
CLIV. SIR George Yeardley. Certificate to the Council and Company of Virginia of the arrival of Planters at Barklay January 29, 1620/21
Autograph signed of "George Yeardley" and "Jo: Pory, Secr.," Seal and Stamp (Double Rose). List of Records No. 228

Finding John Pory was easy. From the CD-ROM History Of The World in the article "First American Legislature": "In June Governor Yeardley summoned the first legislature that ever met in America....John Pory, secretary of the colony, was chosen speaker."

Furthermore, I had noticed on the 1630s passenger lists the names of several captains of ships sailing to Virginia and Barbados: Jo. Aklin -- The Paul; Jo. Brookhaven -- The Ann & Elizabeth; Jo. Chappell -- The Speedwell; Jo. Hogg -- the David; Jo. Severne -- The George. In Virginia colonial records duplicates in London, the following ship's masters are mentioned: John Ackland, John Chappell, John Hogg, and John Severne. Haven't found John Brookhaven yet.

To me this proved the issue to about 99% certainty. It is very difficult to imagine an abbreviation being used in official documents unless it was crystal clear to everyone what the intended word was. The abbreviation "Jo." meant John (Johannes) in the 17th century. It was such a common abbreviation for such a common name that it would never be taken for anything else. Reading it as Joshua or Joel or Joseph would be like taking our "Jr." for a title like JP or JD. There are junior partners, and junior barristers are actually called juniors, but EVERYBODY knows what Jr. after a name stands for. That is how abbreviations work. And they are used for something which occurs frequently; we have LA for Los Angeles and no one would ever think of using it for Los Alamos or lower Andover. Staying with this example, there could be confusion to an outsider over "Monroe, LA" and "Anaheim in LA" but to an American of the 1990s there is no question whatever about the meaning of each.

To counter the notion that taking Jo. for John might have been an early Americanism of some sort, I found in Everyman's Dictionary of Abbreviations the following: Jo.Bapt. = John the Baptist, Jo. Div. = John the Divine, Jo. Evang. = John the Evangelist.

Finally, to put the matter beyond the slightest doubt, I managed to find an English publication of a 17th century work: Athenae Oxonienses -- An exact history of all writers and bishops who have had their education in the University of Oxford authored by Anthony Wood, written in 1672, published in 1813, reprinted in 1967 by Johnson of NY and London. In the Introduction "The Life of Anthony A. Wood" taken directly from his hand-written manuscript, one finds within the first five pages:

page iii, para. "1639" : " His younger brother John Wood died ..."
page v 3rd para line 7: "... Jo. Wood, his son, whome I have mention'd under the yeare 1639."

And on page xliv: " ... Dr. Jo. Fell, deanne of Ch.Church, and Dr. Jo. Dolbin, treasurer." A footnote directs the reader to vol. iv, year 1686, wherein is described the lives of John Fell and John Dolbin.

There are dozens of similar examples in this work, along with another abbreviation for John that I had not seen previously -- Joh. Both are of course short for the Latin Johannes, and Latin was still quite commonly used in 17th century documents and learned discourse. These abbreviations sometimes occur in close proximity with each other and/or with John in full, as in: "... and Joh. Lock, afterwards a noted writer. This Jo. Lock was a turbulent spirit..." (page lii), or "Sir Jo. Cotton ... Sr. Joh. Cotton ... Sr. John Cotton..." (third para., page lviii).

Finally, how to explain an entry of "John _____" directly above a "Jo. _____" on a passenger list? Obviously it could be nothing more than a random use of the abbreviated form, as in the manuscript cited above. It is also possible that each passenger list was a compendium made from other documents, viz. the sworn statements of conformity to the Church of England. The compiler of the passenger list would have used the name as it appeared on the oath document. The same is to be found in Early Virginia Immigrants and the 1704 Rent Rolls -- Jno. occurs right above or below John, or sometimes Jon.

The case is closed: Jo. Machem had the first name of John. Unfortunately for his place as the primary southern Meacham ancestor, I uncovered a reference in a London document to a "Richard Macham, 31, resident of Virginia, 1631" -- four years before the Paule sailed from London.

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