Between 1681 and 1682, a fleet of twenty two ships brought William Penn and the first 2,000 colonists across the Atlantic Ocean. Although the ship manifests from these vessels have not survived, it is likely that James Thomas and his family were amongst the earliest group of settlers to arrive in Pennsylvania.
James Thomas was born in 1660 in Pontemoil, a small village located at the foot of the Drynos mountains in Monmouthshire, Wales. His parents Lewis (d. 1689) and Grace (d. 1694) had married and settled in the area sometime before 1650. Quaker meeting records indicate that James had six siblings: Micah (b. 1650), Elizabeth (b. 1652), Rebecca (b. 1655), Mary (b. 1657), Gabriel (b. 1661), and Rachel (b. 1665). Another sister named Mary, born in 1654, may not have survived to adulthood.
Although records on James’s early life in Wales are scarce, his family likely faced discrimination due to their religious beliefs. During the 17th century, laws prohibited Quakers from worshipping in public, and those who disobeyed were fined or imprisoned. Records indicate that a dissenter named Lewis Thomas, possibly James’s father, was liberated from a Monmouth jail in 1671. Several years after his death, Lewis would be referred to as a “great Sufferer” which suggests that he may have been persecuted during this lifetime.
Marriage, land, and tax records place James and his family in Pennsylvania by 1688, but, for the most part, the time of their arrival is unknown. By his own account, Gabriel Thomas described arriving in Philadelphia in the fall of 1681, having sailed from London on the John and Sarah. However, he does not state whether or not he made this journey with any members of his family. Micah Thomas reportedly “came in as a servant to William Howell” in 1682 or 1683, and presumably traveled alone.
Lewis Thomas obtained an early land grant for nine acres “[adjoining] the city line on the north side,” which may have served as a temporary residence for the family. Several years later, Lewis sold “his house and settlement to which it joins” to William Carter and reportedly relocated to West Jersey.
James made his living as a merchant and began acquiring property in 1690. That year, he signed a five-year lease to rent a 48 foot plot of land located “north of Centre Square, from Broad Street to Skuylkill Eighth.” The next year, the Swanson family began dividing up their land holdings, and James purchased two separate tracts of land from Wolla Swanson, the smaller of which was located in the northern end of modern day Queen Village. Land records indicate that James intended to purchase an additional 100 acres of “the Swanson’s land on Skuylkill”. However, “long obstructions” delayed the settlement, and James made arrangements for John Callow to purchase the land instead. In 1693, James purchased half an acre of land located on Front Street in Philadelphia, where he likely established his residence.
Records place several of James’s siblings in Philadelphia during this time period. In 1689, his older brother Micah married Gwenlin Thomas, daughter of John and a possible distant relation, at the Bank Meeting House. By 1690, Micah had established himself as a master tailor in Philadelphia, though his time in the city would be short-lived. That year, the Philadelphia Meeting disciplined Micah for having sued Benjamin Chambers at court without having given “gospel order.” Micah appears to have left the city before 1693 and various sources place him in Salem County, West Jersey by 1700.
In 1689, two of James’s other siblings were also married at the Bank Meeting House. Mary Thomas married William Snead, a victualler who operated a business “on north side of High between Second and Third.” A few months later, Thomas Wharton promised to “be a loving and faithful husband” to Rachel Thomas in a ceremony witnessed by James and Micah. Thomas Wharton, the first in the line of famous Philadelphia Whartons, was a tailor who became involved with local politics later in life. The Wharton’s and their eight children resided on the west side of 2nd street between Walnut and Chestnut.
Unfortunately, Lewis Thomas did not live long enough to witness the marriages of his children. He died intestate in 1688 in West Jersey and Micah was tasked with settling the estate. Grace Thomas survived her husband by six years and had returned to Philadelphia sometime before her death.
Neither Elizabeth nor Rebecca appear to have been married as of 1694 and may have moved out of Philadelphia after the death of their mother. Gabriel Thomas remained a bachelor until his death in 1714 and may be the only member of his family to have distanced himself from the Society of Friends. However, it is not clear if Gabriel elected to discontinue his membership or if he was ostracized as a result of his conflict with William Penn.
In 1698, Gabriel published a propaganda book entitled “An Historical and Geographical Account of Pennsylvania and West Jersey” which promoted Penn’s colonial settlement. According to Gabriel, this work “proved to the province’s great advancement by causing great numbers of people to [go] over to those parts.”
It appears that Gabriel expected to be rewarded for his advocacy efforts. In 1702, he had sought employment as a high-level property tax collector, but was denied the position by Penn himself. Gabriel appealed the matter with the British Board of Traders on the grounds that he was reduced to “great poverty” due to Penn’s “unjust dealings.” Penn seems to have prevailed in the dispute and later described Gabriel as “so beggarly and base a man, that I am sorry to [find] time lost upon him.”
Gabriel’s conflict with Penn does not seem to have had an impact upon James’s business dealings. In 1703, James had his “Swanson” land holdings resurveyed and discovered that the plot was 66 perches larger than originally thought. The following year, Joshua Carpenter, a brewer who operated the Tun Tavern, purchased the land for a perpetual yearly ground rent of one silver shilling.
During the next ten years, James made several trips overseas which were likely related to his mercantile business. In 1706, he sought legal council in London in order to prepare his last will and testament. Three years later, he was in London again, and purchased 113 acres “in the County of New Castle, on the west side of the Delaware River” adjacent to a “manor of William Penn, esq. called Rocklands.”
James Thomas died of a fever on August 14, 1710 in the parish of St. Margaret Lothbury in London. Two days later, he was buried in the friends burial ground located near Bumhill Fields. Edward Shippen and Samuel Preston were named as executors of his estate, which was to be given to various family members and to the “poor of Philadelphia.”