One way or another, many families have roots that extend deep into history. Unearthing the details is the trick.
Few families, however, have enjoyed the sort of local prominence through the generations that the Branch family has in Richmond, and fewer still are as well-chronicled.
A couple of milestones are bringing members of the far-flung, well-connected family together this week for a reunion to celebrate not only the 400th anniversary of the Branch family’s arrival in Jamestown, but also the centennial of the Branch House on Richmond’s Monument Avenue — now the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design — that was built as the home of John Kerr Branch and his wife, Beulah Gould Branch.
“The thing about families and histories of families is everybody has families that go way back, but relatively few people know the history of their families,” said Walter Dotts III, the great-grandson of John Kerr and Beulah Gould Branch and one of the organizers of this weekend’s reunion. “So I feel pretty fortunate to know as much as I do about at least this portion of my family.”
Festivities begin Friday with a party at the Branch House and continue Saturday with tours of Richmond and Petersburg and Branch-connected locations along the way. They conclude Sunday with a farewell brunch at the Science Museum of Virginia. About 60 people from around the country are expected to attend, Dotts said.
Christopher Branch was the first Branch in America — and except for a bit of good fortune, the line might have stopped there. He arrived in Jamestown in 1619 with the best of intentions, according to family history, to educate the indigenous population. Like the Branches, Virginia this year is also commemorating 400-year anniversaries linked to Jamestown — marking the first representative assembly in the New World, the arrival of the first recorded Africans to English North America and the observance of the first official English Thanksgiving in North America.
Branch eventually moved up the James River to the Henricus area, where he and his wife survived a 1622 Indian massacre.
“How he survived, I’m not sure,” Dotts said of Branch and the massacre that wiped out about 400 colonists. “But he did, and thank goodness, or I wouldn’t be here either.”
There also wouldn’t have been a Thomas Jefferson, as Branch’s granddaughter, Mary, became the great-grandmother of the third U.S. president.
They went on to have a family and established a plantation, Willow Hill, in what would become Chesterfield County, where the Branches remained for several generations. Family records compiled by the writer James Branch Cabell show that some in the family held slaves, although it’s unclear how many.
Branches went on to success in business and banking. As Methodists, some in the family supported the Underground Railroad, Dotts said, while others fought for the Confederacy.
After the Civil War, Thomas Branch established Merchants Bank (which helped finance Reconstruction in the South and, following a series of mergers, is now Bank of America) and also founded a brokerage firm. At the turn of the 20th century, his son John Patteson Branch lobbied for municipal water and sewer utilities in Richmond and donated two Branch Public Baths (one still stands at 18th and Broad streets). Other Branches have helped establish the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and through the years have donated pieces from the family art collection. The family also helped start the Richmond Symphony.
Mary Branch Munford, for whom Richmond’s Mary Munford Elementary School is named, was an activist for women’s suffrage, civil rights and education reform. One of her nephews was Cabell, the writer for whom the library at Virginia Commonwealth University is named.
In fact, James Branch Cabell is a significant reason why this generation of Branches knows so much about the family history.
“When he was a struggling writer and didn’t have much going on, my great-great-grandfather, John Patteson Branch, hired him to do a genealogy knowing that he needed some work,” Dotts said. “So he spent a couple of years doing that and did two books … that he researched pretty thoroughly and wrote up. So to a great extent, we have to thank James Branch Cabell and John Patteson for knowing that history.”
Down through the generations, there has been tragedy and altruism — and even broken cookies, which were donated by the old Famous Foods of Virginia cookie factory in 1974 when a Branch descendant, Zayde Rennolds Dotts (Walter Dotts III’s mother), staged the city’s first Easter Parade.
This is the first time the family has held such a reunion, and Walter Dotts figures if this one is successful, they might hold another .
“There’s a lot to celebrate,” he said.