The Reeves Family of Warren County, Kentucky

The Reeves family first came to Warren County, Kentucky, in about 1814 in the person of George Reeves and his family. Where did they come from? Where did the name come from? Let's explore a little.

The Reeves name is English. It has several variations, including Reves, Ryves, Reaves, Rives, Rieves, Reeve, and more. Because of illiteracy, records of individuals with the Reeves name appear to show they used various spellings over time. There is even one record of a father and eight sons. In the graveyard where they are buried, all nine have different spellings of their surnames.[1]

As a practical matter, most people in years past could not read and write, though some could sign their names, but nothing else. Therefore, public officials, church officials, and other scribes had to do their best. They spelled names the way they sounded or the way they had known others with similar sounding names to spell them. As a result, people with all but the most common names had their names spelled differently on various documents throughout their lives.

Currently, there are concentrations of the Reeves name (or variations thereof) in England, the United States, Canada, Australia, and other countries which were part of the old British Empire.

Like many other English names, the Reeves originated as a job description. In this way, it is similar to Smith, Cooper, Baker, Miller, and many other present-day American names. In old English life, a "reeve" was a manager of an estate or a minor public official.[2]

In feudal days, almost every British manor of consequence had its "reeve" whose authority was to levy the lord's rent, set his servants to work, superintend his dominions to the lord's best profit, and govern the lord's tenants during times of peace and, when necessity required, to lead them into battle. The name has been around for something over a thousand years.


Geoffrey Chaucer's (circa 1340—1400) "The Canterbury Tales" includes a chapter called "The Reeve's Tale." Chaucer noted that the reeve had "often a trade to his hands" and was educated by medieval standards. This allowed him a house, plus some stipend with such benefits as a horse in the lord's stables or a special piece of land. He ate at the lord's house during harvest festivals. A reeve sometimes had the power of permitting the daughters of the lord's vassals to marry outside the manor. In some places, reeves still exercised power as late as the early 1800s.

One book describing life in the year 1000 said:

In a connected document on the duties of the estate manager or reeve, the archbishop examined the mechanics of how a successful farm business worked, listing all the spades, shovels, rakes, hoes, ox-goads, buckets, barrels, flails, sieves, and other tools that were needed, right down to the last mousetrap.[3]

In England, what we know in the United States as counties are called "shires." The word sheriff comes from a combination of the word "shire" with the word "reeve." The authors of the above book explain:

In every shire, there was a shire court, which administered the king's law, and it was in the reign of Ethelred, that the shire reeve, or sheriff, first came into view as the chief executive officer of local government. In a law code issued in 997 A.D., Ethelred ordered the shire reeve and the twelve leading magnates in each locality to swear to accuse no innocent man nor conceal any guilty one—the earliest English reference to the sworn jury of presentment, ancestor of the Grand Jury which existed in England until 1933, and which still plays a prominent role in the legal processes of the United States of America.[4]

There were other types of reeves as well. Some were in charge of commercial activities:

I, King Athelstan [ran a decree of around 930 A.D.] with the advice of my Archbishop, Wulfhelm, and my other bishops also, inform the reeve in every borough, and pray you in the name of God and All His saints, and command you also by my friendship . . . that no one shall buy goods worth more than twenty pence outside a town; but he shall buy in the city, in the presence of the market-reeve or some other trustworthy man, or again, in the presence of the reeve at a public meeting.[5]

Others supervised shipping activities:

The portreeve watched the marketplace as the shire reeve supervised the shire.[6]

In 1000 A.D., England, all young males were required to take an oath of allegiance to the king once they reached twelve years of age, and it was a reeve that administered this oath.

In the year 1000, it was the job of the king's shire reeve to visit every community at least once a year and to administer the oath in a ceremony whose religious content was significant. The sheriff's visit frequently took place in October after the harvest had been gathered in, and one can imagine the boys of the village apprehensively assembled for their first taste of adult responsibility.[7]

The Reeves family discussed in this article is thought to be of English descent, but there is no direct evidence of this. Robert Reve of Blandford, County Dorset, was the earliest person to use Reve, Rives, or Ryves as a last name. He was born about 1490. At his death in 1551, he was buried in the Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Blandford Forum, where his coat of arms was found in the north window.

William Reeves was the oldest Reeves, of which there is a direct linkage to the Warren County Reeves family. He was born in the early part of the 1700s and, in 1742, lived in Brunswick County, Virginia.[8] He, in turn, is thought to have been a grandson of Timothy Ryves, who left England for the colonies in the late 1600s. But this connection is only conjecture, and no existing documentary evidence makes such a connection certain.

In any event, there were Reeves families in southern Virginia and northern North Carolina in the 1700s.[9] Some of them left that region, probably through the Cumberland Gap, in about 1801 and moved to Kentucky, first stopping in Madison County in the center of the state, where they put down roots. Even so, most of the family left about fourteen years later and moved to Warren County in the southern part of the state's western portion. Some stayed there, but others left Warren County years later to move further west in Kentucky and a few even to Missouri.[10]