Fosters in America and Elsewhere

As the world opened up in the seventeenth century, Fosters and Forsters began to emigrate, first to America and then elsewhere.

Early American Immigration

New England and Virginia were early points of immigration.

New England.  The earliest recorded arrivals were Thomas and William Foster from Ipswich who came on the Hercules in 1634 and settled in Massachusetts.  They were granted several land holdings and, by the year 1700, branches of this family were numerous in many places over New England.

Reginald Foster arrived in Ipswich, Massachusetts in 1638 from Exeter with his wife, five sons, and two daughters.  He himself lived onto the ripe old age of eighty nine and was described by his descendants as “the venerable patriarch of the family in America.”  These Fosters were to be found later in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island and included Theodore Foster, the Senator for Rhode Island in 1790.   

Ann Foster, who had arrived from Essex with her husband on the Abigail in 1635, got caught up in the Salem witch trials.  She was in fact convicted and died in prison in 1693 before the trials were discredited.  The town fathers might have had a better case with Charles Foster who was born in the same town some 150 years later.  When he was a boy, strange raps were heard at his desk at school.  At home, furniture began to be tossed around in his room.  Foster was seen to have psychic powers.  He displayed them to the literary elite of the day, in America and in England.  Unfortunately, his performances grew increasingly erratic due to drink and he died early.

The Fosters were even to be found at an early date further west in New York, then a Dutch settlement.  Two brothers from Surrey, Christopher and Thomas Foster, arrived in New England in 1635, but soon moved to New York.  They first purchased land on the south shore of Long Island, “Foster’s Meadow” (now the site of the Belmont horseracing track).  Christopher then settled in Southampton, Thomas in what is now Little Neck.

Another Thomas Foster also arrived in New England in the 1630's.  His grandson, Chillingsworth Foster, was in the early 1700's one of the first settlers on Cape Cod in Brewster.   This became an important seaport in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Sea captains there grew rich.  Brewster town records document no fewer than thirteen Foster sea captains over this period, including Freeman Foster:

"Freeman Foster began seafaring at the age of ten on fishing trips with his father David Foster who had been a whaler.  As far as is known, he captained the Ten Brothers, made several voyages on the Rice Plant, and superintended the building of the Choctaw in Bristol, Maine.  His line of work was between Boston and the West Indies, New Orleans, and the Russian ports of Archangel and Kronstadt.  Captain Foster was of commanding presence, standing over six feet in height, and stout in proportion." 

The Chillingsworth Foster homestead stayed with their family for almost three hundred years and has been converted in recent times into a premier restaurant.  Branches of this family can be found in upstate New York and Vermont. 

Virginia.  The earliest record is of a John Foster, age unknown, as being “alive in Virginia on February 18, 1623."   No fewer than twelves Fosters arrived in the 1630's, including:

Several Richard Fosters in fact came in the 1630’s (including the one with a Northumbrian pedigree).  But it is not clear which of these was the forebear of the Robert Foster who married Elizabeth Garnett and set up a plantation in Essex County in 1692.  A Joseph Foster arrived from Southampton around 1650 and settled in New Kent County.  His family became tobacco farmers first in New Kent County and then in Hurricane Creek in what is now West Virginia.  Some Fosters still live there and tobacco is still grown.  

Fosters in the South

From Robert Foster or his brother John in Essex County, many Fosters are descended - in North and South Carolina, Tennessee, and elsewhere.  They settled in Wilkes County, North Carolina (where Laura Foster was later tragically murdered) and in Spartanburg, South Carolina.  Tennessee Fosters included that very enterprising woman, Sinah Foster. 

Thomas Jefferson Foster (TJ) migrated from Tennessee to Texas in 1841.  He married three times and had 24 children.  Consequently, the number of his descendants is prodigious. 

However, another of these Fosters heading there was less fortunate, as this family account reveals:

“Mrs. Williams said that Edward Powell Foster and his wife Lucinda had started out to Texas in covered wagons with the oxen pulling them.  They were with a train of wagons that were pushing cattle to Texas.  During the long journey from Spartanburg to Lucinda's brother's plantation in Texas, Edward became ill.  He told his wife to go on and that he would join them as soon as he recovered.  But after Lucinda arrived at the plantation, she learned that Edward had died crying out, ‘Lu, I'm going to heaven.’" 

Lucinda died soon afterwards and the children ended up in orphanages.

Mississippi and Louisiana.  One Foster branch from South Carolina crossed the Appalachians to Mississippi while it was still Spanish territory.   The 1792 Spanish register for Natchez in the Mississippi valley lists them as Marta Foster (Mary the mother) and her four sons, Juan, Jaime, Guillermo and Tomas.  They were tobacco and cotton farmers.

The sons did well.  John Foster was active in local politics and later became one of the pioneer settlers in Texas.  James Foster stayed in Natchez (his descendants are still to be found along Foster's Mound Road); as did Thomas Foster, the youngest, who prospered as a farmer.  However, he is most remembered today by the slave he purchased at an auction block in 1788, Abdul Rahman Ibrahima. 

"Abdul Rahman, a prince in his own country, toiled on Foster's plantation for forty years.  In an campaign for freedom which eventually made him famous and attracted the support of such powerful men as President John Quincy Adams and Secretary of State Henry Clay, he was finally able to return to Africa at the age of 67."

Abdul Rahman's life story has been documented in the book Prince Among Slaves by Terry Alford and is being made into a film.

Thomas had three sons, Levi, Thomas, and James, who lived and played hard.  Levi benefitted from his wife’s inheritance money; Thomas had a reputation for drinking; but James was perhaps the most erratic of the three.  Matters came to a head in Natchez in 1834 when he abused and killed his wife. In those lawless times, he was able to get acquitted.

Thomas Foster Jr. built the Oaklawn Manor sugar plantation in Franklin, Louisiana in 1837.  It ran with sixty slaves in the years before emancipation.  And this family spawned a political dynasty in the state.  Murphy Foster was Governor of Louisiana from 1892 to 1900 and Mike Foster Jr. from 1996 to 2004.

In Music.  Fosters have contributed hugely to America’s musical heritage.  Stephen Foster, of Irish ancestry, was a songsmith in the mid nineteenth century, sometimes called “the father of American music.”  Although many of his songs had Southern themes, Foster only visited the South once - for a boat trip down the Mississippi.  Today, Fred Foster from North Carolina, the founder of Monument Records, is regarded as one of Nashville music's visionaries.

Later Settlement

As the nineteenth century proceeded, Fosters spread across the United States.  John Foster arrived in Ross County, Ohio from Maryland in 1800.  Forty years later, another John Foster, of German ancestry, migrated to Illinois from Pennsylvania.  His descendant, Jesse Foster, grew up in Washington County, Kansas and became a newspaper publisher there.  Charles Wesley Foster moved from Illinois to Clarinda, Iowa in the 1870’s and served as mayor of that town.  At the turn of the century, Henry Foster came to Oklahoma from Rhode Island and negotiated the first rights to drill oil there.

Heading West.  Philip Foster from Maine was one of Oregon’s earliest settlers, arriving there by ship via Cape Horn and Hawaii in 1843.  The frame house that he built at Eagle Creek has been preserved as a tourist attraction.  Then it was the first welcome sign of habitation for strugglers along the Oregon trail.  Four Foster familes were on those first wagon trains in 1847.  Not all of them made it.

"Foster's wagon broke a wheel on rock and tipped over.  Their youngest boy was trapped and hurt very bad.  Molly Foster cried when she heard the wolves.  How can we protect his body from this vermin if he dies tonight?"

The next day they would bury the young Foster boy in the hard rocky ground and then run their wagons over and over the grave in an attempt to hide it from the wolves.

Two years later, the Rev. Isaac Foster endured an even more arduous journey lasting eighteen months, from Illinois to Sacramento in California.   His journal, Lost in a Mountain Fastness, recounts a story of hunger and extreme hardship along the way.

By 1920, according to the Federal census, the Fosters had spread and no one state of the Union had any particular concentration.

Leading States with Fosters in the US in 1920
New York                            7%
Illinois                                 6%
Texas                                 5%
Pennsylvania                        5%
Ohio                                   5%
Massachusetts                     5%

Today, Texas heads the ranks.


Caribbean.  Fosters were early sugar planters in Barbados and in Jamaica.  Nicholas Foster arrived from London to Barbados in the 1640's, the first Fosters from Bedfordshire to Jamaica a decade later.  Their Jamaican Bogue plantation lay on the Black river in St. Elizabeth parish.  This family was pro-slavery in the early nineteenth century.  Their slave labor was pushed hard, as the following contemporary account reveals:

"Every morning from the first dawn of day, the shell was blown to call the slaves to work.  Each gang walked off to the fields under the direction of a driver armed with a long whip.  The gangs went to work and toiled all day in the sun, their only covering being a cloth around their loins.  Later in the evening, the work was examined by the overseer.  Those with whom he was dissatisfied, whether man or woman, were ordered to be flogged."

These plantation days are long gone.  Stanley and Amy Foster opened Chatham Cottages in Montego Bay in 1934.  With their seven children, they hung on through the depression and World War 2 until Montego Bay blossomed as a resort in the 1950's.

Fosters and Forsters as well emigrated elsewhere.  The Forster name outside of America looks as if it was less likely to be subsumed into Foster.

In the Caribbean, Colonel John Foster from Surrey arrived in Jamaica in 1655 with the Venables and Penn expedition which took Jamaica from the Spanish.  He was granted estates in St. Elizabeth parish which his descendants held until the 1880's.

In Canada, Thomas Foster was a property developer in Toronto in the early 1900’s who later served as mayor of the city; while a late 19th and early 20th century portraitist in Toronto was John Forster.  Today Victoria on Vancouver Island is the home of David Foster, the record producer, and Gipp Forster, the radio broadcaster.

In Australia, both Fosters and Forsters came, first usually as convicts and then as immigrants.  The table below shows the approximate numbers of these Fosters and Forsters.

Australia: Recorded Foster/Forster Arrivals in the Nineteenth Century
                                       Fosters                  Forsters
as convicts                           164                       28
as assisted immigrants            143                       27
independent immigrants           130                       37
Total                                   437                       92

The Foster/Forster split was approximately 80/20.  Daniel and Elizabeth Foster from Sussex were early settlers in Melbourne.  However, the Forsters perhaps outnumbered the Fosters in positions of prominence at that time.  

William Forster, the son of an army surgeon, rose to become Colonial Secretary of New South Wales in the 1860's.  He was known for his satiric turn of phrase.  Another William Forster settled in Melbourne a little later and focused on social issues.  He established institutions for underprivileged boys and published a boys' paper.

In Australia, the word Fosters means beer, the famous lager which is sold there and all over the world.  But the origin of the name is a disappointing one.  There was no great Foster beer family.  Two American brothers, William and Ralph Foster, arrived in Australia and started their Fosters beer plant in Melbourne in 1888.  However, they soon sold out their interest, returned back to New York, and nothing was heard from them again.