Category Archives: Famous Pryors

Prior Family Acting Their Way Through the 19th Century

actorI started off looking at a Prior below the Mason-Dixon line and when I “pulled the thread” I ended up following a long string of leads to a noted acting family in New York.

Between 1844 – 1849 there are several theater notices in New Orleans newspapers for plays starring an actor named Mr. PRIOR. I was hooked once I saw he performed at the American Theater in a play titled Brutus, Or The Fall of Tarquis with a Mr. Booth (relative of John Wilkes Booth?) who played Burtus.

There was also a Mrs. J Prior who performed in plays in New Orleans. A Mr. J Prior of the St. Charles and Mobile Theaters was touted as a writer or scene designer (not sure because of the flowery language).

By 1849 there are notices of performances in May and June of a Mr. J PRIOR in Pittsburgh, PA. Later notices in northern papers refer to an actor and actress named Mr. J J Prior and Mrs. J J. Prior. I’m convinced that all of these notices refer to the same husband and wife acting team.

Mrs. Prior died at age 53 in 1883 and several obituaries were published. The New-York Times reported she was the widow of an actor, the mother of actress Lulu Prior, and that she had acted in Barnum’s old museum. These bits of information assisted me in locating her photograph. (see photo).  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that although she died in Boston, she was buried at Greenwood cemetery (a very large cemetery in Brooklyn with 376,000 burials on Find A Grave). The same article also noted that Walter Prior attended the funeral.

Walter became the clue to lead to finding Mr. and Mrs. Prior– and their first names, on the 1870 Census.

1870 Census
Brooklyn Ward 11, Kings Co., NY
James J PRIOR 47 actor b. England, Louise 38 actress b. NJ. Walter R. 22 photographer NY, Alfred J 18 clerk in store MA, Anna L. 15 actress NY.

And then earlier

1850 Census
Boston Ward 3, Suffolk Co., MA
J. J. PRIOR 28 theatre Eng., “ditto” female 27 Eng., Walter 3 MA.

Such typical hard-to-track-down Priors! Did anyone really know where they were born or where their children were born? I found a birth record for Walter Richard Prior which nicely ties his parents to the theater listings in New Orleans. Born in New Orleans or New York— guess either of them start with “new” so just tell the census worker anything!

Walter Richard PRIOR born 13 Dc 1846 in New Orleans, LA to James Junius Prior and Louisa Young.

There’s a christening record from England that appears to be for James

James Junius Prior b. 20 May 1820, christened at St. James Westminster London on 21 Jan 1821. Father James Prior, mother Violetta (nee Roberts).

James Junius Prior was already performing in England before immigrating to the US and showing up in New Orleans theaters

1841 Census
Swansea, Wales, UK
Wind Street
James Prior 43 artist born out of county. James Prior 20 comedian born out of county. Violetta Prior 37 born out of county.

A funny thing though, I don’t know who is the Walter Prior who attended Mrs. Prior’s funeral because their son, Walter, had died long before Mrs. Prior. The Evening Star in Washington DC carried a story on 20 July, 1871 (12 years before Mrs. Prior’s death– “Mrs Prior, the actress, and mother of the deceased, and many theatrical people attended.” Walter, her son, was shot during a riot.

Major John Pryor of Richmond, VA & John C Fremont Connection

I ran across the explorer John C. Fremont recently and was reminded of his Pryor connection. The article on Wikipedia tells the story of his mother, Ann Beverly Whiting, the first wife Major John Pryor (an older Revolutionary War veteran) of Richmond.  The young Mrs. Pryor fell head-over-heels for her tutor, a Frenchman named Charles Fremon.  Ann left Major Pryor and ran off with Fremon and later gave birth in 1813 to her son who Angelicized his name. has the scanned original documents for Revolutionary War pensions and we’re in luck because there’s a pension application for Major John Pryor of Richmond.

The star document is the 1856 affidavit of Susan Lowry of Hampton, VA (Elizabeth City) age 86.  She stated she was the daughter of Thomas Whiting of Gloucester Co., VA.  She recalled becoming acquainted with John Pryor in 1780. Pryor acted as an aid to General Lord Sterling and she remembered he received a considerable amount of land from VA for his service. Lowery’s connection to Pryor was that he was married to her sister. She recounted that after her sister’s death Pryor married Elizabeth Q. Graves in Richmond.  She recalled that Major Pryor died in 1823 (we know that year is accurate because there’s even a statement from a clerk at the Richmond Enquirer that they published his death notice ofn 23 March 1823), and after his death Elizabeth married Alva Lake in Richmond.  Later the Lakes moved to Boston where Alex Lake died shortly before’ Susan Lowery’s 1856 affidavit.  Lowery states that John Pryor didn’t leave any children: only several nieces and nephews in Charles City, James City, and Richmond by the name of Hankins (or Hawkins).

When I searched the census records, I found Susan B. Lowry age 77 born in VA and living in Hampton at the time of the 1850 Census.

Elizabeth Q. Lake was the applicant for the pension.  She provided her affidavit on  August 28, 1856 Elizabeth Q. Lake’s affidavit was given in Boston, MA. She was age 56. She married John Pryor in Richmond on 22 Feb 1815. Her maiden name was Elizabeth Quarles Lake (sic). She married Alva Lake on 10 May 1825 and that her husband died in Vermont on 2 Apr 1856.

I did a search of the census records and found Elizabeth Lake with her husband Alex (sic) on the 1850 Census in Boston, MA.  It appears that Elizabeth outlived both husbands by a considerable amount of time as she is also on the 1860 and 1870 Census in Medford, MA.

Notes on the documents indicate an interesting history of queries, beginning in 1919. A 1933 query was made by Hon. John G. Cooper (19th Ohio Dist.) of the House of Representatives in Washington, DC. The pension file contains a letter written by the National Archives as a response to a Mrs. Bert R. Smith of Bowling Green, KY who made a genealogy query in 1937. The writer states that John Pryor married an unknown daughter of Thomas Whiting and then married Elizabeth Quarles Graves at Hay Market, Richmond, VA.  

So, looking at these stories together there’s some insights to be gleaned. If Susan Lowry was the sister of John Pryor’s first wife and a Whiting then she is likely Susan Whiting Lowry.  The Wikipedia tale of John C. Fremont’s mother (and other versions available online) doesn’t end her marriage to Pryor with her death, but with her running off with “another man.”  Another version ( states she didn’t wed Fremon until after Pryor died. If Major Pryor died in 1823, then the marriage would have taken place some ten years after her son’s birth. And what about Major Pryor’s marriage to his second wife Elizabeth? If he and his first wife did not divorce, was he able to legally marry?

As usual, there are more questions about the Pryors than answers. I’ve added a new state to the TN Pryor website… Massachusetts! The census extracts of Elizabeth Q. Graves Pryor Lake are now posted online.

Old and Young Nathaniel Pryor, Settlers of the Old West and New California

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While there are no links to our Tennessee Pryors, a post on the Ancestry Pryor Mailing List gave me a glimmer of hope in my own search. The Post is from researcher and author Tom Fiske who has been dilligently digging out the connection between Nathaniel Pryor of the Lewis and Clark expedition and the younger Nathaniel Pryor who settled in Los Angeles, Mexico (Yes, Mexico… he arrived before it became California and part of the United States). Read Post

I know I’m not the only one who has been frustrated by a “road block” in my Pryor family research. It’s a pleasure to learn about a Pryor line that like mine came from Virginia, into the frontier (Nathaniel was in Kentucky, while my Pryors went to Tennessee) and then beyond into Indian Territory.  My own genealogy search seems a little more hopeful when you seen that there is still more information to turn over.

I’ve posted census extracts of many of the Pryors in California on the Tennessee Pryor Website. Since I love to see pictures, I’m posting below links to terrific old photos and other information that gives life to the Pryors in California.

PHOTO: Pablo “Paul” Pryor adobe in what is now San Juan Capistrano in Orange County.

MAP: Aerial view of Pryor Adobe on  MS Live Search Maps

PHOTO: Former home of Albert Pryor in San Juan Capistrano

PHOTO: Miguel Pryor and wife Rosa Sepulveda Pryor

PHOTO: Teresa Pryor Yorba

PHOTO: Albert Pryor

PHOTO: Soledad Pryor Landell

PAINTING: Nathaniel Pryor with Sam Houston

COPY: Record of Nathaniel Pryor’s Marriage to Peggy Patton

Trailing Trombonist Arthur Pryor

Recently I was contacted by DJ and music historian David Richoux who is trying to determine if Arthur Pryor was of African American descent.  He cites the book Steppin’ on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance By Jacqui Malone Published by University of Illinois Press, 1996 ISBN 0252065085, 9780252065088.  “Arthur Pryor, an African American alumnus of the Sousa band, formed a group of his own that featured, as part of its repertoire, ragtime works…” (Page 137).  Ms Malone is an author and currently a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard.  I’ve attempted to contact her through the fellowship program to obtain her source information. I’ve not had a response.

Richoux provided quotes from two books he found online. First,  Vaudeville, Old & New by Frank Cullen, Florence Hackman, Donald McNeilly. Published by Routledge, 2007. On page 503, there is an account of the family history of Winnie Hamlet Hennings: “[Hennings] was one of four children born to Mary Baker Hamlet and Charles Hamlet… Winnie’s cousin was bandmaster Arthur Pryor, son of musician Sam Pryor whom Winnie studied music.”

Another reference provides more background information of where Samuel Pryor (Arthur’s father) lived and traveled, perhaps explaining his absence from the 1850 and 1860 Census in Missouri. Page 671 of the Dietetic and Hygienic Gazette, published in 1902, recounts Samuel Pryor on his death bed revived by music played by his sons. “Arthur W. Pryor the trombone soloist now playing with Sousa’s Band, is the son of the old bandmaster of St. Joseph. Young Pryor first made a favorable impression on General John A. Logan at a reunion of the Grand Army of the Republic1 in Denver when he was a mere boy…”  It also states “Twenty-five years ago the elder Pryor toured the country with a band composed of young women, and his wife played the trombone. She was famous then as a soloist, and her talent in that particular line was transmitted to her son.” The article also mentions “An adopted son, “Harry” Montgomery, known as “Harry” Pryor.” It also places Samuel Pryor working in Denver, CO at one point: “The elder Pryor was at one time an actor, going on the stage in Denver as a comedian.”

I found a “treatise” online written by Joseph William Frye for his Doctor of Music degree in 2008: A Biographical Study of the Trombone Soloists of the John Philip Sousa Band: 1892-1931. Some background of Samuel Pryor is given, “His father, Samuel, was a bandmaster who had previously studied music in Chicago, Illinois and St. Louis, Missouri. Earlier in his career, Samuel served for three years as music director at the Lincoln Opera House in Lincoln, Nebraska… After leaving the Lincoln Opera House, Samuel Pryor became a bandmaster in St. Joseph and in 1869 organized an ensemble he called Pryor’s Military Band.”  The band was named The Fourth Regiment Band of Missouri and sent to serve in the Spanish American War (about 1898).

I’ve been searching records trying to find support of this new information.

I searched Winnie Hamlet Hennings family on both parents’ sides to 1860. If anyone is related to her and would like these notes, I’ll be happy to pass them along. Unfortunately there is not a Pryor or a Pryor marriage amongst the lot. I’m wondering if Winnie embellished her relationship with her teacher by claiming they were related.

I’d like to find out more about Samuel Pryor’s life in Nebraska, as I’ve Googled him and the Lincoln Opera House and the only reference to this connection is the treatise noted above.  If there is a connection between Winnie Hamlet and the Pryors it may be in Nebraska since her family lived in that state before returning to Washington Twp. in St. Joseph, MO between 1900-1910.

Arthur Pryor’s older brother was named Walter, could he have been named for a long forgotten name associated with his father? I became intrigued with a Walter Pryor who was living in Ohio in the early 1800’s. In 1860 there is a Samuel Pryor in Wyandot Co., OH who is about the age of Arthur’s father. He was living in the Walter Pryor household, but then he’s not there in 1850 or in 1870. I’d like to hear from anyone who has traced this family. Could the line of Samuel Pryor be hard to trace because he was an orphan living in Walter’s household, or possibly not a Pryor at all? Could Arthur’s father have not been from MO as stated in the Census records?

All ideas welcomed.

1 New York Times article dated July 14, 1883 describes the reunion of the GAR in Denver: