Torrey Arms and Crests


By Frederic C. Torrey

Before proceeding to a discussion of the right or privilege of any Torreys in America to use a distinctive coat of arms let us consider the general conditions surrounding armigerency. To be entitled to bear arms in England a royal grant of arms must be on record to some individual and one must be able to trace ones descent from that individual. To safeguard and systematize this the College of Arms has for a very long time been established in England which is the authority and the court of last resort in matters armorial.

In America no such national organization exists and there is no limitation or regulation in the matter of the use of arms and crests. Quoting an article in the Boston Transcript of Aug. 12, 1918: "The vast majority of those who take any interest in family heraldry are influenced wholly by sentiment for some old coat or crest that has been handed down in the household since colonial days. Most of the old American stock have somewhere a painting of arm, an embroidery done by some female ancestor, an ancient carved desk with shield cut on its hinged cover, a mouldy slate tombstone, a grandfather's seal or his watch with engraved case, a quaint armorial bookplate to adduce as proof." Referring to the common assertion that "four fifths of the arms claimed and displayed in America are fictitious" and that here "mere identity of surname is assumed as sufficient basis for the use of a coat of arms," and that "it is not uncommon to find representatives of eight or ten American generations using coats of arms which were granted in England long after their ancestors came to the Western World" the writer for the Transcript attempts partial counter argument of this sort:"It was not uncommon once for heralds to grant to a man the arms borne by his forebears for generations. Tombstones of some families in England show the same arms repeatedly in use long before the bearings received any recognition by the heralds. Two hundred years ago and long after it was generally held that arms sufficiently ancient to be presumably those of the stem family belonged to all of the name." I call particular attention to these last statements, because the American Torreys have, as I will show later, one quite universally used coat of arms which they will continue to use even if no legal authorization can be found in the Herald's College, and in the light of the foregoing statements if the other Torreys desire to adopt and use these arms there is no American authority to forbid, and it would seem that they would have at least the sanction of ancient as well as modern usage.

Quoting again from the Transcript article, "The historians of the Church of England have said that from time immemorial those who have reached the exalted station of bishop and were without arms of their own have adopted for the bishopric seal, always with the assent of the head of the house, the arms of the most eminent family in the kingdom bearing the same surname. These things indicate the real status of arms in England."

The coat of arms and crest which I have referred to above as having been long in use by many of our American families is that described as follows in "Burke's General Armorie":

"Arms: Ar. on ground in base, vert, a horse pass. sa. saddled and bridled          gu. in chief a cross crosslet fitchee of the third.

Crest: A horse's head ar."    

Translated from the heraldic nomenclature this reads:

"Silver (white) on ground in base green a horse 'passant' (walking) sable (black) saddled and bridled 'gules' (in red) in chief (in the main center of the shield just above the horse) a cross 'crosslet' (the top and the two arms each being a little cross) 'fitchee' (pointed at the bottom) of the third (color mentioned in the description, namely sable or black.)"

My great uncle, Dr. John Torrey the botanist, gave to his son for a wedding present a handsomely painted Torrey coat of arms and crest corresponding exactly to the above description and which it has been reported he secured at considerable expense in England. This arms and crest I propose to continue to use in common with numberless other American Torrey families.

The great expense (running into hundreds of dollars) which is required for a search and report by the Herald's College in England, had hitherto precluded such investigation, but several years ago, feeling that a work on the Torreys of America would be incomplete if every effort were not made to secure all the light obtainable on this important and interesting subject, I sent to the Herald's College a sum of money the amount of which I hesitate to admit, and received their report, and a subsequent supplementary report for a further payment, and these I append in full leaving the whole matter to the decision and judgment of each individual Torrey, in the light of what I have here set forth.

The College of Arms

London, E. C. 4.

                                                                    10 Aug. 1917

Frederic C. Torrey, Esq.

Dear Sir,

I have pleasure in forwarding to you herewith the reports of my searches relative to the family or families of Torrey, Torrie, etc. in the Records and Collections at the College. I am afraid that the result of the searches are negative in regard to your specific inquiries in your original letter. You will note

  1. that no armorial bearings are recorded for Torrey; and consequently that those used by the Dr. John Torrey of Whom you speak are without any legal authority.
  2. that no pedigree of Torrey is contained in the Records, going back to an earlier date than 1694/5; & that neither Records nor Collections throw any further direct light upon the individuals of the Torrey family with whose wills you are acquainted & of which abstracts are contained in the Marshall Collection. Yours faithfully,

Archibald G. B. Russell

Rouge Croix

I then under date Oct. 30, 1917 again wrote the Herald's College asking them to make the most thorough search possible for any information bearing on the arms and crest listed by Burke and fully described above. I gave them carte blanche respecting funds, remitting the amount which they had written me would be necessary. After receiving two letters saying that exhaustive search was in progress I received the following letter:

The College of Arms

London, E. C. 4.

                                                                16th February 1918

Frederic C. Torrey, Esq.

Dear Sir.

I have made an extensive search in regard to the armorial bearings assigned in Burke's General Armory to Torrie. As I have already reported they are not entered in the Records of the College, & consequently are without any legal authority. The earliest reference I have been able to discover to them is in Robson's British Herald (1880) Vol. II where they are given as in the Armory & whence, I think, they were probably taken for that work. Under the circumstances I scarcely think it would be worth your while going to further expense in regard to searches in this connection. Apart from the Records, all the principal ancient ordinances in our Collections have been searched without result, as well as any printed books that seemed likely to throw any light on the subject.

Yours very truly,

Archibald G. B. Russell

Rouge Croix

(This has a finality of sound that can hardly be questioned. There is a certain poor consolation in the thought that though crest-fallen at being armless we no longer hug any delusion in our arms.)

This concludes Frederic C. Torrey's verbatim written remarks concerning Torrey Arms and Crests.

Source: Frederic C. Torrey, The Torrey Families and their Children in America, Volumes I [1924], pp.317-320