Family Coat of Arms:
A Case Study
By James Pylant
DO NOT POST OR PUBLISH WITHOUT PERMISSION
Knowing nothing about my roots and knowing but a handful of people with my unusual surname, a treasured keepsake in childhood was the "family" coat of arms. It was more than that; the drawing was etched into my mind early as an important part of my family identity. And had I not become a genealogist, perhaps I would still embrace that belief.
The "heraldic report" that my family purchased by mail order depicted an illustration called "The Pylant Coat of Arms," which it certainly is not. A coat of arms was granted to individuals, not to everyone of one particular surname. In English heraldry, the arms belongs only to that individual and his direct male descendants. (Of course, those mail-order heralds did not pass along that information.) The report went on to say that the coat of arms could be found under the variant Bylandt in a book entitled Siebmacher’s Wappenbuch, the only source mentioned in the entire report. We located a library with Siebmacher’s Wappenbuch, a rare, multi-volume set of heraldic books published in Nürnberg, Germany, in 1857. Indeed, we found the same coat of arms though slightly different but Siebmacher’s gave vital information omitted in the heraldic report: the coat of arms was granted to a count named Bylandt in 1678. By this date, the ancestors of the American Pylants were already established in Virginia. Other versions of the shield are found in the van Bylandt-Rheydt and von Bylandt families, descendants of a thirteenth century Dutchman named Theodericus de Bylandt. The heraldic report’s claim hinged on Pylant evolving from the surname Bylandt, but in-depth genealogical research in recent years indicates that the Pylants and Bylandts are two separate, unrelated families.1
In Pitfalls in Genealogical Research, noted genealogist Milton Rubincam shared his experience in ordering a heraldic report on his surname. This time, however, the mail-order heralds did not cite a source because there was none. Finding no a coat of arms to use, one was conjured from the fertile (yet heraldically inaccurate) imagination of an artist. What resulted was an arms depicting a shield divided into four quarters, one of which included the letter "R." If anything, placing the letter "R" in the coat of arms is for ridiculous, a word Milton Rubincam used in describing that illustration. As Rubincam wrote, "No coat of arms quartered has the initial letter of any surname."
Because "heraldry" mills produced and sold coats of arms for any practically any surname for decades, a myth grew in American culture that every family has a coat of arms, or at least one exists for every surname. It has also become popular to use the expression "family crest" when referring to the arms, but the two words are not interchangeable; the crest is what sits atop the coat of arms.2
More than one hundred years after William Armstrong Crozier alerted Americans of bogus arms, "heraldic reports" are were still in possession of the unsuspecting and many authors published family histories depicting these "family" coats of arms.