The John Willis Family of Dorchester and Caroline Counties, Maryland

John Willis Sr. was born about 1660 in Wantage, Berkshire County, England. He grew up with fond memories of this village before immigrating to the Province of Maryland as a young man. He gained employment with the Dorchester County Court at Cambridge and married in about 1683. He and his wife initially lived on rented land, raising a family and working off the cost of his passage to the New World. He farmed the rented property as a primary livelihood since the part time nature of work at court sessions did not provide steady or sufficient income. In 1702, John was able to patent his own property and acquired 50 acres, naming it “Wantage” after his hometown.

By the time the family moved onto Wantage, John and his wife had six children: Grace, John Jr., Eliza, Andrew, Thomas and William. With two teenage girls and two teenage boys to help with the house and the land, the Willises farmed corn and wheat for cash, tended a truck garden and raised chickens and livestock for their own use. There were plenty of chores for the younger sons. The Willises formed a close friendship with the families of neighbors William and Jennet Jones and with John and Dorothy Stevens who resided at “Littleworth.”

 As the years went by, John Jr. learned the carpentry trade and married Mary LNU. They moved to rented land close by. Andrew married Jennet Jones, the neighbors’ daughter, and rented land near William Jones’ property on Shoal Creek. William, the youngest son, married Judith LNU, and they lived at Wantage with the elder Willises and Grace, Eliza and Thomas. Soon, Thomas went to live with his brother John to help farm his rented land. William took over running Wantage, while Judith helped care for an ailing Mrs. Willis. Before long, Mrs. Willis passed away leaving William and Judith along with Grace and Eliza living at Wantage with John Sr.

 As John Sr.’s health began to fail in 1712, he made a will rewarding William (and his wife Judith), Grace and Eliza for their steadfast support. John Jr. contested the will, but it was allowed to stand. John Jr. and his brother Andrew each had several children. For the next three hundred years, descendants of these two brothers intermarried with families on the Eastern Shore. The family history is a rich and interesting story of women and men. A handful fought in the revolution. Some were instrumental in establishing the early Methodist church in the region. Most were farmers. Some became doctors.

This italicized narrative contains some speculative details about John Willis and his family. However, it is consistent with the provable facts. The following article about the family’s humble beginnings in the New World will present that proof. It is the first installment in a series I hope to publish over the coming years.

The Provable Facts

John Willis Sr. lived from circa 1660 until his death about November 1712. The date of his will in Dorchester County and the beginning of probate prove his date of death. I estimate his birthdate from two facts. First, a deposition in 1730 establishes that one son (Andrew) was born in 1690. Second, a 1746 deposition states that another son (John) was the eldest, making him born by at least 1689 to be older than Andrew. If these sons were only 22 and 23 years old at the time of John Sr.’s death, a reasonable minimum age for him would be 44 or 45 when he died. In that case, John Sr. would have been born in 1667-68 at the latest. To use a round number and allow for a longer lifespan, I estimated John’s birth date at about 1660.

John Sr. had six children surviving at the time he wrote his will. However, the will only names four of the six. Eldest son John contested the will in part because two children were not named.

John Sr. served as the Court Crier at the Dorchester County Court and lived on land a few miles from Cambridge, the county capital. His land named “Wantage” was located on the upper reaches of the north branch of the Blackwater River (now known as the Little Blackwater). Wantage can be tracked to three of his sons, and its name is the best clue to John Sr.’s home of origin.

If John, Sr. followed the custom of many of his peers, the name Wantage likely came from his hometown. A village of that name within the Church of England’s Parish of Berkshire is located in Berkshire County, England, about 50 miles west of London and 80 miles from the city of Cambridge. Internet research shows the village currently is home to several Willis families. The Parish Registers for the church at Wantage list marriages from 1538 forward. Among the marriages are three generations of men named John Willis, the last of whom might be the father of John Willis Sr. of Maryland.[1] However, with no conclusive proof this article does not focus on John’s possible parents.

John Willis Sr. was not the only person from Wantage, England, in the Province. A common laborer named Henry Willis came to Maryland in August 1684 at age 21 on the John & Elizabeth bound to John Moore of London for four years.[2] The ship’s record names Henry’s father as Leonard Willis.[3] Evidence that another person immigrated from Wantage supports the theory that John Sr. did as well.

 Possible First Appearance – 1694

The possible first appearance in Dorchester County records of John Willis Sr. is in 1694 when a man by that name was an appraiser of the estate of William Pritchett.[4] A John Willis served as appraiser again in 1700 and 1703.[5] It is logical to assume the appraiser in all three cases is the same John Willis. An appraiser had to be sworn to this duty and served only with the approval of the court. We know that John had connections at the court since he served as Court Crier.[6] On the other hand, John Sr. signed his 1712 will with a “mark.” He did not know how to read and write. It is likely that men appointed as appraisers were more educated than John Sr.

 Land Acquisition – 1702

John Willis patented land from the provincial land office in 1702, acquiring 50 acres called Wantage on the Blackwater River.[7] As already discussed, John may have named this tract after his hometown. John Willis appeared on the 1704 rent rolls as a planter, indicating he was a landholder.[8] Wantage would remain in the family until 1734.

 Will of John Willis – 1712

John Willis made a will on 18 September 1712 and died soon thereafter. The will was presented for probate on 24 November 1712.[9] In his will, John provided that:

  1. Son William and his heirs would inherit all land and some personal property,
  2. Daughter Grace would inherit certain personal property and all the land if William died without issue,
  3. Daughter Eliza would inherit certain personalty, and
  4. Son John would inherit 12 pence.
  5. The will named William Jones and Rice Levena as executors.

John Willis Jr., eldest son of the deceased, filed a will contest on 3 December 1712, asking that administration not be granted the executors because there were only two witnesses to the will one of whom was an executor making his witnessing inappropriate. Further, John stated there were two children not mentioned in the will suggesting that his father was not of sound mind at the time of making the will. William Jones, one of the witnesses to the will and a named executor, appeared in support of John Jr.[10]

The Court ordered on 20 February 1712/3 that all parties appear in April 1713 to give evidence regarding John Sr.’s mental condition at the time he made his will.[11] I have found nothing resolving the dispute in the Dorchester County court records, nor any reference to the contest in the probate records of the Perogative Court. However, apparently the Court ruled against the contest because probate continued under the named executors. Had the Court sustained the contest, the Court would have nullified the will, appointed an administrator, and the estate would have been distributed according to the rules of intestate distribution … which would have been far more favorable to John Jr. Instead, Inventories and Administration Accounts filed by the named executors for the estate of John Willis in 1714 and 1715 indicate that probate moved forward apace.[12]

A few other comments regarding the terms of the will and its administration are in order. First, the will does not name a spouse of John Willis. We can logically assume that she predeceased John. Were she alive, he likely would have named her in the will with a life estate in the land or otherwise provided for her care by their adult children. Last, the will does not use a married surname for either daughter. We conclude that they were unmarried in 1712.

 Unnamed Children of John Willis

 Andrew – Andrew is a proved son of John Willis, Sr.

1. An inventory of the estate of John Willis filed at the April 1714 Perogative Court Session names Andrew as a son.[13]

2. Andrew continued to live reasonably close to Wantage and William Jones, his father-in-law, was a former neighbor. Jones, one of the executors of John’s will, owned land adjacent Wantage and is the father of Jennett Jones who married Andrew Willis. Also, Andrew Willis and William Jones are noted in the 1718 will of Thomas Ennals and in a 1722 land sale as having had land adjoining each other at head of Shoal Creek.[14] The head of Shoal Creek is about three miles from Cambridge (near the current Cambridge-Dorchester Airport) and a mile or so from the headwaters of the Little Blackwater River.

3. In a 1730 deposition, Andrew Willis, then about age 40, gave a sworn statement about the location of a boundary marker for a tract of land called “Littleworth” or “Stevens”. Littleworth frequently appears in the land records as having been adjacent Wantage. Andrew’s knowledge of the boundary would logically derive from having lived at Wantage as a youth.[15]

Thomas – Circumstantial evidence supports Thomas as the remaining unnamed child of John Willis Sr.

1. John Sharp sold a 50-acre tract of land on Marshy Creek Branch above Hunting Creek to John Willis Jr. on 10 March 1717.[16] Less than five months later, Sharp sold an adjoining 50 acres to Thomas Wallis (Willis).[17] Since families often moved as a group, a reasonable conclusion is that there was a relationship between John and Thomas, and that they were likely brothers. Of course, it is possible that the two were unrelated … the last name Wallis was an alternate spelling for the name Wallace as well as Willis. However, clerks frequently varied the spelling of the name Willis, sometimes within the same document. Those variants include Wallis, Wallace, Wallice, Willace, Willes and Willous. In fact, John Willis Sr. appears in early rent rolls as John “Wallis” in possession of “Wantige.”[18] For purposes of this article, I assume this is Thomas Willis. If I am wrong, then we can state we have no information about him, however, since he seems to have had no children, it does not matter.

2. Grace Wallis (Willis) administered the estate of Thomas Willis in 1722-1724.[19] The 1712 will proves a Grace Willis as a daughter of John Willis, and there is no record that she married.[20] Furthermore, there is no record that Thomas Willis married, nor a record of any offspring. These two unmarried siblings possibly shared the same roof on Thomas’s land, and upon his death intestate Grace handled the estate. On the other hand, it is possible that administratrix Grace was Thomas’s wife. But, again with no offspring, it does not matter to this analysis.

3. As we will see later, Andrew Willis named sons with his first wife Andrew, William and Thomas. Presumably, he named one for himself and the others for two of his brothers. He named sons with his second wife Richard, George and John.

In conclusion, the John Willis Family of Dorchester and Caroline Counties included sons John, Andrew, Thomas and William, and daughters Grace and Eliza. Assigning accurate dates of birth to the children is problematic. Andrew was born in about 1690. John Jr. was the eldest son and therefore born at least by 1689. A deposition given sometime between 1746 and 1752 establishes that William was born between 1694 and 1700.[21] Grace was named before Eliza in the 1712 will, indicating she was likely the elder of the two. The relative ages of Thomas and William are also uncertain, but I suspect William was the youngest. It was not uncommon for the youngest son, the last to leave the household, to serve as a caregiver for aging or ill parents. Such service would put him in good graces with regard to inheritance. The same could be said of a daughter who remained in the household and unmarried.

Establishing a birth order is not necessary to the analysis, but provides a theoretical picture of the family consistent with the known facts. A feasible order of birth satisfying that criterion is:

1685 – Grace                           1690 – Andrew

1687 – John                                     1692 – Thomas

1688 – Eliza                                     1694 – William

Disposition of Wantage

William Willis and his wife Judith apparently lived at Wantage until 1734, when they sold it to Richard Seward for six pounds. However, two weeks prior to that sale, eldest son John Willis sold the same land to Henry Ennalls for 20 shillings.[22] The two sales are a puzzle that is not solved by the deed or probate records.

By 1734, John Jr. lived many miles from Wantage in what later became Caroline County and had no apparent claim to his father’s former tract. However, John Jr.’s earlier will contest and the fact he was the eldest son may have created some cloud on the title in the eyes of Richard Seward, the prospective buyer. William Willis or Seward may have asked John to relinquish any claim to the land prior to Seward buying it. John could comply by conveying his interest, if any, in the land to William (or Seward), clearing title so his brother’s transaction could proceed. Such a transaction would account for the very low price paid in John’s deed. The 20 shillings paid to John likely compensated him for his time and travel between his home and Cambridge to complete the transaction.[23]

However, the puzzle is that John Jr. deeded his interest to Ennalls and not to William or Seward. Something is missing in the record – a power of attorney under which Ennalls was acting on William’s or Seward’s behalf, or a subsequent transaction from Ennalls conveying John’s interest to either Seward or William. Regardless of this mystery, the record is clear that the Willises had no connection to Wantage after 1734 since Richard Seward still possessed the land twenty years later.[24] _____________________

Thus ends the first installment of the John Willis Family of Dorchester and Caroline Counties, Maryland. In future articles, I hope to tell the story of the descendants of John Jr. and Andrew, some of whom played a significant role in the history of Preston, Maryland, and the surrounding area.

[1]  W.P.W. Phillimore, editor, Berkshire Parish Registers, Marriages, Volume 1, (London:Phillimore & Co., 1908), I:17, John Willis and Annis Robinson, 31 Mar 1600; I:30, John Willis and Alice Lindsey, 19 Aug 1639; and I:41, John Willis, Junr [?] and Elizabeth Chapman, 11 Apr 1664.

[2]  Peter Wilson Coldham, The Complete Book of Emigrants, 1661-1699, (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1990), II:471.

[3]  Id. at 471, and Phillimore, Berkshire Registers, I:34, Leonard Willis and Margaret Powell, 8 Sep 1652; I:39, Leonard Willis and Anne Bell, 10 Sep 1659. Henry, born in 1663, fits as a son of either marriage. There is no proved connection between John Willis Sr. and Leonard and Henry of Wantage.

[4] Skinner, Testamentary Proceedings of the Prerogative Court, VII:61. Court Session 1694 – In the probate of the estate of William Pritchett, John Haslewood of Dorchester County exhibited the bond of Hannah Charlescroft, administratrix of William Pritchett. Securities Richard Owen, Jarvis Cutler. Also inventory by appraisers John Frank and John Willis. Probate Book 15C:125.

[5] Skinner, Testamentary Proceedings of the Prerogative Court, VIII:180. Court Session May 1700 – In the probate of the estate of Patrick Donelly, attorneys exhibited the inventory of Patrick Donelly by appraisers David Jenkins and John Willis, Probate Book 18A:62, and XI:4. Court Session Oct 1703 – In the probate of the estate of Daniell Seare of Dorchester County, attorneys exhibited Inventories of the estate of Daniell Seare by appraisers John Willis & William Walker. Probate Book 20:4.

[6]  McAllister, Abstracts from the Land Records of Dorchester County, Maryland, Volume 9 (Liber Old No. 13: Liber Old No. 14, folios 1-373), (Cambridge, MD, 1963), IX:36. 14 Old 130, 14 Mar 1746 – Deposition of Thomas Pierson, planter of Dorchester County, aged about 60 years, states that John Willis now living in St. Mary’s White Chappel Parish near Hunting Creek was to the best of deponent’s knowledge the eldest son of John Willis who lived on Blackwater River about 4-5 miles from Cambridge, and who was formerly Cryer of Dorchester County Court.

[7] FHL Film No. 13078, Maryland Land Office, 194. On 10 Sep 1702, John Taylor assigned to John Willis all right, title and interest in 50 acres of land, part of a warrant for 2,389 acres granted Taylor on 15 Oct 1792, Book CD4/194, and Id. at 194. On 3 Mar 1702/3, the Maryland Land Office issued a survey certificate to John Willis for a tract of 50 acres called Wantage on the Blackwater River, beginning at lowermost bounder of Littleworth, then N 36 deg E 100 perches, N 36 deg W 80 perches, S 36 deg W 100 perches, then straight line to the beginning. Book CD4/194.

[8] Hunt, 1. John Willis is mentioned in the “Quit Rents” of 1704 as being a “planter,” on file in the Library of Congress and the London Public Record Office, and Keddie, Leslie and Neil, Dorchester County, Maryland, Rent Rolls 1688-1707 Volume #3, (The Family Tree Bookshop, 2001), 75. Wantige was surveyed for John Wallis on 3 Mar 1702, lying on the Blackwater River beginning at the lowermost bounded tree of “Littleworth.” It encompassed 50 acres and the rental was 8 shillings.

[9] Cotton and Henry, Calendar of Wills, IV:23. Note that the date given in this source for the submission to probate is 24 Nov 1714. This date conflicts with the date John Willis, Jr., filed a protest to the will and the dates of activity in the Perogative Court records. I conclude the correct date for submission to probate is 24 Nov 1712. Dorchester County Will Book 14:12.

[10] Id. at 23.

[11] http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~mdwillis/DCWillsWillis.htm#John1712, Sandra Willis who abstracted numerous documents from primary records in Dorchester, Caroline and Talbot Counties created this site.

[12] V.L. Skinner, Jr., Testamentary Proceedings of the Prerogative Court, Volume XIII, 1712-1716, (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2008), 113, 124, 132, 153 and 157, Probate Book L22:256, 368, 378, 452 and 456.

[13] F. Edward Wright, Judgment Records of Dorchester, Queen Anne’s and Talbot Counties, (Lewes, DE: Delmarva Roots, 2001), 33. L36A:203, Inventory of John Willis, Dorchester County – £23.14.1 – Appraisers John Kirke, Arthur Smith. Next of Kin: Andrew Willis (son), William Willis (son). FHL 975.2 P28w

[14] Jane Baldwin Cotton, The Maryland Calendar of Wills, IV:167-9. Will Book 14:631, Will of Thomas Ennals dated 7 May 1718 – To Thomas Hayward and heirs, 50 acres part of “Ennalls Purchase” (plantation where Andrew Willis lived), at head of Shoal Creek, and on branch lying between Wm Jones and Andrew Willis’, proved 13 Au 1718, and, James A. McAllister, Jr., Abstracts from the Land Records of Dorchester County, Maryland, Volume 1 (Libers Old No. 1 – Old No. 2), (Cambridge, MD, 1960), I:71. 2 Old 161, 13 Mar 1722 – Land sale from Thomas Hayward to Henry Ennalls, land devised to grantor by Col. Thomas Ennalls, dec’d, at head of Shoal Creek where Andrew Willis lived adj land where William Jones lived, part of “Ennalls Purchase”, 50 acres more or less.

[15] James A. McAllister, Jr., Abstracts from the Land Records of Dorchester County, Maryland, Volume 5 (Libers Old No. 7 – Old No. 8), (Cambridge, MD, 1962), V:145. 8 Old 404, 13 Jun-30 Sep 1730 – Commission to John Hodson, Mark Fisher, Thomas Nevett & Henry Ennalls, Jr to perpetuate bounds of Patrick Brawhaun’s land at the head of Blackwater called “Hoggs Island.” Deposition of Andrew Willis, about age 40, regarding the first bounder of “Littleworth” or “Stevens.”

[16] Id. at 16. 7 Old 51, 10 Mar 1717 – John Sharp of Dorchester Co sold to John Willis, of the same county, carpenter, 50 acres, part of “Sharps Prosperity” on Marshy Creek Branch above Hunting Creek. Wits Thomas Noble, Jane Noble. John Nichols, attorney for John Sharp. (Note that Thomas Noble and John Nicols co-owned “Hampton” located on west side of Hunting Creek, bought from Richard Bennett 15 Jan 1713, 6 Old 230)

[17] Id. at 23. 7 Old 68, no day or month 1717 – John Sharp of Dorchester Co sold to Thomas Wallis, of the same county, 50 acres, part of “Sharps Prosperity” on south side of the head of Marshy Creek branch out of Great Choptank River above Hunting Creek. Bounded on one side by land sold to John Willis. Wits Jerem? Thomas, J Lookerman. Acknowledged 19 Aug 1718

[18] Keddie, 75.

[19] Skinner, Testamentary Proceedings of the Prerogative Court, XVI:60, 61 and 151. Filings by John Pitts, gentleman, of Dorchester County, bond of Grace Wallis, administratrix of Thomas Wallis, and inventories of the estate of Thomas Wallis, and Skinner, Administration Accounts of the Perogative Court, Libers 1-5, 1718-1724, (Westminster, MD:Family Line Publications, 1995), 138. L5:38, Account of Thomas Wallis of Dorchester dated 13 Mar 1723 – Account total £12.17.7, Payments totaled £18.5.2 made to Patrick Mackalister, Mr. Charles Ungle, John Sharp, John Pitt, Edward Billeter, William Edmondson. Administratrix Grace Willis.

[20]         The land on Hunting Creek was located within St. Mary’s White Chapel Parish. Unfortunately, the church records for that locale that might prove the marital status of Thomas or Grace do not survive.

[21]         James A. McAllister, Jr., Abstracts from the Land Records of Dorchester County, Maryland, Volume 10 (Liber Old No. 14, folios 374-741), (Cambridge, MD, 1963), X:74. 14 Old 658, 11 Nov 1746 to 27 May 1752, Commission to perpetuate the bounds of John Harrington’s land called “Rosses Range” and “David Ropies”, and Return. Nine men and women give depositions regarding this land on Hobson’s Creek. Among them are William Willis, age about 52; Judah (Judith) Willis, age about 50; and Mary Seward, age 68.

[22] Maryland Land Records, 9 Old 223, 30 Jul 1730 [or 1734], John Willis of Dorchester County, planter, for 20 shillings to Henry Ennalls, of same, gentleman, “Wantage,” 50 acres, originally taken up by John Willis, dec’d, on Blackwater Riv., adjoining “Littleworth.” Signed by mark, John Willis. Witnesses: William Murray, Bw. Ennalls. Acknowledged 30 Jul 1734, and 9 Old 214, 15 Aug 1734, William Willis and wife Judith of Dorchester Co., planter, for 6 pounds to Richard Seward, of same, “Wantage,” 50 acres near head of Blackwater River adjoining “Littleworth.” Signed by marks, William Willis, Judith Willis. Witnesses: Henry Trippe, Cha. Lowndes. Dorchester County Court (Land Records) MSA CE46 10, http://mdlandrec.com

[23]         I believe the date of John’s transaction to be 30 July 1734, not 1730. The extant deed book is a copy of the original. The recopied document states the date of the deed in words rather than numbers, “One thousand seven Hundred and thirty.” I believe the scribe who recopied it missed the last two words of the date, which under the style of the day should have been “and four”. If John intended his transaction just to clear title for to William’s sale, the following logically occurred. John showed up at the Dorchester County Court when it was in quarterly session. Henry Ennalls drafted a deed that John signed (by mark, like his father he could not read or write). The court justices, including Henry Ennall’s brother Bartholomew, witnessed the signing, and John acknowledged the deed in open court, verifying its validity. All this occurred on a single day, 30 Jul 1734, which limited the inconvenience to the citizen who traveled some distance from Hunting Creek to Cambridge. The payment in the deed was for time and expenses. Sixteen days later Richard Seward bought the land from William and Judith Willis with assurance that John would not be able to successfully protest the sale.

[24] James A. McAllister, Jr., Abstracts from the Land Records of Dorchester County, Maryland, Volume 11 (Liber Old No. 15, folios 1 – 368), (Cambridge, MD, 1963), XI:52, 15 Old 247, 11 Aug 1754-15 Mar 1755, Commission to perpetuate the bounds of Richard Soward’s land called Wantage. A deposition of Thomas Soward, about 30 years old, mentions the widow Brawhawn; John Stevens grandfather of the present John Stevens; Richard Soward, brother of the deponent; and a bounded tree of Littleworth and Wantage between Roger Woolford’s plantation and Brawhawn’s, about 15-16 years ago.

 

3 thoughts on “The John Willis Family of Dorchester and Caroline Counties, Maryland”

  1. Hello,
    I am a descendant of Andrew Willis who was born c1756, and I strongly believe he is the brother of Jarvis Willis, born c1758. Is there any documentation that proves who the parents of these two men are?

    Thank you

    Dave

    1. David,

      We have good documentation that Jarvis/58 was the son of John and Nancy (Ann). I need to check on Andrew/56. He may have been a son of one of John’s brothers, and therefore a cousin of Jarvis/58. Give me a day to get this information together.

      Cheers,

      Gary Willis

      1. David, I have just published on the site a lengthy article on the two Jarvis Willises, one born 1735 and the other 1758. It clearly establishes Jarvis/58 as the son of John Willis and wife Nancy(Ann) per the records of Old Trinity Church. However, those records do not indicate a son Andrew b ca 1756. The records do show an Andrew b 1768 to Andrew Willis and wife Sarah. This parent Andrew was a brother of John.
        Can you share mor information about your Andrew b 1756? I cannot locate him.

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