Finding the Right John Willis on the Eastern Shore of Maryland

 

Last week, I posted an article on The John Willis Family of Dorchester and Caroline Counties, Maryland. Born about 1660, John Willis migrated from England as a young man. He was a small time farmer and served as Court Crier at the Dorchester County Court. He patented land in 1702 and named it “Wantage” after his hometown village in Berkshire County, England. John had children Grace, John, Eliza, Andrew, Thomas and William. John, Sr. died in 1712 leaving a will naming four of his six children, two of whom had proved descendants. My intent is to write additional articles regarding these descendants of Willis’s sons John, Jr. and Andrew. However, before undertaking that task, it would be useful to share some research that helped identify the patriarch John Willis in the original article.

Several Willis families on the Eastern Shore include persons named John. Numerous primary records, such as headrights, land patents, deeds and wills record other individuals who may be connected to John Willis. Other secondary sources contain the work product of professional researchers. For example, the twenty-three-volume Colonial Families of the Eastern Shore of Maryland[1] recognizes four Willis families. However, none is the John Willis Family of Dorchester and Caroline Counties. One monograph, “A Documentary History of One Branch of the Willis Family of the State of Maryland, c.1680–c.1802,”[2] does address the correct family but contains several errors as to John’s origin and his descendants. Indeed, my data table for accumulated research from sources related to Dorchester County is 110 pages long. This article summarizes evidence from some of those sources and my use of each in my search for the correct John Willis.

Willises in Colonial Families

Colonial Families provides an entry for “The Willis Family of Dorchester County.” This is a Quaker family headed by a Richard Willis who married Frances, widow of Richard Dawson. Richard Willis patented 260 acres called Rondley in 1687.[3] Richard’s 1689 will naming children Richard, John and Frances included a reference to Rondley.[4] This tract distinguishes Richard’s family from the subject John Willis of Dorchester and Caroline Counties. The land related to Richard is located on the Transquakin River and on the Nanticoke River many miles from Wantage where the John Willis family lived near the county seat of Cambridge.

While this Richard Willis clan is not the family in question, several people incorrectly attributed to the Richard group by Colonial Families are members of the John Willis Family. Specifically, Colonial Families names a John Willis, with sons William and Andrew, as a “probable” son of the senior Richard Willis.[5] This John is not a son of Richard but is an original immigrant and the patriarch of the John Willis Family of Dorchester and Caroline Counties. William and Andrew were indeed sons of John of Dorchester and members of that distinct family group based on deed records related to Wantage and John’s will and its probate. Furthermore, they were not Quakers. Rather, a Quaker John Willis who married a Margaret Cox at the Transquakin Meeting House in 1712 is a more likely descendant of this Richard Willis.[6]

“The James Willis Family” in Colonial Families begins in Somerset County in 1679 when James marries Rebecca Barnaby, daughter of James Barnaby.[7] A James Willis is named in the early patent books as having been transported to Maryland by 1665; James Barnaby and wife Mary with their two daughters Rebecca and Elizabeth were also named as transported to the Province in about the same time.[8] Other records show James Barnaby first patented land in 1663 thereby preceding James Willis to Maryland.[9] I found no connection between this family and John Willis of Dorchester and Caroline Counties.

“The Nathaniel Willis Family” established itself in Worcester County in the 1730’s according to Colonial Families.[10] Nathaniel’s family arrived too late to have been connected directly to John Willis of Dorchester and Caroline Counties. An earlier record in Worcester County shows that a Thomas Willis patented land called Amity north of the Pocomoke River in 1683,[11] but Thomas left no male heirs ruling out any ancestral connection to John Willis.

“The Willis Family of Kent County” outlined in Colonial Families includes a father John Willis and sons John and Richard, but neither father nor son is the John in question. The entry states that based on an apprenticeship record from Kent County, “Richard born 4 Apr 1697 is the son of an unidentified John Willis.”[12] However, we identify this father John as being the same person as John Williss of Cecil County, a person listed in Colonial Families but not attached to any family.[13] We conclude that John of Kent and John of Cecil are one and the same based on the following facts:

1. The 1698 will of John Williss of Cecil County named wife Dorothy as executrix and named children John, Richard and Mary. Further, it identifies him as a Quaker;[14]

2. The birth dates for all three children and John’s death date are noted in the records of the Cecil County Monthly Meeting of Quakers. Son Richard’s birthday in that record corresponds to the date listed in the Kent County apprentice records, confirming that this is the correct Richard and, therefore, the right family,[15]

3. John Williss’s widow Dorothy married William Hopkins, evidenced by a 1708 court filing from Kent County in the probate of John’s estate where she is named both as Hopkins’s wife and as Willis’s executrix,[16] and last,

4. The will of the son John Willis, a cordwinder of Kent County, proved in 1716, leaves everything to his brother Richard, naming William Hopkins as executor and noting that his brother Richard will be under the care of William Hopkins until of age.[17] Richard, born in 1697, was almost 19 when his brother died.

Thus, it is clear that the Willis Family of Kent County with brothers John and Richard was a Quaker family originally headed by John Williss, and that it actually had its beginnings in Cecil County. Clearly, this is not the non-Quaker family of John Willis of Dorchester and Caroline Counties.

In conclusion, Colonial Families does include the correct John Willis although attributed to the wrong family. In fact, none of the clans summarized in Colonial Families is the right one.

 Same Name Confusion

The frequent use of the given names John, Richard, William and Thomas within the various Willis families during the 17th and 18th centuries complicates the task of distinguishing people of the same name and associating them with the right clan. This so-called “same name confusion” affects not only our modern day analysis but created confusion 300 years ago.

A case in point is the probate of the will of the previously mentioned John Williss of Cecil County. According to Perogative Court records, following the death of John Williss the court lost track of John’s widow and executrix Dorothy.[18] She had filed an account in her deceased husband’s probate in 1700 from Cecil County,[19] but in 1702 the court twice ordered the Sheriff of a different county — Dorchester — to bring the widow to court presumably to file additional inventories and accounts. The sheriff responded in both instances that she could not be found in his jurisdiction.[20] She and her new husband William Hopkins finally filed the necessary documentation six years later from their residence in a third county — Kent.[21]

We can infer that the reason the court looked for Dorothy in Dorchester was first the court knew she had left Cecil County. Secondly, the court knew from other filings that a John Willis and a Richard Willis lived in Dorchester. Since both those names appeared in the will of John Williss of Cecil County, the court may have thought the Dorchester residents to be those heirs and assumed Dorothy may be close by. In fact, there is no established relationship of the Richard and John Willis residing in Dorchester County to the John of Cecil County. The two men known by the court to be in Dorchester at that time may have been Richard the county coroner and John the county court crier. We just do not know. It is, however, now clear from the record in 1708 that Dorothy, her new husband and her two sons, John and Richard, were in Kent County and not in Dorchester.

One Branch of the Willis Family

“A Documentary History of One Branch of the Willis Family of the State of Maryland, c.1680-c.1805” lists many deeds, wills and other records that summarize the John Willis family’s official existence. It correctly identifies the John Willis who became patriarch of a new Willis line of immigrants, but suffers from a bit of “same name confusion” as to his origin. The monograph asserts that John Willis first owned land in Barbados and then moved to St. Michaels, Maryland, in 1680, rather than coming to the Province directly from England.[22] The article does not cite a source for this statement. Nor does it explain John’s relocation to Dorchester County from St. Michaels in what is now Talbot County. I doubt that John of Barbados ever went to Maryland based on several pieces of evidence. First, the records in Barbados (St. Michaels Parish, interestingly) indicate that John Willis had a hired servant and owned five slaves and five acres of land.[23] With only five acres of land, this man does not sound like a farmer. Instead, he sounds like a merchant of some sort and rather wealthy, not like John Willis of Dorchester and Caroline. Second, if the wealthy John of Barbados had arrived in Maryland in 1680, he likely would have purchased land far earlier than the 1702 patent of Wantage. There is no record of such a purchase in either Talbot or Dorchester Counties. Logic says that John of Dorchester and Caroline counties came directly from England and not Barbados. Regardless, “One Branch” creates a workable outline for the correct John Willis family.

Early Willis Headrights

 There are several Willises who appear in the earliest Maryland patent records related to land granted under the headrights program. Under that program, in effect between 1633 and 1683, persons paying passage to the colony for themselves or others were entitled to 50 acres of land for each person transported. Sometimes, the transported person paid back the cost of his or her passage by service to the benefactor, in which case the passenger became entitled to a headright of his or her own.[24]

The first Willis listed in the headrights record is a Thomas Willis noted as having been transported by 1633, creating a headright for the person bearing the expense.[25] These rights were assignable, leading to the creation of a market among land investors and speculators. Subsequent purchasers of a headright ensured that the right was re-recorded in their name, usually citing the reason for the headright being originally granted. This practice meant that a transported passenger might be recorded multiple times in the patent books. That may have been the case with Thomas Willis since that name appears again as having been “transported by 1634.”[26]

The patent books also show early headrights claimed for the transportation of a Francis Willis by 1649, Edward Willis by 1657, James Willis by 1665, and again a Thomas Willis by 1666.[27] A John Willis is also listed as having one headright by 1666.[28] He may have transported himself, bought a headright, or he may have been transported by someone else and completed his term of service earning a headright of his own. Regardless of how John obtained the headright, there is no indication where he located within the Province of Maryland and nothing to connect him to the Eastern Shore. Importantly, no land records indicate that a John Willis took possession of headright acreage in Dorchester County at that early date.

Finally, there is a Henry Willis transported to Maryland in August 1684 at age 21 on the John & Elizabeth bound to John Moore of London for four years.[29] Henry Willis was from Wantage. The ship’s record names Henry’s father as Leonard Willis.[30] It is possible that Henry Willis was related to John Willis of Dorchester and Caroline Counties although I have not proven any connection at this point.

First Appearance – Possibly but not likely 1680

A John Willis does first appear in the records of Dorchester in 1680 as witness to two land transactions involving Thomas Foulks.[31] I find no corroborating evidence that this John is connected to the subject family. Such evidence might be, for example, subsequent involvement of the named parties in the deed record with the members of the John Willis Family of Dorchester and Caroline Counties. There is no such involvement except, possibly, with a Thomas Jones who is another witness in one of the transactions. A son of our subject John Willis marries the daughter of a neighbor named William Jones, and this William Jones becomes a witness to and executor of John Willis’s 1712 will. If William Jones and Thomas Jones are related, it might support a theory that the 1680 witness John Willis is the head of the subject family. However, I have not found a relationship between the two Joneses. To the contrary, the name Thomas Jones is associated with the John Williss family of Cecil and Kent County. John Williss’s son Richard was at one time apprenticed to a Thomas Jones. Therefore, the John Willis who witnessed these deeds may have been more likely the John Williss of Cecil/Kent.

Conclusion

Having reviewed numerous primary records and secondary sources, we can state with some assurance that most of the early Willises on the Eastern Shore are not associated with the family of John Willis of Dorchester and Caroline Counties. Furthermore, our analysis points to the correct immigrant John Willis who acquired the land named Wantage as described in the earlier article.

———————-

[1] Henry C. Peden, Jr. & F. Edward Wright, Colonial Families of the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Volume 5, (Westminster, MD: Willow Bend Books, 1999), V:310, 312, and Vernon L. Skinner, Jr. and F. Edward Wright, Colonial Families of the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Volume 22, (Westminster, MD: Willow Bend Books, 2006), XXII:211, 215.

[2]  William P. Hunt, “A Documentary History of One Branch of the Willis Family of the State of Maryland, c.1680-c.1805,” (New York: Copyrighted as an Unpublished Manuscript, 1975).

[3] Peden, Colonial Families, V:312, and Calvin W. Mowbray & Mary I. Mowbray, The Early Settlers of Dorchester County and Their Lands, (Self published, 1981), I:171. A patent issued to Richard Willous for a tract in Dorchester County called “Roaley” (Rondley), 260 acres.

[4] James A. McAllister, Jr., Abstracts from the Land Records of Dorchester County, Maryland, Volume 3 (Libers Old 4 ½ – Old 5), (Cambridge, MD, 1961), III:1. The will of Richard Willis dated 21 Oct 1689, proved 8 Jan 1689/90, devised to his sons Richard and John Willis at age 21 the 300 acre plantation called “Rondly.” His daughter Frances Willis would inherit if sons died without issue. Dorchester County Deed Book 4½ Old 1. Note: after Richard’s death, Frances married Edward Fisher, and after Edward died, she married Edward Newton.

[5] Peden, Colonial Families, V:313.

[6] Id. at 314.

[7] Skinner, Colonial Families, XXII:211.

[8] Gust Skordas, editor, The Early Settlers of Maryland, An Index of the Names of Immigrants Compiled from the Records of Land Patents, 1633-1680, in the Hall of Records, Annapolis, Maryland, (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1968), 24, 510. James Barnaby, Mary Barnaby, Rebecca Barnaby, Elizabeth Barnaby were transported by 1665 (Book 8:19), James Barnaby, Jr., of Somerset County was transported by 1665 (Book 11:309); and James Willis was transported by 1665 (Book 9:94).

[9] Skinner, Colonial Families, XXII:211.

[10] Id. at 215.

[11] FHL Film No. 13073, Maryland Land Office, Book 24:382, and FHL Film NO. 13075, Maryland Land Office, Book 29:430. A 27 Sep 1681 survey for Samuel Cooper certified 150 acres called Amity in Somerset County located on north side of Pocomoke River about 5 miles from the river. On 30 Nov 1861, the tract was assigned to Thomas Willis and the patent issued on 10 Aug 1683.

[12] Peden, Colonial Families, V:310.

[13] Id. at 314.

[14] Jane Baldwin Cotton, The Maryland Calendar of Wills, 1685-1702, (Baltimore: Kohn & Pollock, 1904, reprinted Westminster, MD: Family Line Publications, 1988), II:195. Will of John Willis, Cecil County, dated 13 May 1698, proved 4 Mar 1699, gave to wife Dorothy, executrix, his dwelling plantation during her life; to son John said plantation at death of his mother and 200 acres; to son Richard 200 acres adjoining the plantation; to daughter Mary 200 acres adjoining Richard Hill’s property. In the event of death of all children without issue, the estate would pass to poor Quakers. Cecil County, MD, Will Book 6:362.

[15] Peden, Colonial Families, V:314. The Cecil Monthly Meeting records the following dates: Mary born 19th da., 6th mo., 1686; John born 31st da., 7th mo., 1693; Richard born 4th da., 2nd mo., 1697; John Willis died 24/8/1699, (Note that British calendars began the year with March until 1752), and, id. at 311. On 22 Aug 1717, Richard Willis son of John Willis, dec’d., was bound as an apprentice to Thomas Jones, but because he was not kept to the trade, the said Richard was bound to Oliver Higginbotom, carpenter, until age 21, which would be 4 April next. He was to follow the trade of a carpenter and cooper. {KEBI JS#W:33A}

[16] V. L. Skinner, Jr., Abstracts of the Testamentary Proceedings of the Prerogative Court of Maryland, (Baltimore: Clearfield Company, Inc., 2007), XI:130. In a Court Session on 22 Nov 1708, in the probate of John Willis of Cecil County, accounts were filed from Kent County of William Hopkins & his wife Dorothy, executrix of John Willis, dated 22 Feb 1708. Probate Book 21:79.

[17] Jane Baldwin Cotton and Roberta Bolling Henry, The Maryland Calendar of Wills, 1713-1720, (Baltimore, 1914, reprinted, Westminster, MD: Family Line Publications, 1988) IV:101. Will of John Willis, cordwinder, dated 1 Jan 1706, proved 11 Feb 1716, devised to brother Richard, John’s dwelling plantation and personalty which is in the hands of James Murphy. Richard was to be under the care and management of William Hopkins until of age. Will Book 14:352.

[18] The Perogative Court of Maryland had jurisdiction over all probate in Provincial Maryland. Initially, all probate was done in person at the capital in St. Mary’s County. Later, the appearances were conducted at the various County Courts, but copies of all records were filed or were supposed to be filed at the capital. If not filed timely, the Perogative Court would issue a summons to be executed by the county Sheriff.

[19] Skinner, Testamentary Proceedings of the Prerogative Court, IX:6. Court Session Jul 1700 – In the probate of John Willis, exhibited from Cecil County were the accounts of Dorothy Willis executrix of John Willis. Probate Book 18B:9. (Cecil County Monthly Meeting recorded that John Willis died 24 Oct 1699 ).

[20] Id. at124, Court Session 1702 – In the probate of John Willis, the Court ordered the Sheriff of Dorchester County to summon Dorothy Willis, administratrix of John Willis. The Sheriff’s return to the court was “NEI,” meaning “non est inventar” (not found). Probate Book 19A:89., and at 152, Court Session 1702 – In the probate of John Willis, the Court ordered the Sheriff of Dorchester Co to summon Dorothy Willis, administratrix of John Willis. The Sheriff’s return to the court was, “No such person.” Probate Book 19A:126.

[21] Skinner, Testamentary Proceedings of the Prerogative Court, XI: 130. Court Session, 22 Nov 1708 – In the probate of John Willis of Cecil County, accounts were exhibited from Kent County of William Hopkins & his wife Dorothy, executrix of John Willis, dated 22 Feb 1708. Probate Book 21:79.

[22] Hunt, “One Branch of the Willis Family”, 1.

[23] John Camden Hotten, The Original Lists of Persons of Quality: Emigrants; Religious Exiles; Political Rebels; Serving Men Sold for a Term of Years; Apprentices; Children Stolen; Maidens Pressed; and Others Who Went from Great Britain to the American Plantations, 1600-1700, London, 1874, reprinted, Baltimore: Genealogical Printing Co., Inc., 1983), 459. The records are from St. Michaels Parish in Barbados.

[24] Carson Gibbs, Jr., A Supplement to the Early Settlers of Maryland, (Annapolis, MD: Maryland State Archives, 1997), vi-viii.

[25] Gust Skordas, editor, The Early Settlers of Maryland, An Index of the Names of Immigrants Compiled from the Records of Land Patents, 1633-1680, in the Hall of Records, Annapolis, Maryland, (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1968), 510.

[26] Id. at 510.

[27]         Skordas, Early Settlers, 510, and Gibbs, Supplement to Early Settlers, 242.

[28]         Gibbs, Supplement to Early Settlers, 242. John Willis had one headright by 1666. Patent Book GG:42 Archives Film SR 8205, Transcript Book 10:599 Film SR 7352.

[29] Skordas, Early Settlers, 510, and, Peter Wilson Coldham, The Complete Book of Emigrants, 1661-1699, (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1990), II:471.

[30]         Coldham 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.

[31] McAllister, Land Records of Dorchester County, II:52, 53. 4 Old 3-4 – 1 May 1680, Thomas Foulks and wife Sarah to Wm Dorrington, release of property left to Sarah by John Cornelius; Peter Johnson and James his son; and Thomas Fisher, late husband of the said Sarah. Witnesses: John Willis, Wm Reese, Thos Jones, Dorchester County Deed Book 4 Old 3-4., and II:53, 2 May 1680, William Dorrington to Thomas Foulkes, Chirurgeon [sic, surgeon], bill for 14K pounds of tobacco to be paid by Dorrington to Foulkes. Witnesses John Willis, Wm Reese, Thos Jones. Dorchester County Deed Book 4 Old 4.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *