John Willis’s Parents … A New Look

Previous articles (see links  here  and here) about John Willis who died in 1712 in Dorchester County, Maryland proposed that he was born in Wantage, Berkshire, England. That theory rested on two essential facts. First, Maryland colonists often named property after their former home in Europe. In John’s case, he named his 50-acre tract Wantage. Second, the Berkshire Parish Registers for Wantage include several marriages that might be John’s parents. One of those couples was John Willis and Elizabeth Chapman, who married in Berkshire Parish on 11 Apr 1664.[1]

New Information

One earlier article estimated John’s birth year as 1667-68, although I rounded the year to 1660 in the discussion.[2]Now I have found more precise information on the issue. Specifically, birth and christening records for Berkshire Parish show that John and Elizabeth Willis baptized a son named John on 3 Jan 1668.[3]

That record does not prove that the child born and baptized in 1668 is the same person as John Willis who died in Maryland. Nevertheless, it is significant circumstantial evidence. Importantly, subsequent parish records do not show an adult John Willis in Wantage during the period he likely would have married and had children. That at least suggests that baby John may have left Wantage when grown … perhaps for the colonies. Therefore, as a working hypothesis pending further evidence, John Willis who died in Maryland is now in my tree with a birthdate of 3 Jan 1668 and with parents John Willis and Elizabeth Chapman of Wantage, England.[4]DNA testing provides additional support for this theory. My autosomal test shows several matches with people having the Chapman surname. At least one of these has some connection to English Chapman families.

As with any unproved hypothesis, there are problems with the theory that John, son of John and Elizabeth, is the same person as John of Dorchester County, Maryland. According to the register entry, baby John Willis was baptized on the same day he was born. Most entries in the list show either a date of birth or of christening, but not both on the same date. Immediately baptizing a newborn may indicate the child was ill and not expected to survive. That might have been the situation with baby John. On the other hand, no record exists showing his death.

Children of John Willis d. 1712

The will of John Willis presented for probate in Dorchester County on 24 November 1712 proved four children: sons William and John, and daughters Grace and Elizabeth.[5]Two sons not named in the will are Andrew, proved by probate records, and Thomas, supported by circumstantial evidence. The will does not name a spouse, so we can 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. Further, the will does not use a married surname for either daughter, so probably they were unmarried as of 1712.

The earlier article estimated the birth years of the various children to provide a theoretical picture of the family consistent with known facts. Those estimates now need revision to account for John’s hypothetical birthdate of 3 Jan 1668/69. As mentioned in Footnote 2, son Andrew was born in about 1690, and John Jr. was born at least by 1689. I have used those two dates here. William was born between 1694 and 1700 according to a deposition.[6]I used the earlier date, which would make William 18 years old at his father’s death. Grace was named before Elizabeth in the 1712 will, possibly indicating she was the elder of the two. Since neither was married at the time of John, Sr.’s death, I have estimated birth years that would make them 16 and 14, respectively. The relative ages of Thomas and William are uncertain, but I suspect William was the youngest. Revised birthdates and their ages at 1712 are as follows:

1689 – John            age 23                           1694 – William      age 18

1690 – Andrew     age 22                           1696 – Grace            age 16

1692 – Thomas     age 20                           1698 – Elizabeth    age 14

I welcome any questions or comments about this and other articles. Please contact me at redmarker181969@yahoo.com.

[1]W.P.W. Phillimore, editor, Berkshire Parish Registers, Marriages, Volume 1, (London:Phillimore & Co., 1908), p. 41, John Willis, Junr [?] and Elizabeth Chapman, 11 Apr 1664.

[2]A 1730 deposition established that Andrew, one of John’s sons, was born in 1690, and a 1746 deposition stated that son John, Jr. was the eldest, making him born by at least 1689 to be older than Andrew. If these sons were 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 by 1667-68.

[3]Walls, Mary, transcriber, “England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975,” FHL Films Number 88468, 88469, at Ancestry.com, 3 Jan 1668 (Birth and Bap), John Willis, parents John and Elizabeth Willis.

[4]Actually, the year is 1668/69. Until 1752 with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar by England and its colonies, the year began on 25 Mar. Thus, the date of 3 Jan 1668 in the register would be 3 Jan 1669 in the modern calendar.

[5]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 (3 Dec 1712) 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.

[6]James A. McAllister, Jr., Abstracts from theLand 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.

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