Foster Willis, Maryland to Missouri, 1804-1850

One rewarding aspect of genealogy is meeting wonderful people while digging up those pesky dead relatives. I had that privilege several months ago when the Reverend Charles Covington introduced himself via the Internet. The Rev (as he asked to be called) and I are related by marriage. One of his Covington ancestors married a descendant of my ancestor John Willis of Dorchester County (d. 1712). The Rev previously documented the descendants of his earliest known Covington ancestor down to the present and gifted the finished product to his children. He proposed that we do the same thing, generation by generation, with the descendants of John Willis. This joint project has led to many discoveries I would not have found on my own.

Case in point is the subject of today’s article. Foster Willis has always been of interest because he is the twin of my great-great-grandfather Zachariah Willis. This project forced me to focus on Foster for the first time. Deed, probate, and census records tell most of Foster’s story. The tale is typical of an early nineteenth century farmer/craftsman who achieves some success, raises a large family, and moves west seeking other opportunities. However, like most stories constructed after the fact, there are gaps and mysteries.

Born into a Farming Family

Two days after Christmas in 1804, Foster and Zachariah were born in Caroline County, Maryland, to Richard (1759-1823) and Britannia Willis, née Goutee (1765-1826). Richard was a successful farmer who amassed several hundred acres of land on the upper reaches of Hunting Creek northeast of the present town of Preston. He willed adjacent parcels of land to his four surviving sons Senah, Foster, Zachariah, and Peter. Foster’s share of the land was about 75 acres, part of a tract called Battle Hill.[1]

On 23 Mar 1826, Foster married Sarah Emerson. They had one child, Thomas Foster Willis born 16 Nov 1827. Tragically, Sarah died 15 Dec 1827, most likely from complications of that birth. Foster remarried 12 Jul 1828 to Anna Andrews who lived on adjoining land. Over a period of twenty years, they would have ten children, six of whom reached maturity.

Move to Town

Foster grew to some prominence in the county, but not as a farmer. The 1830 and 1840 censuses list his occupation as “manufacturing & trades” indicating he was a craftsman, although the exact trade is not specified.[2]His craft probably dictated his move from the countryside into a population center providing more access to customers for his services. Foster and Anna sold small pieces of Battle Hill in 1831 and 1832, including one-half acre as the site for the Friendship Methodist Church and a schoolhouse.[3]In 1834, they sold the remaining seventy acres to their neighbor Caleb Bowdle for $250 and bought a house in the town of Federalsburg where five of their children would be born.[4]

In Oct 1829, his elder brother Senah declared insolvency, and under a Deed of Trust Foster took control of all Senah’s assets except his wearing apparel. This was an unusual development, especially since Senah had only four months earlier sold his inherited land for $300 to Caleb Bowdle.[5]We do not know where Senah’s money went.

Foster was appointed Justice of the Peace for Caroline County, serving two terms in 1835 and 1836. However, the next year, he and Anna sold their house and lot in Federalsburg to Steven Andrews, presumably a relative of Anna, and moved to Cambridge in Dorchester County.[6]Deed records do not indicate Foster and Anna purchased property in Cambridge, so they must have rented a home.

Foster last appeared in Maryland records in the 1840 census for Dorchester. That census shows Foster as head of household with his wife and six children.[7]The household also includes a young couple, possibly Foster’s younger brother Peter W. Willis and his wife Susan.  A William P. Flint and his wife Sarah were neighbors of Foster and Anna Willis in the Dorchester 1840 census. Flint owned several lots and houses in Cambridge and in Church Creek. Flint was a likely doctor and quite possibly Foster’s landlord.[8]

Move to Missouri

In 1843, Flint and his wife sold their Cambridge properties. In 1845, they were noted as being “of Buchanan County, Missouri” when they sold the Church Creek land and houses. It is possible that Dr. Flint attended the Willis family and was there at the birth and the death of two Willis children born in 1842 and 1843 in Cambridge. It is further likely that the families migrated together to Missouri in the 1843-1845 timeframe.

In Missouri, Foster Willis applied for and was granted a quarter section of land located a few miles southeast of St. Joseph, Missouri.[9]Not coincidentally, William P. Flint and his wife Sarah owned adjoining land. In 1849, the Willises had their last child, a daughter Sarah E. A. Willis, probably named in part for their friend Sarah Flint. However, tragedy befell the Willis family during this period. Eldest son Thomas Foster Willis died in November 1849, and Foster died in April 1850 without leaving a will.[10]

The widow Anna Willis probably did not outlive her husband by more than a year or two. She appears as head of household in the 1850 census in Buchanan County with real estate valued at $3,000 and personal property of $1,000.[11]However, Anna never appeared in the probate records. She never received any moneys from the estate, leading to the conclusion she passed away during the probate period.

Probate of Foster’s Personal Estate

After Foster died intestate, the court appointed Erasmus F. Dixon administrator of the estate on 3 June 1850. The probate records are extensive, but in many ways unrevealing. The records do not include an inventory of Foster’s personal property. A list of his tools might have defined Foster’s tradecraft. A list of crops in the field, livestock, or farm implements would provide an understanding of his life on the land. Without this detail, we are left to wonder if he maintained his tradecraft. In fact, one wonders if even his tradecraft in Maryland were successful. If it were, why would he move to Missouri and acquire farmland? Did he plan to entirely depend on farming, at which he previously had not shown success? A clue to the answer may be that the 1850 census lists his widow Anna as a farmer, and the 1860 census lists each of his sons as farmers. Whatever Foster’s craft, he did not hand it down to his sons.

Furthermore, the probate record lists about 50 claims against the estate, many of them filings by claimants directly in the county court.[12]However, few claims indicate the basis, such as a note, an account at a store, or a time purchase of equipment or inventory. The few details that are available paint a picture that is fuzzy around the edges.

Take for example the following three items. First, one asset of the estate in 1851 was an “Amount against William P. Flint … $116.34.” Second, Flint filed a demand against the estate in 1853 for $136.00, which the court allowed to offset the estate’s claim. Third, Buchanan County in 1852 had entered its claim against the estate for $138.63 for the unpaid balance of Foster’s quarter section of land. We can conclude from these items that Foster and Flint each signed a bond ensuring payment for the other’s land purchase, and that those two obligations offset in probate. The record also shows Foster still owed money for his land. This makes sense because the sale did not become final until 25 Dec 1850, eight months after Foster had died. The balance due became an obligation of the estate.

The record also shows claims of $120.60 against the estate by a firm named “Donnell, Saxton, and Duvall,” a retail mercantile enterprise. Another firm, “[illegible]tor & Riley,” claimed $137.69. To have $160 debts outstanding to a couple of stores seems excessive. However, Foster died in the Spring. These debts may have been related to farming during the upcoming season, such as the purchase on credit of seed and equipment. Additionally, Foster owed money to numerous individuals. Several individuals claimed amounts ranging from $25 to $80, which may have been personal loans.

In the final analysis, Foster owed a lot of money to a lot of people. His personal property was valued at $991.52 in October 1851 but proved insufficient to satisfy the estate’s debts, resulting in the need to sell some of the estate’s land. In 1854 and 1855, the administrator sold with the court’s permission a total of about 40 acres of land, netting an additional $880 to the estate. Despite that, the final personal estate settlement in April 1855 does not show any residual amount paid to the heirs, nor does it even list the heirs.

In fact, Foster’s widow Anna does not appear in the probate record. Instead, the couple’s eldest surviving son, James R. Willis, filed a $195.00 claim against the estate. We can conclude that Anna died shortly after her husband and that James became head of household at age 20 or 21. Logically, he received money from the estate to support his younger siblings.

Disposition of the Land

By 1860, all the heirs resided outside Buchanan County. Each apparently still owned a share of the remaining family homestead of 118 acres. Even eleven year-old Sarah is listed in the census as owning $900.00 worth of real estate. Five heirs were in three households in Doniphan County, Kansas Territory, just across the river from Buchanan County[13]One heir, Harriett, was with her husband in Andrew County, Missouri, just north of Buchanan.[14]

Sarah Willis’s $900 interest in the land represented one-sixth of its total value in 1860. Therefore, the whole parcel was worth $5,400. Regardless of Foster’s success or failure as a craftsman or farmer, his and Anna’s investment in the land proved a good legacy for their children.[15]

I have not yet located the final sale of the land by the heirs of Foster Willis. However, they likely sold it to a Mr. A. M. Saxton.  An 1877 atlas of Buchanan County shows him as owner of the former Willis land and the quarter section north of it. The atlas states Albe M. Saxton operated a mercantile partnership in St. Joseph with Robert W. Donnell.[16]Foster’s estate owed their firm $130.60 back in 1850. Saxton became extremely wealthy from the store and other ventures, including banking, steamship building, and land holdings of more than 1,000 acres. Saxton not only owned the Willis property but also the Flint lands, since the atlas states he married in 1856 “Mrs. Sarah Emeline Flint originally of Dorchester County, Maryland.”[17]

As the story circles back to a connection with Maryland, it seems like a good place to end this discussion of my great-great-great-uncle Foster Willis.

[1]Caroline County Will Book,Liber JR-C, Folio 465 and subsequent Deeds

[2]Manufacturing and Trades would include cobblers, blacksmiths, silversmiths, wheelwrights, wood carvers, carpenters, cabinetmakers, etc. Other occupation categories in the 1840 census were Mining; Agriculture; Ocean Navigation; Canal, Lake, River Navigation; and Learned Professions & Engineers.

[3]Caroline County Deed Books, Liber Jr-R, Folios 115 and 130.

[4]Caroline County Deed Book Liber JR-S, Folios 340 and 402

[5]Caroline County Deed Book Q: 259.

[6]Caroline County Deed Book T: 524.

[7]The age ranges in the census indicate the children are Thomas F. Willis from Foster’s first marriage, and James R. born 1830, Harriett A. born 1832, Peter M. born 1835, John F. born 1837, and William H. H. born 1840, from the second. Deceased are Foster and Anna’s eldest son John W. born in 1829 and their daughter Louisa born in 1833. The couple had two more sons who died as infants: Charles E. born 1842 and Samuel A. A. born 1843.

[8]Flint’s occupation in the 1840 census for Dorchester County, MD, was “Learned Professions and Engineers.”

[9]The southwest quarter of Section 19, Township 57, Range 34, surveyed at 158 acres priced at $1.25 per acre for a total cost of $198.00. The land transaction completed on 25 Dec 1850.

[10]Thomas F. Willis may have been married. There is no marriage record and no probate record, which argues against there being any heirs at law. However, a Rebecca J. Willis, age 26, appears in the 1860 census in brother James Willis’s household. She is possibly the widow of Thomas, although she would have been age 15 at the time of his death.

[11]Living with Anna, age 44, are James, age 20; Harriett, age 18; Peter, age 15; John, age 13; William, age 11; and Sarah age 1. Sarah, by the way, is listed as Sarah E. H. (sic} A. Willis in a later census. I originally thought she was the daughter of Foster’s deceased son Thomas Foster Willis, who named the child after his mother Sarah Emerson Willis. However, the 1880 Cole County, MO, census of her brother James R. Willis’s household lists her as “Lizie A. Willis, age 31, sister.” She is clearly the child of Foster and Anna, and her full name is likely Sarah Elizabeth Anna Willis.

[12]Volumes A and B, Buchanan County, MO, Probate Records

[13]The Doniphan County, Kansas census shows the following, including the value of their real estate: James R Willis, age 30, $3,000, Married with four children; Peter M. Willis, age 25, $2,500, Single; John F. Willis, age 23, $1,000, Single, residing with the following two: Wm H. H. Willis, age 20, $1,000, Single, and Sarah E. Willis, age 11, $900, Single. Curiously, Peter and Sarah are listed a second time in James’s household.

[14]The Andrew County, Missouri census lists John Speed S. Wilson, age 36, $3,200, and Harriett A. Wilson, age 28, Married with four children.

[15]As a final comment regarding the estate administrator, there is no apparent familial relationship between Erasmus F. Dixon and the Willises. He served as a court appointed administrator for the estates of several unrelated parties. In any event, James R. Willis clearly held him in high regard for his handling of the estate and support of the family. James named his first son Erasmus D. Willis, obviously honoring Mr. Dixon.

[16]Published online by The State Historical Society of Missouri, “An Illustrated Historical Atlas Map of Buchanan County, MO, 1877,” p. 31

[17]The atlas does not state that Mrs. Flint was a widow, but we can presume that to be the case.

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