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.

Indices to Administration Accounts of Caroline County, Maryland

As many of you know, Family Search publishes online scans of original documents such as wills and probate record books. Some of those original volumes contain at least a partial index in the front or back. You must look at each book to discover if you are lucky enough to find one with an index, and further, whether the surviving pages contain names you seek.

I recently discovered that the Caroline County, Maryland Administration Accounts Books available on Family Search do not have any such index. Finding anything related to my ancestors meant I had to page through every image. I felt like I was back in front of a microfilm reader scrolling, scrolling, and scrolling, forever.

Knowing that I would never know every name to capture on the first run through the volume, I decided to make an index. Then, I could come back later and pick up people I had missed the first or second time through the record.

There are seven volumes of Admin Accounts from 1703-1850. Initially, I completed an index for the volumes for 1790-1805 and 1805-1817. I asked the Upper Shore Genealogical Society of Maryland (USGSMD) to publish them on their website free of charge to all interested parties, and they have gladly complied. Here is a link … http://usgsmd.org/research-links.html#wills  

I recently finished the index for 1703-1776 and have sent it to USGSMD. I expect them to post it soon. Most of this particular record, of course, is for Dorchester County, prior to the formation of Caroline. By the way, this record contains data not included in the books previously indexed. Many of these accounts indicate surviving children of the deceased, sometimes noting those of age and those who are minors. If your ancestor did not leave a will, an administration account containing children’s names might be the only direct evidence available of those relationships. You will want to check out the result to see if you are among the lucky ones!

Once you have found a name in the index at usgsmd.org you will need to find that item at Family Search. This link goes straight to the page in Family Search containing the Administration Accounts (and many other records)  https://www.familysearch.org/search/image/index?owc=SNYC-K68%3A146535101%3Fcc%3D1803986

However, the link may not work unless you are already signed in to your (free) account at Family Search. Therefore, here is the step-by-step approach.

1) Login to Family Search. If you do not have an account, create one for free.

2) Select “Search” and then “Records” from the pull down menu.

3) At the Research By Location page, click on the US map and select “Maryland.” 

4) On the Maryland Research Page scroll below the section titled Indexed Records to “Image-Only Historical Records.”

5) Scroll down to the fourth subsection, “Probate and Court.”

6) In that subsection, click on “Maryland Register of Wills Records, 1629-1999.”

7) When the next page comes up, click on “Browse through 1,933,787 images.” Browsing through 2 million records really sounds like fun doesn’t it? Don’t worry … press on.

8) Select “Caroline.”

The next page will display all the available records including the seven volumes of Administration Accounts from 1703-1850. Unfortunately, the records from 1776-1790 are missing.

Again, the indices for the first, second, and third volumes are available at Upper Shore Genealogical Society of Maryland. I will get to the other four in due time.

The Heirs of Joshua Willis Sr. – Proved by Petitions, Patents, Depositions, and Deeds

John Willis bought land on Marshy Creek in 1717 in what became Caroline County, MD. One of his sons Joshua was born about 1720 and died in 1797. Joshua left a 1790 will that has not been located. However, several legal documents … petitions, patents, deeds, and depositions … combine to identify accurately Joshua’s children and provide other details about the family. These records emphasize the need in genealogy to “Follow The Land.”

Joshua acquired during his lifetime several hundred acres of land. He devised all the land he possessed at the time he made his will. Thankfully for us, Joshua did not amend the will to devise the tracts he acquired subsequent to 1790. The tracts not disposed of in the will fell to Joshua’s heirs at law under the law of intestate descent and distribution. This led to petitions, patents, deeds and depositions that identify those heirs. Since the will is lost, those other records relating to two specific tracts of land are the only evidence we have. Luckily, they are all we need.

Willis’s Landing

Joshua acquired land he called Willis’s Landing in two transactions in 1793. On 8 Jan 1793, John Nicolls assigned to Joshua 7½ acres of a 26-acre tract that Nicolls had acquired under a special warrant. Pursuant to a special warrant dated 20 Apr 1793, Joshua surveyed 69 ¾ adjacent acres, and named it Addition to Willis’s Landing. Petitions and subsequent land sales prove that Joshua’s will did not devise these parcels acquired after 1790. Further, his will clearly did not contain a “residuary clause” whereby property not specifically devised or bequeathed would fall to an identified beneficiary. In effect, Joshua’s estate was “intestate” as to this particular land.

Joshua Willis Jr. cited those facts in a petition seeking a patent for the land in the names of the heirs. He showed that his father properly acquired and paid for the tracts and that he died intestate as to those lands, leaving “Elizabeth Everngham, Joshua Willis (your petitioner), Frances Baker, Deborah Lucas, Charles Willis, Peter Willis, Thomas Willis, James Willis, John Willis, Annaretta Fleming, and Mary Willis his only children and heirs at law.” The filing stated that Charles Willis and Thomas Willis had died without issue and that Annaretta also died, leaving Mary Fleming and Robert Fleming her only children and heirs at law. Note that Joshua Sr.’s wife must have predeceased him, otherwise the petition would have named her as an heir.[1]

Joshua Jr. filed this petition on 14 May 1805, and an order issued the same day naming the living heirs. The order called for a patent to be issued to the ten named individuals, with the first eight (the living children of Joshua Sr.) each having an undivided one-ninth interest in the property and Mary Fleming and Robert Fleming to share the remaining ninth.[2]

An earlier deposition also names Joshua’s eleven children and notes that four of the five daughters had married, identifying their husbands:

  • Elizabeth married William Everngham
  • Frances married Charles Baker
  • Deborah married Joshua Lucas
  • Annaretta married Silas Fleming

That deposition also stated that Charles and Thomas Willis had died intestate and without issue, and that Annaretta and Silas Fleming had died leaving children Mary and Robert.[3]

A short aside … Annaretta’s husband made a will dated 1 Feb 1804 naming his brother-in-law Peter Willis executor. This will reveals that Annaretta predeceased Silas because she was not named, as well as the fact that the two Fleming children were minors.[4]

On 17 Jun 1805, the heirs sold Willis’ Landing and recorded the sale in Dorchester County (the tract fell partly in Caroline and partly in Dorchester). The signatories were William Everngham and his wife Elizabeth, Joshua Willis, Frances Baker, Joshua Lucas and his wife Deborah, Peter Willis, and John Willis.[5]

We are missing a few signatories in this list: Frances’ husband Charles Baker; James Willis; the two Fleming children; and Mary Willis. What does this tell us? Likely the following:

  • Frances’s husband Charles Baker must have died before this sale. A husband represented a wife’s interest in legal transactions. Frances would only represent herself if no longer married.
  • James Willis made up for his absence by filing in the Dorchester County Court acknowledging and recording the sale on 9 Dec 1805.[6]
  • Regarding the Fleming minors, we can assume that Peter Willis probably signed on their behalf. I have not found a record of an official guardianship, but the children lived in his household.
  • The mystery is Mary Willis. Where is her signature? I believe that Mary was still a minor at the date of this sale (therefore born after 1784). I find no official guardian appointed, but there is not one for the Fleming children either. The lost will of Joshua Sr. may have designated one of the siblings to be her guardian.

The record related to Willis’s Landing proves the children of Joshua Willis. However, we can learn a bit more by examining the documents surrounding a second tract called Willis’s Luck.

Willis’s Luck

Joshua Sr. acquired 229½ acres he named Willis’s Luck under a special warrant in 1763. He sold 100 acres shortly thereafter, simultaneously buying a small tract named Bank of Pleasure that provided access to Hunting Creek for the larger tract. A 1793 resurvey of his land defined 136½ acres that he called Addition to Willis’s Luck. The resurvey included 25 vacant acres, which turn out to be genealogically significant.

Joshua Sr.’s 1790 will devised Willis’s Luck, Addition to Willis’s Luck, and Bank of Pleasure to his son Charles. Sons Joshua and Peter were contingent beneficiaries and would share the land if Charles died without issue. Several records confirm this provision of the lost will.

  • On 28 Feb 1799, Joshua Jr. sold to Peter Willis 150 acres, part of Bank of Pleasure and part of Addition to Willis’s Luck. The record states this was half the land that fell to them at the death of their brother Charles.[7]
  • On 7 Aug 1804, Joshua Jr. sold to Peter Willis 150 acres, parts of Bank of Pleasure, Willis’s Luck, and Addition to Willis’s Luck. This record recites that the land fell to Joshua by the demise of his brother Charles.[8]

Charles clearly received this land through the will, and when he died without children, Joshua and Peter inherited under the terms of the will. Absent such a contingency provision, the death of Charles would have entitled all his heirs — his siblings — to a share of the land. An 1800 petition confirms those facts but with an interesting twist. The vacant land added through the 1793 resurvey was notcovered by Joshua Sr.’s prior ownership of the tracts. The will could not devise those added acres. Here we go with another petition, since these “intestate” acres descend to Joshua Sr.’s heirs at law.

In 1800, Joshua Willis and Peter Willis petitioned for a patent related to the vacant land. They cited their father’s acquisition and patent history of the tract. They specifically stated their father Joshua made his will in 1790. They stated that the land was devised to their brother Charles and fell to them divided equally should Charles die without issue. Finally, they noted that the vacant land added to the tract in 1793, subsequent to the date of the will, was not covered by the devise of land in that document. The estate was intestate as to that extra 25 acres. They therefore asked that a patent issue for that land in the name of the heirs at law. On 10 Dec 1800, the Chancellor of Maryland ordered the patent issued as requested, which happened on 20 Feb 1801.[9]

Nine years later the heirs sold that small acreage for $87. William Everngam and his wife Elizabeth, Deborah Lucas, Peter Willis, James Willis, John Willis, and Matthew Hardcastle and his wife Mary signed the 25 Jan 1810 deed of sale. The deeds and petition related to Willis’s Luck reveal some details about these people other than just their names:

  • Charles Willis obviously died before the first sale from Joshua Jr. to Peter in February 1799.
  • In the 1810 sale, only six of the nine shares appear to be represented. The three missing shares are as follows:
    • Joshua Willis did not participate in the 1810 sale. Joshua must have died before 1810 and left no issue, or he transferred his interest to one of the other heirs. There is no record of a conveyance from Joshua to an heir or anyone else. Since there is no such record, Joshua must be deceased.
    • Frances Willis Baker did not participate and was likely also dead.
    • The Fleming children did not sign. If alive, they must still be minors and therefore born after 1789. In that case, Peter still represented them.
  • Mary Willis was by then married to Matthew Hardcastle.[10]Her absence as a signatory on the 1805 sale of Willis’s Landing established she was born after 1784. She might have married Hardcastle as early as age 16, which would mean she was born by 1790, when her father wrote his will. I put her likely birth range at 1785-1789.

It would have been nice if Joshua Sr.’s 1790 will survived and had been updated over time to cover all his property. Had that occurred, however, we might not be privy to these additional details about this family. The lesson, as always, is “Follow The Land.

[1]Joshua outlived two wives, Susannah LNU, mother of his first three children, and Deborah Greenhawk whom he married 20 May 1774.

[2]Maryland State Archives Online, Dorchester County Circuit Court, Patented Certificates, MSA_S1196_3662

[3]This deposition by Captain William Haskins states the will was made in 1797. The petition seeking a patent in the name of Joshua’s heirs at law filed in 1800 gives the date as 1790. The earlier date is correct based on the subject matter of the petition, that is, to provide proper title to lands acquired in 1793. If the will were made in 1797, it likely would have devised those lands making the new patent unnecessary.

[4]Keddie, Leslie and Neil, Caroline County, Maryland, Register of Wills, 1800-1806, Liber JR Bi, Transcript& Liber LR C, i,(The Family Tree Bookshop, 2001), 48.

[5]Maryland State Archives online, Dorchester County Land Records, MSA_CE 46-48,(Liber HD No. 23: 181

[6]IdatHD 23:183

[7]Leonard, R. Bernice, Caroline County Maryland Land Records, Volume F, 1797-1799, (St. Michaels, MD: Helen E. Seymour), F:448.

[8]Leonard, Volume I, 1804-1809, I:090.

[9]Maryland State Archives Online, Caroline County Circuit Court, Patented Certificates, MSA_S1192_18.

[10]Marriage records indicate she married in Caroline County on 17 Sep 1806.