During the 1700s, several Willis families on the Eastern Shore of Maryland were Quakers. I have long believed that the John Willis family of Wantage in Dorchester County was not one of them.The record evidence supported that conclusion.
For example, Wantage John’s eldest son John, Jr. lived in what became Caroline County. Several Quaker Meetings and the Anglican St. Mary’s White Chapel Parish served the region. The Anglican records do not survive, so whether or not John Jr.’s family attended there is lost to history. On the other hand, numerous Quaker Meeting records of the period exist. John, Jr.’s family does not appear in any of them. Apparently, the family was not Quaker.
The record for Wantage John’s son Andrew is more straightforward. Andrew lived in Dorchester County. Three of his four sons appear in the records of Old Trinity Church near Church Creek at the baptism of several children between 1754 and 1775.Again, there is no Quaker record naming any of them. This family was clearly Anglican and not Quaker.
The elder John had two other sons, Thomas and William. Thomas lived adjacent John Jr. in what became Caroline County. William lived on Wantage until moving close to his wife’s family on Hodson’s/Hudson’s Creek in the Neck Region of Dorchester County. Neither of these sons appears in any religious record, Anglican or otherwise. There is no evidence, therefore, suggesting a connection to Quakerism for anyone in the Wantage John family for the first couple of generations. And, there is evidence that one family group was Anglican.
Beyond these first generations, descendants of John of Wantage and related families were prominent in Methodism. Barratt’s Chapel in neighboring Kent County, Delaware was the birthplace of Methodism in America.Lydia Barratt, granddaughter of Philip Barratt who built the chapel in 1780 is the great grandmother of Henry Fisher Willis, a direct descendant of Wantage John. Henry was a significant supporter of the Bethesda Methodist Church in Preston, Caroline County, Maryland, with a stained glass window honoring his service in the late 1800s. Henry’s father Zachariah Willis was a trustee of the Methodist Church whose twin brother Foster gave land for a church in 1831.
I concluded from this data it highly unlikely that any of Wantage John’s descendants belonged to the Society of Friends. In fact, I used membership in the Society as a screening tool to rule out various Willis lineages as being related to John of Wantage. For example, there is a Quaker Willis line with land in eastern Dorchester County and in the Federalsburg region of Caroline County.There is a Willis line in Talbot and Caroline County that attended the Tuckahoe Creek Monthly Meeting. Indeed, many researchers have conflated a Richard Willis in that line, who married a Margaret Cox, with a Richard Willis in Wantage John’s line. And there is a Kent County line of Willises who were also Quaker. None of these families are related to John Willis of Wantage at least on this side of the pond.
With a high level of confidence in the religious affiliation of the John Willis family, or at least its lack of affiliation with the Quakers, imagine my surprise when I came across the following entries in the birth records of the Wilmington Monthly Meeting, New Castle, Delaware. Oops:
- Richard Willis 24 of 1 mo 1794 Son of Richard Willis & Britanna his wife
- Ann Willis 2 of 6 mo 1799 Daughter of Do & Do
- Senah Willis 19 of 4 mo 1802 Son of Do & Do
- Zachariah Willis and Foster Willis 27 of 12 mo 1804 Sons of Do & Do
- Peter Willis 21 of 4 mo 1811 Son of Do & Do
- Richard Willis 27 of 5 mo 1820 in 26thyear
- Richard Willis 2 mo 14 1823 63rd
- Britanna Willis 1 mo 2 1826 in the 59th
Parents Richard Willis and Britanna (Britannia Goutee) are well known to me, but I had no inkling they were Quakers. Richard, born 8 Aug 1759, is the son of Richard Willis, died 1764, and the great grandson of John of Wantage. Richard and Britannia, born about 1765, married in Caroline County on 22 Jan 1788. She is descended from John Gootee and Margaret Besson/Beeson, who came to the colony from France with Margaret’s father and became naturalized citizens in 1671.So, have I been wrong all along about this Willis line and Quakerism?
Well, I don’t know. Certainly, I was wrong about Richard and Britannia, however, these are the only Quaker records for the family … no grandchildren’s births, no deaths recorded after Britannia’s in 1826. There appears to be no connection to the Friends before these record entries and none after Britannia’s death. Possibly, she was the only serious Quaker in the family, and the Friends connection died with her.
This particular Quaker record reveals some other information. First, the Wilmington Monthly Meeting was the “parent” organization for several subordinate Quaker congregations. Among those were Third Haven, Tuckahoe, and Northwest Fork Monthly Meetings. Records at those subordinate meetings would have been forwarded to Wilmington in due course. The instant record appears to be from the Northwest Fork area based on a couple of things. For one thing, the record noted that two of the listed people were “Elders in the NW Fork Monthly Meeting.” Additionally, surnames in the record, such as, Charles, Dawson, Kelley, Leverton, Noble, and Wright, are of Quaker families known to have lived in that region. Finally, the record indicates the residence of a few of the listed persons. The only counties mentioned are Caroline and Dorchester Counties, Maryland, and Sussex County, Delaware. Federalsburg, the site of the Northwest Fork Monthly Meeting was located at the intersection of those counties. Clearly, the record is from that Meeting and was sent to Wilmington for their files.
The second thing apparent from this register is that it is a copy and not the original register. The handwriting is identical throughout, both in the index and the register entries. Had the entries been made as births and deaths occurred from 1790 to 1828, the person making the entries surely would have changed from time to time, and, therefore, the handwriting would have varied. Furthermore, many entries relating to a single family are grouped together regardless of date. For example, all the Willis birth entries are on a single page.The same is true of some other families. One would expect the original register to be in chronological order with the family names mixed together. Apparently, a clerk prepared a copy of the original register, reorganized and indexed for the benefit of the files in Wilmington. We thank them for their effort, especially since the original register seems to be lost.
In conclusion, it is clear that Richard and Britannia Willis affiliated with the Quakers. Apparently, the family connection ended with Britannia’s death. It is not clear, however, if generations previous to Richard and Britannia were part of the Society of Friends. I have found no evidence of that but need to keep looking.
John Willis, d 1712, patented a 50-acre tract named Wantage in Dorchester County in 1702.
Palmer, Katherine H., transcribed Baptism Record, Old Trinity Protestant Episcopal Church, Church Creek, MD, Cambridge, MD, p 19, baptisms of son Richard’s children Mary (1754), John (1755), Elizabeth (1758) and Richard (1761); son John’s child Jarvis (1758); son Andrew’s children Keziah (1770) and George (1775).
William Hand Browne, Archives of Maryland v.2, Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly of Maryland, April 1666 – June 1676,Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, Maryland, 1884, p. 270, Naturalization of John Gootee and Margarett Gootee his wife of Dorchester County and Stephen Besson of Dorchester County all born in the Kingdom of France. Act read as being passed by the Assembly at 19 Apr 1671 closing of the session on the General Assembly, which began 27 Mar 1671 in St. Mary’s County.