Revised – A Surprising Willis – Quaker Connection

Subsequent to the original posting of this article, significant new information came to my attention requiring a substantial rewrite. I have deleted the original and post this revised version in order to clear the record of incorrect information. 

During the 18thand 19thcenturies, several Willis families on the Eastern Shore of Maryland were Quakers. I have long believed that the John Willis family who lived on land called Wantage in Dorchester County was not one of them.[1]The evidence I had found to date supported that conclusion.

For example, Wantage John’s eldest son John, Jr. lived on Marshy Creek 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 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.[2]No Quaker record names any of these people. This family was clearly Anglican and not Quaker.

The elder John had two other sons, Thomas and William. Thomas lived adjacent John Jr. on Marshy Creek. William inherited Wantage from his father and lived there 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. Therefore, no evidence suggests 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.[3]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.[4]

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 eliminate various Willis lineages as being related to John of Wantage. For example, there is a Quaker Willis line in eastern Dorchester County and in the Federalsburg region of Caroline County.[5]Another Willis line in Talbot and Caroline County attended the Tuckahoe Monthly Meeting. Indeed, many researchers have conflated a Richard Willis in that line, who married Margaret Cox, with a Richard Willis in Wantage John’s line. A third line of Willises who lived in Kent County, Maryland 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 reportedly from the birth records of the Wilmington Monthly Meeting, New Castle, Delaware.[6]Oops:

  • Richard Willis 24 of 1 mo 1794    Son of Richard Willis and 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

The same document contains the following burial records:

  • 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

The listed 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.[7]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.[8]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 seem to be the only Quaker records online for the family … no marriages, no grandchildren’s births, no deaths recorded after Britannia’s in 1826.

This particular record does reveal some other information. First, the record is handwritten … an Index plus a section of Births and one of Burials. However, the cover page is typewritten, stating that it is from the Wilmington Monthly Meeting.[9]An examination of the contents reveals, however, that the cover page is incorrect. The record is actually from the Northwest Fork Meeting in Federalsburg based on the following. 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 near the Northwest Fork of the Nanticoke River. Finally, the record indicates the residence of a few of the listed persons. The record mentions only three counties: Caroline and Dorchester, Maryland, and Sussex, Delaware. Federalsburg is located at the intersection of those counties. Clearly, the record is from that Meeting and not Wilmington.

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 birth and death entries. Had the entries been made at the times the events occurred from 1790 to 1828, the person making the entries surely would have changed from time to time. 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.[10]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 it. Likely, this document was intended for the files of a Quarterly or Yearly Meeting to which the Northwest Fork Meeting was subordinate. That would have been the Southern Quarterly and the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting during the years in question.[11]

One additional Quaker reference to this family is Kenneth Carroll’s Quakerism on the Eastern Shore.That source lists under the Northwest Fork Monthly Meeting the birth of Ann Willis, daughter of Richard and Britannia and the death of Ann Willis “daughter of Richard.”[12]If this is the same Ann, she died unmarried at age 35. Interestingly, Carroll’s work does not include the other data found in the mislabeled Northwest Fork record. Obviously, he did not have access to that register.

In conclusion, it is clear that Richard and Britannia Willis affiliated with the Quakers. Apparently, the Friend’s connection ended with Ann’s death. Possibly she was the motivating factor for the family’s involvement in the sect.

_____________________

[1]John Willis, died 1712, patented a 50-acre tract named Wantage in Dorchester County in 1702.

[2]Palmer, Katherine H., transcribed Baptism Record, Old Trinity Protestant Episcopal Church, Church Creek, MD, (Cambridge, MD), 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).

[3]See www.barrattschapel.org

[4]Caroline County, MD Land Records, Liber JR-R, Folio 115, 29 Oct 1831 deed for ½ acre from Foster Willis and Wife Ann to trustees of the Methodist Church, proved 31 Jan 1832.

[5]Actually, this family were Nicholites, or New Quakers, until that sect reunited with the Quakers in 1798. See Carroll, Kenneth Lane, Joseph Nichols and the Nicholites: A Look at the “New Quakers” of Maryland, Delaware, North and South Carolina (Easton, Maryland: The Easton Publishing Company, 1962), 78, Births of the children of Andrew and Sarah Willis: Andrew, 3 Nov 1774; Mary, 5 Dec 1770; Rhoda, 18 May 1766; Roger, 14 May 1768; and Shadrick, 15 May 1772. Births of children of Thomas and Sina Willis: Anne, 5 Dec 1770; Elic, 1 Feb 1785; Jesse, 15 Feb 1773; Joshua, 15 Dec 1774; Milby, & Aug 1768; Milley, 3 Feb 1784; Thomas, 28 Oct 1776; and William 20 Sep 1771.

[6]Ancestry.com, U.S., Quaker Meeting Records, 1681-1935: Births & Deaths, 1790-1828, Wilmington Monthly Meeting, New Castle, Delaware. Birth records are all at p. 19; Burial records at pp. 7, 8, and 10, respectively.

[7]Cranor, Henry Downes, Marriage Licenses of Caroline County, Maryland, 1744-1815(Philadelphia: Henry Downes Cranor, 1904), 18.

[8]Browne, William Hand, Archives of Maryland v.2, Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly of Maryland, April 1666 – June 1676(Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1884), 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.

[9]The typewritten text on the cover page reads, “II Department of Friends’ Records, 302 Arch Street, Phila., PA, Wilmington Monthly Meeting, Del., Births and Deaths, 1790-1828, Births 22 pp.; Deaths 11 pp.; Index 32 pp.”

[10]This record, however, does not include the couple’s two eldest daughters, Rebecca, born 9 Nov 1788, and Dorcas, born between 1790 and 1793.

[11]Jacobsen, Phebe R., Quaker Records in Maryland(Annapolis: The Hall of Records Commission, State of Maryland, 1966), 78, In 1800, by permission of the Southern Quarterly, a Monthly Meeting was established at Northwest Fork, consisting of Marshy Creek [Note: later named Snow Hill and then Preston], Centre, and Northwest Fork Preparative Meetings … When the Separation occurred within the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in 1827, the Southern Quarterly Meeting was simply dissolved by the Orthodox.”

[12]  Carroll, Kenneth Lane, Quakerism on the Eastern Shore(Baltimore: The Maryland Historical Society, Garamond/Pridemark Press, 1970) 255, Ann Willis daughter of Richard and Britana [sic] born 19 Apr 1799; 260, Ann Willis daughter of Richard died 22 Sep 1834.

Westward Ho the Willises

A Willis family moved from the Eastern Shore of Maryland to Ohio in the early 1800s. Another moved first to North Carolina then to Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. A third migrated to Missouri. The underlying incentive to migrate was almost always to find cheaper land. But why these places? The chosen destinations pointed to the Land Acts related to the Northwest Territories.

Great Britain ceded millions of acres of land to the United States after the Revolutionary War. Most of the land was west of Pennsylvania and north of the Ohio River, which Congress established as the Northwest Territory in 1787. The territory encompassed all or part of what would become six states: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

The government took several steps to entice new settlers to the area. First, it surveyed the area into a standard grid of 640-acre sections. This survey aided the organized pricing and sale of the land to individual settlers or to groups of investors. Next, Congress passed a series of Land Acts providing for land sales. The Territory’s representative to Congress, the future President William Henry Harrison, presented one of the early proposals, which Congress adopted as the Harrison Act of 1800.

The Harrison Act required buyers to purchase at least 320 acres at a price of $2.00 per acre. The buyer had to pay at least half the purchase price at the date of purchase with the balance due in equal annual installments over four years.

The required upfront payment was pretty steep for most settlers. Therefore,  Congress created the Land Act of 1804, which kept the other purchase terms but cut the minimum acreage in half, reducing the upfront payment by 50%. Settlers could better afford this arrangement, and most were able during good economic times to keep up with their payments.

The economy suffered in the late 1810s when peace came to Europe. The warring nations had been a strong market for agricultural production from the United States. That demand disappeared when armies disbanded and returned to their farms in France, Germany, and England. As a result, many farmers in the Northwest Territories could not sell their crops and could not make payments on their loans. Congress responded with the Land Act of 1820 and the Relief Act of 1821. The Relief Act let existing settlers give back land they could no longer afford to finance, and it extended the installment period an additional eight years.

The Land Act of 1820 cut the minimum purchase acreage for new settlers to 80 acres and cut the price to $1.25 per acre. The act required the total cost to be paid at the time of purchase. Settlers found this acceptable as most could afford the $100 minimum purchase under the new act without a time payment plan. The Act also applied to lands in the Missouri Territory.

These government programs helped people from the Eastern Shore acquire property in far away places just as headright incentives helped populate Maryland and other colonies 100 years earlier. Maryland residents also benefited from one of the easiest routes into the lands beyond the Appalachian and Allegheny Mountains. The Cumberland Narrows in Maryland’s Allegheny County (not to be confused with the Cumberland Gap near the border of Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia) provides the best east to west access in the mountain range for potential settlers from the northern tier of states. Beyond The Narrows, emigrants soon found the Ohio River and a watery highway to the West.

We know that some Willis families took advantage of these purchase opportunities. Foster Willis of Caroline County, Maryland died in Missouri. Tilghman Willis of Dorchester County, Maryland died in Ross County, Ohio. And Shelah Willis, a son of William from Maryland, was probably born in North Carolina, married in Warren County, Ohio, and died in Berrien County, Michigan. We will look in depth at Foster, Tilghman and Shelah Willis at a future date.