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.

Thomas Willis … A Descendant of the Quaker Family of Richard and Frances Willis

Another researcher recently asked if I had any information to help connect Thomas Willis to any Willis family on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She knew Thomas had purchased land in Dorchester County, and his son William had sold land in Caroline County prior to relocating to Guilford County, North Carolina. I believe Thomas Willis to be part of the Quaker family of Richard and Frances Willis, for two main reasons:

For four generations the Dawsons and Willises, including Thomas Willis and two sons, conducted land transactions among themselves. Frances Willis connected to the Dawson family through her first marriage to Richard Dawson.

Additionally, Frances’s will proves relationships supporting Thomas Willis’s inclusion as part of her family.

Richard Willis Family

The Richard Willis family is a Quaker family of Richard Willis who married Frances, widow of Richard Dawson. They had three children, Richard, John and Frances.[1] Thomas is a likely son of either Richard or John.

Willis and Dawson Land Deals – First Two Generations

Real estate deals in the Colonies often involved family members. Land transactions for the Willis extended family fit that pattern. For example, Richard Willis’s will left land to his sons, who later sold it to a son from their mother’s first marriage. Richard Willis patented a tract called Rondley on the Transquakin River in 1687.[2] His 1689 will devised Rondley to sons Richard and John.[3] In 1699, widow Frances Willis married Edward Fisher, who resided on the Nanticoke River.[4] He died about a year later leaving all his land to Frances.[5] In 1718, widow Frances Fisher conveyed some of her land on the Northwest Fork of the Nanticoke to her sons Richard and John Willis, with the proviso that they convey their ownership in Rondley to John Dawson, a son from her first marriage.[6] In 1721, Richard Willis and his wife Ann sold another tract to John Dawson.[7] This pattern of family deals continued after Frances Fisher died in 1729.

Frances Fisher’s Will

Frances Fisher’s 1724 will proved several family relationships including five identified grandchildren.[8] The will named other people without clearly defining the relationship. For example, the will named Obediah, Anthony and Elizabeth as children of Richard Dawson, but did not state Frances Fisher’s relationship to either Richard Dawson or to his three children. Were these children from her first marriage to Richard Dawson, or were they her grandchildren?

Quaker records show the births of Obediah, Anthony, and Elizabeth Dawson, along with others including Richard and John.[9] Some were likely children of Frances and Richard Dawson, although the parents were not named in the register. The record also shows Obediah Dawson died in 1694.[10] Assuming these records refer to the same Obediah (and I have found no other), Frances’s likely son Obediah died 29 years before she made a will. Clearly, Frances Fisher’s will was providing for her grandson Obediah. This means Obediah Dawson’s father named in the will was Frances’s son Richard, born 1674. That fact helps explain other relationships in the land transactions set out below.

Willis and Dawson Land Deals – The Next Generation

A generation after the earlier real estate deals, the pattern of family transactions continued. A Thomas Willis bought one tract from “John Dawson, son of Richard Dawson” in 1757[11] and another in 1765 from “John Dawson, son of Richard.”[12] The John Dawson in those deeds was not Richard and Frances Dawson’s son John. According to a 1730 deed, their son John died earlier.[13]

That begs the question: who was “John Dawson, son of Richard?” First, a clarifying term such as “son of” following a name almost always meant more than one person in the vicinity shared that name. The clarifying phase specified the exact person involved in the record. The best candidate for “Richard” in this clarifying phase is Richard Dawson named in Frances Fisher’s will, implying that John Dawson is another grandchild of Frances.

But wait, you say! If John were Richard Dawson’s son, why did the will not mention him with Richard’s other three children? For that matter, if Thomas Willis were part of this family, why was he not named in Frances’s will? I think the answer is the same for both men … neither was born before Frances died.

“John Dawson of Richard” was likely a son of Richard Dawson, Frances’s son from her first marriage. Thomas Willis was likely a son of Richard or John Willis, sons from her second. The evidence suggests John Dawson and Thomas Willis were about the same age. Both likely were born in 1730 or later, after Frances had made a 1729 codicil to her will. Further, each must have been at least 21 to execute their first land deal in 1757, so each must have been born by 1736. If correct, they were born between 1730 and 1736 and became the third generation involved in these intra-family land transactions.

Willis and Dawson Land Deals – The Last Generation

The families’ fourth generation continued the tradition of land transactions. The record proves that Thomas Willis had at least two sons, William and Elijah.[14] In addition to several deals between just Thomas and his sons, in 1780, William Willis rented land to a John Dawson.[15] In 1793, Thomas’s son Elijah bought land from a “John Dawson (of Richard).”[16] The record proves the Willis sons in these transactions were from the next generation. It is reasonable to think that the John Dawsons in these deals might have been as well.

Conclusion

I believe direct and circumstantial evidence provide a strong case that Thomas Willis descended from Richard and Frances Willis. The land transactions over two generations between various people named John Dawson and the Thomas Willis family continued a pattern of Willis-Dawson family land deals begun two generations earlier. The evidence in Frances’s will coupled with the land transactions strengthens the case. It is highly likely that Thomas Willis was a child of one of Richard and Frances Willis’s sons, either Richard or John Willis. I have not found record evidence as to which.

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Timeline – Key Events

Est 1682 –        Richard Willis married Frances (LNU), widow of Richard Dawson.

1683 – 1684 –   Richard Willis, Jr. born to Richard and Frances, based on young Richard’s deposition in 1732-3.

1687 –              Richard Willis patented “Rondley” in Dorchester County.

21 Oct 1689 –   Richard Willis made a will leaving “Rondley” to his minor sons Richard and John when they reached 21 years of age. The tract would descend to his daughter Frances if the sons died without issue.

1 Oct 1699 –     Widow Frances Willis married Edward Fisher of Dorchester County at the Quaker Meeting House near Tuckahoe Creek.

25 Oct 1700 –   Edward Fisher, Nanticoke River, Dorchester County, made a will leaving personal property to his brother William Fisher and family. Edward left all real property to his wife Frances. There is no mention of any children. I assume there were none.

26 Jul 1718 –    Frances Fisher conveyed her land, except for her home planation, to sons Richard and John Willis with the proviso that they convey “Rondley” to John Dawson, a son of Frances and Richard Dawson.

7 Aug 1721 –     Richard and wife Ann Willis sold two tracts of land on the Transquakin River to John Dawson.

29 Feb 1723 –   Frances Fisher made a will leaving half her home plantation to son Richard Willis and half to his son Richard, her grandson. The will said some unstated accommodation had been made with her son John Willis. The will identified five grandchildren; three others are proved by analysis.

14 Apr 1729 –   Codicil to Frances Fisher will, proved 7 May 1729.

Before 1730 –    John Dawson son of Frances died. On 9 Mar 1730, Isaac Dawson, likely son of John Dawson, sold land on Transquakin that John Dawson, deceased, had bought from Richard Willis in 1721.

1730 – 1736 –   Thomas Willis likely born during this period to either Capt Richard Willis or his brother John Willis. John Dawson likely born during this period to Richard Dawson.

1732 – 1733 –   Deposition of Capt Richard Willis, age 49, mentions deponent’s mother Frances Fisher, about 29 or 30 years ago.

6 Nov 1741 –     Will of Capt Richard Willis proved 20 Jan 1742.

17 Jan 1757 –   John Dawson, “son of Richard Dawson” of Dorchester sold to Thomas Willis a tract called “Addition to Timber Tree Neck.”

29 Oct 1765 –   John Dawson, “son of Richard” sold part of “Addition to Miles Swamp” to Thomas Willis.

5 Dec 1773 –     Caroline County formed. The Willis lands are now located in the new county.

25 Feb 1779 –   Gift Deed: Thomas Willis gave to son Elijah Willis the part of “Timber Tree Neck” that Thomas owns. Son William owns the other part.

16 Jun 1780 – Deed of Lease: William Willis rented 6 acres of “Addition to Miles Swamp” to John Dawson for 75 years at a fee of 6 pence per year.

23 Oct 1783 –   Thomas Willis and son William sold 7½ acres of “Addition to Timber Tree Neck” to Elijah Willis.

23 Oct 1783 –   Elijah Willis sold “Levin’s Folly Enlarged” to William Willis.

16 Jun 1784 –   William Willis sold 59¼ acres of “Addition to Timber Tree Neck” and 18¾ acres of “Addition to Miles Swamp” to Elijah Willis.

23 Nov 1785 – William Willis sold the rest of his holdings of “Addition to Timber Tree Neck,” “Levin’s Folly Enlarged,” and “Addition to Miles Swamp” to Levin Wright. William then moved to North Carolina.

5 Feb 1793 –     John Dawson, of Richard, sold part of “Addition to Miles Swamp” to Elijah Willis.

[1] Henry C. Peden, Jr. & F. Edward Wright, Colonial Families of the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Volume 5, (Westminster, MD: Willow Bend Books, 1999), V: 312.

[2] Peden, Colonial Families, V: 312, and Calvin W. Mowbray & Mary I. Mowbray, The Early Settlers of Dorchester County and Their Lands, (Self published, 1981), I: 171. A patent issued to Richard Willous for a tract in Dorchester County called “Roaley” (Rondley), 260 acres.

[3] James A. McAllister, Jr., Abstracts from the Land Records of Dorchester County, Maryland, Volume 3 (Libers Old 4 ½ – Old 5), (Cambridge, MD, 1961), III:1. The will of Richard Willis dated 21 Oct 1689, proved 8 Jan 1689/90, devised to his sons Richard and John Willis at age 21 the 300 acre plantation called “Rondly.” His daughter Frances Willis would inherit if sons died without issue. Dorchester County Deed Book 4½ Old 1.

[4] Lucy Kate McGhee, Maryland Quaker Record of Third Haven (Tred Avon), Talbot County, MD, Marriages, Volume 3, pt 1, p. 60, 1 Oct 1699, Marriage of Edward Fisher of Dorchester County and Frances Willis, widow and relict of Richard Willis, at the Meeting House near Tuckahoe Creek, which was a sub-meeting of Third Haven.

[5] Jane Baldwin (Jane Baldwin Cotton), The Maryland Calendar of Wills, (Baltimore: Kohn & Pollock, Publishers, 1904, and reprinted Westminster, MD: Family Line Publications) 1988, V. II p 223, 11: 117, Will of Edward Fisher, Nanticoke River, Dorchester County, dated 25 Oct 1700, proved 4 Mar 1701, To brother William, sister in law Thomasin, Thomas, James and Mary, sons and daughter of brother William Fisher afsd, personalty; To wife Frances (formerly wife of Richard Willis), executrix, and heirs, home plantation, 50 acre “Western” (Weston), and 50 acre “Fishers Landing.” Witness: Jno Rawlings, Dan’l Cox, Thos Peterson.

[6] McAllister, Land Records of Dorchester County, Volume 5 (Libers Old No. 7 – Old No. 8), (Cambridge, MD), 1962, 7 Old 63, 26 Jul 1718, Frances Fisher of Dorchester County sold to Richard Willis and John Willis, her sons, “Weston,” 50 acres; “Addition to Fishers Landing,” 53 acres; “Bartholomews,” 200 acres, and “Fishers Landing, 50 acres. Richard and John Willis to convey “Roadley” (“Rondley”) to John Dawson. Witness: J. Rider, Levin Hicks, acknowledged the same day

[7] Id., at 8 Old 26, On 7 Aug 1721, Richard Willis and wife Ann of Dorchester County, Gentleman, sold to John Dawson, planter, of Dorchester, “Maidens Choyce” on Transquakin River adjoining “Exchange,” 100 acres and White Lady Field” adjoining “Maidens Choyce,” 100 acres. Witness: Cha. Deane, John King. Acknowledged 9 Aug 1721.

[8] Baldwin, Calendar of Wills, V. VI, p. 109; 19: 679, Will of Frances Fisher, Dorchester County, dated 29 Feb 1724, proved 7 May 1729, To son Richard Willis, ½ home plantation on Nanticoke River; To daughter Frances Newton, personalty; To grandson Richard Willis other ½ of said plantation pursuant to an agreement lately made with son John Willis, and personalty at age 21. Son Richard Willis to have charge of estate during minority of said grandson Richard; To granddaughters Frances and Mary (daughters of Edward Newton), personalty; To Elizabeth (daughter of Joseph Thompson), personalty to be delivered to her by her uncle Edward Newton when 18 years of age; To Obediah, Anthony and Elizabeth (children of Richard Dawson), personalty; To sons Richard Willis and Edward Newton, executors, residue of personal estate. Witness: Thomas Griffith, Samuel Long, William Burn (dec’d at date of probate). Codicil: 14 Apr 1729. To granddaughter Elizabeth Thompson, son [sic] Richard and his sister Mary Willis, personalty.

[9] McGhee, Quaker Record of Third Haven, Volume 1, p. 50, Birth dates Obediah 13 Apr 1672, Richard 13 May 1674, Elizabeth 19 Nov 1677, Sarah 15 Sep 1678, John 7 Jun 1681, Anthony 13 Apr 1683.

[10] Id., at 73, Obediah Dawson died 21 Nov 1694.

[11] McAllister, Land Records of Dorchester County, Volume 11 (Liber Old No. 15, folios 1 – 368), 1963, 15 Old 449, On 17 Jan 1757, John Dawson (son of Richard Dawson) of Dorchester County, planter, to Thomas Willis of the same, part of a tract on the east side of the Northwest Fork of Nanticoke River, called “Addition to Timber Tree Neck”, located near John Brown’s home plantation and containing 134 ½ acres. Witness: Henry Hooper, Edward Tripp, Justices.

[12] McAllister, Land Records of Dorchester County, Volume 16 (Liber Old No. 20), 1964, 20 Old 384, On 29 Oct 1765, John Dawson (son of Richard) and Sarah his wife of Dorchester Co, planter, to Thomas Willis of same: part of “Addition to Miles Swamp” on the Northwest Fork of Nanticoke, 32 acres. Wit: Edward Trippe, Wm. Haskins, Justices.

[13] McAllister, Land Records of Dorchester County, Volume 5 (Libers Old No. 7 – Old No. 8), 1962, 8 Old 405, On 9 Mar 1730, Isaac Dawson of Dorchester sold to Joseph Ennalls, of the same, 100 acres, part of lands bought by John Dawson, dec’d, from Richard Willis, on the west side of main branch Transquakin River. Witness: Jno Pitt, Jno Anderton, Richd Dawson. Acknowledged the same day.

[14] Caroline County Deed Records, Liber GFA, Folio 348, Deed of Gift dated 25 Feb 1779 – Thomas Willis to his loving son Elijah Willis a tract of land called “Timber Tree Neck” or “Addition to Timber Tree Neck” and all to the westward of a ditch in the middle now between myself and my son William Willis – has a life clause for he and wife Rebekah to use land.

[15] Caroline County Deed Records, Liber GFA, Folio 487, Deed of Lease – A Deed of Lease dated 16 Jun 1780 between John Dawson and William Willis, rent a tract of land called “Addition to Miles Swamp” containing 6 acres for 75 years at a yearly rent of 6 pence.

[16] Caroline County Deed Records, Deed Book D: 285, John Dawson (of Richard) to Elijah Willis: for £21.19.4, 17 acres, part of “Addition to Miles Swamp” on east side of Northwest Fork of Nanticoke River. John Dawson and Sarah his wife each acknowledged before TW Loockerman, Jos. Douglas, Justices.