A Surprising Willis-Quaker Connection

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.[1]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.[2]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.[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 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.[5]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

The same document contains the following burial records:[6]

  • 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.[7]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.[8]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.


[1]John Willis, d 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, 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).

[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.

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

[7]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.

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

Willis DNA Project … Maryland Group

There are currently about 300 participants in a Willis DNA project. Eleven of those participants are known through Y-DNA testing to descend from John Willis d. 1712 of Wantage in Dorchester County, Maryland. Below is a chart indicating some of John’s descendants. Nine of the current Y-DNA participants are descended from the first seven legs of this chart. The other two do not yet have a paper trail specifying from which of John’s four sons they descend. Currently, none of the participants are from the last two branches, John’s sons Thomas or William.

Willis Y-DNA Chart

 

The Case of the Unhelpful Mutant Marker

by Gary N. Willis

Rapidly mutating DNA markers can be extremely helpful for genetic genealogists. These mutations can identify sublineages that differentiate relatives within only a few generations and can sometimes solve mysteries where there are gaps in the written record. I recently thought I had discovered such a useful mutation. My Y-DNA test results differ from other members of the Maryland Group of the Willis DNA Project at position 439. That location is noted for being rapidly mutating. The genealogical paper trail indicates that seven of the nine members in the Maryland Group descend from Andrew Willis, son of John Willis the immigrant. The other two of us descend from John, Jr., another son of Immigrant John.

If the anomalous marker at 439 originated with John, Jr., it would clearly separate descendants of Andrew from descendants of John. However, the other group member who descends from John, Jr. does not share the anomaly. The mutation must therefore have originated in one of John, Jr.’s descendants rather than John himself. The paper trail shows that the line of the other John, Jr. descendant and my line diverge at Zachariah Willis, a great-great-grandson of Immigrant John. I am descended from Zachariah’s son Henry Fisher Willis, while the other Maryland Group member descends from Zachariah’s son Francis Asbury Willis. The mutation at 439 obviously occurred with Henry Fisher or his descendants, since Francis Asbury’s line lack the mutation.

Mutant Marker Chart

One of my brother’s test results are identical to mine, including the anomaly. The mutated marker at 439 therefore did not begin with my generation. It must have first occurred with one of three men: our father Noble Sensor Willis, his father Henry Noble Willis, or Henry Noble’s father Henry Fisher Willis. This conclusion is illustrated in the Mutant Marker Chart linked above. Unfortunately, this knowledge has limited value because there are so few male descendants of Henry Fisher. Henry Noble Willis was the only son of Henry Fisher, and Noble Sensor was one of only two sons of Henry Noble. The other son of Henry Noble was Harry McMaster Willis who had no sons. Absent actually digging up a dead relative, it is not possible to determine exactly where the mutation occurred. Thankfully, it is not necessary to be more precise. The remaining males in the entire line of Henry Fisher Willis are the three sons of Noble Sensor (my two brothers and I), plus our five sons and four grandsons. We should all share the mutant marker. No mysteries to be solved there.

Had the mutation occurred with Zachariah rather than further down the line, it would have been extremely useful in identifying kin. Zachariah had a number of sons including some who left the Eastern Shore of Maryland to establish families elsewhere in the country.

(For more information on this family, see “The John Willis Family of Dorchester and Caroline Counties, Maryland” and “The John Willis Family … The Second Generation” recently posted on this site.)