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.

6 thoughts on “Westward Ho the Willises”

  1. Gary, thank you. This is a great lesson in how developments in laws governing the disposal of government lands determined so much, as our ancestors moved west from the east coast. It’s also a reminder that people with roots in Maryland had family members trekking to North Carolina, who then in some cases moved to Ohio, Indiana, and other Midwest states.

    I find a lot of that same migratory pattern with my Maryland families who were Quakers and went to the Quaker settlements in North Carolina, then — some branches of them — fanned out to Quaker communities in the places you name, as they moved away from the area of the country in which slavery was legal.

    In other words, I read your posting as a valuable reminder to us not to assume that, because we have, say, roots in Maryland with family members who then went to the Carolinas, that we don’t also have family ties in places far away from Maryland and the Carolinas. The Draper collection is full of letters and documents showing links between Southern families and families in the Northern states — places like Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois — and I’ve found it’s a valuable resource for that very reason. Sometimes branches of my family who went into the Midwest from Maryland and Virginia kept artifacts, bible records, letters, etc., that were lost to other branches, and connecting to those Midwestern cousins via Draper’s manuscripts has given me a lot of material I would not ever have found if I assumed that all my family members with roots in MD and VA who went to the Carolinas remained in the Southern states, as my branch of these families did.

    1. Bill,

      Thanks for your kind words and for your observations about people intentionally moving to the future “free states.” By the way, the Ordinance establishing the Northwest Territory spelled out that regions with more than 50,000 population could apply for statehood, and that no slavery or involuntary servitude would be legal in any lands with in the Territory or states formed therefrom. On the other hand, fugitive slave statutes were allowed and were the norm for the region.

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