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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.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.
Joshua outlived two wives, Susannah LNU, mother of his first three children, and Deborah Greenhawk whom he married 20 May 1774.
Maryland State Archives Online, Dorchester County Circuit Court, Patented Certificates, MSA_S1196_3662
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.
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.
Maryland State Archives online, Dorchester County Land Records, MSA_CE 46-48,(Liber HD No. 23: 181
Leonard, R. Bernice, Caroline County Maryland Land Records, Volume F, 1797-1799, (St. Michaels, MD: Helen E. Seymour), F:448.
Leonard, Volume I, 1804-1809, I:090.
Maryland State Archives Online, Caroline County Circuit Court, Patented Certificates, MSA_S1192_18.
Marriage records indicate she married in Caroline County on 17 Sep 1806.