by David Johnson
The manila envelope I received in March 1984 from Layne Dangerfield came as a very pleasant surprise. Inside it was information on the Wilsons reaching back over two hundred years! Perhaps I should have used the word ‘shocked’ because when I first started working on our genealogy, I was not overly optimistic concerning my ability to trace the Wilson line back too far at all. How wrong I was!
The search for our Wilson ancestors actually began in 1939 when Bill Hubbard , youngest son of Wellington David Wilson, joined the L.D.S. church, hired a genealogist and began digging to find Wilsons. To say he was successful would be something of an understatement. To this day, his efforts are continued by his daughter, Layne Dangerfield. So where do the Wilsons come from and how far back can we go? Quite a way it seems.
John Willson, Revolutionary War veteran from Massachusetts, is the earliest Wilson ancestor unearthed so far. Despite our best efforts to go beyond him, John Willson remains the earliest Wilson that we can definitively claim as our own. The word ‘definitive’ is used most deliberately in describing John Willson because there is circumstantial evidence identifying a father and grandfather before him. Whether the circumstantial case I present is strong enough, or persuasive enough, to convict them into our family tree I leave to you. At the very least they are the two most likely suspects in extending the Wilson line back another generation or two.
John Willson was born 16 April 1764 in Petersham, Massachusetts. Situated in the extreme western portion of Worcester county, Petersham had only a decade earlier been incorporated into a township thus ending twenty years as a “plantation” named Nichewaug. The early history and origins of Petersham are closely bound up with the men I believe to be the grandfather and great uncle of our John Willson. In 1732 the General Court of Massachusetts made a six square mile grant of land to 71 “proprietors” for services rendered during the “Indian wars” under the command of Captains John White and another named Lovell.
Though few of these original proprietors ever settled in Nichewaug (later Petersham), two that did were Joseph Wilson and Samuel Wilson. They are also listed as two of the original fifteen signers of the settlement’s church covenant in 1738 when the community received a minister. Petersham town historian Delight Haines lists these two as brothers with a question mark. Admittedly, there is no proof of this but in a settlement this small and as the only Wilsons, it is logical to assume they were quite likely related as so much of the early pioneering experience was a communal one involving extended networks of family and friends. As local tradition held that the Wilsons were from neighboring Lancaster county, a check of the early records for this county may yet reveal whether these two men were brothers.
Occasionally referred to in the old records as Volunteertown or Voluntown, Nichewaug’s early settlers made an astute decision when they chose to pay the neighboring Indians “all their rights and interests” for this proprietary settlement. Thus, the infant community never suffered fromt he depredations and horror of an 18th century Indian attack. Rather remarkable considering the fears of such generated by the French wars in 1744 and 1754 and their resulting tribulations for towns on the outskirts of English settlement such as Petersham. Indeed, the greatest hardship for these early pioneers seemed to be the great distance between themselves and more settled neighboring communities.
Town records reveal that Samuel Wilson and his wife Mary had eleven children between 1735-1757. Joseph Wilson an his wife Rebakah Phelps also had eleven children during this same approximate time period. (This would seem to lessen the possibility that Samuel and Joseph were father and son.) Samuel’s eldest son, John, was born 3 July 1735. It is this John Wilson whom I believe to be the father of our John Willson (1764-1847). I will present the case for this connection momentarily.
Nothing else is definitely known about John Wilson, including the name of his wife, any other children or the exact date of his death. If this John Wilson is indeed John Willson’s father as I believe, about all that can be stated is that sometime after his son’s birth in 1764, the family moved to the east across Worcester county to the town of Bolton. With no other information available we will skip ahead to 1774 in our story.
In that year the Massachusetts Provincial Congress took several measures to prepare for possible hostilities between herself and Britain. Namely, a Committee of Safety was established for each community, arms and munitions were centrally collected for more rapid dispersal as needed, and a new militia format created. All men aged 16-50 were enlisted in the militia, with all males between 50-70 on the “alarm” list as an emergency backup force. At age 39, John Wilson was by law a militiaman required to meet on the “training field” four times yearly with the requisite provisions: firelock musket, bayonet, 30 rounds ball and powder, pouch and knapsack. Surely, ten year old John Willson, Jr. watched excitedly and with great envy as his father made his way to quarterly militia meetings. Could he have guessed that only six years later he too would be serving?
In June 1780, John Willson, Jr. was selected as among the “one from every five men to serve in the militia for the term of six months.” Within 72 hours he was marching for Butts Hill on Newport Island, Rhode Island to join his regiment under the command of Colonel Howe. If young Willson began with any adolescent illusions regarding war, he probably lost some of them with the march to Rhode Island. As it turned out, he marched in just the opposite direction of the war’s main fighting at that time.
For most of us today, mention of the Revolutionary War conjures up places names such as Lexington and Concord, Boston and Bunker Hill; likewise a vague notion that the war was somehow largely contained to the New York-New England area. And while this is true for much of the war in the 1770’s, by 1780 the most vigorous campaigning had actually moved south. In 1778, Great Britain shifted most of its troops to the South (Virginia and the Carolinas) in an attempt to capitalize on the Loyalist sentiment allegedly so strong in the region and to allow for more rapid transport of troops and supplies from the British West Indies.
In retrospect, we can see that John Willson’s six months service in 1780 came at the low ebb of American fortunes during the war. Disheartening defeats at Charleston (June) and Camden (August) were bad enough but Benedict Arnold’s treason in September was even worse. Add to the mix the Continental Congress’ lack of financial support for troops, a faltering popular support and one can see that little in the way of good news would have reached John Willson in Rhode Island. Even George Washington admitted at the time, “I have almost ceased to hope.” And what exactly was John Willson, Jr. doing in Newport? In his own words, while stationed at Butts Hill he was “principally employed in building fortifications, entrenchments, etc….” Manning a shovel was hardly the duty sure to keep a new recruit’s spirits high for long.
Actually our ancestor had arrived smack in the middle of an ambitious proposal for a joint Franco-American military campaign. On May 1, 1780 General Rochambeau had left France with 5500 men under the stewardship of Admiral Charles Ternay in eight ships-of-the-line, two frigates and two bomb galliots. They sailed into Newport earlier than expected on July 10th. In fact, General William Heath (Washington’s representative to the French) was still in Roxbury, Massachusetts upon their arrival. John Willson recalled year later that he was “stationed as a sentinel upon the arrival of the French troops under General Rochambeau.” Indeed, John probably watched with awe and delight as a rather colorful French army disembarked. The 1st Soissonais in white broadcloth and crimson trim, the 85th Saintonga in green and white, the 13th Bourbonnais in black and white, and the Royal Deux-Ponts in blue coats with yellow trim made for an exotic spectacle of color and a wonderful diversion for militia troops likely bored stiff with digging.
Even without an official reception committee, the jubilation at the French arrival was evident within the day. Rochambeau later wrote, “in 24 hours their spirits rose and last night all the streets, house and steeples were illuminated in the midst of fireworks….” Even so, the Frenchman’s official report was more cautionary.
“Send us more troops, ships and money. But do not depend upon
these people, nor upon their means. They have neither money
nor credit. Their means of resistance are only momentary and
called forth when they are attacked in their homes.”
Indeed, the entire plan for a joint Franco-American push against the British in the summer of 1780 was cut short when three days later, Admiral Thomas Gaines arrived outside Newport with thirteen British ships-of-the-line behind him. Weeks, then months, slipped by as the American and French forces at Newport kept a wary eye on the stationery yet potentially dangerous British fleet in the distance. Gradually, the realization dawned upon John Willson and the other Americans that Adm. Ternay had no intention of challenging Gaines’ fleet and that Gen. Washington was likewise indisposed to using the French troops on land without naval supremacy for resupply. Lack of Congressional funding and the overall shift of the war’s main theater to the South combined to dash all hopes of a summer offensive in New England. Surprisingly enough despite the frustrations of the situation for both sides, there were no major disruptive incidents between the disappointed colonial troops and an equally bored French army. Consequently, John Willson’s six month tour of duty came to a rather desultory end in December 1780. One cannot help but imagine that this “veteran’s” walk home in New England’s winter weather was considerably less enjoyable than his original trip north as a recruit in June. That John’s wartime experience ended more with a whimper than a bang is evidenced by the fact that military authorities did not even bother with formal discharge papers for anyone in his company of colonial militia.
According to the statements in his pension application filed in1832, John Willson, Jr. did not long remain in Bolton upon his return. He “removed to the town of Fitzwilliam” in New Hampshire with his father’s family in “the winter of 1781.” The exact reason for this move and subsequent others is not known but I will hazard a guess that the desire for cheaper land is what led to John’s ultimate destination in St. Lawrence county, New York twenty years later. The Wilson family stayed in Fitzwilliam for approximately seven years before moving to Putney, Vermont around 1786-87. Described in a 1797 gazetteer as “a thriving town in Windham county” Putney was not long a home to the Wilsons. They resided there only a few years as by time of the 1790 federal census, they were farther north in the state at Hinesburgh.
This move into Vermont is not at all unexpected as the population of post-war Vermont exploded from 30,000 in 1781 to 85,000 a decade later and 154,000 by 1800. And where did these people come from? Overwhelmingly from Massachusetts and Connecticut. Not only do the moves of our Wilson ancestors match the general settlement patterns for the state, they even reflected a more subtle move within the state. One historian noted that “many Vermonters did not remain long in their original settlements but rather emigrated north within the state.” John Willson and his father did exactly this with their move from Putney to Hinesburgh after only a few years in the former. We are actually fortunate in this move because we do have some good documentation on the Wilsons in this latter community.
According to the manuscript of Hinesburgh town clerk, Erastus Bostwick, “a John Willson from Massachusetts arrived in town” in 1789 and “leased land from Charles Russel.” Town records further list a John Willson and John Willson, Jr as “qualified freemen” for voting purposes in 1794. Both voted for representative to Congress in 1798 and 1800. Additionally, both appear as the head of separate households for the 1790 and 1800 federal censuses in Hinesburgh. A genealogist who researched some of this information for Layne Dangerfield in the 1970’s noted that “John Willson, Jr. was very active in the affairs of the town during the 1790’s” and that “he served in several capacities.”
I must freely admit the land dealings of which we have record for John Willson are puzzling. Most particularly I refer to his purchase of 50 acres from Samuel Dorwin for 30lbs. On 9 June 1790 and his sale of the same to Jonathan Weller for 21lbs. on the same day! I will not even hazard a guess as to the purpose behind this apparently money losing venture.
At some point in 1789 John Willson married Mary Wheeler, herself born in Berkshire county, Massachusetts in December 1772. By the time John and Mary left Hinesburgh they carried with them five children: Hiram, Lima, Luther , Peter and Cassius. During the Willsons long years in New York six more children were born between 1802-1811, Harriet, Luther, John Wilder, Demarius, Emma and Fanny.
In the Spring of 1801, Hinesburgh’s John Willson, Lyman Bostwick, Elisha Barber and Griffin Place all crossed Lake Champlain into New York to settle in St. Lawrence County along the Canadian border. At this point, however, I would like to pause long enough to clarify the reasons why I believe John Wilson (b. 1735) and John Willson (b. 1764) to be father-son respectively. First of all, John states clearly in his pension file that he traveled with his father’s family to Fitzwilliam then on to Putney and Hinesburgh. Therefore, we should be finding another, and older, Wilson where we also find John Willson. Second, the John Wilson born in 1735 is old enough to be the father of John Willson born in 1764 in the same community. Third, when John Willson is of an age to have established his own household after his 1789 marriage, we find him listed as a separate head of household in both the 1790 and 1800 censuses for Hinesburgh. In both cases we have John Willson Jr. listed to distinguish between the John Willson also enumerated. If this were merely the same name though unrelated, no Jr. would have been appended to the one. Likewise, we can safely assume the Jr. title was used to designate father from son. Additionally, we know that John Willson, born 1764, must be the John Willson, Jr in this pair (rather than John Willson) as he would not have been old enough to have a son of an age to form a separate household. Furthermore, it is worth noting that we definitely know that John Willson, Jr. left Hinesburgh for Louisville, New York in 1801. Neither John Willson, Jr. nor John Willson appears in the records for Hinesburgh after this date. We can only assume that John Willson (b. 1735) died at this approximate time because he disappears from Hinesburgh records and does not appear in any in New York state. Finally, John Willson (b. 1764) dropped the Jr. at this point and no longer appears in any records as anything but John Willson. This would coincide with either the death of his father or his father’s having chosen to remain behind in Hinesburgh. Ultimately, I believe this solves the dilemma of the two John Willsons, Jr. and Sr., who appear together in town records for Putney and Hinesburgh as well as the two censuses mentioned. Granted, much of this is circumstantial and even theoretical on my part but it does seem to be the best explanation of our Wilson genealogy based upon the available information.
To return to our narrative, in 1801 John Willson and several other Hinesburgh residents as mentioned earlier made the trek into upstate New York. In retrospect they seem to be a portion of an advance guard of Vermonters that led the way in settling the region along the St. Lawrence River. In fact in the the 1820’s, nearly 50% of the Vermont population emigrated to New York “clustering” around earlier Vermonter settlements such as that of Louisville and Massena in St. Lawrence county. And how did this come to pass? Most important to our family’s history was the 1763 Treaty of Paris ending the Seven Years War which left the upper St. Lawrence nearest Lake Ontario behind an Indian Demarcation Line. The power of Britain’s Indian ally, the Iroquois Confederation, still sufficed to keep most white settlers out of the region our ancestors would later settle. This illusory frontier line running down the crest of the Appalachians, however, did little to halt the tide of American settlers and land speculators just to the south. The British inability to stem this human tide or pacify the natives beyond was merely one of the many grievances American colonists pointed to as justification for their 1776 rebellion. Ironically, victory in the Revolutionary War brought America the same problems that previously vexed British administrators: how to remove Indians from the Trans-Appalachian frontier, dispose of the land and govern settlers.
Later when New York officials purchased the land of the Mohawk Indians for $1600 in 1797, the last barrier to settlement of upstate New York and the St. Lawrence Valley disappeared. As Western historian Ray Allen Billington has noted, land speculation in the St. Lawrence country was on a spectacular scale. In 1792, Alexander Macomb purchased nearly 4,000,000 acres from the New York State Land Office at 16 cents per acre beginning with the St. Lawrence Ten Towns Tract. Macomb then immediately set about selling portions to other speculator-developers including Samuel Ogden. In 1801, Ogden laid out the town of Ogdensburg and hacked out a road leading southeast to Carthage and Utica beyond. Mr. Ogden’s advertising and the cheap wilderness land prices brought settlers such as our John Willson streaming out of Vermont in particular. Nearly half the Vermont population was lured into the region within the next two decades.
In the Spring 1801 John Willson and family arrived in what would later become Louisville. Our ancestors probably followed the “winter road” from Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain to Malone and then on to the St. Regis River as hundreds of families yearly took this route to upstate New York from upper New England. Settled in 1801 primarily by Hinesburgh residents, Louisville held its first town meeting in the home of John Willson. Published histories list Nahum Wilson (no relation) as the first arrival to Louisville in1800 and John Willson the second in 1801.
Unfortunately, records from this time period and this region (Louisville and Massena) are sparse. However, we do know that John Willson was elected ‘supervisor’ in 1808 and again in 1810 for Massena. Additionally, John Willson and family appear in the 1810 census in Massena. He appears again in the 1820-1830 censuses for Louisville. By 1840, he would appear to be living in the household of his son John Wilder Wilson. He was 76 at the time and a combination of old age and perhaps financial troubles necessitated this move. A more interesting document from the time period is one involving legal action against John Willson. The Index of Deeds for St. Lawrence County shows an 1825 writ whereby Sheriff Charles Raymond sold a 40 acre parcel of our John Willson’s land as payment for a $202. 14 debt owed William Bacon and Robert Lyon. Unless John Willson was unlike so many in the area, he probably dabbled inland speculation. Successfully or not is a question we are unable to answer.
By the time of this nation’s second war with Britain in 1812 the Willson family had spent a decade along the river. This “second American Revolution” was certainly one of the chief excitements for them from this era. The mundane chores of survival and raising six children undoubtedly seemed more important to John Willson than the abstract principles of high seas trade and impressment. Indeed, if our ancestors were like most of the farmers of northern New York, they had long been exporting grain and potash downstream to Montreal for sale. If John Willson was like most settlers to this region the first thing he did upon arrival at his new homesite was to clear trees for planting an initial crop. Once the trees were downed then they were burned, remaining ash boiled and “potash” was left. As the basic ingredient for most soaps and fertilizers, potash was the first crop of the vast majority of settlers in this region. And with Montreal just downstream along the shores of the St. Lawrence, this quick cash crop was ready for resale even before the first corn crop could be harvested.
As it turns out, a large segment of the population in that area, if not the majority, not only opposed the war itself but had openly defied Thomas Jefferson’s 1807 Embargo restricting such trade. Evidently the trade in potash along the river continued relatively unabated by the president’s edict. The reading I have done on the topic suggests that the settlers of this region maintained good relations with their British subject neighbors across the river to the north despite the technical state of war between the two nations. I wonder how our Revolutionary War veteran fits into this picture? What an irony if he had fought one war against the British as a young man only to oppose one later as a middle-aged pioneer.
Finally, I would like to discuss John Willson’s application for pension based upon his Revolutionary War service. In 1832 the United States Congress passed legislation authorizing funds to pay for pensions to those veterans who served in the American Revolution and their surviving un-remarried widows. On 24 September 1832 John Willson appeared in “open court before the Court of Common Pleas” to testify as to his wartime experiences. Based upon this testimony included in his application, John Willson was granted a pension certificate entitling him to $20 annually. Unfortunately for him, his supporting evidence for his pension claim was classified as “traditional” and in 1834 the government asked him to return the pension certificate. The War Department required him to get records from the Massachusetts Sec. of State to verify his claim. They said, “… regulations of the Department require the best evidence available in every instance of which the case is susceptible.” At this time John was 70 years old and evidently in no mood to accept this decision. His pension file contains copies of several letters written by prominent citizens of the region on the old man’s behalf. The correspondence of Wm Ogden (Waddington, New York) and Henry Weed (Hinesburgh, New Hampshire) was to no avail. An 1842 letter by R. H. Gillet of Ogdensburgh, New York informed the Pension Department that “…the old man is so infirm that I cannot understand much from him.” By this time, he was apparently residing in the home of his son, John Wilder Wilson, until his ultimate death in 1847 at the age of 83. It would appear that he never succeeded in reversing the War Department’s decision.
So what are we to make of all this? Was John Willson truly a veteran of the war for independence or merely a scheming old codger attempting to obtain easy money from the federal government? Despite the difficulty in setting aside personal bias, I will endeavor to objectively present the case for John Willson citing both its strengths and weaknesses. We shall begin with the strengths of the case.
First, in regard to the names and dates mentioned in his account, these do match the historical record. Willson claimed to be stationed at Butts Hill in Newport, Rhode Island from June to December 1780. Butts Hill is located there, General William Heath was in overall command as he said in his testimony and the French general Rochambeau did arrive in this place just as Willson claimed. Secondly, let us consider the modesty of his claims. If he was of a mind to lie and pass himself off as a 1776 veteran, why didn’t he go “whole hog” and create a more elaborate, exciting story? He claimed he was drafted for the militia, not volunteered. He claims he saw no combat and further stated that most of his service entailed little more than building entrenchments and fortifications. All of this smacks of the very real and mundane chores of a common soldier. Third, he offers numerous specifics which also match the historical record. He named various officers from the ranks of Lieutenant to Captain to Colonel (Moore, Houghton, Howe) and these all do check out. Furthermore, he did not claim intimate knowledge of these men “otherwise than as a soldier knows the different officers in the same encampment.” Fourth, the Daughters of the American Revolution has allowed membership into their organization based upon his claim for service. Finally, the War Department did grant and paid on a pension for him. Obviously, at some point the United States government was satisfied regarding his claims.
There are weaknesses in his claim too, however. Evidently, his name does not appear on any lists of soldiers from Massachusetts. I have personally contacted Bolton and they have no record of a John Willson matching the age and circumstances of ours as having served from the town. Secondly, he had no formal discharge papers or any official paperwork with which to prove or bolster his claims later when they were contested by the authorities. (This, however, is not at all unusual. I have read numerous pension files for militia soldiers and in very few cases have I found anyone who was issued formal discharge papers.) Finally, he was ultimately asked to return his pension certificate by the War Department.
So where does this leave us? I will offer one last, and very interesting I believe, detail. At one point in his Declaration for pension it states, “Deponent has some recollection of the death of one of the principal french naval officers during the latter part of his term of service but is not certain such was the fact.” The French admiral Ternay, who delivered Rochambeau and his troops to America, died on 15 December 1780 in Newport, Rhode Island of what seemed at the time only a minor fever. Certainly, Ternay is not one of the major names of the Revolution and that John Willson would have recalled it, much less the man’s death, all those years later… well, to this writer, that one innocuous statement has a very real ring of truth to it.
With this we come to the end of our biography of John Willson, Jr.. He died on 16 October 1847 at the age of 83. In closing I offer some various items and readings with reference to John and the Louisville/Massena region of his lifetime. I feel these make for interesting reading and hope you enjoy them.
Early Petersham history from the Petersham Historical Society; Petersham, Mass. 01366. Town historian Delight Haines provided most information.
1790 federal census, Vermont, Chittenden Co., Hinesburgh, p. 142
1800 federal census, Vermont, Chittenden Co., Hinesburgh, p. 318
1810 federal census, New York, St. Lawrence Co., Massena, p. 340
1820 federal census, New York, St. Lawrence Co., Louisville
1830 federal census, New York, St. Lawrence Co., Louisville
1840 federal census, New York, St. Lawrence Co., Louisville
History of Worcester County, Massachusetts, pp.200-201
Historical Collections, pp.596-98
History of St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties, pp.333-39, 347-57
Index of Revolutionary War Pension Applicants, p.1284
French’s Gazeteer, p.574, 579
Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War, p.542
History of St. Lawrence County, pp.533
D.A.R. file on John Willson, #369219: “Enlisted in June 1780 and served 6 months as Private in Captain David Moore’s Company, Colonels Howe’s and Hallett’s Massachusetts Reg”
Revolutionary War Pension file on John Willson, #S11796
1828 land record for John Willson, Index of Deeds, St. Lawrence Co., Book 9, p. 707
1823 land record for John Willson to Louis Hasbrouck, Index of Deeds, St. Lawrence Co.
December 1975 letter from Ora Marie Lambert to Layne Dangerfield detailing various records concerning John Willson and John Willson, Jr. in Hinesburgh, Vt.