Introduction: Wilson

Larry Pearce
2/20/12 & 4/10/14

As I plan to write these family introductions, I always ask myself whom I think of when I hear the name of the family. In this case, “Mr. Wilson” was a friendly supporting character in the Dennis the Menace series. Then there were Presidents “Woodrow Wilson” and “Ronald Wilson Reagan.” When my grandfather Gray lost his farm during the Great Depression, his neighbors, the “Wilsons,” agreed to take in some of his children, temporarily. Grandpap worked hard and eventually got his property and his family back. All these Wilsons have a positive image in my mind, and so it is with the three Wilson families about which this article deals: Henry Moon (Pearce-associated family/PAF b. before 1760) married Mrs. Sarah Wilson; James Wilson, Sr. (PAF b. 1704) married Jean ___ )b. 1721); and John Anderson (Gray-associated family b. 1731) married Elizabeth Wilson (date unknown). We’ll learn more about these ancestors and the origins of the name “Wilson.” Of course, what would an introduction be if we didn’t list some of the other famous Wilsons in the world and other possible relatives in early America.

Wilson is said to be the most common surname in Northern Ireland, from where most of our Wilsons came, as you’ll see in a minute. In all of the United Kingdom, Wilson is the seventh most popular and eighth in the United States. It comes from the mediaeval name “Will,” meaning “desire.” Add the Germanic “Helm,” short for “helmet,” and it suggests the desire to protect. Obviously, in English, “Wilson” is “the son of Will.”  William has been the moniker of Kaisers and kings. No wonder variations of the names are so popular. The first recorded English use was in 1324 England as “Willeson.” In 1405 Scotland it was “Wulson.”

With such a popular name, to list all the famous Wilsons would be impossible here. Instead, I offer a link sponsored by America’s own–who else–Wilson Sporting Goods: These are arranged in alphabetical categories. As if that’s not enough, here’s the address of a trivia quiz site where you may register to take any of 1,924 short tests on Wilson topics: Just type “Wilson” in the search window after you sign in. Good luck!

When I first began researching our Pearce-Wilson family patriarch, James, Sr., I found that he was born in the early 1700’s. Upon Googling the name and seeing references to a James Wilson (b.1742), early American statesman, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Justice on the US Supreme Court, I became very excited to think of the possibilities, as you can imagine. Further reading on what Wikipedia calls “disambiguation,” I found literally dozens of famous James Wilsons, politicians and government officials, military and revolutionary figures, sportsmen and others. I asked myself, “Where do I go from here?” I discovered a site by Jenna Hawk that identified our James. She begins, “James Wilson [Sr.] was of Scottish descent and lived in Adams County, Pennsylvania.” He was actually Scots-Irish, born in Londonderry County, moved to America about 1736, settled in Marsh Creek, and died in 1776, just after the start of the Revolutionary War. Despite being remembered as the second licensed land owner in western York County, now Adams County, he was labeled as a “squatter” and “unreasonable Creature” by the Penn family estate managers who had been given the undesirable task of evicting Scots-Irish immigrants who were there at the invitation of the Penn family in the first place. His will reveals, among other things, that he was a slave owner. At least one son, David, was a captain in that war, and David’s son became a Presbyterian minister. But, it’s James, Jr. (b.1747) of Adams County in our Pearce-Hill-Jack line that we’re interested in. He lived only 32 years, dying only three years after his father of a disease contracted during the war. He had married a daughter of the Jack family, which had also produced the wife in another parallel Pearce-associated family, the Coopers.

James Wilson, Jr. and wife Hettie Jack (b. 1753) produced Jane (b. 1777), or Jean in Scottish, and she married John Hill (b. 1765), my grandmother Bessie Hill Pearce’s great-great grandfather. The Hill family was also Scots-Irish, from Adams and Cumberland  Counties. It’s interesting to see the Scottish naming patterns revealed in John and Jean’s  six children: sons  James Wilson (b. 1796), after Jean’s father; William (b. 1799), after John’s father; Hettie Eliza (b.1803), after the grandmother; Mary Jean (b. 1811), after the mother; and then John Dixon , after John and his mother’s maiden name. Margaret Ann (b. 1816) was named after an aunt. Grandmother Hettie remarried after the early death of James, Jr., and her last four children to John Thompson were after this naming tradition, which can cause some confusion for genealogists. Many of these old Wilsons and Hills are buried in the Lower Marsh Creek Presbyterian Cemetery, Gettysburg.

Some of the remarkable achievements of members of James’ and Hettie’s family include:

  • James III, our Jane’s brother, born the same year his father died, 1779, trained as a cabinetmaker, worked as a merchant, realtor, and magistrate, served in three sessions of the US Congress, 18th-20th; he married the daughter of Revolutionary War general, William Reed, a sister of John Reed, first law professor at Dickinson College.
  • Henry R. (b. 1780), Jane’s nephew, son of her brother Capt. David, was Professor of Latin and Greek at Dickinson, later President of St. John’s College, Annapolis.

For more detailed information on our early Wilsons of York and Adams Counties, read the various articles and documents and view the photos in “Table of Contents: Wilson.”

Was this Wilson family related to the other Pearce-associated family, the Moons? We know that Henry Moon married a “Mrs.” Sarah Wilson from his Revolutionary war records published in the book Moon Family History, which cites many reliable sources. We know that their Allegheny County farm was warranted at a discount in 1796 for service to his country, part of the Depreciation Lands settlement. But, we don’t know if the reference to Sarah as “Mrs.” means that Henry was her second husband. This wouldn’t have been unusual after the war, and there were certainly plenty of women named Sarah Wilson at that time. Our research continues, as it does with Elizabeth, the wife of my mother’s five-time great-grandfather John Anderson (b. 1731).

There is some uncertainty over our Anderson line. Our current understanding is based on a citation in a Pittsburgh history book: James Ross (b. 1814) married a “Miss” Anderson of Pennsylvania. Their farm was sold to daughter Jane and son-in-law Thomas Anderson Campbell in 1863. We see a mistake of mother Martha Anderson initially being called Mary on the deed, a mistake that is corrected twice later, once in the text and again in the signature. Never the less, the Ross’s then migrated to Missouri, where James died, after which Martha returned to western PA to live with family. Here’s the controversy: The old Campbell document refers to a “deed of release” from John Anderson and “Mary.” Would these have been Martha’s grandparents? Could Elizabeth have been Mary Elizabeth? Or do we have the wrong John Anderson, in which case Elizabeth Wilson may not have been the grandmother. Presently, however, we think that Martha’s father was Robert Anderson (b. 1776), son of John and Elizabeth. For more, read “Introduction: Anderson.”

Before we close, just a word about a very well-documented family in Pennsylvania Genealogies, listed as “The Wilsons of the Irish Settlement, Northampton County.” It’s a wonderful family narrative and, of course, there’s always the possibility that we’re related. They began with Thomas, Scottish immigrant to Northern Ireland and officer in King William’s army, who was said to have been among the first to cross the Boyne River on horseback in 1690. His reward was a large grant of land in County Cavan. Son Hugh (b.1689) came to “The Irish Settlement” in PA, perhaps the same year as our James, Sr. came to America, 1736. Hugh’s daughter Mary Ann, born in 1719 before her parents had left NI, married Presbyterian pastor Rev. Francis McHenry. According to family tradition, the McHenrys lived on a small island between Scotland and Ireland and only came to NI after being driven to the glens of County Antrim by the Clan McDonald of Scotland. Having Campbell genes, I know how “mean” they could be. Ironically, Rev. McHenry’s two brothers, who accompanied Mary Ann and him to America, were Roman Catholic. Fort McHenry, MD, home of our national anthem, was named for a member of this family, another James, Secretary of War under George Washington. The accomplishments and titles of the descendants of this Wilson family, many military in nature, are too numerous to mention here. We can’t help but wonder if somewhere along the line Thomas Wilson was one of our Wilson ancestors.

Another Pearce-associated family, the Flemings, began in New Jersey, moved to Chester County, PA, and then to Adams and Cumberland Counties before arriving in western PA. They are a possible fourth Wilson-Pearce connection. For example, we are searching for a possible link between William Fleming (b. 1740) who married Elizabeth Getty Wilson and resided in Adams County, PA, home of our Hills and Wilsons mentioned above. We’ve only recently discovered that many Flemings are buried in Indiana County, where Jean Wilson and John Hill are buried. We might mention that there are also lots of Dixons and Pearces buried there too.

In conclusion, it’s easy to understand why the Wilson name is so common, especially in Pennsylvania, where two of the three great migrations involved the English and the Scots-Irish, the third being the Germans. Genealogists believe that if we could go back far enough, not only do families bearing the same surnames come together, but eventually, we’re all related. Short of DNA and the “African Eve Theory” of evolution or the Genesis creation story in the Bible, I’m perfectly happy to work on common ancestry ending in a common place like Northern Ireland or Scotland. As I discover more about the Wilson family, especially their outstanding character traits, I’m proud to share those genes, and the more Wilson lines, the better.

Works Cited

Hawk, Jenna. “Wilson.” 16 June 2011

“James Wilson” (disambiguation)

“Wilson” (surname)

Various Public Member Family Trees & other documents.

4 Responses to Introduction: Wilson

  1. Fleming says:

    Would be very interested to hear information leading to the statement in the article : For example, we are searching for a possible link between William Fleming (b. 1740) who married Elizabeth Getty Wilson and resided in Adams County, PA
    I have been doing research on the Fleming Family in Adams county and am looking for more links in the 1750 time frame. As an example, A John Fleming Married Isabella Gettys – in the 1770s. Certain family names keep appearing …… Connections?

    • admin says:

      I’ll soon reopen my investigation of our Flemings of Venango County. Seems they too migrated from Adams County and the Cumberland Valley to Western Pennsylvania with the Hills, Jacks, Carnahans, Wilsons, and so many others who originated in the British Isles. Sure would be fun to make the connection to the Getty(s) family of Gettysburg. Please stay in touch, and thanks for your interest.

  2. Valerie C. Neidich says:

    My 5th great grandfather was Capt. David Wilson. I am a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and just proved Capt. Wilson as my second patriot. I have also gone to his grave. I would love to know more about his family and document them more.

    • admin says:

      Hi Valerie,
      I assume your Capt. David was brother to my James, Jr.: . If he was your “second patriot,” may I ask who you your first was? Same family? I’m not familiar with how the DAR works. Please send me what you can and I’ll post your findings and credit you. Thanks,

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