14 April 2014
This relatively brief summary was composed to allow easier access to the historical facts found in the many pages of print and online articles pertaining to our early Wilson families of Adams County, Pennsylvania. For more complete information, you are encouraged to consult the original stories via the citations below. We begin in 1692, with the formation of just three counties in the Commonwealth by founder William Penn: Bucks, Philadelphia, and Chester. It’s important to remember that any reference to counties in the State beyond that will be tempered with the following names and dates, reflecting the westward expansion of population and boundaries:
1729 – Lancaster was formed from Chester
1749 – York was formed from Lancaster
1800 – Adams was formed from York
Suffice it to say, then, that while we believe our James Wilson, Sr. (1704-1776) to have emigrated from Bellyrashune, County Derry, Northern Ireland around 1736, he could have resided in at least two of the counties, and some of his descendants in all three, without ever having moved.
A second thing to consider are the land claims and disputes affecting those counties in the early years of William Penn’s “Holy Experiment.” While this Quaker and British citizen canvassed Europe for families willing to settle in his land grant in the 17th century, his family had various parcels surveyed for their own personal use after he died. In 1736, one of the largest, 43,500 acres southwest of modern day Harrisburg, was patented as “The Manor of Masque” (or Maske), after an old English estate owned by distant relatives. Stretching 6 miles by 12 miles, it encompassed what is now Gettysburg. The Wilson estate in Hamiltonban Township fell within, as did Our William Hill farm in Liberty Township. More about that later. James Wilson, Sr.’s granddaughter, Jane (1777-1865) married the son of William Hill, John (1775-1849), thus producing my paternal grandmother Hill’s line. As an aside, the Hill name appears frequently among the affairs of the Penn family in this part of the State: William, witness to the will of Chevall Penn (1671), and John, the overseer of the poor in York County (1750), for example. Research continues for any possible connection between our Hills and the Penns. We might also mention that our William Hill’s wife, Elizabeth Dixon, may have a connection to other namesakes of that time and place: surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon (1733 –1779), who helped solve the border dispute between the Lord Baltimores and the Penns; James Dixon (1710-1768), for whom Dixon’s Ford is named; and several others.
Public records list our James Wilson as holding only the second license for land use in what is now Adams County, west of the Susquehanna River. The first was Phillom McLaughlin a year earlier. Another perhaps more prominent settler had arrived earlier on a grant before official surveys were made: John Hans Steelman in 1718. “Captain Hance,” as he was called (not to be confused with Hance Hamilton about whom we will hear in a minute), had assisted William Penn as an Indian trader and interpreter. Later he used his knowledge of the area to locate an old Indian town called “Susquehanna,” thus convincing the Court that he had a right to his land. Today, the Indian path/road is marked from the river opposite Paxtant, now Harrisburg, through the land of our James Wilson, passing west of Gettysburg, across Marsh Creek at what is now Rt. 30, to Captain Hance’s property at the old Indian settlement. Steelman ran a trading post where Indian’s could bring their furs. By 1839, most of the peaceable Shawnees had moved westward to the Allegheny and Ohio River valleys and a large part of his business was gone. After that, Captain Hance probably operated under the provision of a 1753 license where storekeepers and tavern owners, “may not suffer any drunkenness, unlawful gaming, or sell any liquor to the Indians to debauch or hurt them, but in all things shall well and truly observe and practice all laws and orders of province to the business of tavern keeping belong.”
The Marsh Creek we mentioned above is the site of the Lower Marsh Creek Presbyterian Church and Cemetery, where many of our early Wilsons and Hills are buried. Other early settlers resting there include the Paxtants, the family for whom Harrisburg’s predecessor is named.
Returning to the subject of the Pennsylvania-Maryland border feud, history records that within a decade after the death of the peace-loving William Penn in 1718, his sons received a request from the governor of the Commonwealth for troops to settle the property dispute with the Catholic State once and for all. The Penns apparently did better than sending soldiers. Just as King James had tried to do in solving “the Irish problem” by relocating Scottish and English “replants” to Northern ireland over a century earlier, in 1729 the Penns sent an assortment of 140 families from Ulster to take up lands and settle in the disputed area, today’s Adams County. The group was lead by another “Captain Hance,” for whom Hamiltonban Township is named. “Ban” means “lady” in Gaelic. The good captain thought of his land and this territory as a kindly partner in life. His son became a well-liked Sheriff of York County.
In 1735, Lord Baltimore countered by granting 5,000 acres in what is now Hamiltonban to Charles Carroll. Carroll believed that the land was in Maryland, but it was not until the Mason-Dixon survey of 1767 that “Carroll’s Delight,” as it was called, was found to be in Pennsylvania. By then the old feud between states was forgotten.
In 1740, in an apparent malicious change of heart, the Penn brothers ordered all the Scots-Irish settlers off the land of the newly claimed Manor of the Masque. After their well-know stubborn character, these families refused to leave. A letter dated 1741, written by Penn surveyor Zachary Butcher, tells of these “unreasonable Creatures” and how they threatened to “kill or cripple” anyone who would try to move them. Unfortunately, Butcher’s list of such creatures included our James Wilson. The issue was resolved when another agent of the landlords, sent to prosecute and remove “the squatters,” received further orders from the Penns to allow them to stay, farm the land, and organize a defense against Indian raids. They became the core of what was known at the start of the American Revolution as McPherson’s Battalion, and they eventually became the 11th Pennsylvania Regiment.
One historian describes the Adams County Transplants, originally termed “the Scotch-Irish of the Border,” as follows:
They spoke bad Irish and as bad English, but their shout was heard unmistakably wherever the wave of revolution struck, and when with their brothers of the thirteen stars they raised the flag of the Union, they at that moment saw the shackles fall from the husbandman, and with industry and liberty march forward over the trails and military roads cut by the retreating soldiers of Great Britain.
The good news is that our Wilson name doesn’t appear on the later 1765 list of squatters, and by 1792, James, Sr.’s grandson John is listed officially as among the original taxpayers of Hamiltonban Township. James Wilson, Sr.’s son David was a Captain in the 11th Pennsylvania Regiment during the Revolutionary War. His brother, our Grandfather James, Jr., died at age 32 of a disease contracted during that same war for independence. James III, our Grandmother Jane’s brother, represented Pennsylvania as a member of the 18th, 19th, and 20th U.S. Congress. He married Mary Reed, daughter of General William Reed of Revolutionary War fame. Mary’s sister was the first law professor at nearby Dickinson College along side Henry R. Wilson, Captain David Wilson’s son and professor of Latin and Greek. Henry was once president of St. John’s College in Annapolis. As we said earlier, many of these Wilsons are buried at Lower Marsh Creek Cemetery near Gettysburg.
Today, the dispute over the land of the Penns, the Wilsons, and the Hills is confined to the history books. Unfortunately, the conflict that occurred a century later during the terrible three-day battle of Gettysburg is more familiar to Americans. By the time that struggle took place, our direct line ancestors had moved to Western Pennsylvania. Some of our young men, nevertheless, returned to Adams County and fought for the Union cause. There are plenty more stories of these families to discover and report as our research continues. We hope you enjoy reading about our families as much as we enjoy sharing their narratives.
“Clan Boyd.” 10 April 2014.
MacPherson, B.F.M.“County History.” Gettysburg Times. 26 April 1958. “Early History of Hamiltonban.” 10 April 2014.
History of Adams County, PA. 1886. 10 April 2014.
“A History of the Fairfields.” 10 April 2014. http://www.emmitsburg.net/archive_list/articles/history/stories/history_of_fairfield.htm
See also the various Family Trees, Vitals, and Tables of Contents.