Saturday, April 4, 2015

Richard Wilson and Mary McClelland - settlers in a young country

1753 – 1833
Family lineage: 1 Richard Wilson, 2 Abraham Wilson, 3 Sarah Caroline Wilson, 4 Corda Belle Custer,
5 William Frederick Franklin, 6 Edna Bethel Franklin, 7 Judith Ann Hayward

Port of Philadelphia in the 1700s
Richard Wilson, born in Northern Ireland but of Scottish descent, was a baby when he was brought to America in the mid-1700's.  The ship's port of entry was Philadelphia, where  William Penn's vessel, "The Welcome", had landed on the shores of the Delaware River almost a hundred years before.

After moving themselves and their luggage  off the ship and purchasing whatever was needed to continue their migration westward, the Wilsons traveled inland 125 miles before reaching a Scots-Irish community in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania where they finally put down their roots.

In 1775, Richard was 22 years old and married to
Licking Creek
Mary McClelland, whose
father was one of the earliest settlers on the high bank of the Juniata River (a tributary of the Susquehanna River).  Probably without realizing life was already changing in America and their little piece of the world, the young couple built their home on the mouth of Licking Creek in Milford Township where Richard befriended his brothers-in-law and drilled with them in a home grown ranger unit.

1776 was a pivotal year for those  who had come to America in the belief that they wouldn't be exposed to the dangers they had experienced in the "Old Country".  But even in this "New Country", its citizens were being exposed to the same treatment by the English which they had hoped to leave behind - and their anger finally boiled over. The people of Cumberland County, whose homes were being destroyed and loved ones enslaved by Indian tribes sponsored by the English, were also at a breaking point.

Finally, after the pacifist Quakers governing Pennsylvania could no longer deny the seriousness of the English threat, the men of Pennsylvania were organized into fighting units and required to publicly sign a loyalty pledge, using either their signature or a mark (if they couldn't write).

Within months, county officials were tasked with bringing the “Oath of Allegiance and Fidelity, as directed by an Act of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania" ( to every town, where it was read aloud in the town square.  John Creigh, a Cumberland County Justice of the Peace, was tasked with getting the signatures in his district, and arrived in Milford Township on June 18, 1777 with the document which stated:
I do swear that I renounce and refuse all allegiance to George III, King of Great Brittain (sic), his heirs and successors; and that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as a free and independent State; and that I will not at any time do, or cause to be done, any matter of thing that will be prejudicial or injurious to the freedom and independence thereof as declared by Congress; and also that I will discover and make known to some one Justice of the Peace of the said State, all treasons or traitorous conspiracies which I may know, or hereafter shall know to be formed against this or any of the United States of America.”
And so, as each man pledged his loyalty to Amerca, life changed forever for the citizens of Cumberland County, including the Wilsons and McClellands. As soon as they could arm themselves, gather supplies and kiss their loved ones goodbye, Richard and his brothers, James,  William, and Abraham, joined Mary's brother, Capt. Daniel McClelland, in the 6th Company, 7th Battalion of Cumberland County Militia under the command of Col. James Purdy - and went to war.  

For four years these men fought together against the marauding Indians on the western frontier.   It has been well documented that these backcountry soldiers fought with far more ardor than those fighting in other parts of the country, and the battles were even bloodier.

That intensity might have had its roots in the Pennsylvanians' ingrained racial animosity toward the Indians, but it was more likely that these men were fighting to protect their families, homes and farms which were nearby and often under heavy attack. Adding to their fears was the fact that on most of the local farms, the younger sons had joined the fight, leaving only their fathers and/or older brothers to take care of the family and farm. The stakes were high and the battles were extraordinarily violent and bloody!  

Finally the war ended and life started settling down after years of hardship and war.  Perhaps because the memories of war couldn't be forgotten, the Wilsons started yearning to make fresh memories for themselves in a new place.  So, in 1790, Richard, Mary and their four children left Cumberland County for good and headed west.

There is evidence that they first checked out opportunities to buy some land and settle their family in Pittsburgh, which was 200 miles from Milford Township.  But, for whatever reasons, they didn't stay there long and soon continued their quest westward. 

This phase of their journey was long and arduous, especially for wagons climbing over mountains on unmarked rocky    roads. This time they traveled more than 550 miles before finally finding what they were looking for in the town of Blue Spring, Kentucky.  Property records show that while there, the Wilsons added 3 more children to the 4 they already had and bought some property from an Alexander McClelland, a relative who had decided to return to Pennsylvania. 

It's not known whether Richard had suffered injuries during the war which might have shortened his life. What is known is that he died at age 51 in 1804, leaving 49 year old Mary and seven children behind, and that his widow and oldest son, John, were appointed co-administrators of his fairly large estate and continued to live in the area almost 10 years before Mary and most of the children made another move westward in 1813. 
Early years in Madison, Indiana
Madison, Indiana was 70 miles from Blue Spring, but would have been considered quite a distance in those days.  Perhaps Mary wanted to settle in a place with little or no history (there hadn't even been a log cabin built until 8 years before they arrived) and where there was probably an abundance of land to be purchased. 

The Ohio River
When analyzing decisions made by the Wilsons, it seems they weren't fans of settling on prairies. Although much of Indiana is flat, this town was built on a long, narrow plain on the Ohio River with long, limestone bluffs rising to heights of 400 to 500 feet above the river. The ravines between the bluffs provided settlers with a pathway between the river and portions of Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio. 

Mary might have originally intended to go through Madison on her way west, but this new, bustling town held appeal.  However, before she could  settle into her new life in Indiana, Mary needed to return to Blue Spring to sign off on her dower rights and sell the land that had been purchased by Richard before his death.  So in August of 1819, Mary and her children officially ended their claim to that land, selling it to a man named Younger Pitts. Although the deed transfer book recording that transaction had been heavily damaged by either fire or water, there were still a few readable lines describing the property transfer which read:   

“I, Mary Wilson, widow of Richard Wilson, for the love I have and bear toward the within deed mentioned heretofore and money paid, I do hereby release and quit claims I have to the land within mentioned or otherwise given under my hand. MARY WILSON (seal) Dated and recorded December 22, 1819,  and witnessed by John and Richard Wilson and G. Prewitt.   

Mary used the proceeds of that sale and perhaps money left to her by her father to buy land just outside Madison, in Jefferson County, Indiana, and died there in 1833 at age 80. 

For more information on the western frontier battles see: “An Arduous Service: The Pennsylvania Backcountry Soldiers' Revolution" by Gregory T. Knouff, Rutgers University, New Brunswick.  I am grateful to those who included a couple of pages from  published stories about Mary McClelland and Richard Wilson in their family trees on Unfortunately, there was no book title or author shown in the citations - simply printed pages 419 and 421 from the document.