The Wills Family of Johnsontown and Preference: John Baptist Wills, Jr. (c. 1773-1844) was the second son of John B. Wills, Sr. and Anne Livers. A successful planter, he established himself on the farm east of Port Tobacco known as Johnsontown, later inherited by his daughter Elizabeth Ann Wills Neale’s descendants, while his son Dr. Francis Reed Wills lived with his numerous children nearby at Preference. His descendants were leaders in the business and civic life of Charles County in the 19th and 20th centuries. Most worshipped at St. Ignatius Church, Chapel Point.
John Baptist Wills, Jr.’s birth on June 6, 1773 is known from his tombstone at Johnsontown (the broken stone is sometimes read as 1793, but other documents make it clear he was born in the 1770s). He is first recorded unambiguously in the 1794 will of his mother’s mother Mary Livers: “I give and bequeath to my loving grandson John Baptist Wills one negro woman called Nan and her increase from this time.”
Although in some documents it is difficult to determine whether “John B. Wills” indicates father or son, already by 1798 the father is styling himself “Sr.” and most documents thereafter use “Sr.” or “Jr.” After 1805, when the father was about 65 years old, it can be assumed that the witnessing of documents was done by the younger man. Similarly, we can assume it was the younger man, already called “John B. Wills, Gentleman” who was appointed on Oct. 29, 1801, “Lieutenant in Capt. Henry Cooksey’s Company in the Select Militia attached to the Regiment No. 1 of the Militia of this State in Charles County” (as this fragment shows):
His status and financial abilities are clear from the frequency with which he was called to witness documents, value property and serve as a guardian for those who were not his close relatives. For example, in 1802, John B. Wills, Jr. witnesses the will of Samuel Marshall; in 1808, he witnesses the will of Theophilus Hanson and the will of Richard Holmes, for whom the executor was his distant cousin Ignatius Semmes (b. 1778). In 1809, he arranges a note through the Bank of Maryland for Horatio Clagett. In 1813, he testified in the case of Samuel Chapman vs. Walter Morris, et al. that he had been appointed to value the said lands. In 1818 and 1820 he witnesses conveyances of land by Edward Edelen. In 1822, he was one of the securities for the estate of Alexander Johnson (the father-in-law of his cousin Francis Thompson). In his 1831 will, Francis Sewall devises all his estate to his niece Mary G. Sewall living in Tennessee and directs “that my esteemed friend John B. Wills shall immediately after my death take possession of the whole of my estate and property and hold the same in his custody for the use and benefit of my said niece.”
In 1819, he listed first among the incorporators of The Hydrant Company of Port Tobacco, which aimed to bring water to the public square from In 1831, he is one of the charter members of the Port Tobacco Savings Bank.
His business partners in the 1820s included John Ferguson, John Edelen and William Thompson in a mercantile and finance firm known as Edelen, Thompson and Company. In the 1830s, he often appears on deeds of trust and land transactions with Daniel Jenifer, the U.S. Congressman from Charles County in that period.
Meanwhile, he was accumulating land, starting in Port Tobacco. In 1806, he paid Humphrey Barnes $500 for Lot 37 adjoining the Charles County Courthouse and Granary “near the northwest corner of the stone house now occupied by the aforesaid John Baptist Wills, Jr. and running . . . near the southeast corner of a granary now occupied by the aforesaid Wills.” In 1812 he purchased another adjoining lot.
In 1818, he moved from Port Tobacco to the property called Johnsontown, which would be his home and that of his daughter’s family for a century. From the many other farms he acquired (the parcels called Hawkins’ Enlargement, Huck’s Neglect, Chandler’s Purchase, Green Land and The Lane) would come the land his son Francis Reed Wills named Preference.
In an era when tobacco had worn out much of the land, John B. Wills was an innovator in introducing wheat and other crops, for which he won recognition. Along with his friends Daniel Jenifer and John Ferguson, he was selected as one of the three Charles County representatives to the Maryland Agricultural Society’s state-wide prize committee in 1825 and 1826.
By the 1830’s, he owned a good portion of the land between what are now the towns of La Plata and Bel Alton. The 1832 will of his sister Mary attests to his wealth: “I give and bequeath to my nephew and niece Francis R. Wills and Elizabeth Wills, one hundred dollars each. I give them no more, in consideration of the ample means of their father.”
He took out a marriage license in St. Mary’s County when he married first Ann Carey Floyd on June 14, 1802. She was the daughter of Jesse Floyd and Mary Carey Read of St. Mary’s County. A year later, they had a son whom the named Francis Reed Wills but apparently no other children, because in the 1810 Census we find John B. Wills, Jr and his wife heading a household of one boy under 10 (his son Francis), two men aged 16-25 (possibly JBW’s brothers?), as well as four enslaved persons. Ann Floyd Wills died in 1811, leaving behind only the one son, but John B. Wills and his family stayed close friends of the Floyds.
A year later, on Aug. 24, 1812, he again married a woman named Ann from St. Mary’s County, Ann Jarboe (daughter of Robert Jarboe and Elizabeth Holton). Before the decade was out, she had given birth to three children: Elizabeth, William, Alexander and the enlarged family had moved to Johnsontown. By the 1820 Census, John B. Wills, Jr. and his new wife have in their household four children whose ages fit those of the four children known from his will and other documents. In addition, he was in possession of 25 enslaved persons (15 male, 10 female — 10 of them being children).
A vivid picture of the lively social life at Johnsontown and the Wills’ friends is provided by a letter of Joseph P. Floyd (brother of John B. Wills’ first wife) writing to his nephew Francis Reed Wills who was off in Baltimore for medical training. While fox hunting and talented dogs receive most of the attention, mention of weddings and balls is interspersed.
By the time of the 1830 Census, his oldest son Dr. Francis Reed Wills has returned from medical school and moved to his new homeplace nearby called Preference. Accordingly, with John B. Wills, we find only the three younger children: 2 boys (aged 10-14), one girl (15-19), and his wife in her 50s. But in addition there is one girl (aged 5-9), whose identity is not clear. There are a total of 17 enslaved males, and 16 females.
Sometime around 1830, he became the legal guardian of his niece Mary Elizabeth Clements and, when she returned from her education at Georgetown Visitation, she lived at Johnsontown and was married there in 1838 to Dr. John Henry Digges. About that same time, his daughter Elizabeth married James Francis Neale. Accordingly, at the 1840 Census, living with John B. Wills, Jr. and his wife were three men and one woman in their 20s — which would fit William, Alexander, Elizabeth and her new husband. On the farms were 46 enslaved.
His will and aftermath
Sensing his final days, John B. Wills, Jr. put his business affairs in order on Jan. 24, 1844. Having accumulated a large estate, he had much to dispose of. He also had several issues that concerned him: He wanted to provide for his wife but his children were from two marriages and did not want to intermingle their inheritances with hers. Those offspring were of different ages and situations— his eldest son Francis Reed Wills was over 40 and already established and not a great concern, but his next son William had a mental disability and would need to be cared for, his other son Alexander was not yet married, and his daughter Elizabeth was young with infants.
His first step was to separate the estate according to the two marriages, so he made an outright gift of land to his son Francis Reed Wills (son of Ann Floyd) and on the same day wrote out his will leaving all his property to his second wife Ann (Jarboe) for her lifetime with various provisions for its disposition after that.
But he cannot just divide the estate equally among his sons or his children in general, because William was not mentally competent. So he writes a will which considers various scenarios and whoever would receive the bulk of the estate would also be required to care for William. If his son Alexander survives his mother, he is the primary heir. If he doesn’t, then the properties are to be split between the Wills and Neale lines, but on each side there is only one grandson and both are minors. So he devises two scenarios for that: 1) if his grandson Augustine Wills Neale reaches 21, then he will receive those lands purchased from Caleb Hawkins (i.e. Johnsontown) and other ones go to Francis Reed Wills, 2) but if A.W.Neale should die before 21, then Johnsontown would go to F.R.Wills’ son John B. Wills and the other lands would go to his daughter Elizabeth Neale. He seems concerned about providing for his daughter Elizabeth, but also keeping Johnsontown in the line of his descendants.
Tragically, his son Alexander, who was named as primary heir, died a few days later so John B. Wills, Jr. had been right to be concerned. The coincidence of the dates suggests that there may have been some contagious illness that infected both father and son and precipitated the will with the so many provisions in case the father might die first and then the son. As it happened, Augustine Wills Neale lived a long life and inherited Johnsontown, whereas his parents and John B. Wills (son of Dr. F.R.Wills) all died in the 1850s.
The otherwise careful will of John B. Wills, Jr. provided for his grandson Augustine Wills Neale by name but did not anticipate other children of his daughter Elizabeth. Accordingly, “Gus” Neale inherited the bulk of John B. Wills’ estate, including the Johnsontown farm, while his younger brothers received nothing. This was particularly frustrating for the family of Charles Alexander Neale, who was born just before his grandfather’s death and could have been mentioned.
John B. Wills Jr.’s tombstone at Johnsontown records that he died later that year on Oct. 29, 1844. The disposition of his substantial estate took some time; in the spring of 1846 his executors (“my son Francis R. Wills, son-in-law James F. Neale, and my friend Geo. W. Matthews”) advertise a public sale of six negroes (PTT 4/6/1846). Besides the real estate mentioned above, provisions were made for personalty to his wife Ann, grandson Augustine W. Neale, and his nephew Charles H. Wills (son of Frederick) who was living with him – but not for long, since the Oct. 2, 1845 issue of the Port Tobacco Times reports the death of Charles aged 22 at the residence of his “late Uncle John B. Wills.”
His widow Ann Wills continued to live at Johnsontown with the family of her daughter Elizabeth and son-in-law James Neale, and she is recorded there in the 1850 Census, aged 71 years old along with son William Wills. In the 1860 Census, she is recorded as 83 with real estate valued at $18,000 and personal estate of $30,000 (mostly the value of the 30 enslaved) with the family of John Keech (a farmer with property) and Frederick Robey (overseer) listed in the same census household. She wrote her will in 1861 and it was probated on August 9, 1864, with James F. Matthews as her executor. She instructed her executor to erect stones at the head and foot of her grave similar to those of her late husband, but most of the cemetery at Johnsontown was plowed over or vandalized and her gravestones do not survive.
Child of John Baptist Wills, Jr. and Ann Carey Floyd (1779-1811)
4.1) Dr. Francis Reed Wills (1803-1872) of Preference
m. Catherine Fowke, with 5 children
m. Teresa Olivia Hughes, with 11 children
Children of John Baptist Wills, Jr. and Ann Jarboe (d. 1864)
When her estate was probated, she left a legacy to the daughters of “my dear Aunt Mary Jackson” (her mother’s sister Mary Jarboe had married Capt. John K. Jackson on Jan. 7, 1811).
She and her husband both died in their late thirties, leaving several children, the youngest of which were then raised by the Matthews family.
4.2.1) Augustine Wills Neale, “Gus” (1840-1933). Georgetown College, Valedictorian of the Class of 1860. With other neighbors and relatives, he served as a Private in the Confederate Army 2nd Md. Inf. Co. B., and was wounded slightly at Cold Harbor. When he returned from the war, he inherited “Johnsontown”. In the 1870 census, he is recorded with real estate of $8500 and personal property of $1000. Living with him was his cousin and fellow Confederate veteran Francis Leo Wills and “domestic servants” Martha Kelly (30) and Robert Kelly (10). Shortly thereafter, he married Jane “Jennie” Rose Matthews (1847-1911) and they had 8 children. In the 1880 census, living with them were his uncle William H. Wills and mother-in-law Harriet Matthews.
According to his obituary in the New York Times, he became superintendent of public schools in Charles County in 1882 and served on the Maryland Court of Appeals from 1892 to 1898. He is buried at St. Ignatius, Chapel Point, with his wife.
4.2.2) Charles Alexander Neale (1843-1907). He married his cousin Mary Ann Wills (1842-1909), daughter of Joseph I. Wills, Jr. and they had 10 children.
4.2.3) Robert Neale (?-?), died early in childhood
4.2.4) John William Neale (1849-1887) He was aged 11 mos. in the 1850 census. Single, he died in a hunting accident off West Hatton on Feb. 23 1887.
4.3) William H. Wills (c. 1816-after 1880)
Calculating from the ages given in the census report, he could be born in 1811 (as the 1850 and 1860 censuses suggest) or as late as 1816 (the 1830, 1870 and 1880 censuses).
From the testaments of his parents, it is clear that he had some mental disability, and so he provides an interesting case study in how wealthy families treated and planned for their mentally disabled relatives.
Although William was around 30 by the time of his father’s 1844 will, his father leaves no property to him but rather names various possible guardians for him: 1) his mother, 2) but if she should die before William, then his brother Alexander is charged to “furnish my son William such board and clothing as I have usually given him, also a horse that shall not cost more than seventy five dollars to ride and one hundred and fifty dollars annually”, 3) but if William should survive both his mother and Alexander, then the responsibility would fall to “his sister Elizabeth or his brother Francis R. Wills”. Wishing to make that choice up to William himself, John B. Wills directs the following procedure, that the reminder of the estate “shall be appraised by two competent persons to be appointed by the Orphan’s Court of Charles County and that said appraisers shall set apart a portion thereof, which will in their judgement be sufficient to yield an annual support to my son William such as I have herein before directed by son Alexander to furnish in the event of my son William becoming a charge upon him. And I direct that my son William shall thereupon in writing, determine in writing in presence of said court whether his sister Elizabeth or his brother Francis R. Wills shall take such property as to be set apart for his support. And whichever shall be so appointed to take such property and shall take the same upon condition, shall have the same forever, and if either so appointed shall refuse, the other may take upon like condition,” and finally 4) “and if both refuse, the said Court may appoint a suitable person on like condition.”
William was indeed living with his mother in 1850 and 1860, and he was still alive in 1861, when his mother Ann made her will with these clauses: “Considering that my beloved son William Wills is already amply provided for by the will of his father, John B. Wills deceased, I will, give and bequeath to him the bureau, Bed and Bedstead and bed (?) clothes which he now uses, the horse, saddle and bridle he now has and such small articles as are now called his . . . [and] negro Mary, commonly called Sally, and her issue for and during his natural life.” In the 1870 census, William Wills is listed in the house of his nephew J.W. Neale on a farm near Johnsontown, and on the same property was the family of his niece Mary Ann Wills Burch.
The end of the story comes in the 1880 Census. By this time, he is 64 and all his siblings are dead, but he is living in Johnsontown, now the property of his nephew Augustine Wills Neale (with the explicit relationship “uncle”, occupation “at home”, and only here we find out his middle initial “William H. Wills”). Unfortunately, his gravestone (presumably at Johnsontown) does not survive.
It is clear that William was physically and mentally alert enough to ride a horse (even in his 40s) and he was in good enough health to outlast all his proposed guardians. It seems that he could write, or at least mark in court, his preference for guardian. It is also clear that his parents were devoted to him (about a third of each will is devoted to provisions for his care). His Neale relatives remembered him as “Uncle Billie”.
4.4) Alexander Wills (1819-1844)
His father’s will, written on January 24, 1844, placed great hopes in him, but he did not even survive a week after that. His gravestone at Johnsontown says he was born May 16, 1819 and died Jan. 30, 1844. In contrast to his older brother Dr. Francis R. Wills and many cousins, for Alexander Wills we have no record of college education.