Summary: Dr. Francis Reed Wills (1803-1872) of Preference was a well-educated physician and major landowner, with a somewhat contentious temperament. He married daughters of the wealthy Fowke family of Gunston and the politically influential Hughes family of Bryantown. Several of his 16 children left large families who account for hundreds of descendants today.
Francis Reed Wills was the only son of John B. Wills, Jr. by his first wife Ann Carey Floyd (1779-1811) of St. Mary’s County. His gravestone tells us that he was born April 25, 1803, almost a year after his parents’ marriage. His parents were living in Port Tobacco at the time.
For several generations, the Wills family had followed an increasing tendency in Southern Maryland and given their children the names of ancestors or relatives. For example, John B. Wills, Jr. had siblings named Elizabeth Brent Doyne Wills and William Livers Wills. His wife Ann Carey Floyd herself carried the Carey surname, as had her mother Mary Carey Read. So it is not surprising that they named their son Francis Reed Wills after his grandmother’s family. The Reads were a prominent colonial family from the Patuxent side of St. Mary’s County. Because the name died out as a surname, it was said more than written, and the standard spelling in the Wills family became “Reed” (the colonial spelling was Read/Reade, and Dr. Wills’ tombstone even spells the name “Reid”).
In turn, Francis Reed Wills was particularly conscious of his family history and named several children with prominent surnames as middle names: William Augustus Fowke Wills (after his first wife’s family), Francis Hughes Wills (after his second wife’s family), Philip Reed Wills (after his mother’s uncle), Elizabeth Ann Carey Wills (apparently after his mother’s grandmother), and Robert Doyne Wills (after his father’s great-uncle). In addition, Francis Reed Wills named two sons after his father and grandfather John Baptist Wills.
His mother died when he was eight years old and few years later he was sent off to Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, where he was a student from December 1815 to February 1818. He was only aged 12-14 at the time and the education (as at Georgetown College in those days) included what would now be called college prep, since there was no formal schooling in Charles County at that time.
Subsequently, he followed a calling to medicine and was a pupil of Doctors Johnson and Plater, and later Dr. Thomas H. Wright of Baltimore. He received his medical degree in 1828 from the University of Maryland Medical College in Baltimore (his diploma is now in the Catherine Wills Kemp Collection at the College of Southern Maryland). He then returned to Charles County where he would practice medicine and farm for more than forty years.
Although his mother had passed away, Francis Reed Wills and his father continued close ties with the Floyd family. A lengthy letter survives from his time in Baltimore, written by his uncle Joseph P. Floyd and filled with all the news from the Port Tobacco fox hunting set.
In fact, his uncle David Floyd was probably introduced to his future wife Sarah Semmes by John B. Wills, Jr., who was a cousin and close friend of Sarah’s family. David and Sarah Semmes Floyd’s children eventually inherited the nearby historic Rose Hill plantation, where their daughter Olivia Floyd (Francis Reed Wills’s cousin on two sides) was a famous figure for many years.
Meanwhile, Dr. Wills was also finding his own wife. On Dec. 15, 1829, a year and a half after returning from Baltimore, he married Catharine E. Fowke, the 19-year-old daughter of the late Gerard Fowke and Mary Bayne Price of Gunston (near modern Welcome). He had been the fifth generation in a row of Gerard Fowkes and his family had lived on that property since his ancestor Gerard Fowke had been deeded part of Poynton Manor in 1684. Catharine’s children would eventually inherit over 400 acres of the estate.
Francis Reed Wills had been living in Port Tobacco, but with a new family, he wanted his own farm and his own home. The story is told that his father offered him a choice of a number of properties, which he toured with his bride. On one site, not far from Johnsontown, his wife looked across the broad fields with a wood and creek behind them and said, “This is my preference”, and so the farm and its name were chosen. The house today is in private hands but still has the one-story office on the side which Dr. Wills used for receiving patients.
The two newlyweds were living next to his father in the 1830 Census, with four slaves. He was a successful doctor, and his father was a wealthy man from whom Dr. Wills received significant property. By 1840, he had 18 slaves and a growing family. Several of those slaves came from the estate of Martha H. Price, whose 1836 will bequeathed to granddaughter Catherine E. Wills (negroes Mily, Arthelia, Amelia, Richard and Henry, ½ dozen silver tea spoons and two walnut dining tables); to great grandson John B. Wills (negro Betty Ann); great granddaughter Mary Anna Wills (negro Alice Ann). Dr. Wills was a co-executor of the estate.
In 1842, after bearing five children, Catharine Fowke Wills died. She was buried in her family cemetery at “Gunston” overlooking Nanjemoy Creek, along with two infant children and her sister and brother. Her inscription reads: “Catharine E. Wills, 2nd daughter of Gerard and Mary Fowke and consort of Francis R. Wills, died November 2, 1842, Aged 32 years, 7 mos. 13 days” (i.e., born March 20, 1810)
As a widower, he still had three young children surviving and a large farm. In some ways, it is surprising that he waited a decade to marry again. By then, the three surviving children of his first marriage were already 13, 18 and 21 years old.
In 1851, he married Theresa Olivia Hughes, a ceremony which the Port Tobacco Times (6/18/1851) tells us was performed by Rev. James Moore SJ of St. Thomas Manor. Twenty-five years younger than her husband, Olivia was born on December 11, 1828, the daughter of John Hughes and Maria Gardiner of Bryantown. How he met this young lady from across the Zechiah Creek is not known, but thereafter the Wills had more frequent ties with the families of that area, including two marriages to Bowlings. Strangely, this family is not recorded in the 1860 census.
Unlike his father, who was a great friend to many, Francis seems to have had a less social character. His uncle Joseph had been concerned that the youth was “too studious”, and it is clear that Francis Reed Wills did not share the family passion for fox hunting. He posted a newspaper notice (PTT, 10/23/1845): “All persons are hereby warned not to trespass on my Shore or Farm, with or without gun or dogs.”
Perhaps the best example of his thrifty and awkward temperament is the fact that he asked the estate of his own father for payment of his medical services — which he did receive despite the objections of the other executors. He also informed the court that he sold a life estate in a slave named Alfred to his father, John B. Wills, in 1834 for the sum of five hundred dollars. When his father died in 1845, Francis expected possession of Alfred to revert to him, and objected to his co-executors’ inclusion of Alfred in the inventory of the estate’s personal property. He also petitioned that the administration of the estate of his cousin Charles H. Wills be transferred to him (rather than John W. Mitchell whom Charles’ mother had chosen), since he was the largest creditor (due to medical bills again), but his petition was dismissed.
When his son John B. Wills was a student at Georgetown, Dr. Wills wrote to the college protesting that they were not to read the teenager’s mail and threatening to remove him (which he later did). In his will, he expressly disinherited his oldest daughter because of a marriage he disapproved of (although he was later reconciled and wrote a codicil).
He was not without the respect of his community: he lost for County Commissioner, but he was a Judge of the Orphan’s Court (often handling estates) in Feb. 1858 and in August 1862 he was appointed School Commissioner to fill the vacancy of Dr. Stanton W. Dent.
He was an officer of the Charles County Agricultural Society, and at the fairs organized each November in the 1850s he often won awards. For his crops, he continued his father’s interest in grains, winning the second best wheat in 1852, and the best acre of wheat, 2nd best corn, and best Irish potatoes in 1853; for the best thoroughbred colt and best calf in 1852; the best 2-year-old filly, mule-colt, bull of common breed, and slaughtered mutton in 1853, the best heifer in 1854. In 1854, Mrs. Dr. Fr. Wills won a prize for the best homemade bread, Miss Martha Wills for the best tapestry and Miss Mary A. Wills for the best plain needlework in 1853 and 1854.
His final years
The 1860s were not easy for landowners in Charles County. Although no battles took place there, Union soldiers constantly patrolled the Potomac and its shore for blockade runners and Confederate soldiers home on furlough. And those troops required maintenance and would requisition or confiscate produce and livestock. Especially difficult were the weeks after President Lincoln’s assassination, when the county was flooded with federal troops looking for John Wilkes Booth.
With his usual concern for careful finances, Dr. Wills kept receipts and signatures and documentation. For several years after the war, Dr. Wills sought reimbursement from the government for goods taken and for the quality chestnut fencing soldiers had confiscated for their campfires at Chapel Point (where it is said they also shot down the stones in the graveyard for target practice).
The 1870 Census records him as a “Farmer and Physician” with $22,000 of real estate and $2,500 of personal estate. Living with him and his wife were Marta and the 10 surviving children of his second marriage.
The Port Tobacco Times noted his passing two years later: “Died. At Preference, his late residence, near the town, on Saturday Morning, June 22nd, 1872, after a lingering illness, Dr. Francis R. Wills, in the 70th year of his age.” He was buried at Preference (now moved to Johnsontown).
Olivia Wills then took full charge of raising the household with its many children, and she lived long enough so that the youngest was eleven years old when she died on Feb, 17. 1881.
Children of Dr. Francis Reed Wills and Catherine Fowke (marr. 1829)
They had the five children below, but none of these had children. Two died as infants, one as a young man. The two surviving sisters managed the house and helped raise the younger children of the second marriage.
Named for his father’s father and grandfather. In Feb. 1847, he entered Georgetown (along with his cousin William X. Wills) and then (because of a dispute his father had there) he was sent to St. John’s College in Frederick (a Jesuit institution which would later be moved to become Boston College). At the 1st Annual Commencement there, he received the Medals for Rhetoric and Mathematics.
He was buried at Preference (now Johnsontown) with the dates June 14, 1831- Feb. 15, 1859 and the inscription that he “left a void in the hearts of his affectionate father and two devoted sisters”. In his 1859 will, he left “Benfield” on which he resided to his father and personal property to his two “dear sisters Maria Ann and Martha E. Wills”. His aunt Verlinda Stone Fowke Robertson witnessed his will.
4.1.2) Maria Ann Wills (1833-1909), “Mar-eye-a”, “Sis Mailie”
She married Benjamin Franklin Burch (as his 4th wife). Her father’s will disinherited her for her marriage, then a codicil restores her. Her husband’s son (from an earlier marriage) Benjamin LaVega married her sister Anna Maria Wills (below). In 1898, she bought for $1 the 174-acre property Cherry Lane (her inheritance) at the auction of her husband’s estate. She then lived with her brother Francis Hughes Wills.
4.1.3) William Augustus Fowke Wills (1836-39) d. infant
Buried at Gunston. Named for his uncle William Augustus Fowke, who soon passed away in 1837.
4.1.4) Martha Elizabeth Wills (1839/40-1912), “Sis Mittie”, single
When older, she inherited the Mt. Air estate from her mother’s relatives. She died Feb. 2, 1912 “aged 71 years” (TS at Preference) but the 1850 census records her as aged 12, the 1870 census as aged 30. In her 1909 will, she leaves $100 to nephew T. Wright Wills, Jr. and land (near Mt. Air and Cherry Lane) to her cousin Miss Kate Robertson of Balt. Co, da. of Dr. A.H. Robertson and Mrs. Verlinda S. Robertson, Sr. and to her “youngest and best beloved brother T. Wright Wills, Sr.” Witnesses were her sister Augusta E. Mudd, and Josephine Mason (by mark).
4.1.5) Augusta Wills (1840-42), d. infant
Probably her name was meant to continue the traditional Fowke name of “Augustus”, which her late brother had. Her tombstone at Gunston says she “died the 14th of August 1842 at the interesting age of 20 months”.
4.1.6) Francis Hughes Wills (1852-1905), “Hughes”
He married Mary “Mollie” Clements Digges, his paternal 2nd cousin in 1875/6.
Their surviving children: Eudochia Anna “Dodie” Wills (Cook), Mary Elizabeth “Bettie” Wills, John Thomas H. Wills, Sr. (a Baltimore City Council member), Mary A. Wills, Francis Hughes Wills, Jr. Descendants of this family mainly live in the Baltimore area.
4.1.7) Ann Maria Wills (1853-1925), “Nannie”
She married Benjamin La Vega Burch, her maternal first cousin and step-nephew, on Sept. 30, 1884. They had four children: James B. Burch, Francis A. Burch, T. Olivia Burch, John Hughes Burch.
4.1.8) Elizabeth Ann Carey Wills (1855-?), “Lizzie”
On Dec. 3, 1878, she married Cataldus H. Posey, son of Washington A. Posey and his second wife. Washington Posey’s first wife Elizabeth Hughes had been Elizabeth Ann Carey Wills’ aunt. The Poseys resided at “Mt. Pleasant”, Allen’s Fresh, and had 4 children: Reed Augustine Posey, Aubrey Posey, Francis Wills Posey, Margeritte Posey. The 1902 marriage of their oldest son Reed Augustine Posey to Mary Teresa Bowling was the occasion of some press due to his mother’s objections. The couple eloped to Baltimore before being married in Washington.
4.1.9) Philip Reed Wills (1857-1938), “P.R.”
He married Mary Louise Bowling at St. Mary’s Church, Bryantown in 1893. They had seven surviving children: Mary Louise Wills (Albrittain), Theresa Olivia Wills (McDonagh), Francis Reed Wills, Benjamin Bowling “Jack” Wills, Catherine Lee “Polly” Wills (Kemp), James Washington Wills, John Baptist Wills.
4.1.10) Catherine Olivia Wills (1858-1930), “Kate”
She married William James “Willie” Mills in 1879 at St. Ignatius, but they lived in Baltimore and are buried there. She attended the Visitation in Frederick, Md. Children: William J. Mills, Jr., Olivia “Olive” Mills (Hess), Francis Reed Mills.
4.1.11) C. Ellen Wills (1861-1862) — twins
4.1.12) John Baptist Wills, (1861-1883) — buried at Preference, now Johnsontown
4.1.13) Augusta Eleanor Wills (1864-1914/7), “Gussie”
She married Walter H. Mudd of Bryantown in 1883. They resided in Bel Alton and had three children: Walter Augustus “Gussie” Mudd, Emma Theresa Mudd (Burch), Leila Ellen Mudd (Logan).
4.1.14) Robert Doyne Wills (1865-1921?), “Doyne”
Single. He bore the name of his grandfather’s great-uncle, but more specifically he was probably named for his 2nd cousin Robert Semmes Floyd (named for the same ancestor), who died as a Confederate soldier in 1863. The name was carried on by a son of his brother Thomas Wright Wills.
4.1.15) James Washington Wills (1866-1887)
His tombstone is at Chapel Point: “Feb. 20, 1866 – July 7, 1887”. This name was later carried on by sons of his brother Philip Reed Wills.
4.1.16) Thomas Wright Wills (1869-1948), “Wright”
He was named for his father’s medical instructor in Baltimore. He married (1) Alice Milton, (2) Maria Alexandrina Holmes, (3) Nina Richard. His three surviving children (all by M. A. Holmes): Thomas Wright Wills Jr, Elizabeth Neale Wills (Turner), Doyne Robert Wills.