Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Johnson-Morris House

Original section of the Johnson-Morris House
 Those of you who have read a few pieces on this site may have noticed that I usually attempt to weave some sort of story into my posts, or to put the subject into some sort of context. Rather than simply listing the facts about a house, I try (to the best of my middling ability and understanding) to explain why a site is significant, or how it fits into the larger story of the region. With the subject of this (and the next) post, the Johnson-Morris House on Upper Pike Creek Road, this task is pretty easy. Not only is it tied in with several prominent families, it also neatly follows several larger trends of the past few centuries, and is connected to possibly the earliest (European) settler and one of the earliest milling sites in this part of Delaware. Oh -- and it also happens to be Mill Creek Hundred's newest listing on the National Register of Historic Places. (Here is a link to the nomination form.)

The story of the Johnson-Morris House begins with neither Johnson nor Morris -- it starts some 50 years before the first of this line of Johnsons emigrated to America. In 1664, the Dutch controlled the Delaware River Valley (the recently conquered New Sweden), as well as what is now New Jersey and southern New York. This happened to conflict with the new English policy of controlling all of North America, so to "rectify" the situation, the English sent a fleet of ships and a small army. They first took New Amsterdam (renamed New York), then sent a detachment to do the same down here. When the English took the fort at New Amstel (New Castle), one the soldiers involved was a man named Thomas Wollaston. This Thomas Wollaston, according to Scharf, was "probably the earliest settler in what is now Mill Creek Hundred."

Wollaston received his first tract in MCH in 1666, and over the ensuing years acquired several other parcels in the area. One such acquisition, 224 acres in 1680, was likely an area around Pike Creek just north of what's now Kirkwood Highway. This parcel ended up being passed to Thomas' son Jeremiah (1692-1772), sometime after Thomas' death in 1706. Jeremiah's son, James Wollaston (1724-c.1760), married Mary Chambers in 1752.  Sadly, he died about eight years later. In 1762, Mary got remarried to Robert Johnson (1740-1809), a member of another Quaker family. (The Wollastons were not originally Quaker, as Thomas' military profession would indicate, but converted at a later date.) Here's where things get interesting. The year before (1761), Robert Johnson bought 104 acres of land (which apparently already included three mills) from Jeremiah Wollaston. The two families were already close, attested to by the fact that in 1758, Robert's sister, Hannah Johnson, married Jeremiah's son Thomas. One is left to wonder exactly what the motivations were, and what the timeline was, for the actions of 1761/62. Did Robert fall in love with Mary and purchase a portion of her father's land in preparation for their life together (land that might have belonged to James)? Or were Mary and the property some sort of "package deal"?

In any case, Robert (whose grandfather, also named Robert, came from Ireland in 1714) and Mary soon started their own family on their land along Pike Creek. They soon had two daughters, and one son, Joshua.  Robert Johnson farmed his land and had a small dairy business, as well as operated his three mills. How old those mills were, and who built them, is unknown. They may have been erected by Jeremiah Wollaston, or they may even date back to Thomas' day. We do know that Thomas Wollaston was interested in milling, as he was one of the original partners in the first mill at Stanton, built in 1679. As for the Johnson's home, Robert and family likely lived in a smaller log home, possibly built by him, or possibly built by the late James Wollaston. Over the years, there is evidence of the existence of several dwellings on the property, of almost every type -- log, frame, stone, and brick.

In 1798, Joshua Johnson (1765-1831) purchased a tract of about 27 acres on the north side of his father's property. This may have had something to do with the millrace, as this land is up around where the race began -- we don't know. While Robert continued to run his grist and saw mills, it seems that Joshua may have taken over the fulling mill (fulling is a process by which wool is prepared for manufacture into cloth). Sometime between 1799 (when he was only assessed for land) and 1804 (when a stone house was listed), Joshua built a new home for himself, his wife Ann Pennock (whom he had married in 1792), and their children. This is the core of the house that stands today. This is far from clear, but Joshua's new, stone home -- The Johnson-Morris House -- may have been built just north of another brick house owned by his father. No trace of this house remains today, and not much more is known about it. My own guess is that it may have been a second, larger home built by Robert to replace his original, probably log, home.

Joshua Johnson's new home was initially a two-bay configuration with the door on the left side, but not long after construction another room, with a door and a window, was added to the west end of the house (left side as you look at it). Unfortunately, Ann did not live in the new house very long, for she died in November 1804. Soon after, Joshua remarried to Margaret Chamberlain, with whom he had several more children. It was Joshua's first child, Samuel Johnson (1794-1863), who would join him in his fulling business (he is the "& Son" in the 1818 ad above. also note the Quaker "5th Mo" dating.). Another ad from two years earlier is listed only as Joshua Johnson, so Samuel may have been brought into the business sometime between. No traces of the old mills survive, but an 1849 map shows a saw mill located on Pike Creek, almost directly across the road from the house. This is where the mills where, and originally were lined up along a millrace, with the fulling mill to the north and the grist mill to the south -- the sawmill being in between. 

After Joshua died in 1831, his property was split between his widow Margaret and son Samuel. Margaret's portion contained a two-story frame house and a one story log tenement. Nothing more is known about these structures, but my guess is that they were either earlier houses or may have been built as tenements for workers. Since the family had a small dairy business and three mills, it's logical that they may have had some workers to help them. Samuel's portion of his father's land contained the mills, the stone house, and the brick house. On the 1849 and 1868 maps, two structures are indicated on the property. I would assume that they are the stone and brick houses. By an 1893 map, only one house is shown. Likely, the brick house was torn down sometime between.

Samuel did continue to operate the mill after his father's death, and after Margaret's passing in 1834 he inherited the entire estate. Samuel had married in 1825 to Mary Ann Cranston (1803-1882), the daughter of Simon Cranston. Simon was the patriarch of the Cranston family in MCH, and lived in a house near what's now Route 4 and Stanton Road. And in another example of multiple marriages between families, Samuel's sister Mary married William Cranston, one of Simon's sons. Sadly, it was these ties that would end the Johnson presence on Pike Creek. It seems that Samuel co-signed a loan taken out by his father-in-law, and when Simon Cranston was unable to repay it in 1843, the Johnson estate was seized for payment. Samuel then moved to Newport, where he became a successful businessman, and his property in Mill Creek Hundred ended up in the hands of the first of several absentee landlords. This is where we will pick up the story in Part 2.


  1. I want to personally and publicly thank David L. for sharing with me the information about this property. David is the current owner of the house and is the man responsible for its inclusion on the National Register. He's done a lot of research about the property and the people involved, and has been very kind in sharing it with us. He has obvious pride in his home, which is evident in its beautiful condition and in the amount of time he's spent researching its history. Thanks Dave!

  2. Sorry about the confusion, but I made a few small edits to the post regarding some of the houses and their placement. This was due to new information I got, and a little better understanding of it on my part.

  3. It looks like my last comment did not work. My 5th great grandfather was Elias Johnson, born 1774. I haven't found anything about his parents but there is an unsourced family tree online that shows his parents being Robert Johnson and Mary Chambers! I hope some day I'll find a document or other record that proves this relationship. That would make this story so much more meaningful to me!