Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Justis Family in Mill Creek Hundred, Part I

 Recently, I wrote a post (The Hadley-Dennison House) that featured the Hadley family, some of the first English-speaking settlers in Mill Creek Hundred. But as you're probably aware, the actual first Europeans to settle in what would become Delaware were not English-speaking. Aside from the short-lived Dutch Zwaanendael colony near Lewes, the first European residents of the First State were Swedes (and a few Finns) who arrived in 1638. They set up a fort and settlement called Fort Christina near "The Rocks" in Wilmington, as well as a number of others in the Delaware River Valley. They held control over the region for less than 20 years, before being ousted by the Dutch, who were overtaken themselves by the English just a few years later. Even though New Sweden was a thing of the past, many of the original Swedish families remained in the region and prospered under their conquerors. One of the most prominent of the early Swedish families was the Justises. When, in the early 1800's, several members of that family became the preeminent builders in eastern MCH, their family had already been in the New World for well over 150 years.

The presence of the Justis family in Mill Creek Hundred may very well date back to the 1600's, but this, like many things with this family, is difficult to nail down exactly. J.M. Runk's Biographical and Genealogical History of the State of Delaware (a fabulous and, I think, newly accessible through Google, resource) gives an overview of one line of the Justis family in MCH. However, from what I can tell, it seems to get a little less reliable the further back it goes. After a frustrating couple of days of research, I think I finally have a good handle on the history of at least this one branch of the family. Researching the Justis family is challenging for a couple of reasons: 1) They've been here for nearly 400 years, so there are many lines of the family, many of which use the same few names over and over again. This makes it hard to keep the branches separate. 2) The last name has changed several times over the years, and even individual people are listed with two, three, or four different versions of their name depending on where you look.

The progenitor of this particular branch of the Justis line was among the first Swedes to colonize the New World -- but not quite as early as the story Runk was given (in fact, no Swedes were here in 1635). Johann Gustafsson (c.1618-1683) arrived from Sweden in 1643 along with the new Governor, Johan Printz. He was a soldier, and was stationed at a fort near Salem, NJ. He stayed there for several years, then lived for a time near Ft. Trinity, present-day New Castle. Eventually, he ended up with a tract of land in Kingsessing, now a neighborhood in Philadelphia, but then a Swedish village. He had a son named Gustaf (1655-1721), who also worked the land at Kingsessing. In 1685, Gustaf had a son also (originally) named Gustaf Gustafsson. Here, I believe, is where Mill Creek Hundred enters the story. (As a side note, another one of the elder Gustaf's sons was Anders Gustafsson. He (also known as Andrew Justis), along with his son-in-law Thomas Willing, founded a town they called "Willingtown". After a few years (and an influx of Quakers), its name was changed to "Wilmington".)

Gusta Gustafsson, Jr, who at some point changed and shortened his name (as many in his family did) to Justa Justis, married Christina Lycon (another Swede) in 1711. As a wedding gift, the new couple was given about 150 acres of land along Red Clay Creek by Christina's father, Nils Laican (sometimes spelled Lycon). Around this same time, maybe on Justa's recommendation, several of his brothers also moved to the region around Red Clay Creek. Where exactly any of them settled is unclear, and Justa spent his final years in Newport. His first child, Nils Justis (1714-1777), was probably the first in his line to be born in MCH. Judging by where the next few generations settled, it's likely that Nils' (and maybe Justa's) farm was located somewhere near (maybe just south of) Brandywine Springs. Nils (sometimes, Neils) married Maria Springer in 1744 and the couple had several children. One of these children was Jacob Justis, and although several of his siblings remained in the MCH area, it appears it was Jacob who inherited his father's farm.

The old springhouse on Newport Gap Pike
Jacob Justis married Hannah Springer in 1780, and it seems he lived his whole life on his family's farm. I've seen nothing that indicates it for sure, but my feeling is that the original Justis homestead may have been on the east side of Newport Gap Pike, about where the White House B&B is now. This land was part of Jacob's estate, and remained in the family for another 50 years or so. The house that is there now is newer and dates to the early 20th Century, but the springhouse along the road is much older. In fact, it may be the only remaining vestige of the original Justis homestead in MCH. When Jacob Justis died in 1802, he left behind three sons to divide his estate -- Joseph, Justa, and David. It was this generation of Justises that left the greatest mark on MCH. They will be the focus in Part II.

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