A History of the Burns Family
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Chapter Two: Robert Burns, Millwright (1771-1830)

1 - Burns Line
2 - Robert Burns
3 - James, Esquire
4 - John, Senior
5 - John "B"
6 - Scots-Irish Roots

More Information

Liberty's father Robert was born in Pennsylvania in 1771, the son of James Burns, Esquire and Elizabeth Magill.

The Burns family was most likely of Scots-Irish origin, as I shall attempt to show in a later chapter, and Scots-Irish naming conventions dictated that first sons be named after their paternal grandfathers, second sons after maternal grandfathers, and third sons after the father.

According to the history of Venango County referenced in the previous chapter, James and Elizabeth had nine children. Six sons were born in the following order according to a Mifflin County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society report: Magill (1769), Robert (1771), James (1772), Samuel ((1774), Washington (1779), and Hugh (1781). We do not have dates for daughters Sarah and Mary. A seventh son, Liberty, died young, his name doubtless inspired by the American Revolution. We have no dates for him either, but he must have been our Liberty's namesake.

By the Scots-Irish naming rules, James and Elizabeth's second son should have been named after Elizabeth's father, Charles Magill, but the Magill name was apparently given to their first-born son. We have no official birth records, since none were kept in those days except in family Bibles and other personal records. Moreover, children often died at birth or in infancy and disappeared entirely from the historical record. But we do have evidence that a son John preceded Magill Burns, named for James's father, and we will look at this theory more closely in subsequent chapters.

Circumstantial evidence points to an older brother for James, Esq. named Robert, a Pennsylvanian who served as a captain in the Revolutionary War and then went off to live in Virginia. After this Robert's death, James traveled to Virginia at the invitation of the widow to participate in the settlement of the estate. Perhaps our Robert, Liberty's father, is named for him.

We know little of Robert's childhood. If his birth year was 1771, as genealogists believe, he might have been born in Hamilton Township, in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, where his parents lived before moving to a large parcel of land they bought near Lewistown in Derry Township in the northern part of the county in 1775. We will take a look at the Hamilton Township property in the next chapter, when we discuss James, Esquire in detail.

Map of 1771 Pennsylvania showing the location of Hamilton and Derry Townships
in what was then Cumberland County

The wild and wooded Burns property in Derry straddled two sides of Kishacoquillas Creek, and as they grew up Robert and his brothers would have helped clear land, plant crops, build and improve log dwellings and outbuildings, and care for livestock. This was the Pennsylvania frontier, and life was anything but easy. Robert may or may not have attended school on a regular basis, although literacy was doubtless encouraged. James was commissioned a justice of the peace by Governor Mifflin in 1791, and was himself a fluent writer if not a perfect speller.

Present-day Kishacoquillas Creek where the Burns property was located, now a county park

In 1796, Robert married Sarah Turner, one of three Turner women from Derry to marry Burns brothers. By the time the 1800 census was taken, the couple was living with two small girls in a place called Bald Eagle and Patton, west of Derry, in the newly formed Centre County. Sarah's parents Daniel and Hannah (Welch) Turner lived nearby, and Daniel operated an iron forge.

Old Pennsylvania Iron Forge

Daniel Turner was an interesting character. Born in Cumberland County, he was a veteran of the Revolutionary War, serving as a rifleman under the command of Captain James Chambers, one of the early settlers of Hamilton Township. In an 1887 history of Clearfield County, to which Daniel moved in the early 1800s, he is recalled as a person of courage and resourcefulness.

He became largely interested in lands in [Clearfield] county, and frequently visited the locality before making a residence here. The first visit of Turner to these parts was in the year 1794, after which time many surveys were made in his name, and his wife’s also. In 1802 Turner settled near the head of Clearfield Creek, and made a farm there. Before he came here he had many conflicts with the Indians, but he was a bold, daring, and powerful man. One day in the year 1813, while hunting near John Ferguson’s, he had a “rough and tumble” conflict with a panther, but succeeded in getting the animal by its hind legs and holding it in such a manner that it could not bite or claw him, until Joseph Turner came and dispatched this dangerous foe with a tomahawk. At another time he wounded a panther, and the animal retreated to a cave like place between two large rocks. Turner followed, and by attaching a sword-like bayonet to the muzzle of his gun, stabbed the panther to death. Few men would care to tackle a wounded panther in a place like that. Turner resided in Bellefonte [Center County] before he came here....While in the former place he was an extensive operator, but misfortunes came and swept away his property, and he was induced to move to this country. [1]

You can see the Turner holdings in Clearfield County on this map from the early 1820s, which included a gristmill on Turner's Run. I found the remnants of the spot in my travels through Pennsylvania in 2014.


This is the stretch of Turner's Run where the Turner gristmill would have been


But back to Robert, who after his parents-in-law moved to Clearfield County purchased land closer to his own parents in Lewistown, now in the newly minted Mifflin County. What do we know of him?

Map showing location of Derry Township
(Mifflin County was formed from part of Cumberland County in 1789)


Location of Mifflin County

We know Robert was a steadfast and vigorous man. Until his death in 1830, he was married to the same woman, with whom he had fourteen children. Nine were daughters: Jane (died young), Elizabeth, Sarah, Polly, Matilda, Hannah, Priscilla, Caroline, and Isabella. Five were sons: James (died young), James Turner, our Liberty, Robert (died young), and Joseph T.

We can surmise that Robert was reasonably close to his family of birth. He and Sarah remained in the vicinity of his parents until his father died in 1814. They named their first-born son James, and when he died, their second-born son was named James as well, with Turner added to honor Daniel, the maternal grandfather. Their first-born daughter was named Elizabeth. James, Esq. felt comfortable sending Robert on legal errands, according to papers in the archive of James Hamilton of Carlisle, in whose circuit James worked as a justice of the peace. James and Elizabeth helped Robert to finance land purchases in the early 1800s.

But Robert was an ambitious and independent man as well. While the other sons stayed on or in very close proximity to the Kishacoquillas Creek property, he moved in a wider orbit. After Daniel and Hannah Turner headed out to Clearfield County, Robert and Sarah bought and sold several tracts of land in Mifflin County, including a large parcel in the Ferguson Valley, which was several miles from James and Elizabeth's land.

Ferguson Valley, about where Robert and Sarah's land would have been

In 1813, Robert sold most of these holdings and brought property on the banks of Lost Creek in Fermanagh Township, thirteen miles from Lewistown. This land included a gristmill that he operated for many years.

By 1817, Robert and Sarah were paying taxes on the Lost Creek property (the gristmill was a "taxable industry"), and this ownership continued until 1822. We can see the location on the Whiteside-Melish map of the area, where Lost Creek enters the Juniata River. Liberty Burns, Guy's grandfather, was probably born here in 1816.

Location of the Burns Mill on Lost Creek as it enters the Juniata River

The site of the old Burns Mill (found in Fermanagh on my 2014 trip)

This is a 1900 photograph of mills remaining at the place where Lost Creek empties into the Juniata River.
Based on my 2014 visit, I believe the tall mill to the right is most likely to be the Burns Mill.

We don't know how educated or intellectual Robert was, but we do know he was industrious, reportedly working as a millwright right up until the day he died. We also know he possessed mechanical ingenuity, applying for a patent for some invention by which the power of his gristmill was increased.

After James, Esq. died in 1814, things gradually went downhill for the millwright and his family. Robert contested the will vigorously (and ultimately unsuccessfully), because it seemed to him to give an unjustifiably greater share to other sons. James and Elizabeth had earlier loaned Robert money to help him buy land, and this debt forgiveness was apparently considered to be his share of the estate. Robert is literally not mentioned in the will. But we don't know what Robert's understanding of these arrangements was, and it's conceivable that the sons who lived near their father exerted an undue influence on the terms of the will. We will never know.

In any case, the bulk of the estate was not settled until 1822, and the experience must have left a bitter taste, especially if Robert had been close to his parents.

That same year, the mill and land in Fermanagh were sold in a sheriff's sale. Tax records find Robert and family livIng back in Derry (near or possibly on his father's land) from 1824 to 1827, owning some livestock but no property. His mother Elizabeth died at in 1825, and perhaps he returned to the family property to help out while she was ailing. Or maybe he was too financially overextended to carry on with the mill work, and needed to find a place to roost for free for a while. The whole country, in fact, was still recovering from a depression and deflationary cycle that had eroded everyone's earning power in the early 1820s.

In a biographical sketch of one of Robert and Sarah's descendants written for the Venango County history mentioned earlier, the author writes about what happened next.

This date for Robert's death, at the age of 59, certainly accords well with letters of administration we have for him dated August, 1830.

But interestingly, the U.S. Census of 1830, which was taken sometime after June 1 of that year, shows that his wife Sarah (explicitly identified as a widow) was living in Clarion County, out in western Pennsylvania. Clarion lies just west of Jefferson County, where our Liberty eventually settled on 85 acres. The record specifies she is iving with two males and two females under 19 (the boys would have been Liberty and James Turner Burns).

If Robert died suddenly in Juniata County in 1830, is it even physically possible for Sarah to have set her family up in Clarion County soon enough to be counted in that county's census (which began on June 1 the same year)?

This 1848 survey of Sarah Burns's land in Clarion County may provide a clue. It describes 55 acres warranted to Sarah in 1831 on land improved and settled since 1829.


My theory is that Robert and Sarah moved their family west to Clarion County in about 1828 (we find no more taxes being paid by the Burnses back in Derry after 1827), and settled and improved land there. Their eldest daughter Elizabeth had already married a man named Hugh Williamson and was living just a few miles away in neighboring Jefferson County by that time, and so the location is not random.

By this logic, Robert would have died just as described in the county history cited above, but in a different place. He would have taken up millwrighting in Clarion County, and in the course of getting to his new place of work, died suddenly (of a stroke or heart attack perhaps).

We can see in the map below the approximate spot, indicated by the red arrow, where the Burnses lived in Clarion County. The survey shows the property to be on the main route from Clarion to Brookville, near a little hitch in the road, and census and historical data reinforce this as the location.

The 1830 census places the widow Sarah in the vicinity of the Simpson family (see the three Simpson households living near the arrow below on the 1878 map). In addition, the 1850 census lists a mother-in-law named Sarah Burns living with her daughter Hannah and son-in-law William Douglass, whose sons included Samuel and James. In the 1878 map, you can see that the S and J Douglass now occupy adjoining lands across from the spot we think the Burns owned in 1830. You can also see a gristmill within a few miles at most, on Little Mill Creek.

Map from 1877 Clarion County atlas showing where the Simpson and Burns descendants lived

What of the county history, describing Robert's death after he "removed to Juniata County [and] resumed millwrighting"?

The short answer is that tantalizing as such accounts are for the genealogically curious, they are often rife with errors. The history above goes on, for example, with a list of Robert and Sarah's sons and daughters that is just plain wrong on several counts. Hannah is described as a granddaughter, but we know from her age in the 1850 census (44) that she must be a daughter of 69-year-old Sarah, not a granddaughter.

I believe that the county history should have said that Robert "removed" not to Juniata County, which wasn't even a county until 1831, but to Clarion. We know from county tax records that the Burns family left Lost Creek by 1823 and Derry by 1828, and there is zero proof they ever went back to either place. There is evidence from the fine print on the survey, however, that in about 1828 or 1829, the Burnses went west to Clarion County, possibly with a living breathing Robert Burns as head of household.

Sarah Turner Burns and her son James Turner Burns are buried at Mount Pleasant Independent Cemetery,
just a few miles east of the Burns land in Clarion Township

Sarah and son James Turner Burns are buried in the little town of Corsica, in a small cemetery that's just a few miles down the road from their land. I looked at every gravesite in the cemetery, and found no Robert, who according to my theory should be buried there. But there's no trace of his resting place here or anywhere, including the Presbyterian graveyard nearest Lost Creek, which I also inspected. It's possible that both Sarah's and Robert's tombstones crumbled away over time, but that only hers was replaced -- by a descendant with some memory of her (she lived until 1851, so was in the neighborhood for over twenty years) and no memory of Robert.

Let us turn our attention to Robert's father, James Burns, Esquire. What do we know about his life and roots?


[1] From the History of Clearfield County, Pennsylvania, with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Some of Its Prominent Men and Pioneers, Edited by Lewis Cass Aldrich. D. Mason & Co., Publishers, Syracuse, NY, 1867. pp. 56-57.