A History of the Burns Family
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Chapter Three: James Burns, Esquire (ca. 1740 - 1814)

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

More Information

1740-1775: Hamilton Township, Cumberland (later Franklin) County

Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org suggest to us that Guy's great-great-grandfather, James Burns, Esquire, was born about 1740 in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, which was a magnet for Scots-Irish immigrants arriving in droves during this period. But we cannot confirm his birthdate or birthplace with any certainty.

Strong circumstantial evidence exists to suggest he was born in Northern Ireland and came to America in 1746 as a small child with his father and grandfather. A John Burns settled that year with his family on 100 acres on Back Creek in Hamilton Township near the town of Chambersburg in Cumberland County. We will look at this evidence more fully in a later chapter.

There the new arrivals would have cleared the land, built a log cabin, and eked out a subsistence living on what was then a wild and dangerous frontier. Tensions were mounting between the indigenous Native Americans, who'd inhabited the lands for millennia, and white settlers bent on establishing their own brand of civilization, in the form of farms, gristmills, stills, churches, and schoolhouses.

I visited the spot in 2014, and my guess is that it has not changed much in the last 250 years.

Back Creek, near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, 2014

Our first glimpse of James as an individual is in a transcription of a 1766 roster of marriages performed by Reverend John Conrad Bucher of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, now the seat of Cumberland County. James married Elizabeth Magill on December 27th. Misspellings and erroneous transcriptions are common in the historical record, and so we should not be surprised that James is listed as John, and Elizabeth's last name is spelled McGill. They named their first son Magill, and that name and spelling came down through the generations, so we can consider Magill official. The 1766 marriage date may have been the basis genealogists used to estimate a birthdate for James of 1740. It's actually more likely to have been somewhat later than 1740. The average age for marriage among the Scots-Irish was lower than for other British immigrants: 21 for men and 19 for women. They also had children earlier. [1]

Elizabeth was the daughter of Charles Magill, one of the earliest settlers of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, then part of Cumberland County. During the leadup to the French and Indian War, Charles served as lieutenant under Colonel Benjamin Chambers, said to be his brother-in-law and a Scots-Irish immigrant who founded Chambersburg in the 1730s. [2]

Why James and Elizabeth were married in Carlisle, which is 33 miles from Chambersburg, is not known.

One reason could have been security. The French and Indian War, which was the North American theater of the worldwide Seven Years' War between the British and French, was fought between 1754 and 1763. During this period, white settlers from Cumberland County found themselves in continuous and bloody conflict with indigenous peoples from the area allied with the French. Many Chambersburg residents removed to Carlisle at some point during the upheaval, and James and Elizabeth might have been among them.

It's also possible that James received some legal training in Carlisle during the 1760s. The "Esquire" after his name denoted the profession of attorney, and we know he was appointed as a Cumberland County justice of the peace in 1783. (Interestingly, a never-ratified Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States -- "The Missing Thirteenth Amendment" -- sought to prohibit the use of "Esquire" because it was too reminiscent of the nobility of England.) [3]

From Pennsylvania Colonial Record

That he eventually became a country lawyer does not mean he attended law school, however. Such institutions did not exist at that time. Rather, an aspiring lawyer would have been apprenticed to an attorney, read his books on the law, and assisted with his practice. Opportunities for this kind of apprenticeship might well have been more common in more populous Carlisle than Chambersburg.

But by 1770, James and Elizabeth were living back in Chambersburg. With the town's founder as his wife's uncle by marriage, James would have been a well-connected member of that community. That year he paid 10 pounds in a sheriff's sale (a foreclosure proceeding) for a lot on Main Street in Chambersburg that had belonged to Charles Magill, his debt-ridden father-in-law. In May of 1774, Benjamin Chambers granted James the patent (conferring official ownership) for the same lot, which stood at the northeast corner of Front and King Streets in Chambersburg ("Front" and "Main" were at that time interchangeable designations for the principal street in town). [4]

Location of Chambersburg & Hamilton Township,
where James and Elizabeth had property

1868 map of downtown Chambersburg (Historic Map Works)

The map of Chambersburg above was drawn about 100 years after James and Elizabeth owned the lot on Front and King indicated by the red arrow. An article written by Dr. W.C. Lane in 1877 for Chambersburg's newspaper Public Opinion (still in business) has this to say about the town in the mid-1770s:

The growth of the town was slow. Some ten years after it was laid out, the buildings were nearly all confined to Main Street, although a few farmers lived around what are now the outskirts of the borough. Dr. Calhoon, who was married to Miss Ruhamah Chambers, then lived on the corner of King and Main Streets [a lot our James and Elizabeth had sold him, and on which reportedly stood a weather-beaten house]. Beyond his residence no improvements were yet made. His house stood considerably beyond the other buildings of the street. Northeast of Falling Spring [which was north of the town] was a deep and almost impassable swamp, which was, of course, unfit for building purposes.

Not exactly Shangri-la.

1775 - 1814: Derry Township, Cumberland (later Mifflin) County

in 1775, when he was in his thirties and already the parent of several small children, James paid 300 pounds "Pennsylvania money" for half of a 326-acre tract owned by one John Burns, Senior. We will learn more about this transaction later.

At the same time, he and Elizabeth bought land in Derry Township, 75 miles north. In early 1775, they paid 400 pounds for 244 acres on Kishacoquillas Creek, near Lewistown. Land records [5] show he got an official patent for it much later (1789), but this was apparently not unusual. In their zeal to settle new land, settlers often lived on a parcel for a time before doing all the paperwork. Tax records show James paying taxes on the land, 2 horses, and 2 cows by 1778. [6]

From Pennsylvania land records online at Pennsylvania State Archives:
James acquired the patent in 1789 for the land he bought in 1775

1770 map showing Back Creek, Chambersburg, and Kishacoquillas Creek

The Burns tract on Kishacoquillas Creek was called "Whitehall," which was the name of the administrative area around the palace of the English monarch of the time. Did this choice indicate loyalist tendencies? If so, were these James's or those of the previous owner, Arthur Forster? A series of rebellions swept through Scotland from 1688 to 1746, as Highland clans fought to restore the Scottish King James II to the throne of England. The Lowland Campbells (the Burns are said by some to be of this clan) generally took England's side.

The National Archives has no record of any service by James as a foot soldier during the Revolutionary War, but he reportedly acted as a "supply agent" for the Continental Army. The Whitehall name notwithstanding, we will assume he was a loyal supporter of the revolutionary cause.[7] He did give one of his seven sons the name Liberty, after all.

James was influential as well as prosperous. The family belonged to the congregation of the United Congregation of East and West Kishacoquillas, a Presbyterian church, and in 1783 James was one of the signatories to a call for a Reverend James Johnston.[8] Tax records show that by 1785 he had acquired more land in Derry Township, and was now paying taxes on 600 acres, 2 horses, and 4 cows. [9] In 1790, he was taxed on 300 acres, 1 horse, 2 cows, and a still (!), while also serving as an assistant tax assessor. Did he use the office to reduce his own tax burden somehow? Clever move, if so! [10] In 1791, Governor Thomas Mifflin appointed him justice of the peace for Mifflin County, which had been formed in 1789 from parts of Cumberland and Northumberland Counties (in fact, he was one of the delegates chosen to assist in matters pertaining to the boundary lines). [11] In 1793, he helped with the erection of a loan office for $500,000. [12]

In 1798, data recorded in the Federal Direct or "Window" tax assessment of the Burns property describe a modest two-story house built of logs, 20' x 20' with 6 windows and 72 lights, and a separate out-house (kitchen) on the lot. Son Magill was living in another log house with separate stable on the same lot. By August of 1829, the Burns property consisted of 530 acres, 4 dwelling houses, 4 barns, and 3 orchards. [13]

James Burns, Esquire, in short, was no slouch.

We have no photographs, letters, or personal mementos of the family's ambitious patriarch, who died in 1814, but a picture emerges nonetheless -- of a patriotic person with brains, drive, and pride married to a woman who was still bearing his children after 20 years of wedlock. But was he kind? Generous? A good husband and father?

James's grandson

One hint is contained in a short biography of James, Esquire's grandson, nicknamed "General" James Burns. The General, who grew up on his grandfather's land, was described as a hardworking, self-made man who was a shrewd judge of character (exerting "a peculiar controlling influence among his associates"), a noted pugilist, and a political force in Pennsylvania, serving as a Commissioner of Canals and even running for governor at one time. Yet though he was a person of "great mental vigor" who "never forgot a friend, nor forgave an enemy," he also showed "an invariable kindness for the poor."[14]  A house for the poor was built on the Burns land in 1850 -- in recognition of the younger James's compassion perhaps? [15]

But the family rift after James, Esquire's death, and his son Robert's vigorous contesting of the will, does at least suggest that James may not have been a perfect father, and we do have rather compelling evidence that he was not a perfect man.

James Hamilton was a prominent citizen from Carlisle, with whom James Burns corresponded over court matters in the late 1700s. In a collection of Hamilton's papers maintained by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania was a file of this correspondence as well as other documents relating to James, Esquire. The Society was able to send these to me as a PDF. Some of the letters concerned routine matters such as the scheduling of James Burns's duties as a justice of the peace, but a great many of them dealt with an ongoing property feud he had with Arthur Buchanan, one of the original settlers of Lewistown who lived on Kishacoquillas Creek near the Burns land. One especially interesting document was an undated set of depositions taken from several witnesses to a brawl between Burns and Buchanan that took place sometime in the 1780s or '90s.[16]

According to the statements recorded in the deposition, the two men got into argument that quickly escalated into violence. Whiskey was involved, which had likely been manufactured by the men themselves. Homemade stills were a regular feature of life of the Pennsylvania frontier. James had learned a thing or two about self-defense, and wasn't afraid to fight dirty -- pulling hair and gouging eyes, techniques that were not uncommon among backcountry Scots-Irish. [17]

"William White found one of Burns hands in Buchanan's hair and sayed I had a tuff match to get his hand out again. Robert Buchanan heard Burns call him damned rogue and coward and raised his fist."

Although he defended himself as the wronged party, James was indicted on the charge, not Buchanan, whose eye took some time to heal. But was this an isolated case of loss of self-control in an otherwise good man? Was it, for example, self-defense against an aggressor who was infinitely worse? Or was James prone to such outbursts?

He was no stranger to trouble. He ran afoul of the law in 1792 when he set bail too low for a fellow lawyer accused of aggravated assault and battery against a Pennsylvania Supreme Court judge. Respublica v. James Burns, Esq. was still being cited as significant case law in Pennsylvania 80 years later. James was convicted of a misdemeanor for this offense, but pardoned by Governor Mifflin on January 6, 1796. [18]

From Report of Cases in the County Courts of the Penssylvania Fifth Circuit [19]

So was James, Esquire a troublemaker with a rotten personality who stiffed his son in his will? Or was he a good family man, every bit as accomplished and civic-minded as his grandson the "General"-- except for a few moral hiccups? This is not a question we can answer at present, but it raises another. What do we know about the family into which the good Squire was born?


[1] Register information from the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 26. p. 378. Marriage age information from: http://www.ulsterscotssociety.com/about_immigrants.html.

[2] Virginia Fendrick. America Revolutionary War Soldiers of Franklin County, Pennsylvania. Chambersburg, PaL Historical Works Committee of the Franklin County Chapter, c. 11944. Charles McGill was married to Jane Chambers, Benjamin Chambers' sister.

[3] Wikipedia: TItles of Nobility Amendment

[4] Copy received from Cumberland County History Society. Deed Book I, G30-31.

[5] Copy received from Cumberland County Historical Society. Deed Book D 282-283.

[6] Copy received of transcribed tax records for 1778 from Cumberland County Historical Society.

[7] Charles Almanzo Babcock. Venango County, Pennsylvania: Her Pioneers and People. Chicago. H. H. Beers. 1919. 429-430.

[8] From the Centennial Memorial of the Church of Presbytery of Huntingdon County, 1885.

[9] From the State and supply transcripts of the county of Cumberland for the years 1778, 1779, 1780, 1781, 1782, 1785. W. S. Ray, state printer of Pennsylvania, 1898. p. 701.

[10] Joseph Cochran. History of Mifflin County: Its Peculiarities, Soil, Climate, &c. Harrisburg, Pa: Patriot Publishing Company. 1879. p. 147.

[11] From Volume 13 of Colonial Records, Pennsylvania Provincial Council. J. Severns & Co. 1853. p. 647.

[12] Mifflin County Deed Book, p. 152, September 2, 1793 (I have requested a copy of this deed). Note: This sounds like a lot of money, but currency was changed that very year such that $1000 "Continental" dollars became 1 U.S. dollar.

[13] From Mifflin County Historical Society Search Report, 2011.

[14[ Published in the Ninth Series of the Pennsylvania Archives, edited by Gertrude MacKinney, 1935.

[15] Alexander Addison. Reports of Cases in the County Courts of the Fifth Circuit and in the High Court of Errors and Appeals of the State of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, Pa. Kay & Brother Publishers. 1883. pp. 370-371.

[16] I requested a copy of this file from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

[17] Here are some excerpts from The Other Irish: The Scots-Irish Rascals Who Made America which sheds light on how Scots-Irish Presbyterians evolved into Baptists and Methodists in America:

“When they came swarming across the sea, embittered by religious bigotry of the Anglican Church of England and the economic repression imposed by the English government, the Scots-Irish plunged into the great, untamed frontier to settle in isolated backcountry communities where they were alone in an almost supernatural terrain that yielded mysterious phenomena and unknown terrors. They usually built a little church, but frontier populations were so scattered that rarely was a pastor available to preach. They took to making and drinking moonshine, dancing, and singing. One visitor witnessed people traveling for fifty miles or more through hostile terrain to gamble on cock fights and horse races or engage in brutal fights in which “the gouging out of each other’s eyes was considered allowable according to the rules governing such matches.The further they moved from civilization, the more boisterous, ungovernable, and immoral they became.”

[18] Joseph Cochran. History of Mifflin County: Its Peculiarities, Soil, Climate, &c. Harrisburg, Pa: Patriot Publishing Company. 1879. p. 140-141.

[19] From Franklin Ellis' History of That Part of the Susquehanna and Juniata Valleys Embraced in the Counties of Mifflin, Juniata, Perry, Union and Snyder. Philadelphia, 1886.