A History of the Burns Family
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Chapter Four: John Burns Senior (ca. 1712-1776)

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

More Information

I think we can agree that the link between Guy and James Esquire has been firmly established.

But there are no census records from before the American Revolution, no handy listings of families and all their names and ages. For this reason, James's parentage is difficult to establish.

And in fact, we know nothing at all about James's mother, with only a guess for her first name, which we will discuss later.

We're not on a whole lot firmer ground when it comes to his father. But I have collected a body of strong circumstantial evidence to suggest James Esq.'s father was a man called John Burns who owned a sizeable tract of land in Hamilton Township, Cumberland County, in south central Pennsylvania.

Franklin County Townships
(these boundaries changed markedly over time;
shown here are their current lines)

Area of first settlement in Cumberland region
(now Franklin County)

The main evidence for a father-son link comes in a 1775 distribution of land described in twin "indentures" or contracts between a "John Burns Senior" of Hamilton Township, Cumberland County, Province of Pennsylvania -- and two other men with the same surname, but of a relationship unspecified.

In these documents this John Burns Senior divided 326 acres of land, and granted exactly one half to a James Burns of Derry Township, Cumberland County, and the other half to a "John Burns Junior" of Hamilton Township, Cumberland County. These halves were unspecified, meaning John Junior and James owned them together. An additional parcel of land was mentioned in both documents as having been previously given to John Senior's "son Samuel." These documents and others have been personally vetted by an expert at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), David Haugaard, who concurred that James and John were most likely sons of John Burns, Senior. In particular, the exact halving of land and appurtenances (without specifying how it would be divided) suggested to him an inheritance. [1]

Click to see a transcript of the grant to James Burns of Derry.

Click for a closer view of a fragment of the 1775 grant of John Burns Senior to James Burns

The James Burns mentioned in the document is definitely our ancestor, James Burns, Esq., who had by then purchased land in Derry Township, as was noted in the previous chapter. There were only six other James Burnses in Pennsylvania in the 1790 census (and likely even fewer in 1775). [2] Four lived in counties other than Cumberland; the other James Burnses from Cumberland County lived in Hopewell Township, 60 miles from Derry.

But John Senior does not give the land to James and John Junior outright. Each half was granted in return for 300 pounds in Pennsylvania money, which was 181 pounds sterling, which today (April 18, 2016) would be worth $28,590. [3] If James and John Burns Junior are sons of John Senior, why are they having to buy the land from their father? According to Mr. Haugaard, this was not uncommon. [4]

According to Harry Foreman's book, North Mountain Shadows, James Burns of Derry sold his share to John Burns Junior, that same year, 1775, although I can find no record of this. John Junior stayed on the land until 1785, when it was sold to the heirs of neighbor Josiah Allen. John Junior then moved his family to Fayette County out in western Pennsylvania. The brother of James and John Junior, Samuel Burns, had already moved with his wife Mary and their children to neighboring Westmoreland County. [5]

To summarize, then, Mr. Haugaard was of the opinion that the splitting of the original parcel of land into exactly two parts suggests the land was an inheritance passed to two sons. He also noted that he had seen many cases of sons buying a father's land during this era.

I discovered another tantalizing wrinkle when looking through court records related to James Burns, Esquire and John Junior from more than a decade later. The reader will recall that a Mifflin County Historical Society search for James, Esq. turned up nine children: Magill (1769), Robert (1771), James (1772), Samuel (1774), Washington (1779), and Hugh (1781). We do not have dates for daughters Sarah and Mary, or a seventh son, Liberty, who died young.

But there was another son, one who appears in a snippet I found of a court document from December, 1787 in which James, Esq. and wife Elizabeth (and in a twin document John Burns Junior and his wife Jennet Denny) approve a correction to some previous document, probably concerning the sale of the land to Josiah Allen in 1785. A witness to James, Esq.'s signature is John Burns, explicitly labeled as the "son of James, Esq."

Click for larger view of this document dated March 18 1787, signed in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania

So who is this John, son of James, and why does he not appear in James's will or anywhere else in the historical record? We don't know. He might have died soon thereafter, or perhaps he moved far away from the area.

Either way there's an important implication of this new find. In colonial Pennsylvania, a person reached full legal age at 21. [6] Magill, born in 1769 and previously assumed to be the first-born, would have been only 18 when Elizabeth and James signed the 1787 document. To witness the document legally, the son John listed on it must have been at or near full legal age, which is entirely possible if James and Elizabeth had a child soon after they married.

We have already noted that the Scots-Irish had children earlier than other British immigrants to America. A child born in wedlock to James and Elizabeth would have been about 20 when this document was signed in 1787. I suggest the witness John was their first-born child, chosen to accompany them to Chambersburg for the signing precisely because he was the eldest. If he was not yet quite 21, it would probably not have mattered. No one had birth certificates in those days; if the parents said he was of age, who would argue? Alternatively, if Elizabeth was in a "family way" when she married James, John might have been of full legal age when he witnessed the document.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because according to Scots-Irish naming conventions, the first-born son was named for the paternal grandfather. In other words, this new piece of evidence further strengthens the argument that the John Burns Senior who sold James half of the 326-acre parcel in 1775 was in fact James's father.

Adding weight to this argument are a few more tidbits. "John Burns of Hamilton Township" (aka, John Burns Junior) and "Samuel Burns of Westmoreland County" (the "son" named in the land indentures mentioned above) were appointed as administrators of John Senior's estate.

And these two men named their first-born sons John. The name of John Junior's first-born son comes from a history of his wife Jennet Denny's family (although an orphan court document from 1791 identifies the first-born as Samuel, with John being the third-born). [7] In a will abstract for Samuel Burns, who settled in Westmoreland County and died in 1805, the first of Samuel's sons listed was also named John. [8]

An additional tantalizing hint is that James, Esquire, John Junior, AND Samuel all had daughters named Sarah. [9] A common enough name in those days, to be sure, but a tantalizing overlap nonetheless. Was this their mother's name? No wife for John Senior is mentioned in any of the documents I saw -- the inventory, the letters of administration, the surveys, the land indentures -- so it's possible that Sarah, if that was her name, had died long before.

But let us for the moment consider it an established fact that John Senior was the father of three sons: Samuel, James, Esquire and John Junior, and possibly one more -- Robert, the man whose widow James went to see in Virginia in 1783. What do we know of this rather elusive man?

We know John Burns Senior was a solid citizen. He served as Overseer of the Poor of Hamilton Township in 1761. He was appointed constable of Hamilton Township in 1773, despite the fact his son John (John Junior, who would most likely have been a teenager then) was convicted of stealing in the fall of 1760 and sentenced to 25 lashes on his bare back at the whipping post on the morning of October 25th. [10]

We know that John Senior was a landowner who paid taxes in Hamilton Township throughout the 1760s and '70s. In 1766 he paid taxes on 100 warranted acres -- 10 of them cleared -- and 3 horses, 4 cows, and 6 sheep. By 1776, he was paying taxes on 100 warranted acres -- 30 cleared -- plus 1 servant, 2 horses, 2 cows, and 3 sheep. His son John Junior, long since reformed after his public humiliation, paid taxes in the township too that year, not on his own land (he probably lived somewhere on his father's property) but on 1 horse, 2 cows, and 2 sheep. [11]


We know that John Senior died without a will toward the end of 1776. The letters of administration mentioned above were issued on December 12, 1776 to Samuel and John Burns. The estate was appraised by Matthew Wilson and Samuel Thompson (both men were still living in or near Hamilton Township in the first census of 1790), and the inventory was completed on January 4, 1777.

John Senior's personal possessions -- which include velvet jackets, posted bedsteads, pewter dishes, and the like -- show that he was relatively affluent and successful, an impression reinforced by his having a servant. The inventory also reveals the property to be a working farm, with a barn, a stable, and horses, cows, and pigs.

Click to see a transcript of the estate inventory.

Where, then, did this prosperous John Burns come from? Who were his parents? How did he acquire his land?


[1] From Mr. Haugaard's September 26, 2012 letter to me: "I would say that if James Burns and John Burns Junior each receive[d] half of the dwelling house--it is likely this was an inheritance." In fact, the wording of the will calls for each to receive "half of all the messuages, buildings and improvements, ways, woods, and watercourses..." -- no specific division of such appurtenances is included.

[2] From Ancestry.com.

[3] See:

The Comparative Value of Money between Britain and the Colonies

Historical converter of pound sterling to dollars.


[4] Mr. Haugaard: "Sometimes properties were "sold," [to son by father], but there was not, in actuality, money exchanged. Thus, a father might sell a dwelling house and land to a son, as his inheritance."

[5] From information gleaned from North Mountain Shadows, letters of administration for John Burns Senior and John Burns Junior, Samuel Burns's will, and the indenture contracts between James and John Junior and their father John Senior.

[6] That age was the key age set out even for the “Governour” under Penn’s Charter of Libertie of 25 April 1682, the Frame of Government of 5 May 1682 and the Frame of Government of 2 February 1683. The Frame of Government of 1696 set 21 as the voting age

“Colonial Charters, Grants and Related Documents,” Yale Law School Avalon Project (http://avalon.law.yale.edu/subject_menus/statech.asp : accessed 16 Jan 2012)


[7] Denny Genealogy Second Book, by Elizabeth Chapman Denny Vann, Margaret Collins Denny Dixon
Tuttle Publishing Company, 1947. pp. 122-123.

[8] From Will Abstracts of Westmoreland County.

1, p. 206
Samuel Burns, yeoman, of Westmoreland County
Dated June 15, 1805, proved November 19, 1805;
Wife Mary; children: John, Thomas and Samuel Burns, jr. (the "last two residing on my tract of land" in Washington Township, Fayette County, Pennsylvania); Sarah Bleakley and her son Matthew Burns Bleakley a lot in Brownsville; "the school house erected upon my land;"
Wife Mary executor;
Witnesses, P. Marmie and Peter Husk.


[9] From: Denny Genealogy book, James's estate records, and Samuel's will abstract.

[10] From the Cumberland County Quarter Sessions Docket I, 1750-1761, p. 27, and Cumberland County Quarter Session Docket 5, p. 219.

[11] From tax records for Hamilton Township, 1763, 1764, 1765, 1766, 1768, 1769, 1770, 1775, 1776