A History of the Burns Family
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Chapter Five: Our First Immigrant -- John "B" Burns

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

More Information

In the indenture giving James Burns, Esquire half of John Burns Senior's land is a reference to the parcel having originally been warranted to a "certain John Burns (deceased) from whom this said John Burns [Senior] did purchase."

Because there were so few Burnses in this area of the world during the time period in question, it is reasonable to assume John Burns the purchaser was related to John Burns the deceased. But how?

My theory is that just as John Burns Senior sold halves of his property in equal shares to sons John and James, so might this deceased John Burns have been the father of John Burns Senior, who likewise paid for his inheritance.

I base this theory on a detailed review of the chain of custody of the land over a 41-year period from 1746 to 1787. I looked at surveys, land contracts, wills, letters of administration, orphan court records, tax records, and deeds kept with scrupulous care by the Pennsylvania State Archives for more than two centuries. The search was by no means easy. Historical records are often incomplete or illegible, and transcriptions are not always accurate. Families intermarried confusingly, and wives always took their husbands' names. Settlers did not stay still, and neither did boundaries. Pennsylvania township and county lines changed regularly from 1746 to 1787. [1]

The 1761 survey below shows a 326-acre parcel located in Hamilton Township in Cumberland County. We see that the survey was originally set up for the heirs of someone named John Burns, but that "The Heirs of" has been crossed out, leaving only "John Burns."




We know there actually was a John Burns in Hamilton Township who died in 1760 (we have transcipts of his will and estate inventory, and I have seen his gravesite), and this was almost certainly the John Burns "deceased" referred to in the 1775 indentures by which John Burns Senior gave John Burns Junior and our James Burns half-shares of these same 326 acres. I believe that the John Burns who died in 1760 was in fact our earliest known Burns ancestor.

A later survey, shown below, was made on 100+ acres owned in 1787 by a John Burns of Hamilton Township in Franklin County (Franklin had been formed from part of Cumberland County a few years earlier).

The boundaries and neigbors have changed, but this is definitely a portion of the same land surveyed in 1761. I have a copy of a contract whereby John Burns and Samuel Burns sold land to Samuel Liggett in 1767 (Franklin County Deed Book 3, p. 377), and North Mountain Shadows tells us that a John Burns sold land to Josiah Allen in 1785 (p. 124-125) . The 1787 survey above has been made of the land that remains, 104 acres are explicitly tied in the survey language to an original warrant dated June 27, 1746.

This 1746 warrant, shown below, is for a 100-acre parcel, located near Back Creek in Antrim Township, Lancaster County, and originally granted to a John Burns. [Note that Antrim Township in Lancaster County was Hamilton Township in Cumberland County by 1752, and this part of Cumberland County became Franklin County in 1784.]

Click to expand this image from the Pennsylvania Archives

Warrant Register indicating location near Back Creek, in what was then Antrim Township

The Burns land adjoined that of Benjamin Chambers,
one of the earliest settlers of Cumberland County and the founder of Chambersburg


What can we conclude from all of this?

The record may be complicated, but it shows quite clearly that the land described in the original warrant was in the hands of someone named John Burns for 41 consecutive years.

This consistency of ownership -- by men with the same surname -- is all the more remarkable since the region was wracked by the French and Indian War for a good portion of the time.

Is there anything to be learned about him -- this John Burns who acquired land more than 250 years ago, then passed it to his son John, who then passed it to his sons Samuel, John, and James?

We can certainly make some educated guesses about this man, who for convenience sake, will hereafter be referred to as John B Burns (so-called because he signed his will with a "mark" -- "B").

1. John B Burns and his wife (name unknown) chose a difficult path. Life on the frontier was not for the faint of heart. The first thing the arriving family would have had to do was clear enough land to build a cabin, create shelter for such livestock as the family possessed, and plant crops for subsistence.

Daily life would have been primitive and backbreaking.

....a typical eighteenth-century farm in southeastern Pennsylvania contained about one hundred twenty-five acres, twenty-six acres typically devoted to raising grain—a crop used to feed livestock and for baking bread. As a grain, wheat was the cash crop for most Pennsylvania farmers; any surplus was sold on the open market to raise cash to purchase other items necessary for the operation of the farm or for domestic life.  Eight or nine acres on the farm were given over to the cultivation of flax, vegetables, and fruits. The meadow, a source of hay for cattle, contained thirteen to fifteen acres. Thus, a farmer in mid-eighteenth century Pennsylvania needed fifty acres of cleared land to have sufficient acreage for a crop that could provide needed revenue and meet the needs of his family and his livestock. Flour and gristmills played a very important role in the lives of all early settlers....the reason being, bread made from wheat or rye, was a staple of a typical eighteenth-century diet. [2]

2. John B Burns was not a young man when he obtained the warrant. He is buried in Rocky Spring churchyard, a few miles north of the property. The inscription reads: "Here lys the body of John Burns, who departed this life December 23, 1760, age 79 years." In 1746, when he moved his family to the frontier, he would have been 65 years old.

My 2014 photo of John B Burns's headstone

3. We know rather precisely where the land is: a fertile area of the Cumberland Valley watered by a small river called Back Creek. In his North Mountain Shadows book, Harry Foreman situates the "old place" that was "probably" John Burns's home near the site of the "Portico School," where in 1952 it was a still a brick-encased log house. A geological survey map of Hamilton Township shows the Portico School location (red arrow), which is near Back Creek and also not far from the Rocky Springs Presbyterian Church where the John B Burns was buried in 1760 (blue arrow). [3]

Arrow points to Burns cabin location; click for a closer view

Foreman also mentions later neighboring landowners Dice, Burkholder, and Guthrie, and notes that the Mish family acquired the Burns land after a few intervening owners. An 1868 map showing the same area as the map above includes all these family names. Note that the Mishes lived almost exactly where the Portico School is on the geo map.

Map of the same area in 1868 (Historic Map Works)

Looking across Burns land toward where the Portico School once stood (photo taken on 2014 road trip)

4. The Burns family prospered in their new home. In the 14 years he lived in the Cumberland Valley, John B and his family tamed the land and became reasonably successful farmers. Valuable clues are contained in his will, dated December 2, 1760. An inventory of his estate was completed on March 17, 1761, the details of which show him to be a man of modest means, with livestock and plenty of tools. [4]

Click to see a copy of the will
Click to see transcript of the will
Click to see transcript of the estate inventory

5. John B Burns had (at least) two sons, Leard (or Laird) and John, and two daughters, Ann and Martha.

The will mentions only one person explicitly as a son, Leard, and he is named as a beneficiary and executor. But there was a witness to the will named John Burns. Just as James Esquire's son John witnessed a legal document for his parents in 1787, so, I believe, John B's son (later known as John Senior) witnessed his father's will.

The will is curious, given there were two sons, because by its terms only Leard received so much as a penny. [5]

Pennsylvania laws of inheritance in the 18th century distinguished between real property (land) and personal property (moveables). Primogeniture -- the practice of leaving all real property to the eldest son -- had been abolished in Pennsylvania in 1683 (and was disliked by the Scots-Irish settlers), but eldest sons still received a double share by law. No executor was needed for real property; title to land passed outside the realm of courts or the probate process.

Personal property was treated differently. Widows were generally allowed a one-third interest if there were children, and a one-half interest if there were no children. The remainder of the personal property was distributed equally among the children. Because, in contrast to land, the estate (the personal property) was divided, it had to be inventoried and valued before being distributed.

This distinction provides a possible solution to the puzzle of John B Burns's male descendants, for we can see that his will is clearly a document describing the disposition of personal property, not land. Here is the crux:

First of all I bequeath to my son Leard all that is in his hands of my worldly substance and likewise a Bay Mare or ten pounds or to the value in [illegible] thing [illegible] I bequeath what remains to my Loving wife and to my two daughters Ann and Martha to be equally divided in three shares except one Gray Mare and a [illegible]  and what of the plenison the executors think is necessary that I leave to my wife, and further I do constitute my son Leard Burns and James Guithrey executors of my Last Will and Testament.

Leard gets "all that is in his hands" of his father's worldly substance -- i.e., things, not property -- while the 100 acres on Back Creek goes to John B's son John.

Could this be land other than that warranted to the old John Burns in 1746? No. In North Mountain Shadows, Harry Foreman specifically mentions Richard Peters (Secretary of the Colony of Pennsylvania), John Russell, and John Campbell as neighboring landowners of the old John Burns, and these very names appear on the 1761 survey. The 1775 indentures mention Russell, Liggett, Swan, and Peters as neighbors. Liggett and Russell are neighbors on the 1785 survey. The Hamilton Township taxable roster for 1763 (with a grand total of 102 property owners on the list) includes: John Burns (the heir), John Campbell, Richard Peters, and Joseph Swan.[6] We are in the right place.

So back to this John B Burns. Where did he live before he arrived on the Pennsylvania frontier?


[1] See maps of Pennsylvania county formation.

[2] From an interesting website about 18th-century life in Pennsylvania, sadly no longer online.

[3] North Mountain Shadows and Loudon Road History, by Harry Foreman, 1952.

[4] I received copies of the will and estate inventory from the Cumberland County Historical Society.

[5] Laird Burns was probably the second-born son of John "B" Burns, or at least younger than John Burns, the witness son and purchaser of the land. He inherited some of his father's personal property, executed the will, and soon thereafter left for South Carolina, where he had acquired a Royal Land Grant of some 350 acres. In the process, he gave up 100 acres he had acquired in 1752 north of his father's land (later surveys show the two properties sharing a common neighbor, Robert Jack). This might have been land previously given him by his father, as an advance on his inheritance (just as Samuel Burns received land prior to the land indentures John Burns Senior entered into with James and John Junior), or it might have been land he acquired on his own.

[6] Roster sent to me by Cumberland County Historical Society.