The Family of James Morrison of Burke County, NC

On April 12, 1790, a relatively young man named James Morrison must have been near death. On that date, he signed his last will and testament. By the time the first United States census was taken in Burke County, North Carolina, where he lived, he had died. At that time, public records were largely silent when it came to identifying the members of a family. The ready reference of our time has been the United States census, but even the census ignored the names of family members until 1850; before that date, only the name of the head of household was given. Statistics – numbers of family members in prescribed age ranges – provide the only clues to the other members of the family.

Genealogists are lucky when family Bibles or wills have been preserved and include the names of family members. In the case of James Morrison, no Bible has surfaced. Even the will names only James’ wife and one son. But the will was enough. Through its provisions and legal actions brought to court by his heirs, we are able to find out the names of his children, and a great deal about them. Furthermore, we are able to find clues about James’ birth family, hidden in the greater obscurity of American colonial times.

That James’ Will has survived is something of a miracle. There are no records of proceedings in the Burke County courts between the date of its formation, 1778, and 1865. Burke County court minutes were preserved in Raleigh, but these only record that certain actions were taken there. Details, such as the provisions of a will, were not included in the court minutes. However, a copy of James’ will is on record in Iredell County, North Carolina, about 50 miles east of Burke County. Apparently it was kept there because of a provision of the will that gave 200 acres of property to a resident of Iredell County.

The balance of this paper will begin with the provisions of the will, and follow pertinent events that followed to find out who James’ descendants were.

The special provisions of James’ will were as follows:

“1 leave and bequeath unto my loving wife Elisabeth Morrison all the bedding, dresser, and household furniture at her discretion among her daughters.”

“1 give and bequeath unto my son Thomas Morrison fifty two pound by bond Pensylvania money coming from Patrick Campbell of Cumberland County, Pensylvania and also my plantation on which 1 now live when he arrives to twenty one years of age first laying off two hundred acres at the upper end of the said survey to Archibald Brady of Iredell County and State aforesaid. And a deed of conveyance to be made for the said land to the said Archibald Brady by my Executors John McDowell William Morrison Sen. and my wife Elizabeth Morrison whom 1 constitute my Executors of this my last will and testament.”

“1 also will that my wife shall have the privilege of living on the land with the children and enjoying the advantages arising therefrom for the support of the family.”

“And 1 also will that that my land lying between me and William Morrison Jun. be sold and the money arising be converted to the schooling of the children.” “1 also will that my horse creatures be sold save my black horse and black mare and all my cattle save four cows and one steer and part of my hogs and the money arising to be equally divided between my wife and daughters.”

A supplement to the will was made, providing:

“1 desire that the money coming from the bond willed to my son Thomas may be put out on interest and the interest to be lifted yearly. And my wife and children its further support until my son Thomas does come to the age of twenty one years.”

“And 1 also will that my wife Elisabeth have liberty to live on the plantation 1 now live on while she remains unmarried.”

“The principal of the bond to be paid to Thomas when he comes to the age of twenty one years.”

The will was witnessed by James Hemphill and William Patton.

The bolded names give us clues to James’ family and possible other relations named Morrison. Underlines indicate how the wealth of the estate was to be distributed, and italics indicate that portion of James’ estate that was to be distributed to Archibald Brady. These conventions help us understand how the executors followed James’ instructions and the points of contention that arose years later as lawsuits were brought by some of James’ daughters against his executors (and their successor executors and administrators). Records from these lawsuits still exist. The second lawsuit reached the North Carolina Supreme Court, where the case is known to North Carolina jurisprudence as “Morrison vs. McElwrath.”

All that can be learned of James’ family from the will can be summarized as follows:

Wife                            Elizabeth
Son                              Thomas, still a minor in 1790
Daughters                  Unnamed

We will return to the family a little later.

For the present, we need to learn a little more about James Morrison’s properties. Four surviving Burke County land grants were issued to a James Morrison between February 28, 1778 and February 15, 1779. One, issued December 31, 1778, was in partnership with William Morrison. The partnership tract was for 300 acres (which surveyed at only 200 acres) on Silver Creek. Ownership of the other three tracts cannot be attributed with certainty to the James Morrison of the 1790 will. (It appears that at least two of the grants were not to the James Morrison who is the subject of this paper. These two grants were on the Little River and Lower Little River, miles to the east of Silver Creek, and were probably issued to a James whose family lived in Rowan County. The third grant is hard to read, and may be a duplicate of one of the others.)

There is also a surviving 1785 indenture of sale of land, in which a James Morrison bought 506 acres on Silver Creek from William Morrison Sen.

These two tracts of land, one of 200 acres and the other of 506 acres were adjoining and located on Silver Creek. Present day members of the Burke County Morrison family hold the belief that their original home site was on Silver Creek, and have a copy of the 200 acre land grant issued on December 31, 1778. 1 am confident that these properties belonged to James Morrison of the 1790 will and that they, at least in part, were involved in subsequent actions to execute the will’s provisions. By coincidence, before 1 knew most of the information included in this paper, 1 had noticed the coincident side of these two properties, and had combined the two land grant surveys to satisfy my curiosity about their being adjacent. The combined surveys are shown as an appendix to this paper (following the signature page).

Now, let us get back to James’ family, and possible other relationships with Morrison’s in his vicinity.

The first United States Census, taken in 1790, took place after James’ death. The census reveals three Morrison households in Burke County, all in the Morgan District, Sixth Militia Company. They were:

Eliza Morison             1 male under the age of 16, 6 females

William Morison Jr   1 male over 16 years, 4 females  

William Morrison      5 males over 16, 1 male under 16, 4 females

All three of these families relate to James.

The most important is that of Eliza Morison, James’ widow. The male under 16 is their son, Thomas. One of the six females is Eliza herself. The other five must be their daughters.

William Morison Jr is the William Morrison with whom James was granted 300 acres of land (200 acres as surveyed) on Silver Creek on December 31, 1778.  William Morrison Jr. left Burke County in 1796 and went to Sumner County, Tennessee. He later lived in Dickson County, Tennessee, where he died in 1835. He was a Revolutionary War soldier who received a pension, the petition for which identified his date of birth, residence until 1796 and where he settled in Tennessee. 1 believe William Morison Jr is James brother, and the son of William Morrison Sen., who is the subject of the following paragraph.

William Morrison in the 1790 census is James’ executor, identified in the will as William Morrison Sen. 1 believe he was also James’ father. He was the William Morrison Sen who sold 506 acres on Silver Creek to James in 1785. William Morrison Sen. lived on Muddy Creek, a few miles south of James.

In 1802, 200 acres of land were conveyed to Elizabeth Morrison by William Morrison Jun and James Morrison’s executors John McDowell and William Morrison Sen. The transaction was proven in Burke County Court at the July Session of 1802. By 1802, William Morrison Jun had been living in Tennessee six years. His role in the transaction of 1802 was performed in absentia by means of his power of attorney, Andrew Morrison. (1 believe that Andrew was one of William Jun’s – and James’ – younger brothers.) In 1817, Elizabeth testified to the Burke County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions that she had bought William Morrison’s portion of this land, and that she was then living on that property. This is the land for which the Burke County Morrison’s still have a land grant survey. 1 would surmise that James and William Junior farmed this land as partners (or divided it by mutual agreement) while James still lived, and that William Junior lived on it until he left for Tennessee, retaining legal ownership for his half interest and leaving the ownership of James’ half in the hands of his executors. The 1802 sale and conveyance put the entire tract in Elizabeth’s hands.

At that same July 1802 session of the Burke County Court, Elizabeth Morrison granted 200 acres to Samuel McCracken. Absent any other information, we must assume that Elizabeth was selling part of the 506 acre tract that plantation that James was living on at the time of his death. It seems clear from testimony in court that Elizabeth and her daughters were living from “hook to crook”, constantly in need of money.

Earlier, during the April 1801 Session of the Burke County Court, a deed for 200 acres of land dated January 8, 1801 from William Morrison, Elizabeth Morrison, and John McDowell to Archibald Brady was presented and proven in open court by John Morrison. (1 believe John Morrison was William Sen’s son, and thus another brother of James.) This was the 200 acres of James Morrison’s property that was to be laid off and conveyed to Brady by James’ executors. 1 suppose this was the land on the “upper end of … the plantation that 1 now live on … ” as provided in James’ will.

Except for the Samuel McCracken transaction, these land transfers seem to fulfill the real property provisions James’ will. They lead us to believe that James’ executors were following his directions faithfully. The future lawsuits question the management of James’ other assets by the executors. Luckily for us today, the lawsuits identify James’ children for us.

Before we get into that, let us devote a little time to Thomas. He is easy to track, having lived in Burke County all his life. He is found in the 1800 census living with his mother and three of his sisters. He is found in 1810, 1820, 1830, 1840, 1850, and 1860 as head of his own household. In 1850 he was living with James Morrison, age 40, who must have been a son. No wife is identified, indicating that Thomas was then a widower. Thomas and James are still in the same household in 1860.

What of the five daughters? We can track them, at least for a while, by examining Elizabeth in census rolls taken in 1800, 1810, and 1820. In each, Elizabeth lives in Burke County.

In 1800, there were three daughters still living with Elizabeth; the youngest is noted as less than 10 years of age, there was a second aged 10 to 15, and a third between 16 and 26. Since James died in 1790, the youngest child’s age is probably an error. She must have been born about 1789 or 1790. The middle was born between 1785 and 1790, and the eldest between 1774 and 1784. The absence of two daughters indicates they had probably married and left home by 1800.

In both 1810 and 1820, Elizabeth has two daughters living with her in her household. One ofthe three daughters present in 1800 had probably married and left home.

Elizabeth cannot be found in 1830, indicating that she has probably died (indeed, the North Carolina Supreme Court appeal gives a history ofthe case that shows when James’ executors died; Elizabeth is noted as having died in 1828). Nor are there two unmarried females living together with one of them a head of household. Have they married? Are they living in the household of a relative? Or have they moved away or died? Further examination of census statistics is necessary to identify them before 1850.

To learn more about the five daughters, we must turn to the lawsuits. There were two of them, similar in nature. The first was brought while Elizabeth was still alive. The second took place after her death.

The first lawsuit, which was brought by Thomas Hemphill and his wife, Sarah, and James Neill and his wife, Margaret, against the executors of the estate of James Morrison, dec’d, appears in records of the Superior Court of Burke County in 1817. The injured parties claimed that the executors had failed to deliver rightful proceeds from the estate to Sarah and Margaret, both legatees of James Morrison. Testimony in this lawsuit showed that the executors Elizabeth and William Morrison were blameless because the proceeds and the management of James’ estate were exclusively in the hands of John McDowell. This lawsuit was dismissed on a technicality in 1819, but the plaintiffs were allowed to appeal the decision. The appeal process continued until as late as 1826. By that time John McDowell had died, and his administrator Robert McElwrath had become the defendant in his stead. McElwrath claimed that he had no firsthand knowledge of the disposition of the estate, and he challenged the complainants to show proof that they had not received their fair share. It appears they were unable to do this.

The lawsuit has identified one of James daughters as Sarah, who married Thomas Hemphill. Another was Margaret, who married James Neill.

The plaintiffs in the second lawsuit were Mary and Rachel Morrison, and the charge was the same as in the earlier case, that the executors of James Morrison’s estate had not conveyed to the plaintiffs their fair share of the estate. This lawsuit eventually made its way to the North Carolina Supreme Court (where the case was known as “Morrison vs. McElwrath”), which decided in 1839 that it could not make a decision because almost 50 years had passed since James’ death and the people who were knowledgeable of the facts had died, thus depriving the court of the means for making a fair decision. However, depositions made in Burke County before the case was appealed to the state Supreme Court help us learn much more about the family.

Thomas Hemphill made deposition in the second case to the Superior Court of Burke County in 1831. The following facts about the family were revealed by his deposition:

Thomas Hemphill married Sarah Morrison in 1796.

The wife of Elijah Hall, Elizabeth, was another of the legatees.

James Neill married another of the legatees (Margaret, as was revealed in the first lawsuit).

James Morrison died in 1790.

James Morrison had five daughters and a son.

Rachel was about six months old and Mary was between 2 and 3 years old when James Morrison died.

 James Neill also made deposition, in which he testified that he married Margaret in February of 1804 or 1805.

A Thomas Morrison was also questioned about events pertinent to the case. The line of questioning and answers given indicate that Thomas was living in the same household as the plaintiffs at the time a robbery took place, implying that Thomas was their brother. He testified in March of 1833.

With this information, it is possible to summarize by naming all of the members of the of James Morrison’s family:


Elizabeth, James’ widow, was over 45 in 1800, so she was born before 1755.


Elizabeth,who married Elijah Hall.

Sarah, who married Thomas Hemphill in 1796

Margaret, who married James Neill in 1804 or 1805

Thomas, born in 1785

Mary, who was born in 1787 or 1788.

Rachel, who was probably born in 1789.

The census of 1850 shows that both Elijah and Elizabeth Hall were still alive. Elizabeth was 75, and thus was born in 1775.

The 1810 census shows that the wife of Thomas Hemphill was between 26 and 44 years of age. She was born between 1766 and 1784. Since Sarah and Thomas married in 1796, she was probably born between 1776 and 1781. Neither of the Hemphill’s was alive in 1850.

The 1810 census shows that the wife of James “Naill” was between 26 and 44, thus he was born between 1766 and 1784. Since they married in 1804 or 1805, Margaret was probably born between 1784 and 1791. James Neill was still alive in 1850, but his wife does not appear in the census, indicating that she had probably died.

The census of 1850 shows that Thomas was born about 1785.

The census of 1860 includes Mary and Rachel Morrison; Rachel is still present in the 1870 census.

To summarize again:

Elizabeth, born before l755, died 1828.

Elizabeth, born in 1775. Married Elijah Hall, still alive in 1850

Sarah, born between 1776 and 1781. Married Thomas Hemphill, dec’d by1850.

Margaret, born about 1784. Married James Neill, dec’d by 1850

Thomas, born about 1785, died between 1860 and 1870

Mary, born about 1787, died between 1860 and 1870

Rachel, born in 1789, died between 1870 and 1880

James, given the foregoing information, must have been born before 1755.

Thomas Morrison married Sarah Duckworth. They had four children, James, John Duckworth, Thomas, and Mary. Of the three, only John Duckworth married; his wife was Fannie Epley, and they had at least eight children, enumerated in 1860 as:

Thomas, born about 1840

Leander, born about 1842 (birth name James Leaner)

John, born about 1844

Wm J., born about 1846 (birth name William Jackson)

Sarah, born about 1848

L. A., born about 1850

Washington, born about 1852

M. A., born about 1857

Some of their descendants carry on the Morrison name in Burke County today.

A final note: there are two accounts about Morrison’s of Silver Creek in Burke County that are erroneous. Both allege that a William Morrison and Margaret Kennedy were parents of children named, in sequence,

Elizabeth, born February 14, 1775, who married Elijah Hall

Sarah, born September 20, 1778, married to — Hemphill)

Margaret, born March 20, 1781, married to James Neill

Thomas, born August 2, 1783, who married Sarah Duckworth

Mary, born June 20, 1786, who never married

Rachel, born September 11, 1789, who never married

It is impossible that there were two families of Morrison’s living in Burke County at the same time, who had children of the same names, born in the same sequence, and whose daughters married men with the same names. The testimony given in the two court cases cited in this family history makes it clear that these people were the children of James and Elizabeth Morrison, not William Morrison and Margaret Kennedy.

The information in the two accounts was attributed to “an old Bible.”  I do not dispute the  existence of the Bible.  I have never seen it.  I do dispute that the named children were those of William Morrison and Margaret Kennedy (whoever they were); the facts indicate the children were those of James and Elizabeth Morrison.


“Rowan County, NC – Wills – Abstracts of Campbell Wills (found on internet)
1781 – April 29.  “Whereas I, Daniel Campbell am now going on an expedition to South Carolina, as as my return may be uncertain, have thought proper to dispose of my worldly affairs in the following manner; that providing I should not survive the intended expedition, I bequeath to William Bones, tailor or said state and county the negro which I am to receive as bounty for the above mentioned tour, together with the black horse I now possess in consideration of which the said William is to discharge all the debts formerly contracted by me that are yet un-paid.  The rest of my property without exception I bequeath to the oldest daughter of James Morrison on Silver Creek in Burke County.  Signed in the presence of J. McCall Jr . . and James Bones Jr. . . . copy for Jo. McDowell  1781  Will Book B/21″
John McDowell of Burke County was one of James Morrison’s executors.  Is this the Jo. McDowell who was copied by direction of this will?


John A. Morrison
Lee’s Summit, Missouri
March 13, 2010

(Click on image twice to enlarge)

Burke Co Land Survey


About John A. Morrison

Born 11-21-1934 in Stephenville, Texas Married to Sue Ellen Davis in 1956 Three children, seven grandchildren Resident Lee's Summit, Missouri 25 years work on genealogy
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