Our branch of the Harper family descends from immigrants from England who were farming the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia not long after that region was first settled by Europeans in the 1620s. In subsequent generations the family moved north, into the counties of Somerset and Dorchester in Maryland, where it became quite numerous. Around the time of the Revolution, one branch of this family rose to relative wealth and prominence in Dorchester County, acquiring slaves and land in an inland region known as the Fork District, along the Delaware state line east of the Marshyhope Creek. But in the early 1800s, this family dissipated its wealth, apparently through some combination of bad investments, madness, alcoholism, lawsuits, and internal squabbles over slavery. The children of one of the principal heirs left the Eastern Shore in the 1830s, moving briefly to Ohio. From there, one son spread a trail of descendants that, today, reaches as far as California. Another descendant settled in Chester County, Pa., where he founded a branch of the clan that, if it has not flourished, has survived to this day by intermarrying with established Quaker and German families which have lived there since the days of William Penn.
For two centuries the history of the Harpers was set on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and along the wide, shallow rivers that feed it. The lower Eastern Shore is a flat land of sandy soil and cypress and many swamps. The highest elevation is barely 50 feet above sea level. Seagulls and the smell of brine pervade the entire landscape. The author of "The Entailed Hat," a late 19th century historical novel set on the Eastern Shore, described the land around the Fork District as a place where “the monotonous sand pines, too low to moan, too thick to expand, too dry to give shade, yet grew and grew, like poor folks' sandy-headed children, and kept company only with some scrubby oaks that had strayed that way, till pine-cone and acorn seemed to have bred upon each other, and the wild hogs disdained the progeny.” The book is precise as a map in its details of geography, and in one passage the author tells of a cat-boat sailing from Manokin Landing through Kedge’s Strait, “up the open bay out of sight of the Somerset shore, and entered the Nanticoke towards night by way of Harper’s Strait.”
The Harper plantation of the 17th and 18th centuries probably grew a variety of crops, but they principally would have been concerned with subsistence agriculture, with only a little tobacco or wheat grown for sale. The work on these farms apparently was done at first by family, apprentice youths from nearby farms, and indentured servants. Slavery came later.
FRANCIS HARPER-ELIZABETH BENSON
The name of Harper is a common one in England. A clue to the family origin may lie in the names given to the first Harper plantations in Maryland, which included "Norfolk" and "Beccles" (a seaside village in Suffolk, on the border of Norfolk).
An Edward Harper may have been the immigrant. He bought 150 acres in Northampton County, Va., in 1660 and died there about 1669. He had a grown son, Francis Harper (b.1628, perhaps in England, but he was in Northampton by 1655) who had married a woman named Elizabeth (b.1638), whose maiden name was perhaps Benson, Denson, or Benstone. My guess is that it is the name that has generally come down as Denstone, which is attested early in Norfolk (Hemfrey de Denarston, 1275) and Essex (1453), and is traced to the place Denston, in Suffolk. Francis and Elizabeth’s children included a son, Edward Harper, and perhaps also daughters Anna Catharina Harper and Mary Harper (b.1667).
Francis Harper died in Northampton, probably in 1673, and Elizabeth then remarried to Francis’ brother, William Harper (b. 1627?). The marriage probably followed Francis’ death by no more than a year (William and Elizabeth appear as husband and wife in the sale of 100 acres in Northampton in 1675). Such a rapid remarriage to a relative of a dead husband was common practice on the Eastern Shore in those days, and it will turn up again in this genealogy. It kept family inheritances intact and provided some continuity for children in a climate where people often died in their 30s.
William Harper bought and sold land in Northampton between 1633 and 1675 (including a 50-acre parcel known as “Harper’s Field”). He also may have owned land in Maryland at an early year: “Middle Plantation,” 175 acres had been surveyed for him on May 12, 1663, on the north side of the Pocomoke River and Dividing Creek in Pocomoke Hundred in the Dublin District of Somerset County, Md. William apparently held a civic post in Somerset County in 1674, and he was appointed overseer of roads in Pocomoke on March 11, 1675.
The likeliest sequence of events, which can be reconstructed from the deeds, is that Francis died in 1673, Elizabeth married William in 1674 and moved with him to Middle Plantation, William’s land in Maryland, taking her son with her. Over the next five years they sold off William’s land in Virginia, along with Elizabeth's inherited lands there, and claimed additional land in Maryland as immigrants to the colony.
William, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s son (Edward Harper) did not put in a formal land claim as residents of Maryland colony until 1677. In Maryland colonial records, this land grant is listed under Sept. 4, 1677: “William Harper, having proved his rights to 250 acres of land for transporting himself, Elizabeth, his wife, Edward, his son, Thomas Goodson and Tho. Cole into this province to inhabit, appeared before me, William Stevens, Sept. 25, 1677, warrant then granted to William Harper of Somerset County for the 250 acres of land due as above.”
Harper's land grant was in the Dublin District (Pocomoke Hundred) of Somerset County. The grant of land was in keeping with Maryland’s settlement policy. After 1641, Lord Baltimore, proprietor of the colony, was granting 50 acres to each freeman who came to Maryland to “inhabit and plant,” and another 50 acres for a wife and for each child or servant (Goodson and Cole were presumably indentured servants William brought from Virginia). The land was given for free, in exchange for a low annual rent. In the 1660s, Maryland's proprietors were especially eager to settle the northeast section of Somerset County. In July 1666, the governor issued a proclamation authorizing the commissioners for the Eastern Shore to issue warrants for land on “the seaboard side” to those who wished to settle there. In 1670, William Stevens and James Weedon were appointed deputies for granting lands on the seaboard side. The objective of this movement was principally the establishment of settlements in the northeastern section of the Old Somerset area, which at the dates given included what is now the lower part of Sussex County, Del. Presumably the Maryland officials were looking to bolster their claims to this region against the Dutch of Delaware. By 1672, many warrants had been issued for lands in this section and a county by the name of Worcester had been proposed.
William Harper soon began adding land to his original grant. The 200-acre “Beckles” was patented on the southwest side of Dividing Creek in Pocomoke Hundred on June 1, 1679—perhaps this was the same as the grant property in Stevens’ warrant; two years would not have been an unreasonable delay. “Norfolke,” also in the Dublin District, was surveyed for him on June 11, 1679. It covered 500 acres. A 200-acre parcel in Dublin, "Harper's Discovery," was laid out on March 21, 1680. William sold part of this land in 1687 to William and Elizabeth Denson. He sold another 100 acres of it the same year to William Warwick. A third plantation, “Harper’s Encrease,” was laid out on 100 acres on Oct. 1, 1683, and sold to Denson and Warwick at the same time as the sale of “Harper’s Discovery.”
William Harper died before December 1702, the month his will was probated. His wife inherited his remaining lands: Norfolke and Middle Plantation. She died in April 1709 in Somerset County. Elizabeth’s maiden name is not given in any records, but her will mentions a sister-in-law, Ann Benstone, and it is witnessed by a John Benson. Ann Roberts and George Benson were married in Pocomoke Hundred on May 1, 1682, and George Benson testified to William Harper’s will. It is possible, then, that Elizabeth Harper's maiden name was Benson or Benstone. The “Denson” name that turns up in William Harper’s land transactions in the 1680s may have been the same family, given the spelling habits of those times.
Edward Harper was William and Elizabeth’s only heir, since if they had children together they died young. He probably was born in Northampton County, Va., around 1660. He inherited his father’s 150 acres in Virginia, and with his mother, sold it in 1679. Records relating to Edward indicate that he married twice. The first marriage, on April 4 or May 13, 1682, was to a 16-year-old girl named Lydia Hudson. The wedding was officiated by David Richardson, minister. Lydia apparently died sometime between 1696 and 1707, and Edward then remarried to her younger sister, Sarah.
Lydia and Sarah were the only daughters among eight children of Henry Huttson and Lydia (Smith) Huttson, who lived in Mormumsco settlement in Somerset County. “Henry Huttson, gent.” immigrated to Maryland before 1662 with his wife, Mary (who may have died soon after, if this is the same Henry Huttson). If so, he probably came to Maryland from Virginia colony, as the Harpers had. Henry was the son of Richard Huttson of Staffordshire, England, who moved to Northampton County, Va., some time before Henry's birth there, in the Hungars Creek settlement, in 1642. Henry’s sons owned land on the seaboard side of the peninsula, and Henry's will mentions a single tract of 400 acres as well as three other plantations.
Edward Harper inherited lands from his step-father in Pocomoke Hundred, Somerset, and he expanded the family holdings in the Dublin District. He also bought land in Dorchester County, north of Somerset, which was just then beginning to open up to European settlement. Land on the North Branch (Marshyhope) of the Nanticoke River was surveyed for Edward in April 1714. In his will, Edward refers to this tract as a “plantation,” though it is unclear whether this means he had cleared the land and erected a house on it. Nonetheless, this property was to become the seat of this branch of the family for the next several generations. It was near a crossing of the Marshyhope known in the 19th century as Crotcher’s Ferry but now called Eldorado. Galeston, where the Harpers also owned property, was a few miles to the southeast, and Vienna, where they no doubt did business, was downriver on the Nanticoke.
Edward died in June 1716 in Somerset County. His second wife outlived him, but the date of her death is not known. Of Edward’s two wives, the first, Lydia, is listed on the birth records as the mother of all of Edward’s known sons.
Edward Harper had eight children: William Harper (1683-1745); Francis Harper (1686-1766); Henry Harper (b. Jan. 6, 1688); Edward Harper Jr. (1691-1759); Richard Harper (1693-1735); John Harper (1696-1734); Elizabeth Harper; and Mary Harper. Richard lived in Accomac County. John inherited Norfolke after Elizabeth Harper’s death in 1707. He apparently split the land between his two sons when he died in 1734.
WILLIAM HARPER Jr.
William was Edward’s oldest child, born July 4, 1683, in Dorchester County. William married Margaret Turpin some time before 1732, apparently in Dorchester County. She probably was much younger than he, since he was past 50 when he began his family. William and Margaret had at least two sons; Beauchampe Harper continues this line. His brother was William Turpin Harper, who apparently served in the Revolution and was called “Captain Harper.” He probably was dead by 1788, but he had at least one son, Thomas Harper (who was involved in a transaction with his uncle Beauchampe in 1788), and a daughter, Elizabeth Harper, who was born July 20, 1765, and married Asa Peabody.
William and Margaret also apparently had a daughter, Margaret Harper, but she isn't mentioned in William's will. This may be because she married William Bartlett and with him joined the Nicholite sect, a radical pseudo-Quaker movement then flourishing on the Eastern Shore.
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