American ancestors of Alice Vernon Wilson

Alice Vernon Wilson (1860-1940)

The story of where Alice Vernon Wilson came from is really the story of her mother, Mary Jane Mathews, whose ancestry is about three-quarters German, the rest being English and Scots-Irish.

In contrast, we have zero background on her father, the New Orleans cotton broker Hugh Wilson, not even the names of his parents or how they came to be in this country. All we know is that he was born in Baltimore in 1806, with a name so popular that I can’t be sure of finding the right person in the records. I’d bet good money, though, that he was Scots-Irish. I also suspect he’s connected in some way to Alice’s great-great grandfather, the Baltimore merchant William Wilson, but haven’t found the link.

Alice’s English ancestors got here first, as early as 1619, stopping briefly in Virginia before moving up the Chesapeake to Maryland, where they were among the very first settlers in Baltimore and Annapolis. They owned – all too briefly for the sake of us descendants! – much of the land on which those two cities were built. Fleeing the English Civil War, these ancestors were mostly educated royalists who came to the colonies for political reasons but also for a little economic elbow room. Some became large landholders and tobacco planters. Some also became Quakers. Among their names were ARUNDEL, COLE, DIXON, GORSUCH, and LOVELACE.

Next on our immigrant list is a lone German family headed by Detmar and Catherine Sternberg, from Westphalia, who arrived in 1658. Genealogical rumors describe Detmar as a count descended from William of Orange, but in fact he seems to have come to Baltimore as an indentured servant. The family made enough money growing tobacco that the second generation was able to acquire land and eventually ended up wealthy. Over the course of several generations their surname was anglicized to STANSBURY.

Then came the Philadelphia Quakers and other religious seekers, beginning in the 1690s. These were mostly German and Huguenot ancestors persuaded by charismatic leaders to leave home and build a life of religious freedom overseas. Some came with the Quaker William Penn, others under the aegis of the Lutheran Pietist and lawyer Daniel Pastorius, the founder of Germantown. One may have come with a Seventh Day Adventist named Johannes Kelpius, a Pietist freethinker and alchemist who advocated quiet meditation in caves. Key names in this branch of the family are ARMITAGE, BOEKRS, LEVERING, RIGHTER, and SCHUMACHER.

Alice Wilson’s third wave of German ancestors arrived in the 1730s. They were farmers and millers, devout Lutherans, and refugees from the Rhineland, which was still devastated by the effects of the Thirty Years War a century earlier. Some had already moved to Alsace and emigrated from there. This wave landed in Philadelphia, headed west to Conestoga, Pennsylvania, and then migrated south to the Monocacy Valley of western Maryland, where a large German settlement was growing. Even though they were our newest arrivals, this group sent more sons to fight in the American Revolution than anyone else in our family tree, by far. Their names were AMBROSE, JUNG, MATHEWS, SPIES, WELLER, and WILHEIT.

Last came the merchant William WILSON, the son of a Scotsman who first moved to London, then raised his family in Limerick, Ireland. Wilson came to Baltimore from Limerick in 1770, in time to watch the Revolution fire up and to profit from the strategic importance of his chosen port. Wilson’s import-export business made him one of the wealthiest men in the colonies, and his shipping firm and its descendants were key to uniting the diverse immigrant strands that made up Alice Wilson’s family.

From these diverse strands I’ve chosen ten key families and, in the following pages, trace their descent down to the recent past. Most of the stories begin at the date of their immigration to the New World. But in a few cases – especially the English royalists – their most compelling stories happened on the other side of the ocean, and so I begin there.


1. English Royalists (arrived 1619-1651)
The Cole Family
The Lovelace/Gorsuch Families
The Arundels
2. German Adventurers (arrived 1658)
The Stansbury Family
3. Philadelphia Quakers & Pietists (arrived 1682-1694)
A Study in Time: 21 Generations of Armitages
The Levering Family
The Righter Family
4. German Farmers of the Monocacy (arrived 1732-1743)
The Ambrose Family
The Mathews Family
5. Baltimore Merchants (arrived 1770)
The Wilson Family