“Chew and Wilcocks” are familiar names to many researchers of early southwestern Pennsylvania land ownership records, and for good reason. Together, Benjamin Chew Sr. and Alexander Wilcocks owned 43 tracts totaling nearly 12,000 acres in Somerset and Fayette Counties in the late 1700s.
As residents of Philadelphia, Chew and Wilcocks were absentee owners, and in fact may never have actually laid eyes on the lands they owned. Chew (1722-1810) was active and influential in state politics and, in addition to serving as Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, was the attorney for the Penn family. A silhouette portrait of Chew, at age 70, is seen here. Wilcocks (1741-1801) was Chew’s son-in-law, law partner, judge and recorder of deeds in Philadelphia.
Chew and Wilcocks jointly obtained their lands from the Penns through patents during the American Revolution, when the Penns’ ownership rights, granted by British royal charter, became null and void. Patents are legal instruments by which states grant public lands to individuals.
The partners received a detailed description of each tract in a document compiled by Henry Rhodes dated March 21, 1777.
Chew and Wilcocks held their Somerset/Fayette tracts for about 14 years, until November 1790, when they divided their holdings. Chew received 5,947 acres and Wilcocks secured 6,011 acres. Wilcocks died 11 years later, in 1801, and his land was inherited by his children: Benjamin Chew Wilcocks, Elizabeth Wilcocks, Samuel Wilcocks, Ann Wilcocks (wife of attorney Joseph Reed Ingersoll) and Mary Wilcocks (wife of lawyer Charles Jared Ingersoll). These parcels remained in the possession of the Wilcocks heirs for several decades.
Many of the tracts had fancy names, such as Death of the Fawn, White’s Little Mill Seat, and Hunting Lot, and were often rented to farmers for cultivation. Hunting Lot contained 318 acres and was located in what is now locally called Hexebarger in Upper Turkeyfoot Township, near the Old Bethel Church. Chew admired Hunting Lot and once wrote about its “excellent upland-meadow.” This is the tract that was sold to the Minerds.
Tax records suggest that Minerd may have rented Hunting Lot as early as 1829. The acquisition enlarged his farm to 500 acres, and it played an important role in the Minerd family’s growth and development. Four generations lived there between 1837 and 1867, when it was sold out of the family. Minerd and his wife Catherine Younkin raised nine children there, and four sons -- John Minerd, Henry Minerd, Jacob Minerd III and Charles Minerd -- bought portions after their father’s death. In 1851, at the heyday of the Minerds’ habitation of the farm, about 35 family members lived in various dwellings within its borders.
How Minerd, an unlettered farmer, came into contact with the faraway Wilcocks heirs is not known, though probably was done through an intermediary. As absentee owners, Chew and Wilcocks utilized agents to handle day-to-day administration of the properties. One of Chew’s agents was Abraham Morrison, a Somerset attorney called “the patriarch of the Somerset County bar.” Morrison lived across the street from the courthouse and in his career served as the first county commissioners’ clerk, county treasurer, prothonotary and clerk of courts, register of wills, and register of deeds.
Morrison kept in touch with Chew by writing letters containing details of developments and asking opinions of certain matters. Several of these letters survive in the collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. The author reviewed these letters in 1987 while in Philadelphia researching Minerd property records.
One letter was penned from Somerset on Feb. 13, 1808, and contains nuggets of information of interest to genealogists, historical researchers, and archeologists. In it, Morrison summarized leases with Jacob Streight, Peter Kendle, Mr. Shunk, Frederick Zufalt, Jacob Neffe, George Arnold, Joseph Mattick, John Lighty, and Daniel Miller. Morrison also mentioned the names Shapthat Dwire, William Tissue, Mr. Ringer, Mr. Wood, Mr. Biggs and Adam Faidley.
The letters describe specific terms and conditions of the leases, which required labor from the renters in return for low rates. For instance, Jacob Neffe rented a tract called “Turkey Bottom” for a three-year term, for the annual sum of one penny. In return, Neffe agreed to build a barn and stable measuring 20 by 24 feet, plant 30 apple trees, make all the outside fences “good and sufficient,” and pay all taxes.
Morrison may have been frustrated in trying to stay fully abreast of the status of all the properties. He once wrote to Chew: “As I have not had full power to sell your land. I have not informed myself of the value of the respective tracts, nor indeed is it easy to get such information without a personal examination of them.”
The 1830s, during when the Minerds made their purchasing decision, were an era of change and uncertainty. As President Andrew Jackson toppled the national banking empire, the economy became increasingly "speculative and unsound," wrote historian Arthur Schlesinger wrote. "Crop failures in 1835 toppled the first domino. Farmers could not pay merchants and speculators, who in turn could not pay banks."
By 1837, according to Digby Baltzell's book, Philadelphia Gentlemen, a financial panic ensued when Americans embarked on "an era of 'wild cat'" spending. One of the sellers of the Minerd farm, Charles Jared Ingersoll (seen at left), was a prominent former U.S. congressman and district attorney in Philadelphia. He was running for office during an economic depression, and needed cash, and may have sold the land to help raise badly needed funds.
What were the Wilcocks heirs like as people? Charles Jared Ingersoll's son-in-law, Sidney George Fisher Sr., wrote an extensive and insightful diary that was published by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in 1967, under the title, A Philadelphia Perspective. His narrative included the following:
Among Chew’s land records in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania are:
These documents show that Chew and Wilcocks played important roles in developing the largely uncultivated lands of Somerset and Fayette Counties. With the help of on-the-scene agents, these influential Philadelphians touched the lives of any common farming families.
~ Bibliography ~
Biographical Encyclopedia of Pennsylvania of the Nineteenth Century, Philadelphia: Galaxy Publishing Company, 1874.
Chew, Benjamin A. A Particular Description of the Situation, Quality and present Value of the Several Tracts of Land Taken Up and Patented in My Own and Alex. Wilcocks’ Names. March 21, 1777. Manuscript. Chew Family Papers, Box 277, Manuscripts and Archives Library, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
Names and Quantities of Tracts. Nov. 11, 1790. Manuscript. Chew Family Papers, Box 277, Manuscripts and Archives Library, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
Deed. Benjamin Wilcocks, et al. to Jacob Minerd and John Minerd, April 10, 1837. Book 44, Page 242, County of Somerset, Pa.
Fisher, Sidney George. A Philadelphia Perspective. Philadelphia: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1967.
Jordan, John W., ed. Colonial and Revolutionary Families of Pennsylvania, Vol. I: Genealogical and Personal Memoirs, New York: The Lewis Publishing Co., 1911.
Meigs, William M. The Life of Charles Jared Ingersoll. Philadelphia: J.D. Lippincott Company, 1897.
Morrison, Abraham, Letter to Benjamin Chew, Sr., Feb. 13 1808. Chew Family Papers, Box 277, Manuscripts and Archives Library, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
Twentieth Century Bench and Bar of Pennsylvania, Vol. II. Chicago: H.C. Cooper, Jr., Bro. & Co. 1903.
U.S. Congress, House. Biographical Dictionary of American Congress, 1774-1927. 69th Cong., 2nd sess. H. Rept. 783. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1928.