“They had a small plantation outside of Alexandria…”
This could have been the beginning of a story told by our slender, frail grandmother to us kids as she sat in her worn, wicker rocker at the end of a summer day. We’d gather around her on the sand-tracked, knotty pine fl oor of the little three-room frame cottage she and Grandfather built with their own hands in 1910. Their weekend getaway close to the boardwalk and amusement park at Chesapeake Beach was paradise to us city kids who grew up in tenements and played on concrete sidewalks – life could not get any better than at Grandmother’s house. Decades of salt spray, beach sand and hurricanes left the once sturdy little cottage as weathered and slumped as the fragile woman who lived in it, but both had agreed it would last as long as she did. The willow tree my Dad planted as a cutting when he was a boy now dwarfed the house, waving its wispy branches as if to ward off anyone who would try and interrupt the tales being told inside.
Grandmother was a wonderful storyteller. The kerosene lamp on the table next to her chair cast a rosy glow on her pale, age-creased face as she slowly rocked back and forth. Her deep blue Irish eyes danced around the room, making sure we were listening. In her soft, almost singing voice, she began, “now, where were we? Oh, yes…” and the stories would come as though some magical tape recorder inside her started on command. Sometimes, she told about leprechauns, hobbits, and imaginary elves – never scary, almost believable. But our favorite stories were the ones she told of our ancestors and how they came to America in big ships, where they landed, what they did for a living, who married whom, how each of us was related to the other cousins, who we were named after, how people dressed at the time, who fought in what wars, where they went to church, and where they were buried.
Oh, how we loved to hear those stories about our ancestors. She would gently lift the leather-bound Bible from the steamer trunk that had carried her mother’s famine-weary possessions on the voyage from Donegal, Ireland in 1850. Gently peeling back the Celtic embroidered linen wrap, she reverently opened to the family pages, hand-written in scrawling ink of three generations of record keepers – her grandmother, her mother, and herself. Then, she would tell us again about the people whose names, births, deaths, and marriages were written there. At age ten, I did not realize my grandmother was the oral historian of our family. I was too young to appreciate the importance of her stories, and no one else bothered to write them down. When she passed away, the stories she recited from memory grew dimmer until they were like faded photographs without captions to identify the images in the pictures.
“They had a small plantation outside of Alexandria, and a townhouse in the city where they spent the winters…”
This was the beginning of the story told by Pauline Louise Mills Spahr, great-granddaughter of William Nelson Mills. If she hadn’t told this story to her children and grandchildren, we may never have found out about our earlier Mills ancestors who lived in Colonial Virginia long before Alexandria was a city. We believe family legends are actually oral histories passed down to younger generations, and they are almost always true. With this in mind, we set out to locate the “small plantation outside of Alexandria” and, if possible, discover the name of it and the names of the people who lived there.
We journeyed back 350 years in history to when Virginia lands along the Potomac River were first settled, before we declared ourselves independent and created our own form of government. Down dirt roads cleared for farm wagons we traced the footsteps of our elusive Mills ancestors to where they lived almost invisibly 8 among some of the most famous people in our early history. We pieced shreds of evidence we found of them together like a puzzle with pieces scattered in the attics of several old houses. We feel confident in saying Robert Mills and his son, William Mills, the two previously unknown ancestors, were responsible, respected citizens of their community. Had it proved otherwise, we would have been bound to include those details as well, especially since stories of rogue ancestors’ lives make for interesting reading.
The family legend of a small plantation outside of Alexandria is true. Our earliest proven Mills ancestor, Robert Mills, was a Planter who lived in Fairfax County to the north of the city of Alexandria. We know its exact location and size, but not its formal name. In fact, it may have not been known as anything other than, “the Mills Plantation.” Robert’s son, William, lived at Mills Plantation, as did his son, William Nelson Mills, until he began his professional life in Alexandria. This is new information, as we did not have records of William Nelson Mills prior to fi nding him in Alexandria in 1806 as an adult.
This book was a joint effort between my cousin, Peggy Brennan, and me. We both descend from William Nelson Mills – she from his eldest son, Reverend William Robert Mills, and I from his second son, Thomas M. Mills. We are full cousins; meaning, Peggy and I descend from the same ancestor, separated by the same number of generations. Peggy graciously shared her family keepsakes that were passed down to her through four generations. Among these priceless treasures were Rev. Mills’s family Bible records that gave us the names of William Nelson Mills’s parents, William and Charity Mills. We did not know this information when we compiled the previous volume (published in 1997). Perhaps the most significant document in Rev. William Robert Mills’s papers was the original parchment signed in 1698 that names William Waudon/Warden, the immigrant ancestor on the maternal side of the Mills family. From this parchment we learned that he was a “ Glover” (one who makes gloves) by trade, he was born in Elgin, Scotland, and he settled in Charles County, Maryland near Mattawoman Creek. As William Warden’s descendants, we are eligible to join the prestigious Colonial Dames of America based on the specifics in the parchment and genealogical proof contained in this book.
The Bible records and the parchment contained the clues we needed to discover the names of the two earlier generations presented in this book. Several irreplaceable artifacts in Peggy Brennan’s possession add enormous value to our genealogy, as they allow us to connect with our ancestors’ everyday lives. For example, the original certifi cate of the appointment of William Nelson Mills to the position of Justice of the Peace of Alexandria, Virginia in 1840, signed by President Martin Van Buren; a deed to property in Alexandria that was leased by Ann Leap Mills’s father, Jacob Leap, in 1795; two outstanding pieces of needlework that were stitched by Ann Leap Mills, wife of William Nelson Mills, in 1797 and 1801; and photographs of Rev. William Robert Mills, his wife, Sarah Stewart Oaks Mills, and two of their fi ve children, Anna Janet Mills Allen, born in 1845, and Albert Sargent Mills, born in 1858. Pictures and discussion of these artifacts and many more appear in the applicable chapters that follow.
This new edition has been made to correct errors in the volume, “ William Nelson Mills, 1783-1852, of Alexandria, Virginia,” published in 1997, and to add new information about his life. A separate chapter is dedicated to William Warden 1675-1735 of Elgin, Scotland, our maternal Mills ancestor. Two earlier generations: Robert Mills, 1695-1770 c.; and his son, William Mills (1737/8-1815), both of Fairfax County, Virginia are included. The genealogy of Reverend William Robert Mills (1816-1869), eldest son of William Nelson Mills is also included. We did not know about Rev. Mills when we published the first book because he was traveling a circuit in central Pennsylvania as an itinerant Methodist minister. We are pleased to include his long and illustrative career in a separate chapter under his name.
Mills is a common surname in colonial records; however, we did not positively identify our own immigrant Mills ancestor. From the earliest days, there were people named Mills in New England, Maryland, Virginia, and other colonies in the South. Looking at the records, we found that some were indentured servants who 9 received a grant of land after serving a specified term, usually seven years, for the person who paid his transportation to the colonies. Others served as apprentices. Following are examples of immigrants who could have been our immigrant ancestor: 1) William Mills who apprenticed to Francis Jones, a cooper, for two years from 30 June 1663 to 30 June 1665 in Surry County, VA; 2) In 1639, a William Mills was serving as a “Viewer of Tobacco” in Surry County, a rather prestigious position at the time; 3) In 1665, William Mills immigrated to Anne Arundel County in MD; and 4) William Mills, servant, was transported in 1668 (destination not stated). Servant? Apprentice? Planter? Convict? We leave the answer to your imagination.
Many records, including will and deed books, were destroyed during the Civil War as both Union and Confederate troops marched through the areas in Virginia where our Mills ancestors lived. Even churches were not spared. Their irreplaceable records of marriages, baptisms, and funerals were burned along with courthouses and businesses. Absence of these records forced us to use unofficial documents such as land records in hopes of discovering family connections from maps that survived. In instances where records were no longer available, we have used accepted genealogical proof standards to support our conclusions in this work.
Genealogy software has made it possible for millions of people to post their family information on the internet for other researchers to explore. We found Peggy Brennan through data posted by her son, Kevin Brennan, to the world wide genealogy data base. Our common ancestor, William Nelson Mills, proved to be the link that led us to the two earlier Mills ancestors, and to the Warden family line we proudly present in this volume. We encourage each of you to preserve your own family artifacts, and to write your own histories for your children and grandchildren. In summary, this work is intended to be a legacy for our children and the generations to come. We hope their lives will be enriched by knowing about our ancestors and their contributions to their communities. May this be the story that is told again and again.