Mar 14, 2020

The Hunt for Robert Morrison’s Birthplace

History The Scroll - Articles
The Hunt for Robert Morrison’s Birthplace

By Rob Langley, Washington & Jefferson ’74          

Nobody knows where Robert Morrison was born. Really? Nobody knows?

Over forty years ago, I pledged Phi Delta Theta and became a member of the Pennsylvania Gamma Chapter at Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania. As a new member, I read Morrison was born in Greene County just south of the college. I asked where: Is there a sign? A plaque? Is the building still there? No one seems to know the answer.


Since Pennsylvania Gamma is the closest chapter, and the oldest chapter in continuous existence in Pennsylvania, I felt it was our duty to find out where he was born.

I emailed General Headquarters in Oxford and asked if anyone had ever pin-pointed Morrison’s birth site. Executive Vice President and CEO Bob Biggs was excited when I explained my interest. He sent me what they did have, Brother Morrison’s autobiography published in The Scroll in the late 1800s. I discovered Greene Township in Greene County, Pennsylvania was where he was born.

According to his autobiography: “Robert Morrison, my grandfather, was of Scots-Irish parentage. He was born in County Derry, Ireland … In 1765, when Robert was sixteen years old, with brothers older than himself, he came to America and settled in Delaware.

After the Revolutionary War, in which Robert had served with the ‘blue hen chickens,’ as soldiers from Delaware were called, he and his wife with two little children go west. General George Washington asked him to take his tract of 600 acres in the northwestern part of Fayette County, Pennsylvania, lying on the Youghiogheny River. He went and looked at the land, but thought it too much exposed to incursions from the Indians, and continued his journey about fifty miles southwest into Greene County …”

From this account, General Headquarters learns much about Morrison’s grandfather, but still no mention of Founder Morrison’s official birth site.

Greene County is in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania and was part of Washington County up until 1790 give or take. Parts of Greene County were also parts of Westmoreland County. To add to the confusion, the state of Virginia also claimed this area to be part of Virginia, not Pennsylvania in the late 1700s. But it was a start.

Area of search.

The Search

The Washington County Courthouse and the recorder of deeds office politely thought I was nuts when I inquired about early Greene County land records stored there. Greene County land records were in Greene County, I was told. I explained an attorney had told me early records, prior to 1790, were probably in Washington, Pennsylvania. I was welcome to look, they said, but they suggested that I drive south to Waynesburg and search Greene County’s courthouse. After having no luck in Washington County, I headed south.

The Greene County Courthouse staff were very helpful as I was a rookie at searching land records. I knew that Revolutionary War soldier Robert Morrison bought more than 200 acres known as McClungs’s Thicket in 1786 as reported in an 1896 issue of The Scroll, by Robert Morrison; “My grandfather bought out the McClung’s, who took their slaves and went to Kentucky, as Pennsylvania had in 1780 passed an ordinance of gradual emancipation.”

On those 200 plus acres and other property they purchased, Grandfather Robert Morrison and his wife, Elizabeth Culbert raised their ten children. Their oldest son, Thomas, was born in 1791. Thomas married Mary Jennings in December 1820, and for the price of $7.00, bought 20.75 acres of land from his father in June of 1821. The following March 15, 1822, their son, Robert Morrison, was born.

The basis for our Founders Day was established.

The question became, “Where in the county are Grandfather Morrison’s 200 and some acres? Where are the additional land parcels he purchased and sold, and where are the 20.75 acres son Thomas bought in 1821?” Did son buy some of grandfather’s original 200 acres, or were they from a separate parcel grandfather had purchased?

Danny Gillette, Washington & Jefferson ’79, and I took a road trip to the Greene County Historical Society and Museum where we met Executive Director Ebenezer Williams-Karrick. Eben was very helpful in our search providing us a survey of McClung’s Thicket, the property purchased by Grandfather Robert Morrison. But where is it? The survey was helpful but didn’t contain the references to show where it was actually located!

While visiting the museum, we were fortunate to run into Mr. Thomas Headlee, a generous contributor to the Historical Society and the Museum. Mr. Headlee is a lifelong resident of Greene County, his family owning a lumber mill there dating back to the early 1900s. Even more fortuitous, he is Greene County’s retired recorder of deeds, having served in that post for nearly four decades.

The four of us were the only patrons in the museum building that day, and Mr. Headlee was generous with his time and his stories of growing up in the county. He offered to “show us around the courthouse” to pinpoint the land the Morrisons occupied nearly two hundred years ago, if he could. Danny and I jumped at the chance and got his number so we could meet during a weekday at the recorder’s office.

I’m a mortgage banker by profession, and Danny Gillette is a longtime realtor, but neither one of us are wizards at looking up historical land records, especially in a county courthouse neither one of us had been in before. Boy did Mr. Headlee open doors for us!

Meeting Mr. Headlee was lucky, indeed!

He took us into the basement looking for ancient maps and plot maps in locked rooms not available to the public. We searched the deed books and tried to determine where this parcel was located. Mr. Headlee explained that a good portion of the county lands were merged together and became state game lands in the first half of the twentieth century. Individual parcel references would be tougher to track down if this were the case.

Our morning with Mr. Headlee was well worth our time. We were able to find a copy of Grandfather Morrison’s deed showing his 221-acre purchase on July 18, 1786 (the deed shows it was Washington County then). We were also able to track down a copy of his son Thomas Morrison’s purchase of 21.75 acres from his father. But we still were unable to pinpoint geographically Grandfather Morrison’s original homestead, or the parcel he sold to son Thomas, thirty-five years later in 1821.

About eight months later, I contacted Brad Mellor, Washington & Jefferson ’85, an attorney and resident of Greene County. Brad became interested in our project. He had worked for a law firm which dealt with the Marcellus oil and gas industry. They had several land title searchers familiar with the county and could likely help with what we were trying to track down.

At a reduced rate, they would be able to really search the original site grandfather purchased (the original survey) and hopefully the 20.75 acres his son Thomas bought off of it. This isn’t all that easy since the deed’s legal description starts off with: “Beginning at a chestnut oak thence by land of the said Robert Morrison, North eighty-four degrees, West forty-two perches to a post…” From this cryptic and old-fashioned description, they were then able to put together title references and a plot map showing Grandfather Morrison’s original 221 acres and the 21.75 acres grandfather sold to his son Thomas the year before our Robert Morrison was born March 15, 1822.

Our problem now was the maps provided didn’t give us any reference points to know where the land was in Greene County.

Brother Mellor mailed inquiries to three probable property owners with no response. Letters from unknown law firms probably were not well received by the landowners. The oil and gas development in the area probably filled up their mailboxes as all kinds of people proposed all kinds of schemes.

It was time for another road trip.

The Search Continued, visit 2

In November 2019 it was time for a road trip! Dan Gillette and I met with Chris Brussalis, president of the Fraternity’s General Council, and headed to Greene County for the afternoon. On the way there, we filled Chris in on what we knew and what was still missing. We had a good idea where Grandfather Morrison’s 221 acres were, but hadn’t the proof, nor had we truly scouted out the area.

Late afternoon, driving along the road, we spotted a name and street number to which attorney Brad Mellor had sent letters. The owner was in the driveway! We stopped, introduced ourselves, and explained our mission. The owner thought our mission was terrific and began telling stories about the area. His uncle still lived next door, and had for many years, and suggested that if we came back in the daylight, we could walk the grounds.

We thanked the owner for his help and had to head back to Pittsburgh as the sun had already set.

General Council President Chris Brussalis with Brother Rob Langley

Search Continued, Visit 3

Just last week, the day after Pittsburgh Alumni Club’s 2020 Founders Day, Brother Brussalis and I journeyed again to the birth site of Founder Morrison. As we drove the remote drive, along Laurel Creek, to get to the 200-acre lot, we were fortunate to come across the sister to the landowner. When we explained our intent, she was excited to be part of this story’s telling and helped by snapping the photo above. (Her brother had told her about the Fraternity’s interest in the land, and she also offered to help by sending even more photos of the property.)

Because the 21-acre lot sold to Thomas was actually across the ridge from this original 200 acres and belonged to a different landowner we had yet to meet, we had to leave an earnest walk of the exact acreage for another day. So, sometime soon, we hope to connect with this landowner, explain our interest, and finish this meaningful hunt for clues or remnants of the Morrison homestead.

2022: 200 years since Morrison’s birth

After arriving home, President Brussalis was able to speak with a township official to explore ways to commemorate this hallowed ground in memory of Robert Morrison and the birthplace of our founding Phi. Leading to the next big question, how might we appropriately commemorate this site in time to celebrate Founder Morrison’s 200th birthday in 2022?

Help Us Share Phi Delt News and Stories

Our team works hard to bring you the best news and stories from the Phi Delt community, but we also need your input. Whether you’re looking to share news, nominate a fellow Phi for our Pursuit of Greatness series, or contribute content, we’re all ears.

Become a Contributor

Share news and stories you think your fellow Phi Delts would find interesting and useful, or collaborate with us as a guest writer to share your insights and perspective about a certain topic.

Nominate a Phi Delt

Know a Phi Delt who is doing extraordinary things? Nominate him for for a chance to be featured in our Pursuit of Greatness campaign.