The Mystery of the Sawhills of Pennsylvania

By Joanne Sawhill Griffin and Andrew McIlvaine

This article was published in the April 2019 edition of Soul Search, the Journal of The Sole Society

Everyone loves a mystery!
The mystery of the origins of the Sawhills of Washington County, Pennsylvania has been vexing family researchers for generations. According to family history, all Sawhills in America are descended from Alexander Sawhill (1777-1837).
The mystery is this: the name Sawhill is a made-up name taken in America by Alexander and his siblings, and there is no record of the original name! Now, with the aid of YDNA testing and an increasing availability of online records, the mystery may finally be solved.
Alexander was buried in the South Buffalo Presbyterian Churchyard near Claysville, Pennsylvania. His gravestone, along with that of his wife, Mary Neely Sawhill, is still clearly legible: In Memory of Alexander Sawhill, who departed this life Sep. 19, 1837 aged 60 years.
Several generations of his descendants are buried nearby. Since Alexander and Mary had 12 children (seven sons and five daughters), all of whom reached maturity, there are thousands of Sawhill descendants scattered across the United States. At the time of his death, one of his possessions was a loom, indicating that he may have been a weaver by trade. Perhaps this is a clue that may aid in the search for his roots.
According to family history compiled in the mid-20th century:
Tradition states that the strong Irish brogue of these early Sawhills made his (original) name very difficult to understand by the tax commissioners (of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania). Alexander Sawhill and his siblings, William and Isabella, became so provoked at the frequent misspelling and mispronouncing of the original name that Alexander decided to make it so simple that no one would mistake it for anything else. There is no record of a legal name change.
There are no records yet found either in the United States, or in the United Kingdom, which indicate from where Alexander, William, and Isabella Sawhill came, or when they arrived in Pennsylvania, and a few records of them after their arrival, presumably in the mid to late 1790s.
A recent search of the archives of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania of all possible variations of any name which could have become Sawhill yielded a single most likely record: the grant of citizenship to a John M Saul from England dated February 22 1798. This is the only reasonable possible connection found in any immigration or naturalization record on the east coast of the United States from the mid-1700s and is the basis on which we have been pursuing a connection with the Saul families of Ireland and England.

Part of the naturalisation petition of Alexander Sawhill

According to the family bible mentioned in the Sawhill family history, Alexander married Mary Neely September 28, 1798 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Property tax records in Bart Township and Sadsbury Township, both in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania just west of Philadelphia from 1799 – 1802 show Alexander and William Sawhill (with a variety of spellings). In addition, the official federal census of 1800 lists John Sawhill (head of family) and two females (presumably his wife and daughter) in Bart Township, and William Sawhill in nearby Sadsbury Township with one female (presumably his wife). It is speculation that John Sawhill may have been the father of Alexander (about 23 in 1800), as well as Isabella (17 or 18), and William (27 and married). It is interesting that John and his wife disappear from the historical record after 1800; there is no record of their death or burial. It is also interesting that Alexander and his wife and first-born son (born in 1799) are not listed in the census.
In 1802, Alexander Sawhill applied for United States citizenship, the first official legal use of the name. This application, dated September 28 1802, as recorded in the Lancaster County Courthouse, lists Alexander Sawhill, from Ireland. In 1803, Alexander, William, Isabella and their spouses and siblings made the trek to Washington County in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania adjacent to the Ohio and Virginia (later West Virginia) borders. Here Alexander and William settled, while Isabella, now a widow with a young child, remarried and eventually moved on to Ohio. The dates of birth from their gravestones show that William was born in ca 1773, Alexander ca 1777, and Isabella ca 1782. The residences, businesses, deaths and burials of the Sawhills from 1803 onward are all well documented. But the mystery of the pre-American family, whatever the name or place of origin, remains.
A connection based on autosomal DNA through is the basis of the collaboration between cousins Joanne Sawhill Griffin and Andrew McIlvaine. The longstanding mystery, and the historical record providing minimal clues led us first to Ireland. The Sawhill surname is not known in Ireland (or in Scotland or England), but the Saul surname is known. We followed that clue to several concentrations of Sauls, one in Ulster and one in County Wicklow. We have charted the Rathdrum Sauls from the early 1700s through the early 1900s and discovered a John Saul of whom there is no record beyond his birth in 1748. It is possible (not proven) that this is the John from above who became a US citizen in 1798, and the potential father of the Sawhills.
Ancestry autosomal DNA also has provided genetic links in Lancashire: Elizabeth Saul from Chipping (born about 1790) who married Thomas Burrow November 25, 1811 in Cartmel, Lancashire; and a Johnathan Saul. We have not yet found their parents’ names or any other information about how they may be related to the Sawhills. We presume based on the dates of birth that the link lies back at least one generation. We hope to find that link in the near future.
We are awaiting the YDNA results which may prove (or disprove) the relationship of the Sawhills to the Sauls of either Lancashire or of Ireland. If there is a match, then we hopefully will be able to trace common relatives to a home in England or Ireland and finally, after over 200 years, find the origins of the Sawhill family!