Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Eminent Women: Jennett Potter Oxborrow and Mary Philipse Morris

Eminent Women: Jennett Potter Oxborrow and Mary Philipse Morris

By: Amy Tanner Thiriot - June 11, 2013

Young Mormon convert James Lovett Bunting arrived in New York in 1858. He was excited to be in America but sad about the recent death of his brother Ebenezer in New York.

After he made his way through the Castle Garden Immigration Center, James was invited to stay at the home of church members in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. As soon as he settled in, he asked his host, Christopher Woolman, about the circumstances of his brother’s death. Christopher brought out Ebenezer’s coat and some other clothes that he had purchased from another family, the Oxborrows, after Ebenezer died, and told him what he knew.

The next morning James made his way straight to Oxborrow home, perhaps ready for a conflict, but instead he met the kindly couple, Joseph and Jennett Potter Oxborrow, whose propensity to generosity and helpfulness did, it is true, tend to complicate their lives. He said, “they bore a very pleasant appearence [sic].” They had given his brother a home and cared for him until he died. Joseph and Jennett told James all the circumstances of the death and they settled up his remaining estate.

Another immigrant, Joseph Orton, noted:

Almost penniless reaching New York, I remember with deep gratitude the kindness of my brethren and sisters, especially of Brother Joseph Oxborrow and wife, who tho’ lately emigrated, assisted so many temporally and of our Heavenly Father in the opening of my way to obtain a livelihood [though] a stranger in a strange land.

Joseph and Jennett Potter Oxborrow had emigrated in 1855 when they were both in their late 30s. They had been married six years and had no children.

Jennett Potter Oxborrow

After joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the early 1850s, a family history notes that Joseph’s father disowned him and he was fired from the family bakery. The Oxborrows collected all their means and deposited their emigration money with the Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company.


The Church emigration agent was attempting to arrange a voyage on the ship Australia, but it needed repairs, so instead the 162 Saints boarded the Cynosure for the trip to the New World. Ever extending their protection to those alone or without adequate means, Joseph and Jennett traveled with Jennett’s younger half-sister, Helen Potter, and an older single woman named Mary Knight.1

As the ship left port, one of the emigrants wrote a poem to celebrate the occasion. Here is an excerpt:

The Cynosure is under weigh.
The sailors shout their cheers;
Nobly she does her helm obey,
As on her course she steers.

The Saints rejoice,
With heart and voice

(Their trust in God is sure;)
While seas ring out,
With song and shout,
On board the Cynosure!2

These travelers were some of the very first Latter-day Saints to enter the country through the new immigration center at Castle Garden.

As happened from time to time, many of these Saints remained in the East for several years before heading west. At some point, the Oxborrows adopted a child, a young girl named Anna. Nothing is known about her circumstances or parentage. Subsequent family records noted that she died, but the date and place and circumstances are lost to history.3

The Oxborrows were called to help settle Utah’s Dixie. The settlement needed a baker, and he was skilled at the profession. Together with fellow pioneer Charles Bennett, he began working in a red rock building on Main Street and baked bread and provided other cereals for the men working to build the Tabernacle and Temple.

In 1870, Apostle Erastus Snow directed Joseph Oxborrow to take a second wife. The arrangement provided a home for a 17-year-old orphan, Mary Leicht, who was almost alone in the world. Mary Leicht had been born in Staffordshire, England, to German parents, both musicians. Her parents died when she was young and she was raised by her step-mother, Mary Ann Hunt Leicht Cornwell Nielson, an early convert to the Church. The family emigrated to Utah in 1864. Reading the various family and community histories, you get the picture of a hard-working, quirky, somewhat abrasive, talented and musical character.


Joseph and Mary Leicht Oxborrow had eleven children. They named their first daughter after Joseph’s mother and their second daughter after Jennett. Little Jennette’s middle name, Templine, was a nod to the fact that she was born while her mother was living in a small home on the corner of the temple lot in St. George. Sadly, like Jennett’s niece Jennett Thirkill, little Jennette Oxborrow died at age one.

Jennett Potter Oxborrow died in her late 60s. St. George diarist Ann Prior Jarvis noted simply on May 19, 1885, “Weather fair … Sister Oxbrough was buried to day.”4

In those days of polygamy raids which caused such difficulties for the polygamous families, Joseph was quickly married civilly to his second wife Mary, and he moved her and her children into the home where Jennett had been living.

Joseph was more than thirty years older than Mary and he died ten years after Jennett, leaving Mary with four adult children and four younger children. She went to work as an assistant to local doctor Frederick Clift, and then served as midwife and medical practitioner in the Mormon settlements in Nevada.

Jennett was never sealed to her parents during their lifetime. Was it due to a disagreement over religion? Was it due to a different understanding of the sealing ordinance? In any case, on June 17, 1897, after both Jennett and her husband died, someone, perhaps Mary, had Jennett and her deceased sister sealed to their parents, James and Phebe Ratcliff Potter.

* * *

In 1877, Jennett Oxborrow helped Wilford Woodruff and Lucy Bigelow Young do the temple work for another woman who had ties to New York City and England, but due to her loyalist sympathies, this woman started out in New York and moved to England instead of the other way around.

* * *

Mary Philipse, known among her friends as “Charming Polly,” was a wealthy and energetic heiress. She grew up in Philipse Manor, the centerpiece of an estate stretching for twenty miles along the Hudson River.


Mary interacted regularly with British military officers, and many of them entertained hopes of winning her wealthy hand in marriage. An unnamed humorist wrote a piece called “A Return of the State of Captain Polly Philips’s Dependent Company, with the Kill’d Wounded, Deserted and Discharg’d etc. during the Campaigns 1755 and 1756,” complete with a list of thirty-eight officers. Opposite the names are annotations such as “muster’d occasionally,” “desperate” and, in the case of her future husband, Roger Morris, “shot thro’ the Heart.”

Among the officers interested in Mary Philipse was the unmarried George Washington, who stayed twice at a home where she was visiting. The brief acquaintanceship and a family legend about a proposal of marriage he may have made to her was the basis for a century of romantic legends and historical fiction.5

After Mary Philipse married Roger Morris, the two lived first on Wall Street, then built a lovely home in Harlem Heights.6

Roger and Mary Morris were staunch loyalists. Roger Morris fled the country during the Revolutionary War, leaving Mary and her children in New York. She had to leave her beautiful home, and it was used as General Washington’s headquarters during the Battle of Harlem Heights in 1776. Mary eventually took her children and left America for England, where she and her husband settled in Yorkshire near his ancestral acres.

During the Revolutionary War, Mary Morris was one of three women whose property was confiscated by the American government for treason. She was named in the bill of attainder together with her husband and other family members, and the great Morris and Philipse estates were lost by the families. It was not a total loss, since they were compensated by the British government for the property.

Because the interests of the children of the family were not considered in the bill of attainder, litigation over the ownership of the estates continued for decades.7

Roger and Mary Philipse Morris lived the rest of their lives in England. Mary died at the age of 96 in 1825. She and her husband are buried in Yorkshire.


The picture of Jennett Oxborrow, which I have touched up lightly since some of the discoloration was distracting, was recently uploaded onto FamilySearch Family Tree by Nevin Blackham, using the new Photos feature. I assume from the labeling, which I do not include here, that it is from the collections of the McQuarrie Memorial Museum in St. George. The pictures of Joseph and Mary are from Ancestry, courtesy of Vicki Reynolds. The picture of Mary Philipse Morris is a 1771 portrait by American artist John Singleton Copley.



  1. After she eventually arrived in Utah, Helen remained in the Salt Lake area and her descendants seem to have lost track of the relationship with Jennett, which is unfortunate since knowing about it helps piece together the history of the Potter family in England. Briefly: after Jennett Potter’s mother died, her father James Potter seems to have married a woman named Louisa (maybe Jarman), and they had the following children: Edwin, Helen, Eliza, Samson, and Amelia. Helen Potter would have been Jennett Potter’s half sister. They travelled together across the ocean and after Helen Potter married Charles Thirkill, she named her oldest daughter Jennett. Baby Jennett was born in 1857 and died in 1858. When the Oxborrows moved south to St. George, the Thirkills remained in Salt Lake City. []
  2. The poem was written by school teacher Joseph Linfitt. []
  3. The family later recalled that Anna had been adopted in England and died before the Oxborrows crossed the ocean, but the 1860 United States Census lists her birthplace as New York, and shows that she was still living when the Oxborrows were in Council Bluffs, Iowa. []
  4. Jennett’s death date is recorded on the family grave marker as May 19. Since Ann Jarvis lists this as the date of the funeral, Jennett may have died on a previous day. []
  5. The story was told differently, depending on whether the author had patriot or loyalist sympathies. One example of the legends is Dorothea Heness Knox’s historical fiction, The Heart of Washington. []
  6. The home, now known as the Morris-Jumel Mansion, was later the home of Stephen Jumel and his notorious wife Eliza. After Eliza was widowed, she briefly married former vice president Aaron Burr. The home is now a museum. []
  7. The 1830 Supreme Court case Carver v. Astor decided the ownership of the property, and due to the complexity of the case, the legal documents preserve a wealth of genealogical information about the families. []


  1. Very interesting! I pulled up Carver v. Astor and found that it’s not just a treasure trove of genealogical information, but a fascinating (to me at least) romp through the law of property in 1830. But I hadn’t time to read it carefully, and I’d suggest that non-lawyers might find it pretty heavy sledding. You all did secretly want to go to law school, though, didn’t you?

    This does remind me that I really need to make the trip uptown to the Morris-Jumel Mansion, and on to Yonkers to the Philipse Manor. Any others want to come to New York for a tour?

    Comment by Mark B. — June 11, 2013 @ 7:51 am

  2. Another winner! I love how you tell Jennett’s story largely through the eyes of others. (I’ve tried to express this several different ways and it all is clumsy, but: I know you’d have to use others’ observations if Jennett didn’t leave writings of her own. But where some might have written “She was generous,” you show others seeing her as generous, which brings her to life for me. Aargh– I can’t find the right words. You sure did, though.)

    I heard Sally Barringer Gordon speak in the past few days. She brings her legal background to history and understands the records in a way that we non-lawyers can’t. So while no, I didn’t want to go to law school, I’m delighted that there are lawyers who can speak both law and history. And count me in on your New York tour, Mark.

    Finally, as the umpteenth-great-granddaughter of Loyalists who were driven from New York and Pennsylvania to Canada, and who also lost (a far lesser amount of) property for their loyalty to their King, three cheers for the Morrises!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 11, 2013 @ 8:38 am

  3. I’m glad that you are posting more of this series. You have done a remarkable job in researching these women.

    Comment by Maurine — June 12, 2013 @ 1:12 pm

  4. Thanks, Maurine, Ardis, and Mark.

    A few notes.

    I will admit that I didn’t make it all the way through Carver v. Astor. It’s a very long document, and I was scanning for genealogical content. I also saw another legal document that listed each child in the family. Not every family has a Supreme Court case preserving the family history, but legal documents are an often-overlooked family history resource.

    Sarah Barringer Gordon has been doing some very good work, including her upcoming book with Kathryn Daynes. I’m looking forward to that one.

    And cheers for the Loyalists? I’m a patriot at heart myself, but am married to someone who would have been a Loyalist, and that of course leads to some interesting conversations. One story I didn’t include about Mary Morris: a niece was discussing the family romance with some visitor and said that

    Mrs. Morris had been remarkable for fascinating all who approached her, and moulding everybody to her will; and that had she married Washington, it could not be certain that she would not have kept him to his allegiance. “Indeed, Washington would not, could not have been a traitor with such a wife as Aunt Morris.”

    Well, that’s enough extra commentary. The next post, Caroline Blake Hardy and Jane Mary Nugent Burke (wife of Edmund Burke), will probably go up in about a month.

    Comment by Amy T — June 12, 2013 @ 5:04 pm

  5. Thank you so much for continuing this series. They are well done and informative. I love reading them.

    Comment by Sharon Tomlinson — June 12, 2013 @ 6:12 pm

  6. Thank you, Sharon.

    Comment by Amy T — June 13, 2013 @ 12:07 pm