John Morton

John Morton. Pennsylvania (1725-1777)

John Morton was born in 1725 in Ridley Township, Pennsylvania and died April 1, 1777 at the age of 51 of tuberculosis. He was the son of John Morton senior and Mary Archer. Mary Archer’s family is traced back to Bartle Eschellson, whose name was first found in the records of 1644. He may have immigrated to Pennsylvania earlier making him one of first settlers in this region. The Morton side of the family arrived shortly thereafter. His great, great grandfather Martti Martitsen, or as in Swedish style, know as Martin Martinsen was born in Rautalampi, Finland and arrived in Pennsylvania on the ship the Eagle in the 1650’s. Both sides of John Morton’s family immigrated from “Sweden and/or Finland”. He was the first of the fifty-six signers to die and cut short what was promising to be a much greater role in Pennsylvania and national politics.

John Morton’s father died in 1725 the same year in which John Morton was born. His mother remarried an Englishman, John Sketchley. It was his stepfather who played an important role in John Morton’s youthful development. John Morton had little formal education, perhaps as little as three months. It was his stepfather who gave him the schooling he needed which included surveying, reading, math, and moral training. This enabled him to lead a very successful and productive life. John Morton thought so highly of Mr. Sketchley that he named one of his sons after him, Sketchley Morton. There are few written records of John Morton’s childhood other than that he was highly involved in his church. There is evidence, however, that as an adult John Morton, assisted neighbors by overseeing their books and maps as well as surveying their property. He also acted as an advocate and advisor for them when necessary. It is remarkable that a man with such little formal education would play such an important role Pennsylvania’s legal affairs and in our country’s development.

In 1756 at the age of 31, John Morton was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly. This was due to citizen trust in his sound judgment and pleasant temperament. After ten years of service as a representative, John Morton’s good friend, Phillip Ford, the sheriff of Chester County, died. John Morton was appointed to take his place, thus voluntarily giving up his Assembly position. He was re-elected to the sheriff’s position in 1767 and again in 1768. In 1769, after he had fulfilled all of the obligations placed upon him by Phillip Ford, he gave up the sheriff’s position and was re-elected as a representative to the Pennsylvania Assembly from Chester County.

John Morton’s legal career commenced in 1757 and continued through 1774. His positions included Justice of the Peace, High Sheriff of the County of Chester, presiding Judge of the Court of General Quarters Session, Common Please of the County of Chester and Associate Judge of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. In 1770 John Morton’s name appears as the Justice of Orphan’s Court where he was the presiding officer until March 25, 1774. It would appear that John Morton’s common sense approach to legal matters bought him the necessary public respect that these positions required.

As the Chester County representative to the Pennsylvania Assembly John Morton served in a variety of position. In 1765 John Morton was one of three delegates appointed by the Pennsylvania Assembly to attend the Stamp Act Congress and it was he who brought that report back. In 1774, while serving as Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, he was voted to be a delegate to the First Continental Congress held in Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia. On November 4, 1775 he was elected to the Second Continental Congress which was held in the State House, later renamed Independence Hall. The delegation to the Second Continental Congress, with Robert Morris and John Dickenson, absenting themselves and with Willing and Humphreys voting nay and with Franklin and James Wilson voting aye, it fell upon John Morton to cast the deciding vote for independence and he did so on July 4, 1776. He returned to the statehouse on August 2, to affix his name to the Declaration of Independence. It is said that Pennsylvania, because of John Morton’s deciding vote is nicknamed the “Keystone State”. For without Pennsylvania’s vote for independence the probability of it being adopted was doubtful. In 1776 and 1777 John Morton became Chairman of the Committee of the Whole and was heavily involved in writing the Articles of Confederation, the new nation’s first form of government. Unfortunately, he did not live to see his efforts realized.

Although Philadelphia was approximately 14 miles from his farm in Ridley Township it required at least half a day to make that trip thus adding to his many burdens. Serving on so many colonial and then national committees Mr. Morton had to have spent many days and weeks away from home.

During his long tenure as a public official of Pennsylvania he was also heavily involved in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chester as well as in the Swedish church. When John Morton died he was buried St. Paul’s Church yard.

Two and a half months after his death on June 18, 1777 Benjamin Rush wrote a letter to Anthony Wayne in which he discussed problems concerning the state’s new Constitution. In that letter he wrote “Honest John Morton, your old correspondent, it is said, died of grief at the prospect of the misery he foresaw would be brought upon Pennsylvania by her present form of government”. Many historians have misinterpreted this quote as a rejection of his vote for independence as well as his signing of the Declaration of Independence. A careful reading of the entire letter deals with Pennsylvania’s new form of government and this new government is about which John Morton was referring. Also, the claim that John Morton had a death bed scene in which he purportedly said “tell them that they will live to see the hour when they shall acknowledge it to have been the most glorious service that I ever rendered my country”. This alleged quote began to appear sometime in the early 1900’s. However, there is no factual foundation for this alleged quote made by him.

John Morton showed his fervor for independence in a letter written by him to Thomas Powell, a merchant in London, dated June 8, 1775. In this letter he expressed not only his resolves for independence but his concerns for the coming war. These sentiments reflected the feelings of many people in the colonies. “We are really preparing for the worst that can happen viz, a civil war”. He goes on to say “I hope Time will manifest to the World that a steady Perseverance in the Cause of Freedom will triumph over all the deep lay’d Schemes of Tyranny, & that Britain & America will again be united on the solid Foundation of Commerce & the Constitution.” In what appears to be righteous anger John Morton writes, “You have declared the New England People Rebels, & the other Provinces Aiders & Abettors, this is putting the Halter about our Necks, & we may as well die by the Sword as be hang’d like Rebels, this has made the People desperate.” These same sentiments are reflected in the Declaration of Independence.

Some individuals have suggested that the concluding sentence “I sincerely wish a Reconciliation, the Contest is horrid, Parents against Children, & Children against Parents, the longer the wound is left in the present state the worse it will be to heal at last” indicates a lack of support for the road leading to independence. However, many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence harbored the same concerns and fears, as in fact civil war did break out in many of the colonies during the Revolutionary War.

John Morton, as Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, on April 6, 1776, in further testimony to independence signed a resolution appointing Ludowick Sprogle as “muster master of the forces of this province for the protection there of against all hostile enterprises and for the defense of American Liberty.” This suggests a man who is leading cautiously, but inexorability towards afixing his signature on the Declaration of Independence.

In September 1777 after the Battle of Brandywine which the British won, Anne Morton, John Morton’s wife fled across the Delaware River with what valuables she could take to Billingsport, New Jersey. It was during this time that many of the papers that belonged to John Morton, as well as household possessions were destroyed. In November 18, 1782 Anne Morton filed an accounting of the losses she suffered in compliance with an act of the General Assembly. This is unfortunate because this documentary evidence could have broadened our understanding of John Morton’s private and public life.

John Morton with his wife, Ann, had nine children: Aaron, the eldest child, Sketchley, a major in the Pennsylvania line of the Continental Line, Rebecca, John, who became a surgeon and died while a prisoner of war on the British ship, Falmouth in New York Harbor, Sarah, Lydia, Elizabeth, Mary, and Ann, whose husband, Captain John Davis fought in the Revolutionary War as an officer in the Pennsylvania line.

On July 5, 2004 in recognition of John Morton’s role in signing the Declaration of Independence a plaque was placed at his gravesite by the Descendents of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence. He was the first of the fifty-six signers to receive this honor. Many of the descendents of John Morton including the Ward and Stromberg families were in attendance as well as Grace Staller, the Plaque Committee chairperson. John Morton’s vote for independence from England helped to assure America’s future as a free and independent country.

Richard Stromberg – 2007


  • Barthelmas, Della Gray, The Signers of the Declaration of Independence. McFarland, Jefferson, N.C., 1997
  • Collins, Gene, The Signers of the Declaration of Independence. Resurrection Resources, Woodbury, MN, 2000
  • Ferris, Robert G. and Richard E. Morris. Signers of the Declaration of Independence. Interpretive Publications, Arlington, Va., 1982
  • Force, Peter. American Archieves Fourth Series Volume V. 1840
  • Charles A. Goodrich, Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, web edition, New York: William Reed & Co., 1856. Pages 282 – 284.
  • Colonial Hall, accessed 4 August 2007.
  • Green, Harry Clinton. Green, Mary Wolcott, “Wives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence.” Wallbuilders Press, Aledo, TX., 1997
  • Michollen, Hirst, Malone, Dumas. “The Story of the Declaration of Independence” , Oxford Press, NY., 1954.
  • Springer, Ruth L. “John Morton in Contemporary Records”, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, Pa, 1967
  • Stromberg, Richard H. Descendent
  • Ward, Donald Descendent
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13 Responses to John Morton

  1. Dimitri Karpov says:

    John Morton was the great-grandfather of Martti Marttinen from Rautalampi, Finland.

    “Martitsen” is a Danish translation for Marttinen. Martitsen means “son of Martti”.

    The ethnicity of Martti Marttinen was not Swedish nor Danish. It was Finnish.

    However, when Martti Marttinen arrived to Wilmington, Delaware, in 1641, Finland was still a part of the Realm of Sweden (a.k.a. Sweden-Finland).

  2. Patricia Hoy Merkle says:

    My Stepfather, William Thomas Watson, son of Rita Morton and Edwin Watson died last week on Dec 21, 2012 at the age of 97. Rita’s great grandfather was John Morton, making him William’s Great great Grandfather. The story she told me (and backed it up with the National Geographic Article from the 1950s on Alabamas Historical Plantation Homes) is that the Morton plantation was sacked by carpetbaggers after the Civill War and they were turned out into poverty. Every piece of research has proven true. There is a Sammy Watson still alive who also heard the story from his Grandmother.
    William Watson joined the US Army in 1944, was sent to Germany and fought in the Battle of Bastogne, the Battle of the Bulge and was the last truck over the bridge at Remagen. He climbed to the Rosenthal Porcelain Factory roof where they liberated the factory and took down the Nazi flag, which we still have in our hands.
    William (Bill) also served in Korea and Vietnam. Then he went to Camp Carson and with the 8th Division went to Germany to the Cold War era. I was privileged to live with him through my teenage years. I’m sure he didn’t consider that any kind of a privilege. He retired at Fort Carson, Colorado at which time he was Chief Pastry Chef and Instructor for the Cooking School at Fort Carson. He spent the rest of his life known for his gardening. If this sounds like on Obituary it is going to be one with more detail, but William Watson was one of the most patriotic men I have met and I think Mr. John Morton would be proud of him. He carried on as the Sons of Liberty had envisioned for America.

  3. Guy Morton Neely says:

    My great, great grandfather, James Neely, was born in Huntingdon County near Shade Gap, Pennsylvania, on October 2, 1794. He was married to Elizabeth Morton in 1815/6. He was a farmer and, I believe, lived and died near Shade Gap. He and Elizabeth Morton had at least two children, Alexander Franklin Neely, MD, who settled in Parsons, Kansas, and my great grandfather David Rittenhouse Porter Neely, who founded Neelyton in Huntingdon County and was active in the Civil War. He and his wife, Mary Minick Neely, died in 1916 and 1918 and are buried in Arlington Cemetery. We have always believed that Elizabeth Morton was the daughter or possibly granddaughter of John Morton who did have a daughter named Elizabeth. Unfortunately, I have no more information about her and would greatly appreciate any help or suggestions available. Thank you very much, Guy Morton Neely

    • jim says:

      I believe the wife of James Neely, one Elizabeth Morton was born in 1795. Elizabeth the daughter of the Signer was born in 1760. John Morton, the Signer, did not have a grand daughter named Elizabeth Morton.

      Jim Alexander

    • From Neelyton says:

      The father of Elizabeth Morton Neely is John Morton who is buried in the Fleming Cemetery located a mile or so south of Neelyton, Pa. The unverified story is that he and his brothers Robert and Captn James Morton settled in the area after their service in the Revolutionary War and are possibly nephews of John-the-signer.
      This link is a listing of the others buried in that cemetery.
      Annie Morton was also a daughter of John Morton and married Robert Fleming. I am descended from this marriage. John is my 4th great-grandfather.

      • jim says:

        WE do not track relatives of the Signers, just their descendants, so I can not offer much confirmation of this John being a nephew of the Signer. I can tell you that Ann Morton, daugter of the Signer did marry John Davis. I am assuming John your 4th great grandfather is not John, the Signer, but John, the possible relative of John the Signer.

    • Lisa K Bailey says:

      Hi Guy,
      I just saw your post from 14 Jan 2013 about David Rittenhouse Porter Neely. Dr A.F. Neely was my GG-grandfather. I would love to know more about DRP Neely founding Neelyton … like what year and where did he obtain the land, etc??

  4. PJ says:

    I’ve traced my ancestors back and have come to an impasse with the technology I am using and am wondering if anyone can shed some light as it seems this is the place to get information on the Morton Lineage.

    I’ve traced back my heritage to Esther M. Morton of Pennsylvania (1849-) who was married to Moses Johnson (1849-1910) and I believe her mother’s name was Harriet but I’m not certain about it.

    The story that has passed down through generations in my family is that John Morton (the signer) is part of our heritage and I’m trying to confirm this.

    Any help would be appreciated.


  5. Phyllis Ames says:

    Our family has a baptismal certificate for the birth of Alice Anna Morton April 5, 1868 to John Peter Morton and Mary Anna Fickler Morton in Denver, Co, then Colorado Territory. It was told to Alice by her mother that her father was a grandson of John the signer. I have many of her old letters requesting information as to her connection. John Peter and his brother came to Colorado during the gold rush. We have found record of mines recorded in their names. John died in November, 1869 in Denver. John Peter was born in 1838 in Pennsylvania and educated in Baltimore.

    I would like any information about his linage that antone may have

    • jim says:

      Phyllis, John Morton, the Signer, had one son, Sketchley, who did have children, so I would look to his family for the clues to your question. Sketchley had two boys, John Sketchley (b. 1780) and Aaron Taylor (b. 1790). I can find no record of any of the names you have in your original question. I believe that the family story regarding Alice Amelia being a great grand daughter of the Signer is probably incorrect.

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