Category: Mitcheson

Duncan M. Mitcheson, Real Estate Agent

with research from the Riverside Historical Society

Green Bank Farm map, 1855, courtesy RHS.

Occasionally someone who knows more about one of my ancestors than I do finds my family history blog and gets in touch. That is what happened this summer when Herman Maurer, a member of the Riverside Historical Society in New Jersey, reached out to tell me that my ancestor had founded his town. 

Three years ago, Herman wrote a book called Progress to Riverside: A Story of Our Town’s Past to mark Riverside Township’s 125th anniversary. In the course of his research, he ran across 19th century Philadelphia real estate agent Duncan M. Mitcheson.1

Riverside, New Jersey is a suburban township located across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. In the early 1850s, Duncan and his brother McGregor J. Mitcheson purchased property there and subdivided it into cottage lots. This area became the village of Cambridge. Duncan planned the street layout, including today’s busy Chester Street. Front Street, Brown, Main and Arch Streets still carry the names that Duncan chose 170 years ago.

Numerous Cambridge deed transfers recorded in the local county clerk’s office between the 1850s and mid-1880s, with the signatures of both Mitcheson brothers on them, convinced Herman that Duncan and his brother McGregor were the primary developers of the village of Cambridge.

This was a surprise to me since I knew very little about Duncan. Now it became clear that he was a successful businessman who embraced modern ideas at a time of rapid changes in society.   

Duncan McGregor Mitcheson (1827-1904) was the middle child of Robert Mitcheson and Mary Frances McGregor. Born in northern England and in Scotland, they were married in Philadelphia around 1818. Duncan’s older sister, Catharine Mitcheson Bagg, was my two-times great-grandmother. The Mitcheson family lived in Spring Garden, in the northern part of Philadelphia. The family’s home was large and, after their parents died around 1860, Duncan’s older brother, Reverend Robert M. Mitcheson, and his wife and children lived there. Duncan lived with them until Robert died in 1877. In the 1880 census, when he was age 53, Duncan appears to have been staying in a rooming house. Later Philadelphia city directories show that he lived on Spruce Street, near the old part of the city, and had an office nearby on Walnut Street. He never married.

The Mitcheson family home in Spring Garden, painted around 1840 by Catharine Mitcheson. Bagg family collection.

Like his two brothers, Duncan attended the University of Pennsylvania, but unlike them, he did not graduate.3 He dropped out in 1842, at the end of his second year.  University attendance was rare then: there were only 26 students, all male, in Duncan’s freshman class.

Duncan began his career as a merchant, but an 1861 Pennsylvania business directory identified him as a conveyancer: someone who draws up deeds and leases for property transfers. He was listed as a real estate agent for most of his career.

The Riverside Historical Society’s research revealed that Duncan invested $5000 in land in New Jersey, with an initial purchase of 80 acres, in 1853. He and his brother then formed a real estate partnership to develop the village of Cambridge. An advertisement for these building lots appeared in the Philadelphia newspaper Public Ledger on March 24, 1853. The lots were “located on the Camden and Amboy Railroad, about one mile below Rancocas Creek and the Town of Progress and within a quarter of a mile of the River Delaware, upon a very healthy, dry and level site that will require no filling up, nor grading and can be reached in about half an hour from the Walnut Street Wharf.”

The lots were advertised at the “remarkably low rates” of $25 and $30 each. The $30 lots were 20 feet by 100 feet, while the $25 lots were slightly smaller. A few larger lots were available at $60 and $100 each. 

On November 4, 1854, another ad in the Public Ledger noted that the Cambridge lots were near the water, opposite the splendid riverside mansions of Philadelphia’s 23rd Ward. Duncan also reassured potential buyers that the lots were a safe investment. “From the continued increase of the population of Philadelphia, and the consequent increased demand for Houses and Lots, and as well as from the fact that thousands now living in this city could not only have more room, enjoy better health, but live less expensively at Cambridge.”

Duncan also owned farmland on three sides of Cambridge, and he was one of the larger landowners in the town of Progress in the 1850s. In January, 1854 he purchased 180 acres of vacant land for $15,000. That property, located between Rancocas Creek, the railroad, Chester Avenue and Tar Kiln Run, was known as Green Bank Farm, or Duncan M. Mitcheson’s Model Farm.

This was a period of technological and scientific innovation. The Great Exhibition, held in London, England in 1851, had showcased developments in many fields, including agriculture. These advances were badly needed: food production had to become more efficient to feed growing urban populations. Duncan’s model farm may have featured agricultural innovations such as a McCormick reaper that could rapidly harvest large quantities of crops. And perhaps Duncan was a member of the Model Farm Association, formed in 1860 to establish a model farm, botanic garden and agricultural school in Pennsylvania.

In the spring of 1854, Duncan purchased another 80 acres of vacant land for $6000, extending Green Bank Farm past the railroad tracks. In addition, he, or possibly his brother, owned a nearby property named Rob Roy Farm, after the famous Scottish outlaw and folk hero Rob Roy McGregor.  

How the Mitcheson brothers acquired the funds to buy so much land is not known, but their father owned properties in England and in Philadelphia. Robert Mitcheson senior died in 1859 and in his will, he forgave an $8000 mortgage he held on Duncan’s farm.

In 1859, the Drake Well, the first commercial oil well in the U.S., was drilled in north-western Pennsylvania. That well sparked the first petroleum boom in the United States, creating a wave of investment in drilling, refining and marketing. Duncan saw an opportunity to make money. In February, 1865 he placed the following ad in the Philadelphia Inquirer: “OIL LANDS FOR SALE—located in Venango and Clarion Counties (Pennsylvania). Companies are about to be formed, secure choice lands by addressing or writing to: Duncan M. Mitcheson, real estate office at the northeast corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets, Philadelphia. Also 1,000, 20,000 and 50,000 acres in West Virginia.”

He placed another ad a month later: “CHOICE Oil Tract…Eighty Acres. For sale in fee simple lots situated on the Bennyhoff Creek, Venango County, of which the greater part is boring grounds. This eighty-acre tract will be divided to suit and sold fee simple, with unquestionable titles…” In July, 1866 Duncan advertised another speculative deal in the Philadelphia Inquirer: 1250 interests, valued at $100 each, in The Virginia Gold Mining Company of Colorado. The company’s property was located near Central City, Colorado, founded in 1859 during the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush.  

The Mitcheson family plot in St. James the Less Church Cemetery, Philadelphia. JH photo.

In 1893, when he was 70 years old, Duncan sold almost 1000 vacant building lots in Cambridge for the sum of one dollar to his deceased brother McGregor’s two grown children, Joseph McGregor Mitcheson and Mary Frances Mitcheson. During the first two decades of the 20th century, they sold many of the Cambridge properties to families who had recently emigrated from Poland.

Joseph, a bachelor, was a Philadelphia lawyer and a commander in the U.S. naval reserve. Mary Frances married accountant Arthur L. Nunns in 1904. The couple were childless and when she died in 1959 at age 84, she gave a million dollars to the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. It was the largest bequest it had ever received.4 During my 2013 visit to Philadelphia, the head of St. James School, a tuition-free, private Episcopalian middle school, told me that gift Is still benefiting the community.

As for Duncan, the 1900 census showed that he had retired. He died in 1904 and was buried, along with his parents and other family members, at St. James the Less Episcopal Church Cemetery in Philadelphia.

Note: The Duncan M. Mitcheson “Green Bank” map, published in 1855, was provided by the Riverside Historical Society. The society’s copy of this map was conserved through a 2023 grant funded by the Burlington County Board of Commissioners.

See also:

Janice Hamilton, “Robert Mitcheson, Philadelphia Merchant”, Writing Up the Ancestors, March 1, 2023,

Janice Hamilton, “The MacGregors: Family History or True Story?” Writing Up the Ancestors, March 21, 2014,

Janice Hamilton, “Philadelphia and the Mitcheson Family” Writing Up the Ancestors, Nov. 22, 2013,


  1. Herman Maurer, Progress to Riverside: A Story of Our Town’s Past, Riverside Historical Society Inc. 2020, p. 13.
  2. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, City Directory 1889, entry for Mitcheson, Duncan M.,, citing U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 (online database), accessed Oct. 1, 2024.
  3. University of Pennsylvania, 1894. entry for Duncan MacGregor Mitcheson., citing US. College Student Lists, 1763-1924 (online database), accessed Oct. 1, 2024.
  4. The New York Times, May 6, 1959.

Robert Mitcheson, Philadelphia Merchant

When my English-born three-times great-grandfather Robert Mitcheson arrived in Philadelphia from the West Indies in 1817, he was a 38-year-old unattached merchant. Within two years he was married and had started a family, established a new career and was on the way to becoming an American citizen.

Robert (1779-1859) grew up in County Durham, England, where his father was a farmer and small-scale landowner.1 Robert became an iron manufacturer as a young man, then spent some time in the West Indies. Family stories say he was largely occupied in the West Indies trade. In 1817 he sailed from Antigua to Philadelphia with the intention of settling in the United States. He applied for naturalization – a first step towards citizenship — in July, 18202 and took an oath of citizenship on Sept. 12, 1825.

Perhaps he had met his future wife, Scottish-born Mary Frances (Fanny) MacGregor, on a previous trip to the city. I have not found a record of their marriage, but it probably took place in Philadelphia. The couple’s first child, Robert McGregor Mitcheson, was born on August 15, 1818 and baptized at St. John’s Episcopal Church in north-end Philadelphia.2

In 1819 Robert was listed in a city directory as a distiller, and the following year’s directory clarified that he made brandy and cordials. The business was located at 275 North Third Street, in the Northern Liberties area of the city. The distillery continued to appear in each annual directory until 1835, when Robert was simply listed as “gentleman”, with his home address on Coates Street.

This painting of Monteith House, the family home in Spring Garden, was painted by a young Catharine Mitcheson. Robert’s wife, Fanny, grew up near Port of Menteith, Scotland. Bagg family collection.

The family appeared in the U.S. census for the first time in 1830,3 living in Spring Garden, then a largely rural part of Philadelphia. Robert owned a large lot bounded by Coates (later renamed Fairmount Street) and Olive Streets, between Eleventh and Twelfth Streets. There, he and Fanny raised their five children: Robert McGregor (1818-1877), Catharine (my two-times great-grandmother, 1822-1914), Duncan (1827-1904), Joseph McGregor (1828-1886) and Mary Frances (1833-1919). Two other children, Sarah and Virginia, died as babies. Two of their sons graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. Robert M. became an Episcopal minister, and Joseph, who went by the name MacGregor J. Mitcheson, was a lawyer.

Robert never became part of city’s elite, despite his financial success. For one thing, he was a newcomer living in an old city. Founded in 1682, Philadelphia was the birthplace of the United States and many of its citizens were known as the descendants of colonial and revolutionary families. Also, Robert appears to have been a low-key person. A search for his name in local newspapers brought up only one article that named a long list of people involved in establishing a refuge for boys.

The only obituary I was able to find appeared in a Montreal newspaper, where daughter Catharine Mitcheson Bagg and her husband, Stanley Clark Bagg, lived.4 It said: “As a citizen of Philadelphia for more than 40 years, he has done much, in a quiet and unostentatious manner, for the advancement of her interests and the relief of the distressed. He enjoyed a well-earned reputation for unwavering integrity in all the transactions of his long life – prolonged almost to his 80th birthday — and his remarkable urbanity of manner which the firm, yet elastic step of his manly person, were but slightly impaired up to the period of his dissolution. He was universally respected and died serenely, with a Christian’s hope and faith.”5

Robert appears to have travelled back to England at least once, probably to visit family members and take care of some business, as he had inherited property in Durham when his father died in 1821. A land transfer document dated September 16, 1835 described him as “Robert Mitcheson, iron manufacturer, late of Swalwell, now of Philadelphia”.6 Several weeks later Robert Mitcheson, gentleman, appeared as a passenger on the Pocahontas, sailing from Liverpool to Philadelphia.7  

Perhaps he also visited his brother William, an anchor maker and ship owner in London. A short biography of his son published by the St. Andrews Society in Philadelphia described Robert as a “retired merchant and shipowner,”8 however, I cannot confirm whether Robert owned any ships or perhaps invested in his brother’s business.

In 1875, the Mitcheson property belonged to R.M. Mitcheson et al. It appears to take up a whole city block, except for the Friends Meeting House, highlighted in green. Most of the buildings were probably boarding houses. Source: City Atlas of Philadelphia, vol. 6, wards 2 through 20, 29 & 31. G.M. Hopkins, 1875.

After Robert left the distillery business he reinvented himself again, this time as a landlord. The city was rapidly expanding and there was a need for housing. Many people lived in boarding houses and Robert saw rents from boarders as a way to generate income for his grown children after he died. In his will, he left 14 “dwelling houses” located near his house, as well as several nearby other buildings, in trust to sons Robert M. and MacGregor J..9 They were to collect the income and pay certain sums every year to their other three siblings, and to look after repairs to the buildings.

The Mitcheson gravestone at Saint James the Less Church, Philadelphia.

Robert died at age 79 and was buried in the cemetery at St. James the Less, a small, Gothic-style Episcopal church built around 1846 as a chapel of ease for wealthy families in the area. Robert is said to have helped found that church. His story doesn’t end there, however.

Sadly, his estate was the focus of a court battle that took almost 30 years to resolve, by which time both executors had also died. In addition to a dispute between the brothers, the case focused on a legal error in the way the trust was set up10 and who was to inherit the final balance of income.11

See also: See my previous post about Robert Mitcheson’s younger years, “A Restless Young Man,” Writing Up the Ancestors, Jan. 24, 2023, You can also search this blog for articles about Robert’s parents and grandparents, wife, sister Mary and other siblings, and some of his descendants.

Notes and Sources

1. Pennsylvania, U.S., Federal Naturalization Records, 1795-1931 [database on-line]. Original data: Naturalization Records. National Archives at Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Accessed Feb. 15, 2023.

2. I found records from St. John’s Church at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia in 2013.

3. “United States Census, 1830,” database with images, FamilySearch (, accessed Feb. 16, 2023), Robt Mitchinson, Spring Garden, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States; citing 323, NARA microfilm publication M19, (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), roll 158; FHL microfilm 20,632.

4. Stanley Clark Bagg (SCB) was Robert’s son-in-law and also his nephew: Robert’s older sister, Mary Mitcheson Clark, was SCB’s maternal grandmother.

5. Montreal Herald and Daily Commercial Gazette, 28 March 1859, p. 2, Bibliothèque et archives nationale du Québec,, accessed Feb. 17, 2023.

6. Clayton and Gibson, Ref No. D/CG 7/379, 16 September 1835, Durham County Record Office,

7. “Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Passenger Lists Index, 1800-1906,” database with images, FamilySearch (, accessed Feb. 17, 2023), Robert Mitcheson, 1835; citing ship Pocahontas, NARA microfilm publication M360 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.); FHL microfilm 419,525.

8. Biography of MacGregor Joseph Mitcheson in An Historical Catalogue of the St. Andrews Society of Philadelphia with Biographical Sketches of Deceased Members, 1749-1907, printed for the Society 1907; p. 287, Google Books, accessed July 19, 2013.

9. Will of Robert Mitcheson, March 5, 1859. Philadelphia County (Pennsylvania) Register of Wills, 1862-1916, Index to wills, 1682-1924. Volume 41, #105, FamilySearch, (, image 191-194, accessed Feb. 18, 2023.)

10. Mitcheson’s Estate, Orphan’s Court. Weekly Notes of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, the County Courts of Philadelphia, and the United States District and Circuit Courts for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania by Members of the Bar. Volume XI, December 1881 to August 1882; p. 240. Philadelphia: Kay and Brother, 1882. Google Books, accessed Feb. 17, 2023.

11. Mitcheson’s Estate, Pennsylvania Court Reports, containing cases decided in the courts of the several counties of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Vol. V, p. 99. Philadelphia, T. & J.W. Johnson & Co., 1888. Google Books, accessed Feb. 17, 2023.

This article is also posted on the collaborative blog Genealogy Ensemble.