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, https://www.writinguptheancestors.ca/2023/03/robert-mitcheson-philadelphia-merchant.html

Janice Hamilton, “The MacGregors: Family History or True Story?” Writing Up the Ancestors, March 21, 2014, https://www.writinguptheancestors.ca/2014/03/the-macgregors-family-legend-or-true.html

Janice Hamilton, “Philadelphia and the Mitcheson Family” Writing Up the Ancestors, Nov. 22, 2013, https://www.writinguptheancestors.ca/2013/11/philadelphia-and-mitcheson-family.html


  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., Ancestry.com, citing U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 (online database), accessed Oct. 1, 2024.
  3. University of Pennsylvania, 1894. entry for Duncan MacGregor Mitcheson. Ancestry.com, citing US. College Student Lists, 1763-1924 (online database), accessed Oct. 1, 2024.
  4. The New York Times, May 6, 1959.

The Life and Times of Great-Aunt Amelia

My mother used to tell me that Amelia Norton was her favourite of her four great-aunts on her mother’s side of the family. From what I have learned about Amelia’s life, it appears she was indeed a kind and generous person.

Amelia Josephine Bagg was born in Montreal in 1852. Her father, Stanley Clark Bagg, was a wealthy landowner in Montreal, so Amelia had a privileged upbringing that included a year-long tour of Europe with the whole family in 1868-69, when she was 16.

After her father died in 1873, her brother, Robert Stanley Bagg, took over management of their late father’s real estate, renting out some properties and selling others. Amelia had a strong interest in the Bagg family real estate business, helping to keep the records of sales, and she also owned property in her own name.

Mr. and Mrs. Mulholland, Wm. Notman & Sons, 1891, McCord-Stewart Museum, II-95084 1

Amelia lived with her mother, Catharine Mitcheson Bagg, until she married at age 38. The wedding took place on Dec. 18, 1890 at Christ Church, Montreal’s largest Anglican church. Her husband was Joseph Mulholland, the eldest son of hardware merchant Henry Mulholland and his wife, Ann Workman. Born in Montreal in 1840, Joseph had a twin who died as an infant. Joseph is connected to me in two ways: in addition to being married to Amelia, his sister Jane Mulholland (1847-1938) and her husband, Montreal banker John Murray Smith (1838-1894), were my great-grandparents on my mother’s father’s side.

As a young man, Joseph had worked in the hardware business. Now, as Amelia’s husband, he started a new career in real estate. In 1891, he and his brother-in-law collaborated in a business venture: Joseph and John purchased a vacant piece of land from Robert Stanley Bagg on Saint Charles Borromée Street (now renamed Clark Street) near Pine Avenue and built a row of attached house there.1 The building, designed by architect Eric Mann, survives to this day.

Joseph died, age 57, in 1897. Five years later, Amelia married again, this time to Reverend John George Norton, Archdeacon of Montreal.It was a relatively small wedding with only family members and a few close friends present.2 John was born in Ireland in 1840 and he was educated there. He moved to Montreal in 1884 with his wife and two children. His wife died five years later.

Amelia was recognized as a talented amateur artist. This painting of the Montreal waterfront, dated 1900, now belongs to a descendant of the Bagg family.

As the wife of one of the leading clerics in Montreal’s English-speaking community, Amelia took on a new role, especially in church charities. According to a biography of Archdeacon Norton in The Storied Province of Quebec, “Mrs. Norton is a lady of culture and refinement. Mrs. Norton was a valued ally and helpmate in all the parochial work of the church.”3

At that time, governments gave little funding to health care or social services, so benevolent societies played an essential role in society. As president of the Women’s Auxiliary of Christ Church Cathedral for many years, Amelia was especially interested in its missionary work.4 In addition, her name appeared regularly in lists of donors to various charities published in the local newspapers.

The couple lived in the church rectory for many years and after John retired, they moved into their own house on McTavish Street, near McGill University. When the Venerable John George Norton, Rector Emeritus and Archdeacon of Montreal John died in 1924 at the age of 84, many people attended his funeral service at Christ Church, where he had officiated for 37 years.

A plaque in memory of Amelia hangs in Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal. Genevieve Rosseel, photo.

Meanwhile, Amelia seems to have been the go-to person when family members needed help. After Amelia’s Aunt Fanny (Mitcheson) Hague was widowed in 1915, Fanny came to live with the Nortons and remained there until she died in 1919.

My grandparents also went to Amelia for help. They had built a new house just before the Depression hit and my grandfather lost his job. Amelia helped to support the family until my grandfather found a new job after the Depression.

Amelia died in 1943, at age 91, at home on McTavish Street, following a long illness. She is buried with her first husband in the Mulholland-Workman family plot in Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetery.5


  1. Le Prix Courant: le journal de commerce, 10 Avril 1891, p 13, https://numerique.banq.qc.ca, entry for John Murray Smith, https://numerique.banq.qc.ca/patrimoine/details/52327/2746357?docsearchtext=%22John%20Murray%20Smith%22, accessed June 18, 2023.
  • “Marriage at the Cathedral”, The Gazette, 25 June, 1902, p. 6, Newspapers.com, accessed June 18, 2023.
  • William Wood, editor, The Storied Province of Quebec, Past and Present, Dominion Publishing Company, 1931, vol. 3, p. 118.
  •  “Obituary: Mrs. J. Norton, 91, Dies at Home Here,” The Gazette, April 13, 1943, p. 14, Newspapers.com, entry for Amelia Norton, accessed June 20. 2023.

5.    Mount Royal Cemetery, section F200-c

See also

Frank Dawson Adams, A History of Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal, Montreal: Burton’s Limited, 1941, https://numerique.banq.qc.ca/patrimoine/details/52327/2561503

Janice Hamilton, “Continental Notes for Public Circulation”, April 8, 2020, Writing Up the Ancestors, https://www.writinguptheancestors.ca/2020/04/continental-notes-for-public-circulation.html

Janice Hamilton, “Aunt Amelia’s Ledger”, April 26, 2023, Writing Up the Ancestors,          https://www.writinguptheancestors.ca/2023/04/aunt-amelias-ledger.html

Janice Hamilton, “Henry Mulholland, Montreal Hardware Merchant”, March 17, 2016, Writing Up the Ancestors, https://www.writinguptheancestors.ca/2016/03/henry-mulholland-montreal-hardware.html

Janice Hamilton, “The World of Mrs. Murray Smith”, Feb.24, 2016, Writing Up the Ancestors, https://www.writinguptheancestors.ca/2016/02/the-small-world-of-mrs-murray-smith.html

Janice Hamilton, “Never Too Late for Love,” April 4, 2014.  Writing Up the Ancestors, https://www.writinguptheancestors.ca/2014/04/never-too-late-for-love.html

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