In 1727, John Digges, a Roman Catholic Marylander, was granted a 10,000-acre warrant by Charles Calvert, the fourth Lord Baltimore of Maryland. The physical location of the warrant was the choice of Digges himself; hence the name of the tract: "Digges' Choice in the Backwoods", or "Digges' Choice". He located and surveyed, by 1735, 6,822 acres in the area of what is today the Borough of Hanover, Penn Township, and Heidelberg Township in York County, and Conewago, Germany, and Union Townships in Adams County. Digges intended for the tract to be located in Maryland, but the surveying of the Temporary Line between Maryland and Pennsylvania in 1739 located the tract four miles north of the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. By 1730, Digges and other Roman Catholic settlers from Maryland had settled in the area. At about the same time, German Protestants from eastern Pennsylvania and Germany directly made their first appearance.
It has been written that these first Catholics in the Conewago Valley were of either Scotch-Irish or English origin. This may be a moot point. In the case of John Digges, at least, the family was fully acculturated into English colonial society; the American branch of the family dates from the first half of the seventeenth century.
The Digges' first interests in America stem from investments in Virginia by Sir Dudley Digges, the great-great-grandfather of John Digges. As in the case of other families investing in Virginia in the first half of the seventeenth century, neither Sir Dudley nor his two elder sons emigrated to America - but his younger son, Edward, did. Due to the European practice of primogeniture, Edward realized he had a slim chance of inheriting property in the old world. Consequently Edward emigrated to America in 1650, establishing the family in Virginia.
Within thirty years, the Digges family was involved in Maryland politics. William Digges, grandfather of John Digges, was named to the Maryland Proprietary Council, maintaining that position until Maryland's political revolution of 1689 removed him, and all Roman Catholics, from power.
Maryland had been originally founded as a religious haven for the followers of the Catholic Calverts' faith. However, the colony was required to open its doors to all religious denominations, and the Calverts soon found their colony populated by a Catholic minority. To please the Protestant majority, and consequently to remain in power, the Calverts made it a practice to marry their daughters and nieces to prominent Protestant citizens and then appoint them to the Proprietary Council. It was in this manner that William Digges entered Maryland politics and was converted to Catholicism; until this time the family had probably been Anglican. William Digges was married to a stepdaughter of Charles Calvert, third Lord Baltimore of Maryland. It can be assumed that he prospered financially and socially in this position.
In 1689, William Digges, along with the other proprietary councilors, lost their positions, because of a Protestant takeover of the colony. It was at this time that Catholics lost their power and rights to citizenship in Maryland. By the time of the American Revolution, Pennsylvania was the only colony granting rights to Catholics.
Little is known about John Digges' father, Ignatius. He was never appointed to the Proprietary Council of Maryland. His financial position is unknown, but his son owned plantations in Prince George's, St Mary's, and Baltimore Counties, in Maryland.
We know little more about John Digges himself. He settled on Digges' Choice with his wife and children. His financial position can be gleaned from surviving information. He was heavily in debt in 1743 to Charles Carroll and Daniel Dulaney of Annapolis, Maryland. Digges was unable legally to deed land to settlers until after repaying these debts. A number of deeds were issued by Charles Carroll in the early 1750s to various settlers of Digges' Choice. There is never a cost mentioned in these deeds. They appear merely to give clear legal title to the settlers for land for which they had already paid Digges.
These debts may be the reason for a resurvey of Digges' Choice in 1745. There is evidence that Digges traveled east of the Susquehanna River to recruit settlers for Digges' Choice, and by the 1740s he may be attracted an appreciable number of them. There was only one problem: many of these settlers were buying patents from the Pennsylvania authorities and settling on the borders of Digges' Choice, rather than paying Digges for land inside of it. Consequently, by 1743, Digges realized little profit from land sales in Digges' Choice. This, coupled with the fact that between 1735 and 1743 Digges may have had financial difficulties, might explain the resurvey of 1745.
It should be remembered that the original warrant to Digges was for 10,000 acres, but that the survey in 1735 was returned for only 6,822 acres. In 1743, Digges applied to the Pennsylvania authorities for a resurvey of the full acreage, blaming the error on the surveyor of 1735. Take notice of the year of this request. We know that Digges was in debt by this time. The application was refused. In 1745, he applied for, and obtained, a resurvey for 10,501 acres from the Maryland authorities.
The resurvey was illegal. It was in direct opposition to the terms agreed to in the Royal Order of 21 May 1738, which authorized the survey of the Temporary Line of 1739. That Order guaranteed legal rights to original tracts in Pennsylvania warranted and surveyed by Marylanders, and vice versa. However, it prohibited the owners of these tracts authority over land contiguous to the tracts, and also forbade resurveys of the original tracts. Because of these terms, the resurvey of Digges' Choice was illegal.
Legal aspects aside, Digges confused matters by refusing to run the lines of the original survey and the resurvey for the settlers in the area. When the surveys were finally run, at the settlers' expense, the lines of the resurvey were found to interfere with each of the neighboring patents granted by Pennsylvania authorities between 1735 and 1745. It was also discovered that Digges had sold several tracts located partially or completely outside of the lines of Digges' Choice. These discoveries led to open hostility between Digges and the owners of several tracts both inside and outside of Digges' Choice, with both sides blaming the other for the dispute.
Both Maryland and Pennsylvania authorities were unwilling to enter into what they considered a relatively unimportant local land dispute, even though both sides in the dispute wrote many letters to authorities in both colonies. So the situation was deadlocked for seven years.
In February of 1752, several settlers of Digges' Choice took the situation into their own hands. On the twenty-sixth of that month, two sons of John Digges, Henry and Dudley, and an officer from Maryland attempted to arrest Martin Kitzmiller, a settler of Digges' Choice, for trespassing. At the time of the attempted arrest, he was farming a section of land included in the disputed resurvey of Digges Choice, but which Kitzmiller had purchased under a Pennsylvania land warrant. Kitzmiller resisted, calling to his sons for help. In a struggle between Dudley Digges and Jacob Kitzmiller, one of Martin's sons, for a gun loaded with buckshot, Dudley was shot and killed. Martin and Jacob Kitzmiller immediately surrendered to the authorities in York. They were acquitted of any wrongdoing on 13 October 1752. Martin Kitzmiller was the son-in-law of Christopher Bankert.
The death of Dudley Digges inadvertently solved many of the problems of the Digges' Choice settlement. Digges' resurvey was declared illegal, and many of the individual land disputes were solved.
As for John Digges, the death of his son was the final blow to hopes of financial gain from Digges' Choice. He moved from the Digges' Choice area, sometime after 1747, to his plantation in Baltimore County, where he died intestate about 1760. His eldest son, Edward, inherited his land in Digges' Choice. When Edward died in June of 1769, the property passed to his children, Elizabeth Neale, Eleanor O'Neale, Mary Wharton, Ann Wharton, John Digges, and Edward Digges, and to his brothers, William and Henry. In 1775, Henry and William Digges, and several of Edward Digges' children sold their rights to Henry Neal, who may also have been related to the Digges family. These rights passed to Jesse Wharton, a son-in-law of Edward Digges, in 1776. Wharton sold his rights to Thomas Lilly in 1778. In 1782, Lilly bought the rights to the entire remaining unsold acreage of Digges' Choice from the remaining heirs. Because of these many transactions, the deeds granting land to settlers of Digges' Choice list as grantors different owners of Digges' Choice depending on the date of the deed.
In many instances, individuals tended to settle a tract and set up farming before buying a warrant for the tract. In some cases, a son of the original settler paid for a tract of land a generation after the fact. For settlers inside Digges' Choice, pinpointing settlement dates can be no more accurate. As mentioned earlier, John Digges was unable to deed land to settlers until after 1750. Because of this unfortunate situation, some of the earliest settlers escape our notice entirely. We can discover cases of settlers moving into the area, settling for several years, and then moving west or south, all without leaving a record in official deeds, warrants or patents. One such case is Johannes Jacob Bankert himself, who from other sources we know owned land in Digges Choice. However, no deed exists from John Digges to Jacob Bankert for land in Digges Choice. And no warrant or patent from Pennsylvania exists for land sold to Jacob Bankert.
Could all these problems concerning land ownership in the Digges' Choice area explain why Jacob Bankert moved to what became the Union Mills area after 1750?
For more information on Digges Choice, see Jan A. Bankert, Digges’ Choice, 1724-1800: A History of Land Transactions Within a Portion of York and Adams Counties, Pennsylvania (Camden, ME: Picton Press, 1996).