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1750 NC: Four Willis Brothers: Agerton, Daniel, Benjamin George Willis

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1750 NC: Four Willis Brothers: Agerton, Daniel, Benjamin George Willis

Posted: 6 Mar 2000 12:51AM GMT
Edited: 16 May 2003 10:37AM GMT
Contains Information from 1740/1750s North Carolina Virginia including:
Four Brothers: Agerton Willis (Son: Rev. Joseph Willis), Daniel Willis (Son: General John Willis), Benjamin Willis George Willis

By Randy Willis
randywillis@ev1.net

Joseph Willis’ monument at his grave reads: “First Baptist Preacher of the Word West of the Mississippi River.” This fact is of historical interest but is of lesser importance when compared to this remarkable man’s life.

His life reads as a history book and a novel rolled into one great epic. He was born an Indian slave to his own father. His own family took him to court to deprive him of his inheritance – a battle that involved the governor of the state. He fought in the Revolutionary War under the most colorful of all the American generals, Francis Marion, “The Swamp Fox.” He crossed the most hostile country and entered a land under a foreign government while the dreaded “Black Code” was in effect. He preached a message here that put him in constant danger of his life. He fought racial and religious prejudice of the most dangerous kind in so doing. He lost three wives and several children in the wilderness but never wavered in his belief in God.

And there is much more, but our story does not begin here. It begins in Southeast Virginia in the Chesapeake Bay area, the same area that the pilgrims first settled. Here, in the 1740’s, in Isle of Wight County and Nansemond County (now the city of Suffolk), is the place that Joseph’s father, three uncles, and at least one aunt called home. It is not clear what other family members were with them. Family tradition, from descendents of all four brothers, states that the family originally came from England. Whether this group was the first of the family to come to America or whether it was their parents or grandparents is not known.

These four brothers were Joseph’s father Agerton, and his brothers Daniel, Benjamin and George. The one known sister of the above was Joanna. Joanna married James Council of Isle of Wight County, Virginia, circa 1751/52. James was the son of John Council and grandson of Hodges Council. Hodges came from Devonshire, England, and it is of interest to note that the given name of Willis was already found in the Council family while still in England.

In the Early 1750’s the family, including James and Joanna, moved south. Between 1740 and 1770 hundreds of Virginians moved to North Carolina as a result of the Virginia legislature passing a law requiring all non-residents to acquire ten acres for each head of stock ranging in the colony or become citizens.

Thus the family left Virginia, probably by sea, and landed down the coast at New Hanover (now called Wilmington), North Carolina. New Hanover had North Carolina’s most navigable seaport and though this way was not used much for transatlantic trade, this meant the area of the state was easily accessible from all other English settlements along the coast.

It was here that Joseph’s father, Agerton, first bought property in North Carolina. On December 13th, 1754, he purchased 300 acres in New Hanover in what is now southeastern Pender County “on the East Side of a Branch of Long Creek.” (Pender was not established until 1874. New Hanover included what is now Pender and parts of Brunswick County.)

Agerton was taxed on this property the next year, 1755. There were only 362 white people taxed in New Hanover that year. There were about twenty families that owned great numbers of slaves here at this time. These families and others like them in southeastern North Carolina controlled the affairs of the counties in which they lived and set the standards of morals and religion.

Between 1756 and 1758, Agerton moved to Bladen County, just to the northeast. Here Daniel, Benjamin, and Joanna and husband James had been living since 1753. It was here circa 1758 that Agerton’s only son, Joseph, was born. This son would someday play a major part in early Louisiana Baptist history.

Most of the early Bladen County deeds before 1784 are lost due to a series of fires; thus we are unable to find Agerton’s first purchase of land in Bladen. Nevertheless a description of the bulk of his lands can be gleaned from later deeds. He purchased 640 acres from his brother Daniel on May 21,1762, on the West Side of the Northwest Cape Fear River. He then purchased an additional 2,560 acres between October 1766, and May 1773. Which was on both sides if the Northwest Cape Fear River near Goodman’s Swamp. Altogether, Agerton’s holdings would seem to form a very large and nearly contiguous extent of land on both sides of the Northwest Cape Fear near the present Cumberland County line in present-day northwest Bladen County.

Agerton, Daniel, Benjamin, James and Joanna were neighbors here on the Northwest Cape Fear River. The other brother, George Willis, came first to New Hanover, obtaining a land grant on Widow Creek in 1761 and selling out in 1767. He then moved to Robeson County, which used to be part of Bladen, not too far west from the rest of the family.

All the brothers were well-to-do planters with large land holdings. As a planter, Agerton owned slaves of which many were Indian. At this time in North Carolina many slaves were Indian; in fact, as late as the 1780’s in North Carolina a third of all the slaves were Indian. Indians were made slaves by the whites from the very beginning.

It was to a Cherokee Indian slave of Agerton’s that his only son, Joseph, was born. The relationship of Agerton and Joseph’s mother can only be speculation, but under the North Carolina laws of 1741 all interracial marriages were illegal. Since Joseph’s mother was a slave, he was born to a slave status. It is clear that his father considered him as an only son and loved him as one. This fact did not sit well with other members of the family.

It is also clear that Agerton intended to free Joseph, but this presented great problems. For the laws of 1741 stated in “An Act Concerning Servants and Slaves. . .” “That no Negro or Mulatto Slaves shall be set free, upon any Pretence whatsoever, except for Meritorious Services, to be adjudged and allowed of by the County Court and License thereupon first had and obtained.”

In her book, North Carolina Indian Records, Donna Spindel writes about the Indians of this area of the state.

The Lumbee Indians, most of who reside in Robeson County, constitute the largest group of Indians in eastern North Carolina. Although their exact origin is a complex matter, they are undoubtedly the descendants of several tribes, which occupied eastern Carolina during the earliest days of white settlement. Living along the Pee Dee and Lumber rivers in present-day Robeson and adjacent counties, these Indians of mixed blood were officially designated as Lumbees by the General Assembly in 1956. …Most of the Indians have Anglo-Saxon names and they are generally designated as “black” or “mulatto” in nineteenth-century documents; for example, in the U.S. Censuses of 1850-1880 the designation for Lumbee families is usually “mulatto.”

According to one of North Carolina’s top genealogists and historians, the late William Perry Johnson, “ . . . In North Carolina, American Indians Up Until Mid 1880’s were labeled Mulattos…” It is of this group that Joseph’s mother was probably related to.

Thus Joseph could not be freed solely by Agerton’s wishes. Agerton was in bad health and Joseph was still too young to prove “meritorious Services”; therefore, Agerton attempted to free him through his will written September 18, 1776, and also to bequeath to him most of his property. Just eighty days before this will was written, the Declaration of Independence was signed and times were, to say the least, chaotic. This was not the time to get anything through the court and time was running out, for Agerton was dead within a year.

The problem for Joseph was that the family was advised that this part of the will could not be overturned, and thus Joseph would not be freed according to his father’s wishes. This was an important legal point, for a slave could not legally inherit real estate at this time in North Carolina. Thus, if Joseph was not freed he could not be a legal heir. Since Agerton had no other children, this would make his eldest brother “legal heir at law” under the laws of primogeniture in effect until 1784. Agerton had intended the trustee to obtain Joseph’s freedom and then he could obtain his inheritance, but his brother Daniel ignored these wishes, as the following letter to the governor of North Carolina reveals:



Daniel Willis Senr. To Gov. Caswell Respecting Admtn. C.

(From MS Records in office of Secretary of State.)

Oct. 10th 1777.

MAY IT PLEASE YOUR EXCELLENCY

I have a small favor. To beg if your Excellency will be pleased to grant it Viz. As my Deceased Brother Agerton Willis gave the greatest Part of his Estate to his Mulatto boy Joseph and as he is a born slave not set free Agreeable to Law my Brothers heirs are not satisfied that he shall have it. I am One of the Executors. And by Mr. M. Grice’s Directions have the Estate in my possession as the Trustee Refused giving Security that the boy should have it when off Age If he Could Inherit it and now this setting of counsel some of them Intends to Apply for Administration as greatest Creditors. I am my Brothers heir at Law and if Administration is to be obtained I will apply myself Before the Rise of the Counsel and beg your Excellency will not grant it to any off them Until I Come your Excellency’s Compliance will greatly Oblige your most Obedient Humble Servant to Command.

DAN. WILLIS, SEN.

Pray Excuse my freedom.

The term “Mulatto boy” indicates Daniel’s attitude toward Joseph and was clearly a slur. Bear in mind that virtually all Indians of mixed blood were known as mulattos in North Carolina at this time.

The strong feelings of hate and prejudice toward the Indians can be illustrated by the following. Seventy-one years after Joseph was born, in 1829, President Andrew Jackson persuaded Congress to pass a bill that ordered all Indian tribes of the South to be moved west of the Mississippi River. The Cherokees appealed to the Supreme Court, and Chief Justice John Marshall upheld their claim that there was no constitutional right to remove them from their ancestral lands. Jackson called this decision “too preposterous,” then ignored the Supreme Court and ordered the army to “get them out.” Thus the Cherokees were driven out on the appropriately named “Trail of Tears” to Oklahoma. Along the way a quarter of them died. The Cherokees were one of the Five Civilized Tribes and were the most advanced of all Indians. They considered all men to be brothers, yet this was of little importance to many of that day.

Daniel’s letter reveals that Joseph was not of legal age as of the date of the will, September 18, 1776. Legal age was then twenty-one; therefore, Joseph could not have been born before September 18, 1755, as some have supposed.

It should also be pointed out that technically, this case should have proceeded to the District Superior Court at Wilmington, but this court was in abeyance until 1778 following the collapse of the Court Law in November 1772. Thus Daniel was writing to the Governor and Council instead.

The Bladen County tax list of 1784 indicates that the case had been decided by then since Agerton’s property was taxed in that year under different family members’ names. Even though this case had been settled and Joseph was living as if he were free, as he had always done, he was still technically a slave.

In November of 1787, Joseph’s first cousin, John Willis, by then a member of the General Assembly of North Carolina and ironically the first son of Daniel, introduced a “bill to emancipate Joseph, a Mulatto Slave, the property of the Estate of Agerton Willis, late of Bladen, deceased.” The bill passed its third reading on December 6, 1787, and Joseph was free. The following quotes from the settlement listed in the final act are of interest:

Whereas, Agerton Willis, late of Bladen County …did by his last will and testament devise to the said Joseph his freedom and emancipation, and did also give unto the said Joseph a considerable property, both real and personal: And whereas the executor and next of kin to the said Joseph did in pursuance of the said will take counsel thereon, and were well advised that the same could not by any means take effect, but would be of prejudice to the said slave and subject of him still as property of the said Agerton Willis; whereupon the said executor and next of kin, together with the heirs of the said Agerton Willis, deceased, did cause a fair and equal distribution of the said estate, as well as do equity and justice in the said case to the said Joseph, as in pursuance of their natural love and affection to the said Agerton, and did resolve on the freedom of the said Joseph and to give an equal proportion of the said estate “…Joseph Willis will henceforward be entitled to all the rights and privileges of a free person of mixed blood: Provided nevertheless, That this act shall not extend to enable the said Joseph by himself or attorney, or any other person in trust for him, in any manner to commence or prosecute any suit or suits for any other property but such as may be given him by this act…”

There is a lot revealed in this document. First, note that they call themselves the “next of kin” to the said Joseph. The “fair and equal distribution” that is spoken of turns out to be considerably less than the “greatest Part” mentioned in Daniel’s letter. A later deed reveals that Joseph got 320 acres as settlement and the above document indicates he also received some personal property as “consideration” for what “…he may have acquired by his own industry…”

The property that Joseph should have received is described as “unbequeathed lands of Agerton” in later deeds because this part of the will was overturned. These deeds reveal that Joseph should have received at least 2,490 acres and other deeds are no doubt lost. There was also a vast amount of personal property that Joseph did not get. There was also an additional 970 acres deeded directly to other members of the family. (Keep in mind that Agerton’s will is lost and this information is gleaned from other documents and later deeds.)

Many years later in Louisiana, Joseph would tell his grandchildren that he left North Carolina with his family with nothing but a horse, bridle, saddle, and the money he had from the sale of his property. Different grandchildren also asked him from time to time about the family and he would tell how his mother was Cherokee Indian and his father was English, and that he was born in Bladen County, North Carolina. This is why today family tradition is consistent among all the different branches of the family that have been traced. Some branches of the family, which have had no contact during this century, have this identical family tradition.

And whatever became of Joseph’s first cousin, John Willis, who helped emancipate him? He was a member of the General Assembly of North Carolina in 1782, 1787, 1789 and 1791, a member of the senate in 1794, and of the House of Representatives in 1795. In the same year that he helped get Joseph’s “legal freedom” 1787, he was appointed one of a committee of five from North Carolina to ratify the Constitution of the United States. This was done just in time for North Carolina to enter the Union as the twelfth state and to assist in the election of Washington as the first President. Governor Samuel Ashe in 1795 in the 4th Brigade of the Militia Continental Army then commissioned him Brigadier General. The land that the county seat of Robeson County, North Carolina (Lumberton) is located on was donated by him from his Red Bluff Plantation. A statue of General John Willis stands there today.

It was during these trying times for Joseph that the Revolutionary War began. Joseph and a friend of his from Bladen County, Ezekiel O’Quin, left for South Carolina to join up with General Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox.” Marion operated out of the swampy forest of the Pedee region in the lower part of South Carolina. His strategy was to surprise the enemy, cut his supply lines, kill their men, and release any American prisoners they might have. He and his men then retreated swiftly back again to the thick recesses of the deep swamps. They were very effective, and their fame was widespread.

They also took great pride in themselves. Maroin’s orderly book states, “…Every officer to provide himself with a blue coatee, faced and cuffed with scarlet cloth, and lined with scarlet; white buttons; and a white waistcoat and breeches…also a cap and a black feather…” Joseph would later tell the family, “We were called Marion men.” The lessons learned here would serve him well in later years. Joseph was proud of this service under Marion, for at the time in Bladen County in 1777, it was estimated that two-thirds of the people were Tories. An oath of allegiance to the state was required at this time in North Carolina and those refusing to take it were required to leave the state within sixty days.

It was here with the Marion men the Joseph would become a friend with Richard Curtis, Jr. Curtis was to play a major role in Joseph’s decision to go west. Later, in 1791, Curtis would become the first Baptist minister to establish a church in Mississippi. Ezekiel O’Quin would later follow Joseph to Louisiana as the second Baptist minister west of the Mississippi River in Louisiana. In 1786, part of Bladen County became Robeson County, and Ezekiel is listed as head of a household there in 1790. Early Louisiana author, W.E. Paxton, would write many years later that Ezekiel was born in 1781, and every major author that followed used that date. Of course this could not be true if he fought in the Revolutionary War and was a head of a household in 1790. Ezekiel “grew up in the same area as Joseph”. Perhaps this Ezekiel was John’s grandfather.

Soon after the war, Joseph would marry Rachel Brafford. Their firstborn was born circa 1785 and was named for Joseph’s father, Agerton. (I am descendant of this son.) Then came Mary, born circa 1787. Both children were born in North Carolina. Later Louisiana census records confirm North Carolina as their place of birth. There may have been other children born here unknown to me.

The last mention of Joseph in North Carolina was in the 1788 tax list of Bladen County. He was listed with 320 acres. Taxed in the same district in 1784 was William Bradford, who I suspect was Rachel’s father.

By 1790, Joseph was living with Rachel in Cheraws County, South Carolina, just southwest of the Bladen across the state line. The 1790 census lists him as the head of the household with two females and one male over 16. It was here that Rachel died between 1792 and 1794. It is of interest to note that Richard Curtis, Sr. was on a jury list of 1779 for Cheraws District. This indicates that the Curtis family lived in this area for at least a short while. Other historians have stated that the family was living in southern South Carolina at this time.

By 1794, Joseph had moved to Greenville County (the Washington Circuit Court District) South Carolina and purchased 174 acres on the south side of the Reedy River on May 3, 1794. Two adjoining tracts of 226 acres were purchased on August 16, 1794, and 200 acres were purchased on May 8, 1775, on the Reedy River. These three tracts totaled 600 acres. The 226 acres had rent houses and orchards on it.

These deeds also give us the name of Joseph’s second wife, Sarah, an Irish woman. In South Carolina two more “known children” were born: Joseph, Jr., born circa 1792 to Rachel, who soon died, and Jemima, born circa 1796 to Sarah, who seems to have died while Jemima was a small child. However, Sarah is still called Joseph’s wife in a deed as of August 8, 1799. Thus Joseph lost two wives in less than 10 years. This was the first of a series of personal tragedies.

Here in Greenville County Joseph became more active in the church, joining the Main Saluda Church. He attended the Bethel Association as a delegate from Main Saluda from 1794 to 1796 with church reports. Bethel Association was the most influential Baptist Association in the “Carolina Back Country” at that time. Main Saluda was declared extinct by 1797 and Joseph became a member of the head of Enoree Baptist Church. Head of Enoree (known as Reedy River since 1841) was also a member of Bethel Association. Joseph is listed in the Head of Enoree Chronicles, along with William Thurston, as an “outstanding member” of Head of Enoree. It was this same William Thurston that would buy Joseph’s 600 acres for $1,200 on August 8 1799, after Joseph returned from a trip to Mississippi in 1798. It was here at Head of Enoree that Joseph was first licensed to preach. After the 1798 trip to Mississippi, Joseph returned to South Carolina to move his family and sell his property. Never one to squander time, he helped in incorporating the “Head of Enoree Baptist Society” in 1799 before leaving. It seems that he tarried until the spring of 1800 to depart on his second trip west, thereby avoiding the winter weather.

It seems certain that Joseph’s religious background was strongly influenced by the Separate Baptists in North Carolina as well as South Carolina, although he came into contact with other influences in both states. The Bethel Association, prior to 1804, held, in general, Calvinistic sentiments. The majority of Baptists that entered the South Carolina back country, which included Greenville County, were at first known as Separates. It is also of interest to note that another member of the Bethel Association in 1797 was William Ford. Later, in Louisiana, Joseph was closely associated with a William Prince Ford and gave his diary to him, but it seems this William Ford was from Kentucky.

The Separates came from New England and were one of the effects of the Great Awakening led by Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. This “new awareness” caused a division in the Congregational churches into groups called Old Lights and New Lights. The New Lights claimed the religion of the Old Lights had grown soulless and formal and no longer had the light of scriptural inspiration. Therefore, since the New Lights withdrew from the Congregational churches, the New Lights were known as Separates. The Separates had great missionary zeal and spread at a rapid pace to the other colonies.

It was Shubal Stearns that led the Separates into North Carolina. He established Sandy Creek Church in Guilford (now Randolph) County in 1755. It was mainly to the English settlers that Stearns and his followers ministered. Forty-two churches were established from Sandy Creek in seventeen years.

There is another interesting side note about Joseph's membership at Head of Enoree. Just a few years before Joseph became a member there; the pastor of Head of Enoree by the name of Thomas Musick was excommunicated for immorality in 1793. This same man later organized the Fee Fee Baptist Church in Missouri in 1807 (according to their church historian), located just across the Mississippi River near St. Louis. Fee Fee would certainly be the oldest Baptist church west of the Mississippi River in the entire United States if this were accurate. Calvary at Bayou Chicot was not established until 1812. Nevertheless, Musick did not preach west of the Mississippi River until several years after Joseph.

As mentioned before, Joseph was a member of Head of Enoree in 1797. Late that year or the next year he made his first trip to Mississippi and I believe this was with Richard Curtis, Jr. This trip was made without the family, as was the custom of many at this time. To venture farther west, find a safe place, and then return for the family. W. E. Paxton records the result of this first trip:

…They sought not In vain, for soon after their return they were visited by William Thompson, who preached unto them the Gospel of our God; and on the first Saturday in October, 1798, came William Thompson, Richard Curtis and Joseph Willis, who constituted them into a church, subject to the government of the Cole's Creek church, calling the newly constituted arm of Cole's Creek, “The Baptist Church on Buffaloe”…

This church was located near Woodville, Mississippi near the Mississippi River east of Alexandria, Louisiana. Joseph returned for the family by 1799, but it would seem he might have made a trip across the river into Louisiana before this date since this is where he returned with his family.

Curtis had already made one trip to this part of the country in 1780 In that year Richard Curtis, Jr. along with his parents, half-brother and three brothers and all their wives, together with John Courtney and John Stampley and their wives, set out for Mississippi. Mississippi Baptist historian T. C. Schilling wrote that, “...two brothers by the name of Daniel and William Ogden and a man by the name of Perkins, with their families, most of whom were Baptists...” also were along on this first trip. The late Dr. Greene Strother, maternal great-grandson of Joseph, told me that it was family tradition among his family that Joseph's first trip into Louisiana was in search of a Willis Perkins later, in 1833; Joseph is found in Louisiana at Occupy Church with a Willis Perkins. Census records reveal that this Perkins would have been a son of the latter.


The Curtises, like the Willises, were originally from Virginia. Paxton said:

The Curtises were known to be Marion men, and when not in active service, they were not permitted to enjoy the society of their families, but they were hunted like wild beasts from their hiding places in the swamps of Pedee.

This was because they were a thorn in the side of the British and their Tory neighbors.

They left South Carolina in the spring of 1780 traveling by land to the northeastern corner of Tennessee. There they built three flat boats and when the Holston River reached sufficient depth toward the end of that year, they set out for the Hatcher country of Mississippi by way of the Holston, Tennessee, Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Those mentioned above traveled on the first two boats; the names of those on the last boat are not known. Those in the last boat had contracted smallpox and were required to travel a few hundred yards behind the other two boats. Somewhere near the Clinch River, on a bend in the Tennessee River near the northwestern corner of Georgia, Cherokee Indians attacked them. The first two boats escaped, but the third boat was captured. The price paid for this attack was high, for the Indians contracted smallpox from them and many died.

Those on the first two boats continued on their voyage and landed safely at the mouth of Cole's creek about 18 miles above Natchez by land. Here in this part of the state they lived. They called Richard Curtis, Jr., who was licensed to preach in S. Carolina, as their preacher. He would later organize the first Baptist Church in Mississippi, in 1791, called Sa1em. As time passed the population increased. Some were Baptists such as William Chaney from South Carolina and his son Bailey. A preacher from Georgia by the name of Harigail also arrived here and zealously denounced the “corruption’s of Romanism.” This, along with the conversion of a Spanish Catholic by the name of Stephen d'Alvoy, brought the wrath of the Spanish authorities. To make an example of d'Alvoy and Curtis, they decided to arrest them and send them to the silver mines in Mexico. Warned of this plan, d'Alvoy and Curtis and a man by the name of Bill Hamberlin fled to South Carolina, arriving in the fall of 1795. Harigail also escaped and fled this area.

Paxton stated that the country between Mississippi and South Carolina was “then infested by hostile Indians.” It is for this reason, I believe, that Curtis brought Joseph with him when he returned to Mississippi in 1798, as well as the fact that Joseph was a licensed Baptist preacher also and Curtis who was ordained by then, knew well his courage under fire as a Marion man. It also seems likely that Joseph knew at least part of the Cherokee language since he was half Cherokee himself, an asset that could be of great help if the Cherokees were encountered on the way to Mississippi.

After the trip with Curtis to Mississippi in 1798, Joseph returned to South Carolina for his family and to sell his property. As mentioned before, he sold all of his real estate to William Thurston in August of 1799, indicating his wish to depart soon.

The exact date that Joseph preached in Louisiana west of the Mississippi is not known, but it was before April 30, 1803, the date of the Louisiana Purchase and most likely before October 1, 1800, the date Napoleon secured Louisiana from Spain.

There are three facts that confirm the above statements. First, Joseph sold out in South Carolina in 1799 and is not found there in the 1800 census. Second, early Baptist historian David Benedict wrote; even before Paxton in his book, A History of the Baptist Denomination in America General, “…Joseph Willis… has done much for the cause, and spent a large fortune while engaged in the ministry, often at the hazard of his life, while the State belonged to the Spanish government.” That had to be before October 1, 1800. The Louisiana Baptist Associational Committee, in his obituary, wrote in 1854, “The Gospel was proclaimed by him in these regions before the American flag was hoisted here.” That would have been before April 30, 1803. The following statement by Paxton is often used to contradict the above two:

Where he entered the State or what route he took I can only conjecture. Only this is known: In November of this year [1804] he preached the first sermon ever preached in the State west of the Mississippi River by other than Catholic priests. This was at Vermillion, about forty miles southwest of Baton Rouge. At night he preached at Plaquemine Brul'e. This was during a visit in which he preached but three or four times, and that at the peril of his life.

Paxton is writing about what he knows about this section of the state. The move-ments of Joseph before the Louisiana Purchase were even more dangerous and thus no records exist except the aforementioned two statements. Bienville's Black Code, which permitted “the exercise of the Roman Catholic Creed only”, was still in effect. In January 1797, deLemos issued regulations which made it mandatory for children of non-Catholic emigrant families to embrace Roman Catholicism and which forbade the coming of any ministers into the territory except Roman Catholics. It is historical fact that Joseph helped establish a church near Woodville, Mississippi in 1798 very near the Mississippi River. With all other known facts, it seems that Joseph first preached here between 1800 and 1803. It should be noted that Vermillion was what is now Lafayette and Plaquemine Brule was located in Acadia Parish about 13 miles northeast of Crowley near present-day Branch, Louisiana.

From here Joseph moved north to Ville Platte. There is an interesting story that Pastor J. D. Scott of Alexandria was told in 1945 by a very elderly lady, Grandma DeVille, from Bayou Chicot, in the presence of Pastor Theo Cormier. Theo Cormier interpreted her French. She was old enough to remember a man by the name of John Shaw who previously had been a schoolteacher and had a private school in Ville Platte. It was to Ville Platte that Joseph fled after being run out of Vermillion for preaching the Gospel. Here he met John Shaw. After discovering that Joseph was a Baptist preacher, John invited him into his home and made his school available for Joseph's preaching. This began the first meetings held on a regular basis by a Baptist preacher west of the Mississippi the year was 1805. He was also the first resident pastor in the state. It was not long before he met opposition from the Catholics, and both his and his family's lives were threatened.

Therefore, John Shaw and Joseph were told to leave or else. They loaded their belongings and families onto a wagon and headed to Texas. But when they got as far as Bayou Chicot, Joseph's conscience reminded him that he was a missionary for God. He told Mr. Shaw that he would have to get off, for God had sent him there to do missionary work and he would be violating what he knew to be the will of God. He was not going to run any more. Here the family lived for approximately the next 25 years. Joseph bought property, farmed, raised a family, and preached. Mr. Shaw went on to Texas; when they got to Burr's Ferry near present-day Toledo Bend they camped because the Sabine River was up. There one of his two children died and was buried on the banks of the Sabine. His wife later died in Texas. Shaw then returned to Bayou Chicot and remarried.

Joseph settled at Bayou Chicot in 1805. The next year the Mississippi Baptist Association was organized. Though a licensed minister, a church had never ordained him. It was his belief that he should be, and that such should be done to give him the authority to organize a church. Some have questioned this and have asked why he did not just organize one anyway without his ordination. The answer is clear that he felt that to do so was wrong. He was raised this way in North Carolina and later he was a strong member of Bethel Association in South Carolina. He knew well the importance of banding together. There are those who have asked why he did not become ordained sooner. The answer is clear here also: he had not felt a need to yet. The population was just too sparse -- he had only six members in 1812. Before that, his ministry was a one-on-one or one-on-two basis. But now Louisiana was growing at a rapid pace. In 1812 the state population was slightly over 80,000. Eight years later it was over 200,000, yet this section of the state was still thinly populated with churches 20-50 miles apart and having little communication with each other.

Thus In 1810 he left for Mississippi to be ordained. His son, Joseph, Jr., would later often speak of the crossing of the Mississippi River at Natchez and how dangerous it could be. It was also said that he once crossed the mighty river riding a mule in order to take a short cut and save time.

After reaching Mississippi, once again prejudice raised its ugly head. Joseph took his letter to a local church stating that he was a member in good standing while in South Carolina. Such was the custom then as now among Baptists to transfer church membership. But the church to which he gave his letter objected to his ordination “lest the cause of Christ should suffer reproach from the humble social position of his servant.” Paxton states: “Such obstacles would have daunted the zeal of any man engaged in a less holy cause.” The “humble social position” of Joseph was certainly not his wealth but the fact that his skin was dark.

This points out a very important personality trait of Joseph's that is recorded over and over again. He was long-suffering and willing to pay whatever price necessary to proclaim the Gospel Through all of this he went forward, not hating or becoming embittered.

Paxton stated: “…he was a simple-hearted Christian, glowing with the love of Jesus and an effective speaker.” His youngest son Aimuwell said before his death in 1937 “the secret of his father's success was personal work.” He said that as a boy he saw his father go to a man in the field, hold his hand, and preach to him until he surrendered to Christ.

Today, seven generations later, his influence can still be seen thus Joseph was never “daunted” for his was a high calling, a single-mindedness of purpose.

After this rejection he was advised by a friendly minister to obtain a recommendation from the people he worked among. This he did and presented it to the Mississippi Association. The association accepted the recommendation and ordained Joseph and constituted a church at Bayou Chicot called Calvary on November 13, 1812. Calvary is still active today. Louisiana had been a state barely seven months and was in a state of turmoil. Great Britain did not consider the Louisiana Purchase legally valid and Congress had declared war on Great Britain the past June. [The War of 1812]

Just a month and a day earlier on the Boque Chitto River in what is now Washington Parish, Half Moon Bluff Baptist Church was organized. Located approximately eight miles from the Mississippi border, Half Moon Bluff was the first Baptist Church organized in what is now Louisiana, but was east of the Mississippi River. Some fifteen to twenty miles southwest of Half Moon Bluff Church, Mount Nebo Baptist Church was organized on January 31, 1813. Half Moon Bluff is extinct, but Mount Nebo is still active.

The Methodists established a church even before these dates near Branch, Louisiana, but the first non-Catholic church in Louisiana was Christ Church in New Orleans. Its first service was held November 17, 1805 in the Cabildo and it was predominantly Episcopal.

Paxton states that “The zeal of Father Willis, as he came to be called by the affectionate people among whom he labored, could not be bounded by the narrow limits of his own home, but he traveled far and wide.”

He was called the “Apostle to the Opelousas” and “Father Willis” by those who loved him. According to family tradition, strong determination and profound faith were his shields. He would often work barefooted, walking great distances to visit and preach to small groups. He rode logs in order to cross streams or travel downstream. He would sometimes return home from a mission tour as late as 1 o'clock in the morning and awaken his wife to prepare clothes that he might leave again a few hours later.

By 1818, when Joseph and others founded the Louisiana Baptist Association at Cheneyville, he had been instrumental in founding all five charter member churches. They were Calvary, 1812; Beulah, 1816; Vermillion, 1817; Aimuwell, 1817 (also called Debourn); and Plaquemine, 1817. Aimuwell was about 5 miles southeast of Oberlin, Beulah at Cheneyville, Calvary at Bayou Chicot, Vermillion at Lafayette, and Plaquemine near Branch. In 1824 he helped establish Zion Hill Church at Beaver Darn along with William Wilbourn and Isham Nettles. As stated before, he went “far and wide” establishing a church October 21, 1827, just 17 miles from Orange, Texas, and the Texas state line near Edgerly, Louisiana, called Antioch Primitive Baptist Church.

Joseph kept a diary. These notes were arranged in 1841 by W. P. Ford and copied by Paxton in 1858. Paxton admits most of his facts concerning Central Louisiana Baptists are from this manuscript and Louisiana Association Minutes. This manu-script is lost today. Mr. Ford also made remarks in this manuscript. One of Ford's observations made in 1834 is recorded by Paxton and is very revealing concerning Joseph:

Nearly all the churches now left in the association were gathered either directly or indirectly by the labors of Mr. Willis. Mr. Ford remarks of this effort: “It was truly affecting to hear him speak of them as his child-ren; and with all the affection of a father allude to some schisms and divi-sions that had arisen in the past. To warn them against the occurrence of anything of the kind in the future. But when he spoke of the fact that two or three of them had already become extinct, his voice failed and he was compelled to give utterance to his feelings by his tears. Surely the heart must have been hard that could not be melted by the manifestation of so much affection for he wept not alone.”

It should also be noted that no church ever split while Joseph was its pastor. Historian John T. Christian's remarks in his book are further revealing:

It must steadily be borne in mind that in no other state of the Union have Baptists been compelled to face such overwhelming odds; and such long and sustained opposition... The wonder is not that at first the Baptists made slow progress, but that they made any at all.

The Opelousas Court House reveals that Joseph first bought land in Bayou Chicot in 1805. Here on June 29, 1809, he sold a slave to Hilaire Bordelon for $500.00. Again in June of 1810 he sold another slave for $480 to Godefrey Solleau. Again on January 5, 1816, he sold a slave for $200 to Cesar Hanchett with the provision that this slave would be freed at the age of 32.

On March 10, 1818, Joseph sold 411 acres for $2000 to John Montgomery "in the neighborhood of Bayou Chicot." The deed reveals that Joseph had originally purchased this land from John Haye September "1,1809. This property had a great deal of improvements on it. On the same day Joseph bought a slave from John Montgomery for $800.

Other deeds refer to other property that Joseph bought while there, such as 148 acres he sold for $351 to James Murdock January 6, 1824. This land was part of a tract originally purchased by Joseph from Silas Fletcher on April 20, 1818. He sold the balance of these lands to Thomas Insall on October 31, 1827, for $500.

His last sale at Bayou Chicot was the sale of three slaves on August 17, 1829, to James Groves for $1500. Thomas Insall paid off a note he owed Joseph on October 11, 1833. These are but a few of Joseph's business transactions while at Bayou Chicot. They confirm historian Benedict's statement that Joseph "spent a large fortune while engaged in the ministry" for all of this money was gone in his later years.

It was here at Bayou Chicot that most of his children were born. Miss Mabel Thompson of Ville Platte has in her possession the diary of her great-grandfather who was the schoolteacher in that area. In his diary, he listed the patrons of the children who attended school Listed July l, 1814, is Joseph Willis.

According to respected Bayou Chicot historian Mabel Thompson. “Chicot’s chief attraction was it had an abundance of natural resources, such as, timber, good water, wild game, good soil, and friendly Indians… Chicot became a trading center for a large territory, extending as far West as the Sabine River, serving Indians, trappers, Frontiersmen, homesteaders, as well as plantation owners.”

Between 1799 and 1803, Josehp’s wife, Sarah, died. Joseph remarried and a third son was born on January 6, 1804, to this new wife. He was named William and is buried at Humble (formerly called Willis Flat) Cemetery next to the Bethel Baptist Church at Elizabeth. This third wife was probably a Johnson and was born in South Carolina, but it seems that Joseph met and married her in Mississippi or Louisiana. It was to her that most of Joseph's children were born. Along with William, other children born to this union were Lemuel, born circa 1812; John, born circa 1814, and four additional females who are listed in the 1830 census between the ages of five and twenty. The last two known children of Joseph were Samuel, born circa 1836, and the youngest Aimuwell, born May 1, 1837 and died September 9, 1937. Joseph would have been about 79 years old when Aimuwell was born. Historian Ivan Wise states that two sons of Joseph died “poisoned on honey and were buried a half mile from the present town of Oakdale.” I have not been able to find their graves.

This third wife died and is buried at Bayou Chicot, but the location of the grave is unknown. This personal tragedy, along with the loss of his other wives and children, would have destroyed most men. I have traced 13 of his children, but at least one historian says he had 19. Most of the above children that were still living followed Joseph when he would later move to Rapides Parish. Many are neighbors with him as late as 1850 as the census reveals, as well as several grandchildren who were grown by then.

The eldest child, Agerton (sometimes spelled Edgerton), married Sophie Story, an Irish orphan brought from Tennessee by a Mr. Park who then lived near Holmesville below Bunkie. Agerton’s son, Daniel Hubbard Willis, was the first of many descendants to follow Joseph into the ministry. Daniel was called by Paxton “…one of the most respected ministers in the Louisiana Association.” He established many churches himself and was blind in his later years. His daughter would read the scriptures and he would preach. He was pastor of Amiable and Spring Hill Baptist Church for many years. He was my great-great-grandfather. He settled on Spring Creek near Glenmora at a community called Babb’s Bridge.

Jemima married William Dyer and they lived on the Calcasieu River near Master’s Creek. Mary married Thomas Dial (her first husband was a Johnson) from South Carolina and they were both living in Rapides Parish in 1850. Joseph Willis, Jr. married Jennie Coker at Bayou Chicot and later moved to Rapides Parish and settled near Ten Mile Creek. Lemuel married Emeline Perkins from Ten Mile Creek and settled in Oakdale/Elizabeth area. The late Dr. Greene Strother on the “Darbourn” on the upper reaches of the Calcasieu. Aimuwell married twice and settled in Leesville. His first wife was Marguerite Leuemche and his second wife was Lucy Foshel.

Many of the descendants of these children live in these same areas today. Eight generations have lived in the Forest Hill, Spring Creek area, including Joseph. Oakdale probably has more descendants of Joseph than any place.

I visited with Aimuwell’s daughter, Pearl, in December of 1980. It was a strange feeling to talk with someone whose grandfather was born circa 1758. Joseph was about 79 when her father was born and Aimuwell was in his eighties when she was born. No photograph exists of Joseph. The photograph in Durham and Ramond’s book, Baptist Builders in Louisiana, is of Aimuwell, listed as Joseph in error.

Not surprising, most descendants are Baptists, but far from all are. Many have fought in the major wars. To name but a few, Joseph fought in the Revolutionary War. Daniel Willis, Jr., Aimuwell, William, and Lemuel in the Civil War. Dr. Daniel Oscar Willis and Dr. Greene Strother in World War I. Dr. Strother captured more Germans than any other besides the famed Sgt. York. He was awarded the French Croix de Guerre, the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart. For a time he served as chaplain to General Claire Chennault’s “Flying Tigers” while in China. A host of descendants fought in World War II, including: Robert (Bobby) Kenneth Willis who was the first soldier killed in action in World War II from Rapides Parish. The Pineville American Legion Post is named in his honor. He was killed on December 7, 1941, and his body lies at the bottom of Pearl Harbor aboard the USS Arizona.

After moving to Spring Creek east of Calcasieu River near Glenmora around 1828 to 1829, Joseph began to establish churches in this area as well. The first was Amiable on September 6, 1828, near Glenmora. Next came Occupy in 1833 near Pitkin, and Spring Hill in 1841 near Forest Hill.

Joseph was about 83 when Spring Hill was established, and his health was failing him. The Baptist churches of that day did not necessarily meet weekly. Preachers would have to travel long distances. Those that met weekly might not have a preacher but once a month or every other month. Discipline was stern with members being excluded (fellowship being withdrawn by the church) for gossiping, drinking too much, quarrelling, dancing, using bad language, and in one case at Amiable, for “having abused her mother.” But the churches were also forgiving if you admitted you were wrong and promised not to do it again. A good example is found in the Spring Hill Church minutes. After twice before promising not to “partake of ardent spirits” any more, Robert Snoddy had the fellowship of the church withdrawn from him on May 31, 1851. A month later Snoddy sent this letter to the church explaining his actions:

Dear Brethren, Having been overtaken in an error I set down to confess it. I did use liquor too freely, but did not say anything or do anything out of the way. In as much as I do expect to be at the conference I send you my thoughts. I did promise you that I would refrain from using the poison, but I having broken my promise, I have therefore rendered myself unworthy of your fellowship and cannot murmur if you exclude me. I suppose it is no use to tell you that I have been sincerely punished for my crime in as much as I have confessed the same to you before but I make this last request of you for forgiveness or is your forgiveness exhausted towards me? It is necessary that I say to you that I sorely repented for my guilt, but my brethren if you have in your wisdom supposed that my life brings to much reproach on that most respectful of all causes, exclude me, exclude me, Oh exclude me. But I do love the cause so well that I will try to be at the door of the temple of the Lord. Brethren whilst you are dealing with me do it mercifully prayerfully and candidly. I was presented by a beloved brother with a temperance pledge to which I replied I would think about it, but if I could of obtained it. It is my determination to join it yet – and never taste another drop of the deathly cup whilst I live at the peril of my life. Nothing more but I request your prayers dear brethren – Robert Snoddy

Robert Snoddy was restored to membership. Four months later he was once again reported drinking and once again excluded.

Amiable Church in its minutes of 1879 stated its position in no uncertain terms:

On motion be it resolved that we as a church are willing to look over and forgive the past and we as a church for the time to come allow no more playing or dancing among our church members if they do they may expect to be dealt with.

Pastors were usually called to preach by the church for a one-year period. In 1857, Amiable voted to give Pastor D. H. Willis $100 “to sustain him for the next twelve months…it being the amount stated by him.”

In 1833 Joseph became pastor of Occupy Church near Pitkin. The church is presently located about one-half mile from Ten Mile Creek. He served as pastor here for about 16 years. It was her also that he married his last wife, Elvy Sweat, who was many years younger than him. According to family tradition, she was not good to him. Therefore, his son, Lemuel, went and got him and brought him to his home in Oakdale where he lived the remainder of his life. On a bed in an ox wagon used for an ambulance, he sang as the wagon rolled along to Lemuel’s home. It is said that Lemuel had two men along to help him and Joseph witnessed to them. He preached to the last, from a chair in the church or from his bed in the home.

It was during this time that a man from the government by the name of John Phillips came by taking affidavits as to the population’s race; Joseph signed an affidavit that his mother was Cherokee and his father was English. This was registered at the courthouse in Alexandria.

Joseph died on September 14, 1854. He is buried at Occupy Church cemetery. Twenty years after he began his ministry in Louisiana, there were only ten preachers and eight Baptist churches with a membership of 150 in the entire state. On January 18, 1955, just over 100 years after his death, 250 people along with 16 ministers gathered in freezing weather to unveil a monument in his memory at his gravesite.

The Louisiana Association published the following estimate of his work:

…Before the church began to send missionaries into destitute regions, he at his own expense, and frequently at the risk of his life, came to these parts, preaching the gospel of the Redeemer. For fifty years he was instant in season and out of season, preaching, exhorting, and instructing regarding not his property, his health or even his life, if he might be the means of turning sinners to Christ…

Baptist historian Glen Lee Greene writes:

In all the history of Louisiana Baptists it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find a man who suffered more reverses, who enjoyed fewer rewards, or who single-handedly achieved more enduring results for the denomination than did Joseph Willis.


Randy Willis
P O Box 15345
Austin, Texas 78761
512-251-3212 Home
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SubjectAuthorDate Posted
randy3345 6 Mar 2000 7:51AM GMT 
Mary Ann Webber 6 Mar 2000 8:15AM GMT 
Patricia Cole 22 Mar 2000 8:14PM GMT 
Patricia Cole 9 Apr 2001 5:04PM GMT 
maertha 19 May 2009 12:49PM GMT 
Patricia Cole 22 Mar 2000 8:16PM GMT 
Patricia Cole 22 Mar 2000 8:17PM GMT 
Joseph F. Degraw 9 Mar 2000 6:40AM GMT 
MaryLou Klemm 26 Mar 2000 8:01PM GMT 
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