52 Ancestors #5 – William J. Willis

My great-great-grandfather was William J. Willis. I know very little about his life. We have four records that we can tie directly to him, none that let us know specifically where he was born or who his parents were.

The one most clearly identifiable is the 1850 census for Fayette County, Alabama. William Willis 1850Although the last name is spelled Wilas, he is identifiable because of the names of two of his children, Jabus G. and Edy C., that we have been able to link to my great-grandfather, James Franklin Willis, as being his half-siblings. The things we learn from this census about William is that he was born about 1805 in South Carolina and that he could read and write. We also learn the family moved to Alabama between 1831 (Jabus’ birth in South Carolina) and 1834 (Martha’s birth in Alabama).

The female listed below him is not one of his children; although he married about 1829 and had a daughter born about 1830, this female was born about 1826. William’s second wife was my great-great-grandmother, Amy E. Collins, who was born about 1826 in South Carolina and I assume the difficult-to-read name that may be Amia is likely her. Family tradition states his first wife was Amy’s sister, Judah Collins, who had died sometime between the birth of Anna (shown above to be about 1842) and the time of the 1850 census. Additional support for identifying William is that the families enumerated on either side of him were the families of Judah’s and Amy’s brothers John W. Collins, Alexander Collins and sister Sarah Collins Dodson.

William Willis 1840Moving backward in time, the 1840 census for Fayette County, Alabama, which only provides the name of the head of household and tic marks representing gender and age ranges of members of the household, shows William, born between 1800 and 1810, and his wife also born between 1800 and 1810, one son born between 1830 and 1835, two daughters born between 1835 and 1840 and one daughter born between 1830 and 1835. Those ages are consistent with what we know about William and Judah and their children: Jabez (born about 1830); Martha (born about 1833), Sarah (born about 1835) and Edy (born about 1839).

Census records for Fayette County provide evidence that a fairly large number of the families had moved from Spartanburg and Union Counties in South Carolina between the 1830 and 1840 censuses, including the Collins, Ballenger, and Bobo families with which my Willis family has intermarried.

William Willis 1830An 1830 census for Spartanburg, South Carolina shows William Willis born between 1800 and 1810, a woman also born between 1800 and 1810 and a female born between 1825 and 1830. Because this is a tic mark census and because the 1840 census for William Willis does not show a daughter born between 1825 and 1830, and because of the Spartanburg County connection to Fayette County, I am assuming this is my William Willis and that their first daughter died between 1830 and 1840 and that it is possible or likely he was born in Spartanburg County, South Carolina.

Census records for 1790, 1800, 1810 and 1820 in Spartanburg only two Willis families: Richard and Drucilla Pearson Barnett Willis and their children and, for a short time his brother William Willis. William only had one son who moved to Kentucky. Only one of Richard’s sons’ families, John and Martha Patsy Smith Willis, was married, living in South Carolina, and shows sons born between 1800 and 1810. Several Willis family trees list one of John and Martha’s children as being a William born about 1813. Even though these trees provide no information other than a name and approximate birth with no supporting documentation, I still have to question where that connection arose and, if they are accurate, then there is no room for another William within that family.

On the other hand, my brother provided a Y-DNA sample, which we submitted to the Willis DNA project. Based on similarities and dissimilarities with the other DNA samples, it supports the likelihood that we are a part of the Richard and Drucilla Pearson Barnett Willis family, which leads me back to the only census records within that family where William might possibly fit and that is John and Martha Patsy Smith Willis.

The 1860 census for Fayette County lists Amy Willis as a widow with a son, James Franklin, which places William’s death between the 1850 and 1860 censuses. Although William did not leave a will, administration papers were filed with papers dated between 12 April 1855 and February 1857 and naming his son, Jabez G. Willis as administrator. With these papers we learned William had been treated with quinine, morphine and medicinal powders for a year before he died. The net result of the accounting of his property, sales of crops and outstanding debts was a declaration of insolvency. None of his children are listed in any of the papers, other than Jabez as administrator.

We found some references to Jabez Willis that seemed to refer to the father rather than the son. Because of these references, we believe William’s full name was William Jabez Willis.

The Willis family in Fayette County has had a long relationship with the Mount Lebanon Baptist Church and family tradition states that William was buried in the original cemetery grounds along with his first wife, Judah. On a trip to Fayette County in 2010, my daughter and I visited the Old Mount Lebanon Cemetery with a second cousin who is still a member of that church; I took photographs of the area where they are believed to be buried. 2010 153 William J Willis Traditional spot smallerThe unmarked location is only supported by family tradition but is just a few feet to the right of the location of the rest of the Willis family buried there, including his second wife, Amy, and his son, James Franklin.

I have been unable to find any information on his daughters, other than Edy Caroline who married James Hamilton Ballenger. Early marriage records for Fayette County are very spotty and there are none I have found for Martha, Sarah or Anna Willis. Jabez G. Willis died during the Civil War and his widow, Mary Priscilla Middleton Willis, remarried into the Miles family. Oftentimes, daughters keep family heirlooms and it is possible information regarding William and Judah or photographs of them exist in the hands of descendants of his daughters. I would love to hear from anyone who might have more information on William Jabez Willis, his parents or any of his children.


This blog was prepared as a part of Amy Johnson Crow’s  No Story Too Small 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge.

Eady Caroline Willis Ballenger – Happy 171st Birthday

Eady Caroline Willis was the fifth (known) child of William J. and Judah Collins Willis. She was born August 19, 1839 in Fayette County, Alabama. Her parents were both born in South Carolina and had moved to Alabama between the birth of her brother, Jabez, about 1830 in South Carolina and her sister, Martha, born in Alabama in 1833, along with her grandparents, John M. and Edith McCarter Collins, and several other Spartanburg neighbors.

Caroline’s mother, Judah, died in about 1842, possibly in childbirth, and her father married his sister-in-law, Amy Edith Collins, in about 1850. William and Amy Collins Willis are my great-great-grandparents and Eady Caroline was my half-great-grandaunt.

Caroline married James Hamilton Ballenger on April 24, 1859. In the book written by her great-grandson, Conley Linton Ballinger, he writes, “Eady Caroline Willis Ballenger related to her grandson, James Hamilton Ballinger, on numerous occasions that she and her girl friends were sitting in one of these church services (which church is unknown but was in the area between where Jabez Willis lived near the Mt. Lebanon old cemetery area and where John Ballenger lived at the Yellow Creek area), when Hamilton and some other men entered the church for the service. She told her girl friends immediately after seeing him that she was going to marry that man. She never related how she accomplished this sudden prediction, but she was successful.” [p. 99]

An interesting, but unexplained [to me], note for anyone who may have noticed the variation in spelling on the Ballenger last name – although James Hamilton and David Jasper Ballenger maintained the spelling with the center ‘e,’ James William and his descendants use the center ‘i’ making their name Ballinger. The Fayette County road named for the family and on which several of them still live is the Ballinger Road.

Conley states Hamilton was both a farmer and a stonemason and Caroline and Hamilton set up housekeeping in the general area where their parents lived. They had two sons fairly soon after their marriage: James William (Jimmy) born on January 8, 1860 and David Jasper (Buddy) born March 10, 1861.

When her husband, Hamilton, enlisted in the Confederate army May 3, 1862 Caroline was left to take care of the home, farm, and their sons during his absence. Hamilton wrote a number of letters to her, which she kept in a trunk at her home for the rest of her life. Both copies and transcriptions of his letters have been printed in the book written by her great-grandson. The letters indicate he offered both advice on how to manage in his absence, and commendations for the way she handled her responsibilities.

In a letter written by T.K. Godfrey on April 27, 1863, Caroline received word that Hamilton had died on April 25 from pneumonia in Strawberry Plains, Tennessee and had been buried there. That letter is also copied and transcribed in the Ballenger family book (pages 94-96) ; it is a wonderfully written and compassionate account of Hamilton’s passing, aimed at easing the pain of loss for his family.

Following Hamilton’s death, Caroline and two other widows – her step-mother, Amy Collins Willis, and her sister, Sarah Collins Graham, lived together for many years in order to provide for their sons. The location of their shared farm  land was approximately at the intersection of Old Gin Road and Ballinger Road.  As the boys grew, they took over a large share of the labor involved in making a farm equal to the charge of providing for their families.

Caroline’s sons married two Bobo sisters, Sally Trophesie and Judy Della. Bobo. Jimmy and Sally had six daughters and one son, while Jasper (Buddy) and Judy had two daughters and one son, though only their daughter, Hassie, lived to adulthood.

On our recent trip to Fayette County, Kay scanned a photo of Caroline with her sons, their wives and children [prior to the birth of her only grandson that survived] and her half-brother, James Franklin Willis taken approximately in 1900.

Back: Tory, Betty Sally, Lucy, J. F. Judy Front: Eady, Connie, Jim, Caroline, Carrie, Jasper and Hassie

Conley Ballinger also reported in his book, “An interesting side note about Caroline is that after the night meal she would sit in her little rocking chair next to the open wood heated fireplace and smoke her pipe. A burning splinter from the wood would be used to light the pipe. In early days the tobacco she used was grown in their vegetable garden. It is interesting to note that neither her sons, and only one of her grandchildren, Tory, followed her in using tobacco.” (p.102)

Her sons and daughters-in-laws lived in separate homes on the land the boys bought on credit while they were still in their teens. Caroline lived in the home of her older son, Jimmy, for the remainder of her life. She died December 9, 1930 and was buried in the Old Mount Lebanon Cemetery where her father and perhaps her mother, her step-mother, and her son David Jasper were buried. Her other son and both daughers-in-law are also buried there, as is her half-brother, James Franklin.

In an 1978 article in the Fayette County Broadcaster entitled “The Ballenger Family” by Sharlene McGee Foster, [even though the first name is in error]: “Sarah Caroline, both sons, their wives and their wives’ parents are buried in the Old Mt. Lebanon Cemetery. This old deserted cemetery is located on a dirt road off of Highway 107 which is the road going to Bluff. Part of the ‘Ballenger Road’ runs nearby. This Ballenger Road is the road which leads from Highway 107 to Highway 18 coming out just below Mt. Vernon Church. It passes through the original farm that Sarah and her sons struggled for nearly 100 years ago. Think of the old Ballinger, Willis and Bobo families who settled this land. Most of all think of it as Sarah Caroline’s land. She’s a fine example of an early Fayette County pioneer.”

Update to A Noble Life – Mount Lebanon Baptist Church

In April 2009, I wrote a blog about my great-grandfather James Franklin Willis’ service to his community as a Baptist preacher. On our recent [July 2010] trip to Fayette County, Alabama, my daughter Kay and I got a little more information.

“The Ballenger Family of Fayette County Alabama” was written in 1998 by Conley Linton Ballenger who, along with his whole family, has been a lifelong member of Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church. Page 163-4 of his book lists the pastors beginning in 1895. In addition to what we found at Samford University showing J. F. Willis to have been the Mt. Lebanon pastor from 1888-1892 and 1895-1897, Ballenger’s church history lists the months of his 1895-1897 service as Jan 1895 – Aug 1897. Additionally it lists him as pastor from Dec 1901 to Sept 1905 and Sept 1908 to Sept 1922 – a total service to that church of about 27 years. The pastor who replaced him for the next ten years was J.F.’s son’s father-in-law, W. F. Gilpin.

We also learned from some journal pages written by J.F.’s granddaughter, Margie Agnes Willis [daughter of John William Willis, and granddaughter of W.F. Gilpin as well) “… Grandpaw Willis. He lived with us most of the time; he was a Baptist preacher, after he got older, he gave up the church we attended and my Grandpaw Gilpin was the pastor of Mt. Lebanon Church and Grandpa [Willis] visited and preached at other churches and helped out in the Baptist Conference that others met together for special meeting. I remember how my two younger brothers Delma & Albert and me would run out to meet him. He was traveling in a one-horse buggy; he would stop and we would hang on. There was only one seat, as he drove the horse up to the barn Delma & Albert would, as he would say, take care of the horse for me. So I would walk the path from the barn to the front door and carry his little bag that had his Bible and other books and lots of paper with writing.And soon he would go away for a while.” While in Fayette County, we scanned a picture of the house where J.F. lived with John William, and Margie; the house was located on the west side of Ballenger Road not far after you turn north from Old Gin Road. During our visit to the Old Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church Cemetery, I took a photo of the location of the original church, which was organized in 1842. There is nothing still remaining at the location other than the cemetery.The photo below was taken from the edge of the cemetery looking back toward Old Gin Road; the original church was on the left hand side and the road, which now dead ends at the edge of the cemetery, originally was a road that ran from Gin Road, by the church, and then continued on to the next country road.

The Mount Lebanon church remained on Old Gin Road from 1842 until about 1900 and the congregation has moved twice since that original location. Charles and Mammie Burns told us they first moved for a brief time to what is now 1807 Ward Road before moving to its current destination at about 1000 Mt. Lebanon Road. I put those locations on a map and made a .jpg for a visual representation.According to the Ballenger family book, the congregation erected a church building at the third location in 1944, presumably replacing whatever had been there since 1900; the current building was erected in 1988. J.F. would have served the congregation as pastor at the first and last of their locations; Silas M. Waldrop was listed in the Ballenger book as pastor during the time of both moves.

In a post on my grandfather, Zedic Hamilton Willis, I mentioned he enjoyed Sacred Harp singing throughout his life. That activity (also mentioned in Margie Agnes’ journal) continues to the present day. I found a video online of the annual Sacred Harp singing held on the fourth Sunday in June – this video was from June 28, 2009.

Charles Burns told us every member of the church is related to them – except the pastor -Jimmy Davis who has served the congregation since October 1959. … and the impact of a noble life continues …