Yesterday, February 14, would have been my great-great-grandmother Amy Collins Willis’ 188th birthday. She was born February 14, 1826 to John M. and Edith F. McCarter Collins in Spartanburg County, South Carolina. Early records are often difficult to find, but we believe, based on census records, she may have been the twelfth of perhaps sixteen children born to John and Edith Collins.
Census records prior to 1850 only show tick marks separated by gender and age categories for family members of heads of household. The 1830 census for John M. Collins, indicates a household of 19 people: 7 males under 20, one male between 40 and 50 and one between 50 and 60; 7 females under 10, one female 30-40 and one female 50 to 60. One set of parents probably are living with them to account for the couple between 50 and 60 and two daughters have already married and moved away from the household.
The Collins family apparently had membership in the Holly Springs Baptist Church of Spartanburg. A transcription of the constitution of the church is available on the internet; John M. Collins was a member of the 1834 committee to write a church constitution to replace the one that had been lost or misplaced. At the end of the articles of their constitution, there is a listing of members of the church who were dismissed; those members include several of John’s family and of the Ballenger family who were his neighbors. The Collinses and the Ballengers moved to Fayette County, Alabama as did a number of their other neighbors.
By the time Amy was about three years old, her older sister, S. Ann was married to David Loftis and Judah, was married to William J. Willis Sometime between 1831 and 1833, the Willises and Loftises moved to Fayette County, Alabama. The Collins family and Ballengers joined them in Alabama sometime after April 1834 when Amy was about eight.
Her sister Judah died sometime after 1842; she had a daugther, Anna, who was born about 1842 according to the 1850 census and there are no further records of Judah’s life.
Amy’s parents both died prior to the 1850 census; the 1850 U.S. Federal Mortality Schedule, which covers the time period from June 1849 to June 1850, lists them side by side, John in August of 1849 and Edith in May 1850.
The 1850 census record shows Amy living with her brother-in-law, William Willis and her nephew and nieces, and next to her older brother, John Whitten, older sister, Edey, and younger brother, James, and her older brother, Alexander McCarter Collins and his family. We do not have a marriage record for Amy and William Willis; she appears to be listed as Ama or perhaps Amia Wilas in this record (the enumerator apparently tried making a correction to the name). Amy may well have been taking care of her sister’s children and married William out of propriety, perhaps following the death of her parents.
We have some minimal estate administration records from 1855 that show William died in April of that year, leaving Amy a widow with responsibility for her younger stepchildren/nieces and their 2-year-old son, James Franklin.
By the 1860 census, Amy and her son, James Franklin, were still next to her brother John Whitten and his family; her stepchildren had apparently formed separate families by that time. The ages of Amy and her brother are not accurate: J. W. should have been listed as 42 and Amy should have been listed as 34 (inaccuracies in census records are relatively common).
The Civil War began in April 1861 and Alabama was heavily involved in that conflict. Many of the young men from the area around Fayette County enlisted in the Alabama 41st Infantry, including Amy’s stepson/nephew, Jabez Willis; her stepson-in-law, James Hamilton Ballenger; her brother-in-law, Zadock Graham; her future daughter-in-law’s father, John Buckner, to name a few. Zadock died in August 1862, John in September 1862, Jabez in January 1863 and James Ballenger in April 1863.
On a trip to Alabama in 2010, my cousin Charles Burns, showed us some land on the corner of Old Gin Road and Ballenger Road that had belonged to what was referred to locally as “the three widows:” Amy Willis, Sarah Graham and Eady Caroline Ballenger. The 1866 Fayette County, Alabama census supports that relationship by the enumerated proximity of the three widows: In addition to the three widows, Jabez’s widow Priscilla had married William Miles who is enumerated next to the three widows. The three widows apparently lived in separate households on land held and farmed in common to provide both emotional and financial support to one another.
The 1870 census reveals the same supportive relationship between the three widows as well as Amy’s ongoing connection to her brother, John Whitten Collins. Again, census records are not always fully accurate and this census record is no exception. What may be interpreted as E.E. Ballenger is actually E.C. or Eady Caroline Ballenger and her two sons and T. F. Graham is actually S. F. or Sarah F. Graham and her three sons. In addition, Amy and James Franklin or J.F., as he was most frequently identified, and her brother John and his family are living in the midst of the women. The age shown for J. F. is also not accurate – he should have been 17, although it is possible the enumerator had intended a 16 rather than a 10. The numbers in the center reflect first the property value and second personal property value; for the three widows, only Amy has property value – $200, while Eady has personal property value of $50, Amy of $200 and Sarah of $100. John’s property value was $400 with personal property value of $400.
By the 1880 census, Amy’s only child was married and J.F. and Mary Jane Buckner Willis were now providing grandchildren for her to interact with.
Because the 1890 census does not exist, there is no record showing my grandfather living in the household with his mother because he was not born until 1881 and she was dead before 1900. By the 1900 census J. F. was widowed and Amy was continuing her lifelong practice of providing a mother’s influence over the lives of children in need of parenting – this time her grandchildren. Amy was missing from the 1910 census and we have not yet found details or records of her death; however, in some materials my daughter and I brought home from our 2001 visit to Fayette County, I found a brief mention in the Fayette County book “150 Yesteryears” on page 79. It is listing of those news snippets culled from different Fayette County communities in 1905. From North Mt. Vernon this note: “Aunt Amy Willis, who fell and broke a limb some weeks ago, is improving, we are pleased to note.”
Family tradition says Amy was buried in the Willis family plot at Old Mount Lebanon Church Cemetery, which is located off Old Gin Road just a few miles east of the home where she lived near the other two widows. There is no headstone for her specifically although one of her grandsons, Delma Douglas Willis, provided a small stone that says “Willis” to represent all the Willises buried in a rather large segment of the cemetery. Her husband and his first wife, Amy’s sister Judah, are apparently buried a few feet away from the plot allocated to the immediate family members of James Franklin Willis.
What I infer from these records of the life my great-great-grandmother lived is that she was a compassionate woman who saw needs and sought to meet them. As was true for many of her generation, life was frequently hard and filled with losses, but I suspect she found much joy in interacting with her stepdaughter and sister and their children and her sibling’s families and working together to accomplish more than any one of them could have accomplished alone. I think she was likely a testament to the resilience and hope of the human spirit. Once again, I have no photos of this ancestor and if some of her descendants may have photos of her, perhaps in their attic, I would relish a digital copy.
This blog was prepared as a part of Amy Johnson Crow’s No Story Too Small 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge.
Filed under: Family | Tagged: 52 Ancestors, Alabama 41st Infantry, Collins, Fayette County Alabama, Genealogy, Spartanburg County, Willis | 1 Comment »