Submitted by Stevie Hughes






John Willis (Senior) and Esther Brown married in Montgomery County, Virginia on 1-1-1793.  Esther, was the daughter of Old Jotham and Pheby Brown.  The parentage of John Willis is uncertain.  One researcher of this family believes John’s father was William W. Willis.  Another researcher of the Willis Families of Virginia disagrees, and he believes John’s ancestors were Quakers who originally arrived in New York, then made their way down into Pennsylvania and later, established branches in Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia.  It should be stated that preliminary DNA testing does not support the later theory.

In the 1810 Census of Montgomery County, Virginia, there were only three Willis Families.  They were Benjamin, David and John Willis.  This 1810 Census establishes the household of the John and Esther Brown Willis Family.  The age ranges for both John and Esther were age 26-45.  Their 1793 marriage date would suggest their ages were near the midpoint range; perhaps about 35-40 years of age.  In their 1810 household were five young males and three young females.

John Willis (Senior) died before October 1818, when his estate went before the Court.  John’s wife, Esther, and a son, Sylvanus, were the administrators.  The Court appointed four local men to appraise John’s estate.  They were John Kerby, Thomas Craig, Joseph Barnett and William Willis.   The relationship of William Willis to the John Willis Family is not known.   It would be assumed that William Willis was not part of the immediate family because the Court would appoint men who would be impartial in their valuation of the Estate, and thus, they would not be one of the heirs. 

Although the Court record of the bondsman for Esther and Sylvanus Willis is not available, a later petition brought by the original bondsmen, David Craig and David Willis, petitioned the Court to require Esther and Sylvanus Willis to obtain counter security.  The relationship of David Willis to the John Willis Family is not known.  It is assumed he was a related family member, but again, not part of the immediate family.

Esther Brown Willis and her Family are enumerated in the 1820 Census of Montgomery County, Virginia.  Esther’s household consisted of five young males, two of whom were under the age of 10, and only one young female, age 16-18.  By comparison to the prior 1810 census, it seems that Esther was either pregnant or had a nursing babe at the time of her husband’s death.  By 1820, it would be reasonable to assume Esther’s oldest sons and two of her daughters had married and/or left her household by that time.  In this 1820 census, only two other Willis Families are enumerated.  They are David Willis and William W. Willis, both of whom were associated with the settlement of the Estate of John Willis in 1818.

Because of the petition brought to the Court by Esther’s bondsmen to obtain additional security in the Estate settlement, the Willis Family were probably contemplating leaving Virginia.  Upon the premature death of Esther’s husband, Esther and her young family were probably in dire financial straights.   By 1820, all of Esther’s siblings had left Virginia.  Most had settled in Greene County, Tennessee between the years of 1803 through 1812.  Sometime during the mid-1820’s, Esther Brown Willis and her children also left Virginia and arrived in Greene County, Tennessee.  The year of birth of the oldest identified grandson, Walter C. Willis, born 1824 in Tennessee, could suggest a migration date about that time.  

Beginning in 1827, Willis males and females began to marry, or to act as bondsmen for others.  From the marriage records, census and tax lists, we are able to identify most of the children of John and Esther Brown Willis.  The only males appearing in the first available, 1828 tax list, are the sons Sylvanus and James B. Willis, who are listed in the Captain Kelley Company.

There are only three Willis men in the 1830 Census of Greene County, Tennessee, and they are the sons of John and Esther:  John Willis (Junior), Jotham B. Willis, and James B. Willis, all three of whom were in the age range of 20-30 years of age.  An elderly female, age 70-80, is in the household of John Willis (Junior). 

This female is believed to be Esther Brown Willis, although her age would seem to be about ten years older than it should be.  In 1830, it is certain that Esther’s son, John Junior, lived very near to Esther’s siblings in the northern area of Greene County, approximately 3-5 miles due north of the Town of Greeneville.  On the same census page are Zopher Johnston Junior and his wife, Phebe Cooper Johnston.  Phebe’s mother was Jane Brown Cooper, who was the sister of Esther Brown Willis.  The fourth and presumably the oldest son, Sylvanus Willis, is not in the 1830 Greene County census; however, Sylvanus is clearly in Greene County by 1828 when he appears in the Tax Roster.

After the Families arrival in Greene County, it is apparent the Willis brothers were not farmers.  None of the brothers owned any land until 1842 (James B. Willis).  Even then, the acreage was small, only 29 acres, far from what would be required to support a Family.  Thus, the Willis brothers must have been tradesmen or craftsmen.    Indeed, several of the “second generation” Willis men were Carpenters. 

It is not known when Esther Brown Willis died nor where she is buried.  Esther is not in the 1840 census.   It would be expected for Esther to be buried in a cemetery near her residence, which in 1830 was near her relatives in northern Greene County.  In the 1836 Civil Districts Listing, one of Esther’s sons, James B. Willis, lived in District 12.  Two of her sons, John Junior and Sylvanus Willis, lived in the adjacent District 13.  District 12 encompassed today’s Cross Anchor and Hardin’s Chapel areas.  District 13, just northeast of Town, included the road to the Mount Bethel Presbyterian Church and today’s Tusculum area. 

Esther Brown Willis is probably buried at the Old Cooper Burial Ground in District 12 where her sister, Jane Brown Cooper, is buried.  She is possibly buried in the Mount Bethel Presbyterian Church Cemetery located on today’s Tusculum Blvd.; however, Esther’s sons did not live in this area until 1842.  In all probability, Esther was deceased before 1840.

Based on the early Census of John (Senior) and Esther Brown Willis’ household in Virginia, it is presumed they had five and possibly six sons and three daughters.  A review of Greene County, Tennessee marriages, tax lists and census records identifies most of the sons.  The oldest sons of John and Esther Willis are:

1.  Sylvanus, born 10-1-1797 in VA.   Sylvanus is probably the oldest son.  He married in Greene County, Tennessee on 3-17-1831 to the young widow, Polly (Mary) Alexander Wyrick.  Sylvanus lived in Greene County through 1836.  Before 1840, Sylvanus and his family removed to adjacent Washington County.  Sylvanus Willis died in Washington County, Tennessee on 8-10-1853.

2.  James B., born c. 1800.  James was married about 1822/23 before the family arrived in Greene County.  James’ oldest son, Walter C., was born in 1824.  In census records, Walter was very consistent in stating his place of birth in Tennessee, although this may have been incorrect.  The first wife of James B. Willis and the mother of Walter is possibly Betsy Hall.  On 1-24-1828, James married Frances Nixon.  They lived in District 12 until 1844, when James bought a 39-acre farm in or near town (District 10).  James B. Willis died after March 4th and before April 22nd, 1848.  James is probably buried in the Mount Bethel Presbyterian Church Cemetery.   His Family is in the 1850 census.

3.  John W. (Junior), born c. 1807.  John does not appear in a Greene County tax list until 1832 when he is listed in the Captain Samuel Gass Company (District 12).  Yet, he married Annie Allison on 10-3-1827.  They lived in District 12.  By 1836, John lived in or near the Town of Greeneville (District 10).  On 8-17-1850, he purchased 12 ¼ acres of land on Holley’s Creek in District 13.  John is enumerated in the 1850 and 1860 census, consistently stating his year of birth as 1807.  He died about 1861.  John is probably buried in the Mount Bethel Presbyterian Church Cemetery.

4.  Jotham B., born c.1810.   Jotham married on 3-17-1830 to Nancy Wilson.   Jotham died about 1833/34.  His widow, Nancy, remarried in 1839 to Lee M. Bullen.  Nancy Willis Bullen and her second husband are buried in unmarked graves in the Mount Bethel Presbyterian Church Cemetery.  It is virtually certain that Jotham B. Willis is also buried there.

5.  The name of the fifth son is not known.  It appears that either he or his widow came to Greene County.  Research is continuing to identify this fifth son.  Based on the naming patterns of his brother’s children, the name of the fifth son is possibly William.  The widow of this 5th son is believed to be Sally Willis, who married in Greene County on 6-30-1830 to Robert Foster Junior.  In the 1840 household of Robert (Junior) and Sally Willis Foster is a young boy, born c. 1826-30, who is believed by this author to be James H. Willis, born 5-1-1828.  For further information on these intermarried families, please refer to the articles on Robert Foster Junior and his second wife, The Family of Robert (Senior) and Mercy Johnston Foster, and James H. and Hila Martha Johnson Willis.

Each of the four known Willis sons is documented further in separate articles entitled, The Willis Brothers of Greene County, Tennessee.  

The daughters of John and Esther Brown Willis cannot be as accurately identified as the sons.  Only one of their daughters was in their 1820 household, the older two had presumably married.   This younger daughter is believed to be Esther Willis who married James Morrow in Greene County on 9-28-1831.    The

Morrow and Willis families were near neighbors in the 1830 Greene County, Tennessee census.  The Morrows were enumerated on census page 229, as were James B. Willis and the Bullen Family (Nancy Willis, the widow of Jotham Willis, remarried to Lee M. Bullen in 1839).  In 1827, James Morrow was the bondsman for the marriage of John Willis.  Thus, all three of the Willis brothers, Jotham, John and James, can be associated with the Morrow Family.  James and Esther Willis Morrow were no longer in Greene County by 1840.  No further information is available at this time.




One male descendant of John and Esther Brown Willis is participating in the Y-DNA Project for the Willis surname.   At the time of this writing, the Willis Surname Project has no DNA matches in their database to this descendant.   The male Willis DNA is classified as Haplogroup R1b, which indicates “general” western European descent.  The Willis male DNA has striking similarity to that of the Zopher Johns(t)on Family, who were related by marriage over a 50+ year time period.  This could, of course, simply be “coincidental”. Efforts are ongoing to locate other Willis male descendants who will participate in the Y-DNA testing.

Please refer to Appendix 2 in this book for specific information on the Willis Y (male) DNA.

The female lineage of John and Esther Brown Willis is also participating in the DNA project.  James H. Willis (1828 TN – 1902 MO) married his cousin, Hila Martha Johnson (1827 TN – 1903 MO), in Greene County, Tennessee on 9-13-1847.  Hila Martha was the daughter of Zopher (Junior) and Phebe Cooper Johnson.   A direct line female descendant has taken the MTDNA test, which documents the ancient lineage of Hila Martha’s female ancestors, who would include her mother, Phebe Cooper Johnson; her maternal grandmother, Jane Brown Cooper, and her great-grandmother, Pheby (believed to be nee Johnston) Brown.   Jane Brown Cooper and Esther Brown Willis were sisters; thus, the MTDNA for the female descendant of Hila Martha Johnson Willis would be the same as the female descendants of Esther Brown Willis.  The female MTDNA is classified as the “J”, “Jasmine” matriarchal lineage.   The “J” lineage is somewhat rare, representing less than 17% of today’s females who are of European descent.  




Co-written with Eric Hays,

Four sons of John (Senior) and Esther Brown Willis arrived in Greene County, Tennessee in the mid-to-late 1820’s.  A fifth son, or possibly his widow and child, also came to Greene County.  The Willis Family was originally from Montgomery County, Virginia, where John Willis Senior died in 1818.  His widow, Esther Brown Willis, a daughter of Old Jotham and Pheby Brown, was the administrator of John’s Estate, along with their son, Sylvanus Willis.  The Willis Family is enumerated in the 1820 Census of Montgomery County, Virginia.  By 1830, their sons resided in Greene County, Tennessee where they lived near Esther’s family.  The four known Willis Brothers were Sylvanus, Jotham B., James B. and John Junior.

The oldest son is believed to be  Sylvanus Willis, born 10-1-1797 in Virginia.  He was the co-administrator of his father’s Estate in 1818.  Sylvanus was in or on his way to Greene County in 1824, when a letter for him was being held at the post office.  In 1828 he appears with his brother, James, in the tax list of Captain Kelley.  In that same year, Sylvanus was indicted by the Greene County Court for assault and battery.  His Uncle Jotham Brown was his surety.  Sylvanus possibly left Greene County for a short while which would explain why he is not enumerated in the 1830 Census.

 On 3-17-1831, Sylvanus married the young widow, “Polly” (Mary) Alexander Wyrick.  Mary R. Alexander, born 6-16-1804, was the daughter of Stephen K. Alexander who owned land at the Buckingham Ford on the Nolachucky River.  This area was part of Tusculum, District 13, and in later years, District 24.  Polly had first married Jacob T. Wyrick on 6-8-1824, bond by Robert Maloney, who was a son-in-law of Jane Brown Cooper, sister to Esther Brown Willis.  Jacob T. Wyrick died on 2-23-1828, leaving Mary with two young sons.  In 1830, Polly Wyrick and her two sons were enumerated in the Greene County census.  The Orphan Court Record dated 7-31-1830 identifies the two young Wyrick sons as Mordecai  L. and Stephen F. Wyrick.  Stephen K. Alexander, their grandfather, was named as the boys’ Guardian. 

Sylvanus Willis and his family resided near the Town of Greeneville in District 13 at the time of the 1836 Civil Districts Listing.   District 13 included the area adjoining the town along the northeast perimeter, on the road to the Mount Bethel Presbyterian Church, which extended into the then, very rural area of Tusculum.  By 1840, Sylvanus and his family had relocated to adjacent Washington County where the family lived on the headwaters of Onion Branch near the Embreeville Road.  The 1840 household consisted of three young males under the age of 15, and three young females under the age of 10.  Two of the young males were Sylvanus’s stepsons.  Also in the 1840 household was a male age 20-30 (born c. 1810-20) and a young female age 15-20 (born c. 1820-25) who have not been identified. 

In the 1850 census, Sylvanus Willis was listed as a “carpenter”.   Many of the Willis men in Greeneville were carpenters by trade.  Three additional children were born after 1840.  Sylvanus Willis died in Washington County, Tennessee on 8-10-1853.  Mary and the children continued to live on the farm until 1868.  In February 1869, Mary petitioned the Washington County Court for her one-third Widow’s Dower in the property.  By that time, Mary lived in Greene County, where she resided on the 20-acre farm near Buckingham Road that she had inherited in 1862 from her father, Stephen K. Alexander (died 5-1-1862).

At the time of the 1870 census, Mary’s youngest child, Mary Willis “Haze” (Hays), and her son-in-law, William R. Hays, resided in her household.   The last record in Greene County for Mary R. Alexander Wyrick Willis occurred on 7-24-1871, when she sold her 20-acre farm located on Buckingham Road to Joshua C. Lane for $400.  The witness to the sale was Mary’s son-in-law, William R. Hays.

Sometime before 1880, the Hays Family migrated to Scotland County, Missouri.  It appears the widow of Sylvanus, Mary Willis, went with them.  Mary died on 12-10-1876.  Mary R. Alexander Wyrick Willis maintained the Family Bible up until her death.  The handwriting is exquisite, inferring Mary had been very well educated in Greene County, Tennessee during the earliest years of its history.

The children of Jacob T. and Mary Alexander Wyrick were raised from early childhood by their stepfather, Sylvanus Willis.   These children were:

1.  Mordecai L. Wyrick, born 6-5-1825.  Mordecai married Catherine D. Payne in Greene County on 5-8-1850.  Catherine, was the daughter of the prosperous Greene County citizen, Merryman Payne (died 1844 and buried at Old Harmony Cemetery in today’s downtown Greeneville).  Mordecai and his newly married bride are enumerated in his stepfather’s 1850 household in Washington County.  Mordecai’s profession was stated as “Carpenter”.  After 1852, Mordecai and his wife migrated to Barry County, Missouri.  In Missouri, Mordecai’s profession was stated as “Druggist”.   At the time of the 1860 census, he and Catherine had three children.  Mordecai Wyrick’s first wife, Catherine Payne Wyrick, died shortly after the 1860 census.  Mordecai died on 8-25-1867.  Two of Mordecai’s children were raised by Mordecai’s half-brother, Virgil Alexander Willis.  A descendant of Mordecai’s daughter, Mary Eugenia Wyrick, is a co-author of this Family History.  The five children of Mordecai Wyrick are documented in a 1922 letter by a son, Taylor B. Wyrick.  These children were:  (1) Ignatius Xavier, born c. 1851 in TN.  After the death of his parents, Ignatius returned to Greene County, Tennessee, sometime before 1870 to live with his Grandmother, Mary Alexander Wyrick Willis.  In June of 1870, St. Ignatious Hevious Wyrick, a minor, was appointed a Guardian by the Greene County Courts.  The Guardian was Walter C. Willis, a nephew of Sylvanus Willis.  Ignatious Wyrick resided in Greene County with Mary Wyrick Willis at the time of the 1870 census.  He later migrated to Missouri with Willis Family members.  Ignatious Wyrick married Susanna J. Black on 10-21-1875.  By 1880, Ignatious and his wife, had two young daughters, Mary J., born c. 1877, and Catharine D. Wyrick, born c. 1879.   (2) Mary Eugenia Columbia, born c. 1856 in Missouri.  Mary attended college in St. Louis.  She married Thomas Allen Hays.   They Wyrick/Willis Family Bible and the Hays Family Bible passed into the hands of their descendants.  A brother of Thomas Allen Hays, Robert William Hays, married the daughter of Virgil Willis (see below). Tom and Mary Wyrick Hays lived in Scotland County and Schuyler County in Missouri.  They had nine children:  Effie, Earl, Essie, Grover, Jenny, Estella, and Ford Hays, and two unnamed twins who died in infancy.  (3) Francis Van Wileman, born c. 1858 for whom no further information is available;  (4) Joseph Charles, YOB unknown, who may have died in childhood; and (5) Taylor B. Wyrick, born 1867, who from his 1922 letter, appears to have been a son by Mordecai Wyrick and a second wife whose name is not known.   Taylor B. Wyrick was a lawyer and lived in St. Louis, Missouri, by 1885.  He married Stella Fischer in 1904.  They did not have children.  In the 1931 letter from Taylor to his cousin, Mrs. Mary Hays, Taylor said he did not know much about his Father’s family.  In his letter, Taylor says, “what little I know about father’s family I learned from Aunt Lucy Willis.”  Lucy Willis was the widow of Taylor’s Uncle, Virgil Willis.  Taylor B. Wyrick did not know any family members of the Wyrick surname.  It appears this Wyrick Family died out with the death of Taylor B. Wyrick. 

2.  Stephen Francis Wyrick, born 3-4-1827.   Stephen was raised from early childhood by his stepfather, Sylvanus Willis.  It is unlikely, he ever remembered his father, Jacob T. Wyrick.  Stephen was unmarried in 1850 and resided in his stepfather’s household.  No marriage record has been found for him.   He appears in only one tax list in Greene County in the year 1848 in District 13.  It is most probable he was working for his stepfather’s brother, John Willis, who owned land in this District.  Stephen T. Wyrick died in Tennessee on 8-16-1854 at the age of 27.     

After the death of Jacob T. Wyrick, his widow, Mary, remarried to Sylvanus Willis.  Sylvanus and Mary Alexander Wyrick Willis had seven children together, most of whom died young and unmarried.  It is not known if the family suffered some great tragic mishap, which led to the early deaths of their children.  The children’s births and deaths were lovingly written into the family Bible by their Mother. 

These children were:

1.  Catherine Jane Willis, born 6-6-1832.  She was in her parents’ 1850 household.  Catherine died unmarried at the age of twenty-five on 7-31-1857.

2.  Margaret Eliza Willis, born 9-5-1834.   Margaret married Sylvester Armentrout on 9-21-1855.      They

lived in northern Greene County in the Romeo area in 1860 and in the Rheatown area in 1870.  By 1900, Margaret and Sylvester resided in Washington County.  Margaret and Sylvester had five children.  Only two are known:  (1) Bruce, born c. 1861; and (2) Charles L., born c. 1868.  Both sons resided near their parents in Washington County in 1900.  Margaret Willis Armentrout died after 1900.  She is the only child for whom a date of death is not written into the Family Bible.  Perhaps the Missouri branches had lost contact with the only family member who remained in Tennessee.

3.  Esther Angeline Willis, born 12-24-1836.  Born on Christmas Eve,  she was named for her paternal Grandmother, Esther Brown Willis.  “Angeline” died unmarried at the age of twenty-three on 9-11-1860.

4.  Virgil Alexander Willis, born 3-20-1840.  Virgil was enumerated twice in the 1860 census; once in his Mother’s Washington County, Tennessee household; and again, in the 1860 household of his half-brother, Mordecai Wyrick, who lived in Barry County, Missouri.  Oddly, Virgil’s marriage is not recorded in the Family Bible; perhaps because Virgil married in Missouri shortly after the 1860 census and his mother still resided in Greene County, Tennessee at that time. 

By 1870, Virgil was a “physician” and lived in Montgomery County, Missouri with his wife, “Lucy” (Lucia J., surname is not known), and their 3 children:  (1) L. Edwin “Ed” Willis, born 7-6-1862.  Edwin was also a doctor in Montgomery County, Missouri.   By 1887, Edwin Willis was in Arkansas.  On 5-4-1887, Edwin married Martha E. “Mattie” Orff in Newport, Arkansas.  Edwin died on 8-16-1919.  Edwin and Mattie did not have children.  Upon Edwin’s death, his entire estate, which was considerable, was left to his widow.  Edwin’s widow, Mattie Orff Willis, died on 12-8-1923 in St. Louis.  In Mattie’s Will, her estate went to the Presbyterian Church and for public projects to benefit the children of the City of Newport, Arkansas.  Edwin and Mattie Willis are buried in the Walnut Grove Cemetery in Jackson County, Arkansas. (2) Alma Willis, born April 1866.  Alma married Hiram M. Lydenstricker.  They had two sons and lived in Decatur, Georgia.  Alma died sometime after 1923.  (3) Ford D. Willis, born 1-5- 1869 (or 6-5-1870?? Tombstone).  Ford Willis was also a doctor in Montgomery County, Missouri.  He moved to Arkansas where he died on 2-23-1902.  Ford Willis is buried with his brother, Edwin, at Walnut Grove Cemetery.  It is presently not known if Ford married and left descendants.   There is no tombstone at the Walnut Grove Cemetery for a wife of Ford Willis. 

After the death of Mordecai Wyrick, Virgil’s half-brother, Virgil raised his niece, Mary Wyrick and nephew, Francis Wyrick.  The two children are living in Virgil’s 1870 household. Dr. Virgil Alexander Willis died at the age of thirty-six on 7-5-1876.  His death is carefully recorded into the Family Bible.   Virgil’s “Notice of Death” was published in the Montgomery City Standard newspaper.  After Virgil’s death, Lucy and her children continued to live in Montgomery County.  In 1900, Lucy lived with her married daughter, Alma Willis Lydenstricker in Memphis, Scotland County, Missouri.    After 1900, Lucy Willis moved to Arkansas and lived with her sons, Edwin and Ford.  Lucy died on 11-8-1916 and is buried at Walnut Grove Cemetery with her sons.

5.  Tilman McClure Willis, born 4-29-1844, who died at the age of twelve on 10-7-1856.

6.  George Eugene Mathes Willis, born 12-31-1846.  “George” was in his Mother’s 1860 household in Washington County.    At the age of 17, “Eugene” enlisted on 10-2-1863 with the 12th Tennessee Cavalry, Company B.  He died three months after his enlistment on 1-14-1864.  His death was carefully recorded into the Family Bible by his Mother. 

7.  Mary Maria  Willis, born 4-21-1850.  On 5-20-1868, Mary married William R. Hays.  William Robert Hays, born 12-13-1843, was the son of John (born 2-25-1829) and Mary Rhea (born 12-7-1826; died 7-23-1875) Hays of Greene County.   William R. Hays served in the Civil War as a Private in the 4th TN Infantry, Company E.   Mary and William Hays and their infant daughter, Margaret “Essie” C. Hays, lived with Mary’s Mother in Greene County at the time of the 1870 census.  Also living in their household was Saint I.X. (Ignatious) Wyrick, age 19, (born c. 1851).   Mary Alexander Wyrick Willis, lived her last years with her youngest daughter’s family.  By 1880, William and Mary Willis Hays were also in Scotland County, Missouri.  They had only one child:  (1)  Margaret “Essie” C. Hays, born 4-10-1869.  William Robert Hays died of “impacted gall stones” on 6-24-1911.  William’s death certificate gives his date of birth as 6-13-1844.  The information was provided by J. F. Alexander, William’s son-in-law. 

Mary Maria Willis Hays died of “chronic dropsy” on 12-26-1916 in Memphis, Missouri.  Mary’s daughter, Essie Hays Alexander, gave the information on the death certificate.  William Robert and Mary Maria Willis Hays are buried in the Masonic Cemetery in Memphis, Missouri.   Their daughter, Essie, married John F. Alexander.  The final entry in the Wyrick/Willis Family Bible is the date of death of Mary’s daughter, Margaret “Essie” Hays Alexander, who died on 7-11-1925.  The information for Essie’s death certificate was given by her husband.  Essie Hays Alexander is buried in the Memphis Cemetery. 

The Wyrick/Willis Family Bible and the Hays Family Bible have been published by the Greene County, Tennessee Historical Society in their publication, The Pioneer, November 2006 issue, courtesy of Eric Hays who lives in Nebraska.  A copy of this publication may be obtained from the T. Elmer Cox Library, 229 North Main Street, Greeneville, Tennessee  37745.





Four sons of John (Senior) and Esther Brown Willis arrived in Greene County, Tennessee during the 1820’s.  A fifth son, or possibly his widow and child, also came to Greene County.  The Willis Family was originally from Montgomery County, Virginia, where John Willis died in 1818.  His widow, Esther Brown Willis, a daughter of Old Jotham and Pheby Brown, was the administrator of John’s Estate, along with their son, Sylvanus Willis.  The Willis Family is enumerated in the 1820 Census of Montgomery County, Virginia.  By 1830, their sons resided in Greene County, Tennessee, where they lived near Esther’s siblings.  The four known Willis Brothers were Sylvanus, Jotham, James B. and John Willis Junior.

James B. Willis, born c. 1800 in Virginia.  James married in Virginia before his migration to Greene County, Tennessee.  The name of the first wife is not known; however, a marriage occurred in Montgomery County on 7-14-1823 between James Willis and Betsy Hall, the daughter of Leonard Hall.  Charles H. Willis (a cousin) was the surety.   Betsy Hall is most probably the first wife of James and the Mother of James’ first born sons and possibly a daughter.  James’ oldest son, Walter C. Willis, was born in 1824.   James married a second time to Frances Nixon in Greene County on 1-24-1828.   The marriage was performed by the Rev. Samuel W. Doak (1785-1864), who established the Mount Bethel Presbyterian Church.  The original Church was located on Richland Creek in the Town.  After a quarrel among parishioners, the Church split into two factions.  The Reverend Hezekiah Balch organized the Old Harmony Church.  The Reverend Samuel W. Doak built a new building that was erected just outside of the town limits on the northeast perimeter.  Rev. Doak’s Church retained the Mount Bethel name.

James and his second wife, Frances Nixon Willis, are enumerated in the 1830 Census with four young children in their household, two males and two females.   Most of these children were born before their marriage date.  The two young boys would be James’ sons, Walter C. (born 1824) and John H. (born 1826), from his first marriage.  One of the young females is Elizabeth (born c. 1829), who is the first born child of James and his second wife, Frances.  The other young female is not known, and she was possibly a daughter by James’ first wife. 

James B. Willis was never a large landowner, and therefore, was not a farmer.  The inventory of his Estate tells us that he was an educated man who owned a number of books.  He was also a carpenter by trade.  Most of the items in the Estate inventory were tools of that trade.   In 1836, James and Frances lived in Civil District 12 where most of his Mother’s family lived.  In 1842, James had acquired 29 acres of land in this District.  About 1844, he sold this land in District 12 and purchased 39 acres of land in the Town of Greeneville (District 10).   At the time of his death in 1848, James was taxed on 41 acres of land in town, including $300 of other taxable property.  It appears that James was not only a carpenter by trade, but also a land speculator, who perhaps developed and sold town lots. 

 James B. Willis died in the Town of Greeneville shortly after March 4th, 1848 and before May 2, 1848.  On the later date, the Greene County Court granted his widow, Frances, a one-year’s support for her family of eight children.  The inventory of James’ Estate, valued at $415.67, was submitted to the Court on 7-3-1848.  The Administrators of the Estate were his son, Walter C. Willis, and James C. Wilson.  James’ widow, Frances, purchased several items from the Estate, as did several of the intermarried kinfolk, who included John and James Maloney (Mariah Maloney married Walter C. Willis), Joseph and William Foster (Sally Willis married Robert Foster Junior), and Adam Morrow (Esther Willis married James Morrow).  James’ brother, Sylvanus Willis, who was a carpenter, purchased a handsaw. 

Frances Nixon Willis and seven of her eight children were enumerated in the 1850 census.  Many of these children apparently died unmarried before 1860.  In 1870, Frances lived with her married daughter, Martha Willis Harrold.   Frances Willis died shortly before October 1884 when her Estate was submitted to the Court.  Her entire Estate was left to her daughter, Martha Willis Harold.  Her son, James H. Willis, was the Executor.  It appears these two children were the only ones who survived their Mother.

It is almost certain James B. Willis, Frances, and many of their children are buried at the Mount Bethel Church Cemetery.  It is possible Frances is buried in the “new” Oak Grove Cemetery Chartered in 1883.  Several sons of James B. Willis who died after 1883 are buried at Oak Grove. (Those known to be buried in Oak Grove Cemetery in downtown Greeneville are indicated as *).  The sons of James B. Willis and his first wife, are:

1. Walter C. Willis*, born 12-10-1824.  Walter was a carpenter, and in 1850, he lived in the hotel of John Maloney.  On 7-5-1854, Walter married his cousin, Mariah H. Maloney*.  Mariah, born 3-5-1828, was the daughter of Robert and Catherine Cooper Maloney.  Catherine Cooper Maloney was the niece of Walter’s Grandmother, Esther Brown Willis.  Walter C. Willis was well known in the town of Greeneville.  He and Mariah lived on North Main Street.  He was one of the initial members of the Greeneville Fire Department when it was organized in 1849.  He was also the Secretary of the Building Committee in 1860 for the beautiful Cumberland Presbyterian Church on Main Street.  During the Civil War years, Walter shared a carpentry shop on North Main Street with his brother-in-law, Robert Dickson Maloney, where they built coffins for the dead soldiers.  After the war, Walter was the Assessor of Internal Revenue for Greene County.  In later years, he operated a hardware store in downtown Greeneville.  Walter C. Willis* died in Greeneville on 3-27-1884.  Mariah Maloney Willis* died on 1-24-1903.  Walter and Mariah did not have children.

2.  John H. Willis*, born 10-8-1826.   In the 1850 Tax List, John is identified as the son of James B. Willis.   On 4-26-1849, John married Elizabeth J. McCord* (1831-1907), the daughter of James H. and Margaret R. McCord, who lived on Holley’s Creek in Civil District 13 next to the Bullen and Morrow Families.  John  and “Lizzie” lived in the Town of Greeneville where John was a carpenter.  On 3-17-1856, the widow, Margaret McCord, transferred her life Estate in the 178-acre farm on Holley’s Creek to her three children, Elizabeth McCord Willis, Martha McCord and William B. McCord.  On 2-28-1860, John H. Willis purchased from his brother-in-law, William McCord, 143 acres of the land on Holley’s Creek.  John and “Lizzie” lived on this farm until 1882.  In 1882, John sold the farm and moved to Newport, Tennessee, to join his son, George W. Willis, in the “tanning business”.   John H. Willis* died on 3-25-1885.  Elizabeth* died on 12-27-1907.  Their children were:  (1) George W., born c. 1852.  George W. Willis and his wife, Dora, and their four daughters (Nellie, twins Jessie and Bessie, and Stella) and only son (Walter) lived in Newport, Cocke County, Tennessee.  (2) James William*, born 3-7-1854.  James was a hardware merchant in the store previously operated by his Uncle, Walter C. Willis.  James W. and his wife, Annie Mitchell Willis* (1864-1942), lived on Irish Street where they raised their two daughters, Bonnie* and Bessie, and only son, Lyle Corwin Willis*.  James was selected to be one of the men who lead the funeral procession of President Andrew Johnson through the streets of Greeneville.  This must have been a huge honor, and a tribute to his character and reputation.  At the time of James’ death, the family lived in Knoxville.  James William Willis* died on 10-3-1916.  James’ son, Lyle Corwin* (1889-1941) and his wife, Eunice Robinson* (1890-1956) and their daughter, Barbara Willis Alexander*, 1918-1994, resided in Greeneville.  James’ daughter, Bonnie* (1881-1964), married Henry Whitehead, and they lived in Knoxville, later returning to Greeneville.  Bonnie Willis Whitehead’s unmarried sister, Bessie Willis, lived with them.  A descendant of Bonnie Willis Whitehead presently lives in Knoxville, age 90 as of this writing.   (3) Charles D.*, born 10-23-1857.  Charles married Flora Gass* (1862-1922).  Charles was a physician and lived in Cocke County for awhile.  The family returned to Greeneville where they raised six children, of whom four are known:  Charles Junior* (1894-1929), Wallace Alvin* (1897-1932), Selma Willis Vann* (1881-1957), and Alma Willis Mason* (1888-1969).   Dr. Charles D. Willis* died on 12-11-1900.  (4) Samuel Milligan, born 7-1-1861.  Samuel married Mollie Taylor* (1863-1910) and moved to Morristown where he was a hardware merchant.  Two sons are known: (i) Eugene K. and (ii) John B. Willis.  Samuel’s wife, Mollie* died in 1910.  Samuel married a second time.  No children are known from the second marriage.  Samuel Milligan Willis died in Morristown on 9-9-1935 and is buried in Jarnigan Cemetery.  (5) Alvin S.*, born 11-18-1864.  Alvin was a dentist in Knoxville.    He died unmarried on 7-30-1919.   (6) Octavia Belle*, born 7-31-1868, who died unmarried on 9-7-1907.  

James B. Willis and his second wife, Frances Nixon Willis, had eight children who were living at the time of James’ death in 1848.  Only seven of these children were in the widow’s 1850 household.  The seven known children of James and Frances Nixon Willis are:

3.  Elizabeth Willis, born c. 1829.  Elizabeth was unmarried and lived with her widowed mother in 1850.  She was no longer in the 1860 household.   No marriage has been found for Elizabeth.

4.  Mary A. Willis, born c. 1831.   Mary was unmarried and lived with her widowed mother in 1850.  She was no longer in the 1860 household.   No marriage has been found for Mary.

5.  David K. Willis, born c. 1832.  David was unmarried and lived with his widowed mother in 1850.   He never appears in a Greene County Tax List nor is there a marriage for him.  David K. Willis either died or left Greene County before he reached the age of majority, when he would have appeared in the tax rolls. 

6.  Martha Willis, born December 1837.  Martha married William C. Harrold on 2-19-1868.  William C. Harrold, a son of Andrew L. and Anna Harrold, served as a Corporal with the 4th Tennessee Infantry Company E, and later drew a Civil War pension.  Martha’s widowed mother, Frances, lived with Martha and her husband in District 8.  Martha inherited her mother’s entire Estate in 1884.  Martha and William Harrold resided in District 8 up through 1900.  In 1910 they lived in District 12.  In the 1910 Census, Martha stated she had 9 children of whom 7 were then living.  The known children included:   (1) James M., (1869-1929) who is buried at Mt. Hebron Cemetery; (2) Augustus “Gus” K., (1870-1967) who is buried in Maryville; (3) William C. (Junior), born c. 1873; (4) Orlenia Frances, born c. 1874, who married George W. Painter and lived in Loudoun County; (5) Charles Lewis, a twin (1877-1965), buried Cedar Hill Presbyterian Church Cemetery; (6) Anna E., a twin (1877-1962), wife of Frank Harmon, buried at Cedar Hill; and (7) Elmer R. (1881-1965) who is buried in Johnson City.  Both William and Martha Willis Harrold were deceased by 1920.  They are possibly buried in unmarried graves at Cedar Hill Cemetery. 

7.  James H. Willis*, born 2-25-1841.  In 1860, James was a carpenter and lived with his half-brother, Walter C. Willis (1824-1884).   James possibly served in the Civil War with the 8th Tennessee Infantry, Company G.  James H. Willis married Margaret Clara McCoy* (1854-1930).  They lived in the town of Greeneville near West Irish and Summer Streets.    In 1884, James H. Willis was the Administrator of his Mother’s Estate.  James was a well-known builder in Greeneville.  In 1887, he was the General Contractor for several buildings at Tusculum College, including McCormick Hall and Craig Hall.  In the 1900 census, James and Clara reported having 9 children, 8 of whom were then living.   Their children were:  (1) Edgar J.*, born 2-28-1877, who died unmarried on 7-12-1902;  (2) Lucy*, (1879-1882); (3) Fannie (probably Frances), born c. 1884; (4) Pearl* born 1886, who died unmarried in 1927; (5) Jennie born c. 1888;          (6) Hazel born 1890, who married Mr. C. N. Otey of Wytheville, Virginia.  He died in 1918. (7) Yeteva* (1892-1978), who married G. Wilson  White;  (8) Clara born c. 1897; and (9) Louisa, born c. 1899.  James H. Willis* died on 11-2-1901.

8.  William F. Willis, born c. 1842.  At the age of 20, William enlisted with the 1st Tennessee Cavalry Co. I in August 1862.  On 5-6-1866, “Franklin” Willis married Rhoda Oliphant.  William appears in only one Tax List for the year 1867 in Civil District 12, and apparently died before the 1870 Census.   W. (William) F. (Franklin) Willis is buried with a Military tombstone at Mount Bethel Cemetery on today’s Tusculum Blvd.  No dates are given on the marker.  Members of the Oliphant Family are also buried at Mount Bethel.  William’s widow, Rhoda, may also be buried there in an unmarked grave.

9.  Seburn McDaniel, born c. 1845.  Seburn was named for neighbor and friend, Seburn Jewell, and Blackstone “McDannel”.  Seburn enlisted with the 8th Tennessee Cavalry Company B.  He died unmarried on 12-14-1864, leaving no descendants.  His burial place is not known.




Four sons of John (Senior) and Esther Brown Willis arrived in Greene County, Tennessee in the mid-to-late 1820’s.  A fifth son, or possibly his widow and child, also came to Greene County.  The Willis Family was originally from Montgomery County, Virginia, where John Willis died in 1818.  His widow, Esther Brown Willis, a daughter of Old Jotham and Pheby Brown, was the administrator of John’s Estate, along with their son, Sylvanus Willis.  The Willis Family is enumerated in the 1820 Census of Montgomery County, Virginia.  By 1830, their sons resided in Greene County, Tennessee, where they lived near Esther’s siblings.  The four known Willis Brothers were Sylvanus, Jotham, James B. and John W. Willis Junior.

John W. Willis Junior, born c. 1807 in Virginia, was the first of his brothers to marry in Greene County, Tennessee.  On 10-3-1827, John Willis married “Anny” (Anna) Allison, bond by James Morrow.   John and Anna are enumerated in the 1830 Census where they lived near the Roaring Fork area of northern Greene County where John’s Mother’s family resided.   Two children were in John’s 1830 household, a son  (David, born in 1829), and a young female, born c. 1821-1825, who would not be a daughter.  This young female who is living in the 1830 household of John Willis Junior has never been identified.  Also in John’s household was an elderly woman, age 70-80, who is believed to be John’s mother, Esther Brown Willis.

For reasons presently not known, John Willis does not appear in a Greene County Tax List until the year 1832, when he is in the roster of Captain Samuel Gass which included the Roaring Fork area of northern Greene County.  Between 1833 and 1836, John moved closer to the Town where his brother, Sylvanus Willis, resided.  In the 1836 Civil Districts List, the area on the northeast perimeter of Town was included in District 13.  District 13 included the road leading to the Mount Bethel Presbyterian Church, which is now Tusculum Blvd., and extended into the then, very rural area of Tusculum.

John Willis was not a farmer.  In one census, John’s occupation was that of a “cooper”, the maker of barrels, casks and kegs.  John purchased his first land shortly before the 1850 census on 8-17-1850.  He purchased 12 acres on Holley Creek in District 13 from John McGaughey Senior (1792-1874, buried Mount Bethel Presbyterian Church).  His neighbors on adjoining farms included the James Robinson Family (buried Mt. Bethel Cemetery) and the McCord Family (in-laws of John’s nephew, John H. Willis, a son of James B. Willis).  At the time of the 1850 census, John and Annie’s three oldest sons, David, Hugh and John Junior, were working as “day laborers” for Henry Farnsworth.

By 1860, John Willis was the only one of the four brothers who was still living.   Shortly after the 1860 census, John appears to have sold his 12-acre farm in District 13 and moved further southwest into the Sunnyside area of Civil District 24.  John’s sons are in District 24 by 1861.  It appears John Willis Senior died about this time.  He no longer appears in a tax list beginning in 1861.  John W. Willis Senior could be buried at the Mount Bethel Church Cemetery near the Town, or possibly in the Shiloh Presbyterian Church Cemetery which was closer to where the Family lived by 1861.   No Will or Estate Inventory has been found for him.

At the time of the 1870 census, John’s widow, Anna Allison Willis, lived with her son, William, and his wife, “Viney”, in District 24.  In the census, William’s occupation was stated as “farmer”; however, he owned only ten acres of land.   Several of the Willis sons began to leave Greene County during the 1870’s.  By 1876, only two sons were in the Tax List, David and William.  By 1880, most of John’s Family had migrated to Benton County, Arkansas.  In 1880, Anna Allison Willis lived with her son, John C. Willis (Junior) and his family in Benton County, Arkansas.  Living nearby were Anna’s son, Carson, and the widow of Anna’s son, William. 

Because this Family lived in District 24, apart from other Willis Family members, and because most members of this Family migrated to Benton County, Arkansas, the children of John and Annie Allison Willis can be identified with reasonable accuracy.  There children are believed to be:

1.  David Alfred Willis, born August 1829.  David is the first son to appear in a Tax List with his father in the year 1849.  At the time of the 1850 Census, David was a “day laborer” in the household of Henry Farnsworth.  In the 1851 Tax List, David is annotated as “son of John”.  Shortly after the 1850 census enumeration, David Willis married Elizabeth B. Lintz on 8-29-1850.  Although David’s profession is given in census records as “farmer”, he was never taxed as a landowner in any tax year.  By 1900, David and Elizabeth, and two of their sons, Joseph and Cicero, lived in Cherryvale Township in Montgomery County, Kansas.  In 1900, David and Elizabeth reported 13 children, of whom only six were then living.  These children included:  (1) Hannah M., born c. 1852;  (2) Margaret J., born c. 1854; (3) Henry W., born c. 1856; (4) Mary C., born c. 1857; (5) Nancy E., born c. 1860;  (6) Martha, born c. 1863; (7) Joseph C., born c. 1866, who lived in Kansas;  (8) James M., born c. 1868; (9) Thomas, born c. 1870; (10) Susan, born c. 1872; and (11) Cicero A., born c. 1878, who lived in Kansas. 

2.  John C. Willis (“Junior”), born c. 1832.  At the time of the 1850 Census, John Junior was also a “day laborer” in the Farnsworth household.  On 10-16-1852, John married Margaret George.  John was also a  “farmer”, yet he never owned any land.  John and Margaret left Greene County about 1875 when they migrated to Ball Township, Benton County, Arkansas.   At the time of the 1880 census, John’s aged Mother, Annie Allison Willis, lived with John’s Family in Arkansas.  The children of John and Margaret George Willis included:  (1) Nancy J., born c. 1855; (2) William, born c. 1859; (3) Catherine, born c. 1861;  (4) Eliza, born c. 1866; (5) Samuel, born c. 1868; (6) Addison, born c. 1871;  (7) Franklin, born c. 1874 in Tennessee; and (8) Florence, born c. 1879 in Arkansas. 

3.  Hugh Willis, born c. 1836.  At the time of the 1850 census, Hugh was also a “day laborer” in the Farnsworth household.   Hugh married “Malinda” (Marinda?) Stanton in nearby Washington County on 4-5-1855.   Although Hugh and Marinda remained in Greene County, Hugh was listed in only one tax year in 1861.  He died before 1900.  Hugh is possibly buried at the Shiloh Presbyterian Church Cemetery.  In the 1910 census, Hugh’s widow, Marinda stated she had eleven children, of whom only five were then living.  Their known children included:  (1) John Henry, born c. 1856, who married Mary Flora Hon in Washington County, Arkansas on 5-5-1878.  One known son is Dewitt Henry, born on 2-28-1887 in Polk County, Arkansas.  By 1920, Dewitt H. Willis lived in Okmulgee, Oklahoma with his wife, Bertha Packe and their children.  Dewitt died on 8-15-1945 in Kansas City, Missouri.  (2) George C., born c. 1858, who married Frances A. Morgan.  George died in Greene County before 1900.  In the 1900 census, George’s widow, Frances, stated she had five children of whom 4 were living.  Three of their sons, Walter (1885-1937), David Alfred (1881-1940) and Worley Scott (1882-1962) are buried at Shiloh Cemetery near Tusculum College.  (3) James McD., born c. 1859, who apparently died in childhood;  (4) Mary E., born c. 1862; (5) Charles, born c. 1864, who is not enumerated in the 1900 census of Greene County.              (6) Alfred F., born February 1865.  Alfred lived with his mother in Greene County in 1900.  By 1910, Alfred and his brother, Carson, lived in Johnson County, Arkansas.  Alfred had no children.  (7) Martha A., born c. 1867; (8) Carson C., born September 1871.  Carson had married by 1900 and lived next door to his widowed mother.  About 1907, Carson migrated to Johnson County, Arkansas.  Carson and his wife, Ellen, had six children:  Henry, Georgia E., Elsie M., Bessie, Dorothy L., and Teddy.   (9) Nancy E., born c. 1875.   It is possible Marinda Stanton Willis migrated to Arkansas with her sons.  No burial place has been found for Marinda in Greene County, Tennessee.

4.  William Willis, born c. 1837.  William married “Vina” (Lavina) Low on 1-5-1854.   William’s widowed mother, Anna, resided in his 1870 household, where they lived on William’s ten-acre farm.  William died after 1876 and before the 1880 census.  It is not known if he died in Tennessee or in Arkansas.  At the time of the 1880 census, Vina, and the children lived in Ball Township, Benton County, Arkansas, near William’s brothers and Mother. Their children included:  (1) Mary J., born c. 1857;          (2) Sarah, born c. 1857; (3) Amanda, born 1860, who apparently died in childhood; and (4) David, born c. 1862.  Only Mary J. and David were in their Mother’s 1880 household.

5.  Mary J. Willis, born c. 1839.  Mary married Barton Seaton in nearby Hawkins County on 2-17-1858.  Barton was the son of Jacob and Sarah Seaton who resided in Greene County in 1850.  Barton and Mary Willis Seaton remained in Greene County through1880.  Their children included:  (1)  Moses, born c. 1859; (2) Sarah, born  c.1862; (3) Manda Elizabeth, born c. 1864; (4) Margaret M., born c. 1866; (5) Victoria, born c. 1867; (6) Emory, born c. 1874; and (7) Rosa, born c. 1876.    Neither Mary nor Barton Seaton nor their two sons, Moses and Emory, are in the 1900 Greene County census.  The son, Moses, resided in Washington County, Arkansas in 1900.

6.  Alfred Willis, born c. 1842.    Alfred was in his parents’ 1850 and 1860 household.  Alfred married Lydia Mariah Lowry on 11-7-1862.   Alfred (Senior) died during the Civil War years, although no record of Civil War service has been found for him.  Alfred’s widow remarried on 4-19-1866 to Ebenezer Lamons.  Alfred and Lydia Willis had one son before his death:  (1) Alfred W. Willis Junior, born October 1864.  Alfred Junior was raised by his stepfather, Ebenezer Lamons, a blacksmith and wagon maker, whose shop was on Water Street in the town of Greeneville.  Alfred Willis Junior and his wife, Alice, lived in Greene County where Alfred was a carpenter and a wheelwright.  In the 1900 census, Alice stated she had four children, of whom three were then living.  The three known children of Alfred Willis Junior were:  (i) Mary E., born c. 1885;   (ii) Vina Belle, born c. 1887, who married Roy A. Teague about 1905; and  (iii) William “Bill” A. Willis, born 9-21-1892.  Bill and his wife, Ethel, continued to reside in Greeneville where they raised six daughters: Mrs. Eldon Ottinger and Mrs. John Lawing of Greeneville; Mrs. Arlie Royston of Johnston City; and Mrs. Cecil Smith, Mrs. Bobby Malone and Mrs. Howard Collins of Detroit, Michigan.   William A. “Bill” Willis died on 7-1-1967 at his home on Chapel Street in Greeneville.  His wife, Ethel, died on 1-26-1997.  They are buried at Wesley Chapel Cemetery.  

7.  Carson Willis, born January 1843.  Carson resided in his parents’ 1850 and 1860 household.  On 1-1-1864, Carson married Rebecca Jane Dinsmore.  Sometime after 1873, the family migrated to Benton County, Arkansas.  The family apparently stopped in Virginia while in route to Arkansas.  The children in Carson’s 1880 household were all born in Tennessee except for the youngest child.   In 1900, Carson and Rebecca reported seven children, six then living.  Their known children included:  (1)  Mary H., born c. 1865;  (2) Sarah E., born c. 1866; (3) Alford W., born c. 1868; (4) Margaret, born c. 1871;  (5) James, born 1872; and  (6) William L., born c. 1876 in Virginia.   In 1910, Carson and Rebecca’s son, William L. Willis, lived in Benton County, Arkansas, reporting ten children, six then living.




Four sons of John (Senior) and Esther Brown Willis arrived in Greene County, Tennessee in the mid-to-late 1820’s.  A fifth son, or possibly his widow and child, also came to Greene County.  The Willis Family was originally from Montgomery County, Virginia, where John Willis died in 1818.  His widow, Esther Brown Willis, a daughter of Old Jotham and Pheby Brown, was the administrator of John’s Estate, along with their son, Sylvanus Willis.  The Willis Family is enumerated in the 1820 Census of Montgomery County, Virginia.  By 1830, their sons resided in Greene County, Tennessee, where they lived near Esther’s siblings.  The four known Willis Brothers were Sylvanus, Jotham B., James B. and John Junior.

Jotham B. , born c. 1810 in Virginia.   Jotham Willis first appears in a Greene County Tax List in 1833 when he owned 1 ¼ acre of land in the Capt. Susong Company.  Jotham married Nancy Wilson on 3-28-1830, bond by Richard West.   Nancy was born on 3-9-1814.  Jotham and Nancy Willis are enumerated in the 1830 Census with no children in their household.   Few records exist for Jotham Willis because he died at a very young age.  Jotham died after March 1833 and before the 1834 Tax List, when the Estate of Jotham B. Willis was taxed on “improvements” valued at $300 in the Town of Greeneville.  

The inventory of Jotham’s Estate was not submitted to the Greene County Court until 1-7-1839, the same year Jotham’s widow remarried.  The Administrator was Robert Rhea.  Jotham’s assets totaled $259.96, while his debts totaled $635.33.  Listed among the creditors were Sylvanus Willis ($7.00), James “Wylys” ($12.50), Robert Maloney ($5.75), Hugh Maloney ($28.50),   Robert Rhea ($97.00) the Administrator, and David and James C. Wilson, who were probably related to the widow, Nancy Wilson Willis.  The creditors were paid 40 cents on the dollar.  Although left a widow with two young daughters, no record has been found where the Greene County Court set-off a one-year provision for the widow, Nancy Wilson Willis, and her two young daughters.

Jotham’s widow, Nancy, remarried on 12-24-1839 to Lee M. Bullen.  Lee M. Bullen, born 3-4-1814, was the son of the Reverend Joseph and Jane Ross Bullen.  Lee and Nancy Willis Bullen are enumerated in the 1840 Greene County Census.  The two young daughters of Jotham Willis are enumerated in the Bullen household.  Both girls were age 5-10.  They would have both been born between 1831 and 1834.  In 1840, Lee and Nancy Bullen lived in the 13th Civil District of Greene County.  Lee’s brother, Loyd Bullen (1812-1884, buried Pleasant Vale Cemetery) was the Sheriff of Greene County.  At the time of the 1850 Census, the family resided in Knox County.  Only one of the Willis daughters was in their household, and she was Martha, age 17 (born c. 1833).  Also in the household were the children of Lee and Nancy Willis Bullen:  Loyd R. (born c. 1842); Joseph (born c. 1843); Samuel D. (born c. 1845); William G. (born c. 1847) and James (born 1850) Bullen.

The Bullen Family had returned to Greene County, Tennessee before the 1860 Census.  In 1860, they resided next door to Lee M. Bullen’s elderly parents who lived with their daughter, Elizabeth Bullen Britton.  Two additional children had been born to Lee and Nancy Bullen by 1860:  Jane (born c. 1852) and John (born c. 1855) Bullen.  John H. Willis, “master carpenter”, the son of James B. Willis, resided two households away.  Neither of Nancy Willis Bullen’s two daughters with her first husband, Jotham Willis, resided in the Bullen 1860 household, and they were presumably married by 1860.

Nancy’s second husband, Lee M. Bullen , died on 9-22-1881.  Nancy Willis Bullen died on 4-29-1891.  They are buried in the Mount Bethel Presbyterian Church Cemetery on today’s Tusculum Blvd., although today, their tombstones are now gone.  Also buried there are Lee Bullen’s parents, Joseph (1783-1865) and Jane Ross Bullen (1780-1863) , who is buried beside her father, William Ross (1744-1834), Revolutionary War Soldier.  Nancy’s parents may also be buried at Mount Bethel.  Several old graves for Wilson Family members include Isobel C. Wilson (died 1836), John G. Wilson (died 1842), John W. Wilson (died 1840), and William S. Wilson (died 1840), who are all buried in the same row.    Also buried in this historic cemetery is William F. Willis, 1st TN Cavalry, Company I, a son of  James B. and Frances Nixon Willis.  William F. Willis is buried next to Jane Ross Bullen. 

It is probable that many Willis Family members are buried in the cemetery of the Mount Bethel Presbyterian  Church, the first Church established  in Greeneville by the Reverend Samuel W. Doak (1785-1864), including Jotham B. Willis, who died as a young man about 24 years of age in 1834.  At this early date, the Mount Bethel Church was located outside of the Town of Greeneville in Civil District 13.  The first (known) Cemetery transcription of this historic Cemetery was made by the WPA in 1937.  At that date, there were 165 readable markers and 190 “unmarked” graves.  Our Willis Family members are probably among this number. 

In the 1937 cemetery transcription, the tombstones of Joseph and Jane Ross Bullen were readable.  Today, the marker for Joseph Bullen, an Elder of the Mount Bethel Presbyterian Church, no longer exists.   The Church was dismantled in the late 1880’s, and the Congregation was merged with the Church at Tusculum College, also founded by the Reverend Doak.  Today, only the old cemetery remains and is in the heart of modern-day Greeneville.  The cemetery is nicely maintained by a direct male descendant and namesake of the early pioneer, Reverent Samuel W. Doak.

The names of the two daughters of Jotham and Nancy Wilson Willis are documented in a book on the Bullen Family.  Their daughters were:

1.  Martha Ann Willis, born c. 1833.  Martha is found in the 1850 household of her stepfather, Lee M. Bullen, when the family resided in Knox County.  No marriage has been found for her in the Sistler book on East Tennessee Marriages.  Nothing further is known about Martha Ann Willis.

2.  Mary J. Willis, born c. 1831-33.  Mary is never documented in a named census.  She was no longer residing in her stepfather’s household in 1850.  From the Sistler book on East Tennessee Marriages, Mary probably married Sampson Butler in Knox County on 11-28-1847.  This is unproven; however, Sampson and Mary J. Butler (born c. 1831-33) and their family are found in the 1860 - 1880 censuses of Raccoon Valley Township, Union County, Tennessee.  The naming patterns of their children are consistent with the Joseph Bullen family of Greene County.  The children of Mary J. Willis Butler were:  (1) “Loid” (born c. 1848); (2) Elizabeth J. (born c. 1850); (3) Lucy E.  (born c. 1855); and (4) Joseph M. Butler (born c. 1858). 



Co-written with James D. Willis  and Grace Willis,


James H. Willis and Hila Martha Johnson married in Greene County, Tennessee on 9-13-1847, bond by John Kidwell.  Hila “Hiley” Martha Johnson, born 5-11-1827, is believed to be the daughter of Zopher (Junior) and Phebe Cooper Johns(t)on.  (For further information on Hila’s Family, please refer to the separate article on Zopher (Junior) and Phebe Cooper Johns(t)on.)  

James H. Willis, born 5-1-1828, was the grandson of John (Senior) and Esther Brown Willis; however, his paternity cannot be definitively established.  John and Esther Brown Willis were married in Montgomery County, Virginia in 1797.  At least four of their sons, Sylvanus, Jotham B., John B. and John W. Willis, came to Greene County in the mid-1820’s.  A fifth brother, who is presently unidentified, or his widow also appears to have migrated with the Willis brothers. Which of these Willis brothers was the father of James H. Willis is uncertain.   However, it is the opinion of this author that the Mother of James H. Willis was the widow, Sally (Sarah) Willis who remarried to Robert Foster Junior on 6-30-1830.  For further information on these intermarried Families, please refer to The Family of Robert (Senior) and Mercy Johnston Foster and to The Family of Robert Foster Junior

At the time of the 1850 census, James and Hila lived as “tenants” on the District 12 farm of Zopher (Junior) and Phebe Cooper Johnson.  About 1852, James and Hila Willis migrated to Grundy County, Missouri, accompanying several other intermarried family members, including the Foster Brothers.  Based on the Greene County, Tennessee District 12 Tax Lists, Hiley’s father, Zopher Johns(t)on Junior, also went with them; however, Zopher Junior returned to Greene County the following year when he appears in the Tax List of 1853.   Late in that year, Zopher Johns(t)on Junior sold his remaining acreage, a 50-acre farm on Roaring Fork, in preparation for his migration to Missouri.   This 50-acre farm was purchased in 1851 from Zopher’s nephew, Joseph A. Foster, when he migrated to Harrison County, Missouri.

The first land purchased in Missouri by James H. and Hila Martha Johnson Willis occurred on 10-2-1854.   They purchased 40 acres of land in Harrison County.   Robert Foster Junior, who is believed to be the stepfather of James H. Willis, also purchased land in Harrison County.  Although James and Hila initially resided in Harrison County, they did not remain long in this county and moved to adjacent Grundy County.  This is where James and Hila Willis spent the remainder of their long lives.   From the 1860 census, James and Hila are enumerated in Grundy County.  In 1900, Hila stated she had ten children, of whom eight were then living.

James H. Willis died on 10-28-1902.  “Hila” Martha Johnson Willis died on 3-1-1903.  They are both buried at the Mt. Zion Cemetery in Grundy County, Missouri.  Several of their children are also buried there.   This cemetery was previously known as “Johnsontown” Cemetery.  Several Greene County, Tennessee Families are buried at Mt. Zion Cemetery.  The children of James H. and Hila Martha Johnson Willis are:  (“*” denotes the children who are buried at Mt. Zion Cemetery.)

1.   John E., born July 1848 in Greene County.  On 6-27-1869 John married his cousin, Mary M. Johnson, in Grundy County, Missouri.   Mary was the daughter of James and Margaret Cox Johnson, also from Greene County.  (For further information on Mary Johnson’s family, please refer to the James and Margaret Cox Johnson Family.)   In the 1880 Census of Grundy County, Liberty Township, Mary’s father, James Johnson (born 1812) was a widower and lived with his daughter and son-in-law.    John and Mary Willis had eight children, of whom only five reached adulthood.   Their children were:  (1) James H., born c. 1871; (2) Ida B., born 1872; died 5-25-1872, buried Willis Cemetery; (3) Minerva, born 1873;    (4) Jasper W., born September 1875, who married Jessie Edith Carnes and had six children;  (5) William J., born 1876; (6) Lark, born c. 1879; (7) Ava, born c. 1889, and (8) possibly Fred, born c. 1896.   John and Mary Willis and several of their sons left Missouri after 1900 and migrated to Devol Township, Cotton County, Oklahoma.  John E. Willis died in 1926.  Mary Johnson Willis died in 1936.  They are buried in the Devol Cemetery, with a son, J. W. Willis (1876-1926).

2.  Joseph Alexander*, born 11-23-1850 in Greene County, Tennessee.  On 5-13-1868    Joseph married his cousin, Melody Johnson, in Grundy County.  Melody was the daughter of Joseph A. and Nancy Cradic Johnson, also from Greene County.  ((For further information on Melody Johnson’s family, please refer to the Joseph A. and Nancy Cradic Johnson Family.)   Joseph Alexander Willis was a preacher in Grundy County.  In the 1910 Census, Melody Johnson Willis stated she had ten children, of whom only five were living.  Their three youngest children were in their parents’ 1910 household.  The children of Melody and Joseph Willis are documented in the family Bible of their daughter, Minerva Willis Shipman.  The children of Joseph and Melody Johnson Willis were:  (1) James W., born 1-10-1869; died 1-13-1869, buried Mt. Zion Cemetery; (2) Minerva,  born 4-13-1870, who married Charles Shipman.  Minerva died in 1960 and is buried in Berry Cemetery in Grundy County, Missouri.  The names of her siblings are taken from her Bible.   (3) Elizabeth*, born 10-15-1872, who died in childhood on 1-13-1879; (4) Hila M., born 12-21-1874, who married George Keener.  Hila died in 1942.  She is buried in the Berry Cemetery.          (5) Rachel A.*, born 9-26-1878, who died in childhood on died 2-5-1885; (6) Charles W.*, born 5-22-1880, who died in infancy on 6-24-1880; (7) Ira*, born April 1881, who died in childhood on 2-10-1893; (8) Lena L.*, born 2-6-1884, who first married Mr. Seaman, then Wade H. Humphrey.  Lena died in 1964.  (9) Joseph Everett, born 8-24-1889; and (10) Lelia M., born 9-13-1894.   Joseph Alexander Willis died in 1931.  His wife, Melody Johnson Willis died on 9-28-1931.  They are buried at Mt. Zion Cemetery in Grundy County with several of their children.

3.   William Arthur*, born September 1853 in Grundy County, Missouri.  William Arthur married Frances Elizabeth Perry in Grundy County on 9-3-1877.  In the 1900 census, William Arthur and Frances stated they had seven children, of whom only three were living.  These children were:  (1) Ella Elizabeth, born 12-2-1878, who married James Nichols.  Two children are known, (i) Velda and (ii) Don.   (2) Arthur R., born 10-24-1881, who married Myra E. German.  Two children are known, (i) Harold V. and (ii) Eleanor B.  (3) Roby H., born 11-18-1883, who married Grace May DeVaul (1893-1954).  They had five children:  (i) Opal Gertrude (1911-1947); (ii) Mary Olive (1919-1986); (iii) Muriel Elizabeth (born 1920); (iv) Grace May (1923-1992); and (v) James Donald Willis, a co-author of this paper.    William Arthur Willis died on 3-19-1911 and is buried at Mt. Zion Cemetery in Grundy County.   Frances Elizabeth Willis died on 4-30-1927.  She is buried at Maple Grove Cemetery with her son, Arthur.

4.   Sarah J., born 1857.  Sarah was the first born daughter, and it is the opinion of this writer she was named for her paternal grandmother, “Sally” (Sarah) Willis who remarried to Robert Foster Junior in 1830.  Sarah married Al Tharp.  Three children are known:  (1) Ervin; (2) Jim; and (3) Rosie.  Sarah remarried to P. T. Higginbottom (1847-1935) on 7-18-1928 in Blaine County, Oklahoma.  Sarah died in 1935, and she and her second husband are buried in Fountain Cemetery in Oklahoma.

5.  Robert Thomas*, born 1-1-1859 (a twin).  He married Elizabeth Jane Callihan on 4-7-1878.  The witnesses to the marriage were J. H. Willis (Robert’s father) and T. W. Johnson, a cousin.  They had six children: (1) Lina May*, born 7-22-1882, who married O. C. Ralls.  Lina died 9-27-1966.  (2) William Albert*, born 7-6-1880, who married Ina Vane Johnson.  William Albert died in 1957.  (3) Joseph Alexander, born 1-6-1884, who married Ethel May Gallitan.   (4) Charles L., born 11-5-1886.  He died on 9-3-1925 and is buried in the Galt Cemetery.   (5) James Ava, born 2-11-1888, who married Ida Christina Randolph, and   (6) Verna Alice, born 6-5-1898, who married Calvin Lesher.  Robert Thomas Willis died on 11-27-1950.  His wife, Elizabeth Jane died on 4-20-1930.  They are buried at the Mt. Zion Cemetery in Grundy County.

6.  Martha L., born 1-1-1859 (a twin).  She married Columbus McCullah on 4-9-1877.  This family is not found in the 1900 Census in Missouri.  Martha died before 1903.  Nothing further is known about this family.

7.  Caroline E., born 1-25-1862.  She married George H. Vincell (1860-1944) on 7-4-1882.  They had three children:  (1) Ora Lee, born 1883.  He married Retta Heinen.  Ora Lee died on 7-16-1927 and is buried at Galt West; (2) Vera May, born 5-20-1886, died 3-17-1910 and buried at Galt West; and (2) Lillie Belle, born 8-28-1888; died 2-4-1983, who married Wyatt Francie Sampson.   Caroline died after 1920.

8.  Nancy Ann, born 5-16-1865.  She married James Warren Ingraham (1863-1938).  In the 1900 Census, Nancy Ann stated she had three children, of whom only two were living.  Their children were:  (1) Alice Emmaline, born 6-15-1885; (2) Ernest E., born 8-6-1886, who died in childhood before 1900; and             (3) David R., born 3-29-1891.  Nancy Willis Ingraham died on 11-3-1929.  She and her husband are buried at Berry Cemetery.

9.  Nettie Louisa*, born 10-30-1868.  She married William H. Kilburn* (1858-1913).  In the 1900 Census, Louisa stated she had eight children, of whom six were living.  Their children were:  (1) George H., born 1885; (2) Ethel, born 1888; (3) Girtie, born November 1889.  Girtie married Virgil Flowers (1886-1970).  Girtie died in May 1963 and is buried in North Evans Cemetery in Grundy County with her husband.       (4) Mollie M., born 1894; (5) Evert D., born 1895; and (6) Linnie H., born 1897.   One child was born after 1900:  (7) Helen L.*, born 4-27-1903; died 3-30-1904.  Another child was:   (8) Wilbur, YOB and YOD not known, who died in infancy and is buried near Hickory, Missouri.  Louisa Willis Kilburn died on 1-23-1945.  She and her husband and infant daughter, Helen, are buried at Mt. Zion Cemetery.   A female descendant of this family is participating in the MtDNA Project.

10. Charles George, born 11-23-1870.  Charlie died on 12-25-1878, 8 years, 1 month and 2 days.  He is buried in the Willis Cemetery.

Descendants of James and Hiley Martha Johnson Willis are participating in the Willis and Johnson DNA Projects.  Refer to Appendix 2 for detailed information:




James Donald Willis, son of Roby H., son of William Arthur Willis, child #3, above, is participating in the Y-DNA Project.  As of this writing, there are no male DNA matches in the Willis Surname Project.  The Haplogroup of this Willis Family is type R1b, the most common group of Western European descent.  The Willis DNA shows striking similarities to that of the Zopher Johns(t)on Family.




The female DNA is documented by a mother-to-daughter female descendent of Louisa N. Willis Kilburn, child #9, above.  The Haplogroup of the Female lineage is European group “Jasmine”.  This is an extremely rare Haplogroup, with less than 17% of woman of European lineage in this category.  The ancient origins of the“J” group are clustered in Cornwall, Wales and western Scotland.  The MTDNA documents the ancient maternal lineage of these female lines:

Hila Martha JOHNSON Willis (1827 TN-1903 MO), her Mother:  Phebe COOPER Johns(t)on (1791 VA-1862 IL), her Mother:  Jane BROWN Cooper (born 1768 VA, died after 1855 TN), her Mother:  Pheby  Brown (born c. 1745, died after 1802, probably in Tennessee.)  Pheby’s maiden name is believed to be JOHNSTON, a daughter of Zopher Johnston “The Elder”, and a sister to Zopher Johnston Senior.

The descendants of the Jotham and Pheby Brown, Christopher and Jane Brown Cooper, Zopher (Junior) and Phebe Cooper Johns(t)on, and James and Hila Martha Johnson Willis, are grateful to the Willis descendants who are participating in the DNA Projects.


Note:  This and other other family sketches submitted by Stevie Hughes constitute materials gathered for his forthcoming book:  "Pioneer Families of Greene County, TN". 


©,  2007 by Stevie Hughes, Greene County, TNGenWeb Coordinator and/or individual contributors. You are welcome to copy information found on this Greene County  for your personal use, but this information may not be sold,  used, or reposted elsewhere  without expressed permission of the copyright holder(s).