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Origins of John Willis
There has been considerable speculation concerning the origins and ancestry of John Willis the immigrant to Plymouth Colony. The purpose of this essay is to examine the evidence for an against the various theories.
We know that John Willis was an early immigrant to Roxbury, Massachusetts, arriving about 1636 or 1637 as one of the early proprietors of that town. His birth is usually given as 1610, though this is an estimate, not based on any birth record. He married about 1636 Elizabeth Hodgkins the widow of William Palmer Jr. There is no indication that John Willis had an earlier wife. We do know that John Willis had brothers who were also immigrants to Plymouth Colony. They were as follows:
Nathaniel Willis settled first in Sandwich, Barnstable, Plymouth, Massachusetts and was constable there in 1640-1641. He was one of those permitted to bear arms in 1643. He owned land northwest of North Hill and 50 acres at Namasakeeset. He apparently moved to Duxbury as he and John Willis were on the list of original proprietors there in 1645. He apparently was also one of those who settled on the “New Plantation” of Roxbury that later incorporated into the town of Bridgewater. He is said to have been the first schoolmaster in that town. We know of the relationship between John and Nathaniel because Nathaniel Willis’ son Elkanan Willis asked his “uncle” John Willis for assistance on the estate of his father. Both Elkanan and John Willis gave bond for 40 pounds.
Lawrence Willis was also a settler in Sandwich, Massachusetts. He married, in 1656 as his second wife, Mary, the daughter of Thomas Makepeace of Boston. He was authorized to bear arms in the Sandwich Company of militia in 1643 and with Nathaniel Willis took part in an expedition against the Naragansett Indians in 1644. He was also one of those who, in 1644, witnessed the purchase of land by the town of Barnstable adjacent to Sandwich. He apparently also moved to Bridgewater as he was appointed to the grand jury from there in 1657. John and Lawrence Willis were among the first freemen of Bridgewater listed in that same year. Lawrence Willis later moved to Boston. He obtained the office of Woodcorder in Boston 1671-81 Elkanah Willis settled the estate of his uncle Lawrence Willis in Boston in 1703. In his will of 1666, Thomas Makepeace names his daughter Mary, wife of Lawrence Willis and gives her use of his house in Boston during her life. He also mentions debts owed by John Willis Sr. and John Willis Jr.
Jonathan Willis: A significant document dated 8 Jan 1656 from Bridgewater, Massachusetts states: “Be it known unto all men by these presents , that we, nathaniel Willis and Lawrence Willis, inhabitants of the town of Bridgewater, do bind ourselves to free the said town of Bridgewater from any charge or damage that may come upon the said town by the keeping of our brother Jonathan Willis.” There is also the following Plymouth Colony Court record: “Jonathan Willis, who is at Duxbury for cure, shall not be maintained by Duxbury, but by Sandwich, wence he came.” Also a1643 Plymouth Colony Law indicated that every Township shall make provision for the maintenance of the poor. It was added that Jonathan Willis is excepted out of this order that is at Duxborrow for cure and shall not be maintained by Duxborrow but by Sandwhich whence he came. Nothing more is heard of Jonathan Willis so perhaps he died soon after this order.
Francis Willis: In 1704 Elkanah Willis, son of Nathaniel Willis, sold land in Boston, which he described as the estate of his uncle Francis Willis, deceased.
There were other early individuals named Willis in the early records of Plymouth Colony. One was Richard Willis who was at Plymouth in 1630 and who died before 1645. He was married to Amy Glass 9 Oct 1639 in Plymouth. They had one son Richard. Amy remarried before 1645 to Edward Holman and had other children. She probably died before 24 Jan 1648/49 when her son Richard Willis was apprenticed to Gyles Rickard. The elder Richard Willis could be the same Richard Willis, a servant of John Barnes, who, with permission, switched places with Thomas Prince, servant to Gov. Thomas Prence, 26 Aug 1634. There is a record, though of a Richard Willis, planter, at Plymouth Feb 1672/73 who could be the son.
Henry Willis was a volunteer in the Pequot War from Plymouth Colony.
The relationship, if any of Richard and Henry Willis to John Willis of Bridgewater is unknown.
It would seem that, with so many brothers, it would be easy to find the English origins of John Willis. This, however, is not the case. There seems to be no passenger list of any ship arriving during this period that would indicate the exact date of arrival and no document in America, that would pinpoint a town or county in England where the family originated.
With the facts about the Willis brothers established in New England we can examine the various theories about the origin of John Willis.
Theory 1. John Willis was born in Chettle Parish, Dorsetshire, the son of Nathaniel Willis born about 1575 and died aft 1692 in London, Middlesex, England. Another version has his father moving from Chettle to London where John Willis was born about 1600 or 1610. Nathaniel Willis, in this thoery died in London 1668 in London. Chettle is a hamlet in North Dorset in Southern England on Cranborne Chase. It is the site of Chettle House, the village manor, a red brick Baroque mansion built during the reign of Queen Anne. The Chettle Parish church in St. Mary’s and sits on the grounds of Chettle House. I am unable to find any original records to support or refute this theory. Chettle Parish records do not seem to be available on line.
Theory 2. John Willis, age 29, came to New England on the ship “Paul” which sailed from Gravesend London, England 3 Apr 1635, bound for Virginia but diverted to New England. There was such a ship which did sail from London on that date with a John Willis on board, but this ship was bound for St. Christopher (St. Kitts) in the West Indies and there is no record that the ship stopped in New England. This theory also does not account for the arrival of the known brothers. It was not unusual for ships to get off course from storms or just bad navigation, but there is no real indication that this happend to the “Paul.” The age of the John Willis of the “Paul” would put his birth about 1606, rather than the 1610 usually applied to the immigrant. A related record shows a William Willis, age 17, sailing from the Port of London 2 May 1635 “to be transported to Barbados,” on the “Alexander.” Another record is that of a Thomas Willis, age 19, who was transported 28 May 1635 from London to Virginia on the “Speedwell.” Another Thomas Willis was on a passenger list from England to Maryland in 1634.
Theory 3. The John Willis of theory 2 or another John Willis had been said to have been certified by the minister of St. Kathrins “nere to Tower of London,” before sailing to New England. This was not uncommon since the British government required such certifications before allowing a person to leave for the colonies. There is a church in London called “Saint Katherine By the Tower.” The church register shows the christening of Johy Wyllis 4 Oct 1601, son of Richard Wyllis. This record, if applied to the immigrant would make him 9 years older than what is usually given. St. Katherine’s records do not show christening of any of the brothers. There is a remote possibility that this Richard is the same on who died in Plymouth Colony in 1645, but more evidence is needed to connect the two.
St. Katherine By the Tower Parish records do have record of a Willis family who lived there in the early 1600’s. A Thomas Willis was the father of a number of children who were christened there: Elesbeth (2 Jul 1615), Ellner (1 Mar 1616), Mary (6 Sep 1618), Elizabeth (12 -- 1620), Raphaell (9 Jun 1625). Thomas Willis married Margaret Rommett 2 Jul 1616 at St. Katherine’s. A Thomas Willis was buried there 25 Jul 1627 and a Nicholas Willis married Alles Cooton there 8 Feb 1612. Middlesex civil records show Mrs. Willis from Tower Wharfe was buried 22 Dec 1614. Agnes, the wife of Thomas Willis was buried 8 Mar 1612. These are interesting, but not significant.
Also in London, a John Willes was christened 23 May 1610 at St. Botolph Bishopsgate, son of Thomas Willes. A Lawrence Willis was baptized 23 Sep 1601 at Saint Margaret, Westminster, London, England, son of Thomas Willis. A Francis Willis was baptized 7 Apr 1618 at Saint Martin in the Fields, Westminster, London, England, without an identified father. This grouping could be significant since they are all from London, but there are many others of the same names christened throughout England. A Thomas Willis of St. Margaret, Westminster also had other children christened there: Henry (Aug 1630), Prudence (Jan 1627), and Sarah (May 1628), but these dates are far from the 1601 date that Lawrence Willis was baptized there. A Richard Willis also had children baptized at St. Margaret Westminister: Elizabeth (3 Apr 1617), Susanna (28 May 1629) and Eleanor (25 Mar 1633).
Commissary Court of London Will Abstracts, Vol 26 shows a will of Margaret Willis, St. Antholins, London, widow which names a son Nathaniel Willis and a daughter Elizabeth. The date is between 1629 and 1634.
Theory 4. John Willis was born in 1610 the son of Thomas Willis who was born in 1575 in Fenny Compton, Warwickshire, England. Thomas Willis, in turn, was the son of Ambrose Wyllys, born 1533 in Fenny Compton and dying in 1590 in the same town. Ambrose Wyllys was the husband of Agneta Coles, born 1535 in Compton, Warwickshire, England and died in 1572 in Fenny Compton. Fenny Compton is a village and parish about 8 miles north of Banbury, England. Fenny Compton Parish Registers (St. Peter and St. Clare) begin in 1627 and should be useful in confirming this theory, but seem not to be available on-line.
“The Ancestry of John D. Newport”on Rootsweb lists a detailed pedigree of this family from a Thomas Willis born about 1450 in Priors Marston, Warwickshire to Thomas Wyllys born about 1575 in Fenny Compton, but does not account for a son John Willis who went to Plymouth. In this pedigree, well-supported by Warwickshire wills, a George Wyllys, born about 1590, son of Richard Wyllys, grandson of Ambrosius Wyllys went to Hartford, Connecticut in 1638 where he became governor of Connecticut. He died at Hartford, Connecticut about 1644. He mentions land in Fenny Compton in “Old England.” George’s brother Richard Willis is said to have gone to Middlesex County, Virginia. Mr. Newport also shows a son Thomas Wyllys born in 1575, son of Ambrose Wyllys. Some sources name Mary Tomlyn as the wife of this Thomas Wyllys.
The problem with naming Thomas son of Ambrosius Wyllys as the father of the immigrant John Willis is that the tomb epitaph of Ambrose Willis at Prior’s Marson Parish Warwick in 1590 clearly states that he has only two living children: Richard and Anne. The children of Richard Wyllys (Willis) are well-known and do not include a John Willis. It would seem, then that John Willis of Plymouth could not be a direct descendant of Ambrosius Wyllys, through a son Thomas Wyllys.
Another pedigree of a related family does show some promise. Richard Willis was born in 1573 in Fenny Compton, Warwick, England and died 10 Jun 1597 in the same place. He married Hester Chambers and later Bridget Young. His will names a son Richard Willis of Fenny Compton. This Richard Willis, the younger, made his will in 1639. He mentions a brother William Willis of London. This William Willis was born about 1591 in Fenny Compton, and thus would have been about 49 years old in 1639--old enough to have had children in the early 1600’s. London Parish records do whow that a William Willis had 3 children baptized at Saint Margaret, Westminister, London: Julian (24 Jun 1615), Jane (1 Aug 1618) and Elizabeth (24 Jun 1616).
It is interesting, though, that Ambrose Wyllys, in his will of 1590, names a brother-in-law William Makepeace. This was due to the fact that Ambrose Willis married Anne, the daughter of Richard Makepeace of Chipping Warden, who died 5 Dec 1584, aged 68. Lawrence Willis, brother of the immigrant John Willis married, in 1656, Mary, the daughter of Thomas Makepeace. Thomas Makepeace came to New England from Bristol, England, but his family seems to have been from Warwickshire. The father of Thomas Makepeace was William Makepeace, b. 1565 in Burton-Dassett, Warwick, England, died 1590 in Bruton-Dassett, England. William’s wife was Mary ____. Burton-Dassett is the Parish adjacent to Fenny Compton. William’s Makepeace’s father was also named William Makepeace (1544-1615) and was married to Susan Willis (1546-1584) and was also from Burton-Dassett. It was William Makepeace’s sister Anne Makepeace that married Ambrose Willis. Both William and Anne Makepeace were children of Richard Makepeace and Dorothy Warner of Chipping Warden, Northamptonshire. Chipping Warden is only 7 miles from Burton-Dassett.
The bottom line is that there is no established link between John Willis the immigrant to Warwickshire, but the close relationship between the Wyllys (Willis) and Makepeace famileis of Warwickshire make it possible that John Willis was from that county in England.
There is a record of the marriage, 31 March 1637 of Nathaniel Willis of Isleworth, Warwickshire, gentleman, bachelor, aged 27, and Bridget Layton of St. Mary Woolnorth, spinster, aged 23, with consent of her mother, her father deceased; at St. Mary Magdalen, Milk Street.
Theory 4a. Related to Theory 4 is one that has John Willis born 1630 in Halford, Warwickshire, England, the son of Thomas Willis. This date is unlikely since the immigrant John Willis was an adult in Plymouth by 1636. Halford Parish records are avaialble on-line, through the IGI, but I find no such record there. The Parish Church at Halford is St. Mary. There was a Francis Willis who had several children christened at the adjacent parish of Idlicote, Warwick between 1612 and 1624. This Francis Willis (Wyllys) had married 12 Jun 1599,at Idlicote. Elizabeth Ryve.
Theory 5. John Willis was born 3 May 1598 in Nettleton, Lincoln, England, son of either Thomas Willis or William Willis. Parish records such as birth as: Jhon Willis, christeneed 3 May 1598--Father William Willis. There are few other examples of that surname in the early 1600’s in Nettleton. Nettleton is a village and civil parish in the West Liberty district of Lincolnshire, close to the town of Caistor. The Anglican Church there is St. John the Baptist. The Willis surname does not seem common in Lincolnshire, appearing only rarely in parishes around Nettleton.
There is no final conclusion on the English origin of Deacon John Willis of Massachusetts. Perhaps this essay will help future researchers solve the riddle. I have a hunch that John Willis will be found to be related to the Willis family of Fenny Compton with a possible connection with London before leaving for America. The key to future researchers, though is to find a link between the Willis brothers in Massachusetts and in England.
- Date: 1610
- Place: Duxbury, Plymouth, Massachusetts, United States
- Date: 2 Jan 1637
- Place: Duxbury, Plymouth, Massachusetts, United States
- Note: Theories on the English Origin of Deacon John Willis
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