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In this chapter:

Introduction

2.1         The First Gens Back

2.2        Our Quaker Roots

2.3        William Williss and the Williss Tavern

2.4        Our Willisses During the Anti-Slavery Movement

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Introduction

Williss, Generally

To locate information about our Williss ancestors, Cousin Michael and I scoured the Internet — and also our grandfather’s file cabinet. We remembered only paltry information about our ancestors that Grandpa shared with us. But, we have been able to piece together a family history that far exceeds what Grandpa told us; in fact, we have collected probably more information than Grandpa himself ever knew. 

willisses late 40s - back Warren Appler W., Warren Keifer W., Dorothy Berger W., Sally W., Warren Allen W., Warren David W. and Nancy W.

The Williss-Berger household of St. Louis, along with two Williss relatives, c. 1949 (?). Back row, L to R: Grandpa; his uncle Warren Kiefer Williss; Grandma Dorothy; front row, L to R: Sally; Warren Allen; Grandpa’s cousin Warren David Williss; Nancy. Warren David was living in St. Louis at the time and studying physics at the university. He ended up becoming an aviation engineer who designed engines for airlines, and retired in Harrisburg, PA. Years ago, I met Warren David in Pennsylvania and he kindly let me copy the contents of his father’s family book, and also shared a lot of important family information with me. He passed away in 2014 aged 89.

Origin and Derivation of the Surname

Let me start off by stating that our family name “Williss” is most definitely merely a variant the surname “Willis”, which today is a fairly common surname in the US.[1]

 “Willis” appears in old documents that originated from several different locations around Great Britain and even Ireland. I have not done serious in-library research myself, but several online sources (i.e., family historians) report that records containing the name “Willis” (or variations thereof) have been found in England, in particular south central England, dating back to at least the 13th Century.[2]

A commonly published explanation is that “Willis” was originally a derivation of “William”, and was named after William the Conqueror. Apparently the original English standard for the surname, before “Willis”, was “Wilson” – perhaps derived from “William+Son”. 

In 1916, two eager family genealogists from an unrelated Willis family gave their own explanation of the origin of “Willis”; they also gave a good lesson applicable to researching any surname:  

“The name Willis, also spelled Wyllys, Willes, Wyllis, Willys, Wills and several other ways, often being changed from one to the other in the same document, in ancient times (see copy of will given later on) is one of some two score names derived from Will, alias Wille; it is a Welsh Patronymic, answering to Willson and Willison in England. Originally in the Welsh it was Fitz Wille, son of Wille, until the Welsh began to drop the prefix Fitz, in exchange for the final “s.” The name gradually settled down to Willis, although variations of the name are still used by families having a common origin.[3]

Please note the bolded text I have added to this quotation: it aptly illustrates how the actual spelling of names in old documents is not always determinative when identifying an individual ancestor. Context in many cases plays a far more significant role. 

Path of Ancestry

In any event, based on the best information so far collected by multiple researchers (including me), I can confidently share that we can identify cross-verification for every step of the way along our Willis surname line dating back to at least 7 generations before Grandpa Warren to a Andrew Willis, of Dorchester County, Maryland, who died in 1778. It also seems promising that we can go back further than that. Some more details are below, but following is the path of descent from Andrew onwards:

 

Willis Chain of Descent.jpg

 

 

 

Endnotes

[1]        Grandpa told an old legend about our family’s spelling of the name “Williss”. The version I remember is that that an ancestor was tired of having his mail mixed up with a neighbor of the same last name, and so he added the second “s” to avert the ongoing confusion. Now, the only way I think we can verify this story is to check how our ancestors spelled their own name, and then to check the names of their neighbors. I don’t have such records and I won’t spend the energy searching for them. I will note that, in our line, the second “s” first appears in Quaker meeting minute records in reference to William Williss, born in 1771. But other references to him, and also to his father, Thomas, only had a single “s”. The second “s” doesn’t start appearing with regularity until the mid-to-late 19th century.

[2]        The Wikipedia page on the “Willis (surname)” is consistent with other online sources. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willis_(surname) (accessed July 2018). The Willis Family DNA Project has collected data from the hundreds of project members and concludes that the surname originates from south-central England. (http://www.willisdna.com/Status%20Reports.html)

Another attribution, also unsourced, refers to a connection with “Welles”, and ties the name to the word “well”, as in water well.

[3]         A History of the Willis Family of New England And New Jersey And Their Ancestors (1916) by Charles Ethelbert Willis and Frances Caroline Willis; bolded emphasis added.

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Me (on the phone): "That's "C-r-e-s-a-p".

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