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For me, the most remarkable discovery in my research into our Williss family ancestry was learning that our ancestors were practicing Quakers — and were so for several generations. Cousin Michael W. and I each had already concluded this was the case independently. Our conclusions were confirmed when we found a handwritten obituary for Frederick Williss in Grandpa Warren’s file cabinet. The obituary recited the fact that Frederick had grown up in the farming household of his grandfather, John Wesley Williss, and expressly noted John Wesley was a Quaker. This was all we needed to make the connection.[1]

Michael and I have been able to find out a lot about our specific line of Willises. There are multiples sources online, and of course distant relatives to consult with. As explained below, the end result of my research is that we can trace our Willis surname line with strong confidence back to at least an Andrew Willis of the Eastern Shore of Maryland, who died 1778, and the 1767 marriage of his son Thomas. Additionally, there is evidence we can trace even further back beyond Andrew. [2]

Quaker Meeting Kahn Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Quaker Meeting” by an unknown artist and dated circa the late 18th or early 19th Centuries. I love this drawing! It’s identified by the Kahn Museum of Fine Arts of Boston as of British origin, but its basic style is almost folk art-like – which was popular at that time in the USA — so it easily fits Americana of that time. For those of you not familiar with early American folk art, this was not intended to be sketched as an exact, realist-type of painting already common in that same era. As for the subject, even if you are not a Quaker, you may still be familiar with the concept of a “Quaker service”, a generic term for a gathering or meeting that allows attendees time for an “open mic” to open up their hearts to other attendees. Here, the gentleman standing up in the upper row of pews is not necessarily a minister – instead, I think he’s just an ordinary attendee who seems to be in the middle of a passionate explanation of a subject. Note that he is the only man who has taken off his hat. And you can see the hat is hanging on the hook on the wall behind him. And the people sitting around him have various facial expressions. Even though this is folk art, the artist seems to have captured a range of emotions or reactions to the crowd sitting and patiently listening to the speaker – and some of them are humorous. Published here with permission of the Kahn Museum of Fine Arts of Boston.[3]

About Quakers, Generally.

Quakers had a very special role in Colonial and early US history serving as America’s conscience about slavery (among other issues). This compels me to consider the historical context in which our Williss Quaker ancestors lived. Of course, American history is an extensive subject. And there are deep mounds of information available on any particular matter. Yet in this blog we cannot afford even to scratch the surface of any historic event. Wikipedia and Wikipedia-types of articles on the subjects – at least when they exist – are normally sufficient for our purposes.[4]

Further, I am not a Quaker expert – in fact, to date I have been quite the ignoramus on this faith. (I expect so are most other Americans today.) So my summary here reflects information I have gathered, as a layperson, in connection with my Williss research. Further, I suspect most people reading this blog also have not done much research on Quakers. At a minimum, I need to share some of what I have learned.

Thus, I need to point out: we may focus on past events, but must acknowledge that Quakerism is very much still alive today. In fact, the Third Haven Meeting, at which some of our ancestors attended in the 18th Century and possibly before, is still standing and used today – and you can even visit their website![5]

I’ve reviewed some materials online, and here’s my dumbed-down summary of Quakerism. It began in England in the mid-1600s. This was also during and immediately after the time of the English Civil War (1640s-1650s). At that time, the Church of England had become dominated by Puritanical beliefs and practices that were protestant as against of the Roman Catholic Church but that nevertheless rigidly adhered to the Bible and orthodox traditions in many ways oppressive to the general public. Several groups splintered off and became separate faiths, all of them variations on a Protestant theme. If I understand correctly, Quakers have apparently always believed in Jesus and therefore have are a Christian faith. But throughout history they have refused a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. That apparently has been a strong Quaker belief since the early days. But unlike many other Protestant faiths (especially of that era), Quakerism rejects a rigid system of priests and higher-ups as messengers in order to allow members to relate to God. In Quaker faith, the belief is that godliness is innate in each and every person, and each individual among us does not need a priest or pastor to directly connect to Christ. Preaching and ministering has always occurred, but the speaking seems to have been more democratic among members. From the earliest days of Quakerism, every member of a Quaker society (church) is equal and has equal ability to speak and become leaders — including women. Indeed, women became very active leaders from early times in Quaker meetings and activism. This was certainly uncommon back in the day.

Quakers also — generally, at least – seem to have held firmly to the belief that no person of the upper classes was more important than any other person in society. And it seems Quakers came from all kinds of socio-economic backgrounds, themselves. These convictions naturally led to alarmed upper classes and nobility seeing them as a threat to the established social order.

Fanatical Puritans viciously attacked Quakers on religious grounds. You were blasphemous if you did not abide by established Puritan societal practices. And being blasphemous often subjected you to widespread hostility and also some of the harshest criminal penalties. This was the reality Quaker ancestors lived in. Between the 1650s and the 1680s, thousands of Quakers were rounded up and thrown into English prisons. Many were publicly attacked and tortured. Not surprisingly, many thousands of Quakers decided to escape England and move to American colonies, and elsewhere.

James Nailore being tortured and pilloried

A well-known drawing depicting James Naylor, a prominent and outspoken English Quaker, being publicly tortured and pilloried in London in 1656.  (Wikimedia Commons)


Quakers were sometimes vilified in art. Here’s an example in A Quakers’ Meeting, late 17th Century, by Dutch artist Egbert van Heemskerk; there are actually several different variations and spinoffs of this painting. This is what I call a “supermarket tabloid painting”, because it twists the image of the subject into something it is not. When I think of Quakers, I think of people fairly serious and sober, the attendees all sitting up with correct posture, and the women and all prim and proper with their bonnets. Here, the attendees come across as a range of sloppy, passionate, inattentive, dazed, or just plain crude for a church setting. It’s as if this image is to prompt a response such as, “They look like dumb peasants!”.  In most churches, women were not allowed to address the congregation; here, one is doing not only just that, if you can zoom in, she seems to be streaming tears and has an almost a crazy look on her. (As if to prompt a response of “Look at the crazy, shrieking woman – hardly ladylike and definitely no comforting words of God.”) I note the preaching speaker is also standing on a wash tub. (“Hardly a dignified pulpit.”) Oh, and here’s the gem: a dog there at the bottom of the wash tub, looking up at the “crazy lady” while lifting its leg. ( [6]}

Some Quakers ended up in New England, where they took on the Puritan “Establishment” head on – and they didn’t seem to fare much better than they did in England.[7]

One article published by the Maryland Historical Society in 1878 recounted documentary accounts of numerous incidents recorded in New England of brutality against Quakers:

“[t]he Suf’frings of the People call’d Quakers in New-England, from the Time of their first Arrival there, in the Year 1656, to the Year 1660. Wherein their Merciless Whippings, Chainings, Finings, Imprisonings, Starvings, Burning in the Hand, Cutting off Ears, and Putting to Death, with divers other Cruelties, inflicted upon the Bodies of Innocent Men and Women, only for Conscience-sake…“The worst cases, however, were those of women, even old and weakly women, who were imprisoned, banished, stripped, whipped at the cart’s tail through the towns, thrown headlong down stairs, accused of Witchcraft and half drowned in the rivers.”[8] 

New York was somewhat more hospitable, and some writers believe that was due in part to its Dutch heritage. Pennsylvania seems to have beaten most other North American places as the preferred Colonial-era migration destination of English Quakers: William Penn, also a Quaker, played a key role in founding the Pennsylvania colony as a place of refuge for religious freedom. (Which is why today PA is sometimes called the “Quaker State”.) Nearly 8,000 of Quakers filed into Philadelphia by 1685. Others migrated further south to Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas.


William Penn, who founded the Pennsylvania Colony as a refuge for Quakers, standing and facing King Charles II, in the King’s breakfast chamber at Whitehall, 1680, in a famous painting by artist Jean FerrisThe red-headed dude on the far right looks like he’s straight out of an early 1970s rock band.  [9]

Quakers began arriving in Maryland as early as the mid-1600s. I found one article on the history of Maryland Quakers, authored by one Saul Norris and published during the Civil War. It feels ripe for quoting:

The rise and progress of the Society of Friends, or Quakers, in the province of Maryland, constitutes an episode rather than a prominent integral part of its history; a thread in the woof distinct and separate from the whole fabric. By the inculcation of their peculiar tenets, differing so widely from those around them, they immediately isolated themselves in a great degree from the world. Even their speech and apparel, so peculiar to themselves, seemed as a harrier between them and the rest of mankind. Abstaining, almost totally, from participation in political matters, they were content to be governed, not to govern ; to yield obedience to the recognized laws, where their doctrines did not come in opposition to them ; yet when so clashing, presenting a front of quiet, but downright and sturdy resistance; not by force of arms, but by the exhibition of an endurance that constitutes one of the most remarkable characteristics of the sect, and which, however open to animadversion, yet commands respect from its consistency with their principles, and the unyielding persistence with which it has been maintained.”  [10]

Maryland offered a place a refuge safe from the prevailing hostility against Quakers in the 17th and 18th  Centuries. One article published by the Maryland Historical Society in 1878 stated:

“almost from the first foundation of Quakerism in America, there was a society of Friends near the head of Third Haven Creek, afforded an asylum for many of the persecuted and harassed Friends of Old England, New England, New York, Virginia, and other colonies. [11]

As explained below, we can trace our line to the Eastern Shore of Maryland and to attendance at the Third Haven. In the following map from, I’ve circled the area that roughly (but not completely) covers the three counties (Dorchester, Talbot and Caroline) where records suggest our ancestors lived in the 18th Century and possibly earlier than that. It looks like this is a beautiful area to visit; some day it might be fun to try to find the Williss properties.

Maryland Map - Copy

Source of underlying map: [12]

On Our Way to Identifying the Immigrant Ancestor

My stated goal in this blog for each main family surname is to identify it back to the immigrant. Sadly, we are not ready to meet that goal for the Willisses. However, we have come a long way, and serious research opportunities seem to promise to yield the answer for whomever is ready, willing and able to take on the task.

Research done by our distant cousin William Hunt concluded that our Willis line goes back to a particular John Willis, who was born in England in 1660 and arrived in Maryland about 1680 or so. Hunt’s research was extensive and the results strong: it included review of many primary sources including courthouses and state records, and his reporting on a number of the more recent generations can be cross-verified. But, much more recent analysis by another Willis surname researcher, himself named Gary Willis, explains in persuasive detail why the John Willis in question is probably not our ancestor. Instead, we descend from a different Willis family, as outlined below.[13] [13]

To sum up, in our line ancestry, beginning with Fred’s father and tracing backwards in time from there, we can take confidence in tracing a consistent line of Quakers back to at least Thomas, and probably Andrew, as follows :

  1. Pearn Williss (___-_____?): He is an oddity in our ancestry, because we know from the census as well as Frederick’s own biography article that Frederick grew up in his grandfather’s house. All we know about Pearn is what Frederick wrote about him. We can find no other record, so far. [14]
  2. John Wesley Williss (1808 – c.1885), Frederick’s grandfather. We can find his birthdate, and only secondary evidence of his deathdate. Unfortunately we don’t know a lot about him. He was recorded in Quaker minutes as being the son of:
  3. William Williss (1771-c.1846). We know of William’s birthdate from Quaker records. However, no record can be found of his death date.  William was born in Maryland but migrated to Ohio possibly about 1800, settling in Clark County. He is discussed more in the next sub-chapter, 2.3, below.  William was recorded in Quaker minutes as being the son of:
  4. Thomas Willis (173? – 1792). We cannot confirm when he was born, but Quaker records recorded Thomas Willis as marrying Sinai Ricketts as a part of the Philadelphia Meeting. The marriage entry is from Quaker meeting minutes of the Third Haven Monthly Meeting House in Talbot, Maryland. It lists both Thomas and Sinai as residents of Dorchester County, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. So, this much is solid.[15] Our Thomas I suspect may also be the same Thomas Willis who filed an Oath of Fidelity in 1778 declaring himself to support the Revolution. The Oath taker was required to pledge allegiance to Maryland and to deny allegiance and obedience to Great Britain.[16] This was in addition to any non-military contributions that Quakers made in lieu of armed service, since they were generally pacifist but still wanted to support the American side. (Also, many persons also simply gave up Quakerism in order to fight.)  Thomas was the son of:
  5. Andrew Willis (16__ or 17__ – 1778). Fortunately for us, researcher Gary Willis seems to have taken us back at least one generation further by identifying an Andrew Willis as the father of our Thomas Willis, by pointing out that both Thomas and the Andrew were connected to a particular piece of land. I have not yet done my own review of the underlying documents, but here’s a snippet from Gary’s e-mail to a member of the Willis Surname project: “Research I have done recently shows this man [Thomas Willis] related to others I call the Friendship Regulated Group. Their father is an Andrew Willis who left instructions Thomas regarding division of Andrew’s land, which Thomas accomplished. Later guardian records related to Thomas’s children show this same land, completing the connection.

This is seriously encouraging. It might mean that our previous understanding was wrong, but it also means only that we’ve had a reckoning and can be all the more confident in the next step we are taking.

Nancy Williss, older sister of (John) Wesley Williss

The Original Nancy Williss?  The Nancy Williss in this photograph was the  daughter of William Williss, and also the older sister of our John Wesley Williss. This particular Aunt Nancy was a practicing Quaker in the several decades leading up to the Civil War.  (Sorry, I would like to give credit to whatever cousin of ours posted this photo from

Identifying the origins or parents of Andrew Willis is then the next question. The new information from Gary Willis is very important, because it opens up several more possibilities for more research. Gary suggests we consider that our Andrew might be descended from a Richard Willis. I have not done any research to followup on this, yet. But it’s a promising clue! There are still several sources yet to be researched, including Quaker meeting minutes, land deeds, and other court and tax documents. At the end of the day, I have great hope we can find more records and identify our immigrant Willis. I concede much more hard research still has to be done. But at least our work is cut out for us.

Also, even though the John Willis that William Hunt identified may not be our ancestor, much of Hunt’s work still remains valid and I think Hunt was on to something in relation to the general timeframe for our earliest Williss American ancestors. The historical period seem logical since 1680 is about the time that a large number of Quakers were fleeing persecution in England and moving to the American colonies, including Philadelphia, which was often a port of entry for Quakers choosing either Pennsylvania, Maryland or Virginia (instead of New England). And we know (including from sources cited above) that some of the Maryland Quakers were just refugees from other colonies. All of this suggests an earlier arrival time than the early 18th Century.

William Hunt must also get tons of credit because he was operating in a world in which one would have to dig into old files and books in musty basements, or tediously pile through library microfilm rolls.  This was a large feat. In 20th century, when Hunt was doing his research, libraries, court houses, genealogy society and family records were the primary sources of family history information. Hunt’s research reflects many hard-worked hours on his part in locating, reviewing and analyzing records. Today, on the other hand, the Internet offers multiple opportunities. But, even today, we find that only a portion of records are online, and many of those available online are incomplete.

SO: in our case, we have formed the collective knowledge we have today has been improved by being added to, modified, revised, what have you. Now all we need to take it to the next step. Is there anyone out there with the patience and willingness to commit to helping us identify our immigrant Willis? Anyone willing to do serious hardcore library duty?

I would be most happy if we could identify the immigrant, and then be able to identify where they came from in England. It would be dreamy if we could next to go visit that village, take photos, as post them here. 🙂

Some Additional 19th Century Willisses: 

Following are some photos of additional Williss relatives from the 1800s.  So far as I know, they were all Quakers. (Note: I copied these from — I cannot confirm the original source but was most grateful to find them — permission is requested and due credit owing.)

Mary Williss, first cousin of Wesley John Williss, g-g-g-g gf

Mary Williss Woods, niece of our John Wesley Williss.

William Webster Williss, first cousin of John Wesley

William Webster Williss, nephew of our John Wesley Williss. 

Jesse Wilson Williss, nephew of Wesley John W.

Jesse Wilson Williss (1826-1902), nephew of John Wesley Williss. 


[1]          This discovery was surprising because not once were any Quaker roots ever mentioned to me when I asked Sally or Grandpa about family history. And it seems uncharacteristic of Sally not to have bragged about the Quakers, especially since they had long promoted social justice including women’s rights.

[2]          Other than the general FamilySearch and library sources, the following two sources online that bear on the history of Willisses dating back to Colonial Maryland:

(a)          William P. Hunt Research. My primary source of information was originally the research I discovered had been done by a distant cousin of ours named William P. Hunt, and was published online by his niece (?)Ann Wilson. We connect via our common ancestor William Willis. Ann wrote me to say that says her Uncle Bill had done a vast amount of genealogical research and that she had inherited a “tub” filled with documents. Apparently Hunt had done substantial research on original source documents at courthouses and libraries, and over the course of decades had amassed a very large quantity of information on the Williss family history. You can see the basic research summary on the family tree at the following:

Our distant cousin Richard Douglass also has done a lot of work on the Williss ancestry and has published materials on the family of his ancestor Elijah Chance Williss (brother of John Wesley Williss).

(b)          Gary Willis Research. A second source is a website (and papers) that is not necessarily about our own Williss ancestors, but still helpful because it covers Willises who lived on Maryland’s Eastern Shore at the same time our ancestors did. The blog is Digging Up Dead Relatives: Legends, Outright Lies, and Useful Facts About Our Ancestors, created by one Mr. Gary Willis. Gary has done a magnificent job in analyzing the old facts, so even if no direct connection is ever found between our Willis lines, it is worth checking out because both Willis families were from Maryland during the Colonial era.  his work:

[3]       There is some great art about Quakers online.

[4]         There are many places to look for information about Quakers in American history.

(a) The Library of Congress has an excellent page with short summaries about the role of the American colonies and early states in hosting religious refugees. It has great blurbs about Quaker immigrants escaping persecution – and then experiencing it here after arrival.

(b) For a fascinating list of famous Quakers from throughout history, check out:

(c) The BBC has a good short read about the history and beliefs of Quakers:

(d), affiliate of the non-history program station History Channel, actually has a decent  article about the history of Quakerism:

(e) An article by a Diane VanSkiver Gagel, Quaker Migrations Across the Centuries: see:

(f) On Quaker Missionaries, I was concerned because I had an image in my mind of European invaders trying to brainwash Native Americans. But I have found some sources report early Quakers did not focus on converting Native Americans, but rather on other English immigrants. On this aspect of history, you can start with:

(g) Wikipedia entry:

(h) For a short article with a focus on Colonial period, go see:

(i) Further as to Quakers and slavery:

(i) Bryn Mawr College has maybe the preeminent website on the subject of Quakers and Slavery; it is an excellent online library collection of information:

(ii) Another interesting, academic article:;

(iii) Another interesting analysis:

(iv) The National Geographic has an excellent article on the subject of the Underground Railroad, and has a map showing main South-to-North routes throughout the US. See:

(j) Wikipedia’s coverage of Quakers during the Revolution:

(k) About Quakers in Ohio:

(l) About Elias Hicks:

[5]         The Old Third Haven Meeting House, built (1682-1684) in Easton, Talbot County, from Philadelphia Yearly Meeting website, At least two ancestors of ours, Thomas Willis and Sinai Ricketts, attended here in the 1760s and 1770s with their children.

[6]     A Quakers’ Meeting, late 17th Century, by Egbert van Heemskerk – Bonham’s, Public Domain,

[7]         Someone put together a nice history blog on famous Boston Quaker Mary Dyer, who was hanged at the gallows in 1660. [

[8]         Wenlock Christison and the Early Friends of Talbot County, Maryland (1878) Maryland Historical Society, Harrison, Samuel, at 39-40

[9]         From Wikimedia Commons ( The_Birth_of_Pennsylvania_1680_cph.3g07157.jpg); Description: William Penn, holding paper, standing and facing  King Charles II, in the King’s breakfast chamber at Whitehall. 1 photomechanical print : halftone, color (postcard made from painting). Postcard published by The Foundation Press, Inc., 1932. Reproduction of oil painting from series: The Pageant of a Nation. Artist: Jean Leon Gerome Ferris  (1863–1930) Blue pencil.svg wikidata:Q2090815; for more Wikipedia articles on the backstory, See also,

[10]        The Early Friends (or Quakers) in Maryland, article Read at the meeting Of the Maryland Historical Society, 6th march, 1862, By J. Saurin Norris.

[11]       Wenlock Christinson and the Early Friends of Talbot County, Maryland (1878) Maryland Historical Society, Harrison, Samuel

[12]       Map from This is a use for non-commercial use within the meaning of:

[13]          See Finding the Right John Willis on the Eastern Shore of Maryland , by Gary Willis.

[14]        The only references we have to Frederick’s father is through a passing reference in Frederick’s local history biography as being named “Perrin”, and a name listed in Frederick’s death certificate as “Pearn”.  We can easily find US Census and other corroboration that Frederick lived with his Williss grandparents Wesley John W. and Rebecca Packer W. But, we cannot locate independent, cross-verifying evidence of a Perrin or Pearn. Now, I am not jumping to the conclusion that Frederick made up a story about his father, but we learn in other family lines that sometimes a deceased ancestor found a need to lie about his parentage. Here, the available evidence seems to dispute what the ancestor claimed was his parentage. Normally this is bad for family history research, because we might lack cross-verification of the existence of critical information. (See also discussion about cross-verification in the first Chapter.)  BUT: there is no need for us to worry about an untraceable “Perrin” breaking the family link, because the $99 DNA test shows a match (with high confidence) between at least one member of our family and one or more members of the Nebraska Williss family related to cousin William Hunt. Our paper trees also match to Frederick’s great-great-grandfather, Thomas. Now, I find the practice of matching DNA test results boring and hard. All this test says is that we are cousins. This does not mean that we are descended through the male Williss line. Instead, I think it just makes it likely our families are linked to Thomas– which means that for Frederick, either of the following could have occurred: (1) Pearn really did exist but was not counted in the census because he was living offsite in the 1850 census and died before the 1860 census; (2) Frederick’s grandfather Wesley John Williss was actually just Frederick’s father (being in his mid-50s when Frederick was born); or (3) Frederick was actually fathered by someone else who was not a Williss, and instead Frederick’s mother “Anne” was actually the same person as Frederick’s older sister, Ann. There are other possibilities. Anyway (The only way to confirm for sure is for a male Williss cousin in our line to take the test for Y-DNA, which matches father to son relationships.)

[15]        Records from churches, as I have mentioned elsewhere, are perhaps some of the most reliable information that one can find about family history. And the Quakers were by practice very good at keeping records including meeting minutes, marriages, and birth acknowledgements. Although old church records were not fault-free, the ones that have survived are a solid source of information if for no other reason that family members were often well known to the record keepers, and perhaps also, one was less likely to misstate a fact about one’s self or family in the house of God.

We can find the link to Thomas and Sinai in Quaker records about their children and grandchildren. These records are strong evidence of the relationships and dates in question, and I cannot imagine we will ever find evidence that is stronger (short of a Y-DNA test revelation).



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

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