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William Williss and the Williss Tavern

I don’t have a lot of information about our Quaker ancestors Andrew, Thomas or John Wesley Williss.  But fortunately for us, we can locate several sources telling the story about our 4th great-grandfather William Williss (1771-c.1846). He was a prominent Quaker and member of his community. He was raised in a Nicholite household in Maryland, and then migrated to Ohio, where he is said to have become a Hicksite. (More on those terms, below.) William was also active in his family business of operating the Williss Tavern, which was located on a major road.  (Note the spelling found in the references are usually only a single “s”, but this may not have been how William himself spelled his surname.)

A descriptive historical account of the Williss Tavern was published in 1908 in a local history encyclopedia entitled The 20th Century History of Springfield and Clark County, Ohio and Representative Citizens. Listed under a chapter discussing County “Pioneers”, the entry reads:

“William Willis was an old and devout Quaker, and kept a hotel two miles west of South Charleston, on the State road from Xenia to Columbus, where Caleb Harrison formerly lived. This place, being on so commonly traveled a road, from Cincinnati to Columbus, was widely known, and was a favorite stopping-place for the distinguished men of the early times. Between the years 1830 and 1840, while Tom Corwin was a member of Congress, and was compelled to reach the national capital on horseback, he made this hotel a regular stopping-place. He was sometimes accompanied by Henry Clay, of Kentucky, on similar trips, and the high old times had at the ‘Old Willis Hotel,’ by those distinguished guests often tried the patience of the quiet host. The house, a one-story log building of three rooms, still stands.” [1]

I don’t think the building is still standing 110 years later, based on a little long-distance research I did (but if there are any South Charleston-area locals reading this, I would appreciate confirmation).

This story was repeated in a few different places. I first learned of it from William Hunt’s research, and then again researching Frederick. Another account was published in 1910 by one Albert Reeder, a descendant of a pioneer family from Clark County in the early 1800s and a resident of South Charleston who grew up there during the mid-1800s. The short book is Sketches Of South Charleston Ohio: Reminiscences of Early Scenes Anecdotes and Facts About Early Residents.  Reeder wrote too much good material not to share. He the following about the Willis Tavern:

While the allusions made to the hostelries in existence in the early days speak of them as hotels, one of our oldest residents laughingly said that “there were no hotels, they were taverns.” One of the historic taverns which had been in existence for a number of years before the Dan Johnson and “Uncle Lilly” Smith Taverns was the old Willis Tavern. This old building of rough logs has often sheltered Tom Corwin and Henry Clay on their trips to Columbus to attend the sessions of the Legislature. It was situated on the south side of the old Xenia mud road, and had one feature which indelibly engraved it upon the memory. This was a room prepared for the lodging of federal prisoners on their way to the penitentiary at Columbus, and fitted up for a jail, with windows and doors barred and bolted.”

In the possession of Mrs. Gram there is today an old coffee pot and turkey dish which did service at the Willis Tavern in the days of Tom Corwin, Henry Clay and other celebrities of that period, whose presence on the table did much to add to the good cheer and fellowship prevailing at that time.” [Reeder, at 11.]

Reeder added:

Near the old Willis Tavern was a corduroy road made of poles and logs which ran through a maple swamp for over a hundred yards which would have broken the heart of the modern auto tourist and would have eliminated the necessity for speed legislation.” [Reeder, at 13.]

 

 

Dish and Coffee Pot from Williss Tavern.jpg

This image is of the turkey dish and coffee pot mentioned in the 1910 Albert Reeder history book. I don’t know which if our very distant cousins owns these items. I am unsure of source or date of this photograph, although I found it on the ancestry.com.

About The Mirrored Coat Stand.

I need to note that there is one photo I would like to post here right next to this dish and coffee pot: and, that’s one of the mirrored coat stand that pretty much everyone in my generation remembers sitting in Grandpa Warren’s living room. I was already fascinated by antiques by the time I visited Grandpa as an adult. Thus, I had an interest and an opportunity to grill him on the history of the furniture piece. This piece was important to him, and he spoke of it convincingly and as someone sure of his words. Of his response, the pieces of information that ended up sticking out in my memory the most were: (a) the piece was from an elderly Williss ancestor on a farm; and (b) was from the “early 1800’s” or 1820’s – in any event, decades before the Civil War. Specifically, I remember him saying “early 1800s”. I believe Grandpa inherited the stand from one of his Williss Uncles, who presumably got if from Fred, and then from John Wesley before that, and to John Wesley from William. It can always be professionally identified and dated, but that is the family story.  In conclusion, it would be great if someone could send me a photo of the mirrored coat stand and I will post it here.

 

1024px-Henry_Clay_Senate3 Compromise of 1850

Depiction of Henry Clay, the man who became famous for being one who would “Rather be right than be President”, delivering his proposal to the Senate for the Compromise of 1850. Coming himself from the border state of Kentucky that had both supporters and opponents of slavery, Clay spent much of his career trying to reconcile the two sides. The Compromise of 1850’s ultimate goal focused in part on whether slavery would be allowed in the newer, western territories that the USA was rapdily gobbling up as it expanded westward. As part of the deal, a more stringent Fugitive Slave Act was enacted. Texas (slave territory) gave up spreading itself and its ways into New Mexico, and California was admitted as a free state – i.e., without slavery (but we won’t talk right now about what they did to the Native Californian tribes post-1848 gold rush). There is lots of info out there about Henry Clay. Check it out. One can only wonder about the kinds of things he would have discussed while staying at the Willis Tavern.[2]

 

Thomas Corwin

Thomas Corwin (1794-1865), another reported Williss Tavern customer, was an Ohio Congressman during the 1830s. He is said to have been a sharp witted and strong-willed character. He worked on many issues of the day. (Image from Wikimedia Commons[3].)

“Henry Clay Slept Here”: Fact or Legend?

The stories about the Willis Tavern are all entertaining, and just so quaint. I love family legends! Don’t you?

As much as I want to “believe”, I have found similar stories about other taverns and inns in Ohio that also reportedly hosted Henry Clay and other famous people. And those stories also seem entertaining and quaint. Almost like fairy tales! In other words, there is more than one “Henry Clay Slept Here” legend in Ohio. Thus, the skeptical part of my brain demands something a little further: so, exactly how true was the tale about the Henry Clay/ Tom Corwin/ Willis Tavern thing?

Well, just as with other facts in the family history, verification could come from Henry Clay’s own daily diaries, or other memorializations of the era. Certainly this is additional work for the next person to take up this  project.

But I think the basic facts are there to support the story:

A)       The Willis Tavern was along the main historic route. Interstate 71, to the south, or even Interstate 70, to the north, is what I would expect most motorists passing through this area today to take. Both would bypass South Charleston. But those highways, like the rest in the Interstate system, were not fully developed until well after WWII – in fact, not until the 1960s.

The Willis Tavern was located right alongside what must have been the main historic direct horse-and-buggy route between Columbus and Cincinnati. The historic road in the area of the tavern was right in the vicinity of  today’s US Highway 42.  This highway even today still runs for some distances as a narrow, rural road of two single lanes, one lane in each direction. If you look closely at a map of the area, you can draw a direct line between those two cities that sort of juts up to the north in its center. The route goes directly through the South Charleston area, which is about 25% of the distance from Columbus (East) to Cincinnati (West). And – from the maps, anyway – it appears there are even older segments of roads that would have been part of the main route. In my own experience, this has been a common fate of old, historic main roads throughout in the US whenever they have been supplanted by the newer roads developed during the automobile era.

The Nebraska branch of Willisses, in their 2018 Williss Family Reunion, successfully located the site of the Willis Tavern along the “Old Columbus to Cincinnati Road”.  I suspect their success was preceded by much preparation. Williss descendant Rich Douglass stated in his report:  “Local resident confirms that he helped plug on old well on the site when he was a kid.  We visited with current landowners and have contact with the fellow who farmed the ground when a child.”

B)     The Old Columbus to Cincinnati Road also seems the most logical route travelled by both Henry Clay and Tom Corwin to and from Washington. As for Tom Corwin, his hometown and family residence were in Lebanon, which was located southwest of South Charleston and also located along the old highway (today, the remains of Old Highway 42 route). As for Henry Clay, coming from his home in Lexington, you can also notice that a route from there to Cincinnati and then Columbus could have easily put him on the early National Road, which must have been easier than other routes through the Appalachian Mountains, which were still very wild at that time.

C)     Long-distance travelers like Clay surely stayed at multiple at inns along their route.  There may have been multiple reports of “Henry Clay slept here”, but this could also have been true — his staying in other places does not mean that he also did not also stay at the Williss Tavern. It’s just that it is also likely he stayed at multiple other inns along his route. And the reasons are due to the difficulty of travel in that day, which would have been by horseback and maybe also wagon. TIn Clay’s era, the main route between Columbus and Cincinnati was crude, and travel was extremely difficult. Travelers would have only travelled so far each day, and would have needed to stop at multiple taverns or inns along the way. For a while, this route was known as “Xenia Mud Road”: again, Reeder, is helpful. He wrote as an elderly man in 1910 at the time of infancy of automobiles, and noted that throughout the 19th Century – before both automobiles and even the first train tracks — the roads and modes of transportation going through this part of Ohio were crude. He explained:

Travel and traffic was by stage and wagon, and when the sound of the driver’s horn was heard the daily excitement commenced. At this early date a trip of fifty miles was an undertaking, yet many of the Charleston merchants made annual trips to Philadelphia by stage and on horseback to purchase goods. Later on, when civilization began to develop the traveling salesman, most of these salesmen made their trips carrying their samples on horseback.” [Reeder, at 13-14.]

There were few buggies or carriages in Charleston at this time. Ownership of such vehicles denoted great wealth. The common mode of travel for both men and women was either by big two-horse wagon or on horseback. The main road was the Columbus and Xenia mud road, and was a little south of the present Xenia pike, and passing the site of the old Willis Tavern.” [Reeder, at 14-15]

It was not an unusual sight to see covered prairie schooners containing groups of families on their way to Indiana, Illinois and Iowa. This road also was used by drovers in driving fat cattle to Pennsylvania markets. I have seen thousands of cattle driven along this road, all going over the mountains into Pennsylvania.”[Reeder, at 15.]

The sparsely settled condition of the country still left much territory for wild animals, some of which were captured alive and made pets. One of these was a big black bear, which was kept by Dan Johnson near his tavern on what is now the school house grounds. The bear was a great pet. and was kept by Mr. Johnson for many years. It was killed and made a village feast. Coons and foxes were common pets in many families, but no one had the hardihood to harbor a skunk.” [Reeder, at 24.]

Notably, Reeder went on to seem to answer our question:

It may seem strange that there would be taverns so close to each other, but the conditions of the roads at that time often made a four mile journey a task of considerable magnitude.” [Reeder, at 11.]

Given the number of stops one would have had to make over the rough road via horse alone or horse and wagon, it seems more than plausible that Henry Clay and Tom Corwin would have needed to patronize multiples inns along their journey.

 

Library_of_Congress,_Prints_and_Photographs,_Conestoga_wagon

Conestoga Wagon in the 19th Century; these developed in the 18th Century by German immigrants and became the most popular model of wagon in the late 18th Century and the early 19th Century – and I suspect was the principal mode of transport for Quakers migrating from Maryland to Ohio. (Library of Congress.)[4]

 

The Johnny Appleseed Connection

We have another story to research that is akin to the “Henry Clay Slept Here” story. According to our cousin William Hunt, the William Williss family was friends with none other than American legend Johnny Appleseed. This was actually a popular name for a real person by the real name of John Chapman (1774 – 1845).

Yes, THAT Johnny Appleseed. The one and only Johnny Appleseed of great legend and lore. The one about whom Walt Disney made a cinematic quality, short-feature animation in the mid-20th Century. And about whom so many stories have been told over the generations. [5]

The same Johnny Appleseed who so many of us early in life learned generously planted apple tree seeds across the American landscape.

JohnnyAppleseedHowe.jpg

 

Image source to Howe’s Historical Collections of Ohio, Ohio Centennial Edition, 1903 [6]  All of the 19th Century depictions of him make him look like a vintage 1970 hippy.

 

Alright: so the story is that John Chapman — the real-life person after whom the Johnny Appleseed legend was baked — knew the William and Henrietta Williss and family.  This would have been after William and Henrietta moved to Wabash, Indiana, migrating from the Greenplain Monthly meeting and Clark County, Ohio (which they apparently did at the time as several other Ohio Quakers who made the move west to the newly opened Indiana territory).

This is an awesome story, really. But: like the “Henry-Clay-slept-here” legend, I have not seen any documentary evidence that the Willisses were friends with John Chapman — all I have seen is the old legend. So we have to ask: is the story true? Or pure legend?

The truth is, Johnny Appleseed was the subject of much American legend and lore, and we are not likely to find much cross-verification in the form of documentation. I don’t want to say it’s impossible: William Hunt references that the real John Chapman was associated with Fort Wayne, which is not far from the Willisses’ adopted town of Wabash, Indiana. (It’s approximately 46 miles, according to Google Maps in 2020.) This would have been in about the 1840s.

Well, perhaps the real question should not be phrased as “is it true?”, but instead should be more precisely rephrased to: “How possible is it that the story could be true that our Willisses knew Johnny Appleseed?”

To answer this question, then, theoretically, more research could be possibly be done into local public documents from the early years of both Wabash County and Fort Wayne. I would also look carefully for clues in any biographies that have been done of Chapman.

And finally, I note that this part of Indiana during the 1840s was still in a state of wilderness and frontier. I am thinking the relatively low numbers of people on the frontier generally knew each other assuming they were not too far from one another and were possibly on the same trade routes. Thus, settlers in both Wabash County and Fort Wayne could have known each other. William Hunt, in his history on the Willisses, cites to a Victorian-era publication “The History of Wabash County” by a Thomas Helm (Chicago, 1884), in describing the environment of Wabash County as of 1837:

Wabash County was “Frontier”. A few years before 1837, a squirrel “stampede” almost wiped out the entire corn crop in an unusual freak of nature. There was no lack of meat as turkey and deer were in their abundance, along with their predators: wolves, and an occasional bear or two. Almost all flour was imported at high cost and risk due to bad roads and hostile Indians…” 

 

Anyway, there is some real potential for further research on the Johnny Appleseed connection.

 

Footnotes

[1]       (1908) Rockell, William, Biographical Publishing Company, p.262

[2]     Not sure of artist. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

[3]     See also profile of him at: http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Thomas_Corwin

[4]      Library_of_Congress,_Prints_and_Photographs,_Conestoga_wagon

[5]   So many sources about Johnny Appleseed. Go ahead, like so many other Americans, you can start with the Legend as told by the Walt Disney Company in 1948 (please note the Fair Use disclaimer in Chapter 1.0):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=484AJlOnOnc

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnny_Appleseed

https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/62113/9-facts-tell-true-story-johnny-appleseed

https://www.npr.org/2011/04/17/135409598/johnny-appleseed-planted-stories-of-myth-adventure

https://www.britannica.com/story/was-johnny-appleseed-a-real-person

[6]  Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons. On Wikipedia, “[t]ransfer was stated to be made by iTurtle.”

 

 

 

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

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