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Our Willisses During the Anti-Slavery Movement

One of the areas I have also evaluated with each line of ancestors before the Civil War is where the ancestors stood with respect to slavery. Here we have fairly solid evidence our Willisses were not only against slavery, they may have personally actively supported the anti-slavery movement.

Quakers were among the earliest European immigrant communities who organized against slavery.[1] Some of the wealthiest Quakers immigrants in the late 17th Century and early 18th Century actually did own slaves. But as noted in an earlier chapter, Quakers had officially opposed slavery, but still were not all in universal agreement as to the best way to approach the subject. Opinions varied from individual to individual. But most of them appear to have abandoned slave-owning during the 18th Century, and apparently all of them did so before by 1776, following an adopted doctrine of the Society of Friends. And by that time, at least a few among them also became very outspoken activists against slavery in the 18th Century.[2]

A J. Saurin Norris, writing during the Civil War, wrote about the attitudes of Maryland Quakers towards slavery. He points out that there is no evidence that the earliest arrivals of the Quakers to Maryland outwardly projected activist anti-slavery views. But he does write of Quaker efforts later on opposing slavery, after the Society of Friends formally adopted positions against the practice. Norris specifically references the financial sacrifices Quakers must have made – the obvious point being that since most labor in agricultural production was by slaves, those who owned slaves could sell the same produce at less cost. Quakers who did not own such slaves did not have such an advantage:

In Maryland we have no means of ascertaining the pecuniary sacrifices made by the Maryland Quakers, to their conscientious convictions on this momentous subject, but tradition relates that one family alone liberated 200 slaves…From the fact that a large number of Friends lived in the slave-holding counties of Anne Arundel, Prince George’s and Montgomery, and others on the Eastern Shore, where the great mass of labor was performed by slaves, it is easy to believe that in the aggregate the sacrifice was very great; and perhaps has no parallel instance where such pecuniary loss was voluntarily incurred for conscience’ sake.[3]

And, by the early 19th Century, many Quakers became involved in different degrees of more social activism for abolition of slavery. Some simply wanted to renounce slavery and not much more. Others actively promoted boycotts against Southern businesses. Still others went further and actively risked their safety and lives to help with the Underground Railroad. In Ohio, many Quaker families assisted the Underground Railroad, directly or indirectly. There were many ways to contribute to its overall cause.  Our Maryland and Ohio Willisses were within the same small communities of Quakers as were Quaker abolitionists, and the closeness in association raises questions for me.

For starters, how much evidence can we find about their anti-slavery activities? At least as to Underground Railroad, after some search I have found no specific proof that any of Williss Quaker ancestors — including our Thomas Williss of Maryland and our William Williss or John Wesley Williss of in Ohio — were directly involved in the Underground Railroad.

Of course, not every Quaker’s home was a stop on the Underground Railroad.[4]

In any event, we should expect to find few surviving written records.  [5]   Harboring fugitive slaves was a crime and would subject you to prosecution as well as violent attacks by anti-abolition neighbors.

Still, apprently quite a number of the people our Williss ancestors’ community were among active abolitionists. For instance, South Charleston, Ohio — the locus of the homestead of William Williss (and, later, John Wesley Williss) — was the site of at least one Quaker safe house for runaway slaves. And several other safe houses have been identified in the same county, Clark County.    I have to think that the Willisses were, overall, sympathetic toward the cause even if they did not partake in the same activities as did some of their their friends and neighbors.

Much more research has to be done, and can be done by the eager researcher I would expect by a visit to Clark County and state, local and historical archives. Pending such further research, we have the following clues to start with:

A)      Thomas and William were both Nicholites. Nicholites were followers of anti-slavery activist Joseph Nichols during 18th Century Maryland. From what little I have read on the subject, the Nicholites (also called “New Quakers”), formed a spiritual movement that formed mid-to-late 1700s. The movement apparently formed a branch among Quakers and at some point late in the century more formally merged into Quakerism. I don’t intend to over-simplify, however. Thomas Williss and Sinai Ricketts, and later their son William Willis and his wife Henrietta Chance, are recorded in Quaker minutes as Nicholites.[6]

Nichols developed some exceptionally strong religious convictions against slavery on moral grounds. And in 1766 (just one year before Thomas and Sinai’s marriage took place), he coordinated with a John Woolman, who published essays against slavery that were widely read by Quakers and non-Quakers. This was notable because, at this time, as noted above, some Quakers still benefited from slavery directly or indirectly (for instance, even if they did not own them, they might actually rent their services from slave owners, or even just purchase goods from slave plantations. Slave ownership was still a big backbone of the colonial rural Maryland economy. One author summarized  Woolman’s views as follows:

“[h]e saw slavery as a cancerous disease, eating away at the moral and spiritual life of the Society of Friends and of America. Slavery was an evil that must be destroyed…. he called upon others to cut themselves loose from the institution of slavery and to give up their love of luxury and ease,” [Lane, 1962]

The degrees of activism by Nicholites ranged broadly, from freeing their own slaves to refusing to do business with or socialize with slave owners. But in any event, one source states that by 1768, Nicholites had disavowed slavery.[7]

I am hardly a scholar in this subject and it’s not clear to me yet what the relationship was between Nicholites and Quakers. Also, because I still have not yet seen the records on Andrew Williss, I cannot tell when our Willises became Nicholites, or whether they were even Quakers before they were Nicholites. BUT: the fact Thomas and William were recorded as Nicholites put them among a subset of the most anti-slavery Quakers of the era. This connection is persuasive they were actively on the right side of history.

B)      Cousin William Hunt concluded that William Williss became a Hicksite. In the early 1800s, William relocated to Clark County, in Southwestern Ohio. This was at a time when other Quakers were starting to leave Maryland, and Ohio was rapidly opening up to crowds from the East. In 1821, William became a charter founding member of the Green Plain Monthly Meeting in rural Clark County.[8] According to Cousin William Hunt’s  research, William Williss leaned towards the philosophy of Quaker leader Elias Hicks, from Long Island, who traveled throughout the U.S. and forcefully advocated for abolition.

Elias Hicks

Elias Hicks, influential Quaker abolitionist. His family owned farmland on Long Island, NY, on which a railroad stop was located, and later around which grew the town of Hicksville, L.I..  Hicks visited Ohio Quaker settlements. (Wikimedia Commons).

There were major disagreements within Quaker communities as to how far it was appropriate to become involved in attacking the evils of slavery. Some wanted to be more conservative and refuse to accept it, but not take other action. While others advocated a more activist approach.[9]  This partly lead to two splits in Quaker meeting houses, one being known as the Great Separation of the 1826 – 1828.  The Great Separation generally split Hicksites from the “Orthodox” Quakers. In the case of the Green Plan meeting, numerous members were disowned during this time. According to write-ups that I can locate online, it does not seem so easy to categorize the groups, except that the Hicksites seem more “free spirited” in their approach to all matters, including slavery. One expert on the subject pointed out: “Certainly the radical abolitionist Hicksites had ties to Garrisonian abolitionists, the most radical wing of the American antislavery movement, who by the 1840s  were actively questioning certain parts of the Bible, particularly those that seemed to justify war and slavery.”[10]

Quaker meeting minute indices available online show that several members of the Willis family were disunited or disowned.[11]  Hunt says William was disowned in 1829 “for Hicksite leanings”.[12]  I note that at least one secondary source history, memorialized in a lengthy and oft-cited local history book The History of Clark County, points out that the Hicksites were the ones who held on to the meeting house, but the Orthodox members, being much larger in number moved offsite.[13] I have not yet had the opportunity to verify William Hunt’s research, but presume it to be accurate in its interpretation.[14]

C)       William was closely associated with known abolitionists. I cannot find any records by William himself of abolitionist sentiments. But, during his years with the Green Plain Meeting, he worked closely alongside persons who openly expressed anti-slavery sentiments during that era. For instance, the Green Plain Meeting minutes refer to him working with a Charles Paist, who was known for promoting abolition. Paist was later described in a local history as “one of the leading Abolitionists of his time, being far in advance of the public sentiment of that day. The first anti-slavery address ever made in South Charleston was made from the porch of his residence on Columbus Street.[15]  Meeting minutes also show that William also worked alongside Patience Sleeper; both William and Patience were charter members of the Green Plain Monthly Meeting. Patience and her husband Samuel raised their son Buddell, while attending the Green Plain Meeting.[16] Buddell later moved to Tippecanoe County, Indiana, where he created a safe house that has been well-confirmed as an actual safe house along the Underground Railroad. Today that house is marked with an historical sign. [17] In addition, am sure more research could reveal more names in William Williss’s local Quaker network. And, in addition to all of the foregoing, John Wesley Williss still needs to be researched for additional evidence of connection with Quaker anti-slavery activists, and I have hopes much more can be discovered for his time in the era leading up to the Civil War.

Mind you, none of the above facts proves that Thomas, William or John Wesley themselves harbored fugitive slaves or took any other action that in that day and age might have seemed radical. But, we do know that during their lives all Quakers, Hicksite and Orthodox, were opposed to slavery. The primary disagreement among them was to the best way to approach the evil. At a very minimum, the above facts should be used as a springboard for further research because they indicate that Thomas and William were most likely themselves personally against slavery, and at a minimum their feelings were more than passing ones and I am suspecting sympathetic to the cause.

The underground railroad by Chas. T. Webber - slaves arriving at Levi Coffin farm

This image depicts fugitive slaves arriving at the farm of Indiana Quaker Levi Coffin. This is a print based on an 1893 color painting by Charles T. Webber – fugitive slaves arriving at Levi Coffin farm (Library of Congress).[18]







[2] See e.g., story of Benjamin Lay,

[3]     The Early Friends (or Quakers) in Maryland, article Read at the meeting Of the Maryland Historical Society, 6th march, 1862, By J. Saurin Norris.p.24

[4]     Quakers and the Underground Railroad: Myths and Realities, By Christopher Densmore, Curator, Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College;


[5]  See discussion in the article “The Underground Railroad in Clark County” by a Douglas Hypes in Volume XVII of Ohio History, by the Ohio State Archeological and Historical Association (1908), pp. 96-98.

Some additional sources on the Undeground Railroad in Ohio and Clark County:;

the museum website at:;;

Springfield Heritage Center looks like offers access to a ton of local and regional sources:

Nice WordPress page:

Amy Brickey did a very-nice-to-look-at arcGIS “Story Map” entitled “Tracking Freedom: Tracing the Origins of Ohio’s Free Blacks from 1803-1863”, at apps/MapJournal/index.html?appid=3ca47f61737c4b7c938b5f84d383c6e0

Calarco, Tom (2018) The Search for the Underground Railroad in South-Central Ohio (Arcadia Publishing)

[6]     See listings for Williss family members births and marriages recorded as Nicholite followers in Joseph Nichols.

[7]       See Wilson, Ann, on My Fast Family, supra.; see also, listings for Williss family members births and marriages recorded as Nicholite followers in Joseph Nichols and The Nicholites: A Look at the “New Quakers” of Maryland, Delaware, North and South Carolina by Kenneth Lane Carroll (1962, Easton Publishing Co.)

[8]       See Bill Hunt’s research on Ann Wilson’s My Fast Family entry.

[9]      Hamm, Thomas D., Hicksite Quakers and the Antebellum Nonresistance Movement,  Church History, Vol. 63, No. 4 (Dec., 1994), pp. 557-569.

[10]      Hamm, Thomas D. (2002) “‘A Protest against Protestantism’: Hicksite Friends and the Bible in the Nineteenth Century,” Quaker Studies: Vol. 6: Iss. 2, Article 4; available at:

[11]      See Willis family entries under Index to Encyclopedia of American Quaker genealogy by William Wade Hinshaw.

[12]     See Ann Wilson’s My Fast Family entry for William Williss, supra.

[13]     A. P. Steele, et al, The History of Clark County, Volume 2, Beheer & Co. Chicago (1881)

[14]    I expect Hunt himself at one point reviewed the actual minutes. Oddly enough, of the Green Plain minutes that FamilySearch has posted, nearly 3 full years are missing   – and this was during the period of separation! My question is: why? In any event, I have had no success in locating online the minutes from the relevant period – to do so will require research via the Family History library and most likely several trips to there and possibly also to other libraries. I do have faith that someone will pick this matter up in the future.

[15]     Rockel, William F., the “20th Century History of Springfield and Clark County, Ohio, and Representative Citizens” (Chicago: 1908), p. 263.

[16] See quick write-up on the Sleepers at:

[17]; see also the excellent write-up at:

[18]     The underground railroad, Library of Congress: Digital ID: (b&w film copy neg.)cph3a29554 ; Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-28860 (b&w film copy neg.); Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA; Full title was: Fugitives Arriving at Levi Coffin’s Indiana Farm, A Busy Station of the Underground Railroad, is a copy of Webber’s The Underground Railroad.








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

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