VAGenWeb Lunenburg Co., VA

Page updated April 20, 2008

JoLee Gregory Spears

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"Well Reported of for Piety and Zeal":

William Ellis of Lunenburg County,




Copyright 2001 Raymond G. Crafton

All rights reserved



Between 1782 when the preliminary Treaty of Paris was signed and 1803, the year of the Louisiana Purchase, the population of white male tithes in Lunenburg County grew by sixty percent.[1] During that same period, however, the annual number of marriages recorded grew by more than 150%. These were marriages performed outside the Established Church and its post-1785 successor, the Episcopal Church. They numbered 628 and about half of them were performed by one of only four men.[2] One, John Neblett, was a Methodist. The other three - James Shelburne, Thomas Crymes and William Ellis - were Baptists. Shelburne was the first pastor of Reedy Creek Baptist Church and Crymes the first pastor of Tussekiah Baptist Church.[3] After Crymes died in 1789 the Tussekiah church called William Ellis as his successor. Ellis served Tussekiah faithfully from 1790 until his retirement from the ministry in 1810.[4] During more than twenty years of ministry he performed upwards of 100 marriages among his congregants and neighbors.[5]

William Ellis’ public ministry and family life touched many of those living in Lunenburg County during the first decades of the new republic. The years have multiplied their descendants and the number for whom William Ellis once played a role in family history. But for those living today Ellis may be little more than a faint and fading ripple in that history – some anonymous preacher who once presided over the wedding of great grandparents long ago. Fortunately, enough of the historical record has survived to allow us to recapture the unique life of the man who was much more than just a "Marrying Bill."


The Ellis Family in Early Henrico

William Ellis’ roots lie deep in the history of Virginia and Henrico County in particular. The destruction of many Henrico records during the Revolution has shrouded much of the Ellis family’s earliest days in Virginia. Despite these obstacles William’s family can be identified with a fair likelihood from surviving Henrico annals beginning with his Ellis grandfather. That grandfather was a planter named John Ellis. He was born in 1660 and at the age of nineteen appeared on a list of tithes responsible for the defense of the county.[6,7] John bought and sold land in Henrico on the north side of the James River beginning with 217 acres purchased in 1691. He subsequently sold and re-purchased both this tract and another of 200 acres but by the time quit rents were due in April 1705 a tract of 217 acres once again formed his entire holding.[8,9]

In early 1715 John Ellis and his wife Susanna moved their family upstream and patented several hundred acres on Peter’s branch of Tuckahoe Creek.[10] The Ellis couple had seven sons and one daughter by this time. So their move was probably triggered by a quest for fresh tobacco lands to support their family and for land on which to seat their maturing sons. Knowing that each son would eventually need at least a hundred acres in order to have a viable freehold, John Ellis patented an additional 400 acres in 1725. When he died three years later he was able to bequeath between 100 and 160 acres to each of his sons - John, Thomas, James, Henry, William, Charles and Joseph.[11] The move to Tuckahoe had paid off.

John Ellis’ son Thomas received 140 acres in the division of his father’s estate. Thomas remained on these lands for the next twenty years during which time he married. The first of Thomas’ children, John, was born in the early 1730s. The next child, Edward, came perhaps five years later. After Edward there was a gap of about a dozen years before the birth of Elizabeth in 1750. The births of Thomas and William quickly followed that of Elizabeth.[12] It is impossible to determine whether the gaps in the Ellis children’s births were caused by the deaths of siblings or the death of Thomas Ellis’ first wife or both. Although the presence of these gaps introduces some uncertainty in identifying the mother(s) of Thomas Ellis’ children there is little uncertainty, at least, in identifying the mother of Thomas’ last surviving child, William. She was Phoebe Traylor.[13]

Phoebe’s surname indicates her Huguenot origins. In the opening years of the Eighteenth Century, French Protestant refugees began to arrive in increasing numbers on the shores of the Old Dominion. The Virginia Council wrestled with how best to deal with them and eventually directed the émigrés to settle at Manakintown. This old Indian town lay barely four miles up the James from the Ellis complex on Tuckahoe Creek. And so it was that Thomas Ellis and Phoebe Traylor met and married sometime before 1750. And it was she who became the mother of William Ellis about the year 1752.


The Ellises Move to Chesterfield

In 1747 Thomas and his brother Charles Ellis witnessed the sale of the Harding lands in the Tuckahoe watershed.[14] And the following year Thomas Ellis bought 200 acres that had recently belonged to Edward Hatcher.[15] These Ellis neighbors along with some of the Randolphs were in the process of leaving the Tuckahoe’s branches to take up fresh land on the south side of the James. In fact the population south of the James began to grow so fast that it soon required a division of Henrico County. In 1748 the Assembly voted to split the area from Henrico and to name the new county Chesterfield.

In 1749 Thomas’ older brother, John, decided to follow his neighbors to Chesterfield. He sold his lands on the Tuckahoe to his brothers and in April 1751 bought 216 ½ acres in Chesterfield’s Dale Parish.[16] Within a year Thomas and Phoebe Ellis had joined him.[17] Later records indicate that Thomas and Phoebe moved to several hundred acres in the vicinity of Horsepen Creek. Thomas, his family and his slaves - Drusey and Hall - set about working their new plantation. For the moment all was well and in 1756 Thomas purchased another 100 acres from his neighbor Peter Randolph.[18]

But time was running out for Thomas. He was by now in his sixties and a good decade beyond the average life expectancy for Virginia’s men at that time. In the summer of 1757 Thomas was seriously ill – ill enough to make out his will. 300 acres were to go to eldest son John and 200 to Phoebe to be divided after her death among the four younger children. In October 1757 Thomas Ellis died.[19] It is unclear what became of Phoebe. We know only that she was still alive in the spring following her husband’s death.[20] She played no role, however, when her children had difficulties with their male guardian seven years later.

With their father dead, Virginia law required that a male guardian be appointed for the minor children of Thomas Ellis. John and Edward Ellis required no such guardian implying that they had reached their majority by the time their father died. Why neither of them assumed the guardianship of their younger siblings is unclear. In any event, they did not and Elizabeth, Thomas, and William wound up in the hands of Josiah Tatum. In 1761 the local vestry bound out Thomas Ellis as an apprentice, but he, Elizabeth and William continued to live under Tatum’s hand.[21] Tatum was a local militia captain and had been a neighbor and associate of the Ellis children’s deceased father.[22] However, he was also abusive of the children, particularly the Ellis girl. As a result Elizabeth Ellis determined to get away from Tatum at her earliest opportunity. For her that opportunity came at age fourteen when the law allowed her to choose her own guardian. In February 1764 Elizabeth complained to the county court about Tatum and asked that the court appoint Jordan Anderson to replace him.[23] At that point John Ellis intervened on behalf of not only Elizabeth but also Thomas and William. After a hearing that spanned two days and in which John Ellis presented five witnesses against Tatum including Elizabeth, the court removed the abusive captain and placed all three children with Anderson.[24]

Life continued to be rough for the Ellis orphans, however. Two years after successfully changing guardians, the three minors were back in court suing to collect £2 owed them by Anthony Irby and John Mohorn. More than likely the Ellis orphans had served Irby and Mohorn as field hands and had gone unpaid for some of that work. Like Tatum, Irby had been an associate of the children’s father.[25] John Mohorn, on the other hand, had a more involved relationship with the family of Thomas Ellis. Not only did the three Ellis orphans work for Mohorn but so did their older brother John and his two slaves in 1762.[26] Besides Mohorn’s employment of Thomas Ellis’ children, at the time the Ellis minors sued him in 1766 he was the guardian of a boy named John Ellis.[27]

The 1766 appearance of an Ellis boy in the Mohorn household coincided with the disappearance of Edward Ellis. If Edward were the boy’s father, then by 1767 he was dead and his young son was under the guardianship of John Mohorn.[28] The Ellis family’s hard luck apparently did not end with Edward’s presumed death for, after 1773, there was no further mention of young Thomas Ellis either.[29] William Ellis, however, survived and came to live with and work for his brother John.[30] While living with his older brother, William Ellis and John Mohorn Jr. became close companions. The two boys were about the same age and their inseparability continued when they joined the Continental Army together in 1778.[31]


Turning the World Upside Down

On 6 February 1778 William Ellis and John Mohorn Jr. enlisted in Chesterfield County for a period of 12 months. Along with others the two donned the oznaburg hunting shirt and leggings of a private in the 5th Virginia Regiment, underwent basic training and marched for Valley Forge in April. When British General Clinton evacuated Philadelphia in May Washington pulled out of Valley Forge and chased him half way across New Jersey in June’s sweltering heat. By the time the Americans caught the British column near Monmouth Courthouse in late June Mohorn was among the sick but Ellis was not. It was William’s first and only major firefight as a Continental soldier. When the battle was interrupted by nightfall, the British built campfires, and leaving a small rear-guard to tend them, slipped away. The Americans did not realize what had happened until the next morning. By then Clinton was well on his way to Sandy Hook and the ships that would whisk his men to New York. The indecisive Battle of Monmouth was over. It proved to be the last major battle of the war to be fought in the North.

After Monmouth Ellis and Mohorn marched with the American Army to White Plains. There they spent a relatively quiet summer and early fall watching the British in New York City. Many Continental units were badly depleted at that point and some regrouping was in order. The two friends were both drafted in October into a company commanded by their regimental colonel. In early November Ellis became seriously ill and was sent out of camp to receive medical care until he was able to return to duty the following month. As part of their draft into the colonel’s company, Ellis and Mohorn served a few extra weeks and finally were discharged together on 28 February 1779.[32]

Immediately after William Ellis and John Mohorn Jr. enlisted in 1778, John Ellis left Chesterfield apparently to explore Lunenburg County. He liked what he saw and took up a little over 180 acres somewhere in the northwest corner of the county.[33] When William and his friend returned from the army, they both elected to follow William’s brother. Mohorn’s father had once been William Rucks’ overseer in Chesterfield and so Mohorn’s start in Lunenburg on an acre and a half purchased from a William Rucks is probably not a coincidence.[34] Rucks was just one of a number of one-time Chesterfielders who had moved to Lunenburg.

Henry Farley had been one of the earliest to moved from Chesterfield to Lunenburg when he settled on Springfield Creek in 1757.[35] In the 1770’s several of John Ellis’ Chesterfield associates – or relatives bearing the same names - including Daniel Dejarnett, Obediah Clay and William Rucks also took up Lunenburg tracts in the vicinity of Farley’s.[36] So it was not surprising that when John and William Ellis moved to Lunenburg they settled near their old associates from Chesterfield: William leased ninety acres near Springfield Creek that bordered on Henry Farley and John Ellis leased 185 acres somewhere nearby.[37] A sign that John and William Ellis had made the transition to Lunenburg by 1780 was John’s sale in May of that year of their 236-acre tract in Chesterfield – a parcel that included 100 acres John had once promised to William for his labors.[38]

The land that William first leased in Lunenburg was part of Thomas Chappell’s plantation. And while farming on Chappell land, Ellis became smitten with Sarah Briggs Chappell. Obediah Clay, a Chesterfield expatriate who lived nearby, held the marriage bond for Ellis when he and Sarah married in February 1780.[39]

February 1778: enlistment. February 1779: discharge and relocation. February 1780: marriage. Fateful Februaries in three consecutive years. February 1781 was no less so. In that month Governor Jefferson called out the militia of six Southside counties. General Greene needed men in anticipation of a decisive battle with Cornwallis somewhere in North Carolina. And British elements were beginning to operate within Virginia’s borders in an attempt to neutralize the state. William Ellis had been married barely a year when he and many of his neighbors like Seth Farley, Tscharner Degraffenreidt and several of the Crafton brothers suddenly found themselves drafted and marching south to rendezvous with Greene’s army. Ellis’ regular army training and combat experience were about to prove invaluable in stiffening the resolve of a militia unit that had run from the British at Camden the summer before.

A few weeks later on a cold, clear day in March, William Ellis found himself stationed on a battle line with 1,300 other Virginia militiamen in the woods southwest of Guilford Courthouse. When crack regiments of Cornwallis’ army overran the line of North Carolinians in front of them this second line of Virginians gave the oncoming enemy what General Greene later described as a "warm reception" in which they "kept up a heavy fire for a long time." Although the Virginian’s overall casualties were light, their stand at Guilford was not without cost. The Virginia militia suffered a dozen dead and over forty wounded. Ellis, however, emerged unscathed.[40]


Life in Lunenburg

William may have survived Guilford but Sarah Ellis was unable to survive the rigors of married life. She died in mid to late 1781 probably – as with so many newly wed women of her time – of childbirth complications.[41] Sarah’s death sent William back to Chesterfield in search of a wife. After a period of mourning, he began to divide his time between his Lunenburg plantation and courting Elizabeth, the daughter of Chesterfield’s William Akin. On 13 November 1782 William and the sturdy, eighteen year-old Elizabeth married near the bride’s home.[42] The couple took up residence in Lunenburg and the tax list taken in the spring following their marriage showed the couple living on William’s ninety acres along with four slaves.[43] (The same list showed John Ellis with 185 acres and a household of seven souls – John, his wife Mary, two children and three slaves.[44])

On 2 October 1784, Elizabeth and William’s first child, William, was born. Eighteen months later Elizabeth gave birth to their first daughter, Elizabeth. In the Februaries of 1788, 1790, and 1792, Elizabeth bore Sally, Calvin, and Thomas, respectively.[45] With his family expanding William decided to put down permanent roots in Lunenburg. He first bought the ninety acres on which he had been living since 1780 from his former father-in-law, Thomas Chappell. A few months later he bought an adjoining 100 acres and in 1791 he bought yet another adjoining parcel of 112 acres.[46] This plantation of 302 acres lay along both sides of Springfield Creek and one of its branches ten miles northwest of the present courthouse.[47]

A larger family called for not only more land but also more laborers. The four slaves that William held in 1783 were joined by a fifth in 1786. Four of the five were technically John Ellis’ property and in 1789 John sold them to William partly to compensate him for his share of their now-sold estate in Chesterfield. At the same time John also sold two more of his slaves to his younger brother.[48] In 1791 William acquired ownership to still more slaves belonging to his father-in-law – Tiller and her three children Nelson, John and Brian. Tiller and Nelson, the oldest, stayed with William Akin during his lifetime but the two younger children were sent to work for William in Lunenburg.[49] The number of enslaved members of Ellis’ household continued to grow over the next twenty years until it reached thirteen in 1810.[50]

William and Elizabeth Ellis’ home in Lunenburg stood just over five miles from Tussekiah Baptist Church.[51] Thomas Crymes was pastor of that congregation and many of the couple’s neighbors were members. William and Elizabeth evidently became members soon after their arrival in Lunenburg. The first hint of William’s membership came in 1785 when a William Ellis joined with many of the county’s Baptists to sign a religious petition.[52] The paper had been drafted at the Baptist General Association meeting in Orange in September of that same year. Adducing arguments from history and from the Virginia Bill of Rights, the document opposed a bill before the House of Delegates that proposed a tax to pay the salary of "teachers of religion." The Baptists saw the House bill as just another attempt to maintain the payment of state salaries to ministers of the Established Church. In opposing the bill they were joined by petitioners who were anti-tax primarily on economic grounds. The petitioners succeeded. According to Landon Bell, "Sentiment was so clearly developed as against the assessment bill that it never even came up at the session. No mention is made of it in the journal of the House for this session, although it is said it was considered in the Committee of the Whole."[53]

Within two years of the petition, William Ellis was accompanying Thomas Crymes to meetings of the Middle District Association.[54] Pastor Crymes died in mid-1789 and the Tussekiah congregation went without a minister until May 1790 when they called William Ellis.[55] Baptist historian R. B. Semple was a contemporary of William Ellis’ and although he did not know Ellis personally he described him as "a man well reported of for piety and zeal."[56] With Ellis as its pastor, Tussekiah Church grew from about twenty-five members at the start of his ministry to eighty-seven by the time he retired in 1810.[57] As his congregation grew, Pastor Ellis supervised the construction of a meetinghouse at Laurel Hill and another along Springfield Creek. The ten acres for the Springfield meetinghouse were acquired in 1797 in a deed given to William Ellis and Tussekiah Church members William Crafton, Seth Farley and Richard Puckett. The deed says the land was purchased "for the purpose and use of erecting a Publick Meeting house for the worship of the lord without having any particular regard to any Religions God or profession whatsoever...."[58] Regular business meetings of the white, male members of Tussekiah Church rotated among the Tussekiah, Springfield and Laurel Hill sites.

William Ellis presided over a key period in the growth of the size and extent of Tussekiah Church. Church minutes reflect an energetic, disciplined man who toiled and traveled tirelessly on behalf of his congregation while simultaneously running his plantation and caring for his family. Ellis’ zealous leadership at Tussekiah from 1790 to 1810 completed the foundation begun by his predecessor – a foundation that has lasted to the present day. Seen in the context of evangelism and church growth, the nearly 100 marriages that William Ellis performed were a natural by-product of his ministry.[59]

From 1797 to 1806, the Ellises had four more children, bringing their total to nine. These were Phoebe Traylor Ellis, Martha F. Ellis (Patsey), John T. Ellis, and Richard Ellis. Before William and Elizabeth’s child bearing was over, their daughter Elizabeth married. She was no more than fifteen or sixteen in early 1802 when she married Frederick Crafton, the son of Tussekiah Church elder Richard Crafton.[60] William Ellis Jr. followed his sister by marrying about a year later to a woman believed to have been Elizabeth Sheffield.[61]

In typical planter fashion, William continued to expand his acreage as his family grew. More mouths to feed required more land to maintain the same standard of living. And more mouths to feed now also meant more grown children later who would need land on

which to start plantation families of their own. So in 1797, 1798 and 1799 William made purchases of 400, 133 ½, and 169 acres respectively. He held the 1798 parcel only until

1802. But the other two became longer-term holdings with the 169 acres apparently passing to William Jr. at the time of his marriage circa 1803.

By 1800 the care of his large family, his plantation, and his congregation began to tax William’s health. One of Ellis’ duties as pastor was to represent his church twice a year at Baptist association meetings. These meetings often required him to travel out of the county for anywhere from one to three days at a time. In September 1800 he was ill enough that his fellow churchmen planned for alternate representation for an association meeting that was more than three weeks away. And in December of that year Tussekiah ordained Joel Johns as an assistant to Ellis. Ellis’ new assistant was alone in representing Tussekiah at the Middle District Association meeting in Buckingham County the following spring. William Ellis eventually resumed his normal pastoral duties and both he and Johns attended the association meetings of October 1801 and May 1802. Both were present again when Tussekiah hosted the association meeting in October 1802. Johns helped draft the circular letter from the meeting and Ellis wound up on a committee to determine if a new church should be founded between two that were less than a dozen miles apart.[62] Not only did Ellis and Johns represent Tussekiah at association meetings, they also represented the Middle District at meetings of other associations. They could be found, for instance, attending the Roanoke District meeting of October 1803 at the Meherrin Baptist Church.[63] In 1804 the Baptists realigned their associations and formed a new one that encompassed most of Lunenburg’s congregations. Tussekiah Church joined the new Meherrin Association and Ellis and Johns attended that association’s meetings on behalf of their congregation in 1805-6.[64]

William continued as Tussekiah’s pastor for several more years. But as 1810 approached, he and Elizabeth began to make plans for his retirement from the ministry. In March 1810, the two asked for a letter of dismission from the church. Evidently William’s brief visit to North Carolina during the Revolutionary War had left him curious about the South and that is where he and Elizabeth headed. Minutes of Tussekiah’s business meeting for April describe it as "the first Meeting after the departure of our Beloved Br. William Ellis to the southern Country."[65]

However, the county personal property tax book showed William Ellis submitting his list on 16 May 1810 and the 1811 tax book also showed a submission.[66] These entries leave the overall impression that William and Elizabeth’s southern travels were brief – perhaps less than a month but in no case longer than a year. Whatever the length of the trip at least four of the couple’s children stayed in Lunenburg. Those remaining behind included their married children William, Elizabeth and Sally (now married to John Sheffield). Calvin and Thomas, on the other hand were both single and might have accompanied their parents on a short trip. If Calvin did accompany his parents, he had returned to Lunenburg when the 1811 personal property tax list was made. After Calvin’s marriage, however, he and wife Rebecca relocated to Greenville, South Carolina where they could be found in November 1813 - a move that may have re-traced a path followed earlier by Calvin’s parents.


The Empty Nest

In late 1813 or early 1814 Ellis, who was now in his sixties, began to distribute some of his 843 acres to his relations. The old man sold eighty-two acres to his son-in-law John Sheffield out of "love good and affection." In doing so, Ellis ensured that his daughter Sally Sheffield and her family would remain close just as he had done with his daughter Elizabeth Crafton and her husband Frederick.[67] 150 acres went to son Calvin who was now in South Carolina and who had no use for it. Calvin immediately deeded the acreage to John Sheffield.[68] Two more parcels of 128 and 100 acres went to Ellis sons Thomas and William, respectively.

The year 1815 opened with the celebration of Martha Ellis’ marriage to Frederick N. Robertson. The bride’s father stuck to his retired status and so James Shelburne came over from Reedy Creek Church to perform the ceremony.[69] But the year’s joyous opening was eclipsed in August by the sudden passing of Thomas Ellis. At his death Thomas was only twenty-three and still single.[70] No evidence has been found yet that any of William and Elizabeth Ellis’ children participated in the War of 1812 and so the cause of Thomas’ untimely end remains unknown.

In 1820 William was nearly seventy and Elizabeth Ellis was fifty-five. Only their two youngest sons were still at home.[71] In 1823 John married to Nancy I. Hendricks and in 1826 Richard wed Sarah G. Akin.[72] The men’s father performed neither ceremony leaving that to another of Reedy Creek’s ministers, James Robertson.[73] Even though John and Richard had left the nest and married, they proved incapable of independence. Whether through imprudence or bad luck, within a short time both men were struggling and deeply in debt. They began defaulting on bonds in the late 1820s and, between the two of them, had to sell an assortment of crops, livestock, slaves, and personal property to pay their creditors. William and Elizabeth tried to help and on 2 January 1829, the couple sold 130 acres to John and another 130 to Richard. Even that was not enough to pull the two sons out of their difficulties: John had to sell his tract in April and Richard sold his in July to pay debts.[74]

On the same day that Ellis sold the twin 130-acre tracts to his youngest sons he also made out his will. Up until the early 1820s, both he and Elizabeth had remained remarkably active. He, for example, was still being called - albeit rarely - to deal with church matters like the dispute at Tussekiah Church between Joel Johns and another man in 1826.[75] Elizabeth, on the other hand, still enjoyed horseback riding until she was crippled by a fall in 1823.[76] Ellis’ will reflected both his continuing good health and the considerable estate he would one day leave to Elizabeth and to his children and grandchildren. Pleasant Barnes – a trusted friend, neighbor and fellow Baptist minister – and Elizabeth Ellis’ brother-in-law were with the old man as he wrote:

In the Name of God Amen. I William Ellis Senr. of the County of Lunenburg being in perfect health and sound mind thanks be to Almighty God for the same, and calling to mind the immortality (sic) of my body and knowing it is appointed for all men once to die: do constitute and ordain this writing to be my last Will and Testament, utterly revoking all other will or wills heretofore made by me in manner and form following (viz) Item 1. I lend to my beloved wife Elizabeth Ellis the tract of land whereon we now reside with all the premises and appurtenances thereunto belonging, during her natural life or widowhood. Item 2. I lend unto my said wife Elizabeth Ellis five negroes, to wit: Isam, Hall, Amy, Tamer and Tiller, Liddy together with their future increase during her natural life, or widowhood. Also two mares Blaze and Friday, two feather beds and furniture, one Chest, one Desk; six sitting Chairs, pots and ovens that belong to the place, water vessels, and the third part of the plantation tools. Also the third part of the stock of Cattle hogs & Sheep, Also the third part of the knives and forks, the third part of the fowls, the third part of pewter and all kinds of earthenware and Glass ware. Item 3. I lend to my son William Ellis jr one negro girl named Masy that he now has in his possession during his life, then to be equally divided among all his children with all her increase. Also the money which I have paid for him. Item 4th I give to my daughter Elizabeth Crafton ten dollars to her and her heirs forever. Item 5. I give my son in law John Sheffield two dollars to him and his heirs forever. Item 6. I give & bequeath to my Grand daughter Suky Sheffield two dollars to her and her heirs forever. Item 7. I give to my Grand son John Sheffield two dollars to him & his heirs forever. Item 8. I give to my grand Daughter Sally Sheffield Ninety Eight dollars to remain in the hands of my Executor till she becomes of age or marries. Item 9. I give to my Grand son William Sheffield Ninety Eight dollars to remain in the hands of my Executor till he arrives to the age of Twenty one. Item. I give to my Grand son Nicholas Sheffield Ninety Eight dollars to remain in the hands of my Executors till he arrives to the age of twenty one, and then to their heirs forever. Provided either of them my Grand children should die before they arrive to the age of twenty one, I give his or her part to the surviving and to their heirs forever. Item 11. I give to my son Calvin Ellis one negro man named Adam to him and his heirs forever. Item 12. I give to my Daughter Patsey Robertson ten dollars to her and her heirs forever. Item 13. I give to my son John Ellis one negro girl named Abbey and her future increase to him and his heirs forever. Item 14th. I give to my son Richard Ellis one negro man named Ryal to him and his heirs forever. Item 15. The balanse of my Estate, I wish to be sold and all my just debts to be paid, the overplus if any to be equally divided among all my children. Item 16 that part of my Estate I lend my wife, after her death to be equally divided among my four sons, namely, William Ellis, Calvin Ellis, John Ellis, & Richard Ellis Item 17. I appoint my beloved friends Pleasant Barnes and Lewelling Hurt Executors to this my last will and Testament. As witness my hand and seal this 2nd day of January 1829.

signed sealed and delivered in William Ellis Sr (seal)

presence of

Pleasant Barnes Branch B Beach [77]

William Ellis died on 5 October 1829 and in December his will was presented in court, attested and probated. In the years following division of their father’s estate, William, John and Richard Ellis disappeared from Lunenburg leaving Patsey Robertson and Elizabeth Crafton to watch over their elderly mother.[78] Ten years after William’s death and at the age of seventy-nine, Elizabeth Ellis applied for a Revolutionary War pension based on her husband’s service. With the help of a local justice of the peace, she rounded up John Mohorn and Seth Farley – both now in their eighties – and they wrote letters attesting to William Ellis’ two tours of duty. At the time of Elizabeth’s application the Chesterfield County clerk could not find the marriage bond pertaining to William and Elizabeth (even though the bond has survived). So an additional letter from Elizabeth’s sister had to be obtained to evidence Elizabeth’s marriage to William. To these letters Elizabeth and her attorney added a birth record of the Ellis children. The two obtained a Bible and copied the birth records of the children from the original Ellis family Bible into the new one. The copied pages were then torn out of the second Bible and submitted with all of the other paper work to the Richmond pension office. In August 1839 the office granted Elizabeth a $50 annual pension.[79]

With the assistance of seven slaves – three men, three women and a girl – and with the company of a teen-aged granddaughter, Elizabeth Ellis continued to manage her own household until some time after she turned eighty.[80] She died in the early 1840s and one of the family’s cherished possessions – the family Bible - passed to her daughter Elizabeth Crafton. There it remained until after the daughter’s death in 1843 and that of her husband Frederick in 1851.[81]



William Ellis was no stranger to either hardship or grief. Orphaned as a small boy, he wound up in the hands of adults who were by turns abusive and exploitive. As a young soldier he suffered the hardships of Continental Army service. And as a young husband he suffered the death of his first wife. In spite of these early difficulties Ellis matured into a man of accomplishment and faith. He helped to establish a nation independent of Britain and a church independent of state. As the leader of one of the first Baptist churches in the Southside, Ellis helped to found a congregation that continues to thrive in the 21st Century. Over the course of his almost eighty years he became a Revolutionary War hero, a faithful church pastor, a successful planter, a generous husband, father and uncle. William Ellis’ courage and discipline were balanced by a warmth, generosity and devotion that brought many into his circle and he into theirs.

* * * * *

Traces of William Ellis…


Did our subject William Ellis in fact sign a 1785 religious petition in Lunenburg against a tax assessment to support teachers of religion? Answering this question involves the tricky business of handwriting analysis. Below is William Ellis’ signature on the Chesterfield County bond for his marriage to Elizabeth Akin on 11 November 1782.


Compare it with that of the first William Ellis to subscribe to the Lunenburg County religious petition that was submitted on 1 December 1785:


The Lunenburg petitioner’s signature lacks the idiosyncrasies present in our subject’s. This particular William Ellis, unlike the groom of Chesterfield, begins his W with a down stroke instead of an upstroke and fails to round the initial loop of his E. More telling, he uses the single ‘s’ ending rather than the double ‘s’ that our subject uses on his marriage bond. Note also that the cursive hand of the petitioner is smoother and without the breaks present in William Ellis’ Chesterfield signature. This petitioner is almost certainly not our subject. Instead he may have been the William Ellis who came to Lunenburg’s Flat Rock Creek from Amelia County in 1784.

Now compare our subject’s Chesterfield signature to that of the second William Ellis to sign the Lunenburg petition:

This man’s signature contains the same idiosyncrasies right down to the same positioning of breaks in the cursive that are present in the signature of our subject on his Chesterfield bond. The only obvious deviation is what appears to be the presence of a suffix. When a public document (tax list, court order, deed, petition, etc.) contains a reference to more than one man by the same name, Virginians of William Ellis’ day add Junior, Senior or some other identifying suffix (e.g. place name or occupation) to distinguish the men. That appears to be the case on this petition. As the petition circulates the first William Ellis signs oblivious to those who would follow him and hence uses no suffix. The second William Ellis to sign can see that another man of the same name has preceded him and adds a suffix to ensure that his signature is not dismissed as a duplicate. While certainty is elusive this second signature is probably that of our subject.

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  1. The Library of Virginia, Lunenburg County Personal Property Tax Books for1782 and 1803.
  2. John Vogt and T. William Kethley Jr., Lunenburg County Marriages, 1750-1853 (Athens, Georgia: Iberian Publishing Co., 1988) 169-173.
  3. Landon C. Bell, The Old Free State: A Contribution to the History of Lunenburg County and Southside Virginia (1927; rpt. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1995) 1:385-386, 410.
  4. Tussekiah Church (Lunenburg County, Va.), Minute Book, 1784-1826, 1883 (Accession 26452, Church records collection, The Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA) 4, 44.
  5. Vogt and Kethley 172.
  6. Benjamin B. Weisiger, comp., Henrico County, Virginia Deeds (Richmond: B. B. Weisiger, 1986) 3:154. John Ellis gave his age as thirty on this deposition taken 1 February 1691.
  7. William Clayton Torrence, "Henrico County, Virginia: Beginnings of Its Families Part I," Genealogies of Virginia Families (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co. 1982) 5:732. Article reproduced on Broderbund Software’s Family Archive CD#186, Family History: Virginia Genealogies #2 1600s-1800s.
  8. Weisiger 3:77, 102, 116-117.
  9. "Virginia Quit Rent Rolls, 1704," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 28:211.
  10. Weisiger 2:46. This entry is the abstract of a deed of 3 December 1715 from John Ellis of Henrico, planter, to Robert Napier of same. The 150 acres sold by Ellis were on Peter’s branch of Tuckahoe Creek and were part of "Ellis’s new patent." This deed also contains Susanna Ellis’ relinquishment of her dower rights. The patent to which the deed refers has not yet been found.
  11. Weisiger 1:122.
  12. Chesterfield County, Order Book 3:111, 473, 505, 507; Order Book 4:81; Order Book 5:236; Deed Book 7:282. Elizabeth’s age is inferred from the fact that she successfully sought a change of guardian in 1764, something she could not do until age fourteen.
  13. Chesterfield County, Will Book 1:260 gives the name of Thomas Ellis’ wife as Ph[o]ebe. After William Ellis grew up, married and began fathering children he and his wife named a daughter Phoebe Traylor Ellis apparently in honor of William’s mother. See Ellis Family Bible Record 1784-1890 (Accession 33680, Bible records collection, The Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA). There is some reason to believe that Phoebe Traylor was the mother of all of Thomas Ellis’ surviving children. Not only did William, the youngest of Thomas Ellis’ sons name a daughter Phoebe but so, too, did Thomas’ oldest son John. See Lunenburg County, Deed Book 18:6.
  14. Weisiger 2:46.
  15. Weisiger 2:52.
  16. Weisiger 2:60 and Chesterfield County, Deed Book 1:201.
  17. Chesterfield County, List of Tithables for 1752.
  18. Chesterfield County, Deed Book 3:5.
  19. Chesterfield County, Will Book 1:260.
  20. Chesterfield County, Tithes of Manchester, Dale and King William Parishes 1747-1778 (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Family History Library) Film 1929611. An undated record on this film says:
  21. Mrs. Ellis her Lists of Tithes: Widdow

    Drusey 1

    Hamshear 2

    According to the June 1757 tax list Drusey was a slave belonging to Thomas Ellis. Since Thomas died in October 1757 and tithable lists were made between March and June of each year, the earliest list on which his widow could have appeared would be that from the spring of 1758.

  22. Chesterfield County, Order Book 3:111.
  23. Chesterfield County, Will Book 1:260 and Order Book 2:481.
  24. Chesterfield County, Order Book 3:473 and 505.
  25. Chesterfield County, Order Book 3:507.
  26. Chesterfield County, Will Book 1:260.
  27. A 1762 tithable list for Chesterfield County showed John Ellis, Hall and Amey listed under John Mohorn. A transcription of this list can be found at
  28. Chesterfield County, Order Book 4:56 dated 3 July 1767.
  29. In July 1767 John Mohorn returned a guardian account for a minor named John Ellis (Chesterfield County, Order Book 4:56). Four months before this Edward Ellis was absent from a division of Thomas Ellis Sr.’s slaves among John, Thomas, Elizabeth and William Ellis (Order Book 4:22). Taken together these entries point to the death of Edward Ellis prior to March 1767.
  30. Chesterfield County, Order Book 5:236. Another hint that Thomas Ellis died after this entry for March 1773 was that a slave named Marlborough that Thomas received when his father’s retainers were distributed in 1767 wound up back in the hands of his brother John. (Chesterfield County, Order Book 4:22 and Lunenburg County, Property Tax Book for 1783.)
  31. Lunenburg County, Deed Book 15:367.
  32. The elder John Mohorn appeared on the Chesterfield County tax list for 1762, implying his birth prior to 1741. The younger John Mohorn stated that he was "in the 80th year of my age" when he supported the pension application of William Ellis’ widow in 1839. Clearly there were two individuals with the name John Mohorn spaced a generation apart who had close dealings with John and William Ellis.
  33. United States National Archives, Compiled Military Service Records of Soldiers Who Served in the American Army, M881 roll 953 and Revolutionary War Pension Applications, M804 roll 917 application W.7092.
  34. The Chesterfield tithables for 1777 listed John Ellis with his slave Bowzar and showed John as the owner of 236 acres. John, brother of William Ellis, eventually sold 236 acres in Chesterfield, 100 of which he had promised to his brother William. (See Lunenburg County, Deed Book 15:467 and Chesterfield County, Deed Book 10:28). The omission of John Ellis from the Chesterfield tax list for 1778 implies that he was probably out of the county. And three slaves with the same names as those that had belonged to John, Elizabeth and Thomas Ellis - Bowzar (or Bouser), Moll and Lucy, respectively - were in the hands of a John Woolridge that year.
  35. John’s presence in Lunenburg cannot be reliably detected until 1782, however. Beginning in 1782 there was one John Ellis who paid taxes on 185 acres of land in the upper district Lunenburg County. On personal property tax lists this man’s slaves were identified as Bouser and Marlborough – strong indication that he was indeed William Ellis’ brother John Chesterfield. When Francis Degraffenreidt collected taxes from the inhabitants of northwest Lunenburg in 1783 John and William Ellis were listed consecutively – indicative of a simultaneous payment of taxes – on a list that was not alphabetized. See footnote 37.

  36. Tithables of Manchester, Dale and King William Parishes for 1757 and 1758 and Lunenburg County, Deed Book 13, 499.
  37. Lunenburg County, Deed Book 4:410.
  38. Lunenburg County, Deed Book 12:491; Deed Book 13:147 and 280. An Obediah Clay had twice witnessed John Ellis’ deeds in Chesterfield and John had called both Daniel Dejarnett and William Rucks as witnesses in the Ellis orphans’ complaint against Josiah Tatum fifteen years earlier.
  39. William Ellis leased his initial ninety acres from Thomas Chappell about the year 1779 or 1780 and finally purchased it in 1789. See Lunenburg County Land Tax Books 1782-1788 and Deed Book 15:343.
  40. John Ellis’ 185 acres must also have been rented because while he paid land taxes no deed has been found to date. John’s acreage lay somewhere in northwestern Lunenburg as evidenced by John and William Ellis’ contiguous entries on the tithable list of Francis Degraffenreidt in 1783. Degraffenreidt lived on the other side of Thomas Chappell from William Ellis and was charged with tax collection for the northwestern corner of the county in 1783. Landon C. Bell, comp., Sunlight on the Southside: Lists of Tithes Lunenburg County, Virginia 1748-1783, (1931; rpt. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1998) 397-399.

  41. Chesterfield County, Deed Book 10:28; Lunenburg County, Deed Book 15:467.
  42. Vogt and Kethley 31. The intersection of William Ellis, Obediah Clay and Sarah Briggs Chappell and the close proximity of all three to Springfield Creek signaled that the groom in this marriage was almost certainly our subject. Thomas Chappell’s plantation lay on the branches of Springfield Creek adjacent to Henry Farley (Deed Book 13:161). The ninety acres that William Ellis rented throughout the 1780s was apparently part of the Thomas Chappell plantation (Deed Book 15:343). After the Chappell-Ellis marriage Sarah Briggs Ellis witnessed a deed for land on both sides of Springfield Creek from Thomas to William Chappell (Deed Book 13:366).
  43. Further evidence of the close dealings of William Ellis with the Chappell family can be found at 1) 15:399 where William Ellis purchased land bordered by John Chappell on the Long Branch of Springfield Creek in 1789, 2) 16:70 where William Ellis purchased land from the executors of Thomas Chappell in 1791, 3) 13:547 and 18:2A where about 400 acres between Springfield Creek and the North Meherrin River passed first from Thomas Chappell to Christopher McConnico in 1783 and then from McConnico to Ellis in 1797.

    As to the bondsman for the Chappell-Ellis marriage, an Obediah Clay in Chesterfield witnessed deeds for William’s brother John on two occasions (Chesterfield County, Deed Book 6:57, 156). Whether the Obediah Clay of Lunenburg is the same man or his namesake is unclear. But in any event, the Obediah Clay of Lunenburg lived on a westerly branch of Swiss Creek only a mile away from William Ellis (Lunenburg County, Deed Book 13:111).

  44. Raymond G. Crafton, Origins and Lives of the Craftons of Virginia, 1634-1850, publication pending.
  45. Lunenburg County, Deed Book 13:366. Sarah Briggs Ellis witnessed this deed dated 14 December 1780. She was still alive, therefore, almost a year after marrying Ellis. Her death must have occurred shortly thereafter with childbirth complication being a likely cause.
  46. Chesterfield County, Marriage Bonds and National Archives, Pension W.7092.
  47. The four slaves were Joe, Lydia, Amy and Temp. William had received Joe and Lydia in 1767 when John Ellis distributed seven slaves that had belonged to their deceased father. (Chesterfield County, Order Book 4, 22.) The other two, Amy and Temp, belonged to John Ellis. John eventually sold them along with others to William in 1789. (Lunenburg County, Deed Book 15, 467-8.)
  48. Lunenburg County, Personal Property Tax Book for 1783. John Ellis’ three slaves in 1783 were Bowzar (or Bouser), Marlborough and Roger. John had inherited Marlborough from his father. (Chesterfield County, Order Book 4:22.)
  49. John and Mary Ellis had six known children. The 1795 personal property tax book for Lunenburg listed "Thomas Ellis (son of John)." There was only one John Ellis on the list that year and that was William’s older brother. In addition Deed Book 18:6-7 lists five of John and Mary’s children to whom William Ellis gave gifts: Mary, Elizabeth, Phoebe, John and Edward.

  50. Ellis Family Bible Record.
  51. Lunenburg County, Deed Book 15:343 and 399; Deed Book 16:70.
  52. Lunenburg County, Land Tax Book for 1814.
  53. Lunenburg County, Deed Book 15:467-468.
  54. Chesterfield County, Deed Book 12:261.
  55. United States National Archives, Third Census of the United States, 1810, Virginia, M252 roll 69 page 6.
  56. Old Free State 386 reports that Tussekiah meeting house originally stood about four miles [north]west of Lunenburg courthouse. The Lunenburg land tax series from 1782 to 1814 show that William Ellis of Springfield Creek lived ten miles northwest of the courthouse – implying that the straight-line distance between Ellis and Tussekiah was about six miles. Lunenburg deeds such as 18:141 and 19:139 confirm the six-mile separation between Ellis’ location and the meetinghouse.
  57. Library of Congress, Early Virginia Religious Petitions, December 1, 1785, Lunenburg, against assessment bill. A digital image of this petition and others is available at the Library of Congress website
  58. Old Free State 355.
  59. Tussekiah Church 3.
  60. Tussekiah Church 4. Even though there were other William Ellises living in Lunenburg County at the time Tussekiah called its second pastor each of these can be ruled out. One of these men came to the Flat Rock Creek area of Lunenburg from Amelia County in 1784 (Deed Book 14:23, 139). He and his wife Elizabeth sold all of their Lunenburg land and left the county in 1791. This man’s location lay on the other side of Reedy Creek Baptist Church some thirteen miles east of the Tussekiah meeting house. His location in the county and his seeming exit after 1791make it extremely unlikely, therefore, that William Ellis of Flat Rock was the man who served Tussekiah Church from 1790 to 1810.
  61. Another William Ellis appeared in Lunenburg records from the early 1790s onward. He was the son of Ellison Ellis and had brothers named Ellison and Thomas (Deed Book 17:140-143). All of these men lived on Crupper Run. This location is more than seven miles south of Tussekiah Church and lay on the other side of Meherrin Baptist Church. Someone in this location was unlikely to have attended Tussekiah and even less likely to have become its pastor.

    Yet a third William Ellis came to Lunenburg from Nottoway in 1797 (Deed Book 17:538). His late arrival ruled him out as the Lunenburg resident who became Tussekiah’s pastor in 1790. For more on this man see footnotes 59 and 65. We conclude, therefore, that the William Ellis who came to Springfield Creek with his brother John from Chesterfield was in fact the man called as Tussekiah’s second pastor in 1790.

  62. R. B. Semple, History of the Baptists in Virginia (1810; rpt. Cottonport, Louisiana: Polyanthos, 1972) 299.
  63. Semple 287 and Tussekiah Church 45.
  64. Lunenburg County, Deed Book 18:56.
  65. Vogt and Kethley 172-173. The authors show 103 marriages in the county attributable to William Ellis between the years 1791 and 1809 inclusive. This date range falls inside the years of active ministry of William Ellis at Tussekiah Church. However, there was a second William Ellis living in the county during this time who was also a preacher. He was from Nottoway County and bought 250 acres on Dry Creek in 1797. (Deed Book 17:538). On land tax rolls he was identified as "William Ellis, preacher" or just "William Ellis P". The subject of this work, on the other hand, was identified on tax lists as "William Ellis (SC)." The initials "SC" denoted Springfield Creek and were sometimes spelled out. In Lunenburg deed books William Ellis of Springfield Creek merely signed his name and when his wife Elizabeth’s signature was required she marked an "X". In contrast the William Ellis who came to Dry Creek from Nottoway in 1797 added the initials MG after his signature for "Minister of the Gospel" and when his wife co-signed, her name was Polly, short for Mary. See Lunenburg County, Deed Book 22:32 and Deed Book 22: 209.
  66. Some of the 103 marriages may be the work of William Ellis MG and not William Ellis SC. However, it appears that the vast majority was attributable to William Ellis of Springfield Creek and Tussekiah Church. Ninety of them were submitted by William Ellis "A Baptist Minister" and, for the most part, the brides and grooms for these were known members of Tussekiah Church and/or carried surnames belonging to William Ellis SC’s close neighbors.

  67. Ellis Family Bible Record.
  68. Lunenburg County, Deed Book 22:83 has a William Ellis selling property to his father also named William Ellis. The property included the younger Ellis’ interest in the estate of Jesse Sheffield of Nottoway. Deed Book 23:172 gives the first name of William Ellis Junior’s wife as Elizabeth.
  69. William Ellis Senior traveled to Nottoway from time to time to attend Baptist district association meetings. See Tussekiah Church 4.

  70. Baptist Middle District Association, Minutes of the Baptist Middle District Association, Early American Imprints, second series, numbers 128, 129, 1835 and 1836.
  71. Roanoke District Association (Va.), Minute Book 1789-1831 (Accession 23600, Church records collection, The Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA) 22.
  72. Meherrin Baptist Association (Va.), Minute Book 1804-1825 (Accession 25715, Church records collection, The Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA) 14, 15, 49.
  73. A William and Elizabeth Ellis were the only Ellises listed as members of Tussekiah Church in 1798. Elizabeth Ellis’ appearance in church minutes is important because it matches with the Chesterfield marriage of William Ellis to Elizabeth Akin in 1782. Elizabeth’s appearance in Tussekiah Church records also means that a William Ellis identified as a preacher on Lunenburg’s land tax rolls from 1807 to 1811was not the Ellis who served as Tussekiah Church pastor. Preacher Ellis was not married to an Elizabeth but to a woman named Polly (a nickname for Mary). In contrast to Tussekiah’s William Ellis, Preacher Ellis usually appended the initials "MG" for "Minister of the Gospel" after his name on public documents. According to the U.S. census of Lunenburg William Ellis MG was between twenty-six and forty-four years old in 1810 while William Ellis of Tussekiah was about sixty. (Thus Ellis MG could have been twenty-four at most when Tussekiah call its second pastor in 1790.) In 1811 William Ellis MG sold his 250-acre tract in Lunenburg and moved his family to Baldwin County, Georgia. He died there at the end of 1823. See Lunenburg County, Deed Book 17:538; Book 18:147A; Book 22:32; Book 22:209. See also Atlanta Public Library, Records of Baldwin County, Georgia (Albany, Georgia: Delwyn Associates, 1975) 226.
  74. The 1810 personal property list shows both William Ellis (SC) and William Ellis (SSC). Written out at some times and abbreviated at others, ‘SC’ stood for Springfield Creek while ‘SSC’ stood for son of Springfield Creek. On the 1811 list the designation ‘SC’ was used for the senior Ellis while his son was listed as William Ellis Jr.
  75. Deed Book 23:172 and Deed Book 26:465.
  76. Deed Book 23:173 and 303.
  77. Vogt and Kethley 110.
  78. Ellis Family Bible Record.
  79. United States National Archives, Fourth Census of the United States, 1820, Virginia, M33 roll 137 page 169.
  80. Vogt and Kethley 31.
  81. What became of William and Elizabeth’s daughter Phoebe is unclear. From census records she appears to have left her parents’ household before 1810. Since the family Bible did not record her untimely death as it did Thomas’ we can only guess that she married. However she was omitted from her father’s will when it was made in 1829 – an indication that she died without heirs. Clearly this is an area for further investigation.
  82. Lunenburg County, Deed Book 26:232; Book 28:183, 226, 261, 362, 388, 389; Book 29:50, 56, 57, 163A, 172, 194.
  83. Tussekiah Church 61.
  84. Pension W.7092.
  85. Lunenburg County, Will Book 10:8.
  86. United States National Archives, Sixth Census of the United States, 1840, Virginia, M704 roll 565 passim and Seventh Census, 1850, Virginia, M432 roll 958 passim.
  87. Pension W.7092.
  88. 1840 Census of Lunenburg 281.
  89. Ellis Family Bible Record.
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