The Apostle to the Opelousas
The First Baptist Preacher of the
Gospel of Jesus Christ West of the Mississippi River
By Randy Willis
Joseph Willis’ monument at his grave reads: "First Baptist Preacher of the Word West of the Mississippi River." This fact is of historical interest but is of lesser importance when compared to this remarkable man’s life.
His life reads as a history book and a dramatic play performed on the stage of life. He was born a Cherokee Indian slave to his own father. His family took him to court to deprive him of his inheritance – a battle that involved the governor of the state. He fought in the Revolutionary War under the most colorful of all the American generals, Francis Marion, "The Swamp Fox." He crossed the most hostile country and entered a land under a foreign government while the dreaded "Black Code" was in effect. He preached a message there that put him in constant danger for his life. He fought racial and religious prejudice of the most dangerous kind. He lost three wives and several children in the wilderness but never wavered in his belief in God.
But our story does not begin here. It begins in Southeast Virginia in the Chesapeake Bay area, the same area that the pilgrims first settled. There in the 1740’s, in Isle of Wight County and Nansemond County (now the city of Suffolk) was the place that Joseph Willis’ father, three uncles and one aunt called home. The family had come to America from Devonshire, England. I believe, but I cannot prove it beyond the shadow of a doubt, the English father of these five children was Benjamin Willis, Jr. (born circa 1690) and the grandfather was Benjamin Willis, Sr. (born circa 1670).
The four Willis brothers were Joseph’s father Agerton Willis (born circa 1727; died 1777), and his brothers Daniel Willis (born circa 1716; died 1785), Benjamin Willis III (born circa 1725; died 1785), and George Willis (born circa 1730). The one known sister of these four brothers was Joanna Willis (born circa 1730; died 1791). Joanna married James Council (born circa 1716) of Isle of Wight County, Virginia in about 1751. James was the son of John Council and Benjamin Willis Jr.’s sister Josie Willis (born circa 1681), and grandson of Hodges Council. Hodges had also immigrated from Devonshire, England to America.
In the early 1750’s, the family including James and Joanna moved south. Between 1740 and 1770, hundreds of Virginians moved to North Carolina as a result of the Virginia legislature passing a law requiring all non-residents to acquire ten acres of land for each head of stock ranging in the colony or to become citizens.
Thus the family left Virginia, probably by sea, and landed down the coast at New Hanover (now named Wilmington), North Carolina. New Hanover had North Carolina’s most navigable seaport and even though it was not used much for transatlantic trade, this meant the area of the state was easily accessible from all other English settlements along the coast.
Well-to-do North Carolina Planters
It was here that Joseph’s father, Agerton, first bought land in North Carolina. On December 13, 1754, he purchased 300 acres in New Hanover in what is now southeastern Pender County "on the East Side of a Branch of Long Creek." Pender was not established until 1874. New Hanover included what is now Pender and parts of Brunswick County.
Agerton was taxed on this property the next year, 1755. There were only 362 white people taxed in New Hanover that year. About twenty families owned a great number of slaves there during that time. These families and others like them in southeastern North Carolina controlled the affairs of the counties in which they lived and set the standards of morals and religion.
Between 1755 and 1758, Agerton moved to Bladen County, just to the northeast. Daniel, Benjamin and Joanna and her husband James Council, had been living there since 1753. It was there between 1755 and 1758, that Agerton’s only son, Joseph, was born. Joseph would someday play a major roll in early Louisiana Baptist history.
Most of the early Bladen County deeds before 1784 were lost due to a series of fires; thus we are unable to find Agerton’s first purchase of land in Bladen County. Nevertheless a description of the bulk of his lands can be gleaned from later deeds. He purchased 640 acres from his brother Daniel on May 21, 1762, on the West Side of the Northwest Cape Fear River. He then purchased an additional 2,560 acres between October 1766 and May 1773, which was on both sides of the Northwest Cape Fear River near Goodman’s Swamp. Altogether, Agerton’s holdings formed a very large and nearly contiguous extent of land on both sides of the Northwest Cape Fear River near the current Cumberland County line in present-day northwest Bladen County.
Agerton, Daniel, Benjamin, James, and Joanna were neighbors on the Northwest Cape Fear River. The other brother, George Willis, came first to New Hanover, obtaining a land grant on Widow Creek in 1761 and selling out in 1767. He then moved to Robeson County (formerly part of Bladen County) not very far west from the rest of the family.
The four brothers were all well-to-do planters with large land holdings. As a planter, Agerton owned slaves many of which were Indian. At this time in North Carolina many slaves were Indian; in fact as late as the 1780’s in North Carolina a third of all slaves were Indian. Indians were made slaves by the whites from the very beginning.
A Trail of Tears
It was to a Cherokee Indian slave of Agerton’s that his only son, Joseph, was born. The relationship of Agerton and Joseph’s mother can only be speculation, but under the North Carolina laws of 1741 all interracial marriages were illegal. Since Joseph’s mother was a slave he was born to a slave status. It is clear that his father considered him as an only son and loved him as one. This fact did not sit well with some other members of the family.
Clearly, Agerton intended to free Joseph, but this presented great legal problems. The laws of 1741 in North Carolina stated in "An Act Concerning Servants and Slaves" "That no Negro or Mulatto Slaves shall be set free, upon any Pretense whatsoever, except for meritorious Services, to be adjudged and allowed of by the County Court and License thereupon first had and obtained."
In her book, North Carolina Indian Records, Donna Spindel writes about the Indians of this area of the state:
"The Lumbee Indians, most of whom reside in Robeson County, constitute the largest group of Indians in eastern North Carolina. Although their exact origin is a complex matter, they are undoubtedly the descendants of several tribes that occupied eastern Carolina during the earliest days of white settlement. Living along the Pee Dee and Lumber rivers in present-day Robeson and adjacent counties, these Indians of mixed blood were officially designated as Lumbees by the General Assembly in 1956. …Most of the Indians have Anglo-Saxon names and they are generally designated as ‘black’ or ‘mulatto’ in nineteenth-century documents; for example, in the U.S. Censuses of 1850-1880, the designation for Lumbee families is usually ‘mulatto."
According to one of North Carolina’s top genealogists and historians, the late William Perry Johnson, " . . . In North Carolina, American Indians up until Mid 1880’s, were labeled Mulattos…" Joseph’s mother may have very well been related to these Indians.
Joseph could not be freed solely by Agerton’s wishes. Agerton was in poor health and Joseph was still too young to prove "meritorious Services," therefore Agerton attempted to free him through his will written September 18, 1776, and also to bequeath to him most of