John Willis, referred to as the Father of Lumberton, was born in 1756 to Daniel Willis and Elizabeth Moore. His parents settled on Saddletree Swamp in what was at that time the western part of Bladen County in 1753. He joined his fellow county men in the fight for independence from England and achieved the rank of captain. After the Revolution while in the militia he achieved the rank of colonel and later general.
Photo from the Dec 1, 1952 play "Progress on the
Lumbee since 1787" held at Lumberton High School.
John Willis's parents played by Edison Judson Willis
and Hezzie Willis Kelly. Scene shows John Willis
as a baby.
In the postwar period he began acquiring large tracts near his family’s holdings, becoming one the largest landowner in the area. In 1787 Robeson County was carved from North Carolina’s mother county Bladen. The area residents complained and petitioned that Bladen was too large and unwieldy to govern. The county was named for Colonel Thomas Robeson, hero of the Revolutionary War Battle of Elizabethtown and proponent of creation of the county.
After the General Assembly formed Robeson County, John Willis with six others were tasked with establishing a county seat. The commission chose a parcel of land owned by Willis on the east bluffs of the Lumber River. In August 1787, Willis donated 170-acres of his 500-acre Red Bluff Plantation to be used as the county seat. He named area Lumberton for the nearby Lumber River. The town of Lumberton received official recognition from the legislature on November 3, 1788. It was not until 1852 that the town was incorporated into a municipality.
The “father of Lumberton” went on to represent Robeson County as a state senator in 1787, 1788, 1789, 1791, and 1798. He served in the House in 1794 and 1795 and at the state convention of 1789 where North Carolina ratified the Constitution and became the twelfth state. In addition to being a planter he also dealt in timber, tar, turpentine and tanned hides. He also operated saw and grist mills.
Marker is located in Lumberton at the
intersection of Fayetteville Road and
Goodwin Avenue, East 24th, and North Cedar Streets
Willis married Asenath Barnes in 1779; they had eight daughters Alice, Sarah Cain, Martha, Elizabeth, Mary, Ann Marie, Emily Jane and Harriet and four sons John, William, Thomas Abram, and Daniel.
The 1790s became a time of scandal for John Willis. First, he was involved with others, including John Grey Blount of Washington, NC, and Jacob Rhodes locally, in land speculation on a large scale. These speculations were in so-called “vacant lands” in North Carolina and Tennessee that had not previously been granted by colonial government or the new states. Most of this land had been settled by others so problems arose, and a grand jury was conducted in October 1794, Willis was indicted but not tried.
The 1797 NC Senate election was heated race between General John Willis and John Gilchrist. After losing the race Willis accused John Gilchrist of being a Tory during the war with Great Britain and insisted on his removal from the Senate. Gilchrist was impeached and tried as a Tory. During the trial many came forward to give character depositions concerning John Gilchrist to the State Committee of Privileges and Elections. The committee found Gilchrist innocent of all charges declaring him entitled to the Robeson County seat in the house.
It is possible that these scandals lead to Willis leaving Robeson County. By 1799 he had moved to Fayetteville and was practicing law. The following appeared in the September 5, 1799 issue of The Wilmington Gazette:
“MY MILLS on the Raft swamp, about four miles above Lumberton, all new and now in good order. This seat is on 12,000 acres of land, on which are six plantations, a saw mill with two saws, a grist mill with two pair of stones, and receives more custom than they can possible discharge (other mills being in want of water, of which this never fails), a rice machine new and complete that will beat 120 bushels per day; a large and well finished two story house, kitchen, meat house, stables, and every other necessary & convenient buildings for Negroes, workmen, &; about two hundred acres of rice land completely banked, and can be overflowed at pleasure; a large young orchard just beginning to bear; a pasture of 400 acres very convenient to oxen and all kinds of flock. This seat is a most delightful situation, affords plenty of fish every day of the year, fine water and is remarkably healthy. It has been rented at 1500 dollars per annum, but the contract is now changed, and the saw mills alone rent for 100 per month.”
The advertisement also offered another plantation of 1,000 acres adjoining the town of Lumberton, two town houses and 5,000 other acres of land in the neighborhood. Willis offered to take lands in the district of Tennessee in partial exchange for these lands.
In 1801 General John Willis with his family set out for the Natchez Territory of Mississippi to begin a new life. He died in Natchez on April 22, 1802 and his wife followed in 1806. He is buried in Veterans Memorial Park near downtown Natchez.