A Story of John Willis:  Scandal or Coincidence?

A Story of John Willis: Scandal or Coincidence?


Twin sisters Olive and Olivia Newell were both noted by the census taker to be living with men named John Willis at the time of the 1860 census in Oswego County, New York. Was this the same John Willis or different John Willis's?

Stories about A Story of John Willis: Scandal or Coincidence?

Pension records help solve mystery.

  • Oswego County, New York

Who was the father of my great-grandmother, Mary Almeda “Meda” Barker?  Our family always thought it was Will Adams, long-time husband of our g-g-grandmother Olive Newell Adams.   Mary Almeda was born in Vermillion, New York, which is located in Oswego County, 4.7 miles southwest of Mexico, on 9 October 1859.  This information is reported in the newspaper articles regarding Meda’s death, which also reported that her father was Will Adams.  Will did not marry Olive until 1865, however, six years after Meda was born.

Mary Almeda’s baptism certificate, dated Sunday, 28 November 1875, indicates she was the child of John E. Willis and Olive Newell.

In 1860, the census for Mexico, Town of Mexico, County of Oswego, New York, p.  45, 6 July 1860, indicates that Mary Almeda was living with “Olive P.” and “John E. Willis,” a day laborer.  Also in 1860, according to the U.S. Census, Olive’s twin sister Olivia was living with John Willis and his parents in Palermo, Town of Mexico, County of Oswego, New York, 29 June 1860.  In 1870, the U.S. census showed Olivia and John Willis in Corunna, Shiawassee Co., Michigan, where their daughter Jennie was born in 1861.

Was it just an incredible coincidence that twin sisters Olive and Olivia had both been living with men named John Willis in 1860 or was there scandal involved?  In a form filled out for the Bureau of Pensions in 1915 regarding his marriage, Will Adams disclosed that his wife Olive had been married before to John E. Willis.  His statement specified that:

My wife was married once previous to her marriage to me to John E. Willis, then of Palermo, N.Y. on the 8th of October 1858 and was granted a divorce from him April 27-1865 giving her right to marry but prohibiting him.  She has copy of decree…  My wife had one daughter (Mary Almeda Barker) by her former husband (Willis) born October 9th 1859, said daughter now lives in Mexico, N.Y.  We have no other children… Willis…died at Corunna Mich ten of [sic] fifteen years ago.  He was buried by William Knight of that place.

Given the information provided by Will Adams in 1915 that Olive’s John Willis had moved to Corunna, Michigan and had died 10-15 years previously, I think I should be forgiven for having made the assumption that, since Olivia and John Willis had moved to Corunna, Michigan and that John Willis had died in 1896, Olive and Olivia had had a relationship with the same John Willis.

In looking back over the information on the website for Pine Tree Cemetery in Corunna, Michigan in early March 2008, I reviewed an alphabetical listing for persons buried in the cemetery and noticed that in addition to John and Olivia Willis being buried there, there is also a John E. Willis buried in the cemetery, who was reportedly born in 1826 and died in 1891.  John E. Willis’ gravestone indicates he served in the 3rd regiment of the New York Light Artillery (NY LART).  In checking the roll of the 3rd regiment of the NY LART, no John E. Willis could be found, but there was a John Brown who had served in the 3rd NY LART, which was interesting given Will Adam’s recitation of the rumor that John E. Willis had served in the Civil War under the alias John C. Brown.

Due to a trip I made to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. on 21 March 2008, I found records indicating that John E. Willis had served in the Civil War in Company F of the 3rd Regiment of the NY LART under the alias John C. Brown and that he filed an application in July of 1890 under the invalid provisions and that his widow subsequently filed an application for widow’s benefits.  See the attached index cards.  I have requested a copy of the pension records in the hope that they will shed further light on this mystery.  Oswego County is also in the process, as of 22 March 2008, of providing the divorce file from Olive and John Willis’s divorce.

In conclusion, it now appears that indeed there were two John Willis’s living with Olive and Olivia Newell in Oswego County in 1860 and that both John Willis’s moved to Corunna, Michigan, died there and are buried in the same cemetery.  That is truly a remarkable coincidence, although it is probably related to the fact that they are related (cousins?) and were part of a migration trend from Oswego County, New York, to Shiawassee County, Michigan.

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