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Native Americans of South Carolina

Rev. Joseph Willis, Father of the Red Bones

In the early 1800's a number of small settlements were founded in western Louisiana near the border with Texas, which have perplexed researchers and historians. These isolated communities were called "Red Bones" by the local folk, and their social standing hovered somewhere between whites and blacks. The community members themselves claimed to be Indians, descendants of tribes of the Carolinas. One of the earliest persons to settle this area was the Reverend Joseph Willis, also known as the father of the Red Bones.

Joseph Willis was born between 1755 and 1758 in New Hanover, North Carolina (not far from Robeson County home of the Lumbee Indians). Joseph was born to the Indian slave of Agerton Willis, and so, by law Joseph was also considered a slave. When Agerton died in 1776, his will provided for Joseph to receive his freedom and inherit the entire estate. Unfortunately, Joseph was still a minor and the estate was placed under the control of Agerton's brother, who subsequently objected to a slave receiving any of the property. The will never became legal, and Joseph remained in slave status for another eleven years.

In November 1787, a bill was introduced by Joseph's white cousin, John Willis a member of the General Assembly of North Carolina, entitled "a bill to emancipate Joseph, a Mulatto Slave, the property of the Estate of Agerton Willis, late of Bladen, deceased."1 The bill passed its third reading on December 6, 1787 and Joseph was free. Many years later in Louisiana, Joseph would tell his grandchildren who were tending to him in his last months, that he left North Carolina "with nothing but a horse, bridle and saddle."

Joseph Willis entered South Carolina at the time of the Revolutionary War and served under General Francis Marion, the "Swamp Fox." By 1790 Joseph was living with his wife, Rachel Bradford, in Cheraws County (now Marlboro, Chesterfield and Darlington Counties), South Carolina.2 It was also here that Rachel died about 1794. Joseph moved to Greenville County, remarried to Sarah an Irish woman, and purchased 174 acres.3

In Greenville County, Joseph became more active in the church and joined the main Saluda Church. He attended the Bethel Association as a delegate from Main Saluda from 1794 to 1796. In late 1797 or 98, Joseph made his first trip to Mississippi to spread the Baptist faith. Records show that Joseph had first made the trip west of the Mississippi "in search of Willis Perkins," a Baptist who had settled there earlier.

Joseph Willis has been marked in the history books as the "First Baptist Preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ West of the Mississippi River."

By 1833 the Reverend Joseph Willis became pastor of Occupy Baptist Church near Pitkin, Louisiana. This is less than a half-mile from Tenmile Creek. 4 He served as pastor there for 16 years. It was also there that he married his last wife Elvy Sweat, who was many years younger than he. During this time a man named John Phillips recorded an affidavit from Joseph stating that his mother was a Cherokee Indian and his father was English. This affidavit was registered at the courthouse in Alexandria, Louisiana. 5

The Reverend Joseph Willis died on September 14, 1854. He is buried at Occupy Baptist Church cemetery.

Only three years after the death of Joseph, a wagon train from the east led by Alfred Mayo would arrive with more families of mixed-Indian blood. In South Carolina small settlements of mixed-Indian families had been commonly called "Red Bones", and this label apparently followed them west of the Mississippi. These intermarried with the Willis, Sweat, and Perkins families who were already settled, and the 'Red Bone' community of today was founded. 6

Aimuel Willis, youngest son of

Joseph Willis

1. At the time this Bill was passed, a "Mulatto" was legally described as "a person of Negro or Indian blood to the fourth degree."

2. Recorded on the 1790 federal census as a family of "All other free persons."

3. Again here recorded as "other free persons."

4. The areas of Pitkin and Tenmile are the home of the "Red Bone" settlements.

5. In Louisiana records, the Willis family is recorded as "free persons of color" and "mulatto."

6. The histories of the Red Bones record that this wagon train "headed by Alfred Mayo left Georgia", however, Alfred had been living in Holmes County, Florida since at least 1830, and was still present there on the 1850 federal census.

Copyright ©2005, Steven Pony Hill, all rights reserved.

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Copyright ©2005, Steven Pony Hill, all rights reserved. this document is copyrighted and may not be sold, nor given to anyone who may attempt to derive profit from same, without written permission of the author.