Did you have a sibling a grade or two ahead of you who made straight “A’s” and was well-beloved by teachers? Not much fun following in her wake, was it?
That’s how I feel about my great-great grandfather, Dr. Henry Fisher Willis. I’ve researched him ad nauseam, looking for the inevitable hint of horse thievery, Civil War desertion, or other juicy story in his background. But no. The man was apparently a saint, a devoted husband and father, a leader in the community, and a church trustee. All I have for him is just one sainted fact after another. No juicy stories, or really any story at all.
So be it. I’m writing an article about him anyway for my Willis family and any other Willis researchers who might find some helpful information here. It mostly will be a litany of facts, which is like what we call “Aggie counting” in Texas — one, and then another one, and then another one.
First, the Basics
Henry was born on 22 Apr 1831 near Friendship in Caroline County, Maryland, a settlement about ten miles north of Preston. He was the eldest of seven sons of Zachariah Willis of Caroline County and Mary Broome Fisher of Marsh(y) Hope, Delaware. Zachariah farmed his father’s old homestead until he was almost 87. However, Henry got his fill of farming much earlier. He went to school during the winter months and worked on the farm the rest of the year until age fifteen. He then gave up school entirely to work on the farm, but continued self-study. In 1850, he quit farming, began teaching in a country school, and studied medicine as well. Ultimately, Henry left to attend medical school and graduated from Philadelphia College of Medicine in 1854.
Henry’s medical degree has a good story. In the 1960s, my father inherited a large china cabinet. Rattling around in the bottom of the cabinet was a handcrafted metal tube about eighteen inches tall. Inside were a diploma and a license to practice medicine, each more than a century old. The diploma from the Philadelphia College of Medicine, written in Latin, named the recipient “Henricum F. Willis.” What a treasure!
Dr. Willis Opens his Practice in Delaware
Henry did not return to Maryland upon graduation. Instead, he became licensed in Delaware in July 1854 and began his practice in Millsboro, Sussex County, Delaware, some forty miles east of his childhood home. Why, you might ask? The 1860 census provides an economic explanation.
In 1860, almost 30,000 residents lived in Sussex County, nearly three times the population of Caroline County. Further, with 2,475 residents, Millsboro was the largest town in its county and had only one doctor. In contrast, only 440 lived near Preston, but the town already had two doctors. Clearly, Millsboro presented a greater opportunity for establishing a successful practice.
Henry’s choice is supported by an 1867 gazetteer, which describes other small towns in Caroline County as “post villages.” It tabulates the number of churches, stores, carpenters, and doctors followed by a list of businesses in the community. However, its entry for Preston is only six words – “A post office in Caroline County.” No listing of businesses or churches. Preston was apparently little more than a crossroads.
Dr. Henry Willis was undoubtedly busy in Millsboro, but he kept ties to his home county. He made the all-day, forty-mile trip to Maryland frequently enough to successfully court a young woman. On 19 Apr 1856, he married Emily Rumbold Patton, the daughter of Zachariah’s neighbors Matthew and Martha Rumbold Patton. Henry and Emily undoubtedly had known each other for years. John Isler’s 1875 map of Caroline County shows the proximity of lands owned by the Pattons and Willises. Both families attended the Friendship Methodist Episcopal Church at the crossroads south of their homes.
Although living out of state, Henry invested both time and money in Caroline County. In late 1857, he and his wife Emily spent $1,000 to purchase eight acres of land in Preston. The land had been owned and was still occupied by Henry’s cousin Richard Willis. The land had been sold in a sheriff’s auction to satisfy a judgment. The auction buyers were Richard’s wife Mary Jane Bailey Willis and John Rumbold. Rumbold was Emily Willis’s grandfather and the source of funds to buy the property. Henry and Emily bought the land from her grandfather and Mary Jane Willis, and sold it less than a year later.
After five years in practice, Dr. Willis was elected Vice President of the Medical Society of Delaware for the 1859-60.Henry and Emily appear in the 1860 Census in Millsboro with two young daughters, Cora and Mary. According to the census, their first child was born in Maryland, and the second in Delaware.
A Return to Caroline County
The family’s good fortune in Millsboro did not continue. In about 1861, Henry contracted malaria and abandoned his practice, returning to Caroline County to regain his health. In 1862, he took over the practice of Dr. Edwin E. Atkinson, who had joined the Union Army as a surgeon. Henry became the only doctor in Preston when Dr. Andrew Stafford also left for the war. As the lone doctor in Preston, Henry was successful. However, he was not immune to personal tragedy. About a year after taking up residency in Preston, Henry’s and Emily’s third child, an infant daughter, Emma Patton Willis, died.
Henry and Emily Willis soon became prominent members of the Preston community. In 1867, they bought 33 acres of land adjoining the village of Preston. Prior to the purchase, they probably rented a house on the property. They subsequently added a two story wing and a kitchen to the original structure. In 1872, the Willises also purchased farm acreage southwest of town. The land was part of a tract called Poplar Grove. It is located on Marsh Creek, where Willis ancestors once owned land. The family gained more property in 1883 when Emily inherited from her father half the land called the “Rumbold Farm.” By 1870, the Willis assets totaled $4,000 of real estate and $1,500 in personal property. In 1870, the family lived on Noble Avenue in Preston, Maryland with daughters Cora and Mary and a son, Henry. They named their son after his father and gave him a middle name – Noble – borrowed from another Preston family.
The Noble Name
Usually, a borrowed surname pops up after a marriage between two families. However, that is not the case here. There was no marriage between a Willis and a Noble until well after the birth of Henry Noble Willis. The name seems to have been adopted out of respect and friendship. The most likely family with whom the Willises had such a relationship is that of Twiford S. Noble. Mr. Noble was a decade older than Henry Willis and may have been a mentor. Both were trustees of Bethesda Methodist Episcopal (now United Methodist) Church in Preston and were possibly friends before that. When Twiford’s son Jacob graduated from medical school in 1876, Dr. Willis took him into his practice for a while before Jacob moved to Dorchester County and established his own practice. Whatever the reason for its adoption, the Willis family has used Noble as a first or middle name for five generations beginning with Henry Noble Willis.
Another Family Tragedy
The year 1875 began with another tragedy for the Willis family. Henry’s and Emily’s eldest daughter Cora had just turned eighteen and had become a teacher at Castle Hall school in the town of Goldsboro north of Denton, Caroline County. She was a boarder in the household of Dr. Alexander Hardcastle. She retired to her room the evening of February 3rd in apparent good health but was found the next morning dead of some unknown illness. Speculation reported in the newspapers said she possibly died of heart disease.
In 1875, Henry Willis was a member of the Building Committee of Bethesda Methodist that raised funds to erect the current church building. He also served for a time as a Judge in Caroline County’s Orphan Court, which has primary probate jurisdiction. That must have been a burden, since he resided in Preston but the court was in Denton, the county seat. During the 1880s, Willis was also a witness or executor for half a dozen wills made by people to whom he was not related, a sure indication of the community’s respect for him..
The Willis’s surviving daughter Mary wed Joshua B. Clark of Seaford, Delaware on 23 Jan 1878. A report of the wedding indicated J. B. Clark, of Seaford, Delaware, was Junior Editor of the Sussex County Index, presumably a local newspaper. By 1880, son Henry Noble had become the only child in the household. Young Henry followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a doctor and establishing a practice outside Caroline County — but that is another story.
As Dr. Willis began to age and his health deteriorated, he invited Dr. Jacob Noble back to Preston to join and then take over his practice. Dr. Henry F. Willis died 27 April 1890, five days after his 59th birthday. Bethesda United Methodist Church honors his life of contribution with a stained glass window dedicated to his memory.
Remarkably, despite his time on the Orphan’s Court, his being an executor or witness to numerous wills, his involvement with his father’s estate who died in December 1889, and knowing he was in bad enough health to invite Dr. Noble to take over his practice, Henry did not make a will. He died intestate.
Administration of his estate by his son Henry N. Willis and son-in-law Joshua B. Clark began in May 1890. Disposal of his real estate provides more information about the family into the 1900’s. Again, a story for another time.
 Tombstone, Bethesda Methodist Cemetery, Preston, Caroline County, Maryland, Henry F. Willis, MD, 22 Apr 1831 – 27 Apr 1890
 Jensen, Dr. Christian E., MD, Lives of Caroline County Maryland Physicians, 1774 – 1984, Printed by Baker Printing Company, Denton, Maryland, 1986, 189. Dr. Jensen described at a meeting of the Upper Shore Genealogical Society of Maryland the diligent research that went into his book. He accessed historical documents and interviewed people who had first-hand knowledge of the doctors. Having met Dr. Jensen (via Zoom) and listened to his presentation, I cite his work with a lot of confidence.
 Diploma from Philadelphia College of Medicine in possession of William Burke Willis of Travis County, Texas as of Nov 2023. Per the website of Philadelphia Architects and Builders, the Philadelphia College of Medicine occupied the Adelphi Building at 214-216 South 5th Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The building was erected in 1829-30. It was home to the Philadelphia Club 1834-35 and the Odd Fellows Club in 1845. The Philadelphia College of Medicine used the building from 1846-59 The building was altered in 1847 to add a Surgical Amphitheater. The website notes that the building was demolished but does not give a date.
 Original License to Practice Medicine, in possession of the author.
 Jensen, 189.
 1860 U S Census shows 29,615 total population of Sussex County, Delaware and 10,520 for Caroline County, Maryland.
 Id, Dr. John Martin in Millsboro, Sussex County; Dr. Edwin E. Atkinson and Dr. Andrew Stafford in Preston, Caroline County per the 1860 census.
 Geo. W. Hawes’ Maryland State Gazetteer and Business Directory, 1867-1868, Geo W. Hawes Publisher and Compiler, 45 West Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD, p 134, image 146 of 584, online at ancestry.com
 Such directories charged a fee to list a business. Possibly, the Gazetteer had not yet descended on Preston to sell its service. On the other hand, a sales rep might not have had much luck. The Preston region was highly rural with an agricultural economy. It would not make much sense for a business to pay a listing fee if everyone already knew how to find the general store at the crossroads and the carpenter and two doctors who lived just down the road.
 1850 Census for Caroline County, MD, Mathew Patton, 43, M, Farmer, Martha, 35; Robert, 16; Emily, 14; James B., 10; Lydia, 8; Hugh Grimes, 26, Laborer; and Lydia Patton, 69.
 Isler, John B, “Map of Caroline County, Maryland – 1875,” see link here. The map also shows other families connected to the Willises by marriage — Todd, Nichols, Cochran, Turner, and Covey – but those are stories for another article.
 Mitchell, 134. Richard was the son of Dorcas Willis and Joseph Willis, who were first cousins. Their grandfather was Richard Willis, Senior. Dorcas and Zachariah Willis, Henry’s father, were children of Richard Senior’s son Richard Junior. Joseph was the son of Richard Senior’s son Robert.
 Caroline County, Maryland, Deed Book CC: 614. The eight acre property was directly across the road from the Bethesda Methodist Episcopal Church and included two dwellings, an office, a smokehouse, and other outbuildings. It was not uncommon for relatives to purchase property at such auctions in order to keep the property in the family.
 Caroline County, Maryland Deed Book RJ 29:112. Dr. Willis paid $1,000 for the property and sold it ten months later for $1,200.
 Jensen, 189.
 1860 Federal Census, Sussex County, Delaware, Dagsboro Hundred, Millsboro Post Office, Household of Henry F. Willis, 29, M, Physician $500 Personal Property, E.R. [Emily] Willis, 24, F, Cora F. Willis, 2, F, Mary Willis, four months, F, born in Delaware, Martha Burton, 15, F, a Black servant.
 That might be an error; both might have been born in Delaware.
 Jensen, 189. No citation is given for this information. I cannot find a reference to any malaria outbreak during this period in Millsboro, but it was a common disease in the region.
 Id, and US Civil War Pension Index, see link here. From 1862 – 1864, Atkinson served as Surgeon US Volunteers, Asst Surgeon 4th Maryland Infantry, and Surgeon 2nd Eastern Shore Maryland Infantry. Filed Invalid Pension 23 Jun 1881 and Widow Pension 22 Apr 1891..
 US Civil War Pension Index, see link here. Dr. Stafford, however, did not join the medical corps. He organized a company of infantry and served as its captain for three years. Company E, 1st Eastern Shore Maryland Infantry, and then as Provost Marshall.
 Tombstone in Bethesda Methodist Cemetery, Emma P, daughter of Henry F & Emily P Willis died 6 Nov 1863 aged 10y 10m [GNW Note: the stated age is in error. Her age should be 10m 10d]
 Caroline County, Maryland Deed Book 32:425. Purchased from James Douglass.
 Mitchell, Dora, A History of the Preston Area in Lower Caroline County, Maryland, (Caroline County Historical Society, Inc., 2005), 196.
 Caroline County, Maryland Deed Book 34:643. 19 Sep 1872 – James E Douglass and wife Annie E sell for $625 to Dr. Henry F. Willis a tract of 67 acres on the east side of Poplar Road.
 In 1879, Willis sold the land under a mortgage (Deed Book 41:172) and got it back in 1882 when the debt went unpaid (Deed Book 45:372). It remained in his name at his death in 1890.
 Caroline County, Maryland Will Book B:573.
 1870 Federal Census, Caroline County, Maryland, 4th Enumeration District, Preston Post Office, Household of Henry F. Willis age 39 physician , Emely Willis age 34 Keeping House, Cora F. Willis age 12, Mary M. Willis age 10, Harry N. Willis age 4, Helen D Farguhason age 21 School Teacher, Caroline Chase age 45 Domestic Servant, Mathew Chase age 4, Abraham Camper age 14 Farm Laborer. The last three residents were Black. All residents were shown as born in Maryland.
 One Noble family was a Willis neighbor in the 1870 census, Isaac L. and his wife Mary E Noble. I have not found any relationship between the Willises and Isaac Noble.
 Email 13 Jun 2012 with Dr. Eric Cheezum, historian at Bethesda Methodist.
 Jensen, 118.
 These include Henry Noble Willis’s son Noble Sensor Willis, grandson Gary Noble Willis, great grandson Noble Sutherland Willis, and great-great grandson Christopher Noble Willis.
 Mitchell, 196.
 “Wilmington Daily Commercial,” 8 Feb 1875, page 4, online at newspapers.com
 1880 Federal Census, Caroline County, Maryland, 4th Enumeration District, Preston, H.F. Willis 49 Physician, Emmily [sic] Willis 44 Keeping House, Henry N. Willis 14 At School, Bessie Farguharson 24 Milliner, Mary Lake 45 Servant.
 Mitchell, 197.
 Caroline County Administrations Key, online at Family Search, 169. Widow Emily P. Willis and daughter Mary W. Clark renounced their right of administration. Letters of Administration granted to son Henry N. Willis and son-in-law Joshua B. Clark with bond of $5,000 and securities Jeremiah B. Fletcher and Robert Patton [GNW Note: Robert Patton is Emily’s brother].