JONATHAN C. WILLIS. When in time to come the pioneer days of Southern Illinois are given thought with their roster of strong, sturdy men and brave hearted women, the name of the late Jonathan C. Willis, who died at Metropolis, February 26, 1911, will be among the first recalled. To have lived eighty-four useful, eventful years is not given to many, and to far fewer does the experience come to evolve from the chrysalis of an unlettered boy into the associate of generals, of governors and men who control the destinies of states and of nations. Such was the experience of Jonathan C. Willis, whose romantic life furnishes another illustration of the fact that the best efforts of the writer of fiction do not surpass the records of facts that are unveiled in every-day life.
Jonathan C. Willis was born in Sumner county, Tennessee, June 27, 1826. He was a son of Richard W. Willis, and a grandson of Captain Richard Willis, a North Carolina soldier of the Revolutionary war. The family is not only one of the original American families, but its connection with the Colonies runs back to the settlement of the two Carolinas. About 1667 it is said that seven brothers of this name came over from England and scattered themselves through Virginia and the Colonies, and some of the subsequent generations gave parentage to the Captain Willis mentioned as Revolutionary patriot in this sketch. Richard W. Willis settled in Gallatin county when he brought his family to Illinois. There he is believed to have passed away, and there his son, Jonathan C. grew to be a youth of eleven years. The mother was Catherine Brigham Willis. The boy did not get much education, as he took up the work of a man at the age of seventeen, engaging in commerce on the Ohio river.
In 1843 Jonathan C. Willis located at Golconda, Illinois. He had been ten years a resident of the state at that time, and the next nine years he followed the river, operating flatboats, which constituted the principal means of conveyance for heavy freight transmission at that time. The extensive acquaintance that he cultivated during these years encouraged him to enter politics, and he became a candidate for sheriff of Pope county. He was elected in 1852 and again in 1856. In 1859 he removed to Massac county and resumed traffic on the river as wharfboatman at Metropolis, continuing in this until his enlistment for service in the Union army. He volunteered in the Forty-eighth Infantry, under Colonel Duff Heney, and was made regimental quartermaster. His war record was characterized by brave and faithful service, In the campaign around Fort Donelson he was severely injured, being thrown from his horse, and on this account was furloughed home for recuperation. While recovering from his injuries he was appointed deputy provost marshal and continued in the military service until the end of the war.
Many of the lately returned veterans were proffered posts of public service by their grateful people, and soon after the war closed Mr. Willis was induced to re-enter politics. In 1868 he was elected a member of the lower house of the Illinois General Assembly. The following year General Grant, who was then president, appointed him collector of revenue for the Thirteenth Illinois District, and he remained in that important
post for fourteen years. On leaving the federal service he was called upon to serve the people of his home county, who elected him county commissioner in 1883, and county judge in 1886. Governor Joseph Fifer in 1891 attached him to the state service by appointing him a member of the Board of Railroad and Warehouse Commissioners. In 1900 he received the federal appointment of supervisor of the census for the sixteenth district of Illinois, his last official service.
These activities abroad did not preclude Mr. Willis taking an active interest in affairs of his home town. He was elected mayor of Metropolis in 1871. He was senior member of the firm known as the Empire Milling Company, located at Metropolis; he was a stockholder of the City National Bank; and for ten years prior to his death was vice president of the Ohio River Improvement Association. He was a past master in Masonry, and a member of the Chapter and Commandery.
His wife was Miss Fannie E. Ward, daughter of Jacob Ward, whose parents came from the neighborhood of Enniscorthy, Wexford county, Ireland. The marriage of Mr. Willis and Miss Ward took place on February 16, 1859, at Raleigh, Kentucky. Five children were born to them: Richard W. and Mrs. J. C. Courtney, of Metropolis; Thomas E., of East St. Louis; John G., of Chicago; and Jay C., who is carrying on the coal business, at Metropolis, of himself and his father, and which was established by the latter after his retirement from his prolonged public service.
Jonathan C. Willis lived among and had an intimate acquaintance with Illinois men of a strenuous and eventful age, the formative period of the state. He became acquainted with General John A. Logan when they were young men at county fairs and race track meets. They rode races against each other, and their acquaintance and friendship continued all through the notable later career of the general. He knew General Grant personally, and was a close associate of the first Richard Yates, Illinois' war-time governor. His friendly intimacy with General John M. Palmer and with other historic men of the state made famous by the incidents of the Civil war, is a matter of gratification to the home friends of Mr. Willis. His vigorous body and brain were exponents of the right living and right thinking of the early times, and he reaped his reward in the full measure of years that crowned his life, exceeding by sixteen the Biblical "three score and ten." Jonathan C. Willis used well those talents and attributes with which he was endowed. In his identification with the commerce, the business and the politics of Southern Illinois, he established a record of achievement that is worthy of the emulation of the ambitious youth of coming generations. A pioneer of pioneers, he lived to see the wonderful attainments of science and industry of our own day, and full of years and honors was summoned to the reward that awaits those who labor not in vain.