Biography of Hon. Henry Montague Willis

Hon. Henry Montague Willis, San Bernardino, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, September 21. 1831. His ancestors were among the first English settlers of the colony of Virginia and Maryland prior to the Revolution. His father, Mr. Henry H. Willis, was a captain in the merchant marine, with whom the subject of this memoir made a number of voyages before he was twelve years of age, alternating between school and the sea. At the age of twelve he adopted a seafaring life, and during six years’ sailing the briny deep he visited the ports of the Mediterranean, England, France, Ireland, Rio Janeiro, Montevideo, Buenos Ayres, Pernambuco and Valparaiso, and rose by successive steps to full seaman, and finally to officer of the vessel.

While in Rio Janeiro in 1848 as second mate of the bark Helen M. Fiedler, a fleet of clippers arrived with the first passengers for the gold fields of California. This was the first intelligence received of the discovery of gold. One of the ships of this fleet being disabled, his vessel was chartered to carry a portion of her passengers to California; and loading with such cargo as was most appropriate for the market of San Francisco, the bark started on her voyage. June 28, 1849; the vessel anchored in San Francisco harbor, having touched only at Valparaiso for supplies. Soon after his arrival the young mariner purchased an interest in the pilot-boat Eclipse, and with his associates ran her up the Sacramento River with a cargo of freight and passengers; but being attacked by the chills and fever Mr. Willis abandoned this enterprise and took a position of first mate on the bark which had borne him to this coast, that was now chartered for Oregon. They reached Portland in about twenty days, took on a load of lumber, and on the return trip the captain, his father, fell ill, and the whole command devolved upon him, and he anchored the vessel safely in the bay and discharged her cargo in San Francisco in February 1850. His father died in San Francisco in May of that year.

Being seized with the gold fever young Willis started for the Mokelumne Hill mines, via Stockton. The rainy season came on and the floods carried away his dams and filled up his diggings, and he returned to Stockton, where he engaged in painting until prostrated with typhoid fever, from which he was restored through the tender nursing of his mother. To recover his somewhat depleted exchequer Mr. Willis invested all his means in the town of Pacific City, on Baker’s bay, Washington, then Oregon Territory. The speculation proved disastrous, and having little to do but hunt and fish, he and his partner, C. W. C. Russell, explored Shoal Water bay, and discovered the oyster beds which have made that bay famous. Securing enough of the bivalves to fill sixteen sacks, they employed Indians to carry them across the portage to Baker’s bay and shipped them thence to San Francisco. So eagerly were they sought after that a vessel was immediately chartered and sent to Shoal Water bay for a cargo of oysters. Thus these sixteen sacks laid the foundation for the oyster trade between that hay and San Francisco.

Business demanding his attention in San Francisco, Mr. Willis left the oyster enterprise to be conducted by Mr. Russell. From this time, 1851, until 1854, Judge Willis remained in the Pacific metropolis engaged in the dry-goods business on Sacramento Street. Being fond of study he prepared himself, unassisted, during these years, for college and the study of law. In 1854, in company with his friend, Hinton Rowan Helper, who was studying with a similar purpose, he left for the East,-he to enter college, and Helper to publish his first book, “The Land of Gold.” Until January 1, 1856, Judge Willis studied law at the college of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, under the tutorage of Judge Battel, of the Supreme Court, assisted by Hon. Sam. F. Phillips, and on the above date was admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of the State. After spending six months in the law office of Chauncy Shaefer in New York City, studying the codes the young barrister returned to San Francisco, arriving in June, just after the hanging of Casey and Cora by the vigilance committee.

Having already achieved more than a local reputation as a writer for the press, and having received a tempting offer as the chronicler of a three years’ cruising expedition in the South Seas, he was undecided whether to make literature or law his life-work, when he was appointed Prosecuting Attorney of San Francisco in the fall of 1856. He accepted, and the decisive step was taken. However he continued contributing articles to the columns of the Evening Bulletin for a number of years. He filled the office of prosecuting attorney until his removal to San Bernardino in 1858 to attend to some litigation growing out of the purchase of some land in the county, in which his mother was interested. While attending to this business he became engaged in farming and fruit-growing.

January 1, 1861, Judge Willis married Miss Amelia, daughter of Jerome M. Benson, an old citizen of the county. The same year he was chosen District Attorney of San Bernardino County, which office he resigned after holding for a few months. He rapidly rose to prominence in his profession and was employed in the courts of the county, involving land title or water rights. He won the first water suit in the county, known as the Cram right, thereby fixing a precedent and securing prosperity to the settlers in that part of the county.

In 1872 he took his seat on the bench as County Judge and filled that position continuously for eight years with marked ability and satisfaction to his constituents. The new State constitution abolished the office of county judge, and upon retiring from the bench Judge Willis resumed his position at the head of the San Bernardino County bar, and his large law practice. In the fall of 1886 he was elected Superior Judge, and honorably discharged the duties of that office from January 1887, to January, 1889. Since retiring from the bench he has continued in active law practice as the senior partner of the firm of Willis & Cole.

In 1868 he began to improve what is known as the Willis homestead in old San Bernardino, and being confident that artesian water could be obtained in this valley, he imported the first tools and sank the first well in the county. Not being successful on his farm, the tools were brought into San Bernardino, and soon pure liquid streams were flowing from wells bored by them within the city limits. He made another trial on his farm and was rewarded by an abundant flow of water at the depth of 410 feet. Over 1,500 fruit trees, citrus and deciduous, and 12,000 grape-vines, mostly planted by his own hand, were set out on his place, which, under careful cultivation and irrigated by the ever-flowing artesian streams, were prosperous and bearing many years before he disposed of the place in May, 1887. He also sold several pieces of city property that year, hut still retains a number, including the elegant dwelling he erected on Seventh street, between E and F streets, which he and his six children occupy, the wife and mother having died in August, 1889. His children are: Matilda, wife of Charles H. Condee; Amy, Carrie, wile of Chas. E. Paine, Birmingham, Alabama; Bessie, Jennie, Louisa and Henry M. Willis. He has buried four sons.

Judge Willis was one of the few to establish Odd Fellowship in the county, by organizing San Bernardino Lodge, No. 146, and he is also a member of other fraternal orders. He has always taken an active interest in pioneer matters, was a member of the State Pioneer Association when in San Francisco, and is a prominent member and corresponding secretary of the San Bernardino Society of Pioneers. In ante-bellum times, Judge Willis was politically a Douglas Democrat; during the war he was a stanch Union man, and since the war has resumed his old party affiliations. He is noted for his sociable, affable manners and his generous hospitality to his friends.



The Lewis Publishing Company. An Illustrated History of Southern California embracing the counties of San Diego San Bernardino Los Angeles and Orange and the peninsula of lower California. The Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. 1890.

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