Henry Willis (1691-1740)

Willis was from Gloucester County and obtained a patent for land in Spotsylvania. When Fredericksburg was laid out in 1727 he became one of the trustees.  He was a key leader. Col. Byrd, when he visited Fredericksburg in 1732 spoke of him as the “Top man of the place.” People seemed to have differing opinions of him. In the book Some Prominent Virginia Families,  he was described as  “a stout coarse man, perhaps I should say a blunt man, more likely to succeed with the latter than the former.”    Richard Pickett writing for Rootsweb  called him  “a man of much means, liberal and hospitable, public spirited and charitable.”

He was awarded most of the early contracts in Fredericksburg so it is no surprise that under his leadership he built the first St. George’s Church. 

St. George’s was intended to be the main church in the northern part of the parish.  Although population had not moved in this direction, the official warehouse and inspection station was here.  The new church was a function of the improved economic position of Fredericksburg.  As Paula Felder, the predominant Colonial historian of Fredericksburg writes the new location was more favorable for landowners.

The vestry voted in March, 1732 to build a build church on lots in Fredericksburg.  A church already existed in Mattapony Church since 1725 and several key church leaders felt a better decision was to replace the existing church there.  Population was concentrated there. So the decision was made to build two churches!

At that time capital improvements were paid off in 3 years so Henry Willis was awarded the contract for 150,000 pounds of tobacco, paid annually. As Felder titles her chapter the “High Cost of Religion” was apparent as the decision for two churches caused the average levy per household to double!  Those who paid were males sixteen and old and all female slaves and indentured service sixteen and over. The head of household was responsible for paying all tithes incurred by household

Many books date St. George’s from 1732. That’s actually Willis’ contract. When the church was “complete” is open to conjecture based on the meaning of “complete”.  One definition is the date it was usable.  Barbara Willis, author “The Three Churches of St. George’s,” writes “The church was usable for services by the fall of 1734 and Suzanna Livings­ton of Fredericksburg was appointed sexton for the new Church by the Vestry at its fall meeting. That may not have been until 1735.   Another definition is  “complete” is when construction is finished. Willis says it was not complete in this definition until June 30, 1741.   

This late date may not be that unusual since Trip Wiggins in an article on Henry Willis states that he tended to be late on contract, and he was awarded most of them in Fredericksburg. A new courthouse promised by Willis in 1738 would not be completed until 1740. Significantly he was able to purchase land southwest of Fredericksburg which is still “Willis Hill” today.

Barbara Willis describes Henry Willis’ church “The specifications for the new church were specific. It was to be a frame building, 60′ x 24′, with ten windows 7′ x 3′ with shutters, pine floors, pews wainscoated and walls wainscoated the height of the pews, walls 14′ high, each gable end of the roof “hip’ted” and the roof to be covered with Cyprus shingles. The outside wall was to be “well tarr’d”, a process described by George Carrington Mason as a mixture of tar and turpentine with which the Church was painted. The building in its exterior shape must have been similar to Lamb’s Creek Church in King George County although it is brick and larger—80′ x 34′ with four­teen windows.”

“In 1753, an addition was added on the North side of St. George’s the full width and 32′ in length making a T-shaped building. A bell was given that year and a steeple added. In 1759, a gallery was erected in the West end of the Church