John Willis Ellis

32nd Governor of the State of North Carolina - 1859 to 1861

Date Born: November 23, 1820

Date Died: July 7, 1861

Place Born: Rowan County, NC

Place Buried: Old English Cemetery in Salisbury, NC

Residence: Rowan County, NC

Occupation: Lawyer


John Willis Ellis was born on November 23, 1820 in Rowan County, NC, the son of Anderson Ellis and Judith (Bailey) Ellis. He attended Randolph Macon College and then graduated from the University of North Carolina on June 3, 1841. He spent the following year studying law under Richmond Mumford Pearson at Mocksville. This was the forerunner of Pearson's famous law school begun in 1847 at his home, Richmond Hill, in Yadkin County. John Willis Ellis commenced the practice of law in Salisbury in July of 1842.

On 25 Aug. 1844, John Willis Ellis married Mary White, daughter of Philo and Nancy White of Salisbury, NC. They were married only a few weeks when she died of an unknown malady, possibly Typhoid Fever.

In 1844, John Willis Ellis was first elected as one of two men to represent Rowan County in the NC House of Commons of the:
- 65th General Assembly that met from 1844-1845
- 66th General Assembly that met from 1846-1847
- 67th General Assembly that met from 1848-1849 - resigned... because...

On December 16, 1848, John Willis Ellis was elected a judge of the Superior Court of North Carolina by the General Assembly. He retained this position until April 29, 1858, when he resigned after he was nominated by the Democrat Party for governor.

On August 11, 1858, John Willis Ellis married a second time, to Mary McKinley Daves, daughter of John P. Daves, in New Bern. They had two known children.

In the 1858 general election, John Willis Ellis was elected as the next Governor of North Carolina. He was elected to two two-year terms, and he served from January 1, 1859 until his death while in office. As the American Civil War was beginning, President Abraham Lincoln requested troops from North Carolina to quell the rebellion. Gov. Ellis replied, “I can be no party to this wicked violation of the laws of the country and to this war upon the liberties of a free people. You can get no troops from North Carolina.” Also at the start of the Civil War, Gov. John Willis Ellis ordered cadets from the North Carolina Military Academy to Raleigh, NC to serve as drill masters.

Gov. John Willis Ellis was vitally interested in internal improvements, especially in the completion of the navigation works on the Cape Fear and Deep rivers from Fayetteville to the coal fields in Chatham County. He also continued a progressive program of improving plank roads, navigation, turnpike roads, and the state's educational system.

Called into session by Gov. John Willis Ellis in his second term, on May 1, 1861, the NC General Assembly immediately passed a convention bill and authorized Gov. Ellis to send troops to Virginia at once to help defend that state. The convention called in Raleigh on May 20, 1861 unanimously adopted an ordinance of secession. Whereupon Gov. Ellis promptly telegraphed President Jefferson Davis the news.

In delicate health for some time, Gov. John Willis Ellis was compelled during the latter part of June of 1861 to journey to Red Sulphur Springs, VA, in an attempt to regain his strength. A few days later he died on July 7, 1861 and he was first buried in the family cemetery in Davidson County, NC. Sometime later, his remained were re-interred in the Old English Cemetery in Salisbury, NC.


John Willis Ellis (23 November 1820 -- 7 July 1861) was the Democratic governor of the U.S. state of North Carolina from 1859 to 1861.

Ellis studied law under Richmond Mumford Pearson, practiced law, and was elected to the North Carolina General Assembly from Rowan County. He served as a state superior court judge from 1848 to 1858. He was elected Governor in 1858 by a large majority over Duncan K. McRae, a Democrat supported by remnants of the Whig Party. Ellis was easily re-elected in 1860 over John Pool.

As the American Civil War was beginning, President Abraham Lincoln requested troops from North Carolina to quell the rebellion. Ellis replied, “I can be no party to this wicked violation of the laws of the country and to this war upon the liberties of a free people. You can get no troops from North Carolina.”

Shortly after North Carolina seceded from the union, Ellis died in office. The Speaker of the North Carolina Senate, Henry T. Clark, completed his term.


John Willis Ellis, governor of North Carolina, was born in Rowan County, NC on November 23, 1820. His education was attained at Randolph Macon College, and at the University of North Carolina, where he graduated in 1841. He went on to study law, and then established his legal career in Salisbury. Ellis first entered politics in 1843, serving as a delegate to the Democratic State Convention. He also served as a member of the NC House of Commons from 1844 to 1849; and was a NC Superior Court justice from 1848 to 1858. Ellis next secured the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, and was elected governor by a popular vote on August 5, 1858. He was re-elected to a second term in 1860. During his tenure, the state militia was restructured; internal improvements were advanced; and an 1861 secession convention was held that sanctioned North Carolina leaving the Union. While still in office, Governor John W. Ellis passed away on July 7, 1861. His final resting place was in the Old English Cemetery in Salisbury, NC.

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