History – Early Days

Are the names Joseph West, Dr. Henry Woodward, and Lord Ashley familiar to you? They should be, for Joseph West commanded three English ships that left England in order to establish a province less than one hundred miles from here. History tells us that upon arrival these early settlers happened upon Dr. Woodward, who had miraculously escaped from the Spaniards. The West-Woodward party landed on the western side of the Ashley River in April, 1670.

When the first United States census was taken in 1790 only the heads of the family households were listed. At the time of this first census, Williston was included in the Orangeburg Judicial District. In 1868 during the reconstruction which followed the Civil War, the South Carolina Constitution was revised; making districts into counties which created ‘Barnwell County.’ Aiken County was subsequently created by an Act of the General Assembly of South Carolina in March, 1871. Its area was comprised of territory taken from Barnwell, Edgefield, Lexington and Orangeburg Counties.These District and county lines have evolved through time, and for this reason, it is difficult to distinguish the clear origin of some families.

Robert Willis was born in the Edgefield Co. area of [then] Nighty-Six District in 1773. He married Keziah Watson, daughter of Revolutionary war Captain Michael Watson, from near Ridge Spring in 1795. With the invention of the cotton Gin patented in 1794, it became apparent that cotton would become the cash crop of the future. The sandy loam soil of Barnwell Co. offered land more suitable for cotton than the sandy clay soil of Edgefield Co. Early records show that Robert Willis purchased land in Barnwell Dist. [formally Orangeburg Dist] in 1817 & 1818. It appears that a daughter, Keziah Antoinette Willis was the first member of this Willis family born after the family moved into Barnwell Dist.

Robert and Keziah Willis had thirteen children. Robert Willis (1773-1844) and wife Keziah (1780-1845), son John Turner (1799-1844),daughter Cyrena Willis Perry (1815-1835), Daughter Martha (1804-1875) and her husband William F. Matthews were buried in the family cemetery five miles from Williston, just West off Springfield Road, a short distance from the original Willis home ‘Wildwood’. The oldest grave in the cemetery is Cyrena’s, who was not quite twenty-one when she died. Grave Markers for Robert, Keziah, and John Turner Willis were relocated in more recent times, to the Williston Cemetery.

Robert Willis became very prosperous and was well known as a planter. His property was divided among his wife and children at his death and it is probable that the lands previously owned by his predeceased son John Turner Willis, and property inherited by another son Elijah were later used for, a church, depot and school. ‘Willis Station’ was a whistle stop along the Charleston Hamburg rail line. ‘Willis-Town’ was so named in the Willis family honor.

Another interesting cemetery is the Smith cemetery. Many members of the Smith family were laid to rest in this cemetery located near their home place. The Smith house has long since vanished but the cemetery remains off north West Harley Rd). John Smith (1776-1855) and his wife, Linna Smith (1776-1855), lie buried there with their son J. Terrell (1822-1905) and his wife Martha (1826-1904).

Terrell and Martha Smith were childless, but had a great love for children. They were quite active in the effort made by the Williston community in 1891 to get the proposed Baptist Orphanage located here. Mr. Smith made a very generous offer trying to induce the trustees to vote for Williston and was very disappointed when Greenwood was chosen by the Association. However, within a few years they built a cottage for boys at Connie Maxwell which was named the J. Terrell Smith Cottage. Upon Mr. Smith’s death, he made provisions for a companion building for girls to be known as the Martha Smith Home. Also, he bequeathed the greater portion of his estate, which included the family cemetery, in trust for the institution. The only stipulation made was that the family cemetery should be maintained. The trustees of his estate united with the Connie Maxwell trustees in a friendly litigation where the court directed that the property be sold and monies realized reinvested. As a result, this profit afforded an opportunity for the erection of the Smith Industrial Building on the orphanage grounds.

Joshua Ashley (1791-1869), came to this area from Virginia. He bought a great deal of property and farmed extensively. As far as property ownership was concerned, it was said that ‘if Joshua Ashley din’t own it, Robert Willis did”. Ashley’s holdings included the Goose Pond tract which he purchased in 1833. It was here that many picnics, barbecues and horse races took place. These events attracted statewide interest. The annual Goose Pond Park Picnic Basket and Ball at Weathersbee Hall Brought the Well-to-do to Williston for well over an hundred years. Mr Robert A. Weathersbee and wife Estelle operated The Sunny South Hotel which offered a free Sample Room for ‘Drummers’. The Hotel was only a short walk from the train station on the unpaved Railroad Ave (E. Main St.).

The Ashley cemetery is located about three miles from Williston on the road to Barnwell, Nathan Stansell was the first Stansell to arrive in the Barnwell District. He was married in North Carolina in 1799 and had seven children, all born before he came to South Carolina in 1817. During the ensuing twelve months, he acquired fifteen hundred acres of land. In 1838 he bought a house and lot in the town of Williston. Nathan died in 1843 and the lot was sold in 1855 by his daughter-in-law. It was subsequently leased to persons who operated it as a hotel, and, possibly, the first hotel in Williston. Of the children of Nathan Stansell, Thomas and Arthur played an active part in the life of Williston and its environs.

The graves of Nathan and perhaps other members of his family have disappeared. The graves of Thomas (1807-1883) and his wife Sarah Amanda Lewis (1823-1873), a twenty year old son, and five infants are to be found about 300 yards off Elko Street, just past the Kelly-Edwards School.

Thomas Stansell planted lands lying between Williston and Elko, and during the 1830Õs he and one John P. Walker had an interest in a retail business in Williston.

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