Caldwell and Willis: The San Francisco Connection

I grew up in central Washington State during the Second World War. Mountains formed my world; gas rationing limited it. A parade of soldiers passed through the nearby Firing Range, an outpost of Ft. Lewis; many young fellows in uniform spent Sunday afternoons around our dining-room table; they brought our wide-flung country to life. For me, the exotic other had to be, first, New York; then, Chicago; and finally California. Dreams rise out of such imaginings.

My father spoke vaguely of his relatives in California.  Though he seldom saw them, he liked them, that I knew, even though they seemed somehow different. They had names I didn’t often hear, like Florence and Kim Calley,  or Viola Moock, or a man with the first name of Willis. One of them had even gone to China as a Protestant missionary. Now, that presented a puzzle. Our branch of the family professed Catholicism. How did Protestantism figure in our story?  We followed the religion of Irish and German immigrants. From whence did these folk spring?

It took me years to disassemble the family pieces and then reassemble them with an answer.

“A fellow by the name of  Jawn” played a central role.  As a teenager he had immigrated from County Cork to the United States. After a brief respite in New York City, he booked passsage to San Francisco. There he settled, never to leave. He worked initially as a special policeman, then as a security guard. By 1856, at the age of twenty-two,  he became a naturalized American citizen.  On June 1, 1860 John C. Willis married another Irish immigrant, Margaret Jane Caldwell, a thirty-year-old native of County Down.

John C. Willis on a visit to Goldendale, Washington, about 1914.

Margaret and two of her brothers, Andrew and James, departed from Ireland for Philadelphia in the late 1840’s. The young men worked as weavers and lived together. She boarded separately, at four different places between 1850-1854. It appears that she set out for San Francisco after her brother Andrew married Martha Aikin in 1854, and James married Martha Wilson about the same time (the couple’s first born, Jane, arrived in 1856).  What led Margaret to seek out San Francisco, I can only speculate. The gold rush of  ’49 attracted thousands to its port. California had become a state in 1850. San Francisco itself would by 1870 be a thriving town of 500,000. If nothing else, California lured many hardy seekers as the land of possibilities. Then, it may simply have been that a relative or friend was heading west.

From the beginning, the home of John and Margaret acted as a magnet for their relatives, especially newcomers to a  city flooded with people needing housing and jobs.

When Andrew and Martha Caldwell arrived in San Francisco in 1861, they had two small children, James (6) and Jennie (3). Martha was also pregnant with another girl, Lida Ann, to be born that year.  They settled in at 719 Vallejo; the Willises occupied a place nearly next door,  at 716 Vallejo.

Andrew and Martha Aikin Caldwell

By 1864 John and Margaret had moved to 11 William. In that year James and Martha Caldwell appeared on the scene.  They had two girls and a boy: Jennie born in 1856, Sarah Ann born the next year, and James Andrew born in 1860. This family shared quarters with the Willises for three years. This made a sizable crowd, nine in all, as Margaret had given birth right off to Grace Jane on September 4, 1861 and to Robert John on June 11, 1862. One may wonder at the size and capacity of the house, let alone its monthly rental.  John Willis  worked as a security guard, James Caldwell as a plasterer, and his brother Andrew as a porter for William H. Keith Company:  blue collar positions at best.

As if nine were insufficient, more family descended upon the Willises at 11 William. First came his older brother Robert from New York. He brought with him a wife, Frances, and five children:  Anna (11), Mary (7), Gertrude (5),  Frances (3), and Robert (2), all born in New York.  Robert  supported his family by painting houses, an occupation he brought with him from the east.

Then tragedy struck the household of John’s sister, Grace, in New York.  Her husband, William Dowdell, a shoe saleman and only thirty-two, died. He left her with three youngsters:  Grace Anna (3), Mary Jane (2), and infant Maggie (1). Of course, there seemed to be only one decision available:  strike out for San Francisco to seek comfort and refuge and family with her brother John, wife Margaret, and their kids.  Once at home at 11 William, Grace helped with finances  by taking up commercial baking at Swain’s Bakery. Within six years she would own and run a shop of her own.

In  1864, therefore, four families divided the space at 11 William: John and Margaret Willis, James and Martha Caldwell, Robert and Frances Willis, and Grace Willis Dowdell. This accounts for seven adults. These families had at that moment thirteen children, four of grade school age, five able to play on their own, and four still in diapers. The dwelling that raises eyebrows over a gathering of nine, now shelters and houses and cares for twenty!

Life ebbed and flowed for this clan the rest of the 1860’s. Margaret Willis bore another boy in 1867, James Caldwell Willis, lost a stillborn child in 1869, and gave birth to Walter Wesley on November 25th the next year. Robert and Frances Willis added a sixth child,  John D. Willis, in 1866. This followed upon the death of Grace Dowdell’s youngest daughter, one-year-old Maggie, on January 14, 1865.  James and Martha Caldwell kept up the census by  adding two more children: Margaret Moffet in 1866, Eliza in 1877.

1969 introduced new tragedy.  Andrew Caldwell, only forty-six, died on May 15th. Still laboring as a porter, he had transferred his family to a house on Leavenworth Avenue. He left a bereaved wife and four young children (Martha had given him a second son, George, in 1864). Then five months later, on October 16th, Martha also passed away. She was forty-three; her children, now orphans, were fourteen, eleven, eight, and five.  John Willis relocated his family to 1716 Leavenworth Avenue,  perhaps to the home of Andrew’s children. He and Margaret took eleven-year-old Jennie Caldwell and her five-year-old brother, George, into their family. Over the years, the eldest child, James, would also sporadically dwell with them. John supported them all as a house painter, quite possibly in business with his brother Robert.

My father mentioned to me that the Willis family called Margaret Jane Caldwell, “Aunt Jennie,” a young girl raised as an older sister to his father. She would eventually marry, give birth to five children of her own. A life-long  San Franciscan, she died there in 1933 at the age of seventy-five.

Margaret Jane Caldwell as a Young Woman

Aunt Jennie Caldwell and her husband, William Kahn

Twenty-year-old Jennie kept an autograph book.  Various of her relatives signed it, adding a brief poem or reflection. Two entries underline the affection she held in the heart of her adopted family; one alerts us to yet another Caldwell uncle. 

























John Moffet Caldwell announced himself in San Francisco through this short piece in Jennie’s book. Since two brothers and a sister had been in the United States since 1850, I wondered as to his whereabouts over the last thirty or so years. I found out through a combination of federal census and military records.

John M. Caldwell appeared in the 1870 and 1880 censuses in Washington Township, Jefferson County, Pennsylvania. Born in Ireland about 1834, he married a woman from Pennsylvania, probably from this area. As his first born arrived there in 1861, he had married her by 1860. Although I cannot find him listed in the 1860 census, other Caldwells from Ireland in this township, including a James Sr. and a John, give a plausible reason for his presence there.

A quick glance at this John Caldwell’s children makes family origins clear. The Caldwell parents in Ireland were James Caldwell and Jane Moffet; he named one son James and one daughter Mary Jane.  One sister, Betty Ann, remained in Ireland; this couple gave the name Annie to their second daughter. Another sister Margaret Jane, as we have seen, married John Willis in 1860; John and Isabelle Caldwell in 1869 gave birth to Margaret and in 1878 to John Willis Caldwell.

Military records proved conclusive.  John M. Caldwell enlisted in Company C of the 211th Pennsylvania Volunteers on September 6, 1864. He joined up in Brookville, the  postal town for Washington Township in Jefferson County. The regiment formally organized on September 16th near Pittsburgh, Alleghany County.

History recounts two decisive battles in which the 211th participated. The first occurred during the drawn-out siege of Petersburg, Virginia, by Grant’s encircling forces.  In a desperate move to break the enemy stranglehold, Confederate General John Gordon ordered an attack upon  vulnerable Ft. Stedman. It succeeded beyond all expectations.

 Rebel Attack on Ft. Stedman, March 25, 1861

The attackers captured the installation, batteries to the the north and south of it, and 1,000 Union prisoners.

A divisional commander of the IX Corps, Major General Hartranft, gave the order to counterattack. Included in his forces were the 211th Pennsylvania Vounteers under the brigade command of Colonel Matthews. By 8:00 A.M., four hours after the initial rebel assault, Stedman was recaptured and the Confederate forces were reeling in full retreat, back to their original lines.

 Union Counterattack to Recapture Ft. Stedman

After ten months of siege, with estimated casualties of 42,000 Union besiegers and 28,000 Confederate defenders, the IX Corps on April 2nd shattered the rebel lines at Ft. Mahone. When the breakthrough held, the rebel positions around the city collapsed. Lee hustled his army westward, hoping to obtain needed supplies by railroad  near Farmville, and by it to escape to the south. In North Carolina he could meet up with Confederate forces under the command of General Joseph Johnson and prolong the war. His plan failed. He surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9th.

Company C of the 211th Pennsylvania Volunteers was mustered out at Fairfax, Virginia, on June 22nd.  John Moffet Caldwell’s military duties concluded after only nine months of service. But during the aformentioned battles,  he had suffered a gunshot wound to his thigh. Soon thereafter, back in Brookville, he became a naturalized American citizen, a status stoutly earned.

For the next fifteen years he labored as a farmer in Washington Township.  He and his wife also added six more children to their family, bringing the total to nine.

For reasons lost to us, John and Isabelle divorced in 1860. He abandoned Pennsylvania, and traveled west to San Francisco. Unsurprisingly, he boarded there with his sister, Margaret, her husband, John Willis, and family at their new home at 1227 Pacific Avenue. He worked, first, as a laborer for the Thomas Reid Company, and later, as a teamster. John Willis had now taken on the job that would occupy the rest of his working days: he delivered papers for the Morning Call.  It appears he had his own route, one which he shared with various family members over the years, until he retired in 1911 at the age of seventy-seven.

Now sixty, John M. Caldwell applied for his civil war pension. Within months he moved northward, to the Napa Valley town of Yountville. The Veterans Home of California accepted him on November 15, 1894. Its records indicate that he had been in California the previous fourteen years. He died at this facility on December 20, 1900. Sixty-six years old, he drowned in the nearby Napa River. He is buried in the Veterans Home cemetery.

The John Willis family moved to 1227 Pacific Avenue in 1871. They would dwell in that house until 1893. We have already seen that John M. Caldwell joined them in that home some time in 1880 through 1882 and perhaps longer.  His youngest sibling, Jane, had followed others of her family to San Francisco in 1875; like them, she also camped out with John and Margaret. As she married Robert G. Wignall on September 9, 1881 in San Francisco, she undoubtedly shared space with her brother John, sister Margaret and her husband, during 1880-1881. The four Willis children lived at home too:  Grace (b. 1861), Robert (b. 1862),  James (b. 1867), and Walter (b. 1870). Recall that at least two of Andrew Caldwell’s children,  Jennie (b. 1858) and George (b. 1864) were securely part of this family. Mirroring previous routine, the house  in those two years was bursting with four adults and six teenaged or older children.

The six Caldwell children, five of whom immigrated to the United States and made their way to San Francisco, were born to James Caldwell and Jane Moffet Caldwell in the Parish of Drumballyroney, Drumarkin Township, Barony of Dromore, County Down, Ireland. Extant birth and baptismal records for Margaret and Betty Ann show that the family attended the 1st Presbyterian Church in nearby Rathfriland, Parish of Drumgath. In addition, Betty Anne was married to John Cantley on January 2, 1861 in the Presbyterian Church of Hilltown, Parish of Drumgath. In Ireland the Caldwell family professed a Presbyterian form of Christianity.

In San Francisco John Willis joined the First Methodist Church.

First Methodist Church, San Francisco

Founded in 1847, it pre-dated any Presbyterian congregation in those sparce ante-goldrush days.  An official history of that church states: “So we must give to him [Annis Merrill] the honor of being the oldest member of First Church now living with us, and Sisters Clarke and Burke are the second and third oldest. Brother John Willis is the next oldest member, having joined September, 1857. . . Margaret Willis, September, 1960.” Note that John Willis became a naturalized citizen in San Francisco on August 22, 1856, and that John and Margaret wed there on June 1, 1860.

I don’t know if circumstances alone dictated the denominational choice or whether other factors–such as doctrine, the religous community, the preacher–entered into John and Margaret’s joining of this church. Whatever the reasons, they and much of their family became devoted and faithful members.

A history of the congregation for 1903  recorded the following: members–John Willis, Mrs. Margaret Willis, Mrs. Lizzie Willis (wife of James Willis), Michael Winter (husband of Grace Willis), and Mrs. Grace Winter; probationers–Viola and Willis Winter (children of Michael and Grace), and Irene Willis (child of James and Elizabeth). Moreover, John Willis is included in the congregation’s board of trustees:

lst Methodist Church, 1903, Trustees

 In a subsequent year both John Willis and Michael Winter served as trustees. At the same time John Willis held the office of treasurer.

Charles Edward Winter, oldest child of Michael and Grace Winter, offers the most noteworthy example of the family’s commitment to its church. After completing his seminary studies at the Boston University School of Theology in 1920, he was sent by the denomination to the Hinghwa Conference, near Foochow, Fukien, China.   “His mother [Grace Willis Winter] visited many missionaries departing for China, and sent messages to Charles through them. Once she sent a box of chocolates, which he loved, by Virginia Bachman, who was sent by the Women’s Board to the Hingwa Conference in 1923. Charles and Virginia were married on Kuliang Mountain near Foochow in August, 1930.”

The couple had three children:  Edward Monroe in 1932, Clara Jean in 1935, and James Michael in 1936. When war with Japan broke out in the Far East, Virginia departed by the USS Jefferson with her children for the United States. Charles remained in China where he served his congregation through the war years and under early Communist rule. He finally had to abandon China because the Party restricted his work.  He returned to the States in 1950. Back home, he served various congregations until his retirement from the regular ministry in 1962. Incapacitated by a hernia operation and a broken hip, Charles Winter died in Concord, California on January 9, 1975, bringing a conclusion to fifty-five years as a minister in the Methodist Church.



  1. 10000 Verified Forum Backlinks said,

    hello, love from finland. your post looks great. Mind if i quote it in my blog?

    • rjjwillis said,

      Hi, I’m happy if you appreciated the article on theCaldwells and Willis family in San Francisco. Are you somehow related to that family, or to that City? Of course, you may quote from it just as long as it is in the contexst of family research. Best regards,m Bob Willis

  2. Beryl Ingram said,

    I am a United Methodist clergywoman and on this Sunday we are celebrating All Saints. As I reflected on the saints of my childhood, Charles and Virginia Winter came to mind and I decided to Google them and up popped this article.
    I do not remember their sons, but I do remember Clara Jean. I think Virginia lived with her and her family after Rev. Winter died in 1975. They were marvelous people and I am grateful to God for their ministries in Jackson, California so many years ago. It was because of them that I chose, when I was ten years old, to be baptized. My life in the life of God is rich. I bless their memories.
    The Rev. Dr. Beryl A. Ingram, First United Methodist Church, Bellevue, WA

    • rjjwillis said,

      Dear Rev. Ingram.
      Thank you for your note about Charles and Virginia Winter. It’s nice to thiink of them as saints, especially if their holiness lives on in you and your ministry.

      I did not know them personally; I knew of them only through my father, Judge Robert J. Willis, II, of Yakima, Washington. His father, Robert J. Willis, I ,was born in San Francisco. His sister, Grace Jane, married Michael Winter, the parents of Charles Winter.

      The Willis family in San Francisco were among the oldest members of the first Methodist Church as were the Winters after Grace married Michael Winter. Both Michael Winter and Robert Willis, I ,were deacons of the congregation; Robert Willis was also a trustee of the congregation.

      Robert Willis, II, my father, married Elizabeth McKanna. Whereas the McKannas were from many generations of Catholics stretching back to their Irish beginnings in County Leitrim, the couple raised their children as Catholics. In Goldendale, Washington, where they lived, Robert Willis I, continued to practice his Methodist religion even though the rest of the family were practicing Catholics. My father, as with many families that have mixed religious affiliations, was a very stanch Catholic, almost like a new convert.

      I must share this event. For many years I directed a pastoral counseling center in West Hartford, Connecticut. One of my therapists, Rev. Tom Beveridge, was a Methodist minister. One time Tom asked me to fill in at Sunday services for him because of a family emergency. Even though I was raised a Catholic, I decided to do so, for Tom and out of memory of my grandfather.

      During the service, while the Scriptures for the day were being read, I suddenly had a palpable vision. I imagined my grandfather sitting on my right shoulder. He was smiling broadly and clapping. On my left shoulder I imagined my own father. He was frowning and shaking his finger at me. I laughingly shared this vision with the congregation during my remarks on the Scripture. As I remember, the Scripture for the day addressed the healing power of Christ. I trust that my father and grandfather, perhaps with the assistance of Charles and Virginia, are now happily together in Christ.

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