The Birth of the Novels and the Play
And, the real-life connection between Joseph Willis, William Prince Ford, Solomon Northup, and James “Jim” Bowie.
As a child Randy Willis lived near Longleaf and Forest Hill, Louisiana. As a teenager, he would work cows with his family there on the open range, owned by lumber companies. Seven generations of his family have lived there, beginning with his 4th great-grandfather—Joseph Willis. He would often ride his horse through his family’s neighboring property, which was once William Prince Ford’s Wallfield Plantation, not realizing the significance of his ancestor’s connection to Solomon Northup and William Prince Ford.
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After writing the biography The Apostle to the Opelousas, Randy Willis got the idea for his novels Twice a Slave and Three Winds Blowing and the play Twice a Slave from his friend and fellow historian Dr. Sue Eakin. She contacted him after reading an article that mentioned he had obtained the Spring Hill Baptist Church minutes. The minutes had much information on two of its founders: Joseph Willis and William Prince Ford.
Ford had bought the slave Solomon Northup on June 23, 1841, in New Orleans. He immediately brought him to his Wallfield Plantation. Just forty-six days later, Joseph Willis and William Prince Ford founded Spring Hill Baptist Church, on August 8, 1841. Ford’s slaves attended the church too, which was the custom in pre-Civil War Louisiana.
The plantation was located on Hurricane Creek, a 1/4 mile east of present-day Forest Hill, Louisiana. It was located on the crest of a hill, on the Texas Road that ran along side a ridge. Northup called this area, in his book Twelve Years a Slave, “The Great Piney Woods.” Ford was also the headmaster of Spring Creek Academy located near his plantation and Spring Hill Baptist Church. It was there, in 1841, that Joseph Willis would live and entrust his diary to his protégé William Prince Ford, according to historian W.E. Paxton.
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Ford was not a Baptist preacher when he purchased Solomon Northup and the slave Eliza, a.k.a. Dradey, in 1841, as many books, articles, blogs, and the movie 12 Years a Slave have portrayed.
The first part of the Spring Hill Baptist Church minutes are written in Ford’s own handwriting since he was the first church secretary and also the first church clerk. The minutes reveal that on July 7, 1842, Ford was elected deacon. On December 11, 1842, Ford became the church treasurer, too. It was during the winter of 1842 that Ford sold a 60% share of Northup to John M. Tibeats. Ford’s remaining 40% was later conveyed to Edwin Epps, on April 9, 1843.
It was not until February 10, 1844, that Ford was ordained as a Baptist preacher. A year later, on April 12, 1845, Ford was excommunicated for “communing with the Campbellite Church at Cheneyville.” But, Ford’s later writings reveal that he remained close friends with his neighbor and mentor Joseph Willis.
Dr. Eakin asked Randy if he would help her with her research on William Prince Ford. He also lectured in her history classes, at Louisiana State University at Alexandria, on the subject.
Dr. Eakin wrote Randy Willis on March 7, 1984, “We had a wonderful experience dramatizing Northup and I think there could be a musical play on Joseph Willis. It seems to me it gets the message across far more quickly than routine written material.” She added, “a fictional novel based upon Joseph Willis’ life would be more interesting to the general public than a biography and would reach a greater audience.”
Dr. Sue Eakin and 12 Years a Slave
Dr. Eakin is best known for documenting, annotating, and reviving interest in Solomon Northup’s 1853 book Twelve Years a Slave. She, at the age of eighteen, rediscovered a long-forgotten copy of Solomon Northup’s book, on the shelves of a bookstore, near the LSU campus, in Baton Rouge. The bookstore owner sold it to her for only 25 cents.
In 2013, 12 Years a Slave won the Academy Award for Best Picture. In his acceptance speech for the honor, director Steve McQueen thanked Dr. Eakin: “I’d like to thank this amazing historian, Sue Eakin, whose life, she gave her life’s work to preserving Solomon’s book.”
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Joseph Willis and James “Jim” Bowie
Jim Bowie was a neighbor of Joseph Willis when they both lived near Bayou Chicot. Jim’s brother, Rezin Bowie, was a neighbor to Joseph’s eldest son Agerton Willis and eldest grandson, Daniel Hubbard Willis Sr., for four years (1824-1827) in the village of Bayou Boeuf. The name changed to Holmesville in 1834, and is located near present-day Eola. It was at Holmesville, on Bayou Boeuf, that Edwin Epps enslaved (1845-1853) Solomon Northup for the last eight years of his twelve year indenture. It was here that Joseph’s eldest son and Randy Willis’s 3rd great-grandfather Agerton Willis met and married Sophie Story.