Richard Ellis, planter, jurist, and legislator, son of Ambrose and Cecilia (Stokes) Ellis, was born in the "Tidewater Section" (probably Lunenburg County) of Virginia, on February 14, 1781. After a common-school education he possibly attended college, but no record of attendance has survived. In any event, he studied law with the Richmond firm of Wirt and Wickham until 1806, when he was admitted to the Virginia bar and joined that law firm. Sometime between 1813 and 1817 Ellis left Virginia and settled at Huntsville, Madison County, and later at Tuscumbia, Franklin County, Alabama, where he established a plantation and continued the practice of law. Then, in 1818, he was elected one of two delegates to represent Franklin County at the Alabama Constitutional Convention. The next year saw him elected a judge of the Fourth Circuit Court of Alabama, an election that automatically made him an associate justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. During his tenure on the bench, Ellis had a reputation for firm administration and a rough manner that made him unpopular with the other members of the bar. In 1829 he helped to found and served on the first board of trustees of La Grange College in Franklin County, Alabama. The college had a Methodist connection, which may indicate that Ellis was a Methodist.
Ellis made his first trip to Texas in 1826 not as a colonist but in a futile effort to collect a debt from a Colonel Pettus. In December Stephen F. Austin induced him, along with James Kerr and James Cummings, to go to Nacogdoches in an unsuccessful effort to persuade Haden Edwards to abandon his revolt against the Mexican government. It was not until February 22, 1834, that Ellis moved his family and more than twenty-five slaves to Pecan Point in the disputed territory claimed by Mexico as part of Old Red River County and by the United States as part of Miller County, Arkansas. Ellis's land grant of 4,428.4 acres (one league and one labor) was located near Spanish Bluff in what became Bowie County, Texas. He established a considerable cotton plantation there and entertained lavishly at his elegant home.
Late in 1835 he was chosen by Miller and Sevier counties as a delegate to the Arkansas constitutional convention scheduled to meet at Little Rock on January 4, 1836. Ill health forced him to decline, and he resigned his seat by January 21, 1836. Near the end of the month he was selected as one of five delegates from around Pecan Point to the Texas constitutional convention scheduled to meet at Washington-on-the-Brazos on March 1, 1836 (see CONVENTION OF 1836).
As the convention opened Ellis was unanimously elected president. On March 2, 1836, he signed the Texas Declaration of Independence as president of the convention. Although some observers were critical of him as a presiding officer, the general verdict is that he had a good grasp of parliamentary procedure and that he presided with a remarkable degree of gentleness and urbanity. Most importantly, he held the convention together for the seventeen days needed to draft a constitution for the Republic of Texas. Between October 3, 1836, when he was first elected, and February 5, 1840, when he retired from public life, Ellis represented his district as a senator in the First, Second, Third, and Fourth congresses of the Republic of Texas.
On January 9, 1806, he married Mary West Dandridge, daughter of Nathaniel West and Sarah (Watson) Dandridge of Hanover County, Virginia. The bride was a second cousin of Martha Custis Washington and a first cousin of Dolly Madison. Richard and Mary Ellis had at least two children. An obituary printed in the Clarksville Northern Standard (see CLARKSVILLE STANDARD) reports that Ellis died at his home in Bowie County on December 20, 1846, at age sixty-five and states, "Judge Ellis came to his death suddenly by his clothes taking fire." He was buried in the family cemetery near New Boston, Texas, but in 1929 his remains and those of his wife, who died on October 2, 1837, were transferred to the State Cemetery in Austin. A son, Nathaniel Dandridge Ellis, also settled in Old Red River County and was granted a league and labor of land as the head of a household. Ellis County, formed in 1849, most probably was named in Richard Ellis's honor.