Harrison, Willis L. (1831–1912)

By: Corin Michelle Sowers

Type: Biography

Published: January 30, 2021

Updated: January 30, 2021

Willis L. Harrison (often mistakenly listed as “William”), surgeon, preacher, and state senator, was born to Thomas Trussell Harrison and Elizabeth (Wells) Harrison in Lauderdale County, Alabama, on November 5, 1831. On March 23, 1850, Harrison married Lydia Biggs in Clark County, Arkansas. They raised six children. Harrison became a medical doctor. He joined the Confederate army in 1862 and served as an assistant surgeon in Company D of the Twenty-eighth Texas Calvary. In 1863 he was detached to serve in this capacity at Pine Bluff, Arkansas. By 1870 Harrison and his wife moved to Coryell County, Texas. They settled in the town of Troy in Bell County by 1880. Harrison married his second wife, Catherine (or Katherine) “Katie” E. Wood, in McLennan County, Texas, in 1883 after Lydia’s death in March of that year. Harrison had four children by his second wife.

Harrison continued to practice medicine until 1876. The following year, he became a Disciples of Christ minister. As a preacher, he served as the president of the Texas Christian Lectureship. In the 1870s Harrison served as the first pastor of the First Christian Church in Comanche Springs in McLennan County; shortly thereafter the congregation moved to nearby McGregor. Harrison wrote a sermon on repentance that was published in Laurence W. Scott’s 1888 Texas Pulpit by Christian Preachers.

In 1894 the voters of District 27, composed of Bell, Bosque, Coryell, Hamilton, and Lampasas counties, elected Harrison as a member of the People’s (or Populist) party to the Texas Senate. He was one of only two Texas Populists to hold a seat in the Senate. In the Twenty-fourth legislature (1895–97) he served on the following committees: Agricultural Affairs, Counties and County Boundaries, Federal Relations, Frontier Protection, General Land Office, Labor, Penitentiaries, Private Land Claims, Public Health, Public Printing, Roads and Bridges, State Affairs, and State Asylums. During this term, he introduced a bill, written by Populist leader Thomas L. Nugent, to regulate building and loan associations. The bill did not pass. Harrison introduced a bill to raise the age of consent from twelve to eighteen. This proposal was advanced by a statewide petition campaign on the part of thousands of Texas women. The bill was controversial, in part because it seemed, in the eyes of many Democrats, to undermine the authority of patriarchs by relegating to the state the traditional, masculine responsibility of guarding the virtue of young women in their households. Harrison’s bill finally passed, but only after the age was lowered to fifteen. During that same session, he was also a delegate to the 1896 Texas Populist congressional convention.

In the Twenty-fifth Texas Legislature (1897–99), Harrison served on the following committees: Agricultural Affairs; Claims and Accounts; Counties and County Boundaries; Federal Relations; Frontier Protection; Insurance, Statistics and History; Public Health; Roads, Bridges and Ferries; and State Asylums. He introduced seven bills. One involved the donation of land to the Christian Church of Austin, now called Central Christian Church. Two would have amended statutes concerning prohibition. None passed.

In 1898 Harrison again ran for a seat in the Texas Senate. By then the Populist party was on the decline, and Harrison lost to the Democratic candidate, Daniel Edwin Patterson. He remained politically active, though he never held public office again. In 1901 Harrison presided over the first meeting of the Texas Anti-Saloon League, a prohibitionist organization. In 1904 the Texas Prohibition party nominated him for associate judge on the Court of Criminal Appeals. He earned less than two percent of the vote.

The Fort Worth Gazette, a Democratic newspaper, described the surgeon-turned-minister-turned-politician as “an affable gentleman and liberal in his views, unlike the majority of preacher politicians.” Harrison claimed “Morals above money” as his personal motto. Willis L. Harrison died at the age of eighty-three in his home in Troy, Texas, on February 14, 1915. He was buried with Masonic honors in Hillcrest Cemetery in Temple.

Gregg Cantrell, The People’s Revolt: Texas Populists and the Roots of American Liberalism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2020). Legislative Reference Library of Texas: Senate Journal, 24th Legislature, Regular Session (https://lrl.texas.gov/scanned/Senatejournals/24/S_24_0.pdf), accessed January 26, 2021. Legislative Reference Library of Texas: Senate Journal, 25th Legislature, Regular Session (https://lrl.texas.gov/scanned/Senatejournals/25/S_25_0.pdf), accessed January 26, 2021. Legislative Reference Library of Texas: William L. Harrison (https://lrl.texas.gov/legeLeaders/members/memberDisplay.cfm?memberID=3481&searchparams=chamber=~city=~countyID=0~RcountyID=~district=~first=~gender=~last=harrison~leaderNote=~leg=~party=~roleDesc=~Committee= ), accessed January 26, 2021. E. H. Loughery, Texas State Government: Biographical Sketches and Passing Comment (Austin: McLeod & Jackson Printers, 1897).

  • Health and Medicine
  • Physicians and Surgeons
  • Military Physicians and Surgeons and Military Nurses
  • Military
  • Confederate Military
  • Politics and Government
  • Government Officials
  • Senate
  • State Legislators
  • Twenty-fifth Legislature (1897)
  • Twenty-fourth Legislature (1895)
  • Religion
  • Christian Church
Time Periods:
  • Civil War
  • Reconstruction
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
  • Progressive Era
  • Central Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Corin Michelle Sowers, “Harrison, Willis L.,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 30, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/harrison-willis-l.

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January 30, 2021
January 30, 2021

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