Willis, Frank (ca. 1840–1894)

By: H. Allen Anderson

Type: Biography

Published: October 1, 1995

Frank Willis, attorney and judge, son of Benjamin Franklin Willis, was born at Alamo, Montgomery County, Indiana, about 1840. His family had been pioneers in that region. Frank's mother died early in his childhood, and he spent much of his youth working on the family farm near Crawfordsville with his numerous brothers and sisters. Lew Wallace and Senator Daniel W. Voorhees became Willis's two chief role models, and he spent much of his spare time at the county courthouse, where he heard legal proceedings. His first business venture was in photography, which he mastered with his brother S. H. Willis at Danville, Illinois. He also taught school near Alamo for a time. By much reading at home and in law offices, Willis succeeded in obtaining an attorney's license and began practicing law at Liberty, Kansas, in 1869. Later he moved to Independence, Kansas, where he served a term as district attorney and ran a drugstore. There he married Mary Eva Boles, daughter of Professor Newton Boles, on June 6, 1872. In 1875 Willis moved to Montague, Texas, where he formed a partnership with W. H. Grigsby, brother of J. M. Grigsby, later county judge of Ochiltree County. There Willis made several important contacts, including future congressman John H. Stephens. Willis's son Newton was born at Montague in 1879. In the spring of 1881 Governor Oran M. Roberts appointed Willis district judge of the newly formed Thirty-first Judicial District, which encompassed the unorganized counties of the Panhandle. Accordingly, Willis moved his family to Mobeetie and resided for a time in Henry Fleming's old rock house on Sweetwater Creek. There a second son, Frank, Jr., was born in 1882. Temple L. Houston, W. H. Woodman, James N. Browning, Benjamin M. Baker, and William B. Plemons were among Willis's colleagues in the Thirty-first District. During his ten-year administration, Willis saw the organization of Hall and Childress counties and the awarding of the disputed Greer County to Oklahoma. He became involved in the bitter controversy between Panhandle cattlemen and state authorities over the former's use of state lands without compensation. Because Willis sided with the cattlemen on this issue, the attorney general of Texas sought to impeach him. At the trial, held in Austin in 1887, Willis was said to have won acquittal by delivering a speech in his own defense; unfortunately, that address was not recorded verbatim. Willis subsequently was hailed as a hero by Wheeler County citizens. After retiring from the bench Willis opened a law office in Canadian and became the general attorney for the Panhandle and Santa Fe Railway. He died on August 5, 1894, after being stricken with paralysis, and was buried in Canadian. Subsequently, his sons also had distinguished legal careers, both serving as judges of the Eighty-Fourth Judicial District.

F. Stanley, Rodeo Town (Canadian, Texas) (Denver: World, 1953). Judge Newton P. Willis, "Biographical Sketch of Judge Frank Willis, Sr.," Panhandle-Plains Historical Review 3 (1930).


  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Politics and Government
  • Judges
  • Lawyers
  • General Law

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

H. Allen Anderson, “Willis, Frank,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 19, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/willis-frank.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

October 1, 1995