Frank Demas was born in Kentucky in 1818. He was born into slavery, a system by which a person is forced to work without pay and doesn’t have freedom. His enslavers, people who enslave another person, worked in the shipping trade, and so did Frank. Frank had to load and unload ships that traveled along rivers from Kentucky to Pennsylvania.
In 1846, Frank Demas earned his freedom. He had a certificate of manumission to prove he was a free man. Manumission means to set free from slavery. There aren’t many documents that tell us what happened next. However, it is believed that Frank stayed in Kentucky to be near his wife, Mary, who was still enslaved. In 1850, Mary and Frank had a daughter named Mahala. Mary and Mahala soon escaped from slavery by traveling north on the Underground Railroad.
Once Mary and Mahala were safe, Frank Demas changed his name to Thomas Willis, probably to protect Mary and Malhala from being found. Together, they lived in Lenawee County in southern Michigan where Thomas worked on a farm. In 1859, Mary and Thomas had a second child, a baby boy named James.
By 1870, the Willis family lived in Mason, Michigan where Thomas worked on another farm. While in Mason, Thomas and Mary had two more children. Unfortunately, a short time after moving to Mason, Thomas Willis died. His family continued to live in the area for many years.