Monday, March 29, 2010


Catherine Willis Gray Murat

In “The Supposed Portrait of Mary Washington” by Mrs. Roger A. Pryor, written in 1903, you can learn way more about this family than you ever cared to know. I stumbled upon the Pensacola link and decided to explore this further. Most of the following is excerpted from the book to preserve the vintage text and gossipy nature of the author.

The widow Mildred Washington Gregory, who was George Washington's aunt and godmother, married Henry Willis in Fredericksburg, Va. Her three charming girls by her first husband, Roger Gregory, were prominent figures as they trod the streets of old Fredericksburg, the streets named after the Royal Princes, clad in their long cloaks and gypsy bonnets tied under their chins. They were soon absorbed by a trio of Thorntons, and their mother Mildred was left alone with her one son, Lewis Willis.

Old Henry Willis, the boy’s father, had married three times, boasting that he “had courted his wives as maids and married them as widows." He was a rich old fellow with a long pedigree and gorgeous coat of arms on his coach panels. Mildred Gregory had wept so bitterly when the death of his first wife was announced to her that a friend expressed surprise.

“Mildred Willis," she explained, "was my namesake and cousin, and I grieve to lose her. But that is not the worst of it! I am perfectly sure old Henry Willis will soon be coming down to see me -- and I don't know what in the world I can do with him!”

Would it be sinister to suggest that the lady was already won? It appears she knew her man. Had he not been her suitor in her girlhood? His grandson says, "In one little month, he sat himself at her door and commenced a regular siege: and in less than two months after his wife's death, he married her."

Through the Willis family, Mary Washington's descendants became allied to the Bonapartes. The second child of Byrd C. Willis (son of Lewis Willis) was Catherine. Her mother was the daughter of George Lewis, the son of George Washington’s sister Betty Washington. Thus George Washington’s mother, Mary Washington, was ancestress of Catherine Willis, who at thirteen years of age married, and at fourteen was a widow, having lost also her child. She accompanied her parents to Pensacola, where she married Achille Murat, ex-prince of Naples and nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. She was very beautiful, this child twice married and a mother before she was fifteen.

The Murat and Bonaparte families at first opposed the marriage, but all opposition vanished when they learned that she was nearly related to General Washington.

It is said that she was well received abroad: "In London she stood up for her country and fought its battles in all companies." She was once accompanied by John Randolph of Roanoke and other distinguished personages on a visit to the London art galleries. In one of these, the portraits of Washington and Napoleon hung side by side, and Randolph (who was always dramatic), pointing to the pictures, said, "Before us we have Napoleon and Washington, one the founder of a mighty Empire, the other of a great Republic." Then turning to Catherine with extended hand, he exlaimed, "Behold! In the Princess Murat, the niece of both, a distinction which she alone can claim."

As it turns out, the mother of Catherine Willis Murat, whose name is Mary W. Willis, is buried in St. John’s Cemetery in Pensacola at Lot 23, Section 19, Block 2 North. She connects to George Washington through his sister Betty, as delineated earlier. Her life in Pensacola is well documented by her great-great grandson, Col. George Willis Tate at

Tate writes in part:
Wife of Pensacola brickmaker Colonel Byrd Charles Willis, Mary W. Willis arrived in Pensacola from her home in Virginia, by way of Tallahassee, in 1825. Her husband was a Pensacola brickmaker who also served as agent of President Andrew Jackson at the Pensacola Navy Yard. His title of Colonel derives from appointment in the Florida Militia. Family genealogical records always identified Mary W. Willis's burial here in a private family plot, but a new look at some old material confirms that Betty Washington's granddaughter and the mother of a princess of France is in fact buried in our St. John's Cemetery.

Pensacola's Mary W. Willis, grandniece of the esteemed George Washington, died here in a yellow fever year on October 7, 1834. At her death, the Pensacola Gazette eulogized that "We have lost a friend and the city has lost one of its brightest ornaments, a lady the center of social attraction, one whose place will not soon be filled." The Gazette went on to lament that the scourge of yellow fever, whose source was not yet understood to be Pensacola's prodigious mosquitoes, had taken her life. "If her life alone could have been saved by preventive measures, they would have been cheap at thousands of dollars."

Two of Mary Willis’ sons are also buried in St. John’s Cemetery, George Willis and Dr. Lewis Willis. Reportedly, some of the brick at Old Christ Church in Historic Seville, Pensacola, was Willis brick.

Tate concludes his report with:

In addition to descent from the Washington family, Mary W. Willis's family was connected to the Bonaparte empire in France. Her daughter Catherine married Charles Louis Napoleon Achille Murat, Crown Prince of Naples and son of Emperor Napoleon I's sister Caroline. Achille Murat's father was Napoleon's greatest cavalry commander, Marshal of the Empire, Grand Duke of Berg and Cleves, and King of Naples, Joachim Murat. Tchaikovsky's famous "1812 Overture" was written to commemorate Murat's thundering cavalry charge at the Battle of Borodino.

After her husband's death, Catherine Willis Murat, daughter of Pensacola's Mary W. Willis, was recalled to France from frontier Florida by Emperor Napoleon III and made a Princess of France. She returned to Tallahassee where she lived out her years, and is buried beside her prince in Tallahassee's St. John's Cemetery. Her simple wood-frame home has been relocated from its original site to the grounds of Tallahassee's Museum of History and Natural Science, a far cry from the glittering palaces of France.

Regarding the Princess Murat, L.M. Blackford of Alexandria, Va., wrote a letter to the New York Times that was published on April 23, 1898. Please note that in his letter, he is referring to the book by Mrs. Pryor, referenced in a Times article in its Saturday Review dated March 26, 1898:

Comment and Query. Achille Murat, Again.
To the editor of The New York Times:
The letters published on the 9th inst. in your Saturday Review of Books and Art in regard to the American wife of the Prince of Naples, Achille Murat, are highly interesting, and in the main correct. Some additional points of interest, particularly in regard to her family and her relationship to Washington, may be added.
Catherine Daingerfield Willis, afterward Princess Murat, born in 1803, was the eldest daughter of Col. Byrd Charles Willis (not Bird Willis) of Willis Hill (not Hall), near Fredericksburg, Va. She married at thirteen Atcheson Gray of Stafford County, opposite Fredericksburg, who lived less than a year. The only child of this marriage died in infancy. The Widow Gray became on July 30, 1826, the wife of Achille Murat, who died in Florida in 1847, and survived him more than twenty years. There was never any issue of this marriage.
Col. Byrd C. Willis, born in 1781, was the son of Lewis Willis, who was the son of Col. Henry Willis of Willis Hill, by his third and last wife, Mildred Washington, the aunt of Gen. George Washington, being her only son. Lewis Willis was the first cousin and schoolmate of Washington, who was but two years his senior. He spoke often of his illustrious kinsman’s “industry and assiduity at school as remarkable. While his brother and other boys were at bandy or other games in play hours, he was behind the door, ciphering.”
Col. Byrd C. Willis at nineteen married Mary Willis Lewis, daughter of Major George Lewis of Marmion, son of Col. Fielding Lewis, whose wife, Betty Washington, was a sister of Gen. George Washington.
Thus it will be seen that Catharine Murat was, through her mother, the great-great niece of Washington, and, on the father’s side, great-granddaughter of Washington’s first cousin.
These particulars are mainly drawn from a manuscript prepared at Pensacola, Fla., in 1834, by Byrd C. Willis, “intended only,” he says, “for the eyes of my own people and expressly for their gratification.” This paper is now in possession of John G. Williams, Esq., of Orange, Va., whose wife is Col. Willis’s granddaughter. Being myself a great-great nephew of Col. Willis, I write also of person knowledge.
L.M. Blackford, Alexandria, Va., April 20, 1898

Mrs. Pryor's book is online at: