Powhatan Ellis was born on 17 January 1790 to Josiah and Jane Ellis on their family homestead, Red Hill Farm, in Amherst County, Virginia. The youngest of eleven children, Powhatan received his name in recognition of the family’s descent from Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan.
Ellis attended Washington Academy (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia, in 1808 before moving on to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in 1809–10. During the War of 1812 he enlisted as a private in a Lynchburg, Virginia, rifle company and rose to the rank of captain. Military service brought Ellis into contact with Gen. Andrew Jackson, and the two men became lifelong friends. Ellis completed his education by studying law in 1813–14 at the College of William and Mary, was subsequently admitted to the bar, and began practicing in Lynchburg.
With letters of introduction from General Jackson to Mississippi governor David Holmes, Ellis and several other young men set out for the Mississippi Territory in 1816. Holmes commissioned Ellis as an attorney in Natchez on 20 August 1816. Ellis then decided to make his home in Wayne County. On 21 January 1818 the legislature selected Ellis to represent his district on the first Mississippi Supreme Court. During his lifetime, one of the towns in the growing district was named Ellisville in his honor.
Ellis served on the court for seven years and was described as popular, attentive, and patient even “with the most prosy speakers.” Ellis maintained a conservative judicial philosophy: in his view, even if some judicial opinions were “incorrect, it is better they should remain fixed and immutable than we should declare to the community, what may be the law of the land today, may be changed tomorrow.”
In 1825 Mississippi governor Walter Leake appointed Ellis to fill a vacancy in the US Senate, and he resigned from the Mississippi Supreme Court. He served until January 1826, when his successor was elected. In March 1827 he returned to the Senate after winning the election.
Ellis met and married Eliza Rebecca Winn of Washington, D.C. in 1831. Ellis left the Senate and on 14 July 1832 was appointed as a federal judge for Mississippi. The Ellises had a son, Powhatan Jr., and a daughter, Rebecca. Powhatan Jr. lived just two years, dying shortly after Rebecca’s birth in 1834. One year later Eliza Ellis also died.
On 5 January 1836 President Jackson appointed Ellis to serve as US chargé d’affaires in Mexico, a position he held until 1837, when the new president, Martin Van Buren, appointed Ellis to the post of minister plenipotentiary to Mexico, a highly sensitive job in light of the poor United States–Mexico relations as a consequence of the 1836 Texas Revolution. Ellis served in this post until 21 April 1842, when he returned to Mississippi and a private legal practice in the Wayne County area. He ultimately moved back to Virginia, where he died in Richmond on 18 March 1863.
- Frank E. Everett Jr., Federal Judges in Mississippi, 1818–1968 (1968)
- Federal Judicial Center, Biographical Directory of Federal Judges website, www.fjc.gov
- John Ray Skates Jr., A History of the Mississippi Supreme Court, 1817–1948 (1973)