John Willis Edmonds (26 April 1846–10 November 1914), newspaper publisher, was born in Accomack County and was the son of John Wharton Edmunds, a farmer, and his third wife, Tabitha A. Willis Nock Edmunds, who had been previously widowed. The family changed the spelling of its surname after his father died in 1852. Originally planning to assume responsibility for the family farm, Edmonds attended Maryland Agricultural College (later the University of Maryland) during the 1864–1865 academic term. He studied languages, history, moral philosophy, mathematics, and constitutional law at the University of Virginia from 1865 to 1867. In the latter year he took a job teaching at the Locustville Academy, an Accomack County preparatory school for boys and girls.

Edmonds returned to the University of Virginia for a single term in 1870 to study law. The Accomack County Court licensed him to practice on 30 October 1871. From 28 August 1872 until the following June he served as clerk for the township of Lee. In 1875 Edmonds began a four-year term as commonwealth's attorney for Accomack County. He did not run for reelection in 1879 but instead was a candidate that November to represent the county in the House of Delegates. Campaigning as a conservative and Funder who advocated paying in full the state's antebellum public debt, Edmonds received 1,485 votes, while his two competitors each polled fewer than 300 votes. During his single term he sat on the Committees on Banks, Currency and Commerce; on the Chesapeake and Its Tributaries; on Claims; and on Federal Relations and Resolutions. He did not seek reelection in 1881 and returned to his law practice.

On 30 June 1881 Edmonds and a partner began publishing the weekly Peninsula Enterprise at Accomac Court House (beginning in 1893 called Accomac). Edmonds bought out his partner early in 1882 and became the sole owner and editor of the newspaper. He simultaneously ran the paper and his law office until October 1885, when he closed his practice in favor of publishing. The Enterprise became the unofficial voice of the Democratic Party on the Eastern Shore.

Throughout his thirty-three years at the Enterprise, Edmonds supported public improvements that would benefit residents of the Eastern Shore. He called for better roads maintained with public funds rather than relying on the enforced labor of chain gangs. He often wrote about the ongoing conflicts between Virginia and Maryland over the rights to harvest oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, and he urged the state legislature to defend Virginia's watermen. Early in the twentieth century Edmonds encouraged residents to support an effort to establish a public library in Accomack County. His support of public school teachers in part led the governor in March 1908 to appoint him to the board of visitors of the State Normal and Industrial School for Women at Fredericksburg (later the University of Mary Washington).

In 1900 Edmonds expressed skepticism about the necessity of calling a convention to revise the state's constitution because he believed the expense was too great and that the same results could be obtained through legislation. Once the convention was underway in 1901, he noted that the changes it enacted would save Virginia a great deal of money through reduced expenses. He agreed with the convention's decision in 1902 to proclaim the constitution in effect rather than risk rejection in a referendum. Edmonds fully supported the new constitution, which effectively disenfranchised black voters. Long opposed to the equal involvement of African Americans in civic life, he described the idea of black and white students attending the same schools as "preposterous" and warned in 1889 that if white Democrats and Republicans were evenly divided in the General Assembly, African American legislators would hold the balance of power.

Edmonds expanded his reach beyond local and state issues. His skill at reporting the national news was tested when the assassination of President James A. Garfield occurred only days after he published his first issue. He strongly supported the country's entry into the Spanish-American War. In 1912 Edmonds opposed a constitutional amendment for the direct election of United States senators because he feared that federal oversight of voting would give power to black voters. In August 1914, just months before his death, he decried the war beginning to overrun Europe and called the possible human cost "too appalling for the imagination to dwell upon."

Edmonds married Mahalinda "May" Gunter, of Accomack County, on 8 November 1888. They had three sons and two daughters. John Willis Edmonds died at his home on 10 November 1914 after a short illness, probably a complication of diabetes. He was buried at Edge Hill Cemetery, in Accomac. His sons Alfred Benjamin Gunter Edmonds and John Willis Edmonds (1892–1977) took over the Peninsula Enterprise after his death and continued publishing the newspaper until its sale in 1964.

Sources Consulted:
MS biography (including birth date) by daughter-in-law Katharine Holland Spicer Edmonds (1976), other documents, and copy of a photograph provided by great-grandson John Willis Edmonds IV (2008), in Dictionary of Virginia Biography editorial files, Library of Virginia; Edmonds (Edmunds) family Bible records (1774–1938), Accession 24469b, Library of Virginia; Maryland Agricultural College Student Entrance Register, University of Maryland Archives, College Park, Md.; Accomack Co. Marriage License; Secretary of the Commonwealth, Election Records, 1776–1941, no. 14, Accession 26041, Library of Virginia; Accomac Court House Peninsula Enterprise, 6 Aug. 1887 (first quotation), 8 Aug. 1914 (second quotation); Death Certificate, Accomack Co., Bureau of Vital Statistics, Record Group 36, Library of Virginia; obituary and editorial tribute in Onancock Accomack News, 14 Nov. 1914; obituary in Accomac Peninsula Enterprise, 21 Nov. 1914.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Stephen A. Maguire.

How to cite this page:
Stephen A. Maguire,"John Willis Edmonds (1846–1914)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2015 (, accessed [today's date]).

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