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Williams, William
(December 6, 1796–February 18, 1874)

–frontiersman—was born in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, but spent his adult life until he was 53 in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. He tried his hand at several business ventures. In each case the business failed, and he was left close to destitute. His real interests were less in business than in the military. At the age of 16, with his father's permission, he volunteered for the army during the War of 1812, but the war ended before his company could be called to duty. After the war, he applied unsuccessfully for admission to two military academies. He did, however, become a member of the Pennsylvania militia, rising to the rank of major, a title he used throughout his life.

    In 1842 Williams's first wife died, and his life changed. The bank with which he was associated closed, creating a cloud over his reputation. In 1848 he was tendered an offer to command a regiment in an Irish Republican scheme to invade Canada in support of the drive for Irish independence. In return for the commission, Williams was to organize six companies. He traveled throughout the Midwest seeking recruits. The scheme never came to fruition, and Williams, no longer employed and with few prospects in Pennsylvania, decided to try a new life in Iowa.

    Upon his arrival in Muscatine, he was contacted by military authorities who were to establish a military post on the upper Des Moines River. Too old at 53 to enlist as a soldier, he accepted, in 1850, the position of post sutler (civilian merchant) at Fort Dodge, a post that was not very lucrative but did hold promise of greater future opportunities on the rapidly growing frontier.

    When the troops abandoned the post in 1853, Williams, with financial assistance from Jesse Williams, a banker and land speculator from Fairfield, purchased the abandoned military reservation, organized the Fort Dodge Town Company, and platted the town.

    With the removal of the troops, Iowa Governor Stephen Hempstead appointed William Williams to represent the state in handling its relations with American Indians. In 1857 Williams organized the relief expedition following the Indian uprising at Spirit Lake. In 1862 he was again called upon to organize frontier defense after the Sioux uprising around New Ulm, Minnesota, and he established Fort Schuyler near the Minnesota border in Emmet County.

    Generally a highly respected man, Williams's reputation suffered during the Civil War because of his stand as a Peace Democrat in a state that was becoming strongly Republican. His reputation revived in the postwar period.

    Williams was not a typical frontiersman. Limited in formal education, he nevertheless was deeply interested in the cultural life of his community, promoting music, art, and literature. Never successful financially and with little desire to become involved politically, he still enjoyed high respect among the people in the community. He was elected the first mayor of Fort Dodge in 1869, the only elected position that he ever held. He died in Fort Dodge at the age of 78.
Sources include Cyrus C. Carpenter, "Majo r William Williams," Annals of Iowa 2 (1895), 146–60; H. M. Pratt, History of Fort Dodge an d Webster County (1913); William Williams, "Major William Williams' Journal of a Trip t o Iowa in 1849," Annals of Iowa 12 (1920), 241 – 82; and William Williams and Edward Breen, eds., History of Early Fort Dodge and Webste r County, Iowa (1952) .
Contributor: Roger Natte