1824 : John R. Williams Elected Detroit’s First Mayor

September 6, 2018 all-day


John R. Williams receives 102 votes to his opponents’ collective 12 to become Michigan’s first mayor.

He was probably still mad about losing the election the previous year to become Michigan’s first territorial representative in Congress, when Father Gabriel Richard puts his name on the ballot and snares enough Catholic votes to win the election. Williams leaves the Catholic Church as a result!

The rest of the story:

John R. Williams was born in Detroit on May 4, 1782 to an English father and French mother at a time when the city wasn’t much more than a fur trading post with ribbon farms. John R.’s father, Thomas Williams, died when his son was three. As an adolescent, John R. was taken in by his wealthy uncle, a man named Joseph Campau whose name you may recognize from the thoroughfare that runs through Hamtramck and Detroit. Under Campau’s care, John R. was educated and learned to write in English and French.

In 1796, Williams was appointed to the army, where he served under General Wilkinson at Fort Marsac in present day Tennessee, for three years before resigning and returning to Detroit.   Later on, Williams was made Captain of an artillery company during the War of 1812. He was taken prisoner when General Hull surrendered Detroit.  During the Black Hawk War, he commanded the territorial troops , and was Senior Major General of the State militia at the time of his death, Oct. 20, 1854.

However, Williams was much more than just a military man.  He was a successful merchant and politician.  In fact he is best known for serving as the first mayor of Detroit, Michigan. He would be reelected mayor five more times. He also assisted in writing the Detroit City charter, served as one of the first trustees of the University of Michigan, was president of the Detroit Board of Education, and was a delegate to and President of the first Michigan Constitutional Convention. In 1831, Williams and Joseph Campau started the Democratic Free Press newspaper, which became the Detroit Free Press.

He even fought in a duel and was imprisoned for a short time in Montreal because of it.  Like many wealthy people in early Detroit, he also owned a slave.

John R Street, one of Detroit’s main thoroughfares, is named after him.

Sources :

Detroit Almanac

John R. Williams wikipedia entry

John R. Williams Encyclopedia of Detroit entry

Carolyn Gearig, “Who is John R and why is there a street in Detroit named after him?“, Michigan Radio, October 25, 2015.

People of Detroit : John R. Williams

CuriosiD: Who Was John R?, May 30, 2017.

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