Joseph Rickelson Williams was born in Taunton, Massachusetts, on November 14, 1808. Williams was the oldest son of Captain Richard Williams, a highly respected shipmaster, and Rebecca (Smith) Williams. He was a lineal descendant on his father's side of the Puritan Governor Winslow.
At the age of sixteen, Joseph Williams entered Sandwich Academy where he studied under Luther Lincoln. Williams graduated from Harvard in 1831 with distinguished honors. He then studied law in the office of John Paris of Worcester, was admitted to the Bar, and began practicing law in New Bedford, MA.
Because of ill health, however, Williams relinquished his law career in 1835, and traveled to Toledo, Ohio, as the agent of a New England company seeking land investments. He remained in Toledo until 1839 when he moved to Constantine, Michigan, where he invested heavily, particularly in the construction and operation of flour mills. While in Constantine, Williams became actively involved in politics. He was a member of the state constitutional convention of 1850, twice the Whig candidate for Congress, and twice the Whig candidate for the United States Senate against Lewis Cass.
In May, 1853, Williams returned to Toledo and purchased the Toledo Blade, a local newspaper. Under his management the Blade became the leading advocate of Republican principles in Northern Ohio. He took prominent and influential positions in public affairs, especially in political matters.
In 1856, Williams sold the Blade to Clark Waggoner and G.T. Steward in order to assume the duties of the first President of the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan when it opened in May, 1857. Williams resigned the position after serving for two years.
Williams was elected to the State Senate of Michigan in 1860 and was named presiding officer. With the resignation of Lieutenant Governor, Hon. James Birney, Williams became the acting Lieutenant Governor of the State. He held this position until his death on June 15, 1861, in Constantine, Michigan at the age of 52. He left a wife, Sarah Rowland Langdon Williams, whom he had married on May 28, 1844 at Buffalo, New York. She was a daughter of John Langdon. Three daughters survived Williams: Charlotte Langdon, the wife of John F. Kumler; Sibyl, the wife of Kent Hamilton; and, Rebecca, the wife of William H. Cooper of New York.
Finding aid to the Joseph R. Williams papers (UA 2.1.1).
Written by MSU Archives staff.
Exhibit created by Megan Badgley Malone.
Joseph R. Williams, undated
MSU Archives and Historical Collections