Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Williams, John R.

Born in Detroit on May 4, 1782, John R. Williams was the first elected mayor of the City of Detroit. His parents were Englishman Thomas Williams, and Cecile Campau, descendant of one of Detroit’s early French settlers. Williams was fluent in both languages. Some sources claim he added the middle initial “R” to his name to distinguish himself from another John Williams, though the evidence is inconclusive. 

Williams was appointed to the army in 1796, but resigned in 1799 to form a trade partnership with his uncle Joseph Campau. While in Canada, trying to obtain supplies for his business, Williams was in a duel in which he shot Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, descendant of famous explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. Sieur de La Salle was only wounded, yet Williams was put in jail in Montreal for several months. During the War of 1812, Williams was captain of an artillery company and again became a prisoner when Detroit fell.

After the war, Williams moved briefly to New York, but in 1815 the Williams family returned to Detroit. There, Williams was appointed associate justice of the county court and was later made a county commissioner and adjutant general of the Michigan Territory. He assisted with the writing of the city charter of 1824 and served as the first elected mayor of Detroit. He would go on to serve as mayor for six non-consecutive terms, over a period covering 1824–1846. Mayoral terms were one year until 1857. 

In 1831, Williams and his uncle Joseph Campau were instrumental in the founding of the newspaper, the Democratic Free Press and Michigan Intelligencer which eventually became the Detroit Free PressWilliams owned a slave,Hector, who worked there as a clerk. Williams and Campau purchased the equipment and subscriber list of the Oakland Chronicle, moved the equipment to Detroit, and provided the financial backing for publisher Sheldon McKnight.

Williams was married to Mary Mott and the couple had ten children. John R. Williams died on October 20, 1854, holding the title Major General of the Michigan Militia, and is interred at Elmwood Cemetery. One of Detroit’s main thoroughfares, John R Street, is named for him. The majority of his papers are held at the Burton Historical Collection of the Detroit Public Library, and a smaller collection is in the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.



Land claim deed signed by several aldermen including John R. Williams, 1846 – 1938.015.001

View all items related to John R. Williams