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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published November 27 2011

Eriksmoen: Legislator named seven North Dakota counties

The first legislator elected in northern Dakota Territory west of the Red River Valley was responsible for the names of seven counties in North Dakota.

E.A. Williams, Bismarck’s first attorney, served 10 terms in the territorial and state legislatures. Among his friends were Walter Burleigh, John Dunn, William Mercer, Alexander McKenzie and Edward McIntosh. Williams named counties after each of them, as well as after his father-in-law, Mathias Hettinger. Williams also had a county named in his honor.

Erastus Appleman Williams was born Oct. 14, 1850, in the southeastern Connecticut town of Mystic, to Daniel and Matilda Williams. His family moved in 1859 to Werner, Wis.

In 1865, the Williams family moved to Freeport, Ill., and Erastus enrolled at the University of Michigan. He graduated in 1869 with a law degree and rejoined his family in Freeport, where he began his legal practice. There, Williams began dating Jennie Hettinger. In 1871, he moved to Yankton, the capital of Dakota Territory, and was appointed assistant district attorney.

In Yankton, Williams became friends with fellow attorney Walter Burleigh. In 1872, Burleigh formed Burleigh & Kelly, a company that obtained a contract from the Northern Pacific Railroad to grade the last 50 miles of track east of the Missouri River. In May, Williams accompanied the 75-wagon convoy of railroad employees that set out to establish a town at the location where Burleigh believed the track would cross the river.

Williams then traveled two miles north to the town of Edwinton (now Bismarck) and set up his law practice and also began working for NP as a land surveyor and agent.

Late in 1872, Williams was elected to the legislative House as a Republican, representing Buffalo and Charles Mix counties, an area roughly the size of present-day North Dakota. Williams was admired by his legislative colleagues. They named a newly created county in northwestern Dakota Territory in his honor.

During the 1872-73 session, Williams introduced legislation that created a new county where he lived, and he named it in honor of Burleigh. In 1874, Williams was elected to serve in the upper chamber of the Dakota Territorial Council. During that session, he cut Williams County in half when he introduced legislation creating Mercer County, and introduced another bill incorporating the city of Bismarck.

Dakota Territorial U.S. Attorney William Pound, at the conclusion of the 1874-75 session on Jan. 15, 1875, hired Williams as his assistant. Williams served as assistant attorney for two years and then resumed his private law practice in Bismarck. After achieving considerable wealth as an attorney, he traveled to Freeport where he married Hettinger on Feb. 20, 1882.

At that time, Alexander McKenzie was sheriff of Burleigh County and a special influence peddler for the NP. The capital of Dakota Territory was in Yankton in the southeastern corner of the territory, and there was growing sentiment that the capital should be in a more central location. Gov. Nehemiah Ordway was the leader of this movement, and he formed an alliance with McKenzie. Both men saw this as an opportunity to get the capital moved to a site along the NP line, notably Bismarck, where Ordway and his friends had made a number of investments. To make certain he had the proper people in place to enact his plan, McKenzie persuaded those friendly to his plan to run for the Legislature. He convinced Williams to run for the House in 1882, and the attorney was successful.

When the Legislature convened on Jan. 8, 1883, Williams was chosen as speaker of the House. Early in the session, he manipulated the capital relocation measure through the House, despite stiff opposition. Legislator L.J. Allred from Tower City introduced the relocation bill. Williams asked for objections and immediately said, “Hearing none, I declare unanimous consent.” Protests began, but it was too late – the bill to relocate the capital was approved.

Williams was busy with other issues. He introduced bills creating three counties: Hettinger, McKenzie, McIntosh. Williams, and council member George Walsh, from Grand Forks, introduced bills creating several institutions in northern Dakota Territory. For his hometown, Walsh claimed the university, and Williams chose the penitentiary for Bismarck. He then selected his brother, Dan Williams Jr., to construct the initial penitentiary buildings and then serve as its first warden. E.A. Williams was re-elected to the House in 1885 and again in 1887.

When it was clear that Dakota Territory would be split in 1889, creating two new states, Williams was elected on May 14 as one of 75 delegates to a convention to draw up a new constitution. They met in Bismarck on July 4. He was named chairman of the committee on legislation and, soon after the convening of the convention, introduced a draft constitution that the delegates could use as their template. Williams refused to divulge who wrote it. It was later learned that Henry Villard, chairman of the board of the NP, had asked his attorney, Professor James Bradley Thayer of the Harvard Law School, to write the draft document.

Next week we will conclude our article on Williams as we examine his continued influence and political leadership after North Dakota became a state.


“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.